She’s going to sing. She’s going to whistle. She’s going to emulate, acoustically, the electronically looped textures of Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld. But what has fearless multitasker Rebecca Wenham most worried about her upcoming Music on Main recital is that she’s going to have to play a lot of cello—a whole lot of cello, without any other musicians to spell her off.
“It’s going to be an exercise in stamina,” she explains, checking in from a busy Kitsilano coffee shop. “There’s no piano accompaniment, so I won’t even have a little break. And also I’ve chosen a lot of pretty technically challenging repertoire, just because I like that.”
Okay, so maybe she’s not that worried about her upcoming Fox Cabaret show, although it’s still going to be a stretch for the classically trained performer. To begin with, literally, she’s opening with a new commission, Tell that one again, from another Vancouver cellist, Peggy Lee—a bold move, for not only has Lee mastered a variety of extended techniques, she’s invented a few of her own.
“For example, she might get me to bow on top of my left-hand fingers,” Wenham explains. “There’s another section where my left and right hands are playing different rhythmic patterns. Pianists are used to doing that, but even if my left and right hands are accustomed to doing slightly different things, they’re usually moving in rhythm together, so that’s been challenging for me to figure out.”
Wait a minute: she’s actually bowing her own fretting hand?
“It makes sort of a swishing sound,” Wenham offers. “You’re making me realize that I’m going to have to come up with really good ways of describing the sounds when I play the concert. Sort of a swishing, brushing… No, I don’t know!”
The challenges implicit in Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar are more easily explained: to play this early-music-inspired offering, Wenham has had to borrow a baroque cello, which comes with gut rather than steel strings.
“You can’t dig in as much on a baroque cello,” she says. “For one thing, the instrument and the bow won’t tolerate it, so you have to have a little bit more of a delicate touch, and you have to use your bow arm quite differently. But I’ve really enjoyed exploring baroque cello. I really love the different sounds that the gut strings create, so I might have to go and buy myself one after this concert.”
Also on the bill are works by Ana Sokolović and Music on Main composer in residence Caroline Shaw (the ones with singing), Neufeld’s from our animal, and Kaija Saariaho’s Sept Papillons. With the possible exception of Sokolović’s Vez, which Wenham describes as “rocking”, what links all of these works is that they lean towards the beautiful side of the new-music spectrum. They’re also all from female composers—but that, Wenham contends, is not as big a deal as it might once have been.
“I don’t think it’s meant to be a political statement,” she says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s great for me to be playing music by these composers, but I don’t think any one of them would say that being a woman is single-handedly the greatest influence on their work. They’re all just composers, and I like their music!”
Music on Main presents Rebecca Wenham at the Fox Cabaret on Tuesday (May 31).