In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, four cello students from Northwestern University formed a new chamber music ensemble that gave its first public concert on Saturday. This performance demonstrated the musical possibilities such an unusual ensemble line-up can offer, so long as very talented musicians are handling the bows and plucking the strings. Members of the Galvin Cello Quartet of Haddon Kay, Luiz Venturelli, Sydney Lee, and Sihao He showed off that talent Saturday evening in Evanston.
Like all stringed instruments, the cello has a wide range that players can use to make different sounds, but only two strings can be bowed simultaneously. With four cellos, eight strings can be bowed at once, and the instrument’s entire range and tonal variety can be heard simultaneously.
Adding to the staging possibilities, as most chamber ensembles do, this quartet lines up with the cellist playing a work’s main melodies and highest notes on the audience’s left. The members of the quartet change seats after every number, giving each player the opportunity to bow/pluck out the main melodies at least once during the concert.
These four cellists are all under the tutelage of Hans Jørgen Jensen, professor at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. They’ve also received instruction from the late cellist Lynn Harrell, a close friend, mentor, and performance partner of pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion, the organizer of the Evanston Chamber Music Festival, which hosted this concert.
In describing what she learned from Harrell, Sydney Lee mentioned how Harrell would stress the importance of “singing with the cello.” This practice came through frequently on Saturday, where the emphasis was on pure tone with remarkably little timbre.
To open the concert, Asuncion backed up three of the four cellists on piano. First up was Franz Schubert’s amazing Arpeggione Sonata in a-minor. Schubert wrote this piece for the arpeggione, a guitar-like, bowed instrument that no longer exists. It has been transcribed for many other instruments.
Haddon Kay played the first movement and Luiz Venturelli played the middle movement and finale. A few squeaks and missed runs notwithstanding, Kay and Venturelli played beautifully, especially Venturelli’s pure singing tone used in the middle movement Adagio. Asuncion’s backing was delightful throughout.
Sydney Lee next joined Asuncion for Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne. With the help of Gregor Piatigorsky, Stravinsky arranged this excellent five-movement work for cello and piano from his ballet score for Pulcinella. It offered Lee the opportunity to shine in a virtuosic performance.
Following the duos, the full quartet took the stage. The repertoire of music written specifically for this ensemble is tiny, with just a few pieces and several transcriptions. One composer who did write cello quartets is Luigi Forino, whose Preghiere for Cello Quartet in G-major, Op 27 No. 3 featured Haddon Kay on the lead. It’s a slow, thoughtful work that exploits the full aural potential a cello quartet can offer.
Sihao He took the lead for a transcription for cello quartet of Richard Wagner’s Feierliches Stück from Lohengrin, arranged by Grutzmaher. YouTube has a wonderful video of the Galvin Cello Quartet performing this work from September.
The Galvin Cello Quartet’s performance of two works on the program by David Popper are also available on Youtube:
This concert was part of the Evanston Chamber Music Festival put on by FilAm Music Foundation, an organization dedicated to encouraging Filipino classical musicians through scholarship assistance and performance opportunities. Under the leadership of pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion, the FilAm Music Foundation has been hosting chamber music concerts since the fall of 2018.
The next festival concert is Music of the Baroque & Christmas Carols, Saturday, December 11, at 4pm, Evanston History Center, 225 Greenwood St., Evanston. Click here for more information.