Cello Concerto (2013)

Solo cello and symphony orchestra // 22 mins
Orchestration: 2(pic).2.2(2bcl).1.cbsn/2.2.2.btrbn.1/timp/3perc/str
[Commissioned by Alexander Ivashkin & St Petersburg Academic Philharmonic]

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Programme Note

This is my third concerto, and perhaps my most traditional, considering that my two previous concerti had the unconventional soloists of turntables and bass drum respectively. However, I have continued my interest in taking influences from electronic and contemporary dance music styles, as well as from classical and modern classical forms; so that this concerto both explores the more traditional and lyrical aspects of the cello as well as syncopated, percussive and minimal approaches.

Three years ago I composed Cello Multitracks, a suite for Cello nonet, which gave me the chance to explore and enjoy the rich variety of sounds that this instrument can create, and it reaffirmed my belief that the cello is one of the most versatile classical instruments. I was very impatient to compose a concerto for cello, so when Sasha approached me with the opportunity to compose for him and the St Petersburg Philharmonia I was already full of ideas.

Because the premiere of this concerto is in St Petersburg, and in the concert hall where so many inspirational Russian composers have been performed (including my grandfather), I instinctively started to write music that connected it to my Russian heritage, albeit with a contemporary twist. My father grew up in Russia, but I was born in London (though I have visited Moscow and St Petersburg several times), and this premiere will be my Russian orchestral debut. I have stayed true to my own compositional voice, but I have allowed those aspects that connect to my Russian side and my grandfather to sing out louder in this work. This is particularly the case in the second movement which I have subtitled ‘in memoriam’, as it is inspired by the memory of my Russian ancestors: my father, uncle, grandmother and grandfather, and in particular it remembers the difficult times they faced in the 1940s and 1950s in Russia. They were optimistic people, but they had their hope tested to the limit many times and nearly/eventually destroyed. My grandmother was sent to a gulag for eight years, and a biography by Simon Morrison has recently been published which tells her story (which I have been reading while composing this work). When she was arrested, my father and uncle even went to visit Dmitri Shostakovich to ask for help – but nothing could be done to help her. Of course, the problems my family faced were shared by many, many people, and others suffered much worse, so I didn’t want to be specific in the subtitle with who it is ‘in memoriam’ for: I prefer for the musicians and audiences to find their own personal connections.

The first movement is lighter, a Scherzo, with some humour, sarcasm, but also a tougher edge at times. It ends with a surprise end section created from a one and half beat loop of the main theme which changes the mood into a light, and almost pastoral, setting.

As already explained, the second movement is more introspective. There is are some glimmers of hope & peace, but there is a feeling of despair that will not go away. The middle section (marked ‘scuro’ in the score) has a darkness that cannot be escaped, and the ending repeats the heavy closing phrase inexorably; a dark impending force that feels like it may never end.

The final movement opens with a humorous, quasi-classical introduction (marked ‘curioso’ in the score) but then launches into head-nodding hip-hop stabs set in triple time which are occasionally looped and stuttered mechanically as if manipulated by a DJ. This movement originally had working title of ‘Bang Waltz’, referring to the bastardisation of that old classical form which it hints at. However, the ornamental cello theme has a more classical shape, but without strictly adhering to classical harmony, and leads the soloist into very demanding display of their skills.

It is a great honour for me to have this concerto premiered in St Petersburg by such a fantastic soloist, conductor, and orchestra; and I hope that this work can bring a fresh and inspiring energy to the repertoire.

© Gabriel Prokofiev, 2013

The first performance was given by St Petersburg Academic Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sabrie Bekirova, solo cello by Alexander Ivashkin, in St Petersburg Philharmonic Great Hall on 18th May 2013.

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