In conversation with Alban Gerhardt, cellist: Unsuk Chin's Cello Concerto
Downsides of writing a dissertation: you start to lose your mind a little. Upsides: you can get really interesting and talented people to talk to you. As part of my dissertation on Unsuk Chin's riveting Cello Concerto (named by The Guardian as one of the 25 best classical works of our century), I traveled to the Netherlands to hear the original soloist, Alban Gerhardt, perform and rehearse the piece over about four days with Maestro Marc Soustrot and the South Netherlands Philharmonic. I had a fantastic time getting to know the staff, orchestra members, Soustrot, and Gerhardt, who were incredibly generous.
After a long day of rehearsing with the orchestra, Gerhardt agreed to meet me for dinner at a restaurant next to the Muziekgebouw. Below is just part of our conversation that I recorded.
Eindhoven, Netherlands on Friday, 15 March 2019:
Alban Gerhardt is an internationally renowned cellist based in Germany who frequently performs as soloist with numerous orchestras around the world, as well as performing solo and chamber music. In addition, he keeps a blog himself where he writes about music and his career as a soloist. He places Chin's concerto at a very high level among the canon, right along with Dutilleux and Dvorak.
Ryan Suleiman: Could you talk about the process of getting the commission with Chin? How did she settle on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for example? She had a few options, right? What was the process like? Can you remember?
Alban Gerhardt: Well, how did that come about… the other story you know of how it came along, she wanted to write something…
RS: Yeah, I know she wanted to write a piece for you.
AG: But that took some years of convincing. She was very aware that writing a cello concerto is a very difficult thing to do because the cello doesn’t have so many overtones, and she likes to have a big orchestra and she likes the percussion. So she postponed again and again because she didn’t feel up to the task. She had a huge respect for genre of the cello concerto. I don’t know why, but the Proms wanted to have the premiere. And I guess it was always supposed to be the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, I have no idea why, maybe because of Ilan Volkov?
RS: I heard her say in one interview that that’s what they settled on, and there might have been some other options, but I don’t know.
AG: It could just be that it was supposed to be a British orchestra and Ilan Volkov is very a big champion of modern music. Just not really the biggest champion of her music necessarily, I think.
RS: More recently I think…
AG: But in general, it’s his forte. So I guess that’s why. He was the chief conductor of the BBC Scottish, so I guess that was the reason, but I never asked. There are always many factors. The management and the publishing house pushing for it, and once you have the Proms as the commissioner I guess, then they can have a big say in who’s doing it. And not every orchestra wants to do something so risky I guess for their performance at the Proms.
RS: Do you know anything about the second movement revision? Was that commissioned? How did that come about?
AG: Well, she wasn’t happy with how it worked out, and she was right. The balance was horrible and I thought it was by far the weakest movement. So she wanted to rewrite it and clever as she is, or clever as the publishing house was, they labeled it as another world premiere quasi, and that was Nagano who was a long-time supporter of her. Unfortunately, we had very little rehearsal time. One rehearsal with thirty-five minutes and in the dress rehearsal we barely played the full concerto.
RS: The whole thing?
AG: And then we had a dress rehearsal, cut short even. Because it was his last concert in Munich. And a huge program, I don’t know, Bruckner 3 and something… and the orchestra - I mean I admired them so much because in spite of this very limited rehearsal time they pulled it off in the concert amazingly.
RS: I see.
AG: At least twice when I was at her place he was there as well. So she was developing this friendship with him.
RS: What was your experience like learning the piece, like what was your process like when you first got the piece?
AG: Since the world premiere was at the Proms, I think in August or so, I think I got the music in May and I had no time to look at it, so I started learning it in beginning of July. On holidays, in Puerto Rico at my in-law’s, my ex-wife’s parents, beautiful (place). I wanted to spend as much time at the beach as possible, so I always got up in the morning at 8 and just practiced the piece. And like with any piece which is new, I immediately used this memorizing technique my ex-wife had taught me about. She had learned it in some learning seminar. Get yourself in the mood, and then stare at each page of the piece you want to learn, stare without focusing. So kind of blurring, like five seconds each or ten seconds and kind of let it sink in. And then you practice the piece and at the end you stare again. And I did that three hours every morning from 8 to 11.
RS: Without playing?
AG: No, no, no, staring, practicing, and then staring. So ten minutes staring, three hours practicing, ten minutes staring, something like this. And then after two weeks I tried to memorize it and then it became rather easy. And in the meantime, I looked at the score to see what was going on while working on certain passages.So there was some kind of awareness. Not any different from any other piece I would learn, Schnittke or Shostakovich.
