Tag Archives: cello solos

Original Sin.


[final draft].

Everybody secretly yearns to be the next “original.” Nobody wants to remind anyone of somebody else they know. In spite of the billions upon billions of us and, though likely manifest more strongly in some than in others, we each carry within us the desire to break the mold.

Among the vast and nearly endless array of musical masterworks created for orchestra from across virtually every country in Europe (and, more recently, the rest of the world), many have enjoyed a wide audience for decades, crossing the generations. From Beethoven’s symphonies through the Russian masters to Americans like Copland and Gershwin, these comprise a virtual museum for the listening ear – the “classics.” And, each is a singular original.

Others are lesser known.
In the hands of mere mortals, just such unfamiliar pieces are nonetheless a real challenge to pull off; in short, they’ve garnered less air time because they represent, in the hands of all but the best, a greater risk to the reputation of the musicians.

A certain serenade fits that bill.

Miklos Rozsa, best known as composer of film scores for such epics as “Ben Hur” and “The Thief of Baghdad”, wasn’t only servant to the cinematic medium; he also composed legitimate, stand alone orchestral pieces. One of his most sensuous he called “Hungarian Serenade” because, well, he was Hungarian.

Like most Hungarians and probably few Serenades, the piece is both passionate and flamboyantly effusive, yet irresistibly persuasive; it bespeaks at once the soul of a man who yearns, whose feelings are deep, and of a nation’s people wearing their hearts on its sleeve.

Now, this Hungarian composer loved the cello. He loved it so much that he featured the instrument prominently in the music he wrote. His  Serenade has five movements, but the second is devoted almost exclusively to the cello’s voice.

And, no shrinking violet, Rozsa gives the cello one royal entrance: an octave shift, right out of the gate.

From the day of my own emergence, and many years before I knew what a cello was, I was destined – if my father had anything to say about it – to be one of a kind. He would raise me on the sound of his bari-tenor, crooning the hymns and gaslight love songs of his generation. A singular talent, himself, he would continually remind me that I was a “born artist.” Eventually, I became one – first, through visual media, and then, via the musical profession. And, I did so boldly, from the deep conviction of my father’s endowment.

But, my mother was raised on fear. Her father was an English street preacher. He regularly beat his eldest daughter. And, he took his family, every Sunday morning, to the small, exclusive, sectarian Fundamentalist meeting hall of the Plymouth Brethren, where they could be reminded  – all day long, and again on Tuesday and Friday night  – of their inheritance: total, and original, sin.

It would take the whole of life thus far for me to realize how un-reconcilable such branding would be; conceived to be a creative, to express the ineffable, yet saturated by a sense of sinfulness. Instead of finding an otherwise inevitable place among the “free spirits”,  self-loathing became my middle name.

This past Saturday, as section leader among the cellists of the Erie Chamber Orchestra, and the ” Hungarian Serenade” having been an included feature, I was called upon to present Rozsa’s cello solo in all its magnificence. I meditated; I set my inner narrative on the positive affirmations of my musical lineage; I prepared, diligently, the entire body of that singular voice; I took my beta blocker. I was, by all accounts, ready to meet the task.

But, this time, the devil would be in one, pesky mathematical detail: statistical probability.

Delicately balancing delusional grandeur and innate fatalism, I had faced that formidable octave each time with the measured mix of physical distribution of weight, point of arrival, and trajectory. Between practice at home, and the three opportunities our orchestral budget would allow with my colleagues, I had managed to nail that shift at every rehearsal. And, I mean, down to the precisely required vibrational frequency.

Come the concert, and its moment of truth, however, one inner battle with cognitive dissonance could not be surmounted by either mental conditioning or earnest commitment to the music; statistically, my odds for missing that octave had steadily increased!

Like all good Hungarians, I heaved a melodramatic sigh, smiled at my section mates, gave my conductor a sure nod, and went for it.

There was much to celebrate at the close of that performance. Our featured violinist, Michael Ludwig, stepping in at the last minute to cover the most difficult concerto in the repertoire, was an absolutely flawless and mesmerizing sensation. Our ensemble had never been tighter. Each family of the orchestra was more than worthy of thunderous acknowledgement. And, I would immerse myself in the joyful relief of having expressed my creative soul more fully than ever before.

Yet, if I truly bore the aforementioned stain, the devil would have his jollies. He would indulge them in that microtone living just beneath the point of arrival of the octave B, and it would not matter one iota if anybody else admitted to the hearing.

Original sin is so engraved in the psyche that, even when one proves to oneself a capacity for the truly amazing, one can spend a lifetime yearning to give oneself its permission. In the meantime, opting to be carried by the exultant triumph of the human spirit, seeking the rewards of the total spectrum of artistic experience, can rival even the exacting order of the universe. We may all be self-generating expressions of the same, original DNA, after all. Original sin, be damned.




© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  11/23/15  All rights those of the author; sharing permitted only by written request.  Thank you!




“Apres Un Reve”

“Apres Un Reve”, by Gabriel Faure      Ruth Ann Scanzillo, ‘cellist; Mary Duncan, pianist;


Recorded by Keiko Kashio at ART OF PRACTICING INSTITUTE 2015, Alexander Music Center, Edinboro University, Edinboro, PA

July 31, 2015

The Zephyr.

