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Absorbing the music

Published March 27. 2010 09:00AM


A couple weeks ago my daughter was visiting and I said to her, "Guess who I got an e-mail from? Bion Tsang."

Her friend looked at her and said, "Your mother knows Beyoncé?"

Not quite.

We had a bit of a chuckle over that, but no, as a lot of local lovers of classical and chamber music know, Bion Tsang is an incredibly talented cellist and former artistic director of the sadly now defunct Laurel Festival of the Arts.

I cut my journalistic teeth on that festival. I'm not a music expert, just a music lover. I fell in love with chamber music while covering the Laurel Festival. It was a welcome assignment after spending most of my work day on the county beat. I always looked forward to those two weeks of the year, when the hills of Jim Thorpe were truly alive with the most beautiful music.

I still barely know an adagio from an Awadagin, but I know what I like, and Bion's performances were always a highlight of the festival. One of my absolute favorite experiences was hearing him perform Bedrich Smetana's Allegro, ma non agitato from Trio in G Minor, Op. 15, for Piano, Violin and Cello, with Scott Yoo and Awadagin Pratt (actually I do know Awadagin, but that's a story for another time.)

I have a photo in my home office of Bion, Scott and Awadagin that I took that night, and I am even luckier to have a copy of the CD from the 1998 Laurel Festival of the Arts, that features the Smetana trio. I still get goose bumps when I listen to it. That never happened covering a county commissioners' meeting!

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear from Bion, who now lives in Austin, Texas where in addition to performing, he is an associate professor of cello at the Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin and to learn of his newly released CD "Bion Tsang and Anton Nel: Live in Concert, Brahms Cello Sonatas and Four Hungarian Dances."

The first time I listened to the CD was in my car on the way to work, during a recent snowstorm. This is a drive that usually has me arriving at the office white-knuckled, with my heart pounding. Although my ride took about twice as long as usual I pulled into the parking lot feeling surprisingly calm and refreshed, and almost wishing my ride would have taken about a half-hour longer!

For as much as I enjoyed listening to this CD while driving, as my friend Tom Dressler, another talented musician, taught me years ago, the best way to listen to music is to just listen. Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, relax and just let the music wash over you. While I rarely have the time or the inclination to settle in and listen, this CD has made me want to do just that -- to not just listen to the music, but actually absorb it so that I may appreciate it fully.

While listening to the sonatas I again get goose bumps; and the lively Hungarian Dances make me smile. At the end of the Sonata in E minor, Op. 38, as I hear the audience rise to its feet with wild applause, I want to join them, I am so enraptured.

There are times when great works of visual art have brought me to tears. I easily admit the performances captured on this CD have the same effect.

This new CD is the second collaboration for Bion and Nel. It was recorded live by WGBH-FM in Boston at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall in the spring of 2008. The pair met over 15 years ago and have performed together across the country, including a tour that showcased the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano.

Bion was nominated for a Grammy this year for his performance with the choral ensemble Conspirare. He has numerous recordings and has won many awards over his 30-year career. The Los Angeles Times calls him "an artist that guarantees the future of our music."

Nel also has a storied career, appearing in concert halls around the world. He has three solo recordings and numerous chamber music recordings. He is a professor of piano and chamber music at the Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin.

"Bion Tsang and Anton Nel: Live in Concert, Brahms Cello Sonatas and Four Hungarian Dances" is now available at

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