The list of women cellists making the case for contemporary music grows annually. The legendary Charlotte Moorman laid the groundwork decades ago for Joan Jeanrenaud, once of the Kronos Quartet. Now comes Israeli-born Maya Beiser. What this sisterhood shares is an aesthetic that places what they perform on a level with how and where they perform. To reach sizable audiences these days, the cellist must straddle the pop and classical worlds and aspire to divadom. The situation can make for good music theatre and middling music.
The need to present a dual personality to achieve success intruded upon Beiser’s new concert programme, which premiered in San Francisco last week. The second part of the evening confirmed what one suspected: this is a musician with stunning technical resources and intense musical instincts. In a repertoire tailored to her talents, Beiser made a haunting episode of Mohammed Fairouz’s setting of Kol Nidrei, chanting the original Aramaic prayer for the Jewish Day of Atonement while accompanying herself on her electrified instrument in an act of communion both defiant and serene. A strummed rhythmic figure returned in recorded form and the counterpoint was stirring.
“Kol Nidre” translates as “all vows”, and the evening’s theme also generated a Michael Gordon opus called All Vows, which was marked by a meandering but appealing vocal line and framed by a blotchy Bill Morrison film featuring an ancient copy of the Torah. Evan Ziporyn’s clever arrangement of an ancient Georgian hymn allowed Beiser to exult in the polyphonic writing. Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops ”, a three-part, 25-minute tour de force, uses “just intonation” and mines the instrument for its harmonics and its capacity for vibrant rhythmic forays. The plugged-in Beiser met its sundry challenges with sublime ease, though another Morrison film, a recreation of a Méliès-era Biblical epic simply bewildered.
To open, Beiser, backed by guitar and percussion, offered arrangements of pop songs by Janis Joplin (oddly affecting in its approximation of the vocal line), Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Page and Howlin’ Wolf, the latter a delicately, plucked duet with percussionist Glenn Kotche. It was a charming warm-up to the main event, but a warm-up nonetheless.