The Beethoven Sonatas
Cellist Antonio Lysy's traversal of the sonatas, joined by Tom Beghin playing historical fortepianos, at the Broad Stage on Sunday promised a fine way to spend the day after Beethoven's 247th birthday…
Lysy is a cellist with lithe tone. He is elegant, not dramatic…
This (Op.69 in A major) is Beethoven's most expansive sonata, and Lysy's grace gave it a special glow.
- Mark Swed, LA Times
The 6 Bach Suites
Antonio Lysy's Carbon Fiber Cello Plumbs Bach's Deepest Heart in Six Cello Suites at The Broad Stage
A nearly full house of culturally-inclined Angelenos, young, old and in between, heard Antonio Lysy play Bach's Six Suites for solo cello entirely by memory Sunday afternoon, at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Lysy dressed simply, in a wine red shirt open at the neck and black trousers for the first three Suites and the same after intermission except the shirt was blue.
He played a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello made in Boston in 2014.
Throughout the concert, still and sometimes slowly moving images were projected onto the theater's movie screen; these included time-lapse shots of the Northern Lights, red-rock Arizona caves, the interior of a real wooden cello, parched deserts and a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. The effective impression it gave, of Lysy playing in a variety of alternative, surrealistic/sci-fi settings, subtly contextualized the nexus between Bach's music and his devotion to his faith. Along with that, it liberated each audience member's
mind to soar along with the music, each on their own private plane.
Lysy and his instrument sat on a platform raised like a conductor's podium above the stage. In addition to the audience, he faced a inconspicuous video monitor on stage so that he could watch the pictures too . Stylistically, Lysy played the Suites straight and mostly unadorned, at moderate speeds; he did not take the usual repeats of each movement,
which would have been historically correct but would also have made the concert twice as long.
As the houselights dimmed and Lysy rocked into the opening bars of the engaging Suite Number One in G major, the screen behind him filled with slowly shifting images, zooming at glacial rates in and out of different perspectives, of Technicolor photographs of light streaming through deep, Sedona-like canyons. The images had no apparent association with the music nor did Lysy play as if he were aware of them to the extent that they were linked in any way. Indeed, for the entire night, he played with almost painful humility,
often with his eyes shut or gazing down.
The Second Suite, in D minor, brought forth the awakenings of a different, more engaged response from Lysy. He occasionally threw in an ornament or two, but put himself firmly on the modern side of the original instrument debate by not improvising on a key series of whole-note chords at the end of the first movement. After a short breather, Lysy returned to play the Third Suite in C major. It is the first Suite many young cellists play, because the key signature has neither sharps nor flats, so playing in tune is sort of guaranteed.
It is a grand, splendid piece but cellists often fail to find the warmth Lysy did.
A lengthy intermission, billed optimistically as a party in the lobby, preceded Lysy playing the last three Suites, the meat of the evening, the main bout, the crucible. Each of the three has its own fiendish difficulties, none of which are possible to solve except through extraordinary feats of will. In fact, Suites Four through Six plot out such different regions from the first three in sheer musical complexity, technical difficulty and emotional impact — except for the Sarabande in Suite No. 2 – that it has been supposed
they were by a talented student of Bach's or even his extremely gifted wife.
What makes the challenge of playing the last three Suites live is that audiences are likely to know the Suites not as individual pieces but as vague 60-minute swaths of solo cello. Played from a CD or listened to on public radio, the effects can help you get through the day; heard streaming, all six in a row make sense as a cycle. But recordings are different from live.
For example, the Fourth Suite in E flat major sounds like something that Bach originally had in mind for a keyboard instrument; lots of jumping around in ways that cellos were never meant to do. The opening movement, especially, makes no sense at all on the cello and requires such an extraordinary amount of ungainly, inorganic movement that the theories of Bach composing the Suites as a set of increasingly difficult studies for a smaller size cello played on the shoulder like a viola begin to make sense. And in fact, the Six Suites, if you can live without the cello’s gravitas and human voice aspects, speak more fluently on a viola. Additionally, the key of E flat major is an unfriendly key for cellists, testing even the greatest virtuosos’ ability to let the music flow
as if it were a stream rather than an obstacle course.
