Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Zuill Bailey

April 2, Virginia Commonwealth University

By Francis Church
guest reviewer

Zuill Bailey represents the fast-rising new generation of cellists for the 21st century. Bailey, now 38, was inspired by Mstislav Rostropovich when the late great Russian cellist was music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Bailey grew up in Northern Virginia.

Bailey did some inspiring of his own for the less than capacity audience at the Singleton Center on Saturday night and for several aspiring young cellists earlier in the day on the same stage at an annual event called Cellopaloosa.

Bailey possesses a rich but carefully etched tone, stressing clarity and, as a pianist in the audience noted, very nuanced. His program was mostly romantic in scope, even the “Suite de canciones y danses” (“Suite of songs and dances“), composed two years ago by Roberto Sierra, which opened the proceedings. For emphasis Bailey preceded the suite with the prelude to J.S. Bach’s Suite in G major for solo cello.

One could feel some ties of Sierra’s work to Bach, but mostly it had a jaunty Latin feel, influenced no doubt by Sierra’s birthplace, Puerto Rico. (Sierra currently is on the faculty at Cornell University). In the final movement there was even a brief bow to Frederic Chopin. Altogether this was an engaging ear-opener.

Next up were two thoroughly romantic works from the 19th century: Robert Schumann’s “Fantasy Pieces,” Op. 73, and Mendelssohn’s Concert Variations, Op. 17. Before he embarked on the Schumann, Bailey told the audience, “I have bad news and good news for you. First, the bad news, VCU lost 70-62 (in their Final Four game against Butler).” A collective groan from the listeners. “Now for the good news: Schumann.”

Good news, indeed. The three “Fantasy Pieces,” a favorite of student cellists the world over, are cheerful, belying the often tortured life of their composer. The Mendelssohn variations likewise are delightfully sparkling, symbolic of the happy young adulthood of the composer’s days in Berlin, where Sunday soirees were part of his family life, Bailey pointed out.

Here, it is well to point out the pianistic virtuosity of Bailey’s collaborator, Piers Lane. His work was positively ear-boggling!

The main event at this concert, part of the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concerts, was reserved for after intermission. It was the 45-minute Sonata in G minor, Op. 19, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. This is vintage Rachmaninoff: rambling, sweeping melodies, not one note implying the radical things to come in the later years of the 20th century. The third-movement andante is one of the great slow movements in all of music, and Bailey played it for all of its worth. Never once, though, did he and Lane exaggerate. This was music for music’s sake.

As a bonus, the pair offered two short pieces by Brahms, a love song and the ever-famous lullaby. A salve for a crowd still suffering the pain of VCU’s loss in the Final Four.

More about Cellopaloosa: This all-day workshop and play-in for cellists was organized two years ago by Dana McComb, who shares teaching duties at VCU with her husband, Jason, associate principal cellist of the Richmond Symphony.

This event has attracted cellists of all ages, mostly young, from all over Virginia and even North and South Carolina. Several top students are treated to the individual master class, this year with Bailey.

Bailey proved an engaging, upbeat clinician. Before the class started, he noted, “With Rostropovich, I learned what NOT to do in a master class. I decided my job is to help.”

And help he did, as he managed to ease his four young charges over their understandable nervousness. You could sense another new generation of cellists in the making.

And to cap off the day, all 80 participants, ranging in age from 8 to 80s, gave a concert at the James W. Black Music Center, across the street from the Singleton Center. You could only imagine the sound of 80 buzzing cellos playing the Pachelbel Canon. Mrs. McComb appropriately used a cello bow for a baton. No wedding music was ever like this!

Francis Church, who was the music critic of The Richmond News Leader, is a cellist who has performed extensively in orchestral and chamber music.