An evening of music for solo cello can be a challenging affair. The cellist doesn’t have the physical mobility of a violinist. His instrument is inherently less showy and dramatic than the pianist’s magnificent, gleaming hunk of ebony-and-ivory hardware. His choreographic choices are limited.

What separates the great concerts from the merely tolerable ones are the musicianship of the cellist and the quality of the program. Fortunately, Johannes Moser’s recital on Friday, the opening night of the three-day Laguna Beach Music Festival, scored high on both counts.

Moser is the artistic director of this year’s festival, and he brings a youthful virtuoso’s curiosity and boundary-pushing tendencies to the task. The line-up features some curiosities: on Sunday, for example, you’ll get to see a dozen cellists sawing away at musical arrangements that span a wide gamut, from Bach to Michael Jackson.

On Friday, Moser was all by his lonesome on the large stage of the Laguna Playhouse, and the program was possibly the most challenging of the festival, for audience and performer alike: J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010; Paul Hindemith’s prickly Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 25, No. 3; and a commissioned world premiere by Cal Arts-trained composer Ellen Reid called “Stellar Remnants.”

Bach is a given at any cello recital – his Six Suites for Solo Cello are the foundation of the literature for the instrument. They were written during his years as Kapellmeister at Cöthen, where he was paid well, supported by a prince who loved music, and surrounded by first-rate instrumentalists. That explains the sometimes devilish complexity of the cello suites, and also their sublime musical and spiritual rewards.

Moser’s sound isn’t huge, but it’s intense and probing. He satisfied all the usual interpretive challenges of the work, clearly delineating the separate voices implied in the score and giving thoughtful shape to repeated motives. He adroitly conveyed the large-scale design underlying each of the work’s six dance-based movements.

Technically, Moser’s performance wasn’t perfect. There were a few accidental double stops in the faster passages that involve rapid alternation between strings, and notes on the C string occasionally sounded raspy. But Moser exudes gravitas and focus, which help make him such a captivating performer to see live. Under his spell, the listener finds it easier to push imperfections aside.

The middle of the evening was devoted to Reid’s fascinating new creation, “Stellar Remnants.” She collaborated with Moser and sound artist Stephanie Cheng Smith to create a multi-layered and interactive work that employed pre-recorded sounds from a curious sculpture (a collection of steel plates and hammers on display in the playhouse’s lobby) that were triggered by Moser during his performance.

Reid’s sonic universe is sometimes obtuse but never dull. Furious repeated notes sometimes melt into ethereal screeches and wails. Sometimes the effects are more subtle. Occasionally Moser wasn’t playing at all, but drawing his bow back and forth slightly above the strings, as if playing imaginary music or notes beyond our comprehension.

It would be easy to dismiss some of the work’s moments as self-indulgent and overly arty, were it not for Moser’s performance. His bent for theatricality and intensity gave “Stellar Remnants” mysterious and mystical qualities that lesser cellists could not duplicate. Moser repeated the work after intermission, which was a good idea: something this conceptually and aurally complex is worth hearing twice.

The evening ended with Hindemith’s sonata. It was written early in his career, before the composer’s unique tonal system made his music more palatable to conservative ears. The outer movements are fast, jagged and challenging – typical examples of dissonance’s early era. But in between, especially in the slow middle movement of the five-part work, you’ll notice snippets of Hindemith’s later style, as well as neoclassical nods toward the Baroque dance forms that clearly inspired him.

Moser is comfortable with this work. He bit into its passages of fast spiccato and long, lean lines, clearly enjoying himself. He even offered a little theatrical flourish, bouncing violently off the work’s final note as he stared sternly at the audience.

Tongue in cheek? A little. That’s one of Moser’s most charming qualities: his ability to have fun. He’s one of the leading cellists of his generation, but thankfully he doesn’t let that go to his head.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.