Friday, July 10, 2009

The Recording of the 6 suites

This July, I recorded Bach's six suites and two "bonus suites", (in other words; 8 suites!), in 10 days!

I recorded the suites the same way that I had performed them in six concerts across Alberta in April and May:
Suites 1 and 4 on my 1870 Mirecourt,
Suites 2 and 5 on the baroque cello, tuned to A=415 (suite 5 with a scordatura, in this suite that means that the a string is tuned down to g),
Suite 3 on the Luis and Clark Carbon Fibre cello, and finally
Suite 6 on my lovely violoncello piccolo.
The 3rd bonus CD will be the 5th suite 3 times; on the baroque cello, the Mirecourt and the Carbon fibre, all with the scordatura.

Recording the six suites by Bach is the most difficult thing any cellist will ever do. Doing it on 4 cellos adds yet another dimension to it. The entire process is very exposed, very vulnerable. I feel very lucky that I had a recording engineer with whom I felt safe enough that I could allow myself to be just that.

The sessions were about 4 hours each. The interesting part is that it depended a lot on the instrument on how I felt afterwards.

(my Mirecourt cello)

In past posts you have read about the differences between the cellos, about their strengths and weaknesses and about the effect that has on the performer and the audience.

While all of that still holds true, I was now truly confronted with the instruments on a much more intimate level than ever before.

But before we get to all of that; let me describe a little bit of the recording process and the emotions that come with it.

I recorded at a fantastic, huge Catholic church which sits in a big field in the middle of nowhere just outside Edmonton.

(Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Spruce Grove)

The church was amazing for the occasion; the acoustics are perfect for unaccompanied Bach and it is completely quiet, so there is no traffic noise or other noise to interfere with the recording.

(a huge space with wonderful acoustics)

In all of his years recording, my sound engineer has never ever recorded in a quieter place and that includes Edmonton's amazing concert hall, the Winspear Centre.
Well...; except for the day when a next door farmer decided to mow his field...
Needless to say we quit early that day.

On the very last recording day, Edmonton had the very first, much needed, rain of the season. I had wished the weather gods had waited another day, because the church was not entirely leak proof, nor silent when it rained! It threatened to ruin our recording day and postpone it for who knows how long, but it slowed down, thank goodness, and we were able to finish the project.

The first day of recording, a Tuesday at the end of the school year, in the middle of my very last week of teaching, I played the first suite. I figured that would be a good suite to "get my feet wet". I played it on my Mirecourt and it went well. The instrument did what I needed it to do (and I guess so did I). I walked away from that day of recording very confident and pleased with myself.

Over the next few days I travelled to Toronto for a gig on Wednesday and Thursday, taught on Friday and Saturday and had all of my students play in two recitals (one for the younger ones and one for the adults) on Sunday.

(student recital)

Needless to say that life had gotten a little in the way of personal practice time and more importantly it got in the way of mental preparation time, of being able to completely focus on the huge task at hand.
I had decided that on the coming Monday and Tuesday, I would like to record, if possible, the 2nd and 5th suites, both on the baroque cello. Just two weeks prior, I had put a set of new strings on this cello, which I had ordered directly from Italy, where they are (hand) made.

On Saturday morning, eager to start practicing before my afternoon teaching got on the way, I opened the case, only to find that the C string had broken! In the 30-some years that I have played the cello, I have never broken a C string (this is the lowest, and fattest string) so it was a bit of a shock. But it being an authentic gut string; perhaps it was faulty. That could happen, right? Thank goodness I had ordered two strings, so I put on a new one, a little upset that I now had only a few hours to play it in before recording. It usually takes a few weeks to break in a gut string to its full vibrancy. My practice time was precious, and I now had wasted too much of it changing strings.

