Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Bailey and Bach

It was a blend of the old and the new. The music was all Bach - Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello - performed in one sitting by Zuill Bailey.

To keep the program under three hours, he left out all the repeats - but who noticed? The house was packed - at least 300 or so in Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall (a wonderfully intimate setting, perfect for this type of concert). I sat in the middle seat of the third row and was at eye-level with the cellist, and only 15 feet away. He came out on stage just as a final audience member was being slowly guided to her seat. Bailey adjusted his endpin a few times and sat patiently for a few moments as she navigated down the steep stairs in the semi-darkness. Realizing this was going to take longer than expected, he eased the tension with a joke (something to do with pianos and mine-shafts).

Then, when everyone was finally quiet, he dove into the First Suite's Prelude with passionate abandon, playing it much faster than I'd heard before. After a slight pause, he played the Allemande, and so on. He ended the Gigue with a flourish, then looked up and grinned as the audience roared its appreciation. For the most part, I suspect most of the audience really didn't know what to expect. Bach, of course; but beyond hearing that Prelude in a handful of TV commercials, it's likely that few if any in the audience had ever actually listened to these Suites as a set [although I and the other cellists in the group probably have at least four or five versions on our iPod playlists; one girl sitting a few seats down from me followed along in her own copy of the score].

But then, rather than just move on to the Second Suite, he relaxed and began to talk about the program and what it means to him. He recently released a recording on 2 CDs of the entire set, and has been playing them at performances across the state as part of the "Sitka Summer Music Festival's Autumn Concert Series". Bailey was recently named Director (in waiting) of this Festival, to replace its founder, Paul Rosenthal, in 2012.

Bailey explained how the Suites were organized - the Prelude and each of the dances; and he pointed out their differences. He explained that his cello, a Gofriller, was made when Bach was only 6 years old, and could have very likely been used to play the Suites (except for the Sixth) in the years after they were first introduced. He pointed out that in the years after they were composed, all the cellists knew these suites as etudes... Until Casals. Bailey commented that as a student, he himself learned them as "studies" and only heard them performed live once or twice. No one ever performed them as a full set. The first time he heard the entire set performed, it was presented by six different cellists.

Then he began the Prelude of the Second Suite, stopping after each movement to explain its nature and relation to rest. At the end of each suite, he returned to his personal narrative. As he was preparing to recording these suites for his CDs, he began to think of them in a different light. He realized these Suites symbolize the evolution of the cello itself: its growing influence in music; and how Bach brought the cello out of the closet - from its early use as a "church bass" to a full orchestral instrument in its own right.

A break followed the Fourth Suite, and then he began the Fifth Suite, explaining how Bach expected the A-string to be tuned down to G, although Bailey chose not to do so. Finally, before beginning the Sixth Suite, he explained that he also chose not to use a fifth string, contrary to what Bach apparently intended.

At the end, he returned to the stage to replay the Prelude to the First Suite, a bit slower, and more intensely; holding that last note - and the audience's collective breath - for several beats before lowering his bow, bowing his head and leaving the stage.

I've attended many concerts where the performers talk about the music, sometimes about the composer, sometimes about the historical setting, and sometimes about the nature of the music itself. This is usually low-key and brief. Bailey, however, did much more than that. Not only did he provide ample context for the Suites themselves, he also personalized them in a way few performers ever do, allowing us a rare opportunity to get to know the performer as well as hear these complex pieces in a new way. I've not commented on his technique or any technical aspects of his performance. His sound was pure; his intonation accurate; the acoustics in the hall were excellent...

I look forward to seeing much more of him in his role with the Sitka Music Festival - each year they put on a Winter Music concert in Soldotna.... I have long been a fan of Bach and of the Six Suites; what cellist isn't? This was a wonderful concert, one I'll long remember.

