Plussier and plussier

By Lawrence Cosentino

Cello Plus festival brings banquet of diverse chamber music to MSU

Cello Plus is an unpretentious name for an ambitious series of chamber music concerts, but that’s just part of its Spartan appeal. For the past 14 years, MSU cello professor Suren Bagratuni has quietly built a top-drawer local music festival where musicians play airs but don’t put them on.

Anyone who thinks classical music is for jewelry janglers hasn’t experienced the generous week of cheap or free March concerts when Bagratuni and his MSU colleagues, far-flung cronies and enthusiastic students get together and roll in musical clover.

This year’s festival includes top guest artists, including boundary-ignoring pianist Stephen Prutsman, Armenian composer Vache Sharafyan and the cream of MSU’s high-powered music faculty. There will be two double-barreled nights of Bach (one of which ventures way outside the Bachs), a night of Russian music, a big helping of Schubert and Brahms and a rare concert of Sharafyan’s achingly beautiful music, including three world premieres, all at the newly refurbished and acoustically re-worked MSU Auditorium.

Bagratuni started the festival in 1997 when he was on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

“With all the great musicians we had, we had a fantastic ability to create something, but we didn’t have money,” Bagratuni said.

He called on high-powered pals like Robert Chen, the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, and Randolph Kelly, the principal viola player at the Pittsburgh Symphony, for help. He invited them to stay at his house and spend a week making music with local faculty and students.

Symphonic gigs are often a slog for a professional musician, but almost any of them happily play chamber music for free, especially with a host like Bagratuni.

“It started boiling,” Bagratuni said. They came, they played and the music making was sublime.

By the time Bagratuni came to MSU in 2000, College of Music Dean James Forger got wind of the goings-on in Indiana and asked Bagratuni to keep the festival going here — he even kicked in some money.

It took some effort to make a dent in the culture at MSU; at first, some of the concerts were sparsely attended, but word of mouth spread and the concerts began to fill Cook Recital Hall. Last year sponsorship money began to come in. Bagratuni said he hopes this year’s move to the bigger MSU Auditorium will grow the audience further. The auditorium’s world-class acoustic makeover and its easier parking can’t hurt.

Last week’s rehearsals with the student orchestra glowed with a deep collective spirit among guest artists, MSU faculty and students. Piano Professor Deborah Moriarty, for example, will be hardly visible as she soldiers away at the piano inside the student orchestra for the world premiere cello concerto by Sharafyan, commissioned by Bagratuni.

It’s not a standard back-and-forth concerto. The cello is folded into an unusual mix of winds, piano and a battery of three percussionists.

“It’s a modern piece, but the melodic lines are in my head right now,” Bagratuni said.

Sharafyan’s melancholy music will take on an extra weight Wednesday. The concert will be dedicated to the memory of the man who would have conducted that night, Aram Gharabekyan, an Armenian conductor and close friend of Bagratuni’s who died unexpectedly in January at age 58.

Bagratuni didn’t want to cancel the concert, so he asked retired MSU Symphony conductor Leon Gregorian to return to the podium. There will be two more world premieres that night, and Sharafyan himself will play some of his new piano works.

Every Cello Plus festival tries to balance novelties like the Sharafyan excursion with more familiar fare, but next week, even the warhorses aren’t all that tired. Monday’s all-Russian concert is a rare chance to hear Alexander Glazunov’s String Quintet, a seldom-heard 19th-century gem, along with a Tchaikovsky trio. Sunday afternoon’s concert promises just plain ravishment. “I have to give people their favorite music,” Bagratuni said. “They are two most beautiful piano quartets ever, by Schumann and Brahms.”

In both concerts, Bagratuni will play with two frequent chamber music partners, Pittsburgh’s Kelly and Ruggero Allifranchini from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“We get together two or three times a year and play just for fun,” Bagratuni said.

The “plus” in “Cello Plus” gets plussier each year. This year, David Rayl, MSU’s choral director, brings a chorus to special concerts Thursday and Friday, when all forces make a pilgrimage to the fountainhead of Western music, Johann Sebastian Bach. There will be two concerts, including a free 5 p.m. concert, both days. The idea is to show Bach in all his wondrous variety, with a cantata (with Rayl and the State Singers), an orchestral suite, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, chamber music and more.

The Bach programs will diversify to include music from other great musicians of Bach’s time, including Telemann, Couperin and Vivaldi, and later composers who wrote music inspired by Baroque types, including the luscious “Tombeau de Couperin” by French Impressionist Maurice Ravel.

To really spice up the festival, for the 8 p.m. Friday concert, Bagratuni will bring Prutsman, who has worked with artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Redman and Jon Anderson of Yes.

Bagratuni called Prutsman “the best American pianist today.” Last year, Bagratuni was knocked out by a string quartet Prutsman wrote to accompany Buster Keaton’s two-reel masterpiece, “Sherlock Jr.,” and resolved to get him into the “plus” column.

“The guy is everywhere, composing, arranging for the Kronos Quartet, and he’s a brilliant pianist,” Bagratuni said. Prutsman might juggle a Bach prelude and fugue with jazz, funk, an Indian melody or bluegrass.

“He just mixes them up,” Bagratuni said. “I can’t wait to hear it.” Bagratuni is already scheming to get Prutsman back for next year’s Cello Plus and screen the Keaton film, with a live performance of the score. That ought to be a plus.

Cello Plus chamber music festival

Monday, March 17- Sunday, March 23 7:30 p.m. Monday: Russian Gems (music of Glazunov and Tchaikovsky) 7:30 p.m. Wednesday: Music of Vache Sarafyan 5 p.m. Thursday: All-Bach concert (FREE) 7:30 p.m. Thursday: Music of Bach, Couperin and Ravel 5 p.m. Friday: Bach and Vivaldi (FREE) 8 p.m. Friday: “Bach and Forth” with guest pianist PM Stephen Prutsman 3 p.m. Sunday: Music of Schumann and Brahms

$5-15 MSU Auditoriums Fairchild Theatre, 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing (517) 353-4340,