I went to hear the Oregon Symphony over the weekend. My main reason for attending this concert was to hear the Mahler Fifth Symphony. However, it also turned into a serendipitous encounter with another great living musician.
I had heard Alban Gerhardt play with the symphony a few years ago–it was not necessarily a memorable occasion; I don’t even remember what he played. This time he played the Haydn C Major cello concerto–a piece which remained hidden in the archives for nearly 200 years. It is a delightful work, full of joy and levity. The conductor Carlos Kalmar took the final movement at a roaring clip and Alban didn’t flinch on the dazzling runs up and down the finger-board. I watched the movements through the binoculars from my seat in the last row of the Lower Balcony section (i.e. ‘nosebleed). But the sound of the cello does not carry like a piano or trumpet so I didn’t feel I was getting the full impact of his playing. It was fun, it was thrilling and it brought the audience to its feet demanding at least three curtain-calls. (I wish he would have played an encore!)
On Sunday Alban Gerhardt performed in a more intimate setting at the German American Society building which happened to be just 10 minutes from my home on Rocky Butte in NE Portland. So, eschewing an afternoon with the NFL, I drove down to hear him again. Here, the moment his bow touched the strings of his Matteo Gofriller cello, the room fill with the warm, muscular sound of his instrument . No straining to hear the nuances of the undulating sounds and textures of Bach. This had been advertised as an opportunity to hear some of the Bach suites for solo cello. But Alban didn’t stick to the script in a conventional fashion–he called for the audience to suggest any of the 36 movements from any of the six suites . . . which he proceeded to fashion and play as his own ‘suite’. It worked! He rounded out the recital with an amazingly virtuosic performance of the finale from the Kodaly Sonata. Here’s a performance by the late great Janos Starker.
The event was promoted as ‘German-speaking’ but the audience was mainly non-German. So Alban spoke in flawless English as a musician, entertainer, and educator. He was spot-on as a great communicator. And, as any good speaker should, he made points and told stories.
There was the story his playing ice-hockey for four hours as a high-school student (on a frozen pond near his home in Germany) right before a concert where he was scheduled to perform the Haydn concerto with an orchestra. His arms were so tired, he could hardly lift up his bow. Or the time Paul Tortellier asked him to leave a master class because he thought he was being ‘cheeky’ and making fun of the master. (In fact, it was the other students who were mimicking Tortellier’s teaching style). (‘Paul Tortellier was not a great, natural performer–he had to work at it–which made him a fabulous teacher’).
Alban talked about the time he played on BBC Radio when he was not fully prepared. He had missed some practices and was very nervous before going ‘live.’ Then in the middle of a Bach suite, he forgot his place and started the wrong movement . . which he corrected before wrapping it up. He was embarrassed and afraid of what the producer (a good friend) would say. It turned out that the audience loved his playing–he received more e-mails after that recital than any other. They liked the fact that it was ‘real’, that it was not just a memorized, crafted performance.
Alban Gerhardt is not only an extraordinary musician and performer, he is also a gifted artist who lives in the moment. Music is not just a career or pedestal–he lives, breathes ands exudes his artistry. Oh, about that Oregon Symphony concert the other night–when Alban had finished his role as featured soloist in the Haydn, he didn’t retire to the green room or his hotel suite. He returned for the second half to play as a member of the cello section in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As he said later, ‘The Haydn is a nice piece that you can hear anytime. But Mahler? Now that’s something you don’t want to miss’ even if it meant–in his case–that he was just sight-reading!