Alban's Blog

Not so pure sound in Winnipeg…

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 this…. 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 🙂


  • Bob Huenefeld

    Very interesting article.My thoughts regarding performance are somewhat different in that I have never palyed a performance with the same exact bow strokes,pressure and bow speed having infinate variety,and a search to discover things that I never realized before.

    I have played Betthoven’s Fifth Symphony with 23 different conductors and listened to many recordings by many very knowlegeable conductors,but some recordings of this well-known work I enjoy more,notably Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic.To me music is all about life and its experiences and bringing that to every performance is what music is about to me.Hopefully we will all learn how to do music better than we presently do.

  • David Sullivan

    Although not particularly popular outside the US, cellist Yo-Yo Ma did wonders for the music scene in the United States in the 80s and 90s, and still remains a huge draw over here. His influence on the US may be right up there with Rostropovich’s, although more from an accessibility standpoint than a musical one.

    Part of me wonders if the cello being a secondary instrument relates to cost. When a child first becomes interested in music and the family tries to provide for them, it’s usually a violin (which is inexpensive compared to a cello) or a piano (which, while expensive, a lot of families may already have on hand, being passed down through generations or between relatives). A cello requires a bit more of an outlay, something some families just may not be as willing to indulge in.

    Keep aiming for those less-popular concerti though! I know cellist Julie Albers managed to talk the Edmonton Symphony into performing the Kabalevsky Second Concerto, which I absolutely adore and would love to hear performed live sometime in my lifetime.

  • Alban

    Yes, Mr. Ma’s influence is undisputed, but still the cello remains more popular in Europe than in the US – my point: “…His influence on the US … more from an accessibility standpoint than a musical one….” 🙂

    Very good point, Bob, though not really contrary what I am trying to get at: variety in bowing is among the most important things to make a performance interesting and alive, and it is indeed a huge problem that bow technique is not being focussed on very much, it all tends to become one blend, one juicy sound with too much articulation or finesse; music is being made mainly with the right hand, the left hand and its vibrato carries much less responsability.

  • Trevor Kirczenow

    Hi Alban,

    We had such fun playing with you in Winnipeg. Hope you’ll come back soon and play something we’ve never done before! I didn’t get a chance to mention it when you were here, but I was very interested to see you playing with ear plugs. For years I have always played with a plug in my left ear (being the one closest to the violin). I am very used to it and never really play without it – I even won my audition using it. However, I have received a lot of criticism for this practice so I often try to hide it. I use the ear plug because it seems to me that I can hear my own instrument better in a certain way, and even playing in orchestra I find it very helpful. Anyway, interesting for me to see that you were using ear plugs too – and what fantastic performances they were!

    Trevor (I was the short violinist with the messy hair and white framed glasses sitting in the third stand.)

  • Alban

    Hi Trevor, yes, I remember you 🙂 The earplugs have helped me immensely in many respects – I probably should be writing an entire blog entry about this since I am being asked pretty often why I do it (I put them in both my ears). Maybe I have a chance sitting in an airplane now going back home from London…


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