Who is Zuill Bailey?

Zuill-Bailey-2aFor awhile, this past Saturday night, he was Victor Borge on cello–which isn’t a put-down. At the conclusion of the concert, many of us walked out of the TFAC hall shaking our heads, saying there weren’t any words for what we’d just been through. How could we speak easily of what by all appearances had been a seminal event? The breadth of expression was colossal. It was the kind of night we wanted to pat ourselves to see if we were all there.

The artists came for us. There was no wall between us and them, no ham sandwiches on the music stands, no rehearsing for the next concert in Manhattan. This legendary cellist gave us everything, as did his friend and collaborator, Yuliya Gorenman, superb in her role as piano accompanist.

It was different, I thought, in some ways, than when several of us were with Zuill Bailey the night before. Wonder if you share my opinion.

Yuliya was there as well, with her father, Lazar. But, she wasn’t playing.

We gather round in the living room of a Tryon home, a lovely setting, remains of ample fare sitting before us in plates unfinished when we’d been together kibitzing. The person we’d come to see and hear had left us, entering now another way, cello in hand.  Understanding our experience Saturday night starts, I think, for those of us who where there, with the playing of J. S. Bach’s “Prelude to Cello Suite # 1”. He begins, sharing with us an all-encompassing passion. What we hear is in its simplicity already grand, powerful, and exquisite.

This is a quiet man, a fortuitous background obliging him apparently from early age to occupy a role. In my interpretation of what he’s says, what others say, and the experience Friday and Saturday–and I’d played in an orchestra he soloed with a year before– he seems foreordained to reach people however and whenever he can, conveying through music with formidable talent a deep and meaningful humanity.

Music is a code. You discover how to follow it. The flow is logical and it organizes itself, harnessing power, glory, infinity, emotion, personality– the path pointing back ineluctably to its Creator.

This, in my view, is Bach’s legacy, where we begin to see Zuill Bailey. Zuill was also speaking of a kind of inevitability in creation and interpretation, I think, when he says “You have to be aware of sound and texture and where you’re going.” And what you’re playing won’t make sense if you get off that track. He thinks of Bach not so much as a composer, but as ”the greatest improviser who ever lived.”

Zuill-Bailey-2bIn talking with Yuliya and her father later Friday evening, she was emphatic about Zuill’s ability to take a piece (like Bach did) in many directions, a spontaneity that for her made playing with him a complete joy. Saturday evening we experienced that, a joy infecting everyone. He can turn on a dime. He has a mechanism, I suspect, that permits him to meet his audience wherever he feels they are.

Not inconsequently, he’s predisposed to reach out and find those audiences that most of us might think wouldn’t appreciate us even if we were invited, which most of the time he’s not! “You just wouldn’t believe what he does, and he’ll do it if he has an hour to spare!” says Yuliya. I don’t know if she meant interrupting a ball game, but it appeared to be about everything else.

(Think convalescent homes, hospitals, jails, etc…but, even he probably has to call ahead for prisons and schools.)

For me, this explains how I felt about the Zuill Bailey playing in the concert of Piatigorsky’s “Variations on a Paganini Theme.” It just wasn’t the same as Friday night. Friday, I was in awe of Zuill’s technical and psychological ability to enter each performer’s art, giving each singular credibility and artistic merit, appearing, for all intent and purposes, to be on par with the others! That’s 15 performers! I saw Yehudi Menuhin, a hero of mine, slightly hobbled, doubtless, but in a glorious light! There was humor, but no spoof. Saturday wasn’t remotely the same! He had the audience in tears, laughing! Which was fine! For them!

Of course there was a difference. Friday night, he introduced each variation by describing each performer and their playing. They were all great, of course. Piatigorsky included himself, even. So, he’s not disparaging anyone. While it is true you can make the piece hilarious, Friday night I found Zuill’s playing perspicacious, illuminating and profound–like unlocking a code. Like responding to Edward Elgar, who also had 14 friends and was concealing a code.

Could it be that Piatigorsky traced the equality of man, and Elgar traced the right to rule, back to music’s Originator? Could it be that getting a passing grade on each variation of Piatigorsky’s, would be like Arthur’s pulling out the sword?

Which is the class I put Zuill Bailey in. I do think he’s special. The Shubert cemented that for me. It was like riding over steep hills when you were a kid and finding your stomach in your mouth, like taking a helicopter through the Grand Canyon. Clear and glorious. Loved the Pagannini itself. Loved the Beethoven and Yuliya’s unflappable conviction and grace. But most of all, I loved “Thais,” because I thought I could play it!

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