Towson University has long been cello-friendly, with a modest-sized international cello festival taking place there for more than a decade. But Towson has never seen anything like this week's World Cello Congress III.
The campus is positively crawling with more than 600 cellists from nearly four dozen countries. Just about every age group and artistic level is represented in that mix. Some of the biggest names in the cello field are rubbing elbows with students, seasoned amateurs and professional musicians. Add in cello-makers, bow-makers and many other exhibitors, plus the ticket-buying public, and it's cello-mania.
On Monday, while most folks were enjoying a holiday, Towson's Center for the Arts was a-buzz with cello wit and wisdom in packed master classes; documentary films about legendary cellists were shown; and several hundred World Congress participants filled a giant room of the University Union for the first rehearsal of the "Massed Cello Ensemble" that will be performed this weekend.
And that was just before 5 p.m. After that came a recital of 20th century music, followed a few hours later by a concert of concertos. The remainder of the week will see an equally crammed schedule.
Not surprisingly, there was a slightly chaotic air as the opening day's activities got under way. Late arrivals were checking in at the hectic registration desk, just as one of the volunteer staffers came rushing up with word that famed Russian cellist Natalia Gutman needed a pad to keep her cello from sliding on the floor where she was giving a master class.
Meanwhile, old friends were bumping into each other and catching up, while others were trying to find their way through hallways and stairwells to events. The first three master classes, held simultaneously, attracted particular interest.
It was standing room only for the one led by Gutman, who painstakingly dissected every note and phrase that Philip von Maltzahn offered of the first movement of Haydn's C major Cello Concerto. Sometimes speaking through an interpreter and sometimes using such universally comprehensible messages as the crinkled nose, wagging finger and shaking head, Gutman attempted to get more sensitive, articulate playing from the German-born student. (About 40 young cellists, from 171 applicants, were selected by jury to participate in the master classes.)
"You have wonderful hands," Gutman said. "But you have a lack of freedom in your movement. You mustn't be tense. Try not to be scared."
As von Maltzahn was trying to refine his efforts (every time Gutman demonstrated her points on her own cello, the gap between student and master grew larger), Ignacio Gallego was learning about romance from Lithuanian artist David Geringas in another class.
After Gallego played the lyrical second theme from the first movement of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in a calm, metronomic fashion, Geringas would have none of it. "This is a theme of love," he told the Spanish student. "When you are speaking about love, you don't count. This music is saying 'I LOVE YOU!' and you are being so shy."
Later, analyzing an ominous pizzicato passage in the sonata, Geringas described the chilling image those sounds always evoke for him -- the footsteps of Soviet police ascending the stairs of an apartment building in the dead of night.
There was another kind of ominous sound later as at least 200 cellists, many of them meeting their stand partners only when they took their first-come, first-occupied seats, started warming up for the "Massed Cello Ensemble" rehearsal. The thick, low-pitched noise suggested the groan and grumble of a mighty factory machine. The sight of dozens and dozens of cello cases ringing the perimeter of the University Union room, like a miniature Stonehenge, only intensified the strangeness.
But when, after tuning, the horde began to make music -- a Bach sarabande under the direction of former New York Philharmonic principal cellist Laszlo Varga, who arranged it -- the effect was galvanizing. Suddenly, an indescribably warm tone replaced the chaotic roar. No wonder cello congresses are so popular. Being covered by such an aural blanket is a rare kick.
If the rest of the rehearsal was not nearly so smooth, the enthusiasm of the cellists never abated. They showed plenty of enthusiasm, too, when they joined the sold-out audience at Monday evening's concert at Stephens Hall. There was much to cheer.
Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi delivered a patrician account of the Haydn C major Concerto with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. More dynamic subtlety (the kind Gutman was teaching earlier in the day) would have been welcome in places, but the playing by this distinguished veteran was nonetheless exemplary.
Janos Starker, arguably the dean of cellists today, gamely stepped in for an ailing colleague and played the Dvorak Cello Concerto with much of the tone and all of the intellectual understanding that have been hallmarks of his long career. Temperamentally, his approach was a little cool, but it had the stamp of authority. Although the piece requires a full orchestra, the ensemble, ably conducted by its music director, Anne Harrigan, made up for the lack of richness in the strings by playing with considerable expressive force.
The long program had room for two novelties. A major infusion of charity would be required to place Saint-Saens' "La muse et le poete" for violin, cello and orchestra among his top-drawer creations. But this meandering bit of ear-fluff provided a neat opportunity for Starker to perform with his teen-age granddaughter, student violinist Alexandra Preucil.
The other work on the bill was a genuine find. Joel Hoffman's "Self-Portrait with Gebirtig" from 1998 is a full-fledged cello concerto that takes as its inspiration tunes by Jewish/Polish folk musician Mordecai Gebirtig, who was a victim of the Nazis. But Hoffman has not merely strung together old melodies. He has fused them into a distinctive, tightly organized, colorfully orchestrated score that sometimes dances along in klezmer-like whirls and, in an affecting slow movement, has solo cello and muted trumpet singing a mournful duet.
Gary Hoffman, the composer's brother, delivered a thoroughly brilliant performance of the piece and enjoyed vivid, finely detailed support for Harrigan and the orchestra.