Michael Daugherty, “Tales of Hemingway,” “American Gothic” and “Once Upon a Castle” with cellist Zuill Bailey, organist Paul Jacobs and the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos).

Here are some cultural marriages not often seen in America – and certainly not in this era i.e. contemporary classical music with some of the best known classic American literature, equally well-known American painting and the lunatic conspicuous consumption of one of our richest and most loonily consuming citizens.

Michael Daugherty is as close to a pop artist a la Lichtenstein and Warhol as contemporary classical music gets. In his tonal musical language, he is usually allusive. His Hemingway piece for cello and orchestra pays tribute to Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River” and the novels “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “The Sun Also Rises.” Not nearly as successful is “American Gothic” a tribute to the paintings of Grant Wood.


On the other hand, “Once Upon a Castle” refers evocatively to San Simeon, the lunatic castle built and stuffed with artifacts by William Randolph Hearst and so grotesquely re-imagined by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” Not for Daugherty is classical music that exists only of and for itself (the kind that one magazine editor snidely synopsized by retitling an essay by composer Milton Babbitt “Who Cares If You Listen?”)

This is instantly communicative music – in no danger of competing in cultural bandwidth with its inspirations but very appealing at its best. And very well-performed by all, especially cellist Zuill Bailey.

3.5 stars (out of four)

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Zuill Bailey, one of the today’s most celebrated cellists, has a decade-long association with the N. C. Symphony, with his regular appearances spawning a series of live recordings with the orchestra. Following the chart-topping CD of Benjamin Britten’s “Cello Symphony,” their second collaboration is a masterful performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. (A third recording, Beethoven and Brahms concertos, awaits future release.)

Premiered in 1952, the Sinfonia Concertante was composed in the aftermath of the Soviet government’s official condemnation of Prokofiev’s music in 1948. The work is not a casual listen; its frequent dark moods and jagged phrases seemingly indicative of the composer’s response to that judgment. Still, there are many rich, melodic sections intermittently breaking through in the ruminative first movement and the anguished second, ultimately dominating in the hope-filled third.

Few cellists can successfully conquer the composition’s extremes in tempos, rhythms, dynamics and emotions. Bailey’s mesmerizing, deeply committed performance puts this recording at the top, especially because of his warm, rounded tone and jaw-dropping clarity in lightning-speed runs. Equally impressive are Grant Llewellyn’s subtle, precise conducting and the N.C. Symphony’s alternately lush and spiky support. The recorded sound is vivid, crisp and spacious.

Filling out the CD is Prokofiev’s 1949 Cello Sonata, performed with pianist Natasha Paremski. The work shares some of the same darkness as the Sinfonia Concertante but there’s lyrical atmosphere in the first movement, jaunty humor in the second and sunny cheekiness in the third. Both players have beautiful tone in this engaging performance, their instruments recorded quite close, giving them vibrant intensity.

Read more here:

 ZUILL BAILEY/Prokofiev: There's a lot of egghead stuff that is under pining the genesis of the modern classical works here and how they came about in tortured fashion, but in this short attention span world, the back story isn't going to help you enjoy this presentation any more. Finding a new piano foil to play off, Bailey, the classical cello category killer, faces off against the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra in an incredible presentation of music as art that really deserves to be on the next Grammy ballot. If listening to this red hot session doesn't make you feel like a grown up, go back to your PBR and tell us how your team is number one. A winner throughout. 


“Arpeggione,” transcriptions and an original work for cello and guitar – Zuill Bailey, David Leisner

(Azica Records)

What a splendid idea this is, a virtuoso recital for guitar and cello! Most of the items on the program have been transcribed for the self-same genre by David Leisner, and are heard in their première recordings. Leisner, one of the finest guitarists of our time, has made intelligent transcriptions that allow both instruments to be heard to best advantage. At the same time, he knows when to step out of the spotlight in favor of the rich eloquent sound of Zuill Bailey’s cello as it soars to expressive heights that other cellists can only dream of matching. Zuill obviously loves playing his instrument as few people enjoy doing anything else, and the results are abundantly evident in a very attractive program that melds the sounds of two dissimilar string instruments, bowed and strummed, to utter perfection.

The title of the album is taken from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D821, known as the “Arpeggione” after a very short-lived instrument of that name that was basically a guitar that was fretted to permit it to be bowed. Schubert knew the inventor and obligingly composed the only masterwork for that decidedly odd instrument that it was ever to enjoy. Today, it is always played in transcription for other instruments, usually for cello but also for viola, clarinet, harp, double bass, and even tuba and euphonium.

The present recording is the 121st in the current catalog, and may be the most satisfying yet in terms of the fine blend and mutual rapport Leisner and Bailey display here. One thrilling moment occurs in the opening movement when the wistfully melancholy cello melody gives way suddenly to a lively and sensational Hungarian dance with thumping chords from the guitar in support. The Adagio, a meditation on a hymn-like subject, is followed by the finale, an allegretto rich in rapturous and charming incidents.

Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs is another work that has enriched multiple repertoires besides the original version for soprano voice and piano. The transcription heard here was not solely Leisner’s but is based on the guitar arrangement by Falla’s friend Miguel Llobet and a cello version by Maurice Maréchal. Leisner adapted the melody of the Song Seguidilla murciana from the original vocal line to that of the cello by discretely changing octaves in order to avoid repeated notes. This is one type of Flamenco. Jota (#4) is another. Asturiana (#3) is said to have been sung by miners, grateful at seeing the beauty of the starlit sky after a long underground shift. Nana is a tender lullaby, and Polo a song expressing the anger of a jilted lover. Canción (Song) perhaps lends itself best of all to Bailey’s exalted lyricism.

Next up is the world premiere recording of Leisner’s Twilight Streams, a new work written expressly for himself and Zuill Bailey. The titles show the influence of Chinese philosophy and painting: empty dark, full dark, empty light, full light and adrift at twilight. “Empty” in the oriental sense is not the same as in ours, for it implies a place where all things go to be reborn. As the work progresses, we get a wonderful lift from these artists, as well as a growing sense of freedom.

There follow no fewer than four encores, beginning with Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, and the “Aria” from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras # 5. All are justly famed for their exalted beauty. At the end, we have the ultimate encore: Niccolò Paganini’s Variations for the fourth string on the aria "Dal tuo stellato soglio" from Mosè in Egitto by Rossini. How the devil you can play this piece, as memorable in musical terms as it is virtuosic, on a single violin or cello string is better seen than described (fortunately, there are several YouTube videos that you can easily access). Finger work, particularly the swooping glides involving widely spaced fingers, is the key to success, more so than bowing. This altogether sensational encore will have you on the edge of your seat!

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