Senior Sarah Smith performs Sonate, Op. 17 by Luise Adolpha Le Beau first on her program. Photo by Alana Melvin.
As the lights dimmed for senior Sarah Smith’s cello recital on Sunday, May 15, she emerged onto the stage of Harper Hall, which her family had adorned with flowers, to say hi and to express love and gratitude for those in attendance before her recital formally began.
When she returned to the stage, Smith was accompanied by junior Ami Hatori at the piano for the first piece on her program, Sonate, op. 17 by Luise Adolpha Le Beau. When I spoke with Smith before her recital, she explained that while it is standard to play a sonata as part of a cello recital, she wanted to do one that people didn’t know and that in selecting a work by a female Romantic composer, she was “representing a part of the canon that is still more or less untouched.”
Le Beau’s sonata had three movements, the first of which was allegro molto. This movement had a peaceful self-assuredness and a quiet forward momentum to it as well as a sense of affection. The piano created a gently flowing, watery texture throughout much of it.
The second movement was a bittersweet andante tranquillo that had the feel of a slow waltz. To me, it seemed as though someone was remembering a lost loved one and thinking back on the happy times they had spent together, but knowing that they couldn’t return to those times.
The third movement was a march-like allegro vivace and seemed resolute and perseverant. The sonata as a whole was cohesive in character, with a tenderness and a richness of texture and harmony throughout, in addition to a united storyline.
My interpretation of the piece’s story was that it followed a single character who was content with the routine of their life in the first movement, until faced by the death of a beloved companion whom they grieved in the second movement, but by the third movement they had found a way to go on.
The second piece on Smith’s program, Zoltán Kodály’s Adagio, continued the theme of lesser-known works, as the adagio is much more frequently performed with violin than with cello. Smith was again joined by Hatori. The piece was dark and slow, as though heavy with regret. The cello line was mournful throughout, and for most of the piece, the piano was equally somber; in one section the piano became fluttery, perhaps adding a glimmer of hope to the cello’s continuing misery.
After intermission, Smith took the stage alone to perform “Pluto” from Denis Gougeon’s Six Themes Solaires, a collection of pieces, each of which is written for a different instrument and portrays a different planet from the solar system.
Smith told me that while designing her program, it was important to her to include a lot of variety of pieces. She explained that while the first half of the program was a beautiful pair of Romantic pieces in which the cello did the expected, the second half was an exciting exploration of the range of cello music, from Baroque to modern and across different styles and cultures.
Smith mentioned that although Gougeon is a living composer and the piece is therefore modern, it was inspired by Bach. The resemblance to the prelude from Bach’s first cello suite was obvious from the beginning in the shared phrasing and gestures.
However, “Pluto” created an eerie and otherworldly atmosphere by avoiding the expected notes at the peaks of phrases, instead leaping odd intervals. As the piece progressed, it became increasingly unconventional and employed several creative bowing techniques, including one that sounded like the faint whistle of wind.
Smith was accompanied by a string quartet for her next piece, Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in D minor, RV 407. The concerto started and ended with allegro movements, while the middle movement was largo e sempre piano (slow and always quiet).
The first allegro movement opened with a call and response between the two violins of the quartet, before one of them emerged with a melody that the other harmonized. Smith then took over this melody and exchanged it again with the violins. At different times in this movement, Smith played solo or accompanied by different combinations of the other instruments so that there was a range of fullness to the sound.
In the second movement, the quartet played pulsating chords that maintained a sense of buoyancy and kept the lamenting cello aloft but also contributed a feeling of monotony that emphasized the cello’s melancholy.
The last movement of the concerto, in contrast, was joyful and energetic, like a group of friends singing and dancing together. Smith was grinning as the piece drew to a close.
The final piece of her program was a tango titled “Graciela y Buenos Aires,” a duet for which Smith was again joined by Hatori. The piece began with a lively and syncopated piano passage before the cello entered more serenely. In one section, the cello and piano together evoked for me the expansiveness of the night sky reflected in a body of water; in another, the cello played alone, capturing a solitary calmness.
Though both instruments had solo sections over the course of the piece, they mostly played together, with neither dominating over the other. Smith described the range of feelings in the various sections, from “intimate” to the “strict rhythm” of a dance to the “free” and “lyrical” ending and highlighted the quality of equal collaboration throughout as something that made this piece one of her favorites.
Smith told me that she found the piece during an internship she did with Strings of Latin America (SOLA) while at Lawrence and that she wanted to include it in her program to acknowledge the time she spent with SOLA. She added that the Tango was the most accessible of her pieces to audience members without a classical music background, featuring elements of popular music “that people like to listen to,” which also factored into her decision to perform it.
This summer, Smith will be doing an internship with the learning and engagement branch of Carnegie Hall before taking a gap year. While she is still determining what her future with music will look like, Smith said that she wants to be a part of reimagining the field and helping communities connect with music in ways that are accessible and valuable to them.
Smith’s senior recital demonstrated her commitment to these goals through her compelling performances of varying pieces appealing to different tastes, as well as her emphasis on bringing attention to underperformed works.