Bringing a piece to life is our primary role as performers; a journey that is still extremely exciting but at the same time filled with many questions and uncertainties.
Making a piece “ours” is of course the only way to be truly free as a performer, but where do you start when you start learning a new piece? What’s the best way to understand a composer’s language and fully connect with their music?
The internet of course gives us incredible resources about composers and their lives, with limitless biographies, diaries, letters, wonderful documentaries and more, not to mention endless recordings available at your fingertips. And without forgetting the score itself! Clearly the most important of all resources.
Nevertheless, there are still so many questions that I would like the chance to ask the composer.
An example that comes to mind is Schumann’s Cello Concerto, where in the first movement he writes “not too fast”, but simultaneously puts on a metronome mark which is so fast that no cellist even comes close. There are certainly many clues to this particular writing found while learning about his own passionate personality, often penning his works in a burst of creative genius. But still, wouldn’t it be amazing to hear his reasoning, and to hear him describe what he’s trying so hard to communicate?
This is perhaps the main reason I enjoy working with contemporary composers, combined of course with the somewhat self-centered excitement of being the one to bring a new work to life – the chance to ask these questions.
Working with Cheryl Frances-Hoad on her solo cello piece, Excelsus, was no exception. Understanding the dramatic content of the seven movements really helped me overcome my initial worries, as this has to be the most difficult piece I’ve ever played (pushing Schoenberg’s Cello Concerto to a comfortable second place!)
Cheryl wrote lively instructions such as ‘hard-hitting and audacious beginning, chords that all suggest the colors gold and red…’ and ‘an outpouring of emotion – like someone who sings and carries his soul…proclaims to God – to try to be heard by God…’
Working through the room using these words, and the chance to understand and discuss with Cheryl the heart of her musical message, helped overcome the many technical challenges of double, triple and even quadruple stops, as well as the huge jumps around the instrument. Embracing music in this expressive way and getting to the heart of its message has transformed my ability to play it.
The stratospheric climax of this journey is the fifth movement, the Dies Irae, which pushes the cello to its absolute limit, away from the fingerboard. Its marking ‘fff con summa passione disperazione’ (Incredibly strong, with the greatest passion and desperation), is somehow very appropriate.
Excelsus is beautifully shaped and structured. The high-octane drama of the Dies Irae takes us straight into the penultimate movement, Agnus Dei‘a beautiful, very calm movement inspired by the image of the Lamb of God…’
After all the previous intensity, the calm and soothing nature of this movement is welcome, and again, embracing the composer’s words and her descriptions of the mood she wanted, made it technically much more accessible.
The play ends with Quid Sum Miser‘a kind of catharsis at the end – even if that final d doesn’t resolve to a major, the cellist hopes to achieve some kind of peace at the end…’
Cheryl encouraged me to really let the music die out and not worry if the notes barely spoke. Words such as ‘sospirando’, ‘piangendo e dolce’ and ‘morendo’ are written on the page to describe what she is looking for (sigh, cry and die). The song ends with a last breath ‘a niente’(to nothing) and we find ourselves emotionally drained, after 15 heartbreaking minutes of music.
Excelsus for solo cello is now available on Orchid Classics