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DETAILS:

Composed: 1993-94

Orchestration: Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, glockenspiel, marimba, mark tree, small triangle, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle, tuned drums, vibraphone), harp, piano ( = celesta), strings, and solo cello

My cello concerto resulted from a suggestion by Seiji Ozawa that I write a piece for cello and orchestra expressly with Yo-Yo Ma in mind. Discussions on this project developed and the Boston Symphony agreed to commission the work, requesting that it be premiered at the opening of the new Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1994 – I conducted the first performance with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist.

I had known Yo-Yo Ma for quite a few years before this event. Together we had performed concertos of Elgar, Dvorák, and Haydn among others, and on several occasions I had accompanied him at the piano. Over the years we’ve become close friends, and I looked forward to writing for him with great pleasure. Given the broad technical and expressive arsenal available in Yo-Yo’s work, planning the concerto was a joy. I decided to have four fairly extensive movements that would offer as much variety and contrast as possible, but that could be played continuously and without interruption.

The first movement, Theme and Cadenza, after an opening salvo of brass, immediately casts the cello in a kind of hero’s role, making it the unquestioned center of attention. It’s a movement that attempts to put the cello on display in the time-honored sense of “concerto,” and as the hero’s theme is developed, it “morphs” into a cadenza in which I tried to create an opportunity for exploration of the theme that would be both ruminative and virtuosic.

The second movement I call Blues… In my mind, and without any conscious prodding on my part, the ghosts of Ellington and Strayhorn seemed to waft through the atmosphere. Invited or not, this was for me very welcome company. I set up clusters in piano and percussion that form a frame within which the cello unveils its misty quasi-improvisations.

The Scherzo is about speed, deftness, and sleight of hand. The music romps along in triple-time over a treacherous landscape where athletic exchanges are periodically and suddenly interrupted by a series of fermati, as the orchestra and cello try to dominate and out-do each other. There’s a short tutti where it appears that the orchestra might prevail, but the cello outwits and outlasts it.

In thinking about the finale of the concerto, I was always aware of the fact that Yo-Yo’s ability to “connect” personally and even privately with every individual in his audience is perhaps the greatest of his abundant gifts. I therefore tried in Song, the concerto’s finale, to create long lyrical lines that would give the cello the opportunity to address the audience in the manner of a clear and direct soliloquy.
Whatever virtues the concerto may have can never surpass, for me, the experience of knowing and working with Yo-Yo Ma. Happily, and with complete justice, the world loves and reveres this man as do I, and working with him is always a joyous journey to be treasured.

— John Williams