The Cellos of the New York Philharmonic
By Rebecca Winzenried
The foundation of the strings and often the baritone melodists, the cello section plays a varied role in the orchestra, a diversity that Rebecca Winzenried has observed among the lives of the musicians themselves.
It is often said that the cello captures the human voice in a way no other instrument can. The cello’s tone and range — from grumbling bass lines to soaring tenor melodies — exude a warmth and richness that press the listener’s emotional buttons, eliciting feelings from sweet joy to deepest melancholy. If a single cello sings, then the New York Philharmonic cello section might best be described as a choir, blending multiple voices into a seamless sound. “When you hear the Philharmonic you should hear one huge, rich cello,” says cellist Eric Bartlett.
Any great choir is made up of strong and distinct voices, and the Philharmonic cello section is no exception. The section’s individual voices are marshaled by Principal Cello Carter Brey, who likens his position to middle management: “Vice President of Cellos, if you like,” he chuckles. The role of principal does involve some of the paperwork and behind-the-scenes meetings that managers from any industry might recognize, but here the paperwork involves bowings — score markings that indicate how cellists with the same part are to move their bows for unison playing — and the meetings involve the coordination of intonation and ensemble work with the rest of the orchestra.
Audiences are more likely to be familiar with the Principal Cello’s playing of solos within orchestral works, in concertos, or as a part of chamber programs such as the June 16 Saturday Matinee that will include Music Director Alan Gilbert on violin for Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. For Brey, having a Music Director join in as an ensemble player takes collaboration to a whole other level. “It’s another way to relate musically and personally. We get to interact as equals in the musical decision-making process, and that’s fun.”
He is familiar with all of his responsibilities, having joined the Orchestra in 1996 in the midst of a successful solo career. Brey’s experience gives him a valuable perspective: as an orchestra member, he is well aware of the role he plays in a soloist’s concept of a work, and when he steps into the solo role he appreciates the importance of knowing the complete score.
Often seated next to him onstage is Associate Principal Cello Eileen Moon, who also takes over the Principal chair when needed. Adjustments in such cases are usually minor. “Our section is so strong and sensitive on an individual and group level, one can’t really ask for more,” she says. “Sometimes Carter and I might discuss tweaking some bowings and/or fi ngerings to ideally communicate the character of the music, but when the section is playing the same part — which is most of the time — it is a group effort, which is so satisfying.”
Offstage, Moon exercises her collaborative skills by planning events for the Celebrate Life Half Marathon, a nonprofit organization she became involved with as a runner who waged her own successful battle with breast cancer in 2010, and with The Artemis Project, an animal rescue organization she founded with Philharmonic violist Dorian Rence. “In music every performance can be, and usually is, different, and in this way it is similar to the ebb and fl ow of an event,” she says. Further, in music, as in life, anything can, and will, happen. “It is visceral; it is living, creative, and social. It invigorates me.”
Eric Bartlett believes that cellists are often solid, steady, and reliable — traits that refl ect the instrument’s place in the orchestra. The section joins the double basses in providing a rhythmic foundation by playing the bass line, and also supports the melody with inner harmonies or countermelodies, and occasionally takes the primary melody. “I think I fit that stereotype, and so the cello was a good fit for me,” he adds.
Bartlett has become a champion of contemporary music, commissioning and recording numerous works for cello. “I have always felt that composers need serious, dedicated people to play their music so that they learn what works and what doesn’t, and in order for the music to be heard,” he says. Performing new music can also help expand technique, he explains. “After playing difficult contemporary music, works by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokofiev suddenly do not seem so difficult anymore — to play or to hear.” Bartlett has put his own contemporary twist on the classics, arranging traditional orchestral works for multiple cellos. Many are performed through his CelloFest! project that started in 2010 with a concert that involve some of his Philharmonic colleagues.
Among them was cellist Ru-Pei Yeh. The Taiwan native joined the Philharmonic in 2006, coming from the San Diego Symphony by way of The Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music. She performs on the instrument she has been playing for about a decade, an 1827 Ventapane; she acquired it from a private owner in Rhode Island whose father had been an amateur musician, and who wanted to be sure the cherished cello was placed in good hands. Yeh spent time with the cello’s family, playing the instrument and getting to know them, and has stayed in touch with them to report how the cello’s sound has opened up, becoming fuller and warmer after so many years in storage. The instrument has regained its voice, which Yeh describes as that of an old man, “Very deep, very rich. It’s an old soul,” she says, proving once again the cello’s very human connection.
Rebecca Winzenried is a New York–based arts and culture
writer and former editor of Symphony magazine.
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