I taught the rest of that day and opened the case again on Sunday morning, anticipating a day of practice before my first student recital at 4:30.
Imagine my despair when I found yet another broken C string! Now I no longer had a good spare string, so I needed to try to tie a knot in this string. The C string is silver wound gut, and it had broken just above the tail piece (Which I suspect was a little sharp and thus cut the string, causing it to break). Tying a knot in a wound string is not easy. So I first stripped a bit of the silver winding off, then tied a knot, hoping it would not have made the winding so loose it would buzz. My quiet practice day was gone, I had to play the role of teacher the rest of that day and evening and I just hoped for the best on Monday.

A brief note about the strings: As far as I understand, the difference between an authentic wound gut string and a modern wound gut string is that the modern winding is flat and is lined with silk. The authentic gut winding is round and has no lining in between. That also means it could buzz against the winding when the string dries and thus shrinks. I have certainly had that happen in the middle of a concert in dry spaces. Old editions of cello methods, such asDotzauer , describe how to get rid of that annoying buzz; rub a drop of almond oil on the string. The string will expand and: voila, problem solved!

If you are curious how they are made, check out this website of the maker of my strings (after you are done reading the rest of this BLOG post of course):

Monday morning the C string was still fine and sounded pretty good also, despite being a new string. I went to the recording session tired and stressed. I performed the prelude of the 2nd suite, which I can play in my dreams and upside down if I had to. "This is a toughy" my engineer said. Oops! Not a good sign. I tried again. And again. This was much too hard work. We started the Allemande. After about two hours my engineer said "Hey; I have an idea! let's go home and try again tomorrow". Good thinking, indeed! We really had no usable material from this day.

(Let's go home!)

On Tuesday I went in a little less confident, wondering I was doing the right thing, recording these most difficult of pieces. I started with the Sarabande of the 2nd suite and immediately knew that it was going to be all right. But by no means was it easy!

After 3 hours I had the Courante, Sarabande, Menuets and Gigue to my satisfaction, but had no energy left for the Prelude and the Allemande. That would be Wednesday's task, in addition to, perhaps, the 3rd suite. I was emotionally so drained that I could not think straight anymore. Even when I spoke, the sentences came out slurred. This was definitely the hardest thing I had ever done.

As I said earlier, I feel I was very lucky with my recording engineer. Aside from being amazingly good with sound, he is a nice guy (that helps!) and musically very knowledgeable, critical and honest; he wouldn't hesitate to tell me what I need to do when I play it again, or to compliment me when it went well.

(this will be "easy" today)

The next day I decided I would start with the third suite on the carbon fibre cello, and if I had time, I could always go back to the 2nd suite.
That was a great idea. Minutes into the recording I knew it would be great. That carbon fibre cello sure does give me confidence! Every note came out like I wanted. Within two and a half hours we competed the third suite and I decided to give the Prelude and Allemande of the second suite another try.
I now realized how difficult the previous day had been because of the instrument. The baroque cello doesn't always speak when I want it to and it is much harder work. It also has much more depth, character, complexity. It is very hard to play it well according to current standards. With the confidence of just completing the third suite in record time, I played the Prelude and Allemande much to my liking and we were done in another 45 minutes.

(finishing the day on the baroque cello)

The hours on the carbon were emotionally much easier than the hours on the baroque cello. I found that the 45 minutes on the baroque cello took everything out of me, where 3 hours on the carbon didn't. I wonder if you will hear that on the recording. I played the third suite well, gave it the musical intention I wanted to, but was emotionally still strong after. On the baroque cello it was hard work to reach the level that I wanted and I was emotionally drained but very satisfied after.

The rest of the suites went much like that. The fourth took one recording day, after which all that was left to do was the Gigue, only because my muscles couldn't play fast in the brutally difficult extended position that the entire suite (in Eb Major) requires anymore. I had just spent 3 hours extending; that was it, my body said! I needed to play the gigue another day, when my left hand muscles were relaxed again.
The 5th suite on the baroque cello was hard work and took a day and a half.

The 6th suite on the piccolo was a lot of fun. The sound is so sweet! To capture that, it was a little closer mic-ed than the other suites. Again, this was more difficult than on the modern instruments; it took a session and a half to get it all down.

