Monday, November 2, 2009

Music feature: Cellist deMaine to play all of Beethoven's cello pieces in Boca concerts

Cellist Robert deMaine.

By Greg Stepanich

The cultural-event marathon is one of the most absorbing pleasures in the world of the arts, a chance for fans of a genre or a specific body of work to immerse themselves and give themselves wholly over to the featured creations.

Pianists have milestones such as the complete Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach or all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas, for instance, and cellists also have those two composers to thank for the equivalent in their field of a Fellini retrospective or a showing of all the paintings Van Gogh did at Arles.

Robert deMaine, who has been principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 2002, is playing all eight of the works Beethoven composed for cello and piano in two nights of recitals Thursday and Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Boca Raton. That includes five sonatas and three sets of variations on tunes by Handel and Mozart.

Although he's played the complete Beethoven cello works before, he said he was hesitant to do so the first time he tried.

"The very first time I embarked on it, I didn't really think I would be into it. I feel like it's a little bit too much for the audience, to give them too much of one thing," deMaine said last week from his Michigan home. But he’s found it was well worth the effort. "People will do the six Bach suites, which I'm actually doing this year, precisely because of how rewarding my experience doing all the Beethoven works was."

DeMaine, who will be joined by pianist Heather Coltman, chairwoman of the school of music at Florida Atlantic University, will open Thursday night with a set of variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, Papageno's aria from Act II of Mozart's The Magic Flute, then continue with Sonatas No. 1 (in F, Op. 5, No. 1), 4 (in C, Op. 102, No. 1) and 3 (in A, Op. 69.)

Saturday night, he plays two variation sets: one on See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes, from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabeus, and the other on Bei Männern, welche Liebe Fühlen, the Pamina-Papageno duet from Act I of The Magic Flute. He'll also play the Sonata No. 2 (in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2), and close with the Sonata No. 5 (in D, Op. 102, No. 2).

The Third Sonata, written in 1807, is perhaps the best-known of these works, and "is probably one of the happiest pieces he ever wrote," deMaine said. That it came during a prolonged custody battle the composer was waging for his nephew Karl makes its amiable disposition even more remarkable, he said.

It bears noting that Beethoven is something of a pioneer of the cello sonata. Except for three viola da gamba sonatas by Bach, there is almost no precedent for Beethoven's decision to write cello sonatas, and indeed, two of the variation sets and first two sonatas date from 1796, early in the composer's career. "Beethoven was the first composer of his stature to write specific solo pieces for cello," deMaine said.

"I love playing those pieces. We're so lucky to have these sonatas ... for piano and cello, because that's how he specifically titled them. Because the piano is an equal partner, it's not just a piano accompaniment," he said.

"In the first two sonatas, it's quite the opposite. The piano is definitely the predominant instrument, and the cello is really kind of a basso continuo with the occasional melody thrown in," deMaine said. "So you get two sonatas from his early period, one supreme sonata from his middle period, and then these two very beautiful, rather cryptic works from his late period. So it's kind of a microcosm of his life."

The three variations sets are less well-known, but they are important pieces nevertheless, deMaine said.

"I look at those as his sandboxes. He was getting ready. Just like in his string trios that he wrote early on: those were his dress rehearsals for his string quartets," he said. "They're very thickly fleshed out among the three instruments and you can glimpse the greatness that's to come.

"And with the variations, it's twofold: It's an experiment, to see what the possibilities are between cello and piano, and also [they are] a great exercise in homage," deMaine said. "To write a set of variations on See the Conqu'ring Hero Comes is a great, special tribute to pay to George Frideric Handel, an incredible homage ... He's testing the water at this point. And yet these pieces are masterpieces."

DeMaine, 39, who was born in Oklahoma City to a musical family, studied at Yale, the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School, where as a teen in the pre-college program he worked with Leonard Rose, one of the finest of all American cellists and pedagogues. He has won numerous awards and competitions throughout his career, and in addition to his work at the Detroit Symphony he is highly regarded as a recitalist and chamber musician. He lives outside Detroit with his wife, Betsy, a horn player, and their children Paul, 4, and Annie, 2.

DeMaine also is a composer with many works for cello to his credit, including a set of a dozen Etudes-Caprices published as his Op. 31. During an October 2005 recital at the Unitarian Fellowship, deMaine played three of these pieces, including No. 12, a bravura set of variations on The Star-Spangled Banner. He is quick to discount his own compositions as anything other than work done for fun on the side, but he said it does give him more insight into what Beethoven and other canonical composers have accomplished.

"It's given me such an appreciation for those great masters, and it's an incredibly humbling experience to try to organize a phrase and get it down on paper," he said. "At the same time, they're the best composition teachers one can have."

Today's technologies have enabled classical music to have perhaps the broadest reach it's ever had, and the accompanying entrepreneurial approach some classical musicians have taken leaves deMaine somewhat uneasy.

"Sometimes I feel like my head is still buried in the sand. I'm really old-fashioned, a bit of a holdout. People playing in nightclubs: I've done my share of that, too, playing in black-box theaters where people have drinks at the table; it's more or less like a cabaret act," he said.

"To me, I'm conflicted. Part of it to me just reeks of desperation. We're trying so hard to reel in more clientele," deMaine said. "People are always saying, well, classical music is dying. And you do see a lot of gray hair or no hair in the audience, but hasn't it always kind of been that way?"

Newcomers to the Beethoven sonatas and variations should keep in mind that the instruments for which they were written were not quite the powerhouse instruments they are today. Even so, there's always a challenge of balancing the piano's much bigger apparatus with that of the cello.

"The piano that we use today is going to win," deMaine said. "No matter how souped-up or pimped-out the cello might be for volume, the piano is always going to be the victor in that arrangement. So there's always a tightrope walk of balancing the two instruments."

Yet audiences should be able to appreciate Beethoven's skill at managing the two instruments, he said, especially in the first two sonatas. "When the cello is the main event, the texture lightens up all of a sudden and the cello comes through like a beam of sunshine. The expertise that he has in lightening up the texture ... is something that so easily can be taken for granted because it's so skillful."

After the recitals, deMaine will put in two days of master classes in Miami Beach with students of the New World Symphony before going back home. Preparing for the concerts has had him thinking in recent days about a trip he took this summer to Vienna, the Austrian city that for much of the 18th and 19th centuries was the musical capital of the world.

While there, deMaine visited the Central Cemetery, where the graves of Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms sit close to one another.

“I was moved to tears," he said. "It makes this performance, for me, that much more meaningful."

Robert deMaine and Heather Coltman will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Boca Raton. Pre-concert lectures begin at 7:15 p.m. before each recital. Tickets are $75 apiece, and $40 apiece for church members. For more information, call 482-2001 or visit

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