A Conversation Among Cellos
By Peter W. Goodman
Krzysztof Penderecki, who will soon turn 80, is being honored with a musical fete featuring three compelling cellists and a conductor with a long-standing connection to the eminent Polish composer.
krzysztof Penderecki, who will soon turn 80, is being honored with a musical fete featuring three compelling cellists and a conductor with a long-standing connection to the eminent Polish composer.
There are an uncounted number of solo concertos for every imaginable instrument. There also are a lot of double concertos for many combinations of instruments. There are even one or two triple concertos for combinations of instruments. Then there is Krzysztof Penderecki’s Concerto grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra, which the New York Philharmonic plays this month.
“There is nothing like this in the repertoire,” declares Charles Dutoit, to whom the piece is dedicated and who is conducting it with the Orchestra.
“As far as I know, it’s the only triple concerto for cellos,” says Philharmonic Principal Cello Carter Brey, who is playing the first solo part.
“I don’t think there are any others,” agrees Alisa Weilerstein, who is taking on the second part.
Apparently, the composer himself so liked the challenge of writing for multiple soloists that, since Dutoit led this work’s premiere in 2001, Penderecki has written some more: a concerto grosso for five clarinets (2004) and his much more recent double concerto for violin and viola (2012).
There is an intrinsic challenge of balance when combining three soloists and an orchestra — one that Penderecki mastered in this piece. During a recent telephone interview Dutoit said that all three soloists are “absolutely” equal, that “the orchestra is never something that is killing the soloists,” and that this Concerto grosso is “a gem in the literature for these instruments.”
Penderecki is no stranger to the Philharmonic, which has already performed more than a dozen of his other works, including his Symphony No. 2, in its World Premiere (in 1980); Seven Gates of Jerusalem, in its U.S. Premiere (1998); and, in New York Premieres, the Dies Irae (Auschwitz Oratorio), Symphony No. 1, Viola Concerto, and Symphony No. 5 (1981, 1984, 1987, and 1997, respectively). The composer himself has conducted the Orchestra, including in a week focusing on him, in 1997.
But this time the conductor is Dutoit, who has deep connections with Penderecki. “I have known him forever,” says Dutoit, who first encountered the Polish master’s music when the conductor was a student at the Donaueschingen Festival in Germany in the 1960s, when Penderecki was in the forefront of avant-garde composition. Their relationship deepened in the 1970s, when Dutoit became music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which played one of the composer’s early symphonies. Eventually, after the composer wrote his second violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, the violinist Chantal Juillet (now Dutoit’s wife) gave almost 30 performances of the piece, led by either Penderecki or Dutoit. “We had a personal relationship for that period,” the conductor says.
Daniel Müller-Schott also has strong ties with Penderecki, dating back to his student days, when Mutter brought him to the composer’s home in Krakow. The cellist has played this Concerto grosso several times, including in its American premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra, of course under Dutoit, in 2008. And although Weilerstein has not performed this work before, she is not unfamiliar with the composer’s work, having performed his Cello Concerto No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic in November 2008.
“I have played all the parts [in this work] — they are all equal,” says Müller- Schott, who performs the third here. The first and second cellos both introduce themselves with big, sweeping cadenzas, while Müller-Schott’s part makes its first entry with the orchestra. “The third part is a link back to the orchestra,” he says. “It is a sort of comment on what went before.”
The year 2013 marks Krzysztof Penderecki’s 80th birthday, and the Concerto grosso is getting a workout, often featuring Dutoit and Müller-Schott: this past summer at the London Proms with the Royal Philharmonic; this month with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as with the Philharmonic; and, ultimately, in November in Krakow as part of a celebratory Penderecki festival.
In a way, the piece is a lengthy conversation among the cellos. “The orchestra is more transparent,” Dutoit says. “We never cover the soloists. The orchestra is there, participating in the conversation, but they never give the impression that they are more important than the soloists.” Overall, the concerto is in keeping with Penderecki’s transformation from avantgarde experimentalist to Neo-Romantic. Dutoit hears the Dvoˇrák Cello Concerto in the use of the soloists. “There are more tonal harmonies; it is much more emotional,” Alisa Weilerstein says. Compared with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), with its symbol notation and painful, shrieking sound, Carter Brey suggests that “this looks completely different, straightforward — almost diatonic.”
Müller-Schott speaks about how Penderecki, along with many other contemporary composers, “found his way back to tonal, lyrical, even more romantic” music. He adds: “Part of the fascination of the piece comes from its organic structure. The tempi, between slow and faster, are very balanced. It is almost like something you find in nature: the ocean, the weather maybe changing, becoming more dramatically stormy, then calming down. I think it is something that really moves the audience, reaches out to the audience.”
Peter W. Goodman is an associate professor of journalism
in the School of Communication at Hofstra
university. He was a longtime music critic at Newsday
and New York Newsday.
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