Dallas — The Lev Aronson Festival, now in its fourth year, is a celebration of all things cello, and honors cellist and pedagogue Lev Aronson, who was at various times in his career principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and cello professor at Baylor and SMU. His students include some of the best-known cellists locally and internationally, including current Dallas Symphony principal cellist Christopher Adkins.
The June 9 recital was an exploration, by cellist Mike Block, of the myriad possibilities of the cello. Block plays standing, using a strap similar to a single backpack strap that wraps from the tailpiece at the bottom of his instrument to the scroll at the top. Block is an experimenter in eclectism—he was a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and has also been a member of fiddle player Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Trio.
Block brought this openness to new experience to his Dallas recital. He played some traditional “classical” music, performing a movement from one of Bach’s Cello Suites, but that nod to traditionalism seemed only there to show that he was capable of the thing. Where he seemed happiest and most at home was in his jumps from Celtic “fiddle” music to a Ligeti solo sonata to an American murder ballad. He sings as well as plays during tunes such as the ballad, with a perfectly serviceable although not exceptional baritone.
Further demonstrations of his impressive versatility included renditions of a Turkish song, then an Indian devotional song in a mashup with Hank Williams’s “Where the Soul Never Dies.” The latter reminded me a bit of American kirtan singer Krishna Das, who plays with a similar combination of American gospel and Indian bhakti or devotional music. These kinds of mashups seem to be a bit of a specialty for Block, who also performed a West African-inflected version of the American folksong “I Will Endure.”
Block is not necessarily the most technically gifted cellist performing at the Lev Aronson Festival this year, but he is in some respects the most important. His ability to leap across genre boundaries is increasingly important given our tendency to compartmentalize music. For those people for whom classical music is in the compartment “music that’s not for me,” musicians such as Block can provide a gateway into enjoying music they might previously have perceived as inaccessible. Additionally, it’s a pleasure for its own sake.
Block ended his set (for so it was) with three songs he wrote himself, a singer/songwriter with a cello instead of a guitar. This is a musician who “dwells in possibility,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson, and good on him.
» Read our review of Brant Taylor at the Lev Aronson Legacy Festival