More than a few cellists could be spotted in the audience Sunday afternoon at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, where the Music in the Park series has been holding forth for the past 37 seasons.
The attraction was Julie Albers, the much admired new principal cellist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, who was making her Twin Cities recital debut. She was joined by a frequent collaborator, pianist Orion Weiss, who lives in New York City. Both are much in demand as soloists with orchestras and as chamber music players.
The Colorado-born Albers, whose sister, Rebecca Albers, holds the title of assistant principal viola with the Minnesota Orchestra, assumed her position with the SPCO at the start of the current season. The post had been vacant since June 2012, when Ronald Thomas resigned.
Principal players in an orchestra routinely fulfill quite a few functions in addition to being a virtuosic musician — team leader and diplomat among them. However she handles those other functions, Sunday's recital affirmed that Albers has the virtuoso requirement safely locked up.
It's not simply a matter of technique in Albers' case. As seems to be the case with all young soloists today, she has complete command of her instrument. Her characteristic sound is compact, varied in color and subtle in its effects. This isn't the big, throbbing tone we used to hear from Rostropovich and an earlier generation of cellists. Albers' vibrato, even in the most intense passages, is quick and deft.
Her most appealing quality is a kind of musicianship that seems natural and unforced along with a feeling of spontaneity in everything she played Sunday. It was as if the music were being composed as she and Weiss were playing it.
The program was well chosen. Poulenc's bubbly Sonata for Piano and Cello (1948) shared the first half with Janacek's evocative tone poem "Pohadka" ("Fairy Tale"). Later, Beethoven's variations on a tune from "The Magic Flute" ("Ein Madchen oder Weibchen") paved the way for Grieg's stormy Sonata for Piano and Cello.
Weiss, brilliant and versatile, shares Albers' virtues. The two have seamless rapport. Their Poulenc was a full bottle of Champagne. Weiss underscored the noble simplicity in Poulenc's slow movement, and the two of them took the outer movements of the Grieg at a daredevil pace. Like the rest of us, they seemed to enjoy the ride.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music critic.