Treasure Valley becomes hot spot for cellists

January 9, 2014 

In the past two decades, the popularity of cello has come on strong locally, as it also has grown worldwide. Today, the violoncello, as it is formally known, enjoys a larger audience as more repertory is being written for it. Now, because of a convergence of talented musicians and teachers, Idaho has “an embarrassment of riches” in the number of excellent cello players who call Idaho home, says Samuel Smith, a cellist with the Boise Philharmonic and Langroise Trio and a teacher at College of Idaho. “We have a deep talent pool here,” Smith says. You’ll get to wade into it as eight cellists perform this weekend as part of the Stars of Steinway season, featuring the Boise Cello Collective. “We could have doubled the number of cellists on stage and not have diminished the quality of the musicianship,” says Smith, who has seen the Idaho cello community grow since he arrived here in 1991. The program is filled with pieces by Idaho composers Danielle Danker, Seth Graham and Jim Cockey, and includes a world premiere by Boise’s David Alan Earnest: a Quintet for Cello and Piano commissioned by Stars of Steinway founders Mona Morrison and Michael Winter. Morrison and husband Winter started the piano recital series Stars of Steinway in 2012, although it’s not sponsored by the piano maker. “Most cities with lively cultural scenes have a recital series, and we felt this is something Boise should have, too,” Winter says. Morrison is a classical percussionist and manages Dunkley Music in Boise, where the four regular-season performances happen. Each year they produce a bonus concert that happens at larger venues in the community. “It’s very exciting,” Winter says. “We have so many great cellists here right now, we wanted to give them something cool to do. If they can’t find ways to play here, they won’t be able to stay.” So, they commissioned Earnest for a cello piece for Smith, Jake Saunders, who founded the Boise Cello Collective in 2012, Boise State University cello professor Brian Hodges and David Feldman, who recently finished his master’s degree at BSU. Currently in Roanoke, Va., he’s happy to come back to Boise for the show. “The cello community was one of the best reasons to be in Boise,” Feldman says. “All these cellists just seemed to move there for one reason or another, and it happened organically. I really miss that.” The piece turned into a quintet with the addition of pianist Betsi Hodges, Brian’s wife and performing partner, into the mix. Earnest came to Idaho to work for Micron in its early years. Composing was something he did on the side. Now, it’s a full-time gig, and writing for cello is one of his favorite things to do, he says. He even studied the instrument for a year. “I have an affinity for cello,” he says. “Studying it helped me understand string instruments in general, so I know what they can do.” The three movements blend traditional and contemporary classical styles. Influenced by everyone from Brahms to Glass, Earnest likes to play with the tension between harmony and dissonance, and juxtapose complex rhythms and time signatures with lush melodies. “The cello has such a wide range, and they sound great playing in harmony,” Earnest says. “You treat it like four vocalists who are very, very agile.” An original composition for cello and piano is a gift that comes with responsibility, says Saunders. “Because the work is as of yet only familiar to the composer and performers, our goal is to present Dave’s ideas as clearly and effectively as possible,” Saunders says. “Not to mention that repertoire for cello quartet and piano is extremely rare. It’s exciting.” The Boise Cello Collective has been quiet during the past five months as Saunders has been finishing up his master’s degree at BSU and touring Europe with folk singer Poeina Suddarth. He will graduate this spring and plans to develop the collective further. “I’ll be in Boise for the foreseeable future and try to contribute to its blossoming music scene,” he says. Saunders also is excited to again perform with his former teacher, Smith. Smith’s presence in the Treasure Valley has been key in the cello community’s development, Saunders says. “Almost every young cellist working in Boise and the surrounding area has studied with Sam at some point,” Saunders says. It’s a very tight community here — and maybe a little wacky, Smith admits. In past years, Smith has organized tai chi/cello camps that sought to connect the spiritual side of music with the practice of playing. Last year he organized “Music From the Fringe,” an experiment that sought to create music through a psychic process called remote viewing. You’ll hear two movements by Jim Cockey from that experiment on this weekend’s program. Smith’s impact on the music scene here is inspiring, says Feldman, who graduated from Boise State last year and now is a teacher and performer in his home state of Virginia. “Seeing what Sam has been able to do in Idaho, and (to) see so many great students come out of his studio — I really want to use him as a model for what I want to do in Virginia,” Feldman says.

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