Full Circle

Last month, a very special kind of homecoming happened.  The stunning cellist Joshua Roman walked onto the stage of Benaroya Hall and premiered my cello concerto with the Seattle Symphony, the orchestra which he famously joined at age 21 to become principal cello.  It was a homecoming primarily for him, but also for me: my wife comes from Seattle, and it’s been a second home for a decade and a half.  Between Josh’s array of fans and my family, we sure had a lot of plants in the audience.

It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to premiere a piece before so many friends and family, but the event was especially poignant because it was a moment when Josh and I came full circle.  Here’s how it happened.

Years ago, we were thrown together in a shotgun wedding, courtesy of the YouTube Symphony.  This crazy-beautiful project assembled an entire symphony online and brought everyone together for an over-the-top show at Carnegie Hall.  That quick-fire collaborative process extended to me and Josh.  Asked if we wanted to perform an electro-acoustic improv at Le Poisson Rouge, we threw caution to the wind and came up with our material in a hotel room the day before.  (Note of prudence: if YouTube is sponsoring something, count on it being highly visible online for ever.)  It was a rough-around-the-edges little performance, but it proved to be a fantastic way of getting to know each other.

For one thing, I saw Josh’s unusual gifts up close.  He can play just about anything with perfect technique, dead-on intonation, and the most natural yet surprising phrasing.  The other advantage of starting our collaboration in a club was that we both saw each other with our hair down.  Simply put, Josh can rock.  Perhaps this element of his personality came from his time in Seattle, kingdom of indie rock, or maybe it extends to his Mid-American roots in Oklahoma.  In any case, that breadth of ability always interests me, and it appeared in the concerto in the form of a guitar pick (more on that later).

But Seattle figures into this story in another way.  Our second collaboration occurred on Josh’s Town Hall series, a hugely well-attended event that Josh has turned into an eclectic platform for his wide-ranging curating.  I wrote him a fiendishly difficult solo piece that was delivered only a few months before the premiere.  Not only did he nail it in front of a packed house, but he had the courage to walk out in front of 800 people and play it from memory.  The piece is full of shifting meters and similar-but-different chromatic phrases.  I still am put into a quiet amazement when I think about how he memorized it.

So, as this circle came to completion last month, we had two very different kinds of collaborations behind us.   It was the perfect setup for a concerto.

This concerto is unusual in my output because it carries no narrative.  In works ranging from Liquid Interface to Alternative Energy, I’ve enjoyed resurrecting the 19th Century programmatic approach, infusing it with wildly new sounds, and taking way further than it ever went.  Even in my Violin Concerto (recently released by the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers), vivid imagery lies beneath the surface with titles such as “Archaeopteryx” (the first dinosaur/bird hybrid).  That well served the Violin Concerto, which vividly conjures the Upper Jurassic with a big symphonic sound.  But for Josh, I wanted a different approach, not only to differentiate the two works but also to keep the cello well heard.

After all, a huge symphonic sound would make it especially difficult to balance the cello, which is even more challenging to keep in the foreground than the violin.  So the piece unfolds almost like a solo meditation from Josh with imaginative, transparent orchestral sounds hovering behind him.  That’s where the kalimba came in.

You probably have played a kalimba, also known as thumb piano, at some point in your childhood.  I am not aware of any occurrence in the symphonic repertoire, but the sound became ingrained in me after I got interested in West African music.  So in the concerto, I ask two percussionists to play hocketing kalimbas, laying down a quietly rhythmic bed that sounds exactly like what it is : plucked metal.  Josh enters over this, singing a wide-ranging melody that is answered by the orchestral in a haunting manner.

Plectrum – or, plucked sound – also figures heavily in the third movement.  That’s where the guitar pick comes in.  I’d once called for a guitar pick in a string quartet years ago, and I loved the “twang pizzicato” sound it produced.  With Josh’s rock influences in mind, I designed an entire section of the finale around this technique.  At one point he is instructed to lay down a punk-like bassline of blazing eighth-notes.

Extended techniques even appear in the ambient middle movement.  Josh is asked to play a kind of “ping-pong richochet,” which sounds something like a ball bouncing on the cello strings.  It is a subtle but effective technique, and it came to mind as I heard Josh doodling on his instrument once on Skype.

This month the concerto goes to the Columbus Symphony and then on to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra next season.  Already it feels like a mature performance due to the amount of time Josh has spent with the work.  This one has been a long time coming.  It’s great to come full circle.