Last year I played for the first time the Weinstein Concerto. You know Mieczislav Weinberg? Very good composer, friend of Shostakovich. He’s like Shostakovich for the Jewish people. Sounds like Shostakovich, but sounds Jewish as well. And Rostropovich played it, but when I learned it I didn’t listen to anything, I just pretended it was written for me! Once a journalist asked me before playing the Pintscher Concerto how it felt to play a piece not written for me, and I responded that 99% of the pieces I play are not written for me, but that actually with any piece I perform, I pretend as if it were written for me. I don’t care what other people did. So with Unsuk’s piece, it didn’t feel so special because…
RS: ...that’s the way you work.
AG: Yeah. I don’t work by informing myself of what other people do. I mean, I knew already quite a lot of her music, so I knew what to expect sound language-wise from the orchestra, and still it’s different.
RS: Yeah, it is. What were the most difficult parts for you in learning the piece? What were the most fun just to play?
AG: Fun to play? Actually, in terms of fun to play, there’s nothing. [RS laughs] It’s fun to finish it. Actually, the last five minutes, when it winds down, that’s actually really…
RS: …a relief?
AG: Yeah. But otherwise… most difficult is definitely the second movement. The last minute. It’s horrible.
RS: So like, from cello perspective, what are the most challenging—
AG: Yeah this is all (difficult). Because it’s all not well-written for the hand. It’s very un-celloistic if you have to come in with some crazy acrobatic fingerings and a lot of thumb use and a lot of tiny position changes. It’s never in position, you’re all the time (shifting)… and the speed! So actually, the second movement got even more difficult after the revision.
AG: Yeah, because in the original thing, there was at least a minute of orchestra by itself…
RS: Yeah that’s right, and the woodwinds…
RS: Did you have any suggestions for her that she took into account in her revision?
RS: No? You didn’t give her any… She didn’t ask for any.
RS: You didn’t discuss it.
AG: No, because I— [he sighs] I see myself just as a performer and she’s a quasi-genius composer, so I find it a bit, almost blasphemous if idiots like us try to tell composers what to do. You know, Klaus Schäffer* I told what to do because he’s a pompous idiot. But really great composers… Brett Dean I also didn’t tell anything, even though I’ve known him for thirty years. He was the first viola teacher of my sister and we are more equal in a way. I mean, we play chamber music together, so we are more friends. With Unsuk there was already (this feeling of) a higher being so to say, even though she never made me feel it. But Brett was much more of a friendly guy…
RS: Personal relationship.
AG: Yeah. And still I would not (tell him what to do)… I mean, it’s wonderful, he’s the real deal and I’m just a (performer)… I find it very exaggerated how performers are being treated today.
RS: What do you mean?
AG: Far too good. I mean, if you think of the old days, Haydn had to go through the servant’s entry, and his musicians even behind him. And now the performers, they’re like gods. Soloists, conductors, but even orchestra musicians. I think it’s not healthy for the art, actually.
RS: Was there any exchange that you guys had in working on the piece? Did she ever offer any suggestions to you in your interpretation or did you ever offer any—
AG: No, actually nothing.
RS: So you worked almost completely independently?
AG: No, entirely independently. She must have been at the rehearsals in Scotland. But I never played for her the solo part. Actually, with nobody I did because I don’t like it. I mean, if it’s a bad piece, I don’t respect the composer, so then I don’t want to see the composer. If it’s a great piece, I treat the composer as if he’s dead and if there are problems, I have to fix them myself.
RS: So you don’t see them either way.
AG: No, exactly. And I’m happy if they’re happy and if they have something to criticize or change, I am more than happy to comply and change my interpretation, but I don’t ask any questions. I don’t ask, “how did you like what I did,” no. They have to tell me, “I didn’t like that, change it,” then I’m happy to change it. But I’m not so stupid to ask. Because I haven’t done so many new things, but I’ve done enough to know that actually composers don’t always know best. They create the piece, but once it’s created, it’s somehow gone. It’s like a baby, but not like a human baby that for 18 years you have to raise it, more like a bird, they have to fly in a couple of weeks or whatever. And then I don’t see the composer as the last source, but it’s the score. And if he’s not a good composer, then it’s not in the score, but then too bad.
RS: Whatever people do with it is kind of what happens.