The Fifth Suite is in the ominous sounding key of C minor, and Bach directs the cellist to use a scordatura re-tuning of the A string down to G, for easier double stops and deeper sonority. Then, in this most complex of the five Suites, Bach seems to write a concerto for cello but without any supporting instruments. The music is written, however, so that the one solo cello line is rumored to “imply” the rhythm and harmonies of the other instruments. Normally, it takes a leap of faith, a heightened imagination and almost improbable technical facility – the intoxicating delirium Lysy found in the second Gavotte was unreal – to create the effect.
Lysy took another route by bringing in another cellist, Charles Tyler, a student of Lysy’s at UCLA, to play with him in two of the movements the underlying rhythmic and harmonic structure Bach is implying. It was a revelation. Lysy still played the familiar solo part, but way the pulse regularized when Tyler was playing together with the muddled sound of two cellos playing together in their middle registers, gave the music an unexpectedly medieval, scholastic cast. I can’t imagine this is what Bach had in mind, but it was musically intriguing and convincing evidence of the benefits of having as your goal, which Lysy stated in his program note, "to further explore the possibilities of presenting traditional music in a fresh light, while preserving its pure, aural integrity."
The bottom line for for each of the last three Suites is how you play it. Lysy played Number Five by tackling the music from the first measure on as if he were hewing it out of stone. Where appropriate, he added the humanity of his carbon fiber cello’s supplicant pleading voice. In Lysy’s hands, the opening movement was as mighty as any prelude and fugue Bach wrote for the organ.
When Lysy sat down at 4:35 p.m. to play the Sixth Suite, in the glorious (for cellists) key of D major, it was at a point physically and emotionally where both he and the audience were fatigued but unstoppable; the whole Broad Stage environment was ready to proceed with the six dance movements which remain the greatest challenge a cellist can face. Before launching into the audacious heraldic drone of the opening Prelude, Lysy sat silently in a moment of deep meditation, stretched his body and wriggled his fingers like coming out of a yoga exercise, and invited the the audience to follow him into the immense world of Bach at full stretch. It’s like what we now call the “zone,” where he’s writing music so difficult to play that new musical frontiers emerge in the process,
like diamonds forming under the pressure of the earth’s mantle.
The large, enthusiastic and knowledgable makeup of the audience will be hot prospects for attending next May’s International Gregor Piatigorsky Festival at USC Thornton and Disney. And they won’t be surprised when they hear Lysy's touring multimedia show, Te Amo, Argentina, will be the opening act on the Festival's opening night.
- Laurence Vittes
Antonio Lysy Responds to my Review of his Bach Cello Suites Concert at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica
When UCLA cellist Antonio Lysy played Bach's Six Suites at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica last December, images were projected onto the theater's movie screen behind him of the aurora borealis, red-rock Arizona caves, the interior of a wooden cello and a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. I wrote 1330 words about the event, which you can read here.
In response, Lysy made the following comments, preceded by relevant excerpts from my review.
LV Stylistically, Lysy played the Suites straight and mostly unadorned – i.e., without adding so-called ornaments to the written score – at moderate speeds; he did not take the usual repeats of each movement, which would have been
historically correct but would also have made the concert twice as long.
ANTONIO LYSY It might be stretching what may be considered as correct – maybe "traditionally accepted" would be more appropriate since we know that these pieces were written as highly sophisticated exercises for a virtuoso cellist of the time, and for future generations. I actually did not ornament anywhere. Bach was very particular about ornamenting, for example, in the highly embellished Allemande of the 6th Suite every melismatic and improvisatory figure is written out note by note.
