A Young Person’s Guide to Cello Extravaganza IV with Rachel Mercer

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

When you think “cello”, what immediately comes to mind?

Is it the trailer for The Soloist? The opening theme from Making a Murderer? The 2016 Cadillac commercial?

Just why is it that the cello can create such atmospheric music – and leave so indelible an effect?

Cellist Rachel Mercer (Photo by Jinwon Kim)

The news of the upcoming Cello Extravaganza IV on April 2 raised this question – and many others – for the Sesaya team. So we took them to our friend Rachel Mercer, who is Associate Principal Cello in the National Arts Centre Orchestra, cellist with Ensemble Made in Canada, one half of the Mercer-Park Duo, a frequent collaborator with Art of Time Ensemble and the Artistic Director of the 5 at the First chamber-music concert series. A musician known for her nuanced interpretations of classical and contemporary compositions, there is no one better to guide us through all matters cello than Rachel. In fact, she responded to our wonderings with a definitive and approachable guide to the cello, cello virtuosos, and the varied and lively program of Cello Extravaganza IV!  

SesayArts: Can you give us some tips on how to appreciate the cello? Many of us love its sound but need to know more to appreciate it deeply and in any nuanced way.

Rachel: One of the things I appreciate most about the cello is its range. We generally think of a cello sound as mellow, soothing, low, and it is usually used to accompany sad or poignant moments in movies or TV. But the cello actually can make sounds from a low growl all the way to a high wild piercing shrieking and everything in between. It can also mimic the range of the human voice, from a low bass, through baritone, tenor, alto and soprano. I think all instrumentalists feel that they express themselves to some degree through their instruments, but perhaps the strong appeal of the cello is this huge possibility of expression in relation to human voice and emotions.

I encourage people to seek out really different music involving the cello, but also to just find YouTube videos and audio of the greats and the music that they are particularly known for, who inspired us and really defined the voice of the cello:

  • Jacqueline du Pré (Edgar Elgar: Concerto)
  • Pablo Casals (J. S Bach: Suites and “Song of the Birds”)
  • Gregor Piatigorsky (Richard Strauss: Don Quixote)
  • János Starker (Zoltan Kodály: Sonata, Compositions of David Popper )
  • Emanuel Feuermann (Ernest Bloch: Schelomo)
  • For versatility, anything by Mstislav Rostropovich. He is responsible for a huge amount of the 20th century repertoire. (Joseph Haydn: Concerto No. 1)
  • Anything by Yo-Yo Ma. He transcends the cello, and uses it and music as a path to connection and understanding between human beings. Seek out:
    • Astor Piazzolla (“Libertango”)
    • The Silk Road Ensemble (“Heart and Soul”)
    • Work with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer (“Emily’s Reelcomposed by Mark O’Connor and dedicated to Yo-Yo Ma’s daughter, Emily)  

Cellist Nadia Klein, participating artist in Cello Extravaganza IV

The list goes on and on! Put on headphones, close your eyes, and really hear their different voices, the nuance in their playing/voice. You can even take the same piece of music and listen to all of them playing it. It is fascinating to hear how differently they all choose to play!

SesayArts: How did the idea for a cello extravaganza come about, and what went into organizing it?

Rachel: Cellists are a little different from other string players in that there is a real brotherhood/sisterhood. We tend to be really collegial. Maybe it’s the nature of our role in music (often supporting and grounding), but we are the “laid-back” ones (of course, tons of exceptions and we are not as laid-back as bass players!). Not only do we like working together, a bunch of cellos together sounds amazing, and there is lots of repertoire! So the fact that our series is run by a cellist and an amateur cellist and cello-lover made it a natural thing to have our yearly benefit concert as a cello extravaganza!

Each year has been a little different in size and repertoire and players, but we’ve been able to invite so many great players to join in, and one year, we  had a cello choir of over 70 with all ages and levels! The cello reverberates on our bodies as we play, and you can just imagine a space filled with that reverberation.

