Exactly ten years ago, summer 1999, I met through my friend Lisa Batiashvili in Helsinki her old friend Maris Gothoni accompanied by the lady he had just married, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin at a party following a concert of Maris’ father Ralph. Unsuk and me didn’t really get to know each other back then, but when I saw her four years later after the world premier of her violin concerto at the Philharmonie in Berlin (for which she subsequently won the Grawemeyer-Award) she invited me sponaneously to the pre-concert party at her flat in Berlin-Charlottenburg.Her violin concerto was the first piece I had heardÂ and I absolutely adored it. Its full of colours and an almost childlike imagination; I felt that Unsuk is one of the few living composers how have found their own musical language, and this made me dream of her writing a cello concerto. Her interest in me as a person and musician made me very hopeful, so whenever I could I accepted her generous invitations to her wonderful parties (she is an amazing cook!) and was happy to “give back” by not only bringing a bottle of bubbly (she loves champagne) but also my cello to play for her and her guests.
You can only guess my excitement when she first announced her plan to write a concerto for me which, she told me, would be the first time she wrote for an instrumentalist. Her piano and violin concertos were not written with anybody specific in mind, even though she found an amazing performer in violinist Viviane Hagner who played the work many times. Her desire to write a cello concerto was paired with huge respect for the genre; she was very aware of how easily a cello might be covered by the wrong orchestration.
After some months of searching and weighing the options she accepted the commission for the cello concerto from the BBC, and it was decided that it should be premiered at the London Proms August 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall together with the BBC Scottish Symphony under their chief conductor Ilan Volkov.
Unsuk is a composer with a very slow output – as natural and delicately flowing her music might appear, it takes her effort and time to compose, similarily to the great Henri Dutilleux (whose cello concerto is in my eyes the best one written in the last 40 years). Thus it was no surprise for me when she panicked and subsequently asked to postpone the premier for a year because she had to finish her opera “Alice” by June 2007, and therefor she had no time to even think of the cello concerto. I happily agreed because I wanted her to take all the time in the world to create the best possible concerto for cello she could dream of.
I remember it like yesterday when my cellphone rang at the airport in Denver in March 2008 (changing planes for some US concert) and my general manager told me that the BBC had informed her they would change the date for the Chin-premiere for another year to August 13, 2009. They believed she wouldn’t get the score ready for the parts to be sent to the Scottish BBC before June after which the orchestra would go to holidays and not come back until shortly before the first rehearsals. They offered me to play another concerto instead which again I happily accepted because to play at this venue in front of a very enthusiast crowd is an incredible experience of which I could never get enough 🙂
But I also called Unsuk immediately, and she was in shock, had no idea this was coming and told me she would have been reade in time. Well, I think at the end she was glad of having another year to work calmly on this piece without the pressure of a pending deadline. And it did take until 2009 that I received the first parts of the orchestra score, the slow movement first, and I must say I was overwhelmed by her writing. All hand-written, a real piece of art, but more than the caligraphic qualities of the score I was taken by the gorgeous textures; having the bass and cello sections accompany the solo cello by playing only harmonics (natural overtones) got my imagination going, and if I am not totally mistaken this could be one of the most amazingly touching effects in the cello literature. It became obvious to me after looking through the three other movements that her head must have been full of sounds and ideas, and she managed to abstract them beautifully into these dark dots and lines, making us forget about instruments and technique but much rather taking players and audience hostage to follow her onto her dreamlike journey to another world, where nobody ever has set foot to.
For a couple of months she was waiting for detailed comments of mine, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to really working through the big score – maybe too much anticipation and now the hesitation that it might all be too difficult for me? Besides that I had a very full schedule of playing most different repertoire (besides the standards like Elgar, Dvorak, Haydn D, Schumann, Rococo-Variations, Saint-Saens No.1 and Shostakovich, I had to learn Saint-Saens No.2, Penderecki’s Largo and warm up rarely played pieces like Lalo, Schelomo, Dutilleux, Don Quixotte and Beethoven Triple) so it took me until May 18 that I got myself to sit down in Beijing after having succefully learnt the Penderecki piece.
Three hours later I knew that with lots of dedication and a good metronome everything in the solopart would work – and left it until just a couple of weeks ago.
On June 11th I finally received the solo part which marks the beginning of me practising it. Not a lot fo hours, but very intense and with the outmost concentration because I do have the ambition to play it by memory for the premier and that means even more hours will be needed to really secure that I won’t fall apart during the performance. Many passages are incredibly fast – if I get lost in them, I will be lost. And if I double-check it with the score I realize that whenever I play something very fast, the orchestra is almost silent. Arghhhh! She knows how to let the cello come out, maybe to my disadvantage 🙂
For the first time in my life I am counting the hours I am practising on a certain piece, since I often get asked how long it takes to learn a certain piece. Well, this time I’ll know exactly! I have spent so far 40 hours learning the piece, and I am already quite far, almost up to speed, and more important I start seeing real shapes of the piece, I seem to know what Unsuk wants to express with it, even though I am incapable of describing it with my words. Have I met her since I started practising? No, and I don’t intend to do so until the rehearsal period next month in Glasgow. In order to come up with a strong version of the piece, I don’t want to know anything by anybody, especially not the composer, what it’s all about and if I am doing the right thing. I need to feel 100% good about what I want to express and “do” before I let anybody comment on the interpretation – it wouldn’t be a fair chance for that interpretation because it wasn’t ready.
In that respect I am treating this new work like the work of a composer who is already dead, even though I am highly curious what she will have to say once she hears it in the first or second rehearsal – and if she needs me to do things differently I will change anything she wants, but I hope to be so convincing that even in case I do things differently to what she had in mind, she might like what I was doingâ€¦ 🙂
I am so looking forward to hearing you play this at the Proms. I’ve been asked to introduce it on the TV, so hope we meet! She’s an awesome composer, and so pleased she’s written something for you.
Enjoy the coffee..!
Hi Philip, sorry for the late reply – yes, I heard about the TV thingy, how scary is that… But at least I’ll audio and video memory of premierung Unsuk’s concert – I can’t wait to play it now!!
Cheers and see you hopefully in a few weeks,
Just heard about this piece because of today’s interview with Unsuk Chin in the FT. I’ll try to make it. Hope it goes well.
Oh good, I hope you’ll like it. If not, it’s my fault! 🙁
Loved it. Great piece.
You’ve probably got some good photos of it already, but the BBC sent me a nice one of the curtain call at the end:
Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.
I was wondering if anyone has the audio of unsuk chin’s cello concerto (proms 2009).
I’m looking for this, but it seems very hard to find…