Cellist and composer Clancy Newman beautifully plays 20th and 21st century American music

More than 1 billion people are at risk for hearing loss. It might be time to turn the music down

You don’t see many concert cellists who also write music. If those talents are combined, they are usually in someone who is a composer first and a cellist second.

Luigi Boccherini, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Victor Herbert and David Baker were all good enough cellists to play professionally.

Then there are cellists who focus their compositions on their own instrument, such as Pablo Casals and David Popper. Clancy Newman, who tours as an orchestral soloist and recitalist, seems to have found success in this niche.

Newman played several of his works and arrangements Thursday at Cuyamaca College as part of the Echo Chamber Music Series, along with compositions by Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Kenji Bunch. He was sharply accompanied by Natalie Zhu on piano.

Newman’s 2008 opus, “From Method to Madness,” certainly begins methodically. A repeated pitch is plucked out first by the cello, then sounded by the piano. A second pitch is brought in, then a third, as the rhythms and the tempos increase in a somewhat mechanical manner. As this section reaches a climax of volume and texture, it suddenly switches into a frenetic pattern of 2 + 2 phrasing, with a blues-like tune ground out by the cello — presumably the “madness” section.

It plays out rather simply but effectively, although the only thing tying the two sections together is the underlying tonality.

Newman’s solo cello arrangements of Billboard-charting hits seem more likely to appeal to other cellists. In his “Pop-Unpopped” series, he stretched his techniques to better simulate melody and accompaniment.

His version of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” calls for left hand pizzicatos and fingerboard hammer-ons in contrast to the more typical right hand plucking. His arrangement of “Uptown Funk” employs percussive effects on the cello body and glissandos simulating Bruno Mars’ cat calls.

The cleverness of the arrangements and Newman’s effortless mastery of these unusual techniques made “Pop-Unpopped” winning works.

The concert opened with Barber’s 1932 Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Minor, Op. 6. Composed while Barber was still a student at Curtis, it doesn’t quite have the hallmarks of his mature style. Yet its hyper-Romantic gestures and some nontraditional harmonic progressions hint at things to come.

Over a decade later, Foss — a recent Curtis alumnus in his early 20s — wrote his Capriccio for Cello and Piano, a sassy romp that hints at Hindemith and Copland (especially “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo”).

Bunch, an American violist, is a successful composer of unabashedly tonal works. His “Broken Voice” for cello and piano was premiered by Newman in 2003. Bunch lives in Portland, Ore., yet somehow “Broken Voice” took 19 years to make it to the West Coast.

You’d think that more contemporary tonal composers would be able to write a good tune as Bunch can, but only a few of his peers possess that skill. Bunch’s compositions get the job done, but they are prone to long stretches of static harmony. One wishes there was more liveliness and inevitability in moving from one chord to the next.

The four movements of “Broken Voice” are exceedingly well scored for the cello, with equally fluent textures in the piano. Newman and Zhu performed it — as they did all evening — with assured technique and winning showmanship.

For any audience members who needed something more traditional and European, an encore of the slow movement from Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano was beautifully played.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.