By Cigale Ahlquist
St. Anthony Park resident Laura Sewell, a longtime professional cellist, has made the most of the past two-plus years of COVID-19 lockdown and is excited to release her first solo CD, a compilation of pieces for cello and piano by composers with Minnesota ties.
“I was fortunate to receive a 2020 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, which enabled me to fulfill a decades-long goal to record two pieces for cello and piano that were commissioned for me by my parents,” Sewell said.
The CD, “Threescore,” on the American Composers Forum’s Innova Recordings label, will be available March 25.
Sewell, 62, took up cello at age 10 at the urging of her father, Fred Sewell, an accomplished violinist, so they could play chamber music.
And they did for more than 30 years, teaming with the late Thelma Hunter to form the Hunter-Sewell Piano Trio.
Sewell, who studied at the Juilliard School and the Cleveland Institute of Music, was the founding cellist of the Lark Quartet and a member of the Twin Cities-based Artaria String Quartet from 2007 to 2016.
Currently, she performs with the Isles Ensemble in Minneapolis; is the associate director of the International Cello Institute, a summer program for serious young cellists held at St. Olaf College; and regularly plays as a substitute cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra.
The commissioned works are “Six British Folk Songs for Cello and Piano” by Pulitzer Prize finalist Paul Schoenfield, who was a Twin Cities-based composer before joining the University of Michigan music faculty, and “Banchetto Musicale” by Stephen Paulus, a Grammy award-winner. Paulus, who died in 2014, grew up in the Twin Cities, graduated from the University of Minnesota and helped found the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum).
The third piece, “From the Land of Song” by Twin Cities composer David Evan Thomas as a gift to his cellist sister, Christine Thomas Tsen, is based on five Welsh folk songs. One of the songs was written in tribute to Thomas’s great-great-grandfather Captain John Thomas, who perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Wales in 1859.
A bonus cut, “Benediction,” is a transcription of a Paulus song written in 2003.
Sewell collaborated on this recording with Twin Cities pianists Ivan Konev, Ora Itkin and Sonja Thompson.
Schoenfield’s “Six British Folk Songs” was dedicated to renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré in honor of Sewell’s time spent in London studying with du Pré, whose career and life were cut short by multiple sclerosis. It loosely depicts the stages a person might go through while living with a debilitating disease.
Of the piece, Sewell said the challenge was finding a pianist who could play the difficult score.
“It took a whole year to learn,” she said. “You play fistfuls of notes, but Ivan [also is a member of the Isles Ensemble] loved the challenge.”
Sewell will be performing parts of the Schoenfield piece with the James Sewell Ballet on March 11-12 at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium. The company’s namesake co-founder and artistic director is her brother.
Paulus’s “Banchetto Musicale,” a suite of Neo-Baroque dances, was commissioned to mark Sewell’s 21st birthday.
Of the two commissioned works and the Thomas piece, Sewell said: “I’ve played these pieces throughout the years. They’re such wonderful pieces that deserve greater exposure. They deserve to be heard.”
As Sewell’s 60th birthday loomed, she was determined to record the CD. She learned in November 2019 that she had been awarded a $10,000 grant by the Arts Board and soon after contacted Innova about her proposed project.
“They knew me and liked the idea,” Sewell said. “Even if they didn’t, I was going to do the CD anyway. Even if I didn’t get the grant, I still intended to do it.
“COVID allowed for so much practice time,” she continued. “It was a godsend for me. It kept me focused because I had a goal and a sense of purpose during the lockdown.” n
Cigale Ahlquist is a Twin Cities freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Bugle.
The Sewell CD
To order Laura Sewell’s CD, go to innova.mu/albums/laura-sewell/threescore.
The CD will also be available at the next Isles Ensemble concert, which is 4 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, 2020 Lake of the Isles Parkway, Minneapolis 55405. Info: IslesEnsemble.org.
For information on the James Sewell Ballet performances, go to jsballet.org.