The UNO School of the Arts hosted cello quintet Sakura on Saturday evening, attracting more than 130 students, alumni, and locals. The ensemble is composed of five young men: Michael Kaufman of Cleveland, Benjamin Lash of Chicago, Gabriel Martins of Indiana, Yoshika Masuda of Japan and Australia, and Peter Myers of St. Louis. All five celloists studied under Ralph Kirshbaum, whose surname in German means “cherry tree,” or “sakura” in Japanese.
Starting at 8 p.m., the five celloists played a broad selection of music, beginning with five short Renaissance-style madrigals. A madrigal is an acapella piece usually written for several voices with complex counterpoint, but in this case the music was arranged for celloists instead of vocalists. The first four were “Matona, mia cara” and “The Silver Swan” by Orlando di Lasso, “Gli cervellini” by Adriano Banchieri, and “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” by Carlo Gesualdo.
The fourth piece, “Contraponto bestiale alla mente” by Banchieri, came as a playful surprise to the ears when some of the performers began to accompany their playing with light barks and meows. Several people in the audience chuckled, and the madrigal finished with a long howl from Masuda.
Following this were three small preludes by Claude Debussy, arranged by Myers for the cellos. “La sérénade interrompue” – “The interrupted serenade” – was a lively, restless piece, followed by “La fille aux cheveux de lin” – “The girl with the flaxen hair” – and “Minstrels.”
The following two pieces were calmer, slower: “O Sacrum Convivium” by Olivier Messiaen and “Lament, in Memory of Matthew Shepard” by Anne Wilson. Before “Lament,” Kaufman stood to explain that Wilson wrote the five-part cello piece after Shepard, a gay college student, was brutally murdered in 1998. Myers played the solo parts of the piece which Wilson wrote to represent Shepard.
After an intermission, the quintet recaptured the audience’s attention with the well-known first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. Kaufman arranged the piece, which transferred well to five cellos more because it is a persistently beautiful piece and less because the cellos did a good job of echoing the varying voices of the instruments. Roused by the vigor and strength of the performance, the audience gave it enthusiastic applause.
The rest of the concert continued with the famous names of the classical genre. “Vocalise” by Sergei Rachmaninov was followed by music from “West Side Story” as arranged by Simon Parkin and written by Berstein. During the piece, the performers snapped their fingers and even shouted together.
The quintet finished with the gentle sounds of Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E Flat, op. 117 no. 1, which Martins rose to explain was written for the poem “Sleep my child, sleep nice and sweet! I’m so sorry to see you cry!”
The concert program stated that Sakura “operates in the tradition of the great chamber ensembles, rehearsing extensively and distilling its interpretations through time.” The group was presented to UNO by The Birdfoot Festival, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that “brings artists and audiences together to make and experience dynamic chamber music,” according to its website. This May, it hosts its seventh annual international chamber music festival. Future events include “New Orleans 300: Creole Contradanzas”on May 30 and “Season Finale: The Devil’s Violin” on June 2. Many more events and ticket information can be found on birdfootfestival.org.