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CHAMBER REVIEW
Mill Valley Chamber Music Society / Sunday, November 16, 2008
Hai-yi Ni, cello

CELLIST NI LENDS DRAMA AND ELEGANCE TO MILL VALLEY RECITAL

by Kenn Gartner
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cellist Hai-Ye Ni, who grew up in Marin and attended San Anselmo’s San Domenico School, returned here Nov. 16 with pianist Lin Hong to perform in the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society Series. Held at the Mount Tamalpais Methodist Church, a venue with near perfect acoustics, Ni proved quickly why she is the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, possessing an innate musicality and an incredible bow arm. The church was filled to near standing room only for this brilliant performance, and you shoulda been there!

Ni’s collaborator, Lin Hong, is also a fine virtuoso. Seated at a Hamburg Steinway, he provided the audience able to observe his facial expressions with a wide variety of cues, cues to help them know when a particular passage was of exceptional beauty, or deep emotion, or sad or blissful. Particularly interesting were his changes of facial expression on a variety of single notes. On occasion, he would tap the damper pedal hard enough to be heard in the hall. At other times, he would dig in his heels, one at a time, to provide a percussion-like accompaniment in the fourth movement of the opening Beethoven Sonata in A Major, Op. 69.

One sour note was the lid of the piano was set on short stick instead of a fully raised on the prop. As noted in a prior review, no less an authority than Dmitri Shostakovich wrote that “. . . the lid of a concert piano should be up at all times.” Nevertheless, Hong felt the need for incessant use the shift pedal. The shift or una corda pedal is sometimes incorrectly termed “soft pedal.” It is definitely not a “soft pedal, but is a mute (as in mutation) and is used to change the quality of a piano’s sound for certain musical reasons. The words literally mean “one string” which dates back to the time when pianos possessed but two strings from the middle register upwards. Now pianos have three, and occasionally four, strings per note. When a player pushed the shift pedal, the entire keyboard shifts to the right such that hammers struck but one string. As one may surmise that over time the piano hammers acquire grooves where they contact strings, thus compressing and hardening the felt of the hammerheads. When pressing the left pedal, the hammers move to the right and contact the strings, not in the hardened grooves, but on the soft and pliable lands between the grooves. I have no idea what Mr. Hong intended when he played fortissimo passages with the shift pedal held down.

In the dramatic Beethoven Ni’s melodic gift was in great evidence, and it’s no surprise the A Major is the most popular of his cello sonatas. Despite a very slight lack of coordination at the start of the work, it was played beautifully throughout.

Composer Bruce Adolph is a very funny guy, and check out his performance on UTube while he was at Cornell University. Therefore, I expected a rather amusing work, but his Couple for Cello and Piano, a work in four movements, ranged from the meditative to the joyous. According to the outstanding program notes (Brava Judith M. Taylor) Couple combines Eastern and Western material and the effects, played and plucked, on the Pipa (a Chinese stringed instrument) are part of his musical landscape in pizzicato passages, as is the sound of a Bandoneon. I hope it enters the repertory.

Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major is in the same key as the Beethoven, and thus ties the second half of the program to the first. It was performed in its far more difficult incarnation for cello as opposed to its original violin. For performers, it is risky to play too much in the same key, but Ni pulled it off, the cyclic form allowing the elegance to unfold without the audience’s ears tiring of the same key. The piano part of this work is difficult, but Mr. Hong nailed it.

The program closed with the Grand Tango by Astor Piazzola, a virtuoso tour de force. This is a slap-dash bravura work for the piano and the cello, which never fails to raise the audience to its loudest applause. Lasting about 11 minutes, it is powerful, emotional, fast, slow, dramatic, happy, sad, and just plain fun.

Oh, and just to drive home the concept of cyclic composition, the audience was rewarded with an encore cello transcription of one of Schumann’s “Fantasiestuck” for piano, Op. 12.