The second day on the 6th, I also recorded the Gigue of the fourth on my Mirecourt ("easy"!) and played once through some movements from other suites that I had felt not quite sure about. (Yes: I played 4 different cellos that day!)

Now I had all six suites "in the can" and the rest was going to be "gravy".

Remaining was the recording for the 3rd CD in the set; a bonus CD with the 5th suite played on 3 of the cellos. My initial concern was: am I going to play them so that I can show off/magnify, the strength of each of the cellos, and their weaknesses? And if so; how should I do that? That might mean I could play more "virtuoso" on the carbon, perhaps? Or would each of the instruments' qualities be obvious no matter what I did anyway?
I decided that I did not want to compromise the integrity of the suites, so I would interpret it, the way I feel good about.
Now here is the big question, which is what it has been all about for all of these months:

Is there a huge difference in how I perform something, depending on the instrument?
Or is there a difference in the final product.
Does the instrument play me as much as I play the instrument?
If there is a difference, does it really matter?
And... is one "better" than another??

(the Violoncello Piccolo)

I have so many answers to that. And even more questions.
One musician friend whose opinion I value greatly, said he really did not care which instrument I played; it was my music that spoke to him, no matter what the instrument. And, he added, whatever cello you play, unless you compare them directly, they all sound like you expect a cello to sound. When you do compare them, perhaps one would find himself more drawn to one instrument or the other, but in the end, it doesn't matter.

Some of that it true. But... doesn't playing Bach require gut strings and a baroque bow? Perhaps so. But I suspect that for someone like me, it really doesn't matter; I know what it feels and sounds like with that equipment, so I will try to channel my sound in such a way that I mimic that, even on a steel string or a carbon fibre cello. I grew up in an era and a country (the Netherlands) where music was performed in a manner that was consistent with the era the piece was written. That meant performing Bach on baroque instruments, or at least "stylistically correct", whatever that means.

It is safe to say that I could not play the Bach suites with many of the notes slurred, bow changes that are too smooth and lots of fast vibrato. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to do that (well; actually I do...), but it is absolutely not the way I like it.
In other words: no matter which instrument I play; I could not play it that differently.

Even so, I find that I played the 5th suite very different on each cello. As a musician, we respond to the strength and weaknesses of the instrument with our interpretation. We let the instruments play us somewhat.

I love the depth of my Mirecourt, so I while I play it and hit a low note I keep thinking; "O yeah!". It probably makes me linger there a little longer, or emphasize it just so. You hear that in the result, I think. The low F has a slight wolf-tone when you play it lightly, so any time I play that note, I have to play it quite deliberate, which, of course affects the interpretation too. Plus: this instrument has been my companion, for 20 years; we have some sort of a "love-affair" going on, that is bound to be obvious.

(On my Mirecourt for the recording of the 5th)

I like the crispness and ease of the carbon fibre, so in the fugue of the prelude, or the 2nd gavotte and in the gigue, I had great fun making use of that. I took the tempi of those movements a little faster, after all; on this cello I did not compromise clarity if I sped things up a little. I had assumed that the Sarabande of this suite, which is so peaceful and reflective, would be the least attractive on this instrument, because it responds so quickly. To my surprise though, it was amazingly effective on this cello...

(The 5th on the Carbon fibre)

I love the colour of the gut strings and the slightly husky voice on the baroque cello, so that makes me want to take advantage of that quality. I also like the difficulty on the baroque cellos; that "struggle" gives the music something that you can not easily reproduce on the modern instruments.

During the entire recording process, it has been interesting how I felt after a recording day depending on the instrument. As I mentioned before; I was much more exhausted after recording on the baroque instruments. The recording of the 2nd, 5th (baroque cello) and 6th (baroque piccolo cello) each took more than one recording day. On the modern instruments, only the fourth suite had one movement to be done after one recording day!

In addition to not getting the entire suite "in the can", I also was exhausted on the "baroque instrument days". More so than on the other cellos.
Does that mean the other cellos are better?
During the performances, or even at home practicing, I never felt that particular difference. So I have tried to figure out why it was so much more difficult during the recording.

