What happens when you combine a symphony orchestra, great literature, and a charismatically gifted man?
The classical music audience will get the chance to enjoy this heady mix when cellist Zuill Bailey makes a welcome return to San Luis Obispo as featured soloist with the Symphony this coming Saturday night at the Cohan Center.
He’ll be featured in a performance of Richard Strauss’ rarely heard orchestral tone poem, “Don Quixote.”
The internationally known, Julliard-trained Bailey would be worth the price of admission all by himself. His Telarc recording of the Bach cello suites made No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Chart, and his discs of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas, with pianist Simone Dinnerstein, won the 2007 Classical Recording Foundation Award. His newest recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto is No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Viewers of HBO’s prison drama “Oz” may recognize him from his recurring role of Eugene Dobbins on the show.
One of the most memorable experiences in this writer’s musical life was the afternoon when Bailey performed all six Bach suites at a private home in San Luis Obispo. To have seen Bailey give his all to these musical epics, which he played from memory, is to have been in the presence of someone naturally and supremely gifted.
Interviewed by telephone in his home in El Paso, Bailey sounded enthusiastic about playing the Strauss tone poem in San Luis Obispo, one of his “special places.”
“I’ve loved San Luis Obispo since I began touring,” he said. “Michael Nowak is a wonderful conductor, and every seat (in the Cohan Center) is a good seat.
“That’s so important in reaching an audience! I’ve been in 2800-seat concert halls where the people in the last balcony just sit reading program notes while the people in the front stare in awe. In San Luis, there’s a much closer connection with the whole audience.”
Bailey spoke of the Strauss piece with equal warmth.
“It’s not a conventional soloist/orchestra piece at all,” he said, “but a musical rendering of the Cervantes novel with the cellist as the hero. The music’s a vehicle for the story line.
“The form is theme-and-variations, and the orchestral writing is fantastic, with complex washes of sound. You’ll get to hear the windmills the hero charges. You’ll hear the sheep in the field. You’ll hear the hero die.
“But Strauss doesn’t serve up the hero on a silver platter. My cello part represents a character in a much larger scheme that I get to play along with. For example, as the cellist, I’m Don Quixote, but Strauss wrote the viola part to represent Sancho Panza. Now, if you know the novel, you know that Don Quixote isn’t Don Quixote unless Sancho Panza is there to believe in him! This is why I’ll be sitting a little further back as I play.”
Violist Andrew Duckles, who will “play Sancho Panza,” endorsed Bailey’s view of the piece.
“It’s a truly theatrical experience, extremely evocative of visual imagery,” Duckles said from his home in Los Angeles. “In a tone-poem like this, soloists are embedded within the texture, but exposed, so the piece takes a lot of rehearsal. I think that’s why it’s not often performed.
“Several soloists represent the main characters. My viola part provides comic relief, in the same way Sancho’s remarks to Don Quixote are so funny. I always play the part with a smile. Plus, I’m always happy to play SLO, which is a great place for live classical music.”
Saturday’s concert, sponsored by Silas and Jimmie Brewer, Clifford W. Chapman and Gene A. Shidler, also offers Haydn’s delightful Symphony No. 92.
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Saturday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$20 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org