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)