Jan-Peter de Graaff: Cello Concerto written for Maya Fridman and NNO

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Concerto Nº 5 “The Forest in April” is the fifth concerto in a series of solo concertos that Jan-Peter de Graaff is currently composing, and his second cello concerto, the first one being “Rimpelingen”. The piece has been composed for cellist Maya Fridman, who proposed the concerto in 2018. “The Forest in April” was commissioned by the Noord Nederlands Orkest and has been realised with financial support from Fonds Podiumkunsten…   

The title of the concerto came originally from a piece by Richard Ayres (“In the Alps”) which opens with a long list of God’s creations from the beginning of time. One of them was “The Forest in April”, which directly triggered a sound world in the mind of the composer, of trees budding, insects chirping, birds whistling, all accompanied by a cool breeze of western wind. As the traditional classical concept of a Solo Concerto deals a lot with imitation or dialogue between the soloist and orchestra, and given the fact that the current state of our world is shaped or influenced by humanity, this solo concerto became a metaphor for the relationship between humanity and nature.

In this concerto, the soloist can be viewed as the human, exploring and shaping the natural environment, which is portrayed by the orchestra that first just ‘is’, but then gradually starts to imitate, mutate and finally collapse due to the influence the soloist has on its behaviour.

Three movements

The first movement is called “The Forest” and is a portrait of a bustling natural environment, winking its way with many references to composers trying to mimic bird sounds (like Beethoven, Stravinsky or Messiaen), where the soloist first ‘wanders’ into, but gradually starts to have an impact as the orchestra slowly starts to imitate her lines in very subtle ways, creating a musical ‘vortex’, resulting in a climax, directly followed by a miniature cadenza, after which the soloist seams to ‘sear over’ the orchestra. The orchestra plays smaller and smaller chromatic patterns that flow together as one chromatic texture. The soloist plays (and sings!) a tender lullaby over this environment which seems to dissolve in a gentle mist of string sounds.

The second movement, entitled “The Echo Chamber”, starts with a 4-minute-long cadenza, where the soloist explores, mocks and develops all previously ‘found’ musical material into a spicy mix that both references big romantic cello concertos of Dvorak and Elgar as well as the place the cello nowadays has in some contemporary rock music formats. The main section starts with a distinctive repeated quintuplet motive that quickly takes over the full orchestra from low to high. More and more, the orchestra starts to get impacted by the notes the soloist plays and repeats these notes back, but in a more distorted fashion, mutating per repetition. As in a process of natural selection, the distorted and mutated variants of the repeated motives start to become more dominant than the soloist. The soloist realises this and tries to bring back the bird sounds from the beginning, but the orchestra has mutated into a threatening dark ‘wall of sound’, echoing, distorting and mutating further and further, despite the efforts of the soloist.

The last movement, titled “Requiem”, starts with the sound that represents burning wood. The soloist has disappeared. When the orchestra still repeats some of the motives from the second movement, the soloist makes a last attempt at restoring the peace and quiet of the first movement by mimicking bird sounds again. At this moment the soloist has been transformed as well, playing on a cello with a detuned lower string. Realising the orchestral environment has been changed permanently, the soloist starts to play something from another world, another time: a lamenting folk song in a 13/4 beat pattern. The orchestra implodes. Like a tree losing all its dead leaves in one strong blow of the wind, the orchestra seems to disappear in a dark cloud, while the soloist continues to play her folk song. Gradually more and more instrumental lines disappear, until only a plucked string quartet keeps accompanying the folk song. More and more notes seem to vanish from both the solo and the accompaniment, until even these last players dissolve into the air, together with the soloist. However, one little bird (in the form of the piccolo) from the first movement has returned, adding notes that seem to complement the last pizzicato notes before they dissolve.

More info

Jan-Peter de Graaff at Donemus