Having finally found some time to listen to recent premières, i’ve been struck by several of the large-scale new works heard at last month’s Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. More than a few of them seemed at odds with what i was expecting to hear, and in the case of Cassandra Miller‘s remarkable Duet for cello and orchestra, the piece seemed to be actively pushing one away, only then to perform a complete volte face without, seemingly, doing anything at all.
It establishes a pattern very quickly: the solo cello presents a slow and rather stately procession of alternating pitches, G… D… G… D… G… and so on; the orchestra, with the brass at the forefront, is concerned with completely contrasting fanfare-like material, boisterous and ebullient. This continues, repeats, becomes familiar, becomes routine, and the back-and-forth pushes with increasing force against one’s desire for change. Yet, listen closely and things are not the same: the brass outbursts find both their sharpness tempered and their oblique harmonic connection to the cello bridged by the strings, these fanfares frequently ending with extended chords that are broadly consonant with the cello. And as for the soloist, its 2-note progression has subtly evolved into a pair of descending fifths, G… C…, D… G…. The orchestral sections feel yanked in two directions with regard to the cello, pulling away and pushing towards simultaneously, becoming in the process both more fraught and more relaxed, resulting in a wonderfully bizarre mélange rather like a movie soundtrack being mashed up. On one occasion (around 10 minutes in), the orchestra becomes briefly transfixed at the end of one of these passages, its chord locked, and something new happens, regular rhythmic surges occurring within its texture. It seems that, despite their David & Goliath proportions, the soloist is gradually exerting its force on the orchestra, perhaps as