The story goes that the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals, having seen a street musician play something like a cello made from a broom handle, begged his father for an instrument. Pablo himself got something made from a gourd. ¿Qué es esto? But when he was eleven, he heard a real cello for the first time and was hooked. For my older brother Tom, it was hearing the great Spanish guitarist Segovia play at Kleinhans musical that drew him in. What Casals did for the public’s awareness of the cello and Segovia did for the guitar cannot be overstated.
As I heard the great Spanish cellist Asier Polo play at Kleinhans last night I thought “This guy is the real deal. If any young person were undecided about which string instrument to take up, listening to Polo could certainly be the deciding factor.” (The concert I heard repeats this Sunday, November 13, at 2:30 pm at Kleinhans.) (Yes, I know the Bills are playing the Vikings at 1:00, but they’re in a different conference, so it doesn’t really matter. I’m just sayin’.) I’m also sayin’ that I’ve heard many great cellists in my time, including our own BPO principal cellist Roman Mekinulov not to mention Yo-Yo Ma (whose performance of the Dvořak Cello Concerto at Kleinhans this coming Friday, November 18 is sold out). But I’ve never heard the cello played the way Asier Polo plays it.
He has the softest touch. With most cellists, you are well aware that the sound comes from the horsehairs strung along the bow scraping along the metal strings. With Asier Polo, the sound seems to just emanate from the instrument. When most cellists pluck or strum the strings, it’s often an intensely physical act. Asier Polo caresses the strings and they respond with love. Amor.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who conducts this weekend, summed it up: “The man who is in my opinion the greatest Spanish cellist is making his USA debut with [the BPO] in Elgar’s emotional cello concerto. It is a major moment for us.”
With Falletta and the BPO, Polo played (IMHO) one of the greatest cello concertos ever written, Edward Elgar’s only Cello Concerto in E minor (30 minutes long). Composed in 1919 after the death of so many fellow Englishmen in WWI, and during the final months of his wife Alice’s battle with cancer, the opening movement, marked adagio, is certainly a lament. And it holds its own against other adagios which are often played after great tragedies, such as “Barber’s Adagio” or the work we know as “Albinoni’s Adagio.”
The concerto, only 30 minutes long, alternates between slow-fast-slow-fast-slow-with a big flourish at the end and it reminded me of the Kubler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief” where the person who is suffering a loss or trauma exhibits wild (or wide) mood swings. But, musically speaking, that alternation also allows the soloist to exhibit wild (or wide) ranges of technique. I was particularly impressed by Polo’s ability to play the highest notes beautifully, notoriously difficult on a cello.
The audience obviously knew this was a very special performance and jumped to its feet at the end. You could tell the musicians were also impressed. As I’ve said before, when they like someone, they wave their bows. When they REALLY like someone, they put down their expensive instruments to clap along with the rest of us. And, expecting that reaction, Falletta, the orchestra, and Polo had prepared an encore. It was the Intermezzo from Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ opera “Goyescas” (which used themes from his earlier piano work by the same title).
Fun Fact: The popular song “Bésame Mucho” (“Kiss Me A Lot”) was written by a teenager, the Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, who, even though she herself had never actually been kissed yet, was inspired by the “Aria of the Nightingale” from that same opera, Goyescas. What can I say, Spanish is the language of love, and that came across loud and clear during that Granados encore. Amor.
The concert was quite international, beginning with an overture (Yay… all concerts should start that way, and with JoAnn Falletta, they often do!) This was a rollicking work by the great English composer William Walton titled “Portsmouth Point” Overture (just 6 minutes long) inspired by a work of art that depicted, among other things, drunk sailors, and you can hear them sort of stumbling along. It must be fiendishly difficult to conduct since you have to stay somewhat together as an orchestra while every once in a while, an instrument staggers off in a bit of syncopation. It was an inspired choice for several reasons, including being paired with the cello concerto by another great English composer, Edward Elgar, and foreshadowing the final work, the “Háry János” Suite by Zoltán Kodály about a teller of tall tales who holds court in a tavern.
By the way, Falletta’s most recent CD “Walton: The Complete Facades” is now available on the Naxos label. And among her 120 CDs issued to date, there’s one with the BPO featuring the music of Kodály (say “koh-DYE”) and two featuring the music of French (but also kind of German) composer Florent Schmitt.
Keeping with the theme of the Elgar concerto, the first work after intermission was (and will be this Sunday afternoon) “In Memoriam: Gabriel Faure” (12 minutes long) by Florent Schmitt, an often overlooked composer who combines the impressionism of Ravel and maybe even more of Debussy (think “Pélleas et Mélisande” or “La Mer”) with the tone poem techniques of Richard Strauss.
And the concert concluded with that “Háry János” Suite (22 minutes) by Hungarian composer Kodály with a HUGE orchestra coming on stage, including 6 percussionists (plus tympani), 6 trumpets and cornets, grand piano, saxophone (!) and a very unusual instrument that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard live before, much less seen, and that’s a cimbalom. A cimbalom sounds a little like the zither, a lot like hitting the strings inside of a grand piano, and, looking it up after the concert, I read that it’s an improvement on the hammered dulcimer, invented in Budapest, Hungary in 1874.
It was played by a foremost expert on the instrument, Chester Englander and it really makes for a fun way to close the evening. If you’re a regular listener to WNED Classical, I know you’ve heard the “Háry János” Suite many times, but it’s so true: unless you hear it live, you don’t hear all the wonderful combinations of instruments. And, as I said, I’ve heard that cimbalom for many years, but until I saw it on stage, I didn’t really know what it was.
Concert Runtime: a little under 2 hours.
Kleinhans Music Hall is at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle. Visit www.bpo.org or call 716-885-5000. Full-service bar either in the lobby or across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room. Masks are optional.
Lead image: Asier Polo | ©Quincena Musical- Iñigo Ibáñez – Wikimedia Commons