Alban's Blog

Category: Cello

Contemporary Cello Concertos in the standard repertoire?

Sitting on the train that will bring me to my first performance of the beautiful cello concerto by Unsuk Chin this year in Hamburg I started thinking about contemporary cello concertos and the fact that none has really made it into the standard repertoire (and I am not talking 20 or 30 performances, but hundreds). Commuting back and fourth between Berlin and Hamburg between the rehearsals and now the concert – my oldest son had all his wisdom teeth removed at once, and I didn’t want him to be alone at home with that challenge – it gives me some time to not only read the „Zeit“ and take care of old e-mails but also write a bit after more than a year of abstinence.

Asking cellists, conductors or orchestra managers which concerto they thought has become standard repertoire in recent years, the answer normally is „Dutilleux and Lutoslawski“. Yes, two outstanding concertos, inspired by Rostoprovich – almost half a century ago (ok, 45 years)! In the meantime maybe more cello concertos have been written than in the 250 years prior but I don’t want to believe that none of them was good enough to stick in the repertoire. Impossible, there must be some great ones, but most probably they have been forgotten because the next one was written a couple of weeks later and took attention away as it was the latest one….

I am not suggesting too many concertos are being written, but to get a new piece performed which has already been performed once is very hard. The easiest thing is to get the world premier, everybody wants to write it, play it, schedule it, listen to it, write about it. It’s like the world record in some track and field meeting; the runner is proud because he has done something nobody has achieved before him, the organizer is happy (and pays a fortune) as he can claim that at his event this world record was broken, the press is excited to write about it, and the audience is thrilled because they can brag about having been there.

Yes, premiering a piece is an honor and a privilege but it also comes with a huge responsability as it is not another „world record“ but (at least for the composer) it is like a baby. A performer is not the parent, that is the composer, but a performer should not „just“ be the midwife who professionally helps to give birth to thousands of kids and forgets about them the next day (as meaningful as every single birth is for them), but we should be like a god-parent to the piece, watch over it not just for the birthdays but help it on their way to adulthood, at least until its 18th year and beyond, as the greatest pieces need to be kept in the minds of audiences, orchestras, other performers and the media.

What to do? Well, first step would be instead of premiering a new piece […]

Sharing thoughts or just describing concerts?

A German journalist reminded me the other day of my diary which is called “blog”, asking how much my audience has to know about me. I told him that as long as it wasn’t embarrassing they could know everything, and since there is very little I am embarrassed about it would leave far too much material which obviously I am not sharing here as I hardly ever post anything. And do I really share my deepest thoughts about music, life, feelings, ideas on these pages here? While I have never received a proper shitstorm I have been misunderstood and misquoted before, I have harmed myself by sometimes being too opinionated and by giving out judgements where it might not be my place to judge as I am too involved in the musical world.

Mahler on the Westcoast

In the passed week I had the pleasure and unique experience to perform two different Mahler symphonies in the second halves of my concerts in Portland, Oregon, and San Diego. Somehow Mahler has always been one of my favorite composers whom I didn’t have much chance performing because he didn’t write much for cello solo and his symphonies are hardly ever connected with a cello concerto in the first half because of their sheer length. But last week I got lucky, Carlos Kalmar in Portland connected “my” Haydn C-Major Concerto with Mahlers 5th symphony, and Jahja Ling Mahler No. 7 with the Rococo Variations with his San Diego Symphony. Already as a child I have always been drawn to Mahler’s music, played on the piano many of his songs and the Kindertotenlieder with my mother, a singer, heard most of the symphonies numerous times with Berlin Phil and various conductors and until today his tender, slightly depressed yet optimist moments of bliss bring tear to my eyes. Yes, the big symphonic moments are impressive, great fun to play and listen, but what gives me goosebumps are the parts of deepest sadness combined with a slice of happiness.

Winter in Australia

How I was dreading these past three weeks, being “forced” to leave my beloved family in the middle of the summer holidays behind to go once around the globe into the Australian winter, but as it sometimes happens, my fears were all postively disappointed and I had the most wonderful time while my big son is surfing in Puerto Rico (staying at his grandmother) and my wife having a blast in Bulgaria, her parents taking care of the little one.

