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A pinch-hitting cellist knocks it out of the park

Tanya Tomkins, baroque cellist Credit: Courtesy, Early Music Guild

Last Monday, Gus Denhard, the executive director of the Early Music Guild, got the phone call all arts managers dread. The star Dutch baroque cellist, Jaap ter Linden, who was to kick off the EMG’s season with a performance of Bach cello suites five days later, called to say he was too sick to travel to the concert. In four panicky hours, Denhard found a replacement, the San Francisco-based cellist Tanya Tomkins.

As Denhard recounts the episode, he soon discovered that while all top cellists know Bach’s six suites very well, playing them all their lives, only a few really have these immensely demanding works truly ready for concert performance. Tomkins, who is currently performing and recording the solo suites on baroque cello, did have them ready, and she was free. So there she was, Saturday night at Town Hall, playing Suites 1, 4, and 5 exquisitely.

Such musical moments don’t come along that often and can be unforgettable. Here was a large audience, drawn by the missing star’s fame. Expectations were probably low, though some of the town’s cellists I talked to alerted me that this would be a very exciting concert. The audience was pulling for the last-minute replacement. I had heard ter Linden a few years back, playing some Bach suites, and sure enough Tomkins was much more alive, fresh, and expressive.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Often younger players, lacking fame, have a lot more to say about well-known works than the old masters, who can tend to coast. Tomkins, who plays a lot of continuo cello, accompanying singers and other instruments, has a great sense of rhythm that comes from that kind of performance, subtly adjusting to the singers’ lead.  She has that rare instinct for knowing the right millisecond for placing a note or adding a second string. She could vary interpretations when repeating a section. And she’s both a baroque and modern cellist, bringing a kind of cross-cultural richness to her playing. She studied and played for 14 years in Holland, where the Dutch masters taught her, but now she has a voice and style of her own: very clean, rhythmically alive, rich and transparent, unforced but expressively powerful. It was a superb performance. 

And so we had a wonderful way to start the EMG season. This is a notable season, the first of the newly merged EMG and Seattle Baroque Orchestra, whose programs will be jointly presented at Town Hall. That’s another encouraging step forward, as well as a prudent one in these tough economic times, and a rare merger of arts groups in this city. Early music thus continues to be one of the brightest aspects of our musical scene, a tribute to leaders like Denhard, the many musicians who have gravitated here because there’s enough work, and the dedicated and musically smart audiences they have developed.

That Seattle (along with Boston and the Bay Area) should have become one of the leading early-music scenes in the nation is rather surprising, given our size. More than that, it’s a victory over local obstacles. The University of Washington School of Music, once home to some fine players and teachers in this period (roughly, music before 1800), has lost that specialty. (Cornish College is somewhat taking up the slack.) In the 26 years that Gerard Schwarz has headed the Seattle Symphony and Speight Jenkins the Opera, neither has shown much liking for early music.

And so these home-grown organizations, ensembles, and choruses have just gone out and done it themselves. They do themselves and the city proud — especially so last Saturday night.

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