By Scott MacClelland
JOHANNES BRAHMS, the late 19th century German composer, is enjoying a great September in Santa Cruz, even though, in this year of notable anniversaries—100th of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and death of Debussy—neither obtains to Brahms. Yet Brahms represents the first two programs in John Orlando’s Distinguished Artists Series and the first program in the Santa Cruz Chamber Players 2018-19 season. Orlando’s season began last week emphasizing the outsized 1733 Matteo Goffriller cello once owned and played by the great Pau Casals as much as the talented Amit Peled who plays it now. (Ironically, Casals, who acquired the instrument in 1913, played on it for fifty years before discovering then that it was actually crafted by Goffriller.)
Faced with a choice between basketball and music, the 6 foot 5 inch Israeli-born Peled now teaches at the Peabody Institute while simultaneously pursuing an international performing career. His program in Santa Cruz was devoted to Brahms’ two cello sonatas, each about a half hour in performance. Pianist Noreen Polera, who has cultivated a reputation for the cello literature and has partnered a long list of eminent cellists, joined Peled with the Yamaha piano’s lid fully opened. That might not bode well for many but the Goffriller in Peled’s hand delivered a powerful voice that almost overwhelmed the piano. I knew the sound and timbre of the instrument from Casals’ recordings but never imagined its booming authority until now.
With a flat floor, and despite a riser for the cellist, Peace United does not provide favorable sightlines. From the fourth row during the Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38, seeing the artist through bobbing and craning heads proved challenging. Choosing a seat in the back of the room for the Sonata in F, Op. 99, was a no-brainer. Much better, in fact, since I was able to sit directly opposite Peled down the open aisle of the church. Not only was every detail of his motion and emotion clearly on display, but the instrument itself seemed to speak directly to me, by which I mean its voice and articulation seemed remarkably directional. I was completely seduced. (My other favorite cello is the “Duport” Strad that belonged to Mstislav Rostropovich but, sadly, is no longer appearing anywhere on the concert stage.)
At the start of the second half of his concert, Peled explained that the F Major Sonata was composed around the same time as the Third Symphony and, given its ambition and scale, could be called an “extra” Brahms symphony. He could easily have said the same about the earlier sonata, whose first movement, at 15 minutes alone, is massive and complex. These two works blur the line between chamber and symphonic music. A feature of the earlier three-movement sonata is its fugal final movement. The second four-movement sonata contains numerous pizzicato passages on the cello.
Peled won standing ovations from an audience of 300 after each of the sonatas and ended his program with an arrangement of Brahms’ famous lullaby.
On the last day of this month the great American pianist Garrick Ohlsson will offer the second program of the Distinguished Artists season with all-Brahms piano program that includes the four Ballades, the Eight Pieces, Op. 76, and three sets of variations.