Who'd be a cellist?

Who'd be a cellist?


norman lebrecht

February 20, 2011

In the February issue of The Strad, I reflect on the plight of cello soloists whose agents try to make them play the same three concertos, year in, year out, regardless of creative atrophy.

There’s the Dvorak, the Schumann, the Elgar and if you’re
lucky, from time to time, the first Shostakovich or the sticky-sweet

Of course, there’s also chamber music – but that’s not a
living. A patient agent will sit down with our Curtis or Academy award winner
and explain the facts of life. A concerto is a thirty-k date, fifty if you play
the yo-yo (did I overhear that right? maybe she said, play like Yo Yo).
Doing the Judas Mac variations or the Kodaly sonata at the Weill or the Wigmore
is three-k if you’re lucky, and don’t expect a limo.

So what’s to be done? Three or four young cellists I know are trying to break the mould, but what can be done to support them? All ideas and suggestions gratefully received.


  • JohnofOz says:

    How true! Even at the Adelaide international Cello Festival (from 1 April http://bit.ly/fI2it9 ) the two gala opening concerts feature the Elgar and Shostkovitch 1. But you do get Shostakovitch 2 and the Lalo alongside two new works by Iain Grandage and Graham Koehne. And later there’s Saint Saens and Haydn C. So it’s not only Dead White Guys thank goodness.
    Recital programs also display fairly conservative programming. Always a regular like Chopin and Rachmaninov alongside the more contemporary. This is a pity in a way, since festivals should be places for presenting the new and the challenging.
    Well, they’ve got to sell tickets, I suppose. However I also guess programmers are constrained by what the likes of Geringas, Wispelway and Li Wei Qin have currently in their saddlebags, not doubt driven by those same agents to which you refer.

  • Gene says:

    You’re right about the limited repertoire, but forgot to mention Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations and the Brahms Double Concerto. Sonatas with piano don’t really count as solo repertoire, though some cellists would disagree. Several years ago I saw Pieter Wispelwey swoon his way through the Franck and e-minor Brahms sonatas as if he were the only person on stage.

  • Harrison Boyle says:

    Well, there is the Bloch Voice in the Wilderness – underplayed, and the Barber Concerto should by now be more familiar… but the difficulty may be with the concerto form itself. In the current mode of concert giving, it seems most satisfying in its Romantic and Post-Romantic incarnation. Instruments that have come to the solo role later than that have a great challenge no matter how many new works are written for them. Even the Britten and Prokofiev works seem astringent and unforgiving. And many new works seem to be just a regular coloristic piece with a constant, rather irritating overlay of the solo instrument.
    Is this because of the inherently Romantic idea of the soloist pitted against the orchestra is too firmly entrenched? Can we not have music directors program more simply ‘concertante’ works, like De Falla’s Nights, Szymanowski’s 4th “symphony” , Vw’s Lark or Flos Campi, the above mentioned Bloch, etc.?
    It seems hard to come up with any thoughts on this part of the issue other than “what about this or that piece?” which doesn’t really address the issue. And if cellists are in trouble, what of so many other players, wind and brass, etc.?

  • Ask all the composers you know, including this one, for a new concerto, kick in a bit of subscription cash to raise a bit of commission money and voilá! Someone will come up with one you like.

  • The market is not guilty. The market just follows the product.
    We live in a post mafioso era that suffers from imitation, lack of principles (and therefore conceptuality) and a deeply rooted pessimism.
    Yes, there is a lot of talent out there, both among composers and cellists. However, very rarely one finds an interpretation that is fully totally and sustainably worked-out. A performance that redefines what is possible.
    Today, performers re-act and inter-act but almost never pro-act over many years and decades. If they do, and they are truly good, the market finds them, makes them rich and famous (and if they are not strong enough ruins them within a few seasons).
    Instead of using words, I suggest to add an audio upload function to this discussion, and try to find recorded music that should be performed out there on stage!
    Gavriel Lipkind.

  • Derek Warby says:

    There are PLENTY of first-rate cello concertos for those prepared to seek them out:
    Frank Bridge ‘Oration’
    Britten Cello Symphony
    Dutilleux ‘Tout un Monde Lointain…’
    Enescu Sinfonia concertante
    Kabalevsky x 2
    Myaskovsky (called by many the ‘Russian Elgar’ Concerto)
    Shostakovich No 2
    Tavener Protecting Veil (whatever happened to that?)
    Just to name a few!

  • Bluevonce says:

    Are you kidding me? Folks, this is the 21st century. I would suggest that players consult with jazz musicians that they know. Any good jazz player worth his or her salt can play, arrange, compose and improvise. The sky is the limit. If you really want a challenge try to play some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. Bebop. That stuff is hard folks. If one is really up for a challenge, try John Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Countdown. How about Latin Music? El Gran Combo, Hector Lovoie, Sonoro Poncena, Ruben Blades, Oscar Deleon, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Tito puente.
    How about Music of India,China, Africa? It is a smaller world today. Use your imagination and skills and CREATE A NEW WORLD MUSIC IN YOUE IMAGE!!!!!!!!!!

  • Eric Benjamin says:

    One word for you: Walton.
    I only just became familiar with this concerto and it is gripping and gorgeous!

  • Tony says:

    Nonetheless cellists are better off than some other instrumentalists. The Bach solo cello works and Beethoven sonatas may not make fortunes but they are some of the great masterpieces written for any instrument.
    What about flautists? What about woodwind concertos in general? How about viola concertos? They have few great crowd-puller concertos when it comes to the range of those available to pianists and to violinists.
    In a country like ours, dominated by the banks’ moneymen and their millionaire friends (23 out of 29) in our government cabinet riding rough over everyone else in their unbridled greed, what chance do most musicians have anyway? Simon Cowell is unlikely to be much help.

  • Jeff Harman says:

    Look to what Matt Haimovitz, Tina Guo or Stephen Isserlis are doing. Musicians do not have to conform to some outdated pre-packaged aethestetic of a different time and place, artistically speaking.The audience has to be an active participant as well. It would help if cellists approach things as composers, arrangers and improvisers as well as performers. After all, this IS the 21st century!

  • ulysses says:

    Not much to add aside from the obvious omission of Schelomo for which I would certainly buy an advance ticket to hear Truls Mork playing live – to accompany the Feuerman recording that we should all own.