Eight cellists on a stage wouldn’t be much of a fitting novelty act for the big top but it would certainly twinge the eyebrows of concertgoers in the same familial way a rampaging elephant would. Rather than arriving onstage on tiny bicycles or tumbling from the rafters on a flying trapeze, the eight cellists from Cellisima chose a less strenuous entrance and walked out politely to popcorn applause at Ryerson United Church as part of the church’s annual music festival.
The opening piece was an arrangement of the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 Violoncelli (RV 531) and was probably programmed with the mindful dual purpose of getting the audience settled as well as giving the ensemble a chance to acclimatize to one another before tackling thicker repertoire. A cello octet is esoteric enough of an ensemble choice to likely lack the collegial familiarity of a string quartet coming home to their Schubert steak and Beethoven potatoes.
The thicker repertoire was poured on for the second piece of the night in an arrangement of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde featuring soprano Deborah Blakesley. Wagner himself arranged these bookends from the opera into a concert piece and this night’s performance was an arrangement of that arrangement penned by ensemble-member Paul Westwick. Buckling slightly at being approached by a cello octet, the piece nevertheless held it’s own. The only issue may have been a case of too many tigers in the cage needing to be tamed. That is to say, when reducing an orchestral score to a smaller ensemble, one throws out all the doubled notes until one is left with a skeletal framework from which to work from. At that point, every time you eliminate something you run risk of compromising the harmony, structure, and cohesion of the piece. Many composers, prominently Vivaldi by happenstance, happen to write in such a style that their music can be reduced to a thin bouquet of three voices that will work for most any ensemble. However, there are passages of Wagner’s music that would resist vehemently the inclination to be reduced to anything less than six or eight. Arrangements tend to be an exercise in compromise. How much can be taken away before you start taking away what makes it Wagner?
After a brief excursion through a Rossini overture (Guillaume Tell), we arrived at the meat of the program. Villa-Lobos penned his nine Bachianas Brasileiras as an hommage to the seemingly disparate traditions of Baroque counterpoint and Brazilian popular music. Each is as varied musically as the forces they were written for. One might be arranged for flute and bassoon while another would be for orchestra. Some brandish a clamor akin to hedonistic party culture while others kitten-coo demurely from a lazily placed throw pillow. This closing piece, the first of the set of nine, also happened to be the only of the night that was originally composed for cello octet. It was clearly the most challenging piece for the ensemble but its unique sound world parsed it from the pack. Harmonies that ring in the pipes of jazz and taste more like pop than mortarboard find their way into the composer’s language and make a lovely contrasting taste to the Wagner on the program. Villa-Lobos’s love of counterpoint is also made immensely apparent in the final fugue. Much of his contrapuntal artifice is on display here. The theme is excitedly whisked around the ensemble like a proud father showing off his son at a family picnic.
Much could be accomplished if such an ensemble were to get together more than once in a while. The ensemble, given a longer run of concerts, would surely do justice to much of the literature, both old and new.