Classical review: Samis soars in music of Bach, Bloch, Tavener and Golijov

samis5Nashville’s classical fans have long known of cellist Michael Samis’ intensely expressive artistry. On Sunday afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral, Samis revealed yet another side of his musical personality: Fearlessness.

Samis’ concert was part of the Cathedral’s marvelous Sacred Space for the City Arts Series. Four of the five works on his program were written for unaccompanied cello. It takes a lot of (ahem) pluck to play this kind of music. Every note is sorely exposed. There’s no piano accompaniment to hide behind. It’s the musical equivalent of walking a tightrope without a safety net. To his credit, Samis played all of this music – two of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied suites, one of Ernest Bloch’s suites and a John Tavener solo – with confidence, conviction and precision.

Memory was the common denominator of most of the music. Bloch’s Suite No. 1 (1956) looked back to Bach’s 18th-century suites for inspiration. Tavener’s “Threnos” (1990) was a loving tribute to a departed friend. Samis allowed a certain degree of wistful sentimentality to seep into his playing. But his emotions were always guided by a keen musical intelligence. That was certainly the case with his readings of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major and Suite No. 4 in E-flat major.

In both Bach suites, Samis delivered deeply personal interpretations. He played this familiar music with a remarkably burnished tone, ample vibrato and flexible tempos. A solid musician, he naturally paid heed to the niceties of Baroque performance practice: His rhythms were appropriately springy and dancelike; his dynamics were expertly terraced. But in the end, Samis seemed less interested in historical authenticity than in simply making an expressive statement. He certainly got no complaints from me. I loved every note.

samis-jump2Bloch may have intended his Suite No. 1 as homage to Bach, but he nevertheless wrote his music using a thoroughly modern voice. This seemed to suit Samis just fine. He gave the prelude an impassioned reading, and he played the second-movement allegro with just a hint of contemporary anguish and rage. Samis compared Bloch’ Canzona movement to one of Bach’s minuets. But that didn’t stop the cellist from playing the music as if it were a heartfelt Italian aria. He tossed off the final allegro movement with drama and fire.

Tavener looked back to the Byzantine Empire for the inspiration for his neo-medieval “Threnos.” The plaintive tone of the muted cello is supposed to call to mind the lamentation of a Byzantine monk. Bent notes suggest a cracking voice. Samis did more than hit Tavener’s notes dead center. He expertly played between the notes, capturing every nuance and inflection of the music.

Samis concluded his concert with the program’s one duo piece – Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel” for cello and marimba (1999). This piece is also a memory of a departed friend. But it’s more of a meditation than a lamentation. Percussionist Eric Willie’s marimba playing provided a shimmering, dreamy backdrop to this piece. Samis played the cello’s long lyrical lines with deep emotion.

Samis plans to record three of the works on his program – Tavener, Block and Golijov – for release of his debut recording on the Delos label next year. That CD will also feature Samis’ world-premiere recording of Carl Reinecke’s Cello Concerto. Samis has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for his worthy project. Music lovers would do well to support it at www.michaelsamis.com/kickstarter.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.