SJ: Typically a common and supportive instrument in orchestral settings, the cello finds itself in the spotlight here. What techniques did you employ to bring the celebrated instrument front and center?
KK: I sought to integrate the timbre of the cello into the orchestra, where the dichotomy melds together as one. My focus was on shifting tone color throughout.
JR: Even as solo instruments, cellos can be surprisingly covered so I was very careful with the orchestration of the piece to be sure this didn’t happen. I wanted to use the full instrumental complement available so the full brass rings out while the cello is resting to offer a contrast in the sound picture. And for quite a large instrument the cello is very nimble so I made sure that aspect of its character resonated.
SJ: What did your personal journey look like in writing your piece? Did this setting lead to any new discoveries as a composer, or solidify any known truths?
LPD: I started out with a lot of anxiety, because The Forest Stream is my first work for a full orchestra; that anxiety took a while to dissipate even after I was finished. What I discovered was that by consciously following the traditional simple division of instruments into foreground, midground, and background, I was able to produce a result I enjoyed without tying myself in knots in the process.
JR: Although Maestro Marinescu suggested only a couple of changes, they were important: one involved left hand pizzicato which — while possible — would be awkward for the player to produce and the effect wouldn’t be worth the effort. Lesson learned: just because you can isn’t a good enough reason for doing something.
SJ: The themes of these works are multifarious, ranging from the highly personal to the most universal. Where does your piece fall on this spectrum, and what message do you hope to convey?
JE: The theme of this piece is the search for a feeling of home in this world. And although universal, it evolved out of a very personal story. My late grandfather, Michael Sharik, was a Ukrainian poet, author, and political activist who fought the Bolsheviks 100 years ago, then fled to Canada as a refugee in the 1920s. He spent his entire life working for a Ukraine free of Russian domination. Given the current situation in Ukraine, I am rededicating my piece to all those who have been displaced by war, both there and around the world. To me, the cello can truly sing and express human emotion in a very touching manner that evokes a response similar to a vocal performance. By setting the cello voice against the accompanying orchestral arrangement, I hoped to retain the essential nature of this piece as a song.
LPD: The music I find most satisfying, and I hope most effective, to write is that which combines personal and universal aspects. While The Forest Stream was inspired by my very personal memories of vacationing in the woods in New Hampshire and hiking in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, I’m hoping that it will bring up similar personal images for listeners, since I like to think that appreciating the beauties of nature is a universal and uplifting experience. The Forest Stream has a bit of the character of an opera, the cello being the narrator. Of course, that’s just how I think of it: listeners may have quite different associations.
ML: My piece is a meditation on a particular Sarabande, the Sarabande from the French Suite No. 1 in D minor BWV 812 by J.S. Bach. The harmony with its rich sense of chromaticism within a traditional tonal setting is something I admire very much and wished to exploit in the piece. And, weirdly to me, it achieves its goal through the various “like minded” colors it suggests in that chromaticism. I worked the orchestration so that each iteration of the theme was played by a corresponding “like colored” instrument.
KK: Personally, I wish that the music be the message in of itself, reflecting on nature and our integral connection with the intuitive. I am not interested in supporting political/ideological movements that convey specific messages. It is my hope that I can connect with the listener in a way that is unencumbered with media dogma. My interest in timbre helps me to explore the sonic possibilities within the orchestra while expressing a nearly absolute music that has a bare minimum of programmatic implications.
JR: The cello is a gorgeously lyrical instrument and very suited to long slow lines, so thinking that other pieces on the recording would likely feature this aspect I decided on an upbeat approach. Having just completed a successful course of chemotherapy for lymphoma, I felt this was personally a good idea and with a player of Maestro Marinescu’s caliber I could indulge in some fireworks in the solo part. Of course I wanted lyricism as well but the overall impression, I hope, is of forward motion.
SJ: How do you focus your compositional mind into the hands of the players during the writing process?
LPD: Before The Forest Stream, all of my instrumental music was for small chamber ensembles, which I often approach like a chamber chorus. Building on this, to some extent I think of The Forest Stream as a series of episodes for shifting chamber groups of winds, brasses, and harp in concert with the cello, with the strings used only as background. While I don’t think this is a common approach to orchestral writing, and I’m aware that it doesn’t really take advantage of the LSO’s superb string section, it worked well for me.
KK: I understood the limitations of what the orchestra could achieve with no rehearsals and a short window of recording time allotted to my piece, so I was rather conservative with my handling of the instruments. Like many composers, I have my own performance background that may help inform my writing, but I certainly don’t limit my writing to match my abilities. I am first and foremost a composer, and I prefer to work (closely if possible) with the performers who will play the work, which is a continual learning experience for me as a composer.
JR: As a wind player I find that writing for players who don’t have to worry about breathing is wonderful! I knew I could give the soloist long passages of 16th notes without fear of him collapsing from oxygen depletion, the same with extended songful phrases. Getting myself into the head of a string player technically is a different matter and I thought constantly of where the open strings were, not just for multiple stops and harmonics, but for leaps across strings and even in passagework.
SJ: Well said, everyone. Thank you for joining this roundtable discussion on LONDON CELLO CONNECTION!