Zuill Bailey and Robert Koenig at Maverick

There is something particularly moving about the cello, perhaps because its tone and range is similar to that of the human voice. Today, the cello is a staple not just of classical music but many other styles as well — including bluegrass, folk, and even rock — but this was not always the case. Originally called a “bass violin” and intended as an accompaniment, over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the instrument gained attention and popularity. Especially in the latter century this was in part due to J.S. Bach writing pieces for solo cello, as many scholars will point out — including cellist Zuill Bailey, when he performed with pianist Robert Koenig at Maverick last Sunday. Not just a musician, Bailey is also an educator (he teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso) who loves to speak to audiences about the history behind the composers and pieces he plays. In addition, he’s somewhat of a personality, and according to Bailey’s website his television appearances include a recurring role on the HBO series “Oz,” NBC’s  “Homicide”,  A&E, NHK TV in Japan. Robert Koenig is similarly accomplished, having been staff pianist at Julliard and the Curtis Institute of Music. He also taught at the University of Kansas and since 2007 has held the position of Professor and Head of The Collaborative Piano Program at The University of California in Santa Barbara. As for Koenig’s TV appearances, those include Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. Not only are Bailey and Koenig incredible musicians individually, they also make a great team and their chemistry together as musicians is fantastic.

Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008        J.S. Bach
Prelude
Allemande
Courante
Sarabande
Menuett I & II
Gigue

Sonata for Cello and Piano        Claude Debussy
Prologue: Lent
Serenade: Modérément animé
Finale: Animé

Sonata for Violin (Cello) and Piano in A Major, Op. 8       César Franck
Allegretto ben moderato
Allegro
Recitativo: Fantasia
Allegretto poco mosso

Opening the program was Zuill Bailey playing Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach. In the gorgeous prelude the low notes on cello are almost guttural, balanced out by light high notes that seem suspended in air. The next movement is more lively, quickly jumping from string to string, streams of notes sometimes broken by a delicate trill or a sharp, heavy bow.  The Courante is very rapidly played, only an inch or two of the bow’s length being used at a time, but it’s still very musical and expressive. The Sarabande is achingly exquisite, the notes drooping from the cello in a despairingly beautiful way. The Minuetts begin haltingly, numerous spaces between the notes, and throughout the movement throaty chords are balanced out by trills and light staccato notes, creating a complex texture in the music not unlike that found in the opening movement. There are halting passages in the Gigue as well, but for the most part it is continuous and ends the piece on a cheery note.

The opening movement of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano begins with chords on piano before cello enters. The movement is quite bluesy, and the music is also a bit dazed at first before it finds its footing and theme. The second movement is also jazzy, cello opening plucked like an upright bass and creeping onward accompanied by bluesy chords and staccato notes on piano. There are also legato passages full of vibrancy, but the movement never loses a sense of whimsy — if not drunken — fun. For the last movement the cello’s bow bounces over the strings, plays legato passages, or isn’t used at all when the cello is plucked, in a comedic, animated, and delightful finale. Before the piece Zuill explained a little story that goes along with it, although it’s one that Debussy didn’t want people to know. In the story, a harlequin is recovering from the previous night’s adventures involving drinking (hence the wooziness expressed in the music of the first movement). However, after stumbling around he comes across a beautiful maiden who captures his heart. In the second movement he attempts to serenade her (the cello mimicking a mandolin), although his hung over attempts at playing music are somewhat lackluster (hence the humor of the second and third movements). Even if you hadn’t heard the story these characteristics are present in the music for you to draw your own conclusions, which is even more fun.

After intermission Koenig and Bailey took the stage to play what was the latter’s first ever Franck sonata. We have Maverick music director Alexander Platt to thank for the selection, which was a beautiful one at that. This season Maverick is featuring numerous works by César Franck, tying into the “Tour de France” 2012 schedule which, in addition to Franck, features works by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and the contemporary American composer Philip Glass who has ties to France, having studied there with Nadia Boulanger. Zuill Bailey stated that he is hesitant to take on the immense task of learning new pieces unless he is sure they are absolutely worth it and can be added to his already impressive repertoire (as opposed to learning a piece for one performance and never playing it again), simply because mastering a piece takes so much time and focus. He also stated that he doesn’t trust the opinions of many people, but that he has deep trust and faith in Alexander Platt’s choices. However, before beginning the piece the self-deprecating Bailey joked that he would reserve the right to comment on whether or not it was a good sonata until after he played it — and that his decision would depend upon how he played it, drawing chuckles from the crowd — but at the end of the piece (which was played brilliantly, by the way) he relented that it was, in fact, a great piece. Indeed, it is, and from its opening the sonata is full of deep, rich tones and a glorious melody. Piano and cello form a stunning duet, and the music is breathtakingly beautiful but also intense. Piano has moments of solo playing but it is cello that is at the heart of the music, and when the latter temporarily stops playing to give the spotlight to piano its presence is greatly missed. The second movement opens with piano running through passages of music, cello joining shortly after. Although the movement is much darker than the first, it contains a similar lyrical beauty and theme. The music is nearly continuous and slightly frantic, although it does slow down temporarily near the end. That doesn’t last long, however, and chords on piano signal a shift once more as the music returns to driving force of its opening for the last 30 seconds, if not even more frantic than before. The third movement has two sections, Recitativo and Fantasia. In the Recitativo cello rises and falls, emotionally charged as it sweeps across its range. For the Fantasia, the music is more improvisatory and mysterious. Powerful in a subdued way in that it’s never over-dramatic or flashy, the movement is strong, beautiful, and ultimately devastating. The final movement has everything: an incredible melody, a broad range of dynamics, legato passages, staccato passages, solos, duets, and great strength yet also delicacy. A culmination of all that preceded it, the final movement returns to the theme found in the first movement and as a listener you feel a comfortable sense of the familiar, like you’re finally home.

Although the pieces described above were the only ones listed in the program, Bailey and Koenig treated listeners to a few additional pieces. The first was the first two movements of a harpsichord sonata, I believe by the composer and harpschordist François Couperin. The piece is very stately, although the second movement is played incredibly fast, and Bailey’s control over the bow and his instrument in general was truly astonishing. Next the musicians played Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais, a piece originally written for violin and piano although it has been transcribed for other instruments and played by the likes of cellists such as Yo-Yo Ma. Hearing it was a special treat for me, because the poetic and enchanting piece contains one of my favorite melodies of all time. To close the program, Koenig and Bailey played “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a real crowd-pleaser. As Bailey played, his fingers flew over the fingerboard as a smile played on his lips. He preceeded the piece with a story of how he has always liked watches and in 11th grade he walked into a watch store to browse. The owner apparently saw the cello case on his back and asked, “You’re a musician?” When Bailey replied that he was, the owner then told him, “You’ll never be able to afford these on a musician’s salary.” The man then asked Bailey which watch he liked, and when Bailey pointed to one the owner told him that if he could play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the cello he could have the watch. Maybe Bailey couldn’t play it at the time, but 25 years later he did a damn fine job at Maverick.

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