AG: Yeah, yeah. And that’s actually the beauty about it. I don’t really agree with composers or musicians who believe there is only one way to perform a piece, like the wonderful composer Györgyi Kurtag who is famous for being incredibly strict and stubborn about how his works have to be performed. But most composers I know, they’re not like that at all. But number one would be Shostakovich. I never met him, but I think there are three recordings of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, with him playing. They’re completely different. So he got influenced by the cellist playing with him. Sometimes to a horrible extent, playing like a joke in the interpretation, and sometimes being inspired, so I think there is not one version. And often composers change something but I wonder whether maybe they changed it because the performer didn’t do the job.
RS: Yeah, that happens. So you’ve been a very strong advocate for this piece. What is it about the piece that attracts you the most or catches your attention?
AG: Well, probably the slow movement, which is— I mean, the slow movement is not easy because of not only the harmonics which are impossible to do, but the rhythm! She writes out the freedom, and this is so hard. In the world premiere I got completely lost, because I had practiced it as written, like “1, 2, 1-2-3,” was how I memorized it, but in the first rehearsal the conductor did it in three like everybody does now, which makes perfect sense, but I couldn’t make the switch back then.I had memorized it the other way and now this whole thing, I had to relearn it and it threw me off. But still, I mean the tune is difficult enough, but to also deal with the rhythm. That’s why today [during rehearsal] I was so angry when I got lost, but I was not surprised. You have to be on the highest concentration through the entire piece. I mean, in Dutilleux you have these beautiful passages, you don’t really have to pay attention, you can relax the brain. Here it’s like, [demonstrates by singing frantically and miming cello playing]. I’d love to actually have my brain waves measured while I’m playing that.
RS: How does her treatment of the relationship between the cello and the orchestra compare with other concerti that you’ve done before? How is it different, how is it special, or how is it similar?
AG: Good question. [thinks for a moment] Well, as you said actually the Dutilleux is more [integrated and weaving into the texture throughout]… But what is nice is that there is a lot of interaction, there is a lot of doubling and there are many things which do matter that it’s together or not together. I think it’s important for a contemporary piece that it’s not like you just start and then finish together and whatever happens in between doesn’t matter because nobody can tell anyway. Here actually if it’s well-played you can tell. I haven’t done enough pieces over the last thirty years, but it rather goes back in the tradition of where it matters. Not like this Klaus Schäffer piece where it was completely…
RS: Just arbitrary.
AG: Yeah, arbitrary.
RS: So it’s pretty evident when something is off. Even if it’s a new piece, it’s obvious when something isn’t quite together.
RS: I think you’ve talked about this already, but how much or how little control do you feel a composer should have over a piece after they’ve already written it?
AG: Well, if they hear something they don’t like, they have the right to say anything.
RS: And then does the performer have to do what they say? So the composer can say that, but then should the performer necessarily listen to them?
RS: They should.
AG: Yeah. If the composer feels we’re getting it wrong, then he should tell us. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to ask, because I feel it’s also in the interest of the composer— like, the best story of that I had was with a piece by Brett Dean that he wrote for Stephen Osborne and me, Huntington Eulogy. He lived in Australia by then and couldn’t come to neither the rehearsal nor the premiere. Steven and I, we are quite diligent, we tried to see what was in the score, we tried to do what was in the score. And we played I guess an okay world premiere. And Brett got the recording and he said he loved it very much. But it was completely different from what he had in mind.
RS: But he was okay with it?
AG: Yeah, but I think that’s beautiful. Because we took it seriously, but still he meant something else. Some guy wanted to have a lesson with me (on the piece), and I said no. First of all, I played it fifteen years ago, so I don’t remember well enough, and I’m not at a capacity, no one’s at a capacity, the only capacity is the score. Even if the composer worked it with the performer, it doesn’t mean anything.
RS: So is it better for that person to have a lesson with someone who hasn’t played the piece?
AG: Yeah. It might be interesting to get the input of the guy who premiered it, but definitely not anything more meaningful than any other…
RS: People take it too literally maybe, they take too seriously what someone else did.
AG: Yeah, they tend to copy what great performers did more than what’s in the score, which is actually the only thing that counts. Maybe by following the score you come up with similar tricks or traditions the other performer did because it makes sense, but at least it’s your own way. So many times Rostropovich ignores what Shostakovich, Britten or Prokofiev demanded, and it’s glorious and personal, but we other cellists should not repeat it religiously as it was really his very own and very personal view on the score, often not what the composer might have had in mind originally.
RS: When he does it it’s like a very intentional choice.
AG: Yeah, he might have just been completely off. Like with Britten, I think completely off.
