Dallas — The Lev Aronson Legacy Festival, now in its third year at Southern Methodist University, is striving to preserve the legacy and influence of cellist and teacher Lev Aronson. While the festival is an energetic homage to Aronson and all things cello, his legacy is vibrant throughout the world of cello performance. The principal cellists of the Dallas Symphony, Christopher Adkins; Dallas Opera Orchestra, Mitch Maxwell; and Chicago Symphony, John Sharp, all studied with Aronson, as did Denton native Ralph Kirshbaum and former Dentonite Lynn Harrell. If you’ve ever wondered why so many prominent cellists are Texans, this is your answer. Less famous cellists, such as Flower Mound Symphony principal cellist Beth Paul, also remember his teachings with fondness, calling him “an inspiration.”
The first concert in the festival honoring him, on Saturday, June 6, was no less special than the teacher himself. Cellist Amit Peled and pianist Spencer Myer performed an “Homage to Pablo Casals,” performing on Casals’s own 1733 Goffriller cello. They recreated a program that Casals performed in 1915, consisting of music by Handel, Beethoven, Fauré, Bach and Saint-Saëns.
Although there was no imagining that it was Casals in front of us rather than Peled—for one thing, Amit Peled is 6’5”, at least a foot taller than Casals—the recital was magical nonetheless. Peled is a fine storyteller and provided the audience with a lively tale of how Pablo Casals’s widow came to loan him this venerable instrument. Peled chose to use relatively ample vibrato in his performances of the two Baroque pieces on the program, Handel’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor and Bach’s Aria from the Organ Pastoral in F. But then, so did Casals. As Peled mentioned, in the early 20th century, Casals was an outlier for performing Bach at all, although “his Bach sounded much like his Brahms.” Peled made much more of a stylistic distinction than his predecessor, but was clearly not attempting authentic Baroque performance practice, nor was his fine collaborative pianist, Spencer Myer.
In some respects, the most interesting music on the program was the set of three short pieces by Gabriel Fauré. The second, Élégie, is one of the best-known pieces in the cello repertoire. It’s curious to think that Casals himself premiered the version for cello and orchestra in 1901 (the piece was published for cello and piano in 1883). So this piece that for modern audiences has always existed was new music when Casals performed his version of this recital in 1915. Both the Sicilienne and the Élégie allowed Peled to demonstrate his rich, lush, chocolaty cello sound. Lyricism seems to be Peled’s strong suit; while his technical facility is ample, as he showed in the final short piece, Papillon, with its seemingly endless runs of sixteenth notes, he distinguished himself most when his focus could be on tone production. Casals’s cello is clearly capable of a wide variety of tonal colors. Peled thoughtfully and insightfully capitalized on these capabilities of the instrument.
The opening address by Mitch Maxwell was good-humored and even educational—I’m thinking about sound production in a bit different way after hearing him describe Aronson’s pedagogical approach. The recital was delightful. Peled’s stories about the cello and about Casals added immeasurably to the experience. It wasn’t really a “gala” in the traditional sense—no one wore black tie or sipped champagne-- but it was a stellar opening night for the Lev Aronson Festival.
The concert on Sunday, June 7 was supposed to feature a recital by Christopher Adkins, principal cello of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. However, Adkins was sidelined by an ear infection and could not play. Rather than cancelling the evening performance outright, the Lev Aronson Festival chose, with just a few days’ notice, to create an altogether new program. The spirit and energy behind that decision is commendable, even when the execution was understandably unpolished.
Rather than reprint programs on such short notice, festival staff chose to announce the program from the stage. Festival organizer Brian Thornton began with a version of Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs” for solo cello. Festival participants have repeatedly emphasized Aronson’s pedagogical emphasis on sound production. This lovely, lyrical piece, which Thornton took at tempo a bit faster than is common, highlighted Thornton’s own sound, as well as his thoughtful phrasing.
Next up was the one holdover from the original program: music librarian Sonia Archer-Capuzzo’s talk about her work unearthing Lev Aronson’s compositions, many of which are songs composed in the immediate aftermath of World War II and Aronson’s years in German and Russian concentration camps. This talk was essentially an academic conference paper, but Archer-Capuzzo’s presentation and accompanying slides were engaging for those interested in Aronson’s life and work.
Brian Thornton then performed the first and seventh of Carlo Alfredo Piatti’s 12 Caprices for solo cello. Usually, these are studied as etudes rather than being performed on the concert stage; however, Thornton made these Caprices work as brief showpieces of cello technique. In between the two Caprices, he played the one work of Aronson’s on the program, the short “Hasidic Dance.” The piece was short, charming, and had hallmarks of traditional Hasidic music, although Thornton’s performance did not exaggerate those aspects.
The final section of the program, consisting of works by J.S. Bach, relied on other participants in the festival. Teacher Melissa Kraut joined Thornton and three of the program’s students for not only the expected movements from the first and third Cello Suites, but also a four-cello arrangement by cellist Lazslo Vargas of the Bach Chaconne in D minor for violin solo.
This arrangement of the Chaconne was fascinating for students of the work, because it skillfully disassembled the piece, dividing it among the four voices. The festival students were fine players all.
It was disappointing not to hear Christopher Adkins in recital, and sparse attendance Sunday evening undoubtedly reflected the change in programing. Most of the few dozen audience members appeared to be affiliated with the festival. Nonetheless, the organizers of the Lev Aronson festival did as fine a job as possible of creating a worthwhile new program on short notice.