Cellist Lynn Harrell
Part of the Ramsi Tick Memorial Concert Series
With the International Sejong Soloists
Tuesday evening in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
What an evening!
It could really be considered two mini-concerts, each with a distinctive character. The first half of the concert featured the conductorless International Sejong Soloists in works of Gershwin, Grieg and Bartok, and was a delight in its own right.
But when cellist Lynn Harrell came out after the intermission as soloist in the Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major, it was soon apparent that, first, Harrell and the orchestra were out to have fun playing this piece, and a bit later, that the performance was demonstrating that Haydn was a man of great humanity and humor.
At the beginning Harrell's playing was rhythmically joyous and articulate, almost brusque, with stressed attacks and a sense of boundless energy conveyed.
But in the cadenza Harrell had a devilish twinkle in his eye, and at one point paused briefly, stroked his chin, and looked up as though wondering, "What comes next?"
Then he took off in a series of brief, almost parodied improvisations on Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Haydn's own Surprise Symphony, and successively lighter, more familiar tunes. The audience response quickly changed from consternation to utter delight.
The quietly sublime following Adagio, with its ear-catching main theme drawn out in touchingly lyrical canonic interplay, was a wonderfully warm retreat from the frivolity of the first movement.
And in the final Alegro Molto, played at a racehorse clip, Harrell seemed to enjoy the music viscerally, with facial expressions and body English mirroring both his own playing and the orchestras.
The clear message was that this is music in which you can have fun without demeaning the composers intent in any way.
The concert closed with a beautifully soulful performance of Max Bruch's setting of the old Jewish Yom Kippur prayer "Kol Nidrei." Harrell dedicated it to the memory of Pope John Paul II, noting that in 1994 he had been privileged to play for the pope in the Vatican during a massive observation of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Because of Bruch's devotional setting of "Kol Nidrei," it is widely assumed that he was Jewish. Not so! If my memory is correct, he was Lutheran, which sort of brought the concert full circle in this Lutheran church.
"Kol Nidrei" had been a deeply moving experience, and I hoped Harrell would not play an encore. But he did, selecting the Sarabande from Bach's Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello.
Its elevated spirituality and Harrell's superbly centered, warm cello lines combined to make this about the only encore that would have been appropriate. Sublime!
The orchestra is a true chamber ensemble that plays without a conductor.
It opened the evening with Gershwin's delicate, gently lilting "Lullaby," playing with remarkable pliancy of line, even sans conductor. The more robust expression and boisterous spirit of Grieg's oh-so-brief "Two Norwegian Airs, Op. 63" made a fine contrast with the Gershwin and avoided the mechanical feeling that trips up some other conductorless groups.
Their major offering was Bartok's 1939 Divertimento for Strings, a taxing work whose first movements sharply carved ideas and more thoughtful responses, whose misterioso nocturnal probing in the slow movement, and whose energetic, full-throated thrusting progressions of the Finale gave a very good account of this too seldom heard Bartok work.