By Edward Ortiz
Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012
While growing up, maverick cellist Maya Beiser was deeply moved by the call-to-prayer songs she heard emanating from a nearby mosque.
Beiser’s family lived in the northern Israeli region called Galilee.
“I grew up right next to a village of Muslim Bedouins,” said Beiser, via phone from her home on the Upper West Side of New York City. “The call to prayer was an incredibly beautiful, enticing and foreign sound that I literally heard every evening.”
That fascination percolated to the fore in 2010 with the CD release of Beiser’s “Provenance,” a five-track musical exploration that took its cues from ancient Muslim, Christian and Jewish music from the golden age of medieval Spain.
The music on “Provenance” forms the basis of Beiser’s concert appearance Saturday at the Mondavi Center. The performance will see Beiser, oud player Bassam Saba and percussionists Shane Shanahan and Matt Kilmer performing all the tracks from the CD in a taut, nonstop 75-minute skein.
The works on the CD range from Israeli composer Tamar Muskal’s “Mar de Leche,” which melds a contemporary musical ethos with the ancient Sephardic love song, to composer Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
Such musical explorations are not the daily diet of the classical cellist. Then again, Beiser, 48, has never fit the mold. As an instrumentalist, she has commissioned many new works. This puts her in a unique place among cellists.
She is one of the co-founders of the new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. The adventurous, innovative group is a touring offshoot of the New York-based Bang on a Can, started by composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon in 1987. Beiser appeared on Lang’s radar in the 1990s, as the Bang on a Can All-Stars idea was taking hold.
“I noticed she was dedicating her life to passionately playing this really strange music. And as we started to work with her more, we invited her to become a founding member,” Lang said. “Her attitude is kind of fearless.”
Lang is especially taken with the fact that Beiser could have nailed down a big-time career as a concert soloist but choose something else.
“If you imagine that someone that grew up with a classical music background would grow up to make a record that is as wide- ranging as ‘Provenance,’ you would be very surprised that such a musician got to that point from where she started,” Lang said.
Indeed, Beiser’s formative years in Israel were spent solidly with the standard classical repertoire.
“As a child, I was offered the violin because I had perfect pitch,” she said.
But she would have none of it. She chose the cello instead, because no one she knew at the time was playing the instrument. She was also drawn to the expansive sound of the cello and the fact that cellists were seen as a quirky lot.
“I started to play the cello at an early age and was strictly classically trained,” Beiser said. “I performed all the big classical repertoire.”
When she turned 12, violinist Isaac Stern took her under his wing. It proved to be formative.
“It was amazing, I got to perform with the most incredible classical musicians at an early age,” she said. “And at the same time, this allowed me to develop other interests and curiosities.”
After high school Beiser moved to the United States to earn a music degree at Yale, where she became influenced by composer Louis Andriessen. Thereafter, Beiser immersed herself in the downtown new-music scene of New York City. As a result, her musical world opened up to the groundbreaking works of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Soon Beiser’s passion for new works brought her to a crossroads: Should she continue as a classical concert soloist with a well-established career timeline? Or should she take the risky plunge of exploring new music and different ways of evolving the cello?
She chose the latter.
“I turned down a lot of options. There was this definite path that had been created for me which was to go with a big classical-management firm and do the major concertos,” she said. “But I really wanted to be doing something else.”
That something else was new music, especially music that employs text, electronics and sampling. It was not a well-worn path.
“There was no model ” Beiser said. “This is no longer true today, as things have changed dramatically.”
The argument can be made that Beiser has forged a road that has made a new generation of cellists possible. It is a generation that is not shy about programming a work by Led Zeppelin, the music of Bedouins and a Beethoven concerto on the same stage.