It does take a lot of organizing, and myself, Michele Corbeil (the Executive Director of the series) and Kirk Starkey (a Hamilton-based cellist and recording engineer/producer) formed the Hamilton Cello Extravaganza to help with this. Kirk and I do all the artistic planning and while Michele takes care of the non-musical side, we all help with promotion and organizational details. Michele also brings together an amazing group of volunteers and supporters that help us out on the day.

VC2 Cello Duo: Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt

SesayArts: What are the challenges of having only one instrument for a concert? How can you create a dynamic experience, and create a variety and range of sounds with only the cello? Conversely, what are the opportunities of having only one instrument?

Well, as you know now, there is a huge variety possible in programming for an all-cello concert. There are so many great players involved and we want to make sure they each get featured in some way. There are a few cello ensembles in the Southern Ontario area, but we had to choose one: VC2. They alone present repertoire from the standard classic cello duos written by the first real solo cellists (Romberg, Kummer, Klengel…) to music by contemporary composers, crossover, rock, improv and pretty much their own arrangements of anything! So we were lucky to have them to arrange two songs that we will present with our special guest host, singer/songwriter Treasa Levasseur.

We will also build in richness by starting with solos, then duos, then quartet, then sextet, then the 40 cellos together! So there is an undeniable unity in the basic sound of the instruments, yet each piece demands of the cellist a different role – we must assume the roles of leader, supporter, foundation, rhythm section, and compliment each other, and each cellist executes these roles in a different way.

Cellist Rachel Desoer, participating artist in Cello Extravaganza IV

SesayArts: Can you please guide us through the program, ideally with tips on what and how to listen to each piece?

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude No. 4 in E flat major

We have to start with Bach, which is an essential part of the cellists’ repertoire. I chose #4 since this is our 4th Cello Extravaganza! It is a chance to hear the sound of a lone cello reverberating in the space. And this particular Prelude (there are 6) is as simple as it is complex. On one hand, it is just a bunch of chords (chords are any group of notes played together to create “harmony” which is the relationship of one note to another); there is no melody. But because it is Bach, it has a definite structure and architecture, and takes us on quite a journey through tonality (different harmonic areas) like taking a trip through the galaxy and visiting each planet, each with its own character and look (sound).

Bach was a master and even though we are going on this trip, it all holds together and balances, like having a central gravitational force! And instead of playing all the notes of the chord at one time, Bach has written them out like a melody; a disjointed and jumping-around melody – which is actually very difficult to play while also maintaining the structure of the piece. One more element is that there are two moments where this regular rhythm and chords stop, and the cellist does a small improvisatory-like flourish – maybe like losing that gravitational force for a moment and free-floating! A lot to listen for and you could listen to 10 different recordings, and they would all sound completely different.

Cellist Elspeth Poole, participating artist in Cello Extravaganza IV

2. Friedrich August Kummer: Duos #10 & 12 Op. 105

Kummer was a 19th Century cellist who wrote not only these duos but also technique books for the cello, so he knew the instrument very well! This is an opportunity to hear 2 cellists each taking turns leading, supporting and complementing one another. Listen to how seamlessly they move between those roles, with ease and with smiles!

3. Bela Bartok: Duos # 1, 3, 4, 9, 18

Here we cheated a little and stole these from the violinists!

Bartok wrote 44 short duos for 2 violins, and this is from a transcription of 18 of them. Bartok collected and studied the folk music of his native Hungary, and his music is full of the rhythms, melodies and spirit of his homeland. While the titles are quite descriptive, the music has such character, and there is a great sense of play in the music and between the players. See if you can decide for yourself what it is depicting!

4. Raphael Weinroth-Browne: Triumvirate

This is the chance to hear VC2, a regular cello duo that crosses all kinds of musical boundaries. This piece was written for them by the very talented young cellist/composer/performer Raphael Weinroth-Browne, and they describe it as “a 9 minute epic that he wrote for us, based on the Beethoven G minor sonata.” As Amahl puts it “The closest thing to Beethoven meeting Black Metal”!” I’m pretty sure this will be entertaining to any listener!

