Amsterdam Cello Octet at Dumbarton Church

Monday, March 16, 2009

If the idea of a concert by an all-cello octet sounds like a study in monotony, the Amsterdam Cello Octet's program at Dumbarton Church on Saturday banished any such notion. Variety seemed the ruling principle, with even a trio of Latin-flavored compositions played up for their distinct and contrasted personalities: impressionistic moodiness in Joaquin Nin's "Cantos Populares Espanolas", spikier and more extroverted color in Alberto Ginastera's "Canciones Argentinas," and the ever-familiar, seductive swing of Astor Piazzolla's style in "El Tango."

In all three works, mezzo Elena Gragara brought a shimmering upper register and emotional commitment to the song-texts. What was harder to gauge was whether the hollow tone and smeary attacks in her lower voice were intended to evoke the scores' folk roots, or were merely quirks of her technique.

The rest of the program proved refreshingly varied, from the U.S. premiere of Arvo Part's cello octet arrangement of his choral work "O Antiphonen" (the Amsterdam players were wonderfully vocal in their phrasing), to a convincingly orchestral transcription of David Popper's gorgeous "Requiem for Three Cellos and Orchestra," to a selection of Philip Glass string quartet movements that evoked the intimacy of the originals in their new, octet guises.

The cellists showed solo and corporate virtuosity throughout the evening. But Dutch composer Fant de Kanter's "Chasing Planes/Placing Chains," written just this year for the Octet, put them through their paces with pounding, assembly-line rhythms, jabbing accents and fugal writing chasing back and forth across the ensemble. It was a bracing piece, played brilliantly.

-- Joe Banno

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