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Rewriting the playbook for cello ensemble

October 07, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

For anyone accustomed to the harmonious teamwork of a classical ensemble, the notion of starting a group with eight cellos might sound like fielding a baseball team with nothing but shortstops. Until recently, there was no playbook for that sort of lineup.

Sixteen years ago, when two students approached cello master Elias Arizcuren with the idea of launching a full-time cello octet, the bearded Spaniard thought they were just tilting at windmills. Their enthusiasm had been fueled by a class he was teaching for young cellists, which ended with a performance of two of the few works for cello octet that existed at that time, part of a series by Heitor Villa-Lobos known as the "Bachianas Brasileiras" written as the Brazilian composer's tribute to Bach.

To Arizcuren, the proposal seemed preposterous. Out of respect for his students' talent, he didn't laugh; but he recalls saying, "What are you going to play, the two Bachianas four times apiece at every concert? Because there's nothing else."

Today, Arizcuren and his Cello Octet Conjunto Iberico, which will perform Saturday night at the Ford Amphitheatre, boasts a repertoire of more than 150 numbers, including about 65 original works written by some of the world's leading composers. Among them are Philip Glass, whose "Symphony for Eight" appears on Saturday's program. The concert will also feature Spanish soprano Laura Alonso.

Conjunto Iberico has gained international attention billing itself as the world's only full-time cello octet. It has recorded 13 albums and performs about 50 concerts a year, often featuring debuts of specially commissioned material. And it has earned the support of musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has proclaimed Arizcuren a "true visionary."

But Conjunto Iberico, Spanish for "Iberian band," has almost nothing Iberian about it except its conductor and some of its repertoire. Its members reflect the cosmopolitan character of Amsterdam, where Arizcuren plays and teaches the cello, his childhood instrument.

Arizcuren, 62, has stubbornly refused to change the group's name. Speaking in Spanish by phone this week after a concert in Vienna, he said that that obstinacy resulted in a considerable financial cost during the group's early lean years. Holland's cultural minister, he recalled, refused to grant a subsidy to a group whose very name promoted culture from elsewhere.

The government relented, he said, after he argued in a public debate that nobody had required him to change his Spanish surname to teach Dutch youth to play the cello.

His insistence on the name reflects his pride in his Spanish roots and the group's mission as "world ambassadors" of music by Iberian and Latin American composers such as the Spaniard Manuel de Falla and Brazilians Villa-Lobos and Marlos Nobre, whose works are also on Saturday's program.

The goal: to elevate composers from such places as Argentina (Astor Piazzolla), Mexico (Silvestre Revueltas) and Spain (Isaac Albeniz) to a par with classical composers from Germany, Russia and France.

"If these men had German surnames, they'd be a million times better known," he said. "An hour ago, we brought the house down because people had never heard these works before. That's why the octet is so successful, because this music is so strong, so vivid, so full of color that it doesn't need the prism of intellectualism to be enjoyed."

Arizcuren was born in Spain's northern Basque country. His first cello teacher was his father, and he later had "the immense luck" of studying under Gaspar Cassado, Andre Navarra and Sandor Vegh.

When he came of age, Spain was still in the fascist grip of dictator Francisco Franco. "It was a political horror and a cultural wasteland," he said.

At 18, he bought a one-way ticket to study in Switzerland and Germany, and he didn't return to Spain for almost two decades. At 22, he won a cello competition in Italy and was invited by one of the judges to perform in the Netherlands.

Arizcuren fell in love with Amsterdam. He planned to stay six months, but that has turned into 40 years. For most of that time, he has taught cello and chamber music at the conservatories of Amsterdam and Utrecht. He has written several books on cello history and developed a video presentation of cello technique. In 1969, he founded the Mendelssohn Trio, composed of cello, piano and violin, and he remained with the group for more than two decades.

Arizcuren spoke with youthful enthusiasm of Conjunto Iberico's future projects. They include albums of Argentinian music by Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera and others; an "America Today" collection of Glass and Terry Riley; and new works by English composer Ivan Moody and the Mexican Mario Lavista.

Arizcuren, who has transcribed classics for his group, wonders why his cello predecessors did not also urge the great composers of their era to write for the underrated cello octet. He can only dream of the original works that might have been produced by a Ravel or a Stravinsky.

"By now, we would have a treasure of music for the octet," he said. "But in the past, people just weren't aware of the incredible possibilities."


Conjunto Iberico

Where: John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Price: $20 and $25

Contact: (323) 461-3673

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