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A review of a performance by cellist Julie Albers
It was a frigid Thursday evening that I found myself struggling through en route to a performance from one of the most prestigious cello players in the world, Julie Albers. Although I recognized the cello as an extremely respected and integral part in the genre of classical music, I had only heard it as a backup to a full orchestra. Never on its own. And yet, never have I been so struck by the utter intensity of the classical form of music as I was that night.
Julie Albers’ first piece of the night was done with the melodic and harmonic help of Angela Jia Kim whose accompaniment skills rival Albers cello. The pair launched immediately into Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Variations in E-flat minor on “Bei Mannern”. The abilities of the two players are apparent immediately as they conquer every bar and flawlessly trade fours or sixes or eights in the variations. It was a very light, airy piece with dreamy, practically endless melodies, the very sound of a bright summer day, joyous and relaxed. Albers seemed to be in a playful manner as her fingers danced daintily along the higher pitches that reminded one of the birds chirping for the changing of the seasons.
Jia Kim left Albers the solitary figure on stage for the next set, a rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second of six suites in D minor, the premier set of suites written for unaccompanied cello. These compositions allowed the instrument to take the limelight for the first time in classical history. Albers maneuvered her way through the six sections flawlessly and seemingly without effort, only allowing herself brief pauses in between pieces before pushing onward. And as she progressed from one to the next, so did the intensity and musical variation progress in steady increments. The notes reached far into the musical stratosphere, testing the underlying harmony, stretching it to the veritable point of breaking only to return to the original melody and grounding it, in reality possibly, before she embarked on another, more vigorous and reality defying riff.
The first pieces of the set were of the same light and airy composition that was the defining point of the previous piece. Gradually, however, the high, floating notes sank into, dark, almost foreboding low pitched scale variations comprised of long, haunting melodies.
Following a short intermission, Jia Kim joined Albers on the stage once again and the two played a stirring rendition of “Mediation” from Thais by Jules Massenet. Its slow, drifting melodies allowed the tension to grow, recede in an agonizing sort of tease, then build again to a higher level of intensity. Ascending to higher and higher peaks of intensity, for me, this song conjured visions of romantic, passionate young love. It starts with a sort of anticlimactic progression comprised of short, peppery notes that hint at and then lead one to a visualization of the young lovers first meeting, the moment where true love is at first realized, when sensible emotions give way to passionate, carnal instincts. This moment is maintained, then followed by an intense interlude, the space that the lovers are apart but yearn for each other. This segment brings into memory the first progression, but the instrumentation becomes louder and quicker and new notes act as fillers, taking the space of what were, in the initial rendition, long, drawn out melodies.
Evidently Albers and Jia Kim are Beethoven fans because his Sonata No. 3 in A Major was picked as the final piece. Despite Jia Kim’s efforts to play a song that was noticeably physically taxing almost drowning out Albers’ cello, one did not have to hear what was emanating from that cello to appreciate how rigorous and demanding it was to perform this piece. Both players broke out into a visible sweat with moisture dripping down their faces. Jia Kim bounced wildly on her seat racing from one end of the ivories to the other.
From my second row seat, I had a detailed view of Albers’ determined expression, eyes set, upper lip in a sneer. Her set expression showed that she was going to tough this piece out to the end, ignore the aching fingers and fatigue that one must feel after performing such demanding pieces for over an hour but clearly saving the most painstakingly difficult effort until the end. Albers can very easily be likened to a machine, unflinching to any obstacle or command, resistant to any extreme physical duress that would impede the end result of a beautiful rendition.
Following the conclusion of the Sonata, as I stood up to leave, I was struck by the thought that perhaps Albers’ is part-robotic. But that’s absurd. She’s just impossibly good.