Cellist Amit Peled is one of those practitioners of “serious” music who brings a kind of pizzazz that’s probably needed in the 21st century world of what’s generically dubbed classical music.
His brand is completely free of gimmicks since it flows directly out of his personality. That’s something you can’t always say about classical artists who try a bit too hard to be hip in their marketing without it really being genuine to their actual music-making.
Mr. Peled has a big conception of how to bring cello music alive, matching his tall, 6-foot-5 frame. He’s naturally sociable and genuinely funny. And he’s based here in the Washington-Baltimore area, making him someone specifically worth following among a sea of performers jostling for attention.
Earlier this month Mr. Peled nearly packed the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater for an appearance with Washington Performing Arts in what was largely a repeat of a program earlier this year at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where he’s on the faculty. Music by Bach, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saens, and others was designed as a 100th anniversary celebration – indeed a direct re-creation – of a 1915 program by legendary cellist Pablo Casals. The program has special meaning because Mr. Peled literally plays it on Mr. Casals’ own cello, a story that has brought additional global attention to Peabody and Johns Hopkins University.
Casals is revered by cellists for having brought about the re-emergence of Bach’s six complete suites for unaccompanied cello, meaning they are played without even a piano accompaniment. Mr. Peled is one of today’s leading performers of the Bach cello suites, and his Terrace Theater execution of the Suite No. 3 in C major was, if anything, even more outstanding than his past efforts.
What makes a Bach cello suite really “pop” is probably a little different than what makes a Bach piano or violin suite or partita stand out. World-class interpreters of Bach piano music like frequent Washington Performing Arts guest András Schiff achieve their impact through an amazing “stenciling” of Bach’s counterpoint, making multiple simultaneous melodies glisten off the piano and somehow ring independently in the ear. By contrast, the cello’s potentially beautiful but less naturally independent “voice” on only four middle and low-register strings requires a sweep and a flow across the notes to be heard as a complete line with nothing missing.
Mr. Peled’s way of drawing his bow across the strings creates a pleasing ring that seems to linger in the air until the sense of Bach’s line is complete. It’s also a remarkable match to the visual of seeing him perform, which provides an additional dimension beyond simply hearing his recordings. He himself dwarfs Casals’ cello and he holds it in an unusual way that’s not entirely parallel between his knees – something that’s a personal adjustment to the way Casals’ own knees and chest made slight marks and indentations on the 18th century instrument. A kind of grandeur that Mr. Peled pulls out of Bach’s third suite – much of it based on early 18th century dance forms but with great elaboration into an almost bold lyricism – makes it a real entertainment rather than an academic exercise.
Among the standouts in the rest of the program were three miniatures by Fauré accompanied by Noreen Polera at the piano. These have also become staples for Mr. Peled. Check out his performance of Fauré’s Papillon (or “Butterfly”) this past summer at the Heifetz International Music Institute in Staunton, Virginia and tell me whether this guy enjoys his work or not!
Then contrast it with the yearning and lovely Élégie by Faure, here performed by Mr. Peled with Ms. Polera, the pianist who accompanied him at the Terrace Theater, and you get a sense of the contrast that Fauré – a favorite of Pablo Casals – could achieve in just a few minutes of music.
In his Terrace Theater program, Mr. Peled added what I would have to classify as an experiment and he deserves credit for the risk-taking if not necessarily the results. Washington Performing Arts commissioned a work by contemporary composer Lera Auerbach called La Suite dels Ocells, or “The Suite of the Birds,” as a supposed homage to Casals and expansion of themes from both Bach’s suites and a traditional Catalonian song linking nature and religious themes. (The language of Ms. Auerbach’s title is in Catalán from Casals’ home region of northeastern Spain, and Casals played the original folk song on which it is based for President Kennedy at a 1961 White House concert.)
Part of the issue with Ms. Auerbach’s composition was perhaps unconsciously teed up by Mr. Peled in his spoken introduction to it, when he remarked that he had to put in a lot of practice time because the piece “just grew and grew.” Indeed it must have – it was overly long and while one hesitates to criticize a contemporary work at first hearing, much of it was incomprehensible, appearing to be random effects rather than a commentary on either Bach or birdsong.
An additional clue to the difficulty seemed to be Ms. Auerbach’s idea of simultaneously displaying a painting of hers on stage during the piece rather than the focus being entirely on the cellist. The resulting impression of self-absorption by the composer and unwillingness to edit down any of her musical ideas could be corrected on a second try. In any case, here’s hoping that Mr. Peled continues to provide himself as a vehicle for new works by others as well as a champion of the historical legacy of cello music.
Washington Performing Arts presents Amit Peled, cello and Noreen Polera, piano: Homage to Pablo Casals was performed on Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 2 pm at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For Mr. Peled’s upcoming appearances, see his concert schedule. For the complete list of events in the remainder of Washington Performing Arts’ season, see their season calendar.