U.S. Premiere of Three Continents Cello Concerto with the Seattle Symphony

By S.E. Barcus

March 23, 2023

How fun to get to experience the North American premiere of a new composition that is based, in part, on North America, itself! 

Cellist Jan Vogler played with the Seattle Symphony this Thursday night, performing the cello concerto he commissioned in 2019, Three Continents. 

Jan Vogler, photo by Marco Grob from the Seattle Symphony program

This was born from a crazy seed of an idea that actually bore delicious fruit.  He wanted one piece that was composed by three different composers, from three different continents, (and also nearly three different generations), to be unified by one Symphony and one cellist.  The composers knew what movement they had, but supposedly nothing else, and were not allowed to talk with one another as they composed.  In our darkening world of autocracies and xenophobia, with active global power struggles, it was an idealistic attempt to see if the world could come together “in one piece,” to share our beautiful music and cultures with one another.  Such ideas are often cheesy and forced, and can produce more of a Benetton ad than something worthwhile.  But not this.  This worked fabulously well.  What an accomplishment!

North America starts the piece, with American composer Nico Muhly and his “Cello Cycles” movement. 

Nico Muhly, photo by Heidi Solander from the Seattle Symphony program

The piece literally starts with a “Big Bang.”  (Muhly obviously knew he was opening the piece!)  Energetic throughout, a very eclectic and colorful first movement.  The fact that it actually didn’t seem to represent any one ‘culture,’ was perhaps, for me, the cultural statement. It’s what made it the most American.  We are arguably the world’s most diverse culture, and the movement captured that. The cellist was almost one person navigating a variegated world, jostling into and out of a variety of tempi and dynamics, and like an American in Paris, almost getting hit by cars.  The ‘country’ behind him changed throughout, via the variations.  At times lively, but at other times our rugged cowboy cellist is surrounded by an eerie and creepy almost Ligeti-ish “Atmospheric” textural background.  (I’ll interpret this part as the ‘fascist-Trump faction’ of America!  😊).  Vogler is a fun cellist to watch, playing what I assume is his 1707 Stradivari cello.  In this piece, when the intensity calls for it, he can slice down hard on a note, as if cutting off a slab of meat. 

There are excellent sections utilizing percussion and bells, and by the end, menacing trombone moments.  Some say we’re a ‘melting pot,’ but more recently people correct this — we all have our own identities and cultures within America, and America is really more of a mosaic.  A collage.  This piece captures that. 

In this movement, Conductor Yue Bao chose to pull out the baton, I think possibly to make sure there was rhythmic precision?  She had not used one for the opening Samuel Barber piece.  At first, I thought maybe it was so that Vogler could see it with his ‘peripherals’, but then … the baton left us again in the second movement.  Hmm….

Europe’s section, the second movement, features German composer Sven Helbig’s, “Aria.” 

Sven Helbig, in a courtesy photo in the Seattle Symphony program

Not to say Germans are stereotyped as dark and brooding, but … this piece was dark and brooding!  Lol.  At least the first half.  The piece opens with a sorrowful dirge.  No more baton from Bao, as she seemingly can pull out more emotion — this time sadness — with her hand gestures.  The movement starts with such a heavy, rhythmic sighing, first with the cellos, then the violins, paced like a group of pallbearers.  It reminded me of the slow swelling sadness of the strings in Gorecki’s 3rd.  And given I knew the nationality of this composer, it also made me think of the just absolutely harrowing, All Quiet on the Western Front.

But then, wait — there are a few bright moments within this movement.  At one point almost joyful, with a smiling Vogler looking at Concertmaster Noah Geller, as if all was alright in the world, again, after all (the same sort of smile he gave on his fire escape promo! Great photo by Marco Grob, btw — but man, I hope that wasn’t the 1707 cello on his back there!)

While the first movement seemed to highlight the cello as a soloist navigating in and out of the symphony, and the last would see a cello as a drunk poet corralling with a symphony of like-minded drunks, this second movement seemed to highlight the cello – the Platonic idea of ‘cello’ — more than the other two.  Starting with that breathing-cello section, then continuing with such sorrowful yearning pouring out from the cello soloist.  And even at one point a nice brief cello duet with Principal Cellist, Efe Baltacigil.

It is amazing that this composer is self-taught.  Helbig might have written for the Pet Shop Boys (yeah, you heard that right — stick your own Flight of the Conchords joke in, here), but this was a full-on cello concerto masterpiece of a movement.  Helbig said that, since he knew that he was doing the second movement, he went for a slow movement, guessing correctly that the 1st and 3rd movements might stick with the traditional structure of being up-tempo movements.  (I can’t believe there was NO communication between these three.  What if all 3 movements were presto, after all?!  Too lucky!  We gotcha, Vogler!  We gotcha!) 

While the bright moments do become dark once again, by the end, we finally hear the morning bell, banging almost identically as the one from Night on Bald Mountain.  And then the cello and symphony sublimely fade away into nothingness, very will-o-the-wispy, very dreamy.

Zhou Long, courtesy photo in the Seattle Symphony program

Then BAM!  The last movement hits, representing Asia, created by Chinese composer and Pulitzer Prize winner for music, Zhou Long

This section was the most pleasant surprise!  Based on a Chinese poem about drunken poets, “Tipsy Poet” became increasingly inebriated as the piece went on.  Bao was rightfully back to her baton — this piece got so crazy, and oftentimes so fast, it would have been impossible to keep these bunch of drunks in sync without a stick with which to beat them!

