Commissioning new works can be a risky enterprise but the rewards are always great
Over the next month, I’m premiering two new works which I’ve commissioned – one by Ian Wilson called The Little Spanish Prison for my recital at the Wigmore Hall this Sunday and the other for a concert at the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival on June 15 by my old college friend, Cheryl Frances-Hoad called Katharsis.
My passion for contemporary music was sparked at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama by a chance meeting in a workshop given by the great violinist David Alberman of the Arditti Quartet. The workshop, specifically designed to inspire and enthuse, uncovered the endless possibilities of modern classical music to composer and musician alike, and from that point I was hooked. I had my direction and all that was needed was an opportunity to throw myself into this new and exciting medium.
When I face a new composition, I can’t help but feel lucky that the cello is such a versatile and dexterous instrument. I often find that composers are keen to write for the cello as they can explore the varying timbres the instrument has to offer, from the lyrical singing qualities to the percussive drum-like effects. Furthermore, I like to be heavily involved in the compositional process. I don’t pretend to be a composer myself but when I commission a piece I like to collaborate closely with the composer and I make it clear from the outset that I like to be involved if possible, and that they’re always welcome to call me and ask whether a certain passage is possible for a cellist to perform.
It is also important for composers to think outside the box in the use of the cello as an expressive medium; there is so much that can be done with amplified or electric cellos and one should not shy away from this.
The composer often throws challenges at both performer and instrument and I am endlessly seeking out new possibilities to develop the ‘language’ of the cello through new music. It always reminds me of Heinz Holliger’s statement: ‘My entire relation to music is such that I always try to go to the limits.’
There are, however, a huge number of obstacles facing a musician when commissioning new work. As expected, the most immediate problem is the funding. I’ve paid for some commissions with my own money, and sometimes friends have been kind enough to support them. Finding sponsors who are willing to invest in a project that might not be a guaranteed success is undoubtedly difficult and it is this risk, which inevitably deters many potential investors. At first glance, it is true that a concert is indeed over in an evening, but it is important to remember that a successful new work will last for years to come. As a concert cellist, my hope is to make the audience as enthusiastic as I am when discovering a new work. My favourite motto is: ‘Let history be the judge, and let us be the immediate beneficiaries.’
Of course not all music written today will survive, but for the process of new music to be created and to continue I believe we must all do our part. I feel I have a responsibility to commission new works, to help composers have their works performed and recorded, and, most importantly, to listen to them with an optimistic ear. If I can’t get sponsorship, I’ll try as many ways as I can think of – I’d remortgage my own house if I had to! I’ve been told by my friends that I’m crazy, that I’m ‘setting a precedent’, that it is not my responsibility to fund works out of my own pocket. Someone once called me a ‘rebel with a cause’ and I guess they are right on this one. Fear will always be a huge deterrent for all of us, but as I tell my students, it’s essential to take risks to gain rewards.
I always think of Mstislav Rostropovich’s legacy to the cello repertoire, as he became so involved in the creation of works such as Prokofiev’s Symphony–Concerto. Playing it today, it’s easy to notice the cellist’s helping hand in the composition. To be involved in that process of creation is the greatest experience in the world, for any musician, and I feel it is my responsibility as a performer to encourage and help the next generation of composers. It has seemed obvious to follow in Rostropovich’s footsteps by commissioning a new work and making the whole concert a homage to Rostropovich. It seemed fitting for my Wigmore Hall concert to perform the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, which Rostropovich and Britten recorded together, alongside Britten’s Sonata, which was written for Rostropovich.
David Cohen gives the world premiere of Ian Wilson’s new work, The Little Spanish Prison, on Sunday May 12 at the Wigmore Hall with pianist Charles Owen. On June 15 he gives the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Katharsis with the Rambert Orchestra at Shoreditch Church as part of the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival. The concert is conducted by Paul Hoskins.