The solo cello has never exactly suffered for major music to play -- from Bach to Shostakovich, for instance. Its dual personality is like that of a great singer, a voice of real power in terms of both assertive vigor and resonant soulfulness. And one doubts that at any time has as much music been written for it as in recent decades -- especially in the United States.
The Library of Congress presented on Friday night the latest installment in a fairly extensive survey of such works, this time played by cellist Sharon Robinson and pianist Margo Garrett. Little of the program was familiar.
Three of the seven works were from the 1980s. And the only thing they had in common was stylistic inconsistency. It was interesting, though, that the only harmonically advanced composition was an unaccompanied sonata that George Crumb wrote back in 1955 -- the least persuasive piece of the evening, an ingenious exercise that was mostly technique, too busy for its own good.
None of the works from the '80s was advanced in any way. William Bland's 1985 Rhapsody was a brief, dramatic outburst, exploiting the cello's range of color and effective in its almost operatic way. Robert Baksa's 1980 Sonata was conventional romanticism, a display piece for both cello and piano -- but a little flat and cliche'd.
The real winner was a 1984 set of dances by Ned Rorem, that unpredictable figure who can be so winning, as here, when the freshness of his sentimental mode is flowing in convincing song. These are not really dances to be danced to. They are small (as with much of his best work) and unfailingly graceful and elegant.
Two works came from American nationalism: Lukas Foss' 1946 Capriccio, folksy and exuberant; and Copland's solo arrangement of the waltz from "Billy the Kid." Copland, the great orchestrator, is as imaginative at scaling down his music as in building it up for large forms.
Then there was the loveliest single moment of the program, a heartfelt rendition of an ecstatic "Liebesscene" from Victor Herbert's Serenade for String Orchestra. As my companion remarked, "He must have been in love when he wrote that." Why don't we hear Herbert's lovely cello music as much as "Babes in Toyland?"
This concert was not easy to perform. One wonders whether many other soloists would have made the effort.