I was not very familiar with Chinese instruments before going, so I looked into them a bit (Vogler’s intentions working on me!  I’m exploring another’s culture – ah!  You sneaky man, you!).  The erhu has just two strings, and Vogler’s sliding up and down sounded amazingly just like this instrument, here and there.  Another instrument — the guqin — is about the same length as a cello, and plucked, and there were several moments in this movement where Long definitely gets a guqin sound out of that cello.  So cool.

There is so much sonic imagery to mull over with this programmatic movement.  I loved the plucking of strings in the ‘ha-ha-ha’ teasing-type manner.  I loved the bolder rhythmic sounds from the strings here and there, that sounded like a group of corralling drunken sailors, out on the town.  And of COURSE there are burping noises from our trombones, thank you very much!

At one moment, later on, Vogler, playing an open string, raises his other arm up and enjoys the note, dreamily, almost in ecstasy, like Welser-Möst up there conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. 

TikTok CEO Chew on screengrab from the Washington Post’s top headline, taken just before the program started.

The piece either must have it written purposefully in the score, or else Bao chose to speed up and slow down, at times erratically, with an ataxic drunk-like staggering rhythm, which was perfect. 

The end was probably my favorite part of the whole evening.  After staggering, and corralling, we assume our cellist/poet is finally back at home.  There’s a bit of final cacophony, then the solo cello slides up and down a string, like someone doing a double-take, teetering – and then … a final CRASH from the Symphony.  Enter your own imagery here.  He hit the bed and passed out?  He puked?  I dunno – but it was funny, and wonderful, and just a really, really great ending to a really, really great new concerto we have here on Earth.

With all the tensions between China and the U.S. right now – including the TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew getting uncomfortably and borderline-rudely being grilled by the American Congress on this same day! — this movement, and this whole concerto, is most welcome. 

One might argue that Three Continents is more like three distinct mini concertos.  But Vogler mused that he is more like a curator, and each composer like individual painters brought together for a group show in his gallery.  I like the metaphor.  This concerto is forever bundled together.  And that makes the point.  Very nice — and like “America,” the whole piece, and world, is not a melting pot, but more of a mosaic.  A fun, beautiful mosaic that hints at a world where humanity can appreciate and cherish each other, live and love with one another, and enjoy each others’ culture and company for centuries to come.

If we can just get our shit together.

Béla Bartók

 
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

For the ‘more traditional work for the night’ (how amazing that we had nothing in the program earlier than the 20th century, all night!), the Seattle Symphony gave us Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.  No single soloist, but more of a Baroque styled concerto, where the instruments of each section at one time or another got to be the ‘soloists,’ in a Warhol ’15-minutes of fame’ sort of way.  (Or, if you prefer — “you get a car! … You get a car! …. You get a car! … Everybody gets a car!”)

The first movement, opens Spring-like, with its theme coming and dying away, like little buds, then coming back harder and dying away, finally coming back big and bold, leading wonderfully into the main theme.  The second movement, happy, with its drums and dance-like rhythms, and with horns seemingly laughing like our past friends, the drunk poets.  (I swear Tom Waits probably loved this movement, as it sounds eerily similar to his “Cemetery Polka,” at least in rhythm and accentuated beats.)  Conductor Bao has a wonderful smile during this movement.  She seems to signal the emotion she wants to get out of the Symphony, with facial expressions, better than other conductors I’ve seen.  Almost like an actor…. 

Yue Bao. Photo by Michael Starghill, from the Seattle Symphony program.

But there was no smiling from Bao in the third movement, the darkest part of the concerto.  For a sad section — thematically something akin to the Funeral March of the Eroica — I found it … not so sad.  More lamenting, I suppose.  Quicker rhythms and louder dynamics, almost more someone wailing than some pensive melancholy….

Then the 4th movement, almost sweet countryside peasant sounds, our conductor smiling once again – using the wavy hands again to get the most luscious of sounds out of the strings.  The ‘life-affirming’ final movement has a wonderful fugue.  Then the harps sound near the end, almost a cliché of angels from Heaven, and the piece ends, to everyone’s joy in the auditorium this night.

Another compliment I have for Bao — she had every section of the Symphony stand for a bow.  I’m not sure if that’s her style, or if it was because this was more of a concerto grosso, where all instruments were soloists at one point or another, but I wish it was done after every program.  Every musician up there deserves recognition.  They work so hard, and are so good, and we should be thankful we are privileged enough to even HAVE a major symphony in our midst.  Huzzah!

I do find that the grouping of this piece with the Three Continents was structurally satisfying.  Both begin on an up-note.  Both have a darker middle section.  And both end life-affirming.  (Bartók’s perhaps a little more profound/mystical – but yeah – going out and having drinks with your friends?  That is life-affirming, as well, in my book!)

Scandal

Finally, in the fun, opening piece by a 21-year-old Samuel Barber — our boy from Philly – Overture to The School for Scandal, there might be hints of his Adagio for Strings here and there, at times luscious, but mainly, the farce of intertwining misheard notes all becoming fodder for music steals the show, beaten back at times by the sweet tonality of Maria, “the virtuous heiress.”  There is one moment in this piece that is so breathtaking, where the plucking and fun just suddenly quietly dissipates away, almost magically.  The Seattle Symphony did that very well tonight.  And Bao – she was dancing as if in an opera buffa, herself, out there, all hands, no baton, so fun to watch!  You’ll get no psychopath Tár vibes from Maestra Bao, I promise!  😊

The Seattle Symphony, and most live performance groups here and everywhere, have suffered since the onset of the damn plague.  This is the AMERICAN PREMIERE of Three Continents – and was shockingly not sold out.  Come on Seattle!  Get your butts to Benaroya Hall this Saturday March 25 for a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Jeez!

Copyright 3-23-23.

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