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Review: ASO cellist Karen Freer breaks out for engaging recital at Emory’s Emerson Concert Hall

Freer began the concert alone on the stage playing Bach. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
Karen Freer began the concert alone, playing Bach. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

In a very well-attended concert Sunday afternoon, Karen Freer, assistant principal cello of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, performed a recital that included music by Bach, Brahms and Mussorgsky. She was assisted by pianist Wooyong Ellie Choi and nine fellow cellists and contrabassists from the ASO. The concert took place in Emerson Concert Hall, at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on the Emory University campus.

To open, Freer took the stage by herself to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major. Among Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, only this last of the six-pack was written for an instrument with five strings. Although any manuscript from Bach’s own hand is long lost, a copy by his daughter Anna Magdalena Bach indicates both “a cinq codes” and the tunings of the strings: the same as the common four-string cello with an extra high “E” string added.

Those who play it on a modern orchestral cello are therefore unable to take advantage of what the extra string offers: the ability to play the upper-range notes with easier, lower hand positions. Instead, they compensate for the absence of the fifth string using thumb positions. Freer took a full-bodied modern approach to the music in a focused, impressive rendering.

Up next was the Cello Sonata No. 2 by Johannes Brahms, written in 1886, some 20 years after his first one. Choi, who is a collaborative pianist and piano teacher at Agnes Scott College, effectively underscored Freer’s vibrantly forthright playing without overwhelming it except in a few passages. The lid of the hall’s Steinway was open on the long stick; one wonders in retrospect whether the short stick would have been better. But given the piano’s curiously muddled sound, it definitely should not have been fully closed.

In the same year that Brahms wrote his Cello Sonata No. 2, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was published posthumously. It was originally written for solo piano but is most familiar in a transcription for orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Various other transcriptions have been made, and one of the most interesting is the one played in this concert, arranged for six cellos and four contrabasses by Ilkka Palli, a Finnish arranger who is best known as principal cellist of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Freer, the performers were cellists Christine Christiansen, Joel Dallow, Jennifer Humphreys, Daniel Laufer and Brad Ritchie, and contrabassists Jonathan Colbert, Michael Kurth, Joseph McFadden and Douglas Sommer.

It’s not the first time these 10 musicians have played Palli’s transcription in Atlanta. The first was December 2 in a concert by the Riverside Chamber Players. Immediately after that performance was over, Freer suggested they perform it again at her Emory recital. In the interim, they also played it for an ASO outreach program for middle school children.

Palli has produced a colorful and enormously challenging transcription, particularly for the first cello part. Five of the six cellists shared responsibility by rotating parts for different movements. The exception was Ritchie, whose part required scordatura tuning, with his cello’s low C string tuned down to a B, making it entirely impractical for him to participate in the parts swapping. Two of the contrabass parts were scordatura as well, with Sommer and McFadden tuning their lowest strings down to B and B-flat respectively, so none of the bassists swapped parts.

From the opening “Promenade,” the hall’s acoustics allowed the sound of the ensemble to bloom, giving it a warm richness not heard in the December performance and allowing fine detail to come through. That helped show off the wide variety of colors in Palli’s scoring, from the lumbering cartwheels of “Bydlo” to the lightly frenetic and chirpy “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells.” Sometimes Palli has more than one instrument play a single line together, but with entirely different bowings, to great effect.

The only glaring downside was in the concluding “The Great Gate of Kiev,” where Palli uses passages of harmonics in ways that are treacherous at best for accuracy and tuning. It is an exceptionally challenging piece for expert cellists even with the slimmest fingers. Nevertheless, overall it was a strong, engaging performance, and the crowd gave the entire recital a fine ovation.

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