Lately I have been thinking about possible reasons why the cello has not become more popular among orchestra schedules. While many people when being asked about their favorite instrument name the cello, there is still an overwhelming majority of piano- and violin-concertos being performed versus rather rare cello appearances. Yes, I know they are exceptions, but in general there is often barely just one cellist per season invited to play one of the audiences favorites (Dvorak, Elgar, Shostakovich a.o.), because many artistic planners are afraid that with a lesser known concerto ticket sales would go down.
After yesterday’s at least for me very enjoyable performance of the Dvorak concerto in Winnipeg I had a long conversation in a Brazilian restaurant (yes, I had a Caipirinha to go with my Gringo Burger :)) with the Symphony’s chief conductor Alexander Mickelthwate and their principal cellist Yuri Hooker about this matter; in the past four years they had not invited an outside cellist, and all pieces I suggested for next time have never been played in Winnipeg (Walton, Barber, Britten, gorgeous concertos which are even crowd pleasers in my experience). For all those who haven’t been to Winnipeg: this orchestra can really play, their Dvorak was as good as it gets, and Brahms No.2 was full-blooded music-making (I once more was allowed to sit in and play in this excellent cello group). No, it has nothing to do that this is a lesser known orchestra – Berlin Philharmonic doesn’t invite more than one guest cellist per season, if at all. What are the reasons?
Well, I obviously don’t know the answer, but I have a vague idea. In the 80ies Mstislav Rostropovich made the cello immensely popular, creating new pieces, playing a huge diversity of repertoire with utter conviction, putting his life on the line in each concert and enchanting with his huge charisma audiences and and fellow musicians/orchestras equally – he was the most valuable “cello-front-runner” since Pablo Casals and created a huge following for the instrument. Legions of young boys and girls got inspired to learn this beautiful instrument to the extent that there are probably nowadays more good cellists than ever before in the history of the instrument, and still it remains a distant third behind the piano and the violin in visibility on concert stages. While Rostropovich as the undisputed cellist No.1 put for the longest time (until he became more and more a conductor, probably a bit tired of practising) cello and music as absolute priority for his charismatic being, his followers may have put rather themselves as focus point – publicity campaigns by their recording companies aggressively marketed the artist, using gimmicks to sell as many cd’s as possible, not the originality of the product.
And even worse, no cellist after Rostropovich has created new pieces AND helped them to continuous glory (please correct me if I am wrong!) as he did with the concertos by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Britten and others – today we musicians are all too eager to play world premiers, but we are not willing to make the pieces grow and become property of the regular concerto repertoire. It is obviously much less work and and guarantees a much bigger success to perform the Dvorak instead of, let’s say, the Chin Concerto – sometimes one even gets paid more for playing the old warhorse. Good reasons? No, we are to blame for this laziness; it is not enough to just add new concert after new concerto to the repertoire, we have to follow the example of Rostropovich and play the performances No.2-20 (or 200) after a world premier. Though we are not the only ones responsable for that: the media loves to jump on world premiers and special projects (what I like to call gimmicks), but there is no coverage and help for playing the second performance of a world premier.
After reading the actually very positive review of Friday’s concert another point occurred to me, which has to do how we play the cello. While Rostropovich especially as a young man played with highest perfection, I never had the feeling that this was his main goal; I even remember very vividly a performance of Don Quixotte about 25 years ago where he missed quite some notes, but this man managed to not just take us by the hand, but grab us (the audience) by the throat and force us to listen to him, never mind if it was perfect or especially “beautifully” what he was doing – it was always very meaningful and authentic. And today I fear that “sound” and “cleanliness” paired with a certain amount of acting (looking emotional, doing the typical cellist’s moves) have gained such importance, that the essence of music making has been forgotten to a certain degree. The drama of life which can be found in so many pieces of music, has to be brought to life, and this won’t happen by putting on a good show, covering the lack of content with great command of the instrument and a lush sound.
“Although Gerhardt’s tone was not always at its purest, the passion and energy, coupled with his impressive technique, more than made up for thisâ€¦. If you didn’t love the cello before you attended the concert, you did after experiencing this performance.” I am not quoting this to show off a nice review, but I was curious about “the tone not being at its purest”, an expectation which I very much doubt is exclusive to the writer of this review. I didn’t really feel well during the whole performance, was really struggling for life, and I totally agree, my sound was definitely not pure – but is this something to strive for? Maybe the reason that the critic believed this performance might have won over some more fans for the cello has to do with the lack of purety and instead a certain amount of urgency and sheer fight for survival? We soloists are all guilty today, because we put out cd’s with the utmost perfection and sound quality, not considering that on stage this is only feasable if we dedicate 110% of our whole being on exactly that task – and out the door goes any kind of authentic spontaneity, because we are so consumed of trying to live up to our own recordings.
During the second performance last night I tried so hard not to be influenced by this expectiation and concept of pure sound, and I think I managed, but it really involved some serious thinking and encouragement to be “slightly raw” and to have the “devil-may-care approach” (as quoted in the review :)), because I believe that this won’t only win more fans for the cello, but it is also closer to the truth of what music is about. Technical perfection is important, without a certain (high) level of that we won’t be able to express anything, but it must not be the priority. Oops, that sounds almost as if I wrote about this before – I apologize, it’s probably age and the slow advance of Alzheimer, but somehow it felt like a new thought…
Right now I am on my way back home, first stop-over in Chicago, plane leaves in 20 minutes to Frankfurt, I’d better get going, looking very much forward to playing in London this Friday with David Zinman and the LPO, another warhorse, the Elgar 🙂