(Piccolo Cello)

I suspect that it has to do with the level of "perfection" (I dislike that word!) that is required for a recording.
During a performance no one really notices (or at least most people don't really care) if one note in chord does not quite speak properly. As a matter of fact, if you noticed it in the first place, you'd probably have forgotten about it a moment later or at least not cared. But in a recording every note has to speak just right. And it still has to be musical. For me this meant that it required many more takes to ensure that I had enough material to work with.
And that's exhausting, because every take you do, you have to play the most beautiful and technically the best you have ever, ever, ever played. That is hard. And that is so much fun!!
Having said all of that; what have we lost in our search for "perfection"?

(The Baroque cello)

What will be the result?
I think will be obvious that it is all played by the same cellist; the larger musical lines are obvious (I hope!) and the ideas that I have of the structure of each movement will come through all of them in a more or less similar way. Aside from the fact that I interpret a piece somewhat differently every time I play it regardless of the cello, the biggest differences of the particular instruments are in the details.
A slightly quicker response on the carbon, more depth on my Mirecourt, more intimacy on the baroque.

Do I have a preference? Sure I do!!
But I am not going to tell.
My answer would probably be different tomorrow anyway...

I suspect that the opinion of the listeners will be as varied as the responses I heard after my concerts. It will range from enthusiasm to disgust for the carbon, from feeling strongly that it should have all been on the baroque cello to; "why not all on your Mirecourt"?

But really; all that really matters is BACH, right?!
It is the most amazing music, no matter the interpretation or the instrument!
Even after all of this, I am even more excited to continue exploring these suites. I suspect that, like all cellists, I will continue to do so until the day I die, or go senile.

The next big step for me will be listening, editing. It probably will be another 100 hours or so. I have 17 CDs of material to listen to in detail...gasp!.. I hope to be able to release the 3 CD set this fall/early winter. I will post a notice on my blog and on facebook but also keep an eye on my website:
If I have any discoveries while I listen to it all, I will certainly share it in my blog.
With my recording engineer, I will make an analysis of the sound, the overtones, the range of each instrument, make a graph, and that too, I will share here in a couple of months or so.

(The last CDs of the 17... I have work to do!)

This project is way too much fun, and still ongoing, as you see!
These projects are artistically necessary...unfortunately my line of credit isn't so happy...!
If anyone has any great funding ideas though, let me know!

It would be ultimate compliment if the listeners impression would be exactly like my friend's: It really doesn't matter which instrument it is played on; all that matters is that the music speaks to you.
Because music; isn't that what it is really all about?!

(The parish priest, a music lover and violinist himself)

A brief note about the microphone set up.
They were set at the same distance for the Mirecourt and the baroque cello.

Not too close to me, so that we would be able to record the amazing acoustics as well.

(Setting the microphones just right)

When it came time for the carbon fibre, I assumed it would be the same set up. Not so. Because the carbon fibre cello already sounds like it has a "built in re-verb", it was almost too much in that church. Listening through the headset you could hear the sound bouncing around inside the cello and then colliding with the acoustics of the church. He put the mics higher up, to catch the sound a little differently. That worked well.

(the microphones are initially much higher for the carbon fiber cello)

When I came back to the carbon fibre cello on the last day of recording, he set up the microphones exactly like he had for the 3rd suite. Since for every session the mics were set up according to exact measurements, he assumed it was good this time around too. But for the first time in 10 days of recording, he stopped me after a few bars and said: the sound is not right. It seems to be bouncing off something. One note in particular seemed completely unbalanced with the rest. Why this happened: who knows? It could be because of the scordatura (a tuned down to g), which makes the instrument resonate differently. It could be because of the humidity, which might change the air density, it could be a variety of factors. So the mics came closer and lower and more like they had been for the baroque cello and Mirecourt!

