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Review: Zuill Bailey at Phillips Collection

I learned something from Zuill Bailey this weekend. Bailey, a cellist who played a recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, is a master at talking to the audience; but what I learned was less about what he said than the way he said it.

Many artists — and critics, mea culpa — set out to teach their audiences, and many audiences, quite understandably, find this patronizing. Bailey doesn’t do that at all. He addressed his listeners as if speaking to a roomful of equals who were going to be just as amused as he was by an anecdote about Piatigorsky. (He didn’t bother to explain that Piatigorsky was a famous 20th-century cellist; the assumption was that we all knew that.) The result was pretty telling; instead of feeling as if we were in a glorified classroom, it felt as if the room were full of like-minded aficionados sharing an experience — and getting a connection to the pieces that few lectures can impart.

Bailey played the way he talked — engagingly, feelingly, and a little bit off the cuff. Winging it, however, works a little bit better in conversation than in musical performance. His opening piece, billed as a Boccherini sonata, was perhaps the strongest and certainly the most characteristic piece of the afternoon: played robustly, but with an odd shrillness bordering on stridency in the highest notes, and muddiness in the fast passagework of the final, rapid-fire movement. This doesn’t sound much like Boccherini, I thought, and indeed it wasn’t; the point of the above mentioned anecdote is that Piatigorsky had either arranged it or written it in the “style of” Boccherini. He gave it to his student, Stephen Kates, who played it on his way to a silver medal in the Tchaikovsky competition in 1966, necessitating a little subterfuge when the jurors questioned its provenance. Kates entrusted the manuscript to Bailey, his student, shortly before his death from cancer in 2003. Who could resist the piece or the undeniable ardor with which it was performed after that story, which Bailey wisely told after, rather than before, he played it?

Charisma was mostly enough to carry the first half of the program, which continued with Schubert’s beautiful “Arpeggione” sonata and concluded with Piatigorsky’s rich arrangement of Chopin’s C-sharp minor nocturne, all offered with enough rhetorical fire to counterbalance any technical slackness. In larger rooms, Bailey’s tone can seem small. In the murky music room of the Phillips, where the stage lights were in such poor repair that a couple of Ikea floor lamps were roped into service, it sounded mostly full and strong, particularly on the lower strings, though sometimes dwarfed in the rapid passages by the well-intentioned piano accompaniment of Doris Stevenson. (Bailey informed us Stevenson was Piatigorsky’s studio pianist, accompanying generations of his cello students.)

But the Franck sonata after the intermission, unframed by anecdote, seemed a little much for everyone involved, brash and overemphatic. Bailey’s music may work best when enhanced by speech, though it’s curious he doesn’t seem to shift into the final gear required for a fully high-octane performance. He compensates with his conversation. After the Franck was done, he observed that his previous night’s audience had burst into applause after the second movement (Allegro), and, opining that some pieces worked better when you stopped in the middle, gave two movements of a five-movement sonata by Francois Francoeur — following many cellists’ precedent — as an encore.

Zuill Bailey’s recital at the Phillips Collection was punctuated by engaging stories about the works he was playing. (Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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