Retracing the cello icons in Manila

Thomas Demenga with Filipino pianist Charisse Dumlao. Manila debut on October 10.

When Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga performs in Manila on October 10 with Filipino pianist Charisse Dumlao, he shall have completed a cycle of great cellists who have performed in Manila.

In the 70s, French legendary cellist Pierre Fournier performed at the CCP while in the early 80s, the great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was soloist in the Dvorak concerto with the PPO under Oscar Yatco. (He turned conductor in another CCP concert with Cecile Licad as soloist in the Saint-Saens piano warhorse.)

Fournier was often referred to as the "aristocrat of cellists" on account of his elegant musicianship and majestic sound.

Demenga told Vera Files before flying to Manila that he heard Fournier for the first and only time in his home town Berne in Switzerland when he was a young boy of maybe 10 years. “Later I heard his recordings - an incredible noble and stylish artist! Today I believe that his Lalo cello concerto is still the best recording ever made!” he related with enthusiasm.

Cellist Thomas Demenga in performance. Photo from University of Southern California.

He also studied with Rostropovich in Basel for about six weeks when the Russian cellist gave his only master class in Europe. “Although we had a great pianist who accompanied all the 40 cellists in this master class, Rostropovich would also sit at a grand piano and proved that he knew the whole cello repertoire by heart including pieces like the orchestra part of the Sinfonia Concertante by Prokofiev. Later on, when I studied at the Juilliard School in New York, I met him and his daughters quite often on a friendly basis.”

It was another coincidence that Demenga met Cecile Licad, who used to live in Basel with cellist Antonio Meneses. “When Cecile and Antonio got married, they lived in Basel where I still teach. We were very good friends then. I met them earlier at Gidon Kremer’s festival in Lockenhaus where Cecile and I played Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata. We lost contact when she moved back to New York.”

Pianist Dumlao who hails from Tacloban, Leyte first saw Demenga perform Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Sonata for Cello. She remembered it was a very intense experience as he immersed the audience into different colors of sound. “Although modern music is not always easy to appreciate, Demenga has a way of involving his audience. You don’t need to understand the music if you allow yourself to be carried away by his performance and of course his very presence. At the time I saw him, he was not playing for us; he was playing with us which made it very special.”

The Swiss cellist points out the importance of listening to New Music which he used to improvise and compose since age 16. “New Music is an important part of my musical life. Every music was at one point modern and new. Nowadays when people hear music which was written a hundred years ago, they still think it’s modern. We just have to compare new music with everyday life. Everyone has a smart phone/computer and other modern things that they are all so fond of. But when it comes to art and music, they prefer works which hundreds are of years old — strange, isn’t it?”

For him, playing chamber music is the best there is for any artist. “I think most of the composers’ best works are to be found within their chamber music. That makes it a pure joy to play it - just together with a few people instead of with an orchestra of 100 members. It’s a very personal and challenging way to communicate.”

He feels much honored that he will follow the trail of Fournier and Rostropovich in his coming October 10 Manila concert with Dumlao. “I’m curious to see a country and a culture I’ve never seen before, and having the chance to perform in Manila with a Filipino pianist is very exciting.”

Dumlao can only agree: “Playing chamber music for me is very exciting - the wide repertoire, the different coloring in sound and constant dialogue with co-musicians. A piece is never the same with different players, and it’s never better or worse. Just different! That for me, is exciting enough!”

Mstislav Rostropovich congratulating model Crispy Santamaria during a Malacanang fashion show in the early 80s. With Mrs. Marcos, Cecile Licad and Noel Velasco. Photo from Pablo Tariman collection.

For his Manila concert, Demenga will use his Andrea Guarneri 1669 Cello named "The Soyer." Its previous owner is David Soyer, founding member of the famous Guarneri Quartet.

The recital program at the Carlos P. Romulo Hall (RCBC) includes Brahms’ Sonata in E minor, Opus 38, Faure’s Après un Rêve, Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola, Dvorak’s Waldesruh ́ and Rondo in G minor and Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (Arpeggione).

Apart from the October 10 concert, Demenga will also conduct a masterclass on October 8. They will also be heard at the Casa San Miguel in San Antonio, Zambales on October 13. On October 14, pianist Dumlao will be guest lecturer in Tacloban in a lecture series called “Pasundayag: Teaching and Enhancing Cultural Education in Eastern Visayas.”

The October 14 lecture will be capped by a mini-concert featuring flutist Raymond Sarreal at 2 pm. The program: Concertino by Chaminade, Undine Sonata by Reinecke and Kataka-taka for Flute and piano.

For inquiries, call Jem Tangalin at 0945 724 6741.

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