What’s better than a solo cello?
On Thursday, eight cellists will gather in Walter Hall, University of Toronto, to present an unusual program: CelloDrama! Considering how popular the cello is, it’s surprising that a multi-cello concert is a rarity, though Uccello (led by Matt Haimovitz at McGill University) and Toronto’s very own VC2 (Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt) have been permeating the Canadian music scene for some time. Simon Fryer, director of the Women’s Musical Club Toronto (WMCT), Paul Marleyn, one of the eight guest performers, and commission composer Kelly-Marie Murphy explain the inspiration for this exciting program:
A cello ensemble is quite a rarity in the concert stage, though the groups such as the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, Rastrelli Cello Quartet and Apocalyptica, are wildly popular — but why such a contradiction? And what has inspired WMCT to come up with this particular program?
Simon Fryer: Yes, everyone loves the cello! Most people talk about the sound when they declare their love, but it might also be something to do with how the player is integrated with the instrument, and the observer can see what they’re doing. Other instruments are too small or too big for the virtuosity to be visually appreciable. So why are these events rare? Hard to say, but the repertoire is certainly an issue. There just isn’t that much quality music for the ensemble. A lot of arrangements but again not all high quality. And of course, there are eight performers (or more) involved. That’s a lot for your average recital series – when was the last time there were 10 performers on a WMCT program? The catalyst for this event: the 120th season of WMCT Music in the Afternoon, the 150th anniversary of Canada, and my own 10th anniversary as WMCT Artistic Director.
The list of performers is impressive. How did you connect these musicians for this program?
Simon Fryer: There are many connections between these cellists, but the central one here is of course, me. These are my friends and colleagues, some recently, some since decades ago. All wonderful people and all great cellists. Seven out of eight have a Regina connection: six have been visiting faculty at my Prairie ‘Cello Institute or given classes during the year, and Katie Schleikjer performed in the city recently with the PSQ. David Hetherington is one of my oldest friends — we have done much together and found a common perspective on most of it.
Tell us a bit more about the commission piece, “Coffee will be served in the Living Room” for the eight cellos. Where did that particular number come from? And what was the compositional process like for Kelly-Marie Murphy?
Simon Fryer: The WMCT commissioned this work from Kelly-Marie specifically for eight cellos, to be premiered at the May 3 concert. This being my concert, it was largely up to me who would receive the commission. I chose Kelly because I have long loved her work – the high-intensity, rhythmic drive and sheer good humour – and I knew I could look forward to a work that would enter the canon of ‘cello ensemble repertoire and add to that (not so long) list of high-quality material; ‘cello ensemble is something that I do every summer at the Prairie Cello Institute, and I am working to build a fair cache of quality repertoire.
Kelly-Marie Murphy: My students have heard me say many times that the cello is ‘the king of instruments!’ I love the cello — it can weep and sigh and soar. Eight cellos was exploring that connection further, so I love it. I have not written for cello ensemble outside of the orchestra; a couple of my orchestra pieces have special moments for the cello section, but this is the first stand-alone chamber piece for multiple cellos. The main challenge was in finding a way to bring individuality to eight similar instruments. Always interesting; often challenging; ultimately rewarding. I loved writing the piece.
I suppose that takes us to the next question: what are the challenges of working in a cello-only ensemble?
Simon Fryer: The variety of timbre is definitely an issue compared to string quartets or trios. That’s partly why I have a piano and a soprano added in. The huge range of pitch available is a help, but it’s all too easy to lapse into a single sound that I liken to the ‘chorus of morose hippos’. We have to work hard to make sure the tonal colour of the music is highlighted at all times.
There is an unusual selection on the program: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, an iconic rock anthem. How did this four cellos and piano arrangement come about?
Paul Marleyn: Nick Byrne from Liverpool, UK studied with me at the University of Manitoba back at the turn of the Millennium. He made the arrangement then, and in 2008, with a few friends, the piece was performed in “Slava Tribute” to Mistislav Rostropovitch in Ottawa, and we decided to program it for this concert.
Anything else you would like to add?
Simon Fryer: You want the cello? You can’t handle the cello!
Women’s Musical Club Toronto presents CelloDrama! at Walter Hall, Faculty of Music, 03 May 2018, with a pre-concert lecture: Tuning Your Mind: From Klengel to Kelly-Marie: Music for cello solo and cello ensemble from a performer’s perspective by Dr. Bodrochna Zubek, at 12:15 p.m.
Tickets may be available online, but as it is nearly sold out. Contact Women’s Musical Club Toronto for tickets 416-923-7052.
Update: May 2, 2018 7 p.m.. A previous version had misspelt Paul Marleyn’s name.