When we recorded the piccolo, the mics were much closer, to capture the intimacy of the instrument, which would have gotten lost if they were further away.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Concerts

I have now performed the six suites entirely five times in the past month. And I am still as excited and humbled as I was when I started this. Perhaps even more so!

(Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta)

Playing six suites is a mesmerizing experience for both the performer as well as for the audience. When I set out to perform the 6 suites in one concert, I assumed it would be too much for most audiences to do in "one sitting", and the audience who would come to the concerts would probably be a select few.

(warming up before a concert)

I created the idea of performing the suites four times in Edmonton, in 4 different venues, but the audience needed to buy a ticket only once and come and go to each concert as they pleased; perhaps to listen to two suites at the time and come for more a next concert.
I was wrong: audiences came in very large numbers at every concert and most stayed through the entire performances! About 25 people came to all four complete performances, even!

(Robertson Wesley United Church)

Of course performing on four different instruments is very interesting, and people really seemed to enjoy that variety. Don't underestimate the power of the Bach suites though; How could one get up and leave in the middle?!

(All Saints' Anglican Cathedral)

The feedback on the different instruments has been very interesting.
Of course the carbon fibre cello stirs the most debate. No one appears to be neutral on that cello: they either really like it or really dislike it.

(sharing thoughts after the concert)

I was talking to two people after one concert and one person pointed to the carbon and said: " could have left that cello at home". The other person apeared not to have heard that comment and said: "why don't you play them all on that carbon cello; it is so far superiour!"
Those two comments seem to sum up the opinions of all audiences. It is almost funny!

(introducing the carbon fibre cello)

As I introduced the instruments before the suites, I talked mainly about the carbon fibre's perks of being unaffected by humidity, temperature, abuse of airport baggage handlers.
Then, when I started the first bar of the C Major suite, I could predict to hear the stir in the audience."WOW" seemed to be whispered everywhere. Yes: it is loud and clear, that cello!
One audience member found that it sounded "like an over-edited CD; too perfect, no soul". Another found that it was "so easy to listen too; so clear, so soothing".

(the television was interested in my concerts)

The opinions on the Mirecourt (with which I just celebrated my 20th anniversary!) and the baroque cello were not as black or white as on the carbon.

My Mirecourt is initially exactly what people assume a cello sounds like. It looks like a cello, it sounds like a cello. That means that people enjoyed it, but no one gave it much thought either, until the fourth suite.

By that time they had heard the Mirecourt once at the very beginning in the 1st suite; at which time it sounded the way a cello is supposed to sound and they had nothing to compare it with. By now they had heard the baroque cello and the carbon as well and as they listened to this cello again, they compared it with the other two.

(Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives)

Now they heard the depth that this cello has, especially after the carbon and even in this most difficult suite, which is in an uncomfortable key on the cello (Eb Major), and the instrument does not ring at its best.
It was at this point in the program that most people started to form strong opinions on the cellos!

With the baroque cello a few people initially had trouble with the fact that it did not project like a modern cello. Or they had difficulty with the vibration of the gut strings, the different types of overtones or the occasional buzz in the string.

They had one more chance to hear the baroque cello, in the 5th suite, with scordatura.

Because of the scordatura (the a-string is tuned down to g), this suite lends itself extremely well for the low baroque tuning. That also meant that people changed their minds on their initial opinion. Had they not felt particularly strong one way or another when I played the 2nd suite on it; "it looks like a cello, sounds like a cello, just a little softer and with a lower tuning and a funny way the cellist plays it without an endpin!"

(the ARTery)

Now that they heard the 5th suite, most people really enjoyed the richness of the overtones (a result of the much lower tension, the gut strings and the instrument itself). Many people commented on the deep sound of the bass notes.

The piccolo was an instrument that everyone loved, without exception. Even some people who are generally sceptical and thought that they preferred the modern cello for the 6th suite, were sold on it.

It truly is an amazing little instrument and I hope to do much more with it. People were surprised at the "silver" sound and clarity of the high strings. It still has plenty of depth as well.

