In Moving Performance at Roulette, Cellist Andrew Yee Ponders Identity and Conflicting Emotions

Andrew Yee took a seat onstage and swept the bow across their cello’s open strings without missing a beat. They packed a slew of emotions into those few, unornamented notes, making every swell feel as if it came directly from the heart. And though it was a comfortably full room at Roulette on March 23, the audience was still. The two-part evening started with Yee and concluded with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn; it was the second show of the orchestra’s two-day String Theories Festival, which also featured performances by jazz trio Nepenthae and composer and vocalist Nyokabi Kariũki.

Yee began their solo set with Leilehua Lanzilotti’s ko’u inoa (2017) because it feels like a “reset,” and by the final gossamer tone, there was certainly a sense of renewal born from the music’s tranquility. The piece was also a fitting concept for the evening. Ko’u inoa, which translates to “my name is,” is a meditation on selfhood, and Yee initially created this program to explore their bi-racial and non-binary identity (noting from the stage that they now identify as trans, but the concept remains). At its core, the program sought to consider the contrasting emotions and experiences that color our everyday lives — ideas of belonging, love, grief, and the flickers of joy that can still arise in dark times.

Andrew Yee with String Orchestra of Brooklyn -- Photo by Todd Weinstein

Andrew Yee with String Orchestra of Brooklyn — Photo by Todd Weinstein

The music focused on texture and dynamics rather than ornamentation, balancing explosive moments with serene pauses. During Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas, Yee leapt between bold, Bachian rolled chords and paper-thin melodies, imbuing each note with passion; in Andrew Norman’s For Ashley, Yee jumped through fast-paced melodies and savored moments of rest, creating a tidal wave of emotion. Throughout, the cello acted as an extension of their own voice, a vehicle for telling the stories of their life.

Yee’s own composition, The Sea as it Is, was the most moving piece of the evening. Written for spoken word and cello, it wades through the opposing feelings of grief and immense happiness that Yee has felt at the beach. Before playing the piece, they noted that the past few months have been difficult for the trans community; this music made time for acknowledgement and reprieve. Expanding outward from a resonant open C string, Yee’s bow revved and slowed like waves reacting to a storm passing through. Poignant plucks cut through the din, accompanying Yee as they talked about how the ocean is “where we come from.” The ocean reappeared throughout the concert, as a theme and in Yee’s playing — their style was fluid like water, explosive like the crashing of a wave, gentle like a peaceful beach sunrise. The concept of the ocean held within it elation and despair, uncertainty and comfort, beauty and terror.

String Orchestra of Brooklyn -- Photo by Todd Weinstein

String Orchestra of Brooklyn — Photo by Todd Weinstein

Following Yee’s solo set, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn took the stage to present works that reflected on their set with similar watery textures. Co-composed by Shaw and Yee, Moby Dick Suite layers rumbling, sustained tones that conjure the strength of the sea. Next was Shaw’s entr’acte, which she composed after hearing Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77, No. 2. Though the composition could be an intriguing look at the Classical minuet and trio, String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s performance often felt hurried, rushing through every phrase so much that the ensemble’s sound became cluttered and dissonant. But at the end of the program, they returned to a sense of calm by presenting a full-ensemble version of Lanzilotti’s ko’u inoa, which Yee had played as a solo in the first half. In this version, each section passes the bariolage melodies to each other, creating an echoing, rippling effect, and a final moment of peace.

The strength of the evening lay in how each performance found depth in simplicity. Under Yee’s bow and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s fingertips, open strings felt as full as a chord. Nowhere was that more clear than in Yee’s version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Yee commented from the stage that they sing this song to their child every day, but here, they sang slowly and quietly, zeroing in on the song’s poignancy. By the end, Yee created a sense of hope and meditation in the room. It was a glimmer of radiance and a reminder to leave room for joy, even when it seems out of reach.


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