This month, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs the world premiere of Grammy Award-winning composer James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Cello & Orchestra. The LACO commission, dedicated to Guess founder Maurice Marciano, spotlights principal cello Andrew Shulman. The following excerpts, written by Andrew, were previously published by the Internet Cello Society and are reprinted here, edited for clarity and brevity.
I first approached James Newton Howard with the idea of writing a work for cello and orchestra in 2016. He was very keen on doing something but was heavily committed for at least two years with movie scores galore. After multiple meetings with James and the Orchestra, we agreed on a premiere during the 2018-19 season.
The ball was set in motion.
Next, James and I approached LACO’s conductor laureate and former music director Jeffrey Kahane. Jeffrey has always championed new music and gladly accepted the offer to conduct the world premiere.
James and I occasionally talked, mulling over ideas, possible formats, structures, but with no concrete musical ideas. Was it to be a formal, three-movement structure? A single, rhapsodic movement? What was the ideal size and instrumentation for the orchestra, pitted against the dark and expressive qualities of the cello? These thoughts quietly simmered while James worked on Hunger Games, Fantastic Beasts, The Nutcracker, Red Sparrow and other major scores.
Then, suddenly, one winter morning in early 2018, I got a call from James. The concerto was born in a flash of inspiration, and would I like to see and hear the first draft?
James is a wonderful keyboard player. This enables him to play his own music, and it’s only a short step nowadays, with modern technology, to play your written music through a sequencer using sampled sounds. James had set up the studio so that when I arrived, we could listen to the concerto in its raw but complete form.
In its initial structure, the concerto lasted 18 minutes and seamlessly arced from angry, taunting string gestures to heart-rending solo cello recitatives. The cello was cast as both aggressor and peacemaker to the orchestra.
I immediately went home and set up my home studio to begin recording the solo cello part over the existing orchestral “mock-up”. This involved muting the sampled solo (phew) and creating a new audio track.
Learning a few bars at a time, I would synchronize with the mock-up and record new cello tracks. At the end of the process, we had a great sounding ‘real’ cello solo to play along with the excellent orchestral samples. I sent the finished audio files to James and Xander Rodzinski, James’s assistant, who inserted them into the mock-up.
Needless to say, James was very pleased to hear his beautiful solo lines on a real instrument played by an actual human!
Having been really busy with chamber music projects, it was perfect timing for me to step back and allow the concerto to simmer quietly in the background while scores, orchestral parts and a solo part were prepared. After playing from PDFs for months, it was nice to receive a beautiful solo part! It felt satisfying to finally mark up the part with the fingerings and bowings that had been brewing in my mind over the course of nearly a year.
In addition, I bowed the string parts for James, having lived with the musical ideas for longer than anyone except the composer himself! Also, the legendary Jeff Atmajian created a beautiful piano reduction of the full score, enabling me to arrange a secret pre-premiere performance of the work with piano. Being able to play the reduction with Jeffrey, the conductor for the premiere, helped us get on the same wavelength.
The Concerto for Cello & Orchestra is now ready to go!
It is dark, emotional and very “gestural” to begin. The cello dominates the melodic material with a whole-tone figure that returns at key points. The orchestra argues with and taunts the soloist, leading to a number of lonely solo episodes of intense sadness. An angry faster section again pits the cello against the orchestra. The music develops into a rhythmic battle, the whole-tone motif taken up by everyone until the cello breaks into a physical outburst of virtuosic violence.
This episode leads to a short cadenza, again with elements of anger and frustration, but eventually calms down and transitions to a mysterious recapitulation of the opening material, this time with the cello and various wind soloists singing above the quietly unsettling string lines. The cello eventually begins an extraordinary transition to strange, lyrical, stream of consciousness, muted, arpeggiated figures which seem to bind the harmonies of the quiet strings at a molecular level. The work finally closes as darkly as it began.
I hope you can make it to the premiere performances!