Not without my son…

After not really having been much of a father the first time around 15 years ago for my first son I am making up for it the second time. When my first son Janos was born I was living with my first wife in New York, mainly performing in Europe which meant I was travelling back and fourth sometimes for just one single concert, and still I didn’t really manage to participate in his first two years, neither do I remember much of it, sadly. As I was the sole generator of income it was the deal that I would continue my career while Janos’ mother took care of him while studying part-time. Entering the third year of my second (and last!) marriage I am happy to realize that I learnt from my mistakes.

Fitzenhagen and the Rococo Variations

Wilhelm Fitzenhagen was a young German cellist and composer who had taken lessons with the famous professor Friedrich Grützmacher in Dresden, and after performing at a Beethoven festival in Weimar, Franz Liszt offered him the job of principal cellist there. Simultanously Nikolai Rubinstein had tried to lure the talented Fitzenhagen to Moscow to become the cello professor at the conservatory there and in what I’d consider a very brave move, Fitzenhagen accepted the Russian offer over staying in Germany. In Moscow he became good friends with Peter I.Tchaikovsky and convinced him to write a piece for cello, the Rococo Variations. Fitzenhagen never performed them in their original version but arranged them differently, maybe to the dislike of Tchaikovsky, but for me he did such a good job in “improving” Tchaikovsky that I jumped onto the possibility to record some of Fitzenhagen’s own music when Stefan Lang from Deutschlandradio suggested it a couple of years ago. My label Hyperion loved the idea which is the reason why instead of taking the month of August completely off I had to prepare for one of the hardest recording sessions in my life with the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester under Stefan Blunier.

Vieuxtemps Concertos first edit

Flying to Australia is always a welcome excuse to catch up on films, getting acquainted with the newest TV shows (just watched “Dexter” for the first time), answering e-mails and writing for my so-called “blog”. The first two legs from Berlin to Copenhagen and from Copenhagen to Singapore I brought already behind me, sitting comfortably in my chair on Singapore Airlines flight 213, sipping on a tomato juice, the cello right next to me. Yes, after the accident with my bow I stopped checking my instrument into the cargo, can’t take the risk and the stress anymore – getting wiser with age or just lazier?

Bach at Train Stations

It is just such a gorgeous day in Berlin, not too hot, lovely breeze on our terrace, looking into the green of the trees, my wife

taking a nab after our intense Brahms Double rehearsal, which gives me time to fulfill my promise and write about the rather unusual little tour I did May 21 and 22.I arrived from San Francisco on May 20th, just in time to celebrate my wife’s birthday – the preparation for the Bach Suites I did during my five-day stint in San Francisco together with re-learning the Unsuk Chin Concerto; quite a pity considering the fact what fun I could have had in San Francisco instead of practicing for six hours every day…

Broken Bow – Broken Cello?

On February 6 a careless TSA officer at Washington DC’s international Dulles airport destroyed not only my bow, as I found out yesterday only hours before my live-radio-broadcasted concert with the National Symphony of Ireland in Dublin, but also pushed the sound-post of my Goffriller cello so strongly, that on the back of the cello one can see a brutal crack at the place where the sound-post stands inside the corpus. What had happened? Why did I only realize this two and a half weeks after the incident? And how do I dare complain about all of this as I took the risk of damaging my cello by checking it with ordinary bags? Comments indicated that some people seem to believe I deserve such an accident.

Artist in Residence

The busiest one and a half months in a long time with seven concerti, almost complete Beethoven Sonatas and Bach Suites were topped by my very first artist-in-residency with an orchestra. In between concert in Sevilla (Dvorak), Amsterdam (Frank Martin), Oslo (Chin), London (Schumann), Barcelona, Madrid and Valladolid (Lalo), Berlin (4 Beethoven Sonatas), Fort Worth (another Schumann) and now Hangzhou (Elgar), I flew to Portland (no, unfortunately not connected with the set of concerts in Fort Worth with the wonderful Fort Worth Symphony and a great conducting musician, Josep Caballé Domenech) to play three times the Rococo Variations plus Silent Woods by Dvorak, starting the first week of a three-year residency in this lovely city. While other orchestras have their “artist-in-residence” come several times within one year to play different pieces with the orchestra and maybe also give a recital, the idea of the Oregon Symphony and its chief conductor Carlos Kalmar was rather unique: