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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 10, 2002

edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Take Four Cellists, Add Four Cellos, & Stir

Of the string instruments used in western classical

music the cello has the widest range. At its bottom it keeps company

with the pitches that enable a Russian bass to make a room vibrate.

At the top of its range the cello sings in the region that enables

a coloratura to break glass by her sound. The range of the cello


the territory of the human voice. But while it takes a team of


to cover the full expanse, it takes only one cello.

Massing their forces, an ensemble of four cellists, calling themselves

Cello, performs in the Mount-Burke Theater at the Peddie School in

Hightstown Saturday, April 13. Members of the group are Julie Albers,

Laura Bontrager, Stephanie Cummins, and Maureen McDermott. Maria


a former member of the group, substitutes for Cummins in the Peddie

performance. The program ranges from music by Claude Debussy to pieces

written for the ensemble. It incorporates works by Dizzy Gillespie,

Samuel Barber, George Gershwin, and Bela Bartok.

A free master class/workshop with Cello takes place on Saturday, April

13, at 5 p.m., in the choral room of the Swig Arts Center on the



"The quality of the music we program is very important to us,"

says McDermott, in a telephone interview from her home in New York

City. "We try not to do pop or New Age. But we know you don’t

have to be as conservative as was once thought necessary."

Facing the question of whether a quartet of identical instruments

operates within restricted sonic boundaries, McDermott says, "We

like to think that there aren’t any limitations. The cello has the

largest range of all the string instruments. It can produce a walking

bass for rags, and it can handle material in the range of the violin.

And it has many different colors. We can easily play anything written

for a string quartet."

For performance, the music presented by Cello is organized if it was

written for a string quartet, where one violin handles the soprano

line, the cello supplies a bass underpinning, and two inner voices

are assigned to a second violin and a viola. "We alternate who

plays the top part," McDermott says. "The top part is quite

difficult. So it works out to change off."

"All four of us discuss every program," McDermott says.


one person might come up with a skeleton program. We have to have

discussions and talk about the order. We never completely agree."

A majority decision settles disputes, McDermott says. "Usually

one person comes around when there’s a tie. We all agree that we’re

willing to be outvoted. Everybody will have chance to be on the losing


When the dispute is about musical interpretation, the quartet turns

empirical. "We’re willing to try the music different ways,"

McDermott says. "Sometimes you have to try if for a period of

time, and give something the benefit of the doubt. You say, `Let’s

do it this way for this concert.’"

"Bowing is the key issue in interpretation," McDermott says.

"The most important question is whether any given passage is


or non-legato. It’s an aspect of phrasing, and that’s determined by

the bow."

The ensemble uses various means to make sure that the sound it


is uniform at any particular moment. "You need the same speed

of bow to create a unified sound," McDermott says. "Upbow

or downbow is sometimes a question when it comes to a uniform sound,

and sometimes we come to an agreement on fingering as a musically

unifying thing."

The operating principle is that right hand behavior

(the bow) is a group concern, and left hand behavior (fingering) is

in the private sphere. While bow direction, when to change direction,

and how much bow to use in a given phrase are topics on which the

ensemble seeks agreement, which fingers to use is an individual


"Fingerings are very personal," says McDermott.

McDermott grew up in Islip, Long Island, the eldest of three musical

sisters born to parents who were not musicians. Maureen and her two

sisters, violinist Kerry, and pianist Anne-Marie, appear together

as the McDermott Trio, which has an active performing schedule. She

is married to graphic designer Dan Crisan, and the couple has an


son, Liam.

McDermott’s first instrument was the piano and she started on cello

with a local teacher when she was 13. A year later, the three sisters

began studying in the pre-college division of the Manhattan School

of Music. Simultaneously, as Anne-Marie told U.S. 1 (January 22,


their mother, in support of her musical daughters, "fought with

the diocese of Rockville Center so Kerry and I could go to school

part time" and be free to practice the rest of the time.

Maureen continued as a full-time high school student, pursuing two

instruments. In her senior year she decided for cello. By then she

had met Caryl Paisner, a fellow-student at the Manhattan School. When

Paisner had the bright idea of forming an all-cello ensemble in 1988,

she invited McDermott to join.

Over time the group has undergone what McDermott calls "very


changes in personnel," and Paisner is no longer with the group.

Stephanie Cummins left the ensemble for a time and is now back. The

fellowship among members and ex-members is underscored by Maria


who substitutes for Cummins at the Peddie performance.

"You want a new member as actively involved as possible,"

says McDermott. "You want them to make decisions. For the most

part a new member is busy observing, and getting used to the music

and our performing style. But we want them to be full and active


Members of the ensemble divide up its non-musical responsibilities.

"When we’re traveling, one person takes care of the arrangements.

I’m pretty good at that," McDermott says. "You have to find

the cheapest hotel that’s clean and the best air fare. Doing taxes

is also my responsibility. I’m not that good at it. But somebody has

to do it. If there’s a photo shoot, you need one person to be in


Laura [Bontrager] mainly handles liaison with composers, going back

and forth. Our management gets the concert engagements."

"We rotate the tasks," McDermott says. "That’s a big part

of being in a chamber music group. Young musicians might not realize

that there’s a business side to performing chamber music, and that

there’s the drudgery of errands. You have to run the ensemble like

a business so you can do the music side. It doesn’t just happen."

All the members of Cello have musical lives outside

the ensemble. Julie Albers, who has recently been a prize-winner at

the Munich International competition, is an active soloist. Laura

Bontrager is the single cellist for the Broadway musical "The

Producers." Stephanie Cummins played in "Seussical" and

now works for "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Maria Kitsopoulos,

her substitute at the Peddie concert, is a member of the New York

Philharmonic. Maureen McDermott substitutes at the New York


plays with the McDermott Trio, and teaches at the Third Street Music

School Settlement in Manhattan.

The individual networks of members of the ensemble are often a source

for the stockpile of commissioned works that Cello draws on. Sometimes

composers write for the group without an invitation.

"Commissions work best when we’re in touch with the composer,"

says McDermott. "Our input as the commission unrolls depends on

the composer — how much experience he has had writing for cello,

and how the composer likes to work. It’s very variable. Peter


wrote for us. It wasn’t a commission. He asked, `Can I use you as

guinea pigs?’ We got together. He presented sketches and we played

for him. We could see how lots of little things worked out. It made

a big difference to hear it. There are more things that don’t work

than do work." Schickele’s "Queen Anne’s Lace" will be

performed on the Peddie program.

Cello subjects the Schickele piece, along with the rest of the


to their usual combination of musical and technical standards, and

their usual set of musical and technical shortcuts for musical


Just as McDermott accounts for the range of the cello by evoking the

human voice, she turns to singing as the key to cogent interpretation.

"We all sing the music in our head," McDermott says. "The

highest achievement is to sound like a human voice. Sometimes if you

sing it, it frees you up from technical things."

— Elaine Strauss

Cello, CAPPS, Peddie School, Hightstown,


The quartet of classically-trained cellists. Free master class and

workshop in Swig Arts Center at 5 p.m. Concert $20. Saturday, April

13, 8 p.m.

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