Written by Tim Hansen

It’s a warm September night and I’m in seated in the pews of Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn. The place is pretty spectacular. The floor is white marble; the walls are adorned with ornate wood-and-gold filigree, and the arched ceilings that vault away into the darkness. The muted conversation amongst my fellow attendees is amplified by the architecture into a lush acoustic wash, and whatever a person’s day-to-day stance on a place like this may be, there’s no denying that this is a space where one virtually expects to experience something profound. It is, in short, the perfect place for a cello concert.

And not just any cello concert: I’m here for Mariel Roberts’ album launch, nonextraneous sounds. In just a few short years since graduating from Manhattan School of Music, Roberts has established herself as a lynchpin of the new music scene in New York. After being awarded the Van Lier Fellowship from MSM, Roberts found herself with significant financial support with which she could pursue any personal artistic project she desired. Considering the number of pieces she had accrued composed especially for her, a solo CD seemed like a natural decision, if somewhat exhilarating.

“The fact that it was a solo album was kind of the wild card for me,” said Roberts in a post-concert interview. “I always liked playing as a soloist but always feel more satisfied and excited about performing chamber music. I thought that [being awarded the fellowship] was the perfect opportunity to challenge myself to do the one musical thing that I think is probably the most difficult for me: putting myself out there alone as an artist.”

After making the decision to release a solo album, Roberts next task was to find a label to promote and distribute the work. It was a difficult job, Roberts said, as her music didn’t “fit” neatly into a genre, making most labels reluctant to take on the album without some significant changes to the content. Luckily, said Roberts, she discovered innova, the ACF’s in-house label.

“Innova turned out to be an amazing fit for me,” said Roberts, “because they really didn’t ask me to change anything about the record. They looked at it for what it was and didn’t try to categorize it, decided they liked it enough to produce it, and that was that. It was really the best possible scenario for me. I knew I loved what I had made, and I didn’t want to have to compromise that just to put a label stamp on it.”

Nonextraneous sounds features five pieces, all of which have been composed by young composers – Andy Akiho, Sean Friar, Daniel Wohl, Alex Mincek, and Tristan Perich – a fact that Roberts believes makes a huge difference to her process as a performer compared to preparing works by established artists.

“I think I probably invest myself more in pieces by young composers, because I feel like I am truly acting as an interpreter rather than a performer carrying out a set of instructions. When a piece has been performed many times, it begins to carry this weight of a ‘traditional’ or ‘correct’ way to play it. With a brand new work, it’s my responsibility to figure out exactly what the composer means: how can I create what they were truly hearing when they wrote the piece?”

This is not a task the young cellist takes lightly: instead, it’s a very serious matter of interpreting another young artist’s work for future posterity. “I had this pressure on myself in my mind that if I was making the first recording of their pieces, pieces that might be performed by hundreds of cellists in the future, and that I needed to be unforgiving with myself in regards to my honesty towards the score and toward the composer’s intentions.”

This scrupulousness seems to have yielded rich results. In the lofty environs of Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral, Roberts executes each piece with the technical flair and exquisite sensitivity for which she consistently is acclaimed. It’s difficult not to feel as though one is experiencing something profound; a significant step in a talented young artist’s career.

Photo: Ryan Conner/Quincy Ledbetter