The ultimate test of any cellist's mettle would, without question, be the six solo suites of J.S. Bach. Along with the six partitas and sonatas Bach wrote for unaccompanied violin, these represent the pinnacle of soloistic writing for their respective instruments.
Not only do they challenge the performer technically and artistically, they also in many ways sum up the baroque era. The wealth of thematic material, the complexity of the texture and the brilliance of the counterpoint, sets these works (both the cello and violin pieces) apart and makes them fascinating for both performers and listeners.
Because of the challenges they present, mastering them has become a goal to which many cellists and violinsts aspire. They're drawn to them like a magnet. They become enthralled by their beauty and by the mystical aura that surrounds them.
One cellist who feels that way is Elliott Cheney. "You come under their spell," he told the Deseret Morning News.
Cheney, who's been teaching at the University of Utah for the past seven years, will perform all six suites over two concerts as part of the U.'s Sundays @ 7 series. He'll play the odd-numbered suites today at 7 p.m. in Libby Gardner Concert Hall and the even-numbered works the following Sunday.
"It's been a dream of mine to play them all together," he said.
He's been playing the suites for quite a long time now but he's never had the opportunity of doing them in a cycle. "I've played them individually at recitals but this is the first time I'm doing all six together."
The suites have been a passion for Cheney ever since he started to learn to play the cello. "My first attempt at these (works) was when I was 8," he said.
In fact, Cheney brought as much determination to learning to play the instrument as he did to the suites. When he first started to play the cello he tried to build an instrument himself. "I made the cello out of plywood and the bow out of bamboo."
As they have been for many cellists, the suites have been a lifelong affair for Cheney. The last suite Cheney undertook to learn was the Fifth Suite, and he's been playing that one for at least the past three years, he said.
The Fifth Suite is different from the others in that Bach asks the performer to tune the A string down a whole step to G. It can be played with the normal tuning, Cheney said, but lowering the A string brings a variety to the sound. "The tuning gives the piece a darker color."
As of the interview, Cheney hadn't decided whether to play it with the normal tuning.
It's impossible to leave these works alone, Cheney said, even though they're immensely difficult. "They're so hard to play, but you keep coming back to them."
He attributes part of the reason they're so challenging to the counterpoint. "There are several different voices going on at the same time, and it's a struggle to make them all heard."
Even though there is some evidence that Bach intended these works to be played in order, Cheney feels dividing them up by odd- and even-numbered suites is more musically gratifying and easier for the cellist. "Four, Five and Six are really more difficult and longer than the first three."Splitting them up this way isn't a killer for me," he jokingly added.
If you go . . .
What: Elliott Cheney, cello
Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
When: today, 7 p.m. (Suites Nos. 1, 3, 5); Nov. 4, 7 p.m. (Suites Nos. 2, 4, 6)