There's always room for cello -- so the World Cello Congress III offered a marathon concert Tuesday evening, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff Hall.
No fewer than three weighty concertos filled the bill, along with a substantial tone poem and a gypsy showpiece. I suspect the attentive, admiring audience would have gladly sat through even more. Oh, tell the truth, so would I.
Besides the chance to hear some of the finest music written for cello and orchestra, there was the attraction of witnessing a parade of mighty talented cellists. One of them was not actually present -- Mstislav Rostropovich. But his spirit was very much in evidence, for he had a hand in teaching two soloists -- Natalia Gutman and David Geringas -- and the concert's conductor, Yuri Falik, also an accomplished cellist.
Something of Rostropovich's uncommonly heartfelt musicality came through in everything those three contributed to the evening.
At the center of the program was the sublime Gutman, producing an exceptionally rich sound and profoundly moving phrases in Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo." This "Hebrew Rhapsody," a portrait of King Solomon and a reflection on his conclusion that "all is vanity" and "in much wisdom is much grief," has a special place in the hearts of many cellists. It provides an uncommon outlet for expressive depth, while providing plenty of technical challenge.
The Russian-born Gutman made the most of those opportunities in a performance that touched the soul of the score. The orchestra seemed likewise inspired, playing with great vibrancy and character under Falik's dynamic guidance.
Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 is, a tense, dramatic work tailor-made to the talents of Geringas. The sound the Lithuanian cellist produced had a gritty edge at times that effectively heightened the darker thoughts in the music. The cellist's technical command was likewise impressive, especially in the long cadenza, which he turned into a soliloquy of Shakespearean eloquence.
Again, the Russian conductor's second-nature grasp of the concerto ensured smooth rapport between soloist and orchestra. And, again, the ensemble articulated with admirable poise and expressive involvement.
There was much to savor as well in Frans Helmerson's passionate account of Elgar's Cello Concerto. The Swedish cellist captured the twilight coloring of the score with his golden tone and deeply etched phrases, taking time to linger over the reflective passages.
Music by the late Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen does not turn up often on these shores. It should. His solidly crafted, neo-romantic Cello Concerto combines bravura elements and substantive melodic ideas, putting the solo instrument through marvelous, prismatic turns. Arto Noras, a fellow Finn and noted exponent of the piece, turned in a vital performance.
The BSO maintained its strong presence in both concertos, even sounding as if it played Kokkonen all the time.
Things weren't quite as tightly meshed in the opening selection. But in David Popper's "Hungarian Rhapsody," Falik and the orchestra provided committed support for the bright, stylish solo playing by Cecylia Barczyk, the Polish-born, Towson University-based cellist.