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Cello mania!

Harrell takes a bow
by John French

That mania is currently sweeping the world with everything from the Portland Cello Project to fabulous Boys from Berlin (all 12 of the cellists from the Philharmonic) to Puget Sound’s own annual cello fest. Last night, the Bellingham Festival of Music celebrated the beauty of this romantic instrument with a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.55 with Lynn Harrell. More about that in a moment.

The program tonight opened with Claude Debussy’s Danse. Originally written for piano, this 1923 arrangement was brilliantly orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Everything that you love about Debussy is here: lyricism, complex harmony, and pre-jazz inspired rhythms; what the Prix di Rome committee delightfully referred to in 1884 as “bizarre.” This wonderful piece represents an age of innocence that was soon to be lost.

Edward Elgar’s concerto reflects his devastation over the events that were World War I. In our age of five-and-a- half minute video game wars, we lose sight of the fact that less than a hundred years ago an entire generation of people was lost by many countries. Elgar’s concerto reflects that and the death of his wife, Lady Alice Elgar. This is not happy music, but moody and irrepressible.

Your reviewer’s gold standard for this particular work is the immortal mid-1960’s recorded performance by Jacqueline du Pre. Mr. Harrell came very close. He captured the pathos and some of the light-hearted moments that appear in this complex score. At times, dressed in his burgundy Nehru jacket, he leaned towards the first violin section, as if willing certain climactic sections into life. The festival orchestra responded admirably to Mr. Harrell’s wishes. Both orchestra and soloist were met with a well-deserved standing ovation, and Mr. Harrell returned the favor with an unaccompanied selection by Johann Sebastian Bach, which will always put a smile on this reviewer’s face.

After intermission, the star of the show was Mozart, and he was represented by his Symphony No. 39 in E flat Major KV 543. This is the first of his last three symphonies that were composed in the summer of 1788 three years before his death. What we hear with this symphony is the leaving of the classical period of writing and leading into that master writer of the symphonic style, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Although your reviewer has had complaints about Maestro Palmer’s tempi, especially in choral music of this period, everything about this performance seemed to fit beautifully. Of special mention were the lovely themes brought forth in the second movement (Andante con molto) and the dance Menuetto: Allegretto-Trio where clarinets take the place of oboes. The closing Finale Allegro was a wonderful discussion between various parts of the orchestra culminating in a spectacular ending.

All in all, a very well-thought-out, balanced and intriguing program from start to finish. Next on the festival bill of fare is the annual chamber music concert at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. Local favorite Jeffrey Gilliam is featured on the piano. The festivities begin at 4:00 p.m. If any tickets are yet available, you can get them by calling (360) 650-6146. Order tickets via e-mail from the WWU Box Office: boxoffice@wwu.edu. The price is $45 and that includes salubrious hors d’oeuvres, a no-host bar and a reception following the concert. Not to mention a lovely view of Bellingham Bay in the background.

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