Alban's Blog

Dutilleux and Don Quixotte with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne

On January 31 2005, the 6th birthday of my son Janos, I had the craziest jump-in of my life. At 6 pm on Jan 30 I received a phone call from the Gürzenich Orchestra if I could play the Lalo Concerto at 11 am the next morning. At this moment I had just returned from the ski slopes back to the hotel in Austria, where I spent some days of skiing holidays with my son. I hadn’t played the Lalo for about two years, but since it was one of the first concertos I had ever learned I was confident enough to agree to the gig.

I arrived shortly after midnight in Cologne (yes, I confess, I sped horribly, up to 140 miles/hour), slept for 6 hours, got up early, walked across the street to the Philharmonic Hall to re-learn the Lalo while my manager took care of my sleeping little son and then rehearsed at 9:30 the concerto. The concert went surprisingly well and since then I have a special bond with this orchestra and especially its cello section. As a farewell present they gave me a beautiful little postcard with a cellist on ski plus a pair of black skiing socks – short story: while I had my cello with me in holidays because of the need of practising the Jolivet concerto, I didn’t bring any concert clothes. And while advising the orchestra to get me some black pants and a shirt, I forgot to tell them about black socks. Somebody of the cello section lent me his for the first concert – and that’s the reason they gave me black skiing socks, so that next time I go skiing I’d be prepared for another jump-in at least with socks.

The orchestra invited me back for October 2007 and wanted me to play the German premier of Unsuk Chin’s celloconcerto. Unfortunately she hadn’t finished it before then so we had to switch repertoire, and it became the Dvorak concerto. Because I love playing during the second half in the cello section I joined them for one of my all-time favorite orchestra pieces, Daphins and Chloe, which made the bond grew deeper between us – they invited me to their annual cello outing in a brewery, great fun! Soon after they invited me again for January 2009 to finally get the Chin Concerto, but guess what: she didn’t finish it again, so we had to switch program again, how embarrassing.

The chief conductor, great friend and musician, Markus Stenz, gracefully accepted to exchange the Chin with the Dutilleux Concerto, while in the second half we kept the original piece, Don Quixotte by Strauss. As a special encore the cellists of the orchestra are playing with me the hymnus of Julius Klengel for 12 cellos. Well, and this just happened, or at least the first concert, and I am so glad I survived it, because as usual I was late. I wonder if it has anything to do with me being gemini – I read somewhere that gemini are always late, not because we are arrogant or clueless, but because we tend to find something else to do in the last second…

In this case I wanted to start practising the Dutilleux which I hadn’t played since 4 years a little before Christmas, but ended up taking a break from the cello (and obviously this blog as well) from Dec 15 until Jan 1. On the 1st of January I got up early in order to finally prepare my concert, and I could not find the music for the Dutilleux anywhere. I knew I absolutely had to start working on that piece that day, otherwise I wouldn’t manage to memorize it again, and after about a dozen of phone calls I managed to connect with Wolfgang Boettcher, the old professor of the University of Arts in Berlin who had given the first German performance of this glorious piece. He not only gave me the cello part but also the score with a beautiful dedication of Dutilleux to him, which touched me very much that he trusted me with that valuable document.

On the 7th I was more or less ready to go for the first rehearsal which took place at 11 am in Cologne. I got up at 4:45 am, took the local train to the national train, missed it because of problems of the freezing temperatures which screwed up the local train schedule and arrived in Cologne two hours later the planned, at 12:10 which gave me exactly 20 min of rehearsals. Mon Dieu, I was exhausted and realized that I was far from knowing the Dutilleux well enough to rehearse it the next day – in a public rehearsal on top of everything. I locked myself into the dressing room of the hall and forced myself to stay there until I could get through it by heart without major mishaps, which worked after six hours of work at 1 in the morning.

The rehearsal the next day was rocky, but I survived, barely though since the sleep deprivation and the task of rehearsing two big pieces with orchestra were wearing me out. Markus Stenz and the orchestra were incredibly patient with me and I am so happy to say that the concert this morning went really well; the hall was practically full (for a concert with such a unpopular program) and the audience listened wonderfully concentrated and silent, a real treat and reward to play for. Yes, I admit to getting lost twice in the Dutilleux for about 2 seconds, until the conductor got me back in. This is the risk of playing difficult modern scores by heart, but the reward is that I can be much more expressive and free with the overall performance, and I tend to know the pieces much better and play with more focus (at least this what I like to believe… ).

The Gürzenich Orchestra offers a great sevice to its audience by recording the concert onto cd so quickly that after the concert people can line up, buy this cd and even get it signed by conductor and soloist. I am listening right now to the performance, surprised by some very beautiful spots, annoyed by some things which didn’t work out as I had thought they did – especially in the Strauss I played at times a bit too intensely, but hey, the Don Quixotte was quite an intense character, why not play it like that?!


  • Ellen S

    Hi, Alban–
    Today, Bill and I saw “Slumdog Millionaire,” the first film that we’ve seen other than on Netflix in a long time, and quite wonderful. (I hope that it wins at least one Golden Globe award tonight.) But we also watched, left over from yesterday, the second part of “Banlieue 13,” a picture featuring the discipline of parkour, and it occurred to me, after reading your “Dutilleux” blog entry, that your grueling schedule (however Gemini self-imposed; as another Gemini, I understand about finding new projects at the last second en route to something else) is nearly as demanding as what David Belle and his fellow “traceurs” do in parkour.
    It’s always a special pleasure to read–and hear–what you’re up to.
    An early happy tenth birthday to Janos (maybe you can send more pictures to Alexej to post?), and best regards to you.