My feeling is that if you think you can ornament as well as you imagine he could, then go for it. If you have any doubts about meeting those standards, best keep it pure and simple – we know Bach demanded and appreciated this from his instrumentalists! Keep in mind also, as relates to my performance, any ornamenting would have been done in the repeats (which I did not play).
LV The Third Suite is the first Suite many young cellists play, because the key signature has neither sharps nor flats,
so playing in tune is sort of guaranteed.
ANTONIO LYSY Interesting concept! C major is easier than E flat for sure, but nonetheless it's extremely challenging for intonation, and it's actually pretty virtuosic compared to the preceding two. Think of the G pedal passage in the Prelude, which requires thumb position for the first time ever, and the fiendish extensions in the chords. In the following Courante, Bach has the cellist jumping about the strings in arpeggios; it all ends with an excited, whirling Gigue. (It is more common actually for young cellists to start with the first Suite in G major.)
LV The key of E flat major, in which the Suite No. 4 is written, is an unfriendly key for cellists, testing even the greatest virtuoso's ability to let the music flow as if it were a stream rather than an obstacle course.
ANTONIO LYSY I’d love to go through the Fourth Suite Prelude with you, to highlight what I hear as the inner, simple beauty that emanates from this key, and to explain why it was written in E flat as opposed to an easier key with possibilities of open strings. Because it was meant to be a challenge, that difficulty is part of the struggle, which in my opinion makes it so musically compelling. The harmonic pillars and how they vary subtly over repetitive eighths is fascinating in a hypnotic kind of way. The other movements are some of the most beautiful music he has written, none more so than the Sarabande.
LV Lysy took another route by bringing in cellist Charles Tyler to play with him in two of the movements of the Fifth Suite; I can’t imagine this is what Bach had in mind, but it was musically intriguing and convincing evidence of the benefits of having as your goal, which Lysy stated in his program note, "to further explore the possibilities of presenting traditional music in a fresh light,
while preserving its pure, aural integrity."
ANTONIO LYSY I should have added in the program notes that the basso continuo part you heard played by Charlie was extracted note for note, with absolutely no additions or edits, from the lute version Bach wrote of this 5th Suite. Being plucked, lacking the sustaining bow, Bach needed to add harmony and polyphony; we just drew out those notes for a basso continuo part. No more, no less! Charlie actually joined me in four movements (not two): The Prelude, Courante, Gavottes and Gigue. The Allemande has its own accompaniment, enriched by chords, and the Sarabande stands alone in its exquisite starkness.
LV The images worked very well, although one customer very politely asked for his money back at the box office at intermission. Except for cellists and passionate romantics, the thrill of watching a cellist play moderates after the first hour
and the images kept my imagination alert and alive.
ANTONIO LYSY The choice of images background story was quite interesting; they were closely connected to the music in some way, and yet ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation. They served as an inspiring embellishment of the setting, to transport us to fantastic and inspiring places away from concert halls. It took us months to make the choices – and get the permissions – working until the last moment to make the finishing touches. The Fourth Suite and its theme of some of the most beautiful and colorful cupolas and ceilings of ancient mosques was intended also as a personal message of solidarity and peace with those millions of Muslims at home and around the world who are not extremists attached to Islamic terrorism, during those pre-Christmas days of turmoil and fear.
It was a message which I felt the Fourth Suite lent itself to.
- Laurence Vittes
Music From Argentina
Argentina's rich musical heritage ignites his passion
Although Argentina was not the land of Antonio Lysy’s birth, it well could have been. The vastness of the treeless grasslands of the Pampas that stretch as far as the eye can see is an image burned into his memory from visits he made there as a child with his Argentine-born father, famed violinist Alberto Lysy.