Today was the warmest one yet – the kind that made us all sure we’d really survived another killer winter. And, sunny? Many thought God had a special place in his heart for the Young Peoples’ Chorus of Erie, especially those in attendance at their spring concert. They were sure he’d provided such beautiful weather just for the children.

And, this being my third stint as guest obbligato cello soloist for these beautifully trained young voices, I was glad to be sitting in the shade of their shining day.

I’d followed my usual routine, eating pasta primavera at precisely two and a half hours out, setting the hair, running the tough licks once more, and arriving at call to watch the wall clock carefully until it hit exactly one hour from my tune’s downbeat. For the propranolol, ten milligrams, because a racing heart meant a bobbling bow and vibrato out the wazoo, and all the seasoned players knew how to calculate fear out of the equation because this is how we all rolled.

Today, I sat in my assigned spot off to the side of the Lutheran sanctuary, left hand gloved, program beside me on the carved straight backed bench two feet from the cross on the pole and two more from the velvet prayer altar.

The total body experience of live performance really can’t be described fully. It’s kind of a time warp beholden to opposing forces. Fifty percent intense desire; fifty resistance. Wanting, so, to make something beautiful; needing to run and do anything but this, anything else, oven cleaning. Years of archaic indoctrination running headlong into the quest for the ideal: producing a perfect, even transcendent, rendition of somebody else’s music.

From childhood, I’d been what they called a “natural.” Dad’s inborn talent manifest in me tenfold. Rarely a day went by that I did not spend, compulsively, hours at a time, playing the piano and singing. Later, the cello – the master, the lover, the second skin of my soul.

But, traditional training never knew anything but demand. Getting it right. Matching the composer’s intent. Reading the notes on the page. What a curiosity, notation, really. At once a mathematical template and a symbolic language for the aural definition of beauty. Playing “by ear” was what Dad did, and what we all did in our family; but, reading and interpreting the written version of what we loved happened someplace else in the brain and, unlike my father before me, I’d learned to know the difference.

This year’s choral selection featuring cello came with its part written entirely in treble clef. I’d taken one look at the music, and chosen to waste no time rewriting it in bass and tenor. And, I’d used whatever makeshift printer paper I had on hand; invariably, standard drug store white got the job.

Sitting on the carved bench as the children began their program, my gloved hand felt hot in the warming room and I felt the familiar OCD starting to creep. Fairly new at the medicating routine, I’d noticed this phenomenon coming off the migraine drug, as well, a pill I’d been forced to take earlier that day. But, years of perfectionism raged; I must not look at the music before the performance. I must not fixate on the descending shift, lest it jump at me from the page en route. This, I’d learned the hard way, could sabotage even the most diligently prepared passagework. And, the children had come ready to sing. They deserved the best.

And, the sound of them. Their Anglo-Saxon tonal purity rivaled the heavenlies. They belonged in Westminster Abbey. I simply must match their offering. The perfect spring day required it.

I’d been raised on prayer. Prayer on the knees, before bed. Prayer over every meal. Prayer before every trip on the highway. Maybe it was the velvet prayer altar, or the cross on the pole. But, I prayed. And this time, I asked God to just play the music for me.

And, then, I was up.

Dead center they’d placed me this year, right under the director’s eye. I sat down, positioned my two sheets of hand-written music on the stand, chirped my strings one last time, and nodded to the director.

The piece, “In The Night We Shall Go In”, by Imant Raminsh, began with the lone voice of the cello, stating the motif. And, then elaborating that motif, through repetition and a modal contour that resolved in sustain, setting the tonal stage for the young peoples’ vocal cue.

But, something else was making an entrance.

I hadn’t even reached the second motive statement before noticing it. The music. The top left corner of the page began to flutter, as if in a breeze. Yet, the church was packed; there was no air moving, anywhere.

In nearly thirty years of live performance, I’d sung in a pop band, played in church – for services, weddings, full orchestral concerts, funerals. Been a regular fixture in the throng on the Warner stage. But, what happened next I may never be able to explain.

The corner of the music continued to gently puff away. Then, just as I headed into the contour of the line, the page lifted itself entirely from the stand and flew to the floor.

I looked up at the director, Gabrielle, whose eyes only faintly delivered recognition, whose mouth only slightly turned its corners, whose face rightly sought the childrens’ undivided attention. A young girl sitting in the second pew entered my field. But, she didn’t move. Nobody moved. “The show must go on”. The director kept phrasing the beat, and the children kept singing.

And, I kept playing.

Or, my bow kept moving. And, my fingers followed.

And, the verse played out.

No small marvel, this. Not only that the room was devoid of noticeable air flow, that the music had begun to move, and then the float to the floor, but that I.kept.playing.

And, then, it happened again.

On page two. Only this time, my bow suspended on the B – natural fermata, alone on the precipice, choir tacet, just ahead of the descending octave shift to recapitulation. Up went page two. And, down. Paper, face to the floor.

I played the entire theme.

Or……….God did?

*    *    *    *

A piece about omens had come to me the other day, and I’d closed it asking the Almighty for the kind of sign that would stop me cold.

I think I got one.

And, it knocked the wind right out of me. Right on the wings of the sunniest day of spring.


“Let Go, and let God.”






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

5/3/15  all rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line.