Alban's Blog

Facing the Truth

Fourteen months ago I premiered Unsuk Chin’s Celloconcerto at the Proms in London, a very rewarding as well as traumatic experience. In order to understand and communicate this technically and musically challenging work I had forced myself to play the world premier by heart; the rewarding part was the very warm reception from the audience, the traumatic one came from the fact that in the two hardest passages I panicked and got subsequently lost. Passages, I had practised as well and long as never anything before, and still when it came to it, my brain shut down and the fingers went on auto-pilot, kind of faking their way through, abandoned from their guide. Nobody realized except the conductor back then, not even the composer herself (as she claims, but I still don’t believe her!), but I didn’t care, I wasn’t doing it for the audience or for her, but as a perfectionist I always want to play as well as humanly possible, never mind if it is being appreciated or not. Until today I haven’t dared to listen to the recording of that concert, not even in preparation for last night’s concert in Tampere, Finland, where the Chin Concerto came to its second performance ever.

Oh, I suffered alright, starting more or less from scratch two weeks ago after not having looked at the piece for more than a year, and at the end I was missing exactly one day. How come? Well, I had a rather tasteful little escape to Taiwan to play the Haydn C Major Concerto with the National Symphony Taiwan under its new chief conductor Shao Chia Lü – tasteful because of Taiwan’s amazing food and the musicianship of conductor and orchestra in that tricky piece of music – about a week ago, and since I had to practise so much I had chosen to change my flight back a day earlier, leaving two hours after my performance ended which gave me an extra day in Berlin to work (and also spend some time with my son János, who hasn’t seen much of me). As the rebooking costs were very high I chose to give up the cello seat and put the cello down in the cargo. I had brought it to the gate so I was sure that it made it onto the plane. In Frankfurt the next morning I missed the connection flight by a couple of minutes and barely made it onto the next one, which was packed by all the members of Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle returning after a night out in Frankfurt. While boarding I double-checked if my suitcase and the cello made it, and I was assured that “both pieces of luggage” were being loaded.

To make this long story a bit shorter: the cello didn’t arrive until Monday afternoon, more than 30 hours after the scheduled arrival, and the worst was that they couldn’t even tell me where it was. I stayed calm and enjoyed the free-time of not having to practise, a bit fatalistic in a way and also optimistic, knowing that no cello of mine has ever gotten lost in an airport – only from my basement did somebody manage to snitch my old cello, but that’s another and much older story. Back to the Chin connection: this missing day cost me dearly in the first rehearsal two days ago in Tampere, because I wasn’t on top of the concerto yet and before making a complete fool of myself I played half from music, half by heart, something I am really, really bad at. But as my brain had shut down already on the second, not so difficult page, I didn’t want to waste the orchestra’s time and put the music on the stand.

What a luxury to be able to play especially modern music by heart: the concentration is completely different, I am much deeper inside the music, understand more what the composer is trying to say – it somehow becomes my own language. It was more than frustrating having to read the music while rehearsing with the incredibly well prepared orchestra. I punished myself by staying in the hall the entire day, and when I returned to my hotel at 7 pm I had played almost 10 hours the cello with the effect that the dress rehearsal went as well as I could only have dreamt, definitely the best version of that piece until now; out of an old theatre superstition (good dress rehearsal, bad concert), I stayed another three hours going through every single bar, taking it apart, practising with and without instrument, using the metronom for the many virtuosic passages, yet in the concert I couldn’t repeat the same spotless performance and panicked again towards the end, although I didn’t fall apart as in the world premier, which already was a big step forward.
But again I had to face the truth, that this piece is the hardest I have ever played…

Until April 2011 I will have played it eleven times altogether (in Boston and Cologne three times each, Amsterdam, Den Hague and Seoul single performances), and then I hope to record it for Hyperion, probably together with Dutilleux’ “Tout un monde lointain”, because I think these two works will compliment each other, using very colorful orchestration, but always see-through so the cello doesn’t have to struggle constantly.

Again the reception of the concerto was such that I start to believe more and more this is a major piece which will be remembered and played for many, many years, similar to the likes of Dutilleux, Prokofiev, Shostakovich etc. Our responsability as performing artists is not only to play world premiers but to make good pieces known to a wider audience by taking them on tour, recording them and helping them survive the childhood years. I haven’t been too productive yet in that area, but with the Pintscher Concerto, which hasn’t been written nor premiered by me, but which I am happy to play whenever I get a chance (next month in Cleveland) I am championing this season two new concertos, very different from each other, but hopefully candidates for a long, happy life!


  • André

    I am looking forward to hear the Unsuk Chin concerto in Cologne in May… 🙂

  • Melissa Morrow

    Dear Alban,
    I am a painter and am so glad that I do not have to produce my work in front of people, not comfortable with leaving anything to chance. I cannot imagine having to perform my work in public but show it only when it is finished, past the sweat, the tears and the continuous process of growing as an artist. Your work is inspiring.
    Alles Gute…
    Melissa Morrow


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