Playing the Dozen: The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 10, 2009
The Berlin Philharmonic is the best orchestra I’ve ever heard, and the ten men and two women who made up the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic on Tuesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore played as well as one would imagine. Three cellists playing a quiet melody sounded like one, producing a noise loud enough to reach the back rows but with the sonic hallmarks of an intimate whisper. When playing loud and in unison, the sound became a torrent flooding the hall, louder than any 12 string instruments would seem to have the right to be. Complex interplay between the musicians, arranged in a semicircle, mostly came off effortlessly, and they never made anything but gorgeous sounds, except when the dozen meant to get a little dirty.
The music they were playing did not succeed as consistently. The program was of the type I refer to as the Royal Sampler, a term that comes from an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer is revealed to have a birthmark that makes him the Chosen One of an ancient, secret society. Said society holds events at which members eat ribs, drink beer, go bowling, etc. At one point, the society chums are playing poker, and Homer folds a hand with a couple unrelated face cards mixed with dross. Carl flies to the rescue of the Chosen One, saying, “No, no no, Homer, you have the Royal, um…Sampler.” Ever since, I have used that term to refer to programs made up of essentially unrelated material intended to be united by the performers — the Chosen Ones of the evening.
Just like Homer’s hand, the program the 12 cellists presented on Tuesday didn’t have a unifying principle. The only work on the program with multiple movements, Francis Poulenc’s cantata “Figure humaine,” allowed the group to actually pursue a musical argument over a longish stretch of time, which they did with great sensitivity and attention to detail. Poulenc juxtaposes plangent, impassioned songs with neoclassical dances and other strong tonal shifts, and with a transcription by David Riniker (a member of the group), the 12 BPers balanced the shifts in mood and ably evoked the voices of the a cappella choir in Poulenc’s original.
The Poulenc served as the center of a first-half program that can otherwise be summarized as “slow and sad.” We had a super-square rendition of the first Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of Fugue, a good-natured but blankish transcription of a trio from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and soggily romantic renditions of Verdi’s “Ave Maria” and Astor Piazzolla’s tango “The Resurrection of the Angel.” (Though even here, the 12 BPers found ways to ravish the ear — the shimmering pianissimo for the “Amen” from the “Ave Maria,” the subtle but telling imitation of an accordion’s wheeze in the tango.) Pablo Casals actually wrote his “Song of the Birds” for 12 cellos, but after a hypnotic opening birdsong gesture it meandered aimlessly. And all the slow, sad music had a reinforcing effect; with no contrast, it muted and deadened the mood in the room.
Having established that they could sound serious, the BP cellists went pop on the audience in the second half. True, Boris Blacher’s “Blues, Espagna, and Rhumba Philharmonica” did more to answer the question “What’s the most difficult piece one could write for 12 cellists?” than to explore the named genres. But some playful transcriptions by fellow Berliner Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann redeemed this misstep. King Will and the cellists, particularly leader Ludwig Quandt, did an amazing job of conjuring the exact timbre of the harmonica music Ennio Morricone composed for Charles Bronson to play before he gunned people down in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and found the thrilling full frontier sweep in the succeeding soundtrackery.
Kaiser-Lindemann also contributed a transcription of “Love Me Tender” — yes, the Elvis song — full of puns and tricks, and his recasting of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” had the rough rhythmic bump of the original and some sizzling figurations atop. The cellists sounded right at home in both, perfectly poised, swaggering when called for, never missing a beat. Elsewhere they swung as hard as musicians in white ties and tails (and black dresses for the ladies) ever should in a transcription of Gershwin’s “Clap Yo’ Hands” and in their two encores, a “Berlin bossa nova” and (wow) the “Pink Panther” theme. Fun stuff.
And yet I wondered afterward: What if the program had made some sense beyond simply showing off the various impressive abilities of the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic? Wouldn’t that have been an even better evening of music-making? Yes. But with musicians like these, and high points like those afforded by the transcriptions of Poulenc and by Kaiser-Lindemann (I could type that name all day), I’ll happily take what I can get.
POLITICS AS USUAL
The concert occurred one day after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so obviously we had to make a big deal about it. The first big deal was made by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, whose remarks were nearly inaudible and, when audible, sagged under the weight of their accumulated platitudes. German Ambassador Klaus Schanloth followed with a much more understandable but bizarrely long (in this context) exegis of how the wall came tumbling down, concluding by expressing the belief that when the United States and Europe work together on something, it gets solved. I guess we really don’t need China and India at the table in discussions on controlling carbon emissions! The performance was scheduled to start at 8 pm and actually started at 8:20.
Some attempts were made in the program notes to characterize this program as marking the occasion, although if you read it, it turned out that only two works (the Poulenc and Casals) had any kind of political import. I am not sure what purpose was served by any of these activities, particularly when there were so many actual substantive commemorations of the day (like on Anne’s blog).
Updated to add O.P.P.: Sophia Vastek at Ionarts.