Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra - Power and Passion II - Cellist Boris Kogan

Last Saturday night I found myself waiting for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's concert to begin with a bit of trepidation.   What if Carmina Burana was just a fluke and I actually don't enjoy going to the symphony?  Happily, I found that isn't the case. 

My friend Kathy Hollinger and I started the evening by attending the pre-concert lecture on the evening's program.  The lectures are hosted by Katherine Caldwell who, among other things, plays principal oboe with the CSO and writes the program notes for the concerts.  The pre-concert lectures have outgrown the "black box room" so I am obviously not the only person who thinks that it's nice to have a bit of information fed to you about what you're going to be hearing in that evening's performance. 

The highlight of the pre-concert lecture was Kathy's talk with Boris Kogan, guest cellist.  Kogan is the principal cellist with the Thayer Symphony Orchestra in Leominster, Massachusetts (conductor Francis Wada's "other" family) and it was a treat to learn a bit about him and hear him play.  Kogan was born in Leningrad and began playing the cello at age six.  (Why the cello?  Because it was the only instrument that was available!  I started wondering about the relative size of a cello and a six-year old and, through the magic of the internet, learned that a full size cello is 46-48 inches and that smaller versions--as little as 1/8th of the normal size--can be found for children to learn on.  I wish I'd asked about this during the Q&A with Kogan!)

Kogan first played Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 when he was 18 years old.  Kogan shared with the audience that he had been asked eight days before the performance if he could play this piece for a concert.   (I'm not sure if Kogan was playing with the Leningrad Symphony, the Television and Radio Symphony Orchestra or another orchestra all together at that point--being a child prodigy, he had quite a resume by this time!)   With the audacity of an 18 year old (which you can really only understand once you've heard the piece), he said "of course," even though he'd never played it before!  He had to search two days for the music and then had six days to learn this challenging piece.   The performance with the CSO would be his fifth or sixth time playing the "Rococo," as he affectionately referred to the piece, and it is one of his favorites.

Kogan emigrated to Massachusetts in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved.  When asked by Caldwell why he left Russia, he declined to comment, saying only that it is better here in the United States.  Like many educated emigrants with minimal English language skills, Kogan's employment opportunities in the United States were limited and his first job here was as a dishwasher.   When he introduced Kogan and the "Rococo," Francis shared the story of how he and Kogan met with the audience.  Kogan was at a public library in Massachusetts and was getting frustrated with the librarian who couldn't help him find the music for the "violinist on the top."   A third person overheard this exchange and called Francis, telling him that he needed to get over to meet this person who was looking for music for--you guessed it--Fiddler on the Roof!   Shortly after this meeting, Francis heard Kogan play his cello and invited him to join the Thayer Symphony Orchestra.  As Kogan played the Rococco during the concert, you could see the affection and respect that the two men have developed for one another during their 20 year relationship.

Having the opportunity to be introduced to Kogan--and hearing Francis' story of their meeting--added another layer of enjoyment to the concert.  Our seats were in the front row of the hall, and I had an opportunity to watch Kogan's intricate fingering on the cello as he played the Rococco.  Both the music and being up close and personal with a cello were firsts for me, and both were delightful experiences.  As I sat there, I thought a bit about Kogan, a Russian immigrant, meeting up with Francis, a Japanese immigrant, and how they must have had some language barriers to deal with as they developed their relationship.  Music is truly a universal language, however, and it was clear during Saturday night's performance that the two men have absolutely no trouble communicating.

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