[Scene Magazine] Parisian Symphonic Maneuvers
Santa Barbara Symphony closes its current season with music linked to Paris, with acclaimed cellist Zuill Bailey as soloist
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
With this weekend's season-closer concert by the Santa Barbara Symphony, the orchestra goes to Paris figuratively and programmatically speaking, and Zuill Bailey comes back to a town which had been a periodic landmark in his stellar career.
The Parisian angle? A conceptual thread runs through Mozart's Symphony No. 31 "Paris," Gershwin's An American in Paris, Liszt's Les préludes, and for purely French sake, Saint-Saëns' popular Cello Concerto No. 1.
The Bailey factor? The prized mid-career cellist, whose latest notable news was a 2016 Grammy Award for his work as soloist on Michael Daugherty's "Tales of Hemingway," counts among his many beloved locales our fair city. It holds more than just the usual allure for the musician.
In a recent phone interview from Greensborough, N.C., Mr. Bailey was waxing nostalgic about his connection to Santa Barbara, peppered through the decades of his life, times and musical endeavors. It began in adolescence, when he studied in the summer program at the Music Academy of the West, and then returned to the campus in later decades to perform and give mastercalsses. With the Santa Barbara Symphony, his guest soloist visits date back twenty years, to the era when Gisele Ben-Dor boldly, and imaginatively, led the orchestra, and he returned around the auspicious moment when the orchestra moved up the street from the Arlington Theatre to the more orchestra-friendly Granada Theatre, newly and lavishly renovated. This weekend marks another Symphony encounter, with the cellist now in his 40s and well-established on the world stage, his discography (on Telarc, with his Bailey/Perlman/Schmidt trio, and a professorship at the University of Texas as El Paso.
Reflecting on the continuity represented by his latest stop in the 805, Mr. Bailey notes that "Santa Barbara has very deep roots for me, at various stages of my career and my growth. It's a very special place for me, which brings back amazing memories. Also, the piece I'm playing in Santa Barbara--the Saint-Saëns concerto--was the piece that sort of set all this in motion. It was my debut concerto when I was 12 or 13. This is coming full circle, reminiscing how it all began.
It's one of those piece that's actually not played as much as it should be. It's one of the great masterpieces. Audiences love it. The orchestra loves it--the musicians and of course, the cellists love it. It's one of those nuts-and-bolts, meat-and-potatoes concertos in our lives."
News-Press: Is it one of those works that you feel you learn a bit more about each time you approach it?
Zuill Bailey: I think the bigger thing is that you bring more to the table as a human being. You play these big pieces and you have a different trough of experiences to delve into, to then let the music free and speak for itself. It have found that to be true. That's why the great pieces never get old. They tap into different things, depending where you are in your own life.
NP: This upcoming concert involves an interesting programming concept, with Paris as theme connecting Mozart, Liszt, Gershwin and Saint-Saëns. Do you enjoy being part of such a diversified musical menu?
ZB: Nir (Kabaretti) is wonderful not only as a conductor, but he gives great variety and thematic material to create a lot of interest and perspective in experiencing concerts. For him to put together this kind of an eclectic program (is exciting), along with working with a friend--(I've worked with him many times) and my connection to Santa Barbara ties it all together. It's also quite a celebration, being the last concerto of the season, as well.
NP: Was cello always your instrument of choice?
ZB: Absolutely. It stopped me in my tracks when I was four years old. I've only been asked to stop playing since then. My parents have told me that, in my childhood, I was so ridiculously in love and obsessed with this instrument that it was clear it was my destiny.
NP: Were there particular cellist who really spoke to you, and influenced you?
ZB: The ridiculous advantage that I had when I was growing up was that our "local" cellist was Rostropovich, who was in the D.C. area when I grew up there. He was the cellist I heard most of the concertos played live, and I sat in the front row. It's like being told the story of life by Moses.
It did change everything. It gave me perspective that I can't believe I got. Because of him, also, the Washington D.C. area became a cello Mecca. He brought cellist through, for masterclasses and other things. So basically, my entire childhood was very cello-centric.
NP: Speaking of specific cellos, can you tell me about your special instrument?
ZB: Yes. This is a good time to do that, because this is my twentieth anniversary with this cello. It's made in 1693 by Matteo Gofriller. It's called the "Rosette Gofriller," with a rose carved beneath the fingerboard. Our paths crossed in 1997 and I've been performing on this cello ever since. It's simply the greatest cello I've ever heard.
It was the sound I grew up with in my head, of a cello that I thought never existed or could exist. Every time I play it, I just can't believe that it realizes something that was an instinct, a feeling that I thought a cello should sound like.
NP: Congratulations on your Grammy for Michael Daugherty's "Tales of Hemingway" by the way. That's exciting.
ZB: Very exciting. The CD won as well, as did the piece. The recording swept all the categories. It was really an awesome day.
NP: This piece, like other examples of Michael Daugherty's music, is something distinctively special--modern in approach yet also accessible to general audiences...
ZB: Absolutely. It's a terrific, tremendous work that was a gift to be involved with and premiere, let alone be able to document the premiere. That recording was the first performance ever, on Earth. There was no experimentation. While I listen to that recording, I relive the fact that while I was playing that premiere, I didn’t know how the audience was going to react.
Subsequently, audiences are incredibly excited by it. On that live recording, we had to record the ending, because the audience started applauding before the end of the piece.
NP: So, this will be one of the those rare contemporary pieces which lives on in concert?
ZB: Seemingly, yes. With a lot of premieres, they premiere and then stop right there, and don't live on. I'm in the high teens of performing this, and that was before the Grammy award. So now that it's been celebrated on the global stage, i think it's guaranteed to live on for at least quite a long time.
NP: Is it vital for you to be engaged in music of our time?
ZB: You have to be forward-thinking while celebrating the past. You have to. We have to create a future of music, as our predecessors did. I am doing my part, in terms of commissioning work and inspirations where I can, while continuing to celebrate the past and the present.
NP: Such as revisiting the Saint-Saëns Concerto in Santa Barbara?
ZB: Absolutely. It's a remarkable work. Saint-Saëns is one of the genius composers we've had in classical music. As I said before, it represents such a bigger deal to me than just a piece. It represents kind of an awakening for me. It's very personal to play this piece.
NP: In another incidental local connection, the same week you play here, the Ying Quartet appears at the Museum of Art, and you recorded an intriguing project with them in 2016, "Re:Imagining." This is one of many activities in your recent past: is that diversity something you thrive on?
ZB: I think so. I've always been that way. It's just the fun of the process of life. I'm not a person who lets the grass grow under his feet. I always have many plates spinning, and those plates are very different, whether it be my recording activities or my solos, festivals or the performance editions I'm doing for Thomas or teaching or whatever. It makes for an interesting life in music. I could see no other way.
NP: Are you generally satisfied with the way things are unfolding in your musical life at the moment?
ZB: To be very honest, I wouldn't change one thing. I wake up every day and I feel so blessed and lucky to be part of this life in music. I've surrounded myself with the most inspiring kinds of people. I have a very broad existence that all springs together.
But again, it has been 26 years of trying to building this. It's been one brick at a time, and those bricks have been meticulously created. Just recently, I looked back and realized how broad an existence I have. I haven't ever worked a day in my life. Every day, I get a pleasure. That was a quote from somebody I performed the Saint-Saëns that started it all. This man came backstage and he said: "If you can find what you love to do, and figure out a way to make that what you do, you'll never work again in your life."
I'll tell you what: I've never worked a day in my life.