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Cello Concerto

About the Work

Stephen Jaffe
Quick Look Composer: Stephen Jaffe
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/David Hardy, cello Jan. 8 - 10, 2004
© Stephen Jaffe

This new concerto, receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts, was composed last year under a National Symphony Orchestra commission made possible by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works.

In addition to the solo cello, the score, dedicated to David Hardy, Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, calls for 4 flutes, alto flute and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 B-flat clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, 4 bongos, log drum, Jamaican steel drums (cello pans), 3 congas, antique cymbals, Chinese cymbal, small and medium suspended cymbals, tam tam, gong, triangle, glockenspiel, crotales, maracas, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, sleigh bells, 2 cowbells, 5 wooden blocks (or temple blocks), woodblock, cabasa, 3 brake drums, guiro, vibraslap, claves, lion's roar, mandolin, celesta, piano, and strings. Duration, 28 minutes.

Stephen Jaffe, born in Washington, studied composition at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Conservatoire in Geneva, where he earned a Première Médaille. He subsequently received the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Tanglewood, as well as commissions from such institutions as the Fromm Foundation, the Naumburg Foundation, the Oregon Bach Festival, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Brandeis University, citing his “eloquent and original voice,” presented him with a Creative Arts Citation in 1989, and two years later his First Quartet, composed for the Ciompi Quartet, brought him a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. In 1999 he was appointed Mary D.B.T. and James Semans Professor of Composition at Duke University, where, in addition to his teaching responsibilities, he is co-director of the concert series “Encounters: with the Music of Our Time.”

Mr. Jaffe's music has been performed in Europe and Asia as well as throughout the United States, and several of his works have been recorded, both in the U.S. and abroad. His Designs , for flute, guitar and percussion, was given its premiere at the National Arts Center in Taipei in June 2002. Homage to the Breath: Instrumental and Vocal Meditations for Mezzo-Soprano and Ten Instruments, with text by Thich Nhat Hanh, was introduced in 2001 by Milagro Vargas and the 20th-Century Consort at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2001. Among other recent compositions are the choral-orchestral Songs of Turning (for the 1996 Oregon Bach Festival); three song cycles to poems of Robert Francis; and Offering for flute, viola and harp, commissioned by the Aureole Trio. In recent years he has turned his attention to the creation of concerted works, and Bridge has issued a CD of two of these: those for violin and for oboe which the composer mentions in his own comprehensive note on the new work being introduced in the present concerts.

The work introduced in these concerts is my third solo concerto of recent years, following the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1996-99) and the Chamber Concerto ( Singing Figures ) for Oboe and Ensemble (1996). I have enjoyed composing such works because of a longstanding interest in the drama of the solo-versus-group idea, but also, more profoundly, because of the pleasure of collaborating with a gifted soloist when there is time to explore and to refine, a kind of music-making which I find pleasurable as well as challenging. To a soloist, such a collaboration offers the freedom to probe whatever imaginative world may lie beyond the existing repertory. Musicians such as David Hardy, for whom the Cello Concerto was written, deserve to find out: Do I have anything new or different to say?

The Cello Concerto takes about 28 minutes, and is cast in four parts: a large first movement, communicating élan and bravura, electricity and rumination; a tiny, impish second movement; a slower third movement (“Mysterious Flower” variations); and a fast, pulsing conclusion in which the cellist ascends the full range of the instrument, from its deepest tones to notes literally higher than the fingerboard. I needed four movements—each with a different weight, dramatically speaking—to allow the cellist and the orchestra to encompass many shades of emotional and musical color.

Cellists and their instrument, in fact, seem to inspire a deeply human comportment (a friend of mine declares that cellists even walk differently from the way other musicians do); theirs is a rich voice that is capable of expressing brilliance and power, but at the same time the depths of human experience and the desire for affirmation. The cello can sing of suffering and mysterious flowers.

Alas, the cello doesn't project over an orchestra as does a piano, or even a violin. As I composed, the acoustical problem of projecting the cello with a sizable orchestra loomed large in my thinking. Should the cello be amplified? No, that would destroy the intimacy I like best, and the timbre would be altogether different. Should the accompaniment become non-existent? If so, why compose for orchestra? What I've attempted arose from having worked with many of the National Symphony Orchestra's musicians through Washington's Twentieth Century Consort: the cello soloist plays with a shifting, rotating array of instruments, starting with prominent roles assigned to timpani, harp, mandolin, and steel drums in the opening music and radiating outward into the orchestra. After all, an orchestra is not only a tutti, but a collection of ensembles : here the soloist consorts with groups of “friends” who have an important role in shaping the music's ebb and flow.

Besides the cello soloist, playing with a few instruments or sometimes even enveloped by the full orchestra, the orchestra in this work has some unusual components, including a mandolin and about 30 percussion instruments ranging from the lion's roar to Jamaican steel drums.

Stephen Jaffe