With a little help from his friends

With a little help from his friends

A mega-celebrity of the cello in Europe, with rockstar hair and puckish irreverence to match, Steven Isserlis (www.stevenisserlis.com) is less known on this side of the Atlantic. But his reputation has spread in these parts thanks to cellist Raphael Bell, London-based artistic co-director of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival (www.c-villechambermusic.org), who first brought Isserlis to The Paramount Theater (www.theparamount.com) in 2005. On February 20, Isserlis returns to the Paramount for “Steven Isserlis and Friends,” a concert featuring the British cellist with alumni of previous festival lineups.


Take a bow: Internationally celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis leads Charlottesville Chamber Music Fest alumni through a Russian-themed program on February 20 at The Paramount Theater.

Isserlis will play two great 20th century works for cello and piano, the Shostakovich Op. 40 D-minor sonata and Pohádka (“Fairy Tale”) of Czech composer Leoš Janáček, before joining the festival musicians in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence sextet. “The program is designed on a Russian theme,” said Bell, “and the Janáček fits because it’s based on a Russian story.” Described by Bell as “an amazing, emotionally charged piece,” this three-movement sonata (composed originally in 1910 and later revised) was inspired by a poem that also provided the scenario for Stravinsky’s contemporaneous ballet, The Firebird. Moviegoers will recognize its last movement from the soundtrack to The Unbearable
Lightness of Being.

The other compositions on the program are all Russian, and are also united by a lyrical sensibility, something of a throwback for Shostakovich, who by 1934 (the date of the cello sonata) was already known for a harsher, more ironic style. In this expansive, four-movement work, the composer generously explores the emotional and technical range of both cello and piano. Its subdued-yet-ominous Largo, however, hints at the desolation and covert political protest of Shostakovich’s later music, composed after Stalin’s clampdown on artists.

The evening concludes with Tchaikovsky’s lushly romantic Souvenir de Florence, written for a pair each of cellos, violins and violas. Dating from 1890 (the end of the composer’s sojourn in Italy), this last of his chamber works sounds as Slavic as Italian, especially in the folk-like themes of the third and fourth movements. It may be no coincidence that the opening of the Souvenir suggests the scherzo of the Shostakovich sonata, which seems partly inspired by Tchaikovsky’s melody.

Some of the musicians playing the sextet with Isserlis will return for next September’s Chamber Music Festival, along with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and Norwegian bassist Knut Erik Sundquist (who created a sensation at the 2006 festival), as well as French horn player Alessio Allegrini, principal horn in the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome. In the meantime, next Tuesday’s concert at The Paramount Theater is a rare opportunity to hear a cellist of international stature, whom Bell calls both a “great teacher” and “great communicator,” inspiring younger artists by performing with them. Tickets for “Steven Isserlis and Friends” sell for $22 and $35, with $10 tickets available for students.

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