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WCO concert features historic Casals cello

When the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes the stage March 20 at Madison’s Overture Center, the attraction won't just be the guest musicians, it'll be the guest instrument.

Guest cellist Amit Peled will join maestro Andrew Sewell and his musicians for the concert, along with the prized Goffriller cello, an 18th-century instrument considered one of the rarest and greatest of its breed. 

He’ll take the instrument through its paces with works by Mozart, Schumann and other composers, including Pablo Casals, the renowned Spanish Catalan cellist who is best associated with the instrument. In fact, the Casals work they’ll perform is “Song for the Birds,” a traditional Catalan tune he re-arranged for cello and often played on Goffriller's instrument before his death in 1973.

Peled, a professor of music at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has the cello on loan from Casals’ widow Marta Casals Istomin and is in the midst of a recital tour called an “Homage to Pablo Casals.”

Sewells says the Goffriller cello, crafted in 1733, should be considered comparable to the well-known Stradivarius violin. “It’s an equally valuable and very special Italian instrument.” The cello’s creator, Matteo Goffriller, was a Venetian luthier well-known for the quality of his instruments. 

Casals first acquired the instrument in 1913 and played it for the next 60 years. Peled received the cello in 2012.

“What’s special about this instrument is the way it replicates the human voice,” Peled said. “A Stradivarius or a Guarneri (another rare, high-quality violin) will have this golden tone more like an Italian tenor. This cello is like an old man reciting poetry. It’s earthy, it’s sandy, but it’s very beautiful.”

The appeal of the cello is as much about its history as its sound, Peled says. Casals made some of the first recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach's works on this instrument, and its tonal quality allows a musician to play it very softly without sacrificing any performance quality, he adds.

“It’s as if someone were talking to you, and it gets straight to your guts, rather than your heart,” Peled said. “You can feel it in your body.”

Peled’s portion of WCO’s March 20 program also will include “Tarantella,” composed by Bohemian cellist David Popper, and Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. The pieces offer contrasting performance opportunities for Peled as well as a happy reunion for the maestro, Sewell says.

“Peled is an awesome cellist with a big sound, and he is a superb musician,” Sewell says. “We have performed both the Haydn C major concerto and the Boccherini concerto together with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and so the chance to perform a romantic work like the Schumann seemed absolutely spot on.”

Popper's “Tarantella” and Casals’ “Song of the Birds,” which open the concert’s second half, provide beautiful contrasts to Schuman’s romanticism, Sewell adds.

The pieces break up the program in what Peled calls a more historical approach, one that stresses variety with the intent to entertain.

“We’ve kept the Schumann and added the Popper, which is normally played on piano and cello, and given it some cool orchestral arrangements,” Peled says. “This comes from a tradition when classical concerts were meant to entertain, with one central musical ‘entrée,’ if you will, surrounded by a lot of little ‘desserts.’”

The evening opens with the Suite for String Orchestra by Frank Bridge, an English composer whose work Sewell describes as “sublime, challenging and exhilarating.” Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor closes the evening.

“This is Mozart at his best — a classical gem,” Sewell says. “One cannot fault the beauty of the first and last movements.”

Peled and the 1733 Goffriller cello will be the highlight of the concert, but Peled says he thinks Casals would have seen the evening as a true celebration of beautiful music from several composers. Peled says Casals would have appreciated the variety in the program.

“We all need Shakespeare, but sometimes we just need a stupid movie and pizza,” he added. “The secret to a classical program is balance, and sometimes we just need to relax.”

ON STAGE 

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Sewell and featuring cellist Amit Peled, will perform March 20 at the Capitol Theater in the Overture Center for the Arts, 221 State St., Madison. For tickets, call 608-258-4141 or visit wcoconcerts.org.

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