Last Thursday (13 August) saw the world premiere of the cello concerto by Unsuk Chin, a BBC commission. Chin, who was born in Korea in 1961, has been composer-in-residence for both the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. She is a careful worker: the new work was originally scheduled for the 2007 Prom season, but she had to postpone the commission so that she had a chance to finish her first full-length opera, Alice in Wonderland. Chin has studied with the Korean composer Sukhi Kang and with György Ligeti, and is now based in Berlin. This concerto was written specifically for Alban Gerhardt, who performed the premiere last week.
In the pre-concert publicity, we had been promised a competition, a psychological battle between soloist and orchestra. Seeing the impressive battery of percussion assembled to the side of the stage, it was a battle in which the cellist wasn’t going to have much of a chance. But when the concerto opened with a sole plucked G sharp on the two harps, around which the cello played a slender strain which recalled the delicate first few bars of Debussy’s piano prelude Des pas sur la neige, this was clearly going to be a battle of a different sort.
That initial G sharp was the anchor for much of the piece, initially rooted in the orchestra while the cello improvised around it, and later taken up by the cello (with some impressive double-stopping) while the orchestra has the harmonic interest.
Yes, there is conflict and dialogue between soloist and orchestra (in an interview with BBC Music Magazine Chin refers to mutual “attacks”) but the conflict never becomes a pitched battle or threatens the structure of the piece, any more than do the contrasts between piano and orchestra in the Andante of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.
The first movement is titled Aniri which, as Habakuk Traber’s programme notes helpfully pointed out, in the pansori tradition are the narrated passages in between the sung elements of the epic tale’s storyline. If the narrated elements were the hurried, seemingly improvised passages in the solo cello part, a pansori audience would not have picked up many of the words.
It was a pity that the BBC elected to devote the pre-prom talk to a discussion of the Stravinsky ballets – surely a familiar enough topic to the regular prom audience. Unsuk Chin’s references to the pansori art form will have been lost on many Koreanists, let alone the mainstream promenaders, and this would have been an ideal opportunity to introduce to a general audience one of the musical forms to have made it onto UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural properties, while linking the tradition to the musical structure of Chin’s work. It is to be hoped that the programmers take a more courageous approach to education in the future.
We were all wondering when the thunder sheet was going to be used. The moment came just before the end of the first movement, and the soloist was left reeling from the attack, quivering with fleeting harmonics and a diminuendo al niente. “Why did she do that?” asked the composer-cellist Philip Sheppard in the interval. “Pure Hitchcock” came the muttered comment behind me in the stalls, though it was unclear whether that was meant to be disparaging or not. If film music is known for its accessibility and imaginative use of colour, then maybe this was an appropriate comment not only of the movement’s conclusion but of the movement as a whole.
But this was a moment which required absolute hush from the audience to reflect on what had just passed (and finished so unexpectedly) and what was likely to come next. Unfortunately, you will never train a Proms crowd not to cough, chatter and applaud enthusiastically at the end of the first movement of a concerto, whatever the appropriateness of this response might be.
Alban Gerhardt, the astoundingly accomplished soloist, certainly deserved applause, but the music needed a minute’s silence before continuing, and the mood was broken. Without that unwelcome applause, the opening of the scherzo, which commenced with a joyous battering of samulnori-style percussion, would have been even more of a contrast with what had come before.
The frenetic scherzo ended almost before it had begun, and led into a slow movement which was in turns passionate and ethereal. Ghostly sounds came from the woodwinds, from the chorus of muted trumpets, and from the lower strings playing harmonics, while the accompaniment in the concluding bars was by a sole contrabassoon.
The final movement more than any other lived up to the expectation of conflict between soloist and orchestra. It opened with several brutal attacks from the strings which sounded like swarms of angry hornets. But the mood of the first movement soon returned, and the piece ended rather like the slow movement with a high cello harmonic with double bass accompanying the last few bars.
“My music is a reflection of my dreams,” says Chin in the programme notes. “The visions of immense light and incredibly bright colours that I see in all my dreams are what I am trying to depict as the play of light and colour flowing through space and creating a three-dimensional sculpture in sound.”
Echoing the theme of dreams, Gerhardt describes his experience on receiving the beautifully transcribed final score as follows:
All hand-written, a real piece of art, but more than the calligraphic 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 … 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.
Certainly the soundworld of the piece reflects the aural landscape of Ligeti as opposed to the more acerbic sounds of Chin’s other teacher, Sukhi Kang.
“It was tough and hard work. I enjoyed finishing the piece!” said Chin of her experience in composing the concerto. “I’m incredibly happy that it’s over” echoed Gerhardt in the interval. But for the audience, the work is anything but tough to listen to, despite being short on recognisable melody; and at the end of the piece – indeed, at the end of every movement – you are left wanting more. There were no conclusive endings: more unanswered questions which seemed to demand more discussion.
“I am quite certain that people will be surprised how short these 30 minutes feel” said Gerhardt in an interview with Helen Wallace. These words were spoken two months before full rehearsals started, but they were remarkably prescient. The concerto certainly felt much shorter than its half-hour time-span.
Alban Gerhardt comments that since the two concerti of Shostakovich (1959 and 1966) only the cello concerto by Dutilleux has managed to get a regular toehold in the mainstream repertoire. Chin’s work deserves to be performed again. Its technical difficulties may result in players being reluctant to take on the challenge, but many is the concerto in musical history which was thought to be unplayable when first composed. Gerhardt, who spent 300 hours learning and memorising the piece, must certainly hope that he gets the opportunity to perform it again.
Alban Gerhardt performed Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms on 13 August 2009 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov
Image credits: Ovation: Chris Christodoulou (BBC); most other images: screen grab from BBC iPlayer; long shot of percussion section: my own point & press camera from the back of the stalls; Pansori performance: koreainfo.dk.