Rebel with a cello
No room for stale recital traditions in Maya Beiser’s World to Come
It’s said that Maya Beiser sings with two voices: one from her throat and one from her cello. That description is literally true in Beiser’s one-of-a-kind multimedia program World to Come, which she performs at the Mondavi Center on April 13.
World to Come is not a traditional cello recital. The classically trained Beiser plays the cello, to be sure, but she’s also supported by as many as seven cello lines she’s recorded, creating an ensemble sound. Think of Joni Mitchell harmonizing with herself as background vocalist, or German performer Eberhard Weber layering a dozen or more bass tracks to create an orchestral sound on his recordings for the ECM label.
The show is a complex sonic experience, but also a singular artistic statement, since Beiser provides all the elements. She takes her cello outside the usual range, incorporating timbres more typical of a new-music event than a classical concert. Her work is less musically acerbic or “thorny” than some new music, however, and delivered in a harmonic and melodic context that is often quite openly beautiful.
While multiple composers are featured in World to Come—including the Estonian Arvo Pärt, Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, and California-born David Lang—the pieces sound like they were written to go together. (Many were written for Beiser.)
In each piece, Beiser builds a layered bed of repeating figures and swirling patterns, recalling minimalist composers, but creating a sound that’s more lush than spare. Then, she launches a solo line featuring the central melody: lyrical, introspective, unabashedly attractive to the ear and drawing on world music, as well as classical. It’s majestic, rather like watching the fingers of a fog bank moving down a mountainside in the Pacific Coast Ranges.
Beiser also vocalizes—something you’ll almost never hear a classical cellist do in a conventional recital. In the program’s 25-minute title piece, which Beiser commissioned from Lang, her cello is joined by aching, breathy “oohs” and “aahs.” In a piece by contemporary composer Louis Andriessen called “La Voce,” she gently chants an Italian poem by Cesare Pavese.
World to Come is keyed around video elements. Images of stormy skies, gurgling water and abstract flickering shapes are projected on lengthy, almost transparent scrims that hang behind Beiser, whose figure is illuminated by shifting, theatrical lighting.
Steve Reich, a pioneer minimalist composer whose music is in the program, once suggested that Beiser “is doing for the cello what the Kronos Quartet did for the string quartet.” By breaking out of the formal routine of the recital and drawing on a broader palette of sounds, she makes the evening her own.
Beiser’s diverse performance style can be traced to her upbringing. She grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. Her father is from Argentina, her mother is French. She grew up speaking Spanish, French and Hebrew, and later added English. Her father, though not a musician, had music playing constantly in the house—all kinds, from classical to tango, Arab music to American and English pop. Young Beiser soon was introduced to the great classical cello literature, including the Bach suites and the major 19th-century concerti, but her ear also followed other sounds, like Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin.
Mentored by the late, legendary violinist Isaac Stern, Beiser studied at Yale University. She was the founding cellist with Bang on a Can All-Stars, and later embarked on a solo career in 2000. She returns to Israel annually with her two children (her eldest turns 13 this year) but lives in New York.
Since going solo, she’s gathered accolades. The New Yorker dubbed her “the new-music cello goddess” and the San Francisco Chronicle called her “the virtuosic queen of the post-minimalist cello.”
Beiser has been touring World to Come since premiering the program in late 2003. She’s played it at the Kennedy Center, Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall’s “underground” venue) and elsewhere. The favorable reviews led the Mondavi Center to book her nearly two years ago and, Friday night, Beiser’s World finally comes to Davis.