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A Heroic Cello Concerto

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Meastro James Brooks-Bruzzese directs attention to cellist Yehuda Hanani Meastro James Brooks-Bruzzese directs attention to cellist Yehuda Hanani

Heroic is not often a term used to describe a musical composition, but that is what famed cellist Yehuha Hanani told me he believes Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor to be.

In an interview after his bravura performance, Hanani said the cello concerto is very dear to his heart as it was his performance of it more than 40 years ago that was crucial to his entire career. “Leonard Bernstein heard me play it in Israel,” said Hanani. “He and Isaac Stern were able to bring me over to the United States to study and launch my career. Bernstein even wrote a letter to the Israeli government asking them to exempt me from mandatory military service.”

In comments at a VIP reception after the concert, Symphony of the Americas maestro James Brooks-Bruzzese said it was 30 years ago that he and Hanani performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (a concerto for violin, cello and piano). Their long acquaintance was just the chemistry needed to make this an evening to remember.

The concert at the Broward Centre on Feb. 10, 2015 was an all-Dvorak feast, with the cello concerto leading the way. It ranks alongside works by Elgar and Schumann as one of the staples of all cello concertos, and exhibits a considerable level of difficulty. It debuted in London in 1896 with an ending that Dvorak did not originally envision. In his private life, “Dvorak was much like Mozart,” Hanani told me. “They both married the sister of the woman they really loved.”

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)When Dvorak’s sister-in-law died, he revised the conclusion of the score- the new coda is quiet and deeply contemplative, like cirrus clouds obscuring an otherwise lovely sunrise.

The first few bars of the cello concerto are reminiscent of Night on Bald Mountain, but it is quickly superseded by an intensely romantic passage. Even at this early stage of the performance, Hanani’s superlative mastery of the cello was evident, becoming an instantiation of the work of the famed psychologist Alexander Bain.

Just a decade before Dvorak created this symphony, Bain had published his landmark work on explaining mental events, including aesthetic values, in terms of the juxtaposition of sensory impressions. Bain’s book made it clear this extended to music, as he includes a chapter on the “harmony of sound and sense” in his book.

In Hanani’s interpretation, the powerful melody of the first movement gives way to one of longing in the second. Despite outbursts from the orchestra that try to provoke a reaction from the cello, it maintains its equanimity. Eventually the orchestra falls silent, allowing the cello to establish its presence. The orchestra has no choice but to follow its lead to the end of the movement. Through the lens of Bain’s work, Hanani’s cello maximized its success in having the desired effect on his listeners (the orchestra) in a quiet battle for control of the mental events taking place inside them.

After intermission The Symphony of the Americas gave an excellent performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, premiered by the Czech Symphony Orchestra of Prague in 1890. Each of the three movements is a masterpiece in its own way. The first alternates between a light and airy, almost sprightly mood, and passages that feel like an avalanche. The rousing conclusion is a major contrast with the second movement that features a long, convoluted yet delicate conversation between the winds and strings. The final movement is again in a light-hearted mood but it overlies a serious layer of inquiry. The trumpet heralds the emergence of this underlying layer that continues to flirt with the quizzical innocence established at the beginning. It all ends in another orchestral flourish that the Symphony delivered with evident relish.

Photo copyright by C. Cunningham

Symphony Classics and the Best of Broadway will be featured in the March 10 concert. For more about upcoming concerts, visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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