  • Michael Chen

    Thanks for letting us in on these “thrilling” episodes of your music life. In addition to being a delight to read about, they remind me that music making is very much a live and dynamic process with lots of down and panic moments but hopefully even more “up” moments when it was done right. What endurance one must have to function effectively as a concert artist! Dutilleux is a favorite here in Boston. BY the way did you find the Mahler 3rd a bit too “matter of fact” and tightly woven? I miss Dahlen still!:)) Michael

  • Isa

    Gerade habe ich durch Zufall von der Gürzenichorchesterseite aus diesen Blog entdeckt.
    Sehr interessant und witzig, die Hintergründe und Begleitumstände des Konzertes zu erfahren 🙂

    Ich habe diesen Sonntag das Konzert in Köln genossen (und auch das Konzert im Jahre 2005, bei dem Sie so kurzfristig eingesprungen waren. War beides im Rahmen eines Abonnements)

    Vom Musikstück her hat das 12-stimmige Cellostück des 3. Aktes zwar noch mehr meinen Geschmack als der Dutilleux getroffen, aber das liegt am Stück (halt klassischer), ist natürlcih reine Geschmackssache).
    Dutilleux auswendig zu lernen möchte ich ja nicht machen müssen.. 😉 Ist bestimmt nicht so einfach…
    Viel Glück/Erfolg für das restliche Konzert am Dienstag!

  • Robert

    I notice you’re scheduled to play the World Premiere of Unsuk Chin’s cello concerto at a Prom in London on 13 August 2009. I will certainly come to the concert, but what’s the betting you’ll play that piece?

  • Alban

    Hi Ellen, thanks for your ortographic corrections, they were highly appreciated! I corrected them in the text and deleted them from your comments 🙂 Oh, Alexej has nothing to do with photos, this I have to do myself, and I am very, very lazy with that kind of stuff. We are actually not much of photo people, hardly ever take photos. It’s always other people who would take photos of my family. Sorry…

    Hi Michael,
    no, I actually enjoyed the 3rd Mahler immensely, but I like in general what you call the “matter of fact” approach – for me especially in Mahler simpler is better; there is so much going on, so much incredible emotion, that if you “do” too much as interpreter, I think it gets very easily overdone. I was incredibly touched by that performance, I must say. Oh, we are talking here of a performance of Simon Rattle and Berlin Phil in December in Berlin, and I almost wrote a blog about it because I was so deeply moved by it. Funny how different people perceive the same concert so differently – but that’s the beauty of music, I’d say.

    Hallo Isa, sure, the Dutilleux is much less easy listening than the Klengel Hymnus (for 12 celli), which is an incredibly charming piece of music, especially if one has never heard 12 cellos playing at the same time! But I think even for people who might not be so used to contemporary music the Dutilleux has something to listen to, hasn’t he? While it isn’t “easy-listening” I think it is quite approachable, don’t you think so? No, it wasn’t easy to memorize it, I agree, had a hard time re-learning it; must be age… 🙁

    Hi Robert, yes, the Unusk Chin concerto will be finished by August 13, I already have in score three movements, and they are absolutely gorgeous. Hellishly difficult, but beautiful music, right at the same page as the Dutilleux, I think.

    Best wishes, thanks for all the comments, have to get a nab before tonight’s last concert,

  • Thomas Walter

    Hi Alban,
    I listened to the concert monday evening.
    The interpretation of Strauss was absolutly beautiful. Maybe it gave me such a great feeling because I didn’t know “Don Quixotte” before. After the concert I decided to not buy the cd because I thougt if I do so I will destroy the “magic” moment of those sounds.
    I was really surprised how juicy a sound of a cello can be. There was one note (c sharp or d on the 4th string) which really made me breathless 🙂 When the first people began to clap I had totally forgotten the Dutilleux before, just remembered that there was something when I gave you the programm to have it signed and read it it again: Chabrier, Dutilleux, Strauss…

    That concert was a real good “advertising” for cello with the Klengel as 3rd act wasn’t it? I heard much people talking about the Hymnus and they were nearly all lucky to have heard 12 celli in one ensemble 🙂


  • Michael Chen

    Hi Alban:
    Are we talking about Mahler 3rd by Zubin Mehta and the Philharmoniker? Not Simon Rattle. right? I heard the first performance and it was very tight, controlled and the finale for me too slow- almost a bit dragging. Levine did the piece here in Boston last year and the pace was even slower – glacial, like his Pasifal. I prefer Abbado’s verison with the Lucerne in 2007 – available as a DVD now I think. Of course Berliner Philharmoniker played brilliantly and intensely, as always. Even within the same programme series, each performance can differ significantly from one another. Usually the first one is most intense….and nervous. And subsequent ones get more relaxed and expansive. May be what you heard Saturday evening was a bit different. I vividly remember attending the late Gunter Wand’s Bruckner 8th with the Philharmoniker in 2001. I went to all three performances and they were vastly different.
    Michael, in a frozen Boston


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