Composer and Professor Martin Bresnick had an assignment that he was struggling to get right: A composition specifically for virtuoso Aldo Parisot and his long-performing Yale Cellos, to be debuted at the group’s April 2016 concert.
When Parisot first suggested it, Bresnick had been thrilled to take the assignment from his colleague of 35 years. Then Parisot, longtime conductor, composer and champion of the Yale Cellos, had begun to specify: The piece had to have certain Baroque characteristics. “Many many 16th notes,” and nothing higher than a D. Bresnick, who had spent years having “some of my most incredible fights about music” with Parisot, could feel the piece growing more difficult to write. Why didn’t Parisot write the damn piece, he asked, only half-jokingly?
Oh no, Parisot replied with a wry smile. He never really told the composer what to do.
So Bresnick, with Parisot’s paradoxical blessing, went forward with it. Wednesday night marked the world premiere of his Parisot, a three-movement composition fêting Parisot’s rich legacy at the Yale School of Music, inside a packed Morse Recital Hall on Wall Street. As just a segment of the Yale Cellos’ showstopping spring 2016 performance, the 18-minute piece embraced the complicated, quirky, and wonderful of Parisot’s career and legacy in New Haven and beyond.
“I love Aldo Parisot,” said Bresnick before the piece. “Aldo Parisot is like Walt Whitman. He is large. He contains multitudes. I don’t know another musician who has given himself so completely, so totally to his craft, his art, the cello and the students that he has taken care of with such grace and such intensity. Unforgiving, unforgettable intensity.”
True to his word, Bresnick delivered a three-movement piece that captured, for his listeners if not also for Parisot’s students, the complexity of the man who has become the face of the Yale Cellos. With one foreboding, low-bellied note, a first movement titled “Paradox” built quickly into the soundtrack to a kind of Baroquey film noir, telling the story of Parisot’s arrival at Yale at the age of just 26, of every musical fight he’s had with a faculty member — all of which, it seems, have endeared him further to them — every time he’s stopped a rehearsal to tell members of the Yale Cellos, in a benevolent and exacting way, that a measure or note simply will not do. A slow-simmering anger four minutes into the piece gave way to a dissonance that seemed irreconcilable, where pregnant pauses turned quickly into uncomfortable, alienating silences.
Not to worry, Bresnick seemed to say, his hands cutting through the air as a few instrumentalists picked nervously at their cello strings, sending a deliberate plink plink into the hall. There will be resolution soon. Listeners got a taste of it in in “Parallels,” based on Bresnick’s 35 years of working alongside Parisot at Yale, before it came to full fruition in “Paragon,” a slow bloom into climactic string heaven. That movement, Bresnick’s whole body swaying as he conducted, so perfectly embodied what Parisot has become for his listeners, his colleagues, and his students: A paragon of musical excellence, in every way.
Something amazing and completely transformative happens when Parisot gets a piece of music in his hands. His arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s beloved “Air for a G String” (from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BVW 1068) was like being dipped, slowly, in gold. The Cellos’ take on Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 approximated breath. When 18th century compositions by Tomoso Albinoni joined the lineup, Parisot’s whole body quaked with the beauty and fervor of the music, the science of composing turned into a true ballet of sound and affect.
It’s not that Parisot is just polished and seasoned. That alone might be enough to draw the crowds that the Yale Cellos do, but his approach is something much deeper, that pounds at the door of the human heart as doggedly as it does the very marrow of every musical note. He is so much like the “Chaconne” that he and the Cellos perform as a finale each year. After a strong beginning, the piece evolves into something much more subtle, as if Bach is taking apart the piece beneath a microscope, leaving no note undiscovered, no musical stone unturned. It’s extraordinary and flawed, endearing and awesome.
And if you get the chance to hear it, you better drop everything and listen.