More cello soloists would benefit the BSO and its audience

May 22, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

That Lynn Harrell, this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra soloist, has not performed with the orchestra since 1979 is startling. Harrell, the second busiest and second most famous cellist in the world, has not feuded with the orchestra or its music director, David Zinman.

It's simply that BSO audiences get to hear basically only two cello soloists in subscription concerts: Yo-Yo Ma, who is the Hertz to Harrell's Avis and who visits the BSO every other season, and Mihaly Virizlay, who is the orchestra's principal cellist and who appears as a soloist every year. In nine seasons, Harrell will be only the third cellist besides Ma and Virizlay I've heard perform with the orchestra.

This is not healthy for either the BSO or its audience. If Virizlay's contract calls for him to perform a concerto every year, that contract needs to be renegotiated. With a few exceptions, most American orchestras do not engage their own principal cellists with such frequency. Virizlay is a fine musician, but some of his recent performances -- such as one earlier this month -- suggest a decline in his powers. Moreover, he has a tendency to choose repertory (his last three performances were of concertos by Lalo, Dohnanyi and Victor Herbert) of inferior quality.

The situation with Ma is different. He is one of the world's great musicians, and he is almost unfailingly interesting. Other orchestras must envy the BSO's ability to engage Ma as frequently as it does. He is probably the most popular classical instrumentalist alive and visits here frequently because he loves working with Zinman, with whom he makes many of his records.

But Ma can't leave much room in the BSO's budget for other cellists -- although he is said to charge the BSO much less than the $70,000 fee (more than twice that of Harrell, his closest rival) he charges other orchestras. And he's not the only great American cellist of his generation.

Besides Harrell and Stephen Kates, who performed with the orchestra in 1989, it would be nice to hear Ralph Kirshbaum, Nick Rosen and Gary Hoffman. Then there are some incredibly talented Europeans in the same age group, notably the German Heinrich Schiff, the Russians Mischa Maisky and Natalia Gutman and the Englishman Steven Isserlis.

But no other cellist -- at least in this country -- is able to sell tickets the way Ma does. He has what is given to only a handful of musicians: an ability to make people love him. Ma is a genuinely nice and modest man, but modern marketing techniques and the medium of television -- he was among the first classical musicians to appear on "Sesame Street" -- have combined to make him something more: an icon that confers niceness upon others. If you appreciate Yo-Yo Ma -- even if you eat red meat, oppose bans on assault rifles and smoke fat cigars -- then you are a nice person, too.

The importance of so popular a soloist to orchestras can scarcely be exaggerated. The number of subscribers to all 24 of the BSO's subscription programs is about 100. Most people subscribe to smaller series of four, six or eight concerts; a Yo-Yo Ma, who sells out every hall and creates waiting lists for tickets, can be depended on to sell many different series.

Unfortunately, he's the only cellist with such appeal. The BSO ZTC engages a number of wonderful pianists and violinists who are not stars of the first magnitude. That's because there's more of a demand for those instruments with their much larger repertories. It's also true, however, that the cello world has been much diminished since Ma appeared on the scene more than 20 years ago. There have never been more than a few major draws among cellists at any given time. But currently, in this country at least, there are only 1 1/2 : Ma and Harrell. In 1970, there were at least five: Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline DuPre, Pierre Fournier, Leonard Rose and Janos Starker.

The number of talented cellists hasn't diminished -- in fact, it's probably increased. But as genuine appreciation of classical music has waned, its dependence upon media celebrity has waxed. Modern technology -- television, particularly -- has enabled marketing to create performing personalities so huge that they shut out others. Superstars are those to whom certain conditioned imperatives apply: "If you hear a tenor, it must be Luciano Pavarotti or Placido Domingo," "If you hear a violinist it must be Itzhak Perlman or Midori" and so on. Nowhere in the music business do these imperatives operate more exclusively than in the circumscribed world of the cello. The cello's concerto repertory is small compared to those of the piano or the violin. But it is far too important to leave it to basically only two cellists -- even if one of them is Yo-Yo Ma.


Who: Cellist Lynn Harrell and the BSO perform works by Ippolitov-Ivanov, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.

When: 8:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $22-$50.

Call: (410) 783-8000.


To hear a portion of the First Shostakovich Cello Concerto, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6229 after you hear the greeting.

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