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The Twelve Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Monday, November 12, 2007, at 7:30 PM

By Frank J. Oteri

Notes on the Program

It seems quixotic and perhaps somewhat temporary for the entire cello section of one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras to wander off and form its own ensemble. But “The Twelve,” who are indeed the 12 cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker, have been performing as an independent ensemble for the past 35 years.

Back in 1972, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s then conductor, Herbert von Karajan, received an unusual request. Some producers in Salzburg were attempting to organize a radio broadcast of an obscure composition for 12 cellos composed by Leipzig Gewandhaus cellist Julius Klengel (1859–1933), teacher of Piatigorsky and Feuermann, a piece that had last been performed at the funeral of conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1922. The cellists’ performance of this musical curiosity was so satisfying that they were eager to continue to work together as a self-contained unit.

Since then, the group has been blurring the boundaries between chamber and orchestral music in recordings and in performances all over the world. They have done so by cultivating a unique signature repertoire that combines original compositions by some of the world’s most prominent composers with fresh arrangements of everything from centuries-old classics to recent popular songs.

For their second appearance at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, The Twelve offer a program juxtaposing the sacred and the secular. Ethereal soundscapes by Arvo Pärt, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Verdi, and Astor Piazzolla comprise the first part of the concert, “Angel Dances,” all of which the ensemble has recorded on their most recent EMI CD, Angel Dances. We are brought back to earth after intermission with “The Dance of the World,” in which The Twelve blend compositions created for them by Boris Blacher and Jean Francaix with foot-tapping tunes by George Gershwin, Ennio Morricone, Jorge Ben, and others.

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In 1972, conductor Herbert von Karajan was asked if the cello section of the Berliner Philharmoniker could be borrowed for a radio broadcast of an unusual composition for 12 cellos composed by Leipzig Gewandhaus cellist Julius Klengel (1859–1933), who was the teacher of Piatigorsky and Feuermann. (Klengel’s Hymnus had apparently only been played once before, at the funeral of conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1922.) Their performance was so successful that the 12 cellists continued to perform separately from the Orchestra, commissioning new repertoire and arrangements.

Milonga del Ángel (1965), by Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), is one of several angel-inspired compositions created by the legendary progenitor of Nuevo Tango. The word “milonga,” originating in West Africa, has multiple meanings, which include a type of dance as well as a place where dancing takes place. In Piazzolla’s native Argentina, the word is also often used to describe a tango party. It might initially seem incongruous for an infectious tango by Piazzolla to open a portion of a concert program devoted to the sacred. But Piazzolla’s angel compositions fuse the tango with a religious sensibility. And the sensitive transcriptions of frequent Twelve arranger José Carli presented on this evening’s program further bring out the devotional component of this music, emphasizing its kinship to Baroque repertoire, which Piazzolla greatly admired.

Although nowadays Milonga del Ángel is frequently presented along with Introducción al Ángel (1962), La muerte del Ángel (1962), and La resurrección del Ángel (1965) as a Suite del Ángel (that is how Piazzolla performed the pieces in his final years), the works were originally conceived and composed separately by Piazzolla, and he frequently performed them independently, so it is completely appropriate and in keeping with Piazzolla’s flexible aesthetic that for tonight’s program The Twelve has chosen to present these three compositions independently during the course of the first half of the program, forming a frame into which the rest of the repertoire serves as a sounding board for further reflection.

The great oratorio Elijah (1846), by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), one of the final works of this composer whose life was tragically short, was deeply indebted to the music of the Baroque masters. Among the most treasured passages of the work are the Trio and Double Quartet, originally composed for three and eight singers respectively, which are particularly delicate. The arrangement created expressly for The Twelve by German composer Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann (b. 1940) maintains an appropriate spareness and austerity.

The hauntingly beautiful La cathédral engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral, 1910), by Claude Debussy (1862–1918) was originally composed for solo piano and appears as the tenth piece in his first book of 12 Preludes from 1910. It is an extremely evocative tone poem inspired by the legend of a cathedral in the mysterious Breton city of Ys said to be built below sea level and eventually submerged as a punishment for the decadence of the population. Rudolf Leopold’s idiomatic arrangement for The Twelve effectively translates the spirit of Debussy’s original conception to the sonorities of the cello.

