The Compleat Violoncellist

Hidemi warming up before a solo Bach recital

My fixation on the cello playing stems from my fascination with basso continuo. It’s not that continuo part is extremely important in baroque music — of course it is — but what fascinates me most is how continuo playing can dictate the outcome of a whole performance.  The leader of the continuo group is like the quarterback of the offensive side of a football team; not only that he/she can drive the whole ensemble forward, but also that he/she can make the soloist(s) perform so much better, in the same way a good QB can make the offensive skill position players play lights-out.

My mentor Hidemi Suzuki is, by far, the best continuo player and group leader I’ve ever seen.  Watch him play— you can visually see what’s happening in the music.  While I was in Japan studying Bach with his brother Masaaki Suzuki, the director of BCJ, I had the privilege of getting to know him, and as a matter of fact I ended up spending more personal time with him than with Masaaki.  Hidemi is pretty down-to-earth and accessible; we’ve had some drinks together, went on a little road trip together, and once he even let me crash in his hotel room when I hadn’t secured a place to stay one night while he was on a tour.  But Hidemi’s truly tremendous influence on others can be felt and recognized when you run into and talk to other musicians who crossed his path at one point or the other.  My pianist friend from Macau once told me how exciting it was to watch Hidemi play with BCJ when the group visited the US East Coast last year.  A New York-based cellist whom I met last year shared with me her experience with Hidemi with lots of smiles.

Hidemi sometimes gets labeled as a ‘baroque cellist,’ in addition to being an active conductor.  Certainly, his body of work as a cellist shows you that the cornerstone of his playing is probably more Bach than anything else.  And again, he is such a terrific continuo player— nobody else can excite me in the way he can.  But he always has been a player who chooses the instrument with the most suitable set-up for the repertoire, and he adjusts himself to it.  And his recorded repertoire from the classical period is also extensive.  The way I see is that he is one of those true cellists who play the whole gamut of cello repertoire on the appropriate instruments with the appropriate technique.  Domenico Gabrielli on a baroque cello to Gabriel Fauré on a cello with an endpin— that’s what he is, a complete cellist.

My recent passion on the violoncello piccolo da spalla, or the shoulder piccolo cello, must have a lot to do with Hidemi and the inspirations I’ve got from him in the past 9 years or so.  One of my favorite Bach cantata obbligato parts is the piccolo cello part in BWV 115, with soprano, the flauto traverso and continuo.  Hidemi’s amazing and emotional playing of it in the BCJ recording session and also in the concerts is something I always remember when I play the part…  And it’s sad that lately I’m not getting enough exposure to the inspiration that he is.  I can’t possibly look forward more to listening to his cello playing live, and having some nice drinks with him again.  : )

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