"I don't play a string instrument. I make music."
What's the difference between someone who plays, sings and/or composes music and a musician ? Well, those present at Smith College on Saturday evening got a first-hand look and listen at the real thing — someone who lives, breaths and makes music with every fiber of his being, at every waking moment. And who can express music as naturally as speaking, without anything getting in the way.
Of course, it isn't as easy as cellist Zuill Bailey makes it seem. When Zuill joined me and a group of concert patrons for a question-and-answer session before his Smith recital, he admitted that no matter how much he rehearsed, he didn't really know how to play a piece until he played it on stage, under the bright lights, with hundreds of people staring at him, the adrenaline kicking in, his hands trembling, his breathing altered. Breathing? "What," I asked him, "does breathing have to do with playing a string instrument?"
"I don't play a string instrument," he said while fixing his intense gaze on me. "I make music." For Zuill, the cello is merely the vehicle, one whose demands he conquered long ago, at which point he could start to become a musician. When his students ask Zuill how much he practices, Zuill said he would reply "all day. I'm always playing, singing, thinking through the music."
Like just about every instrumentalist I've ever spoken to, Zuill refers to music in vocal terms. Before playing his arrangement of Chopin's posthumously-published Nocturne in C-sharp Minor in his recital with pianist Doris Stevenson, he told the audience that he teased the melody out of the solo piano original to have it "sung" on the cello. And that's how he played it, too. You could practically hear the words. It helps that the cello may be the most vocal of instruments, one whose tone Zuill described in the pre-concert talk as "like a warm hug." "When you hear the middle note on the cello, " Zuill added, "you feel as if everything's all right. When you hear the middle note of a violin, you wonder whether everything's all right." His words, not mine.
I can think of few classical musicians with the natural audience rapport of Zuill Bailey, or who remain so consistently "in the moment," fully aware of the full impact his complete presence has on those in attendance . Both recitals I've heard from him (the other was devoted to Bach's Six Solo Cello Suites) have been like running monologues with music, the speaking and playing elements flowing as seamlessly as his legato cello lines. Each of the selections but one on his program was preceded by an introduction as apt and direct we radio folks strive for, but seldom achieve.
So, we heard how the opening "Boccherini" Sonata was actually composed by the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, how Piatigorsky's pupil Steven Kates played it during the 1966 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow (to the utter mystification of the other famed cellists on the jury expecting one of the "approved" Boccherini Sonatas), how Kates refused to show his young pupil Zuill Bailey the manuscript until Kates, on his deathbed, bequeathed it to Zuill, who played it in memory of his teacher, who died ten years ago. We heard how Schubert's Sonata for the Arpeggione would have been much easier to play on the now-obsolete six-string guitar-cello hybrid, but how its beastly difficulties on the cello have to be overcome if the Sonata is to make its melodious magic.
Only César Franck's Sonata in A Major, originally for the violin, was performed without intro — a nice touch, since this otherworldly, intimately expressive work spoke eloquently for itself. It also afforded pianist Doris Stevenson a chance to show what a splendidly responsive and communicative keyboard artist she is. Finally, it was back to show-and-tell for cello transcriptions of Jules Massenet's Méditation (from the opera Thaïs ) and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee." Oh, and the encore, "The Swan" from Saint-Saëns's "Carnival of the Animal," the only "real," non-transcribed cello masterwork they played all evening.
An (almost) entire evening of cello transcriptions? It sounds like an odd idea, but it's an idea Zuill Bailey developed over time and with a great deal of thought. Zuill takes the issue of programming very seriously, which is why we on the presenting end of Saturday's concert had to wait so long to receive the final, definitive version of his program. Not to worry, I told him afterwards. I wouldn't have minded if he had just showed up and played what he wanted to play that evening. He then told me how much he liked the poster advertising the concert he saw outside the hall. "It said 'Zuill Bailey.' Not 'Zuill Baily, cello.' Just 'Zuill Bailey.'" "Well," I replied, "you don't play a string instrument. You make music." This time he looked at me with a Cheshire-cat grin. "Did you like that?"
Yes I did. Very much.