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Feature: Douglas Harvey

Austin Cellist Douglas Harvey Releases New Album Works for Solo Cello Volume 2

by Valerie Fischer

Douglas Harvey is the principal cellist of both the Austin Symphony Orchestra and the Austin Opera, has performed solo in Carnegie Hall, and has a satisfying and productive career as a performer in Austin and worldwide. With all he has accomplished I wasn’t surprised at all to hear that the motivation for his newest recording project was strictly personal.

With two volumes of Works for Solo Cello Harvey showcases the capabilities of the cello as a solo voice, but this project is first motivated by wanting to let the music he loves speak and to be accountable only to himself. “I’m done when I’m happy with it,” he says. These recordings are very much in line with who Harvey is, complete with his own artwork that decorates the albums. The theme of Works for Solo Cello Volume 2 is conveyed with an abstract watercolor evoking tension in the striated deep red tones. Harvey describes that the works of this album allow you to be immersed in the music, much like the artwork pulls you into the painting. Indeed Works for Solo Cello Volume 2 flows beautifully from a Bach pairing of the second Suite for Solo Cello and the second Partita for Violin arranged for cello to the more contemporary Chromatic Fantasy in E by Ross Lee Finney.

Works for Solo Cello Volume 2 opens with Bach’s Suite No.2 in D Minor. Overall Harvey is not overindulgent in his interpretation, creating a performance with purposeful shape and clear structure. The whole suite is naturally phrased and breathes beautifully with such a vision for the long line that even the phrases of the heart-racing Courante take a deep, long breath before exhaling.

Next is the Partita No.2 in D Minor, a work for violin that was transcribed by Laszlo Varga. While a natural pairing with the second Suite for Cello, it is of more immense difficulty which may go underappreciated with Harvey's refined sound. Of these five movements the final Chaconne is the show-stopper, famously performed often as a stand alone work by violinists and considered one of Bach’s greatest compositions. Harvey describes it as “one of the most physically demanding things to play on the cello,” admitting that “It’s one of the biggest feats of my life.” Harvey wonders aloud why he would subject himself to years and years of torture responding, “It was just something I had to do.”

The Chromatic Fantasy in E by Ross Lee Finney emerges easily from Bach’s Chaconne. The Finney may contrast in structure and tonality from the Bach, but through careful crafting of every dynamic, articulation, and phrase, Harvey conveys the same range of emotion which in the Finney feels like a process of questioning and being continually unsatisfied with the answers. Harvey unfolds the thematic material at a pace that captures the essence of what music is as a means of human expression.

We talked a little about what music promotion means today. Will we find him creating dramatic videos of his music where he’s barefoot on the beach playing the Chaconne? No, he laughs. But he doesn’t feel compelled to. “It all comes back to the music,” he says, and that can stand on its own. With two recordings of solo cello music Harvey is certainly celebrating the vast range of tones and emotions one can evoke with the cello. I wanted to inquire if there might be more volumes of Works for Solo Cello, but if I picked up anything, it was this: Don’t ask; It’s personal.

Words of Encouragement

My conversation with Douglas Harvey gives me nostalgia for the days when we were both students at the University of Texas. Our professor Paul Olefsky was generous with his engaging stories and great words of advice and it is a delight to hear Harvey recount them.

Harvey notes something that Olefsky would often offer when we were faced with new challenging works, “The new pieces look impossible and then the next day they look a little less impossible.” We commiserate about how sitting down to play a new piece of challenging music is not musically satisfying. You are unsure, the left hand searches, and the bow arm responds awkwardly. Harvey will remind you that if you focus on the music you will find the inspiration you need to keep at it day after day. Harvey recalls Olefsky often saying, “Where is the music? You don’t want to just be showing off the cello.” Even when working out the technical aspects, always keep musical expression at the forefront.

Get to know a Composer:

Works for Solo Cello Volume 2 features the piece Chromatic Fantasy in E by Ross Lee Finney. If you are not familiar with Finney, he was an American composer and teacher. He lived from 1906-1977 having spent the latter part of his career as a highly esteemed composition teacher at the University of Michigan. It was during these years that he began to utilize the characteristics of serial composition. Having studied with both Nadia Boulanger and Alban Berg, The Chromatic Fantasy in E was one of the earliest works of Finney’s where he synthesized the neo-classical concepts of his early compositions with serialism, maintaining his affinity for lyrical melodies and recognizable harmony. The work centers on E opening up the melodic and harmonic possibilities even in using the organizational framework of serialism. Look into the composers of Harvey’s first volume of Works for Solo Cello. Which of those composers also studied and used techniques of serial composition?

Where you can see Douglas Harvey perform:

Douglas performs with the Austin Symphony, the Austin Opera, the Austin Ballet, and the Artisan String Quartet. He also frequently performs with the Grammy-winning Austin choral group Conspirare and is featured on their latest CD The Singing Guitar.

Where you can purchase Works for Solo Cello Volume 2:

Apple Music / iTunes / Google Play / Amazon Music

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