The premiere of composer Scott Ordway’s Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello took place in the perfect setting – the James Turrell Skyspace in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. The quiet of the pristine and austere room with its portal to the sky set the mood.
Ordway’s piece was commissioned by Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko through the Tarisio Trust. Hlusko worked with Ordway to create a fifty-five minute work for solo cello. Mr. Ordway credits Ms. Hlusko for being as much as part of the creation of the piece as he. Her confident interpretation of the work attests to her ownership and made her performance meaningful and intense.
There were some minor differences in the preview score which was posted on Ordway’s web site, giving evidence that this is a piece under constant development, but the performance was quite polished and Ms. Hlusko’s skill in exploring and executing the many effects the cello can create was an important asset.
The piece is constructed as a loose palindrome with some movements reflecting others but the two which were most recognizable were the first and last movements mirrored by the characteristic arpeggios which suggest a Bach cello suite. Ordway changed the title of (19), making it With sublime tenderness in the program, and, rightly so, as Ms. Hlusko managed to stretch out the very last pizzicato and let it ring gently through the room.
There were strident sounds in the middle movements, with double stops containing harmonics on the upper notes while keeping the resonant lower note as an accompanying drone. Other double stops had dissonant harmonies which slid to a resolution. Ordway wrote notes which were repeated on different strings so, although they were the same pitch, the quality of sound changed in almost imperceptible increments. (J. S. Bach used this same technique in the first cello suite.)
The harshest sounds included the intense bowing and portamento/sliding notes of the (4) Aggressive and reckless, but this movement also included soft melodic interludes. The (5) Andante semplice, with its strummed chords brought a lute feel and simplicity in contrast to the (4) Aggressive & reckless.
There were two movements which could have profited from stricter tempi – the (13) Molto risoluto and the (14) Mechanico would have been more effective had Ms. Hlusko emphasized their metrical patterns and kept the tempo firmly, but the warmth of her playing seemed to predominate and prevent her playing anything mechanically.
Ms. Hlusko’s mastery of cello bowing highlighted the effects of harmonics when she played closer to the bridge, and her firm but delicate col legno created a resonant sound through the room. To hear Ms. Hlusko perform a section of (8) Quick & light, click on this link to Scott Ordway’s web site.
My favorite movement was (17) Largo con dolcezza, a quiet lullaby that could bear several repetitions without cloying. It is a quiet nocturne, which, in Ms. Hlusko’s performance, dances through four-note chords and simple phrases of melody which are subtle and moving.
The piece was gripping and the capacity crowd showed no signs of restlessness until the very last movements. The final movement’s similarity to the first one was clear and easy to hear and you could feel that recognition among the audience. Still, when the final pizzicato was plucked, no one moved until the delicate sound died away.
[Chestnut Hill Skyspace, 20 East Mermaid Lane, Chestnut Hill] February 3, 2018
[Paradigm Gallery and Studio, 746 South Fourth Street] February 9, 2018