Astor Piazzolla’s La muerte del Ángel (The Death of the Angel, arr. J.Carli), described above, is a tango fugue that was originally composed as incidental music for Alberto Rodriguez Nuñoz’s 1962 theatre piece El Tango del Angel. In the play, an angel comes to a neighborhood in Buenos Aires to purify its inhabitants only to be killed in a violent fight with a local villain.

Although there are at least 10 published arrangements of the composition Fratres (Brothers) by the Estonian “holy minimalist” Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) ranging from violin and piano duo to wind ensemble, the version Pärt created expressly for The Twelve, which was commissioned by the Berliner Festwochen and which the ensemble first performed in Berlin in 1982, is perhaps the most powerful. An early, definitive example of Pärt’s trademark tintinnabuli style, which is characterized by simple harmonies and rhythmic statis, Fratres remains one of Pärt’s most enduring contributions to the canon.

The Ave Maria (1888) from the Four Sacred Pieces of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) ranks high among the popular Italian operatic composer’s hidden musical treasures. It was Verdi’s response to a compositional challenge published in the magazine Gazetta musicale to harmonize a strange enigmatic scale featuring unusually spaced intervals (which in no way resembles the standard major and minor scales that form the basis of most of the world’s most widely performed music). The arrangement for The Twelve was created by ensemble member David Riniker (b. 1970).

The first half of the program concludes with Piazzolla’s La resurrección del Ángel (The Resurrection of the Angel, arr. J. Carli), which begins serenly and ends triumphantly.

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The second half of the program opens with a movement from one of the earliest pieces expressly created for The Twelve, the Presto from the Aubade by the prolific French composer Jean Françaix (1912–1997), which received its first performance by the group in its home city in 1975. Like most of his works, it is light and witty and a delight both to play and to hear.

Espagnola, is the middle movement of an even earlier Twelve-inspired composition, Blues-Espagnola-Rumba philharmonica by the unjustly neglected mid-century German composer Boris Blacher (1903–1975), which was unveiled during The Twelve’s first appearance in Tokyo back in 1973. According to the group’s official history, this exciting work, which puts an avant-garde spin on the dances of the Americas, was Blacher’s gift to the group for returning his hitchhiking 15-year-old daughter to his doorstep during a rainstorm.

The 12 in Bossa Nova is a delightful original composition for The Twelve created by the frequent arranger William Kaiser-Lindemann (b. 1940).

The two Jazz Suites of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) are rare examples of levity from a composer whose music has come to symbolize the difficulties of life under Soviet totalitarianism. The first was created for a state-sponsored jazz competition in 1934, while the origins of the second from 1938 are not known. In fact, musicologists are currently debating its provenance, claiming it to be a compilation of film music by Shostakovich possibly not even arranged by him. David Riniker made the effective arrangement of the latter’s Lyric Waltz performed here.

Ukranian jazzer Mikhail Tsygutkin’s arrangement of the still-popular song
“Clap Yo’ Hands” by George Gershwin (1898–1937) is a favorite of The Twelve. Featured on their 2002 CD ’Round Midnight and performed by them at their previous Zankel engagement in 2003, the song originally appeared with lyrics by the composer’s brother Ira in the hit Broadway musical Oh, Kay! (1926).

The Man with the Harmonica, by Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), originally appeared in a 1979 episode of the comic Austrian TV detective series Kottan ermittelt (Kottan Investigates) and later resurfaced on American television in the 2002 Sopranos episode “Whoever Did This.” But it has never quite sounded the way it does in Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann’s arrangement for multiple cellos.

Mas que nada (No Way), a 1963 song by Brazilian great Jorge Ben (b. 1942), is most widely known to folks north of the Tropic of Cancer in an arrangement by Sérgio Mendes, for whom it became a runaway hit. The Twelve put a completely different spin on it in their performance of an arrangement by Croatian cellist Valter Despalj, who is the artistic director of Strings Only, based in Zadar, Croatia.

The 1950 song La Flor de la Canela, by Peruvian legend Chabuca Granda (1920–1983), has become a virtual anthem for the city of Lima. José Carli’s arrangement retains its grace and charm.

Finally, the program ends where it began with the sublime music of Astor Piazzolla. Fuga y misterio (1969), here presented in an arrangement by Carli, is another intriguing blend of counterpoint and intoxicating rhythms—taking the Twelve’s dances of the worlds back into the heavens.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

New York–based composer Frank J. Oteri is the composer advocate at the American Music Center and the founding editor of its web magazine,

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation