Canadian author Steven Galloway’s wise 2008 novel “The Cellist of Sarajevo” uses the circumstances of musician Vedran Smailovic as a literary jumping-off point. Next Wednesday, Salastina Music Society members will similarly use Galloway’s book as a springboard when they give a performance at Vroman’s Bookstore and discuss how the book and its historical setting informed their choices of material..
In real life, Sarajevo Opera cellist Smailovic donned tux and tails to perform Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio outside the remains of a bakery for 22 days during the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo, in honor of 22 people slaughtered by mortar shells while standing in a bread line. He continued to play in blasted-out buildings and at cemetery funerals surrounded by fresh graves, despite the constant threat of snipers. At a time when crossing the street demanded profound bravery, performing in the open could not have seemed more reckless or insane — and inspiring. Smailovic gave hope to fellow Sarajevans, who nicknamed him “the cellist of Sarajevo.” English composer David Wilde used that for the title of the solo cello piece (subsequently recorded by Yo Yo Ma) he wrote after learning of Smailovic, who escaped Sarajevo in 1993 and eventually settled in Northern Ireland. (His 1999 album with Tommy Sands, “Sarajevo to Belfast,” that features Albinoni’s “Memento Mori.”)
The cello’s mournful voice and the melodic sweep of Albinoni’s Adagio cut across genres, time, and geography. Such musical offerings are perhaps the most meaningful gift when civilization is shredding, in an environment where even friendly conversation and what Galloway described as “the destruction of the living” are too weighty to bear.
“When the mortars destroyed the Sarajevo Opera Hall, the cellist felt as if he were inside the building, as if the bricks and glass that once bound the structure together had become projectiles that sliced and pounded into him, shredding him beyond recognition. He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. That was what he knew how to be. He made the idea of music an actuality. When he stepped onstage in his tuxedo he was transformed into an instrument of deliverance.”
Wednesday’s performance is a Prelude or companion event to the Pasadena Conservatory of Music’s upcoming Mansions & Music concert, part of its 2019-2020 season, which will be given in a private residence on Oct. 13. Tickets for that concert, whose full program will include Wilde’s solo piece as well as Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and works by Benjamin Britten and Peteris Vasks, will cost $100. Think of Wednesday as a free teaser.
Hope Tschopik Schneider will facilitate a discussion of “The Cellist of Sarajevo” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, followed by KUSC DJ Brian Lauritzen and Salastina Music Society’s performance of the Prelude at 7:30 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission’s free, but RSVP to (626) 683-3355. salastina.org, pasadenaconservatory.org, vromansbookstore.com