Your Cello Concerto is being premiered at this year’s Proms. Can you tell us about it?
It’s my third concerto – ten years ago I composed my Piano Concerto and some years after that my Violin Concerto (click right to hear a clip). The Cello Concerto is quite different from the other two, less abstract and more personalised. Also in the Piano and Violin Concertos the orchestral sound is the basis of the piece, and the solo instruments play on top of this, while in the Cello Concerto the solo cello holds the whole piece.
And you wrote it for the cellist Alban Gerhardt…
Yes, I’ve known him for ten years. I heard him playing for the first time in 2002. I was really impressed by his playing and immediately I promised to write a concerto for him. But he had to wait seven years!
You've described your Cello Concerto as being a competition between the cello and orchestra – who wins?
Yes – it’s a psychological battle. In the first movement there’s a short attack from the orchestra, while the cello plays a very soft light improvisation line. Then the cello solo attacks the orchestra, and they’re struggling for a while. In the second movement, the orchestra plays fast, short downward passages, while the cello plays passages going up. And the cello wins! The third movement is calm and lyrical, and I think it’s the only harmonic movement of the whole piece. In the middle part of the fourth movement there’s a slow melodic solo line from the cello, which goes up to the very high register. The orchestra comes in and tries to destroy this line, but the solo cello remains. It survives and wins!
What was it like to study with the Hungarian composer Ligeti?
I’m very much influenced by his music, but in my work list there are pieces which are close to his music, and also other pieces which don’t have any connection. At the end of the first movement of my Cello Concerto I took an idea from the end of his Cello Concerto – the idea of a very fast improvisation.
Originally it was to be premiered two years ago at the Proms, but because I was writing an opera, Alice in Wonderland, I had to postpone it. So, it will finally be performed this year. It's the second piece I’ve written after my opera, which was a big piece and made me wonder what the future would bring. I tried to find an answer in my orchestral work Rocaná and also in this concerto. It was tough and hard work. I enjoyed finishing the piece!
Audio clip: Unsuk Chin: Violin Concerto – Third Movement
Image: Wilfrid Hösl