Have cello will travel, from Bach to Harvey

Rhonda Rider, a founding member of the Lydian String Quartet, performed to a packed hall Tuesday night. Rhonda Rider, a founding member of the Lydian String Quartet, performed to a packed hall Tuesday night. (Susan wilson/file 2007)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 27, 2009
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Boston Conservatory's Seully Hall was packed on Tuesday night for a recital by the formidable cellist Rhonda Rider.

The turnout was no surprise given Rider's prominence and deep roots in the local community. She was a founding member of the Brandeis-based Lydian String Quartet for over two decades, and these days she plays with the Triple Helix Piano Trio, in residence at Wellesley College. She also teaches on the faculty of Boston Conservatory, which presented Tuesday's recital on its String Masters series.

The eclectic program seemed to aptly reflect Rider's wide-ranging musical sympathies. Music by Bach and Fauré (Op. 117) shared the first half with works by contemporary composers John Harbison and Jonathan Harvey. The second half was given over to Steve Reich's landmark 1988 work for string quartet "Different Trains." Pulling it all together was Rider's grounded presence, fluid delivery, and focused probing musicianship.

For her opening Bach selection, rather than choosing a traditional solo suite or even previewing the one she was due to perform this week at Emmanuel Church, Rider pulled out Bach's D-Major Viola da Gamba Sonata and gave it a lively and vividly contoured reading, sensitively partnered by pianist Judith Gordon.

From there she leapt over centuries to land at Harbison's 2006 work "Abu Ghraib," a series of haunting meditations on a dark hour in recent national history. Rider was compelling as she moved from the music's harshly dissonant passages, full of jabbing "wrong" notes, to moments of more searching, prayerful lyricism.

But the work that received the most arresting performance was Harvey's "Curve With Plateaux," a wild piece that exploits every inch of the instrument's expressive range in a journey that begins with earthy C-string rumblings and ascends dramatically to the very highest reaches of the cello. Rider rendered the stratospheric passagework with astonishing clarity but even more impressive was the way she made the music's strange gestural language come across as completely natural and organic, no less directly communicative than the sonata by Bach.

For "Different Trains," Rider was joined by two colleagues (violinist Sharan Leventhal and violist Mary Ruth Ray) and one Boston Conservatory student (violinist Cordelia Paw). You had to admire the cellist's impulse to include such an iconic work from the modern quartet literature on this program, but a great performance of this piece is tricky even for an established quartet to pull off, let alone an ensemble assembled for just one concert.

In short, Tuesday's performance was clear and effective but the music seldom felt as deeply internalized as it might have been. For lengthy stretches, the musicians seemed content merely to be playing accurately with the prerecorded tape rather than foregrounding their live performance as the main event with its own independent emotional core. Interestingly, the snippets of actual speech that Reich collected were given unusual prominence in the sonic mix, which had the effect of emphasizing the documentary aspects of this remarkable work of Holocaust memory.

The crowd gave the quartet a robust ovation, but Rider's fellow musicians at one point held back in the wings even as she protested, eventually giving up and taking a richly deserved solo bow.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


At: Boston Conservatory, Tuesday night

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