When he made his entrance to the stage last night, carrying his 1693 Matteo Goffriller cello, City Hall erupted in heartfelt applause. Appearing both confident and humble, Bailey took his seat behind his cello and seemed as curious as his spectators as to what was to follow.
Antonin Dvorak’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor, Op. 104 is known as the king of cello concertos, and provided the perfect platform to showcase the beauty and extravagance of the US star cello soloist’s talent, against a quite brilliant performance by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. The CPO’s manner of playing often tends towards the conservative, but one could see that tonight, they too displayed an extra spark of enthusiasm and energy under the baton of veteran conductor Bernhard Gueller, director of Symphony Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada. Gueller’s characteristic dramatic gestures seemed to extend invisible threads to the orchestra’s performers, infecting them with vigour and even occasional smiles – which, in turn, appeared to energise Gueller even more.
The concerto opened with a pleasantly paced Allegro, introducing the main theme with low woodwind notes. The second theme’s beautiful horn solo underlined the almost sombre mood of the first movement’s melody.
During the introductory notes, Zuill Bailey sat patiently behind his cello and openly looked around in the audience, in an endearing manner, as if trying to find his bearings between the unknown audience members, in a city in which he has never before performed. His musical entry came almost as a surprise, however, as unsettled as he must have felt in his surroundings, the obvious familiarity of his cello and his music seemed to ground him, and from the first notes we were mesmerized.
After the nostalgic Allegro, the Adagio ma non troppo brought some more peaceful tones, during which the orchestra once again created a reliable and steady backdrop for the searing emotion evoked by Bailey. Dvorak’s Bohemian influence became more apparent as the Adagio transformed into an almost rhapsodic piece before the final movement, a cheerful marching Allegro moderato.
The audience last night was witness to something so intimate and beautiful, we were barely able to believe what we were seeing. The tender way in which Bailey held his cello, his affectionate method of playing, the way he connected with the music, was unusual and extremely enchanting. Most of all, his sense of accomplishment and pleasure when completing a movement, apparent in the way he carefully swung his bow and let it rest – almost as if not to disturb the afterglow of the tunes he had just created – was delightful to see.
After the interval, Brahms’ Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98, the evening’s ‘dessert’, gave the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra their opportunity to shine. If some of us were worried that this symphony would be overshadowed by Zuill Bailey’s absence from it, we were to be proven wrong.
Opening with an Allegro non troppo, pleasant and calm, this symphony possesses a regal undertone that can be perceived from the start, accentuated by fanfares in the first movement. The slow Andante moderato is reminiscent of a royal funeral procession (in a good way), and is followed by the contrasting Allegro giocoso which – to stick with the theme – could be the underscore to a joyful event, such as the birth of a royal heir. The final movement, an Allegro energico e passionato, brought the evening’s performances to a passionate close, as the name suggests.
All glory to the CPO, who executed this Brahms masterpiece in a way that was both extremely precise and atmospheric. Bernhard Gueller’s passion, which was quite evidently an inspiration to the orchestra, also infected the audience, and throughout the Brahms piece there was never the sense of the audience tiring as sometimes happens at the end of an evening of long orchestral performances. Watching Gueller swing his baton was highly entertaining, especially during his little “jumps” when the musical score was particularly dramatic.
Having experienced such a grand success of an evening, I was later amazed to discover that Zuill Bailey had arrived in Cape Town just 24 hours earlier, leaving only enough time for one rehearsal with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. What a fantastic musician, who is so sincere and modest, but is quite apparently one of the greatest cello players of all time. And what an honour to have had him perform in Cape Town. Bravo!
Zuill Bailey performed with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on 14 August 2014.