5. David Popper: Requiem Op. 66

David Popper was a virtuoso cellist of the late 19th Century and is most well-known for the many virtuosic pieces he wrote for the cello as well as the “High School of Cello Playing,” which is studied by virtually all cellists at some point in their development. So this Requiem, written in memory of his friend and publisher, is a departure, but showcases, in the best way possible, the typical soaring, poignant, singing sound that we associate with the cello. Here is a chance to hear 6 cellists, each with strong personalities, melding together, sometimes breaking away with a solo, but overall blending their sounds together for a powerful end to the first half of the concert.

Nirvaan Grewal

Intermission – a time to check out artists’ CDs in the lobby, information on the beneficiaries of the concert and share your thoughts with other audience members!

6. Centre For String Playing Youth Performer: Nirvaan Grewal

We are thrilled to be raising money at this concert to support the Ann Vallentyne Scholarship at the Centre for String Playing in Hamilton. Ann Vallentyne was a teacher and mentor to so many Hamilton area cellists and founded and ran the Southern Ontario Chamber Music Institute, a well-loved summer training program for chamber groups. We are very happy to be featuring a young performer from the Centre in a solo!

7. Shine Your Light

Treasa Levasseur, our host and singer, will perform an original song of hers in an arrangement by VC2 with the duo. Just let yourself be transported by the sound of the voice and cello together and her powerful lyrics.

8. Cello Choir 

Finally, we will get all 40+ cellists out on stage for the cello choir. I don’t want to say too much about the music; just that each piece is really different, and I believe each audience member will experience a different perspective depending on where you are seated, but as I mentioned above, all these instruments and bows and strings will be vibrating the air in the room. It is an overwhelming and immersive experience. Just clear your mind, and let the sound travel to, around and through you! Give yourself these 20 minutes to be transported away from reality!

Treasa Levasseur, Singer/Songwriter and Host of Cello Extravaganza IV

SesayArts: What do you hope the audience might be remarking on after the extravaganza? Why?

We hope that the concert brings awareness to the great work of the two beneficiaries. And we hope that our love and enthusiasm for our instrument and the music gets transmitted and is shared. That’s the power of music, especially live! To be able to experience a moment in time with another human being with in shared appreciation. And just that it was so much fun!

SesayArts: What question didn’t we ask that you wish we had?

You’ve asked some pretty great intense questions! Maybe one tough question (which is really hard to answer) is, “what do we expect from the audience?” There are a lot of different opinions on how an audience should be at a classical music concert. It’s true that it depends on the situation, but personally (and I think this really does apply at this concert), I want them to come with an open mind, and know that any way they want to appreciate the music is great! Not everything might be to your taste, but it might be someone else’s, so of course, being mindful that this is a shared experience for many people.

Feel free to close your eyes and daydream, or listen intently and mindfully. Sit quietly or move your body to the music. Clap when there is something you really appreciate, even cheering is great! Basically, any way you want to be, taking into account your fellow listeners. Some people might not agree with me, and it’s true that there are some classical-concert situations where these things would disturb others more, but in this case, go for it!

Have fun, and we really hope you enjoy the whole experience!

VC2 Cello Duo: Bryan Holt and Amahl Arulanandam

News You Can Use

What: Cello Extravaganza IV, a concert to benefit Blooms for Africa (Stephen Lewis Foundation) and Ann Vallentyne Scholarship (Centre for String Playing)
Host: Treasa Levasseur
Featured Cellists: VC2 Cello Duo (Bryan Holt and Amahl Arulanandam), Rachel Desoer, Nadia Klein, Rachel Mercer, Elspeth Poole

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: Sunday, April 2, 2017, 3:30 PM

Where: The First Unitarian Church,170 Dundurn Street S, Hamilton ON, L8P4K3

Information and  Tickets: 5attheFirst.com

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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