It’s a cold heart that doesn’t swoon when the cello sings. Possessing one of the warmest, most romantic timbres in the orchestra, it is the instrument that Camille Saint-Saens chose for the swan in his Carnival of the Animals. The cello swoops, sighs, sobs and soars.
However, in this week’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the instrument has a less glamorous—but still vital—role.
“My job is to make the music go in the direction it needs to go,” says Andy Bryenton, a KSO veteran of 31 years and, since 1999, the orchestra’s principal cellist. “I’m sort of a conveyor belt for the musical goods.”
Based on an Italian sonnet, The Four Seasons was popular during Vivaldi’s lifetime but virtually forgotten during the 19th century—and has now become one of the most familiar orchestral pieces in the world. It’s a showcase not only for Vivaldi’s nice way with a tune, but also for his ability to depict seasonal, elemental scenarios—chattering teeth, a barking dog, the wind in the trees—using only a string orchestra. And all within the confines of Baroque protocol.
“There are three parts: the solo voice, the orchestra, and the continuo, which is the bass and harmonic ‘road map’ of the piece, usually played by solo cello and harpsichord,” Bryenton says.
The keyboardist is free to improvise—within the limits of the style—but the cellist must keep the bass line moving exactly as it’s written. He’s the engine of the piece.
“The story is being told,” Bryenton says. “I have a job as a storyteller not to give it away.”
He supports and enhances the action with different articulations, dynamics, and nuances, without “telegraphing” or jumping the musical gun when there’s a change coming. And he plays almost constantly. A pencil notation above a 13-bar rest in the first movement, “La Primavera,” marks one of his rare breathers in the 42-minute piece. “Spring break,” it reads.
On Thursday and Friday nights, he’ll be fulfilling his supportive role. But he’ll have a few moments in the spotlight. “Every once in a while the orchestra drops out, and it’s just me and the soloist,” he says with a smile, clearly relishing those moments. “Then it’s a real duet.”
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