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