Surprising to me was that it appeared to reach further than the baroque cello, even though it is only 3/4 of the size! Almost everyone commented on the richness of the sound both in the upper as the lower registers.

How does one feel after performing 6 suites? Dizzy, wired, excited, inspired, happy, confused.
I will perform them once more next weekend and then I will record them. I have 12 recording days booked this summer and I am very excited about it!!

(...and how does one fit 4 cellos in a smaller car?)

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I am on the homestretch, getting ready for the concerts in Alberta.

The Concerts

  • Sunday, April 12, 2009, 1 PM. Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, Jasper.
  • Sunday, April 19, 2009, 2 PM. Robertson Wesley United Church, Edmonton.
  • Saturday, May 2, 2009, 2 PM. All Saints' Anglican Cathedral, Edmonton.
  • Sunday, May 3, 2009, 2 PM. The ARTery, Edmonton.
  • May 23, 2009, 1 PM. University of Lethbridge. Part of the University of Lethbridge Cello Festival.
  • May 24, 2009,1 PM. University of Lethbridge. Part of the University of Lethbridge Cello Festival

The Venues

Each venue that I chose for the performances is very different.

  • In Jasper it will be at a museum, at a contemporary art exhibit in a mountain town in the Rockies. The acoustics there are great and audiences can look around at the art while they listen.
  • Two of the concerts in Edmonton will be at great churches.
    Churches have been popular concert venues throughout the centuries. Their acoustics are generally very good for instrumental music. It might be hard on the audience's bums though...
  • One concert will be at 10 AM and is a so called Coffee Concert at Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta. This is a true concert venue with good acoustics, though not as "forgiving" as some others. For once the audience will have comfortable seats!
  • This performance time may seem unusual in North America; at least here in Edmonton it is uncommon, but many concerts in Europe are on Sunday morning at “coffee time”. Usually this means about 11 AM, but since the 6 suites are a bit of a marathon, I decided to start early so that people can go for lunch after..
    At the end of the 17th century Coffea Arabica reached Western Europe. For a long time it was regarded a kind of medicine. Contrary to tea, which was served in fancy salons, coffee was served in more ordinary “coffee houses”. Coffee soon became wildly popular and became synonymous with having a good time together. Many of those meetings at the local coffee houses involved concerts, some more spontaneous than others; Bach even wrote a “coffee cantata”! At this concert coffee will be served to honour an old tradition.
  • The last concert in Edmonton is at a very alternative venue. It is in the rough part of downtown Edmonton, in an old, decrepit but very alive building, where a lot of "cool" arts events are happening; from poetry readings, to contemporary dance to provocative visual art. At this concert the audience will be much closer to the performer so it will feel much more intimate.This follows another tradition of performing music in a chamber setting. The audience is close to the performer, sitting relaxed around tables, enjoying a drink and nibbling food while listening to music.
  • The concerts in Lethbridge are part of a cello festival, where participants and audience are immersed in "everything cello" for a few days. The buzz will be quite different there!

The Music

If anyone is under the impression that it has to get easier by now; it doesn't!

Bach keeps surprising me, challenging me and keeps me on my toes!

Part of this is something every musician is familiar with: the better we get; the more critical we get as well! Which means we loose track of the progression we make, and we tend to just notice what else still needs to be done. And believe me; there is always more to do! The good thing about that is that this keeps us practicing very hard until the last moment.

And that is just what I am doing. Did you think I was done with the metronome? I thought so too, but I resurrected it this week. And just when I figured I played the 10 million or so double stops in the suites exactly the way I wanted to, I changed my mind and since a few days I execute them all very differently!

Of course I have listened to so many recordings of the suites that I have lost track of the numbers. And I still listen, after a hiatus of about 3 months, during which I felt I did not want to be influenced.

I started listening again, and feel more intimidated by the suites than ever before. Don't get me wrong; I know every note of these suites intimately. I have studied so many versions of manuscript that I think I am able to distinguish whose version people are performing from, or even which version of manuscript the editor of the performance edition used. And still I feel humbled and at awe by them.

