A curious and enthusiastic crowd greeted the performance of hiker-cellist Mark Votapek, hosted by Chamber Music Unbound at the Mammoth Lakes Lutheran Church on Saturday, June 22. Votapek, who makes annual appearances at the summer Mammoth Lakes Music Festival, is attempting his second complete hike of the 2,600-mile Pacific Coast Trail this year, a feat that would be impressive enough without his additional ambition to perform some 20 to 30 free solo cello concerts along the way.
Votapek is no stranger to the cello; he has played the instrument since the age of 7, and currently serves as cello professor and string chamber music coordinator at the University of Arizona. He also held positions as Principal Cello of the major orchestras of Honolulu, Oregon, and Sacramento, as well as performing as Associate Principal Cello of the St. Louis Symphony. In addition to his passion for music, Votapek expressed his passion for the outdoors, noting time spent hiking trails on the Hawaiian Islands and across the West Coast.
When asked what motivated him to take on the grueling task of solo cello concerts in addition to the challenges of a strenuous PCT hike, Votapek explained that the inspiration came from simply not wanting to lose touch with his instrument. “I hiked the PCT in 2008,” he said, “and at that time, I was worrying about losing my chops, so I arranged to borrow a cello along the trail.” Hikers would gather to listen while Votapek played, leading him to the realization that, as he put it, “There’s an audience there, and it’s not a typical cello audience.”
Votapek embraced this opportunity to bring a taste of the cello to a new audience, and decided to arrange to have his own cello driven by friends to venues along the trail this year. 900 miles in, with his last stop in Kernville, the response to the performances has been great, Votapek said. “It’s fantastic; really fun,” he added. “I love playing for traditional audiences, too, but it’s kind of neat to play for a lot of people who’ve never heard anything like it before. There’s all sorts of details they’re not getting, but they’re also getting certain pieces in a different way.”
The two back pews at the church were filled with Votapek’s hiking companions, all of them dressed, like Votapek, in pants, t-shirts, and hiking shoes. “Mostly, they make fun of me,” he smiled. “Outside there, everybody’s the same. We’re all walking the same steps, dealing with the same heat and same cold. So the idea of having someone who’s a classic performer….” Nevertheless, Votapek’s trail buddies showed their appreciation for his performance with catcalls and applause, and Votapek thanked each of them by trail name.
This piqued the curiosity of one audience member, who asked Votapek for his trail name. “We don’t need to talk about that,” was Votapek’s dry reply.
Later The Sheet pressed Votapek for further comment.
Sheet: So what is your trail name?
MV: [Pause] Cuddles.
Sheet: Where did that come from?
MV: That’s not for print. It’s not a family-friendly story.
Other questions asked in a Q & A session after the concert included how fast Votapek hikes (the answer was 32 miles in a day, with an average of 20 miles a day), whether he’ll make it to the end of the PCT, with about 1,700 miles to go (“I hope so,” Votapek said), and how he prepares, mentally or otherwise, for a cello performance after being away from the cello for so long. Votapek admitted that preparation can be stressful. “When I get to a town, I have a very limited amount of time to practice,” he said. “I know this won’t be the most polished performance, so I focus on the big things.”
Votapek opened Saturday’s performance with the Gaspar Cassado, transitioned to Bach’s Suite No. 6, followed that with Paul Tortelier’s “Mon Cirque,” and, after several duos with Felici Piano Trio members and Votapek’s wife, Emma, concluded with Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata in honor of his late mentor, Janos Starker.
Felici Piano Trio cellist Brian Schuldt, who also studied with Janos Starker and has known Votapek since 1990 when they met at the Indiana University School of Music, introduced Votapek on Saturday night. “Even [at Indiana University] he was a little extreme,” Schuldt said with a laugh.
He also expressed his admiration for Votapek’s challenging selections: “All of the selections Mark performed on Saturday are at the pinnacle of solo cello repertoire, when you consider difficulty,” he said. “The sixth Suite of Johann Sebastian Bach was originally written for a five string cello, of which there are no more. So cellists now play it on four strings, requiring the player to go into the highest positions. “Mon Cirque” was composed by a cello virtuoso, Paul Tortelier, to show many different techniques cellists can use to produce various timbres, [and] the Sonata by Kodály is considered a benchmark for cellists, because of the deep musical expression and technical fireworks.”
The audience agreed with Schuldt’s assessment: Votapek’s performance received a standing ovation.
Votapek performed his selections on a cello by Johannes Floreuns Guidanteus, made in 1715 in Bologna. For the remainder of his performances he will use a replica, which he had made when he first hiked the PCT. Votapek originally considered hiking with a portable cello, he said, but found even that would be too heavy. “The biggest challenge [of the PCT] is just carrying enough food,” he said.
His next solo cello concert is tentatively scheduled for July 7 in Truckee; barring that, Votapek will appear July 10 in Sierra City at the Red Moose Lodge. The hiking cellist will then hitchhike back to Mammoth for performances during the Mammoth Lakes Music Festival, which runs from July 17-August 2 at Cerro Coso College, before taking to the trail once more.
(Photos: Barney Scout Mann)