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

Nora Kipnis , Arts Editor
February 7, 2014
Filed under ARTS, Music

When Zuill Bailey was 17, he liked to hang around the Kennedy Center and look at the expensive watches in a jewelry store next door, where one watch in particular caught his eye. A man came up to him and told him, “You’re a musician, you’ll never be able to afford that watch,” but after puncturing Bailey’s fragile adolescent ego, the man offered him a deal. “If you can play Flight of the Bumblebee on that cello, I’ll buy you that watch.” The man expectations were swiftly frustrated. After delivering this anecdote at the end of his performance last Wednesday night, Bailey demonstrated the skill that had won him that watch. Bailey is a storyteller, and the tales he told about his instrument, his teachers and his teenage foibles during his recital at Warner Concert Hall on Wednesday night were as much of a treat as the main event of his gripping, spectacular performance itself.

In addition to being a major recording artist whose work has hit #1 on the Classical Billboard charts, Bailey gives about 100 concerts a year and is a professor at University of Texas at El Paso. On his way to perform with the Columbus Symphony, he stopped by Oberlin to give a master class and a brief recital, with the aim of demonstrating a large variety of musical styles.

The performance began with J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. From the suite’s first ominous, anticipatory notes, Bailey took the small but dedicated audience on a romantic, haunting journey. The music captivated the audience; when the piece concluded, the enjoyment in the room was palpable. His cello — which he explained had been largely unaltered since it was built only 17 years after Bach’s birth in 1685 — clearly suits him. When he plays, Bailey said, the cello leads him more than his own thought process.

His next piece was Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A Minor, adapted for the cello with piano accompaniment by Allie Su. The adaptation was clearly difficult — the piece was originally composed for the arpeggione, an instrument with a higher natural range than the cello. As the tempo picked up and the pitches grew higher, Bailey’s intense concentration was visible, the cellist so united with his instrument that whether it was the musician or the cello sighing was anyone’s guess.

The last few pieces, explained Bailey, were personally important to him. The first of these was Chopin’s Nocturne, which Bailey plainly felt most comfortable with out of all the pieces. While the Schubert was a challenge, the Chopin particularly showcased Bailey’s talent — but the real standout of the evening came just after, with his performance of Foss’s Cowboy Piece. The Capriccio, as the piece is also called, sounds like a theme from a Western, although it occasionally sounds incredibly experimental; at one point Bailey beat the strings of his cello so hard that one of the hairs on his bow broke. In 1966, Bailey’s teacher Stephen Kates brought the Capriccio to the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow to exemplify American culture’s soft power during the Cold War, and even today the song carries the anticipation of a growing America.

After the excitement of the Cowboy Piece, Bailey broke the audience’s hearts with “Massenet’s Meditation” from the opera Thaïs. The entire performance, taken in total, was an emotional journey for both performer and audience — from haunting to mournful to exciting and back again.

New CD

Zuill Bailey