For whatever reason, performers have always seemed to fear the fourth wall. They are content to let their music speak for itself, and any attempt to address the audience verbally is often considered lowbrow. This makes sense in some regards, as it facilitates the image of performer as master and lends artistic integrity to the music. Yet it can also work against the performer in that it creates an impermeable barrier between performer and audience, which can alienate the general public and leave them disengaged from the performance.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the debut of cellist Amit Peled and pianist Noreen Polera at the Ravinia Festival, Illinois was the way in which they navigated this delicate balance. In a bold and surprising move, Peled returned to the stage following intermission and immediately shattered the fourth wall. He thanked the audience, but he also briefly explained his thought process behind the recital’s structure. They sought to recreate a solo recital in the classical tradition, in which a dense sonata in the first half is contrasted by a series of shorter, lighter pieces in the second half that are primarily intended to entertain. Without this context, the balance of the program seemed detrimentally top-heavy. Not only did Peled’s verbal addendum illuminate the program’s structure, it also had the audience eating out of his hand the rest of the evening.

Not that he needed much help in this regard – Peled is a particularly emotive performer who physically embodies his densely lyrical playing. His performance of Brahms’ Cello Sonata no. 2 (serving the role of the opening half’s heavy sonata) was particularly imbued with this emotional investment. Peled’s gestures and facial expression matched the intensity of the music, and by the end he had broken out in a visible sweat. His intense interpretation of the frantic third movement yielded two broken hairs on his bow, which he did not even attempt to remove until its completion (though he still left one). It was as if he wore them as a badge of honor and left them so that the audience did not doubt his physical and emotional toll. The audience, raptured in this intensity, erupted in a small swell of cheers after this third movement before they realized that they had broken protocol. For his part, Peled reacted with a knowing smirk before launching into the finale.

What also added accessibility was the diversity of the program, which blended traditional classical repertoire with unfamiliar and exotic selections. Big names like Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert were featured, but three of the eight selections – all from non-Western composers – had never been performed at Ravinia before. While all three were fine pieces that brought welcome variety, the standout was a five-movement composition by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze entitled Five Pieces on Folk Themes. Peled once again broke the fourth wall before the piece to explain how each movement depicted a distinct element of Georgian folk music, which gave significant context that the lacking program notes failed to provide. Peled, himself Israeli born, was clearly invested in accurately transcending cultural boundaries, and his cello effectively emulated indigenous instruments and various folk dances with ease. The program could certainly have used a more modern selection (the only piece written within the past 50 years was John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, hardly an exemplary modern composition), but thanks to these hidden gems, the program had sufficient contrast.

As a performer, Peled’s strongest asset is his intense lyricism. Every note he played had motion and direction, as if each was a handcrafted piece of pottery. Peled also demonstrated a sculptor’s touch with his phrasing, which was on display from the very beginning with his performance of Beethoven’s Seven Variations in E flat major. He exuded calmness with the lush theme by gently building phrases and then tapering them into their cadence. This was contrasted nicely in the more lively third variation, where he heightened tension by swelling each phrase into its cadence.

Even in more technical passages Peled demonstrated this commitment to lyricism by playing with smoothness and fine-tuned growth within each line. For example, one of the more virtuosic pieces was Tarantella, by Czech cellist/composer David Popper, yet Peled performed with a lightness and playfulness that made his instrument sound more like a violin. There was also a brief cadenza toward the end that began with a brilliant flourish soaring into the cello’s upper register, and Peled smoothly executed this with seemingly effortless wizardry. This heavily romantic approach became overwhelming and unnecessary at times (the third movement of the Brahms could have used a more direct and disconnected approached, particularly coming after the gorgeous second movement), but it is this attention to detail that makes it evident why Peled has become such a crowd-pleasing performer.