That sounds wonderful! I'd have loved to attend that. And you know, I'd forgotten that I listened to extracts of his Bach before it was released and had meant to buy it when it came out. Thank you for reminding me.
question: Is it kosher to use barre fingering on cello? I'm working on "Minuet" by Boccherini in Suzuki book 3. I find it works beautifully going from the E (D string) to the A(C string) and would be most helpful in an accompaniment to an anthem our choir will be doing in the winter.
This question ought to go to Emily at The Stark Raving Cello Blog. My teacher tells me to use fingerings that work (and sound) the best for me; and that other cellists might choose other fingerings...
Hi, Was anxious to hear about the concert. I was sure it was amazing. How have you been? Have not seen you around lately. Were you at the EOC concert? Hope all is well. xoxo
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Thursday, September 09, 2010


Finding the tracks again

On the internet the other day, I saw a bunch of pictures of trains travelling through the streets of some eastern European city; not commuter trolley cars, but real trains. It got me to thinking about where I've been the past few months with my cello. Without the discipline of regular lessons, I've been wandering somewhat aimlessly all over the road, generally going in the right direction, but drifting off through the occasional side street and even running out of gas a couple times.

My biweekly lessons are my tracks. I need these tracks in order to ultimately get where I want to go.

With so much else going on this past month, my cello has been sadly neglected. I was lucky to find even 30 minutes a day to practice: ten to fifteen minutes for scales and the rest of the time for "Danse Rustique", (if I had an extra fifteen minutes I'd work on parts of the Verdi piece). I focused on just the first page, and was able to play it at yesterday's lesson quite well. We spent the first part of the lesson working on some of the downshifts - nothing new, but a reminder of techniques we'd talked about many times before, things I'd simply forgotten in the chaos. The rest of the lesson we devoted to playing through the second page, highlighting any tricky sections.

It looks like it will be another month before my next lesson, so I guess I'll be trying to drive on my own for a while. Of course, somewhere down the road I want to be able to deliberately steer off of these tracks once in a while and explore new directions with my cello.

One interesting note. Upon returning home after a week, the first time I picked up my cello, I was struck by how nice it sounded: rich, deep, large, whole tones. And my intonation (according to both my ears and my tuner) was quite good. Although I hesitantly played that day through my current pieces, they sounded so nice! At first I attributed it to the cello drying out - since I wasn't home to change the dampits. But my teacher suggested that more likely I was hearing myself with fresh ears and that "maybe... [I'm] actually a better player than I've been giving myself credit for."

I am seeing a doctor tomorrow to see if I can figure out what's going on with my left thumb.

On the homefront, we are all slowly adjusting to our new lives. We're not there yet, but eventually we'll get used to our new reality.

Hi, I wanted to message you directly but I'm not sure how this blog thing works or if that's possible. I'm 25 and have never played cello before in my life but I've always wanted to ever since hearing Peter and the Wolf as a kid. When I googled to see if I could find anything about the cello bits in Peter and the Wolf, your blog came up. It seems that that part of our stories is similar! I've just started reading your blog and have finally gotten up the guts to email a local cello teacher. Any advice to an enthusiastic newbie?
Thanks for writing such an engaging blog and thanks in advance for any insights you might have!
Hi Jenny! Welcome to the cello. It's been a long time since I wrote about that "Peter and the Wolf" concert...
I don't really feel qualified to offer any advice since I still feel like such a newbie myself, but here goes:
Practice EVERY day, even if for only a brief period; be patient - don't give up, even if it feels like you're not getting anywhere; progress will not really be noticeable on a day-to-day basis, but you are actually getting better each time you practice. In short, enjoy the ride!

Good luck!
I LOVE me some Danse Rustique. That's one of my "go to" pieces when I'm frustrated with new stuff or just want to rock out.

And I get the time issue. I'm a Elementary Music teacher and I have a hard time after all of my other musical endeavors finding time.

Keep working hard, rest that thumb occasionally. No hitchhiking! :)
Hi. I've been having left thumb pain as well. I've been working on keeping my 1st finger straight when in extended position and I think I'm straining my thumb in the process. Was wondering how your doctor visit went and if you arrived at a diagnosis?

Thanks. Nancy in Atlanta.
My doctor's appt. was cancelled at the last minute. I'll try again in a week and a half...
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