Valdosta Daily Times

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September 14, 2012

Valdosta Symphony Orchestra opens with challenging cello concerto

VALDOSTA — Cellist Steven Taylor will not face as many challenges as Dmitri Shostakovich’s life in playing the composer’s Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra this weekend during the Valdosta Symphony’s opening concert, but he will perform a demanding piece of music.

“This concerto was written by Dmitri Shostakovich for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, when he was considered by many to be the greatest cellist in the world,” Taylor says. “As such it is a technically demanding work. Dmitri knew that his friend, Slava, as he was called, could handle just about any technical hurdles that a composer could throw at him.”

Meanwhile, Shostakovich handled the numerous hurdles thrown at a creative soul during the height of the Soviet Union.

“Shostakovich frequently ran afoul of the Soviet government,” notes Alan M. Rothberg in notesperfect.com. “His tendency toward writing music of ambiguous emotions often confused the Communist Party officials, who usually preferred music that clearly celebrated great leaders or victories. Shostakovich, a pragmatist coping with difficult times, often changed compositional direction and made seemingly contradictory public statements. Even today, over 35 years after his death, the true nature of his feelings towards the Soviet regime and some of its more notorious characters is hard to discern. Despite his unsettled relationship with the government officials, he was — and still is — considered one of the preeminent 20th century composers of symphonic music.”

The cello concerto emphasizes Shostakovich’s intriguing, and subversively courageous, relationship within the Soviet Union.

  “Shostakovich was always fond of quoting music for symbolic reasons,” Taylor says. “In the last movement of this concerto, the orchestra begins with a wacky, somewhat unhinged theme, which the cello takes up. Then the cello starts screaming a diabolical version of the opening of ‘Suliko,’ which was (Soviet Premier Josef) Stalin’s favorite song. The symbolism had to be clear to those who heard it at that time in the U.S.S.R.”

The Valdosta Symphony Orchestra audience voted for last season’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Taylor believes the Valdosta audience will feel an affinity for the cello concerto.

“This concerto, though, is more of a personal statement by the composer than his fifth symphony was,” Taylor says. “So, more is said musically. The moods range from heroism, contentment, despair, anger, and finally triumph. For a short concerto, it is packed with a huge amount of emotion.”

In addition to being this concert’s soloist, Taylor is the VSO’s principal cellist and personnel manager.

A Juilliard School graduate, Taylor studied at the legendary New York City arts institution from 1980-85. While in New York, Taylor served as principal cellist of the Juilliard Conductor’s Orchestra and was a member of the National Orchestra Association Orchestra.

He played with several Southern symphony orchestras before joining the Valdosta State music faculty in 1992.

He still regularly performs throughout the region but not as much as a solo cellist as he did 20 years ago. He now regularly travels to perform Sacred Harp singing.

“I consider this traditional folk singing to be one of the greatest treasures of the Deep South, something all Georgians should be proud of,” Taylor says of the Sacred Harp tradition. “It has started catching on elsewhere, but the sings around here are still the most authentic. I am extremely thankful God put us here.”

Yet, Taylor remains devoted to the cello. He began playing cello at the age of 9, as part of a public school program. It was his first instrument.

“When I was young my parents had to hold me to a discipline of practicing daily,” Taylor says. “But, as I grew more fond of it, I set up my own schedule of four to five hours each day during my teens.”

It is the piece he will play this weekend that sealed his realization that he must play cello.

“The moment when I realized that I had to play the cello was a performance of this Shostakovich by Stephen Kates, who was the first American cellist to perform this concerto,” Taylor says. “I was literally stunned when I heard it. I recorded his performance from a radio rebroadcast and listened to the tape every day for at least a year, or however long it took me to wear out the tape. Years later when I had a lesson with Stephen Kates, I told him all about that. He kept asking me if I still had the tape, and I kept trying to explain that I really did wear it out. He was a great cellist. All these years later, I still feel most influenced by his interpretation of this work.”

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