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Cellist Maya Beiser rocks the music world with unorthodox approach to her craft

BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

A decade or two ago, virtually all classical and rock musicians followed traditional career paths in the two fields. While most still do, a growing number are traversing boundaries and venturing into new, uncharted musical realms.

Two of the best-known such cross-genre adventurers are cellist Maya Beiser and drummer Glenn Kotche. She is rooted in the classical idiom, and he is best known for his work with the famed Chicago-based rock band, Wilco, yet the two easily jump into each other’s worlds, blurring stylistic distinctions as they go.

Kotche and bassist Gyan Riley will join Beiser April 9 at Northwestern University in Evanston for “All Vows,” a program featuring rock arrangements and a group of works commissioned by the unorthodox cellist.

Cellist Maya Beiser, ‘All Vows’

When: 7:30 p.m. April 9

Where: Northwestern University, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

Tickets: $24

(847) 467-4000; pickstaiger.org

Third Coast Percussion and Glenn Kotche, ‘Wild Sound’

When: 7:30 p.m. May 21 and 22

Where: Edlis Neeson Theater, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Tickets: $28

(312) 397-4010; mcachicago.org

The drummer will also appear at 7:30 May 21 and 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago with Third Coast Percussion, which is in residence at the University of Notre Dame. The concert’s centerpiece will be the quartet’s fourth performance of a new work by Kotche titled “Wild Sound.”

While most classical cellists work some recent works into their repertory, they primarily stick to the tried-and-true classics for the instrument, such as Antonín Dvořák’s famed concerto or Johannes Brahm’s two duo sonatas.

And certainly that was the world Beiser knew as a budding cellist growing up on a kibbutz in Israel. She was mentored by famed violinist Isaac Stern starting at age 12, and she idolized English cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whom she heard play with the Israel Philharmonic.

But as she got a little older and began listening to such rock innovators as Brian Eno, Genesis and King Crimsom, the cellist ached for something different. By the time she graduated from Yale University in 1987, she was ready to take the risky step of devoting herself exclusively to contemporary music.

Maya Beiser | PHOTO BY MERRI CYR

Maya Beiser | PHOTO BY MERRI CYR

“There was this moment,” she said, “where I just paused and started to think: OK, what is it that I really want to do? Why am I doing this? What do I want to say? I realized I wanted to redefine what it means to be performer.”

She became the founding cellist of the New York collective Bang on a Can, a leading catalyst and promoter of new music. And taking cues from the rock world, she began commissioning compositions and putting together themed programs with multimedia elements.

Her upcoming program at Northwestern, titled “All Vows,” opens with selections from her most recent album, “Uncovered,” which made Billboard’s top 10 classical sales chart last year. It features covers of songs by such celebrated rock artists as Janis Joplin, AC/DC and Pink Floyd arranged for cello by Evan Ziporyn.

To provide a kind of spiritual context for those works, the second half of the concert consists of three works for solo cello inspired by the Kol Nidre, an iconic Jewish prayer – Bang on the Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s “All Vows,” Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” and Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops.”

While Kotche is best known as a rock drummer, the Roselle, Ill., native holds a degree in music performance from the University of Kentucky and has been involved in the classical realm virtually his entire career. Even as a child, he played in the school orchestra as well as garage bands.

“They’ve never been mutually exclusive,” he said of the classical and rock worlds. “They’ve always cross-pollinated and informed me. The way I play drum set is definitely affected by having experience playing in an orchestra, and vice versa too. I think my composing has a lot more energy and lot more rhythmic information than it would if I weren’t drumming in a rock band.”

His big breakthrough in the contemporary classical realm came after the release of his first solo album, “Mobile,” on the Nonesuch label in 2006. That led to commissions by such noted groups as the Kronos Quartet, Silk Road Ensemble and Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Kotche will perform solo and collaborative pieces with Third Coast Percussion on the first half of the May concerts at the MCA Chicago, and the second half will be devoted to the quartet’s presentation of the drummer’s 43-minute composition, “Wild Sound.”

Along with standard percussion instruments like the drum set and marimba and a track of sampled sounds that Kotche has collected during his international travels, the work involves the four percussionists assembling instruments during the course of the work.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.