I still discover little and not so little things in listening and studying the manuscripts. I just changed a note in the first Menuet of the second suite. I must have played that suite since I was 16 years old or so, and yet it is only yesterday that I changed the a-e double stop just after the repeat to a-c#! It was such a revelation! And yet I have heard Bylsma and Rostropovich play that note "forever". Almost everyone else plays a-e though. Anna Magdalena writes a-c#, other sources write a-e. Who knows; I might change my mind again. And again. These kinds of revelations are huge for me, but may seem nothing for someone else. And certainly for my audience, who will listen to it; they won't care and most of them won't even notice!

A movement that every cellist perpetually struggles with is the first Menuet of the second suite. I mentioned the double stops before. The lengths in which they are spelled vary a lot. Bylsma writes about this in his "Fencing Master":

"Only a few movements have a bass as complete as the first Menuet of the second suite. The bass is logical in itself, and when playing it alone, what one suspected all along immediately becomes apparent; the notation is in a strange way "conventional". Without good musical reason the basses and other accompanying notes are given the same length as the melody notes to which they belong."

He continues:

"There are more conventions like that. For instance in the score of the St. Mathew passion, the basses of the secco recitatives are notated short and in the St. John passion the same notes are written long but they must be played exactly the same way (short). Why? I don't know. Tradition?


There are two things to be learned from this: the notated length of the bass really has no meaning, and when another voice is a long note, another note may very well be bowed back and forth(!)." Judge every bass note on its own merits. Arpeggiate in such a way that the logic of the bass does not suffer. Therefore, break 2 string chords as well, when in the midst of 3 and 4 part chords."

I have read Bylsma's book numerous times, and listened to so many recordings, including his, of course, but suddenly... click... something made sense:

Don't try so desperately to hold on to more than one note in a chord!


And it has made a huge difference already.

Yes: that Menuet of the 2nd suite isn't so bad after all!

Suddenly the Sarabande of the 6th suite is a lot easier too.

The Sarabande of the 4th suite has had a few challenges for me, because the fingerboard of the cello that I play this suite on (my Mirecourt), has a dent (playing too much) exactly at the bflat on the G string. (yes; I know; I need to get the fingerboard shaved). The chord in bar 3; b-flat and f, should be exactly across from each other, but they aren't on this cello, so it has been a terrible issue. The b-flat is shown as a dotted half note, but the quarter notes in the melody are all separate. I have always tried to get around that by at least holding b-flat and f together as long as possible, and even experimented with slurring the entire bar (I did not like that).

But if you just break the chord, and play the b-flat arpeggiated before the f...

Now I am laughing!

Then there are tempi. If you listen to 50 different performances of the suites, you will hear 50 different tempi. Even if you listen to a live performance of a suite by a cellist who's recording you have played a million times; the tempo choice is often different. I sure change my mind a lot! It keeps the suites alive and it does say a lot about Bach's genius. Casals called them "Masterpieces in constant state of evolution". Listen to any recording of any other piece and the tempo may vary by a notch or two, but never as drastically as with the suites. That is great and a little unsettling too. What will I do on stage? I make a strong commitment to a tempo one day and completely disagree with it the next!
Every cellist feels challenged by the suites. Pieter Wispelweij plans to record them every 7 years to keep putting out his new ideas. Rostropovitch was very reluctant to record them because he did not want to put a "definitive" interpretation out.

I play a Gavotte I fast and Gavotte II slow one day and I want to reverse it the next day, or suddenly feel they should both be rather slow...or both fast!

To feel the Prelude of the 4th suite in 2 makes it a lot easier to listen to.

And easier to play, to give it shape.

Or the Courante of the 3rd suite in 1.

I think... For now...

I think I will be humbled and challenged by this music forever!


The Instruments

The constant change of instruments is challenging and great fun. I do feel like I finally have a grip on it.
When I say challenging, I am not just talking about the distance between the fingers or between the strings with the bow though. Sure; that will always be a challenge. The Mirecourt has a length from the bridge to the nut of 70.2 centimetres. The the carbon fibre cello is about the same, the baroque cello 69 and the piccolo 64 cm.

