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Cello fest will make you rethink your string theory

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Those who still consider the cello an overly staid, classically inclined instrument relegated to concert halls had better check their bows at the door.

Agassiz Summer Chamber Music Festival promises to change all that when it kicks off its second triennial International Cello Festival of Canada next week. The five-day extravaganza being held June 18-22 features more than 60 cellists from as far afield as China, Russia and Sweden in a feast of concerts, workshops, master classes, open stage events, lectures, film and even bow-making tutorials that ensure you'll never quite look at the popular string instrument in the same way again.

First up is a "cello intervention" -- think flash mob -- with over 40 cellists "rising up" to perform surprise, one-hour concerts in public spaces throughout the province. Artistic director Paul Marleyn acknowledges the vaguely subversive tone of the opening event, spearheaded by Leanne Zacharias, in which cellists "infiltrate" local communities such as Onanole, Brandon, Morden and Winnipeg.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," the former Winnipegger promises over the phone from his Ottawa home. "Cello recitals will break out at 12 noon right across the province." And will he also play his part in the mass takeover? "I'm not exactly sure yet," the good-natured University of Ottawa cello professor, who founded the Agassiz music series in 2000, says with a laugh. "But I might appear somewhere, lurking with evil intent."

The ambitious festival, jointly produced by the Winnipeg Arts Council and Agassiz, first began in 2011 as part of the $4-million Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada 2010 program that spilled over into the following year. As the brainchild of arts council executive director Carol Phillips and Marleyn, it continues as a "legacy event." Its estimated $250,000 budget is remarkably modest given the scope of the festival -- the first of its kind in North America.

More than 5,000 cello enthusiasts flocked to the inaugural festival back in 2011, creating significant buzz with a third of its concerts quickly selling out. This year's event should prove no different, with Marleyn urging music lovers to get their festival passes early to avoid disappointment.

One of this year's highlights will be Beethoven's complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, performed on Saturday, June 21, by six international cello stars: Christophe Coin (France); Yegor Dyachkov (Canada); Colin Carr (U.K.); Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (Japan); and Miklòs Perényi (Hungary), as well as Marleyn. The final two works, Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1 and Sonata No. 5, Op. 102, No. 2 were written after Beethoven had grown profoundly deaf.

"It's really music from the heavens," Marleyn says of the seminal pieces dating to 1815. "They're composed purely from Beethoven's imagination."

Another concert being performed Friday, June 20, features a new take on J.S. Bach's Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, played by Marleyn, Denise Djokic (Canada), Matt Haimovitz (Israel), Coin, Alexander Rudin (Russia) and Carr, which allows listeners to compare different stylistic approaches to the iconic works. Other cellists -- including local favourites Yuri Hooker, Zacharias and Minna Rose Chung, among others -- as well as emerging artists will also be showcased throughout the week.

A trio of cellists -- including Marleyn -- will première Winnipeg composer Vincent Ho's Three Warriors with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra during the gala closing-night show on Sunday, June 22.

The 2014 Zara Nelsova Memorial Award, named for the acclaimed artist hailing from Winnipeg's North End, will be presented, on Thursday, June 19.

For kids of all ages, there's Danish cello magician John Ehde and beat box cello on Saturday, June 21. But those craving a walk on the wild side -- there's that subversive edge again -- will thrill to "Wood-shred," a late-night, heavy-metal cello concert slated for Thursday, June 19, that promises to leave no string unscathed. The English-born Marleyn, a self-professed metal fan since his teens before eventually morphing into the principal cellist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, says he will be there in spades.

With all these cello stars coming to town, one might imagine they'd be packing some pretty hefty egos in their cello cases. Marleyn says that's not the case, adding that the local, national and international cello communities are extremely supportive of each other.

"Cellists actually get on really well with each other. They're not competitive and like to hang out together," he says.

"The voice of the cello is also so close to the range of the human voice, it's very natural," he adds. "And I think the pitch being lower means that cellists are a little less high-strung than some other musicians."

"There's nothing more exciting for me than hearing fantastic cello playing. And I think most cellists feel that way. They're just very happy to celebrate when somebody can achieve something special."

Festival tickets (various prices) and passes ($125/adult; $115/senior; $42/student) are available at McNally Robinson Booksellers, or by phone at 204-475-1779. Gala finale tickets available at the WSO box office or at 204-949-3999. For more information, visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2014 D3

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