It is with great pleasure that I introduce yet another wonderful multi-movement piece for cello. Following in the tradition of none other than the illustrious Bach, George Lam’s Suite for Cello doesn’t disappoint. The risk of titling your piece ‘suite’ for cello is that everyone will compare it to Bach’s masterpieces. His multi-movement structure has been the model for countless solo cello pieces, (David Feurzieg’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Paul Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 25 No. 3, Max Reger’s 3 suites for cello, etc.) While these composers have altered the number of movements and the movements’ functions within the piece as a whole, they all serve to show off different facets of the cello’s unique characteristics.
Lam’s take on the suite is interesting in that he utilises a four movement form but avoids structuring it in the typical sonata allegro form. Lam’s Suite for Cello is distinctly imbued with Jewish tradition and folklore. He has purposely framed the piece with movements that mark dawn and dusk, a reference that I can’t help but wonder might be influenced by Fiddler on the Roof’s Sunrise, Sunset, a song whose lyrics describe the passing of time and the brevity of life.
The first movement, ‘Nocturne,’ uses a few harmonic intervals to set this atmospheric genesis into motion. This opening sequence of minor 7th, major 6th, minor 6th, and minor 7th are inverted, transposed, and juxtaposed to create the material upon which much of the piece is built.
The technical challenge of the first movement lies in playing the double-stops in a lyrical and expressive manner. There is a middle section that employs what I think are rather inventive scalar and arpeggiated figures. Lam uses scale, and arpeggio shapes that fit nicely into the hand but makes them occur in a tonally unexpected way. This results in fairly easy to play but really cool and fresh sounding lines.
Movement 2 is titled: ‘Elijah and the Rabbi on the World To Come.’ I think it is quite obvious when listening, even without knowing the title, that the music in this movement is meant to mimic the peculiar rhythmic nuances of human speech. Think of it like speaking through the instrument. Lam constructs a conversation between four different characters, each with their own distinct quality, manner of speech, and attitude. He further clarifies these characters by putting their names in the score so you can more easily distinguish them and convey their personalities.
The shofar is a traditional type of horn, usually made from the horn of a ram, used in Jewish religious ceremonies. Lam has taken a shofar theme and used it as the basis of his third movement and has woven very idiomatic lines based on the natural harmonic series of the cello. The melodies follow a subtle flux of tempo whereby the speed increases as one moves toward the apex and then gently ritards at the end of each phrase. The almost constantly changing tempo gives the performer quite a bit of freedom which you can use to your advantage to facilitate shifts over the range of the cello. Bow control is a major challenge here, and slow metronome work is the key to a successful execution.
Finally we come to the ‘Serenade’, a movement that uses pizzicato exclusively. Of all the movements, this fourth movement is the least rubato and most regular in regards to metre. In ¾, this movement sounds like it could be a guitar quietly strumming, marking the conclusion of another day. Though there are some tricky chords, it needs to sound unencumbered, allowing every chord to ring as much as possible.
At a total timing of approximately 11 minutes, Suite for Cello, is a nice break from the expected binary and ternary forms that we often encounter in music. Motives and themes seem to appear and disappear in a rather organic fashion; the compositional material is knit together in a way that keeps us listening to the piece’s forward motion, undistracted by the conventions of traditional forms.