The bridges are cut so differently. I have to be careful on the piccolo that I don't bow on the G string when I mean to just play the d. But muscle memory (which truly is in your brain) is amazing and I seem to have found my way with that.

Initially I tried very hard to get the same volume out of the baroque cello that I got out of the carbon. That really sounded bad! Now I am very content with a softer sound. It still takes my ears a few minutes to get used to it every time I switch, but I really like it.

Even more challenging is to be able to get the intended expression out of each instrument. And to adapt my expectation to each cello. I do need more dynamic differences on the modern cellos than on the old ones, just because they can and it sounds silly not too (and it sounds really great when I do).
I can not go to those same extremes on the baroque cellos, even though you can make lots of dynamic differences still, of course. More importantly; the warmth of the gut strings on those allow me to play with the colour and make me search for overtones that I can not find on the steel strings.

A few weeks ago I played a short concert where I played the entire fourth suite, on 3 cellos. The Prelude and Allemande on the baroque cello, the Courante and Sarabande on the Mirecourt and the Bourree I and II and the Gigue on the carbon fibre. I spent little time preparing that, just because I figured I was in good shape, I practice the 4th suite on my Mirecourt all the time and I know the other instruments well. To my surprise I had a lot more difficulty on stage than I had anticipated.

The Prelude of that suite is of course a challenge at the best of times, but was hard on the baroque cello. It took me a while to realize that I needed much, much more bow than I was used to playing this on my Mirecourt. And when it came to the Bourrees and Gigue, I took a tempo that was much faster than I should have for my own comfort, just because I wanted to "show off" how easy the carbon fibre cello was.
Weird as it may sound: I have come a long way since then (and that was only 3 weeks ago). I guess that concert made a few things very clear to me and I have practiced differently since. Perhaps I became more aware? A concert is always different than time by yourself in the practice room.

The promotion; creating a "buzz"

The challenge for every musician is always to try to get people to your concert.
My husband is a painter and his work is done months prior to an exhibit opening. That means that he has a lot of time that he can devote to promoting the exhibit. He can write press releases, mail outs, call people, visit people and do whatever else is necessary to let people know that you have an event coming up. It also helps that he is quite shameless approaching people.
Musicians are in the practice room until the hour before the concert! That leaves us very little time to interact with our potential audience. Thank goodness for me, my husband is also a graphic designer, so he makes my website, updates it whenever I want him to, and he makes posters and hand outs for my concerts. Yes; I still have to write text, but at least someone else is taking care of the distribution of flyers and posters, etc.

I started early this time around, so that I do have time in the practice studio closer to the performances, but also to make sure that people know about it well in advance. People are busy; they need to be able to plan ahead. With these concerts, the "buzz" seems to be happening; the word spreads quickly. I am excited!
It is an expensive profession though: I have had to rent the concert venues, print posters and hand-outs. O yeah; and I bought two cellos and a bow...
There better be a lot of people to break even!
But it is so much fun!

The tickets:

I decided to make my Edmonton concerts work in such a way that the audience can buy a ticket once and then come to as many of the concerts as they would like. For many people 6 suites in one sitting is a little much (especially if they are sitting in a church pew).
I will play 2 suites, have an intermission, 2 more suites, another intermission, and then the last 2 suites. Every "set" starts on the hour. People can decide to leave after every set and come back for the next set or two on another date. Or they can come to all 6 suites 4 times, of course!
The options:
  • Listen to all six suites in one afternoon
  • Leave after two suites and come back for more at the next performances
  • Listen to all six suites several times!
• 1st hour: Suite 1 and Suite 2 (Mirecourt cello, Baroque cello)
• 2nd hour: Suite 3 and Suite 4 (Carbon fibre cello, Mirecourt cello)
• 3rd hour: Suite 5 and Suite 6 (Baroque cello, Cello piccolo)