(Music column, Philadelphia Forum, February 8, 1996. In 1998,a recording of these pieces, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, David Zinman, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, won Grammys for Best Classical Album and Best Instrumental Soloists Performance with Orchestra.)


Do we have a trend here? At the Philadelphia Orchestra's "American Cello-Fest" concerts, Yo-Yo Ma played three concertos by three contemporary American composers: Richard Danielpour, Leon Kirchner, and Christopher Rouse. In all three pieces, the cello was cast as a lonely hero locked in conflict with the orchestra. Richard Danielpour calls his 1994 concerto an "opera" for instruments. The soloist is a messenger bringing a message the crowd doesn't want to hear, the orchestra is the crowd, and the soloist is eventually executed. Christopher Rouse's 1992 concerto opens with a movement that is actually marked Combattimento. The movement, the composer writes, "pits the soloist against the orchestra in a battle for supremacy."

Contrast all this brawling with the concertos that another great cellist, Janos Starker, played with the Concerto Soloists two weeks later. Starker performed 18th Century concertos by Haydn and a less renowned Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Hanson. In both pieces, the orchestra supports the soloist. When the orchestra plays a contrasting passage, it doesn't attack the solo part, it creates a background that highlights it. The orchestra even salutes the soloist with a cheerful, congratulatory outburst when he finishes his cadenza-- the traditional unaccompanied solo that parades the star's skill.

My first reaction to the three American concertos was the obvious one: American composers have a lot in common with American writers. American artists and intellectuals have always felt their vocations placed them in conflict with the rest of American society. Americans spend billions of dollars and centuries of spectator-hours worshipping the elites of the athletic fields. The elites of the arts and sciences are regarded with derision and suspicion.

It's also possible that the three composers picked the conflict motif because it's an easy pattern to understand. In the last few years, contemporary composers have been making an honest attempt to build bridges between themselves and their audiences. Any piece of music will sound better on first hearing if it has a simple, easily comprehensible overall structure.

I'm inclined to pick both explanations. The composers wanted to create pieces with graspable structures and they had an understandable tendency to choose the individualist's struggle with the crowd. If you want to enjoy a warm, fuzzy relationship with large segments of American society, don't become an American composer. Tax auditing would be a better bet.

My personal favorite of the three was the Rouse. It was played last, but it quickly overcame the feeling we were going to hear another variation on the same theme. It may have had the same plot as the other pieces, but Rouse developed it with the kind of inventiveness that keeps offering you unexpected twists in orchestration, rhythm, and all the other standard elements. Touches of George Crumb's sound-effects impressionism mingled with conventional melodies. Devices such as a sudden switch to an ethereal pizzicato on the violins sounded as surprising-- and logical-- as a plot development in a good thriller.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Forum for July 31, 1997, A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Philadelphia Forum for February 8, 1996.


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