Joshua Roman and David Stock at the SSO

05.29.09
Joshua Roman
The Gathering Note

By Philippa Kiraly

The blurbs about this concert all blazed “Rachmaninov!” and of course anything by him is a draw, but the major interest of the Seattle Symphony concert Thursday night at Benaroya Hall was the premiere of David Stock’s Cello Concerto with Joshua Roman as soloist.

Both have connections to the orchestra and Seattle. Stock was the SSO’s composer-in-residence in the late 1990s, and Roman, like a meteor starting its run, was for a brief time principal cellist for the SSO. He left last summer to begin a solo career.

 

Although this concerto was written in 2001 on commission from the Pitttsburgh Symphony, the concert premiere there was canceled due to the illness of the intended soloist, Truls Mork, and Stock has waited eight more years to hear his work live. However, it could have been written for Roman. The style suits him exactly. While he can throw off fireworks like any whiz-bang young soloist, Roman is essentially a thoughtful, thought-provoking and lyrical player. His role in the Stock concerto is exactly that.

A work of around 30 minutes (I forgot to look at my watch at the end), the concerto is in three movements played without break. It feels like a discussion between three main protagonists, all very different from each other and with varied moods. The work has an arresting beginning, softly setting an almost ghostly atmosphere with some wonderful strongly plucked low notes in the cellos (you could hear the twang), only to be interrupted by a cacophonous fanfare from the brass and percussion. This stops as suddenly as it begins, but returns at intervals throughout the concerto. It’s a bit like an adult conversation being disrupted by a rude kid on a skateboard barging through the middle.

On its entry, the solo role echoes the section cellos’ pizzicato (Roman plucked the strings so vigorously I wondered if it could put the instrument out of tune, but it didn’t) before moving into lyrical mode. With the brash brass on one side-Stock describes it as a fanfare, but a fanfare is more uplifting than this-and the lyrical cello on the other, the strings and woodwinds are the peacemakers in the middle, with often a string tremolo.

While the first movement is slow and the second is bright with a marked, bouncy rhythm, the third changes moods frequently. From ominous undercurrents to cheerful major to sober, somber statements, it then takes to an Israeli hora rhythm and a hint of a familiar Hanukah song.

The solo cello, which has sung throughout the concerto, moves into a more noticeably cantorial feel, more uplifted and soaring and the concerto ends with with a melody in the cello written, Stock says, originally for his daughter to sing to his grandson at his baby naming.

Stock has married the disparate elements together so that it all fits into a continually absorbing whole. I found the brass-percussion fanfares painfully loud, but that may have been the interpretation put on the music by visiting conductor James DePreist. The cello role is a rewarding one I imagine many performers will be delighted to embrace. While not spectacular, it does have demanding sections, and one overall demand is a beautiful tone which Roman provided in spades.

The cello is one of the protagonists here with the orchestra having an equally important voice, but while it doesn’t dominate, it can be clearly heard as a voice to respect in the conversation. Only at one time was it drowned out.

This is a very listenable work, accessible without kowtowing, wearing its substantive content lightly, largely melodic apart from the clashing fanfares.

Stock was present to hear it, and the large audience gave him, DePreist, the orchestra and Roman considerable applause. Roman, much loved by audience and orchestra alike, came back for an encore of a Sarabande by Bach from the solo Cello Suite in G Major.

The other works on the program were, yes, Rachmaninov, represented by his Symphonic Dances, and Smetana’s Overture to “The Bartered Bride.” DePreist is a conductor with an economical style, but the orchestra responded with clean playing with plenty of zest in the Smetana, and warm expansiveness in the Rachmaninov.

I was struck, though, by the Rachmaninov. This was his last work, composed in 1940. Schoenberg composed “Erwartung” (which we heard at Seattle Opera in March) nearly four decades earlier. Stravinsky’s ground-breaking “Rite of Spring” came more than a quarter-century earlier. Shostakovich was writing his masterful symphonies full of uncomfortable truths and Prokofiev, Copland and Bartok had embraced highly individual, unmistakable 20th century styles.

But Rachmaninov’s Dances? They could have come from the 1890s. That doesn’t make them less valuable, just an interesting contrast with the works being composed around them.