The USC Symphony Orchestra is made up of players from freshman undergraduates to doctoral students, and at this stage of its season has been together for less than a month. As is usually the case, though, conductor Donald Portnoy's leadership draws out their very best efforts — and many of their instrumental teachers are out in the audience observing carefully.

...The second work offered a totally different outcome. It was Sinfonia Concertante in E minor, Op. 125 by Sergei Prokofiev. The soloist was no less than Zuill Bailey, cello, known to some as the rock star of the cello. Columbia has been privileged to host Bailey previously. Without question, he is at the top of the ladder of brilliant cellists. More to the point: there are very, very few cellists in the world who can play this intensely difficult 40-minute work. We’re not talking about ordinary music. We used to make comments in the mid-20th century that when Prokofiev composed what seemed like an ordinary chord, there was always a wrong note in it. Mind you, unless one listens to this piece many times, you don’t walk around whistling any of its melodies. But there aren’t many performances for want of brilliant cellists to play it.

The demands on the soloist involve every known technique in brilliant episodic succession — including playing all four strings at once, leaping from low notes to high overtones in a split second, and working with the conductor on rhythmic nuances. There is no slow movement to this work, but in many places the cello has absolutely gorgeous and introspective melodic material. This performance was the first of a dozen times that Bailey is scheduled to be playing this work in many cities with many orchestras during this season.

The orchestra did an about-face in playing this work. As is often the case, having a brilliant soloist is a major experience that draws the finest out of talented players. At the beginning of the work, one might wish for a bit more sensitive balance between solo cello and orchestra, but as the work progressed, the balances adjusted remarkably well. An immense amount of pride can be had for players and listeners for this performance.

Tchaikovsky 2 was outdone.

Bailey shook his left fingers after 40 minutes of unbelievable work, but he nonetheless returned with an encore — the Prelude to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, and gave an intimate performance with incredible sensitivity, brilliant phrasing, and a rewarding musicality few people have. What a privilege to have such a great artist as our guest. - David Lowry

New CD

Zuill Bailey