Friday, October 1, 2021

Expanding the Cello Quintet Repertoire

Sakura Cello Quintet: l-r Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, Michael Kaufman, Yoshida Masuka (in this performance Ben Solomonow stood in for Mr. Masuka).


Sakura Cello Quintet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

But, you may well ask, what cello quintet repertoire? Opening its 2021-2022 season, the SBCMS's first live concert with audience for more than a year-and-a-half might at first glance have seemed a lightweight affair, a toe in the water or dip in the shallow end, if you will— fairly short in total duration and entirely comprising arrangements of brief pieces, some well-known and some less so.

Ben Solomonow.
However, in a program for an unfamiliar, even unlikely, instrumental line-up, played by an ensemble fresh I think to the SBCMS performers' roster, the Sakura Cello Quintet (Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, and Michael Kaufman, with Ben Solomonow standing in for the unavoidably absent Yushida Masuka) so skillfully reworked vocal and instrumental works ranging from the early 17th to the late 20th centuries that it could fairly be taken to signal a notable expansion of works available to this medium of five cellos—as indeed may be confirmed by the group's own website.

They opened with a group of four Renaissance items, three Tudor and one Spanish, and in the intimate but rich acoustic of LA Harbor College's Music Room, the cellos' wide timbral spectrum imparted an organ-like depth and breadth to the stately harmonies of Orlando Gibbons' a cappella motet The Silver Swan, in an unattributed arrangement. The pace picked up with John Dowland's M. George Whitehead his Almand, and grew yet more sprightly in his The Earle of Essex Galliard, both from Dowland's great set of five-part instrumental pieces entitled Lachrimæ, published in 1604.

Carlo Gesualdo.
But an almost shocking corrective to this amiable courtliness came with the tortuous harmonies and whiplash pace and mood switches of Gesualdo's madrigal Moro, Lasso, al mio duolo (I die, alas, in my suffering). On five cellos this was no less expressive of grief (and, perhaps, guilt, as Sakura member Peter Myers implied in his brief introductory reference to Gesualdo's murder in 1590 of his wife and her lover) than as sung in the original, published in Gesualdo's sixth book of madrigals in 1611.

One can hardly imagine a starker change of style and content than the Ritual Fire Dance from Falla's ballet El amor brujo (Love the magician), arranged by Mr. Myers. The opening tremolando buzz on lower strings from the orchestral original translated perfectly, as one might have expected, to four cellos; what was more surprising was how effective the ensuing insidious oboe tune sounded in the husky high treble of the remaining instrument. 

Brahms (l) and Joachim (r).
So far, so effective, but I did feel some expressive loss in Mr. Myers' arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, though that may have been due to the performance's diminution of the dynamic range familiar from Rachmaninoff's own version for voice and orchestra. As for the scherzo that Brahms contributed to the portmanteau F-A-E Violin Sonata composed in 1853 for Joseph Joachim (will we ever get a chance to hear the complete work, with Albert Dietrich's fine first movement as well as Brahms' scherzo and Schumann's intermezzo and finale?), Brahms might have blinked a bit at the positively pachydermian gruffness of his opening theme transferred from violin/piano to five cellos—but then again, maybe he wouldn't...

This arrangement was by Sakura's Michael Kaufman, who was also responsible for the quite lovely version of Dvořák's Silent Woods, Op. 68 No. 5 that opened the concert's second half. Like the Vocalise this exists in many guises, much the most familiar being the one made by Dvořák himself for cello and small orchestra from his four-hands piano original. Without scores to hand it was impossible to be sure, but presumably Mr. Kaufman's arrangement reproduced pretty much Dvořák's solo cello part, in this performance democratically shared between the players.

Again a major change of pace came with Somewhere from West Side Story, the evanescent harmonies from which Bernstein's unforgettable melody is suspended being eloquently realized in the arrangement by Simon Parkin (not a Sakura member). Then smack in arrived Mambo, complete with the familiar shouts!

Chick Corea.
Perhaps the most surprising, and audacious, arrangement of all was that by Mr. Myers of Brahms' Intermezzo in E-flat major, the first of three written and published as his Op. 117 in 1892, five years before his death. Audacious, because the personal character of Brahms' late piano works has always seemed intimately, and inextricably, involved with the piano and its timbres. Well, five cellos enhanced, if anything, this piece's musing, prayerful quality—an addition indeed to their repertoire. I wonder whether the other Intermezzi would lend themselves as well?

Finally, there was Spain, by Chick Corea. To me, any intrinsic quality the piece had leant heavily on the fragments of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez adagio that form an introduction to what seemed an elaboration of generic Spanishisms—but then, jazz remains pretty much a closed book to me. Undeniably, though, Peter Myers' arrangement and Sakura's performance made the most of it, kicking off SBCMS's new season with panache and swirl. Welcome back! 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College, 8pm, Friday, September 24, 2021.
Images: Sakura Cello Quintet: Artists' website; Ben Solomonow:; Composers: Wikimedia Commons. 

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