The last time celebrated Spanish cellist Asier Polo was slated to perform with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in February 2012, the show almost didn't go on. Stranded in Montreal by an unexpected blizzard, Polo spent a nail-biting three days practising on his own in his hotel room -- sans luggage -- arriving in the city late the night before his scheduled appearance. Despite missing several days of orchestra rehearsals, the charismatic musician proved worth the wait, electrifying audiences with his delivery of Boccherini's second cello concerto.
"What an experience that was," the ebullient artist, 42, recalls during a phone interview from his mountain home in Spain's Basque region. "I said, OK, next time I will come in spring. No more winter!"
Hopefully, Polo's wish will come true when he arrives in town next week for his second MCO gig on April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Westminster United Church. His highly anticipated performance of Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in C Minor, RV 401 and Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 promises to further showcase his fierce artistry, charming stage presence and innate ability to communicate with listeners on an immediate, visceral level.
"I never play for myself. My way of playing is very expressive and I like to connect directly with the audience, and with the emotion of the piece," Polo explains. "That makes the difference, and is why there are so many impressive, but not expressive musicians. Their playing might be (technically) perfect, but somehow the sensitivity is missing."
Regarded one of the leading cellists of his generation, Polo's career has taken him around the world with recent tours to Europe, Asia and North America -- including a stop at New York City's Carnegie Hall -- on his resumé. His discography is growing and he passes on his love for music by teaching in San Sebasti°n, Spain.
MCO music director Anne Manson first discovered Polo while conducting in Galicia, Spain in 2010. She was so taken by his musicianship, she swore then and there to bring him to Canada.
"Asier is the best cellist in Spain, and of truly international calibre. I worked with him four years ago in Spain. He is extraordinary and I thought, 'We have got to get him to the MCO,'" she says.
It proved to be the Tchaikovsky work that the conductor first heard him play -- and the one he'll be performing in its string-orchestra incarnation for his first time this month.
"It's so lovely and fresh. It's written in a Rococo style, and little by little becomes Romantic. It's quite spectacular because there are many things to do technically, but it's just so elegant," Polo says about the work, adding he is looking forward to reuniting with Manson and the closely-knit MCO players.
The Bilbao-born artist first took up the string instrument at age 11 after his musician uncle bequeathed his cello to his family following his death. The youngest of five children -- and the only musical sibling who also plays piano and sings -- says he knew within one week of playing that he was going to be a cellist, declaring to his initially shocked family, including his banker father, that he had "made his decision" to become a professional musician.
"It was pure coincidence," he says of those early musical seeds being sown. "It seems incredible now, but I knew I wanted to express my creativity with something. It could also have been a trumpet, or any other instrument. My learning cello was just a question of chance."
Within five years, the gifted teenager garnered first prizes at Spain's Concurso Nacional de Juventudes Musicales (National Young Musicians Competition), propelling him into national awareness.
Although music played havoc with Polo's school studies, as he "fought" to become a musician, he persevered, following his heart and passion to play.
"I think the cello is the most melodic, the most beautiful instrument like the voice; however, I always feel myself more a musician than a cellist," he says.
Another star on the program will be Polo's 1689 Francesco Ruggieri cello, notably older than his Baroque concerto. Arranged through Spanish bank Banesto, which also serves as a foundation, Polo makes regular loan payments to someday own it outright.
When asked if he ever gets nervous travelling with such a priceless instrument, he says no, since it never leaves his side for a moment. Polo watches over it like an attentive parent and even purchases its own seat whenever he flies.
"It gets the window," he jokes.
At the Winnipeg show, audiences will get to taste Polo's sheer exuberance and passion for music making, with the cellist stating he has no preference of composers or musical styles.
"I really feel like I did when I was 15 years old -- the same happiness, the same openness and excitement in my profession," Polo says. "I always try to be honest with the music and with the composer, but what I mostly want to give to listeners is a little piece of beauty."
The program also includes Haydn's Symphony No. 87 in A Major, and Dorothy Chang's Virtuosities, originally composed to mark MCO's 40th anniversary. Tickets are $8 to $28 at www.themco.ca.