So, too, is Argentina’s music etched into Lysy’s soul, from the rich rhythms of its folk songs to the passionate strains of the Tango, shaped by pre-Hispanic Amerindian traditions and Spanish-based Creole influences. Through his cello, Lysy, a professor in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, shared this lush musical repertoire in a concert he played earlier
this year at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
One of the songs he performed and recorded,“Pampas,” recently won a prestigious 2010 Latin Grammy Award for best classical contemporary composition. The piece was written by Argentine-born Lalo Schifrin, a renowned film composer credited with more than 100 film (“Mission Impossible”) and television scores, whom Lysy commissioned for the piece. Schifrin adapted “Pampas” from the slow movement of a richly orchestrated guitar concerto he had written previously.
“I fell in love with the lyrical theme, which reawakened many images of the land and people of Argentina in my memory,” Lysy recalled later, but wondered how the song, which would be adapted for cello and piano, would sound without an orchestra.
“He told me, ‘Don’t worry — you leave that to me,’” Lysy recalled. And Schifrin turned out to be right.
“I was just delighted with it from the beginning,” Lysy said.
Lysy is not letting the Grammy go to his head. What’s more meaningful to him is that the Grammy win may help sell his CD, “Antonio Lysy at the Broad: Music from Argentina,” because 100 percent of the proceeds from the sales through his record producer, Yarlung Records, fund music scholarships for needy children who otherwise can’t afford to attend the SOL-LA Music Academy in Santa Monica. Founded by his wife, Margaret Flanagan Lysy, a violinist and lecturer at the Herb Alpert School, the Santa Monica performing arts school fosters an inclusive, family-oriented community in which young people can enjoy a camaraderie forged in music. The program is modeled on the training and the support that both Lysys received when they were growing up — he in England and she in Northern Ireland. The two met while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.
Although Lysy was raised in a musical environment, it was rough going early on, he recalled.
To keep his father happy, Lysy grudgingly took private music lessons. “I disliked it,” he said, smiling.
“It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It wasn’t my passion.”
His father, Alberto Lysy — a protégé of renowned violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin — performed all over the world and honed his reputation as a music educator when he became director of the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland.
Only after going to a specialized boarding school founded by Menuhin where the curriculum was divided equally between music and academics did Lysy’s love for music — as well as his talent for it — emerge. “I started to enjoy it more as a result of being around other kids who did it,” he said. “You don’t feel so ostracized or weird.”
Today, Lysy has nothing but genuine appreciation for the excellent training he received and the opportunities he's enjoyed attending and playing at music festivals, chamber music fests and concerts all over Europe and Asia. And these experiences now enrich his teaching at UCLA, where he came eight years ago after teaching music at McGill University in Montreal.
“Sometimes when I listen to my students, I hear more intelligence, more raw talent, more instincts than I ever had at their age,” he said of his 14 cello students. “The only thing they lack is really good teaching … and opportunity. But give them that, they should be able to succeed at least as well as I did, if not better. So that drives me to always give them more.”
The chamber music festival that Lysy started at his grandparents' estate in Tuscany is now in its 23rd year.
When summer arrives, Lysy leaves L.A. to perform at locations around the world. For the last 23 years, an annual stop has been Val d'Orcia, his grandparents’ estate in Tuscany that has become home to a chamber music festival Lysy founded. Every year since 1977, internationally known musicians gather there to perform at the Incontri in Terra di Siena.
“We have just the right ingredients to keep it going,” Lysy said. “It’s a great place to visit. The artists love going there. There’s enough interest on the part of the public to sustain it. And I’ve found ways to bring diverse artists to it.”
The cellist is also looking forward to being a first-time grandfather when his daughter, Sofia, gives birth in Montreal this month. His other two children, Clara, 16, and Aidan, 11, are pursuing their own musical interests.
Clara, a dynamic violinist and songwriter, has already produced her own CD.
While he spends summers performing at various venues and is planning another concert of Argentinian music in 2012 at the Broad, Lysy said lightheartedly, “I’m not trying to become the next world-renowned cello sensation. Teaching has always been a very strong part of who I am. And I enjoy it very, very much. But I also like the balance between teaching and performing — keeping my fingers, interest and repertoire alive so that when I come back to my students, I’m motivated and inspired.”
- Cynthia Lee, UCLA Today