RS: Spacing out or something…
AG: No, just not the right guy for the right music. Shostakovich and Prokofiev are great for him, but Britten is not his thing, Dutilleux is not his thing. But I’m grateful he inspired them, I’m grateful he played them, I’m grateful he made them big, but I would never in a million years orientate myself to his interpretation, even though it was proven that Britten worked every note with him, maybe Britten was a bad teacher. Maybe Rostropovich was so amazingly convincing that he could do anything and Britten would just be like “Wow,” and accept it. And it’s difficult, I mean, very few people are like Kurtag. I think Kurtag really knows what he wants and then he manages to get it one to one, which I find boring, but—
RS: As a performer.
AG: Yeah. And also for the piece, you know. Don’t you want to have different versions? It’s nice. I would be sad if I wrote something and they all played the same. Like, don’t you have any idea what this could be instead?
And some composers, like with Unsuk, I think she said one thing—I forgot what place—but she would correct something and they would do it too much. It was too much obviously, either too loud or too soft, but then most people don’t have the guts to say, “No, that was too much, please go back.” “Oh, but you said it should be faster,” well yeah, but not twice as fast. Something like this.
RS: So did she come back and say…
AG: No, no she would say one thing and then…
RS: Kind of let it be overdone or…
RS: Maybe that’s why she’s so quiet. Because you mentioned earlier that she doesn’t say a lot during rehearsal.
AG: Yeah. I mean there are very few people, especially conductors, who admit after telling the musicians something, that either it was a bad idea or that they have taken it too far. Nobody ever goes back or says, “actually that was a bad idea”—
RS: Because you have to admit that you overshot, or kind of admit a weakness or something…
AG: Yeah. Which is silly. Because how can you find out?
RS: Yeah sometimes you have to overdo something in order to get it right.
Is there anything else that you wanted to say about the concerto that I haven’t asked about or something I should know? Your experience or the piece itself?
AG: Well, what convinced me— because I’m just a little part, I mean, an important part, but I never get the full picture sitting where I sit—so what convinced me that it’s a good piece was that my then 10-year-old son loved it. He was at the world premiere and he said it felt so short, so then I thought ok, that’s good. And the editor of Unsuk, his name is Frank Harders-Wuthenow—
Someone tries to leave the restaurant through the emergency exit, for the fourth time, setting off the alarm.
RS: Every time. “You will pay for your dinner.”
AG: They should pay her. She’s rescuing the…
He was crying, it moved him emotionally so much. Then when I played it in Boston, we did three performances and the second performance was for… for people with lesser income, for people who would not normally go to the symphony. It was just packed, also with some African-American people. It was a one-hour program, only Chin and another piece, and there was a reception afterwards. There came this nice— she had worn a very nice dress, this African-American lady, and she had tears in her eyes. She said it was her first time ever listening to classical music and she was deeply moved and I thought, wow!
RS: That’s so great.
AG: That’s not easy listening. But if somebody who never heard classical music appreciates it and gets it and feels something… that was very moving, actually. Actually, at the concert, they were really present. People who are not used to sitting in symphony hall, being confronted with this non-populistic piece! Now, if there was some Corigliano, obviously people would love it because it’s good film music. But this? I thought it was… it’s good.
When I played the Chin in Stockholm with Susanna Mälkki, a friend of mine, best violin student my father ever had but who became a doctor, she pointed out that she loved it and thought it was very clever when some ideas where repeated during the first movement, like the moment with the simultaneous g-sharps on a and d string. She thought it made the work more accessible as you get this effect “Oh, I know this,” something to hold on to I guess. This is how music has always worked – things get repeated and the listener has the ah-ha effect of hearing something he heard before.
And Brett Dean is doing the same thing. There was an amazing review in Sydney, I think it was a former cellist, but he wrote about it. I asked Brett, did he see the music before, he said no, he just heard. He heard that he was working with little motives which happen again, that gives it a structure which then for the untrained ear is easier to digest than just like, new from A to zet. So that’s nice. Also, the slow movement with the tune coming, and with these chords which, then they come in the trumpets and it’s just like “ah yeah” and suddenly they don’t sound so modern anymore. I mean if you are an untrained ear, first it’s like “ehh what are they doing,” but when the trumpets enter, it’s like church music or something.
RS: Like chorale music, yeah, I thought so, too.
*this is a fictional name which was chosen to replace the name of the actual composer we were discussing. Earlier that evening, Gerhardt had explained to me that “Schäffer” essentially didn’t care at all about the which notes he played, and had come up with the pitches using an algorithm.