Frances-Marie Uitti journeys to Seattle for rare West Coast recital

Cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

For all of the longing classical music lovers devote to downtown venues like Benaroya Hall and Town Hall, they might want to shift at least some of their energy to the Good Shepherd Center and the Chapel Performance Space. Almost singlehandedly Steve Peters — his work is helped significantly by Seattle’s creative, adventurous new music community — has transformed the Chapel into the center of of new music in Seattle.

Friday evening’s cello recital by Frances-Marie Uitti was yet another successful recital for Peters and the Wayward Music Series, but most importantly it was a successful event for Seattle’s new music scene and a welcome survey of contemporary music for the solo cello.  Month by month, year by year, Seattle’s new music scene is a force that doesn’t receive the credit or the coverage in the press it deserves.  This is changing. However it isn’t changing fast enough to keep with up with Seattle’s new music activity.

Uitti is not your usual cellist. She has been a prominent figure in the avant garde and contemporary music community for decades. Perhaps her most significant contribution is inventing the technique of playing the cello with two bows. To hear her tell the story, she loved to improvise and for a time was doing a lot of solo improvising. However, she missed the harmonies created with more than one instrument. What’s a cellist to do? Play the cello with two bows that’s what!

For a curious or even initiated listener, one of the great benefits of new music is its proximity to the moment of creation.  In most cases the composer is alive or recently departed, performers don’t need to channel the composer, divine intentions, or speculate over incomplete manuscripts. Instead, they can pick up the telephone, send a probing email, Skype, or in Uitti’s case, recall her own encounters with the composers she loves and the pieces they wrote for expressly for her.

For each piece, Uitti had a story. Scelsi once asked “are you any good?” Her playing told the story apparently, and the two formed a friendship that lasted until the composer died in 1988. Uitti’s recording of Scelsi’s Trilogy for solo cello is a classic in the catalog and Friday she performed Ygghur (which means catharsis in Sanskrit) the third movement of the trilogy. The cellist described the piece as a tone poem for cello set in three movements. The work certainly offers a tight arc with each movement lasting four to eight minutes. Typical of Scelsi’s music, each movement meditates on a narrow range of material while also finding ways to surprise the listener. For instance, the middle movement’s sustained poignancy is interrupted with drip drop pizzicato. As soon as the middle movement ends, the final movement grows in force but achieves catharsis through austere simplicity; not fist shaking fury.

Gyorgy Kurtag was so impressed by her two bow technique that he asked the cellist to send him sketches of music she wrote for two bows. Months went by before Kurtag replied with his delicately crafted Message to Frances-Marie.

Two bows open opportunities for the cello. Details can be laid on top of washes of legato sound. The cello can also assume the richness of a small chamber ensemble with added muscularity to its sound.  This was the case with Lisa Bielawa’s Roman Holiday Blues — a rhapsodic expedition for solo cello cast in symphonic proportions.

Friday’s recital wasn’t only a vehicle for Uitti’s generous talent, versatile sound and adventurous ideas, it also served to spotlight the cello’s sonic possibilities — at the extremes. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Ai Limiti della Notte opened the recital. With the help of amplification, Uitti’s virtuosic skittering at the upper end of the cello’s range, suggested to me at least, the last vestiges of daylight fading into night; those final moments before the day is gone. Jonathan Harvey’s Curve with Plateau goes further using the cello’s entire range of pitch and deploys memorable cello pyrotechnics including a glissando across four strings.  To my knowledge Plateau wasn’t conceived as a study for the cello.  The piece’s sound innovation and the demanding technique required to play the piece make it a study in all but name.

Uitti’s skill as a cellist was taxed as vigorously as the sonic capabilities of the cello were expanded. Her abilities were stretched in every piece, pushed in ways that would have broken average cellists. Uitti met each piece’s challenges. Stunned, impressed, stunned and impressed, a full audience rewarded her with generous applause and true appreciation for her ability.

Based in Amsterdam and focused on especially difficult repertory, Uitti isn’t exactly a household name. She is better known on the other coast. Let’s hope Friday isn’t the last time Seattle is able to witness this uniquely gifted cellist.

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