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Cellissimo review: Collegial buzz and some total indulgence at Galway’s new festival

The weekend included performances by Natalie Clein, Killian White, Nicolas Altstaedt & Friends and, at the Cellissimo Spectacular, more than 80 young cellists


Various venues, Galway

Cellissimo, Music for Galway’s nine-day “new international cello festival on the edge of Europe”, is already a remarkable survivor. It was first scheduled for 2020, a year in which it faced the double whammy of being forced to cancel by the Covid pandemic and being caught up in the European Capital of Culture debacle that was Galway 2020.

In 2021 it ran concerts online, and it is only this month, four years later than planned, that the festival’s roster of artists actually got to meet the public face to face for the first time.

The focus on the cello is not at all as restrictive as it might seem, certainly not as constraining as, say, a festival of opera, choral music, new music or early music. And both its artistic director, Finghin Collins, and executive director, Anna Lardi, worked to deliver its remit in the broadest way, well beyond the generous inclusion of new works.

Cellissimo teamed up with festivals in Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, as well as a game development studio in Austria, for a Songs of Travel project. It’s a bid to “raise awareness and foster empathy for climate change and migration through music”. There was a keynote address on climate justice by Mary Robinson. The festival brochure has two pages of “green commitments” and even a panel on the “climate impact of your meal”, calculated by greenhouse-gas emissions per portion, working down from beef to peas.


I managed to sample only two days towards the end of the festival, during which it seemed to have developed real momentum. There was a collegial buzz between people seeing each other at event after event, and I had a number of people come up to me to enthuse about earlier concerts.

I caught the last two of the Bach Plus recitals, which presented the composer’s six solo cello suites played by six different performers on successive days, with each recital also including a specially commissioned new work. It’s unfortunate that these were given in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, a hugely atmospheric setting but one with a ridiculously reverberant acoustic.

On Friday Natalie Clein premiered Jennifer Walshe’s That’s a Lot of Money at the Top of a Rocket, which was sparked by the idea of connecting cello-playing and spacewalking as extreme experiences that people choose to put themselves through.

Walshe is every bit as theatrical and thought-provoking as she is musical. The piece blends speech, physical gestures, inhaling and exhaling, and a range of other often ethereal sounds. In Clein’s persuasive performance the effect was totally absorbing.

Clein was gripping, too, in Bach’s Suite in C minor, BWV1011, delivering the music with an almost viol-like tonal purity and a gentle expressivity that struck deep.

She was a hard act for Killian White to follow on Saturday, especially as he was playing the Suite in D, BWV1012. This is a kind of high-wire act for players of the modern cello. They have to accommodate a work written for a five-stringed instrument and manage all of the highest notes on the top string of their four-stringed instruments. White may not have had Clein’s expressive reach, but he certainly took the technical challenges in his stride.

His programme’s new piece, Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s Bach-Chat, was, both in tone and content, exactly what its title promised. It took material from the Sixth Suite and wove it into a fantastical modern construction that sometimes treated the cello as a percussion instrument, and called for a deal of foot-tapping and heel-stomping, with Bach peeping out from time to time.

The Town Hall Theatre on Friday evening was the scene for a programme of works by Nadia Boulanger, Martinu, Kodály and Dvořák from the high-powered trio of Barnabás Kelemen (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello) and José Gallardo (piano). I found the intensity a bit gruelling, with much of the music-making sounding as if the players were somehow at cross purposes, each in a separate musical space.

The Town Hall Theatre’s acoustic is dry as dust, and when Altstaedt was heard again in the closing concert, a Cellissimo Spectacular at Leisureland, his glorious honeyed tone and fluid communicativeness were to the fore in this far from ideal but altogether more open-sounding space.

The Cellissimo Spectacular was a night of total cello indulgence, everything on the programme – from Vivaldi, Piazzolla and Caccini to Daniel McDermott, Arvo Pärt, Tchaikovsky, Fauré and Bach – turned into cello-only territory.

The one noncello extra was heard in Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No 5, which was actually composed for an ensemble of cellos with solo soprano. Here the beautiful vocal line was sung by the warm-toned Claudia Boyle, who was herself a cellist before she turned to the study of singing.

At the concert’s climax more than 80 young cellists were involved. I got the impression that a good time was had by all.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor