In Good Conscience: Pablo Casals Remembered

Monday, March 13, 2006

Saturday's program at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented under the auspices of the Fortas Chamber Music Series, was billed as a homage to "Pablo Casals: Artist of Conscience." The fabled Spanish cellist (1876-1973) is one of a number of artists through history who have used or withheld their talents to protest injustice. Indeed, after years of offering concerts to benefit refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Casals finally resolved, in 1946, not to perform in any country that recognized the Franco government.

For the first part of the evening, Bernard Greenhouse, once a cellist with the Beaux Arts Trio in its heyday and as a young man one of Casals's few students, delighted the audience with reminiscences of his studies with the great man. Casals was not a conventional teacher. He could spend three hours with a gifted student dissecting every note of a G scale or insist that the fingering and musical markings be written into every note of a score, only to change them at the next lesson.

The rest of the program featured cellist Selma Gokcen, who played three of the six Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, each introduced by narrator Kevin Gordon. For a cellist, these suites are a technical and artistic Mount Olympus. (It is said that Casals played one first thing every morning, arriving at No. 6 on Saturday and then repeating it on Sunday because it was the most difficult.) Gokcen chose an introspective and thoughtful approach to Nos. 3, 5 and 6 that highlighted exquisitely controlled bowing and a sense of comfortable momentum. They were readings that immersed the listener in the soul of Bach, not the emotions of the performer.

Brooks Whitehouse served as Greenhouse's interviewer and did a splendid job by largely staying in the background. Gordon's narration was written by Jonathan Kramer.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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