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Positive Thinking 

No stranger to misfortune, classical cellist Alban Gerhardt remains as busy and optimistic as ever

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It would be hard to blame Alban Gerhardt if he were reluctant to return to Spokane. The last time he was here, back in 2008 to perform Elgar’s famous Cello Concerto, he received word that his mother, who had been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease for several years, had passed away. The news came right before he went onstage. He played nevertheless.

Elgar’s concerto is gut-wrenching at the happiest of times. On that occasion, suffused with the cellist’s own raw tangle of emotions, it was transformed into what was by many accounts a singularly moving experience for both the audience and the musicians of the Spokane Symphony.

“[T]hat piece ... definitely has a special emotional meaning for me now, even more than before,” Gerhardt writes via email in German-tinged English, “and while it is a bit of a klischée to say it, my mother, from whom I inherited a lot of her musicality, lives on in my music. I knew she saw it like that, which is also a reason that I had to perform that night, quasi as a requiem to her.”

The 44-year-old German cellist isn’t telephone-shy; these days it’s simply hard for him to find even 15 convenient minutes for a chat. In this case, he’s responding to questions during a rare respite on a flight somewhere between the last performance and the next recording session. Or is it the last recording and the next performance? He has a tough time keeping track.

“A friend told me about the most recent release of [Richard Strauss’] Don Quixote which I recorded last year for Hyperion,” Gerhardt writes. “I had completely forgotten about this one.”

Next week he’s going to receive the first edit of his recording of the complete works of the “anti-modernist” composer Hans Pfitzner. That news, incidentally, was relayed to him at another recent recording session, this one of works by Henri Vieuxtemps and Eugène Ysaÿe with the Royal Flemish Orchestra. Amid that spate of activity was a live appearance in London as part of the Bach Marathon.

The constant travel has taken its toll. In February his 150-year-old bow, valued at $20,000, was damaged at a TSA checkpoint at Dulles Airport. His 18th-century cello was cracked, too. Despite careful repairs, the bow split in the middle of a Dvořák concerto with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. “During the 30 seconds of orchestra tutti I put my bow down, signaled the conductor to keep on going, walked over to the assistant principal cellist and silently asked for her bow. I will never forget the expression in her face — she must have thought I had gone mad!” he wrote on his blog.

Yet Gerhardt isn’t one to hold a grudge — over loutish TSA agents, ill-fated concerts or the feverish pace of back-to-back engagements. “I don’t give much value to materialist things,” he writes from 40,000 feet, enthusing instead about his recent remarriage, his expectant wife, the “absolute honor” of recording Britten’s cello works, and his strong relationship with his teenage son. Most telling isn’t what he writes, but how he writes it. Nearly every one of his answers concludes with an smiley-face emoticon. 

Alban Gerhardt performs Walton’s Cello Concerto, plus works by Sibelius and Schumann, with the Spokane Symphony • Sat, April 13, at 8 pm; Sun, April 14, at 3 pm • $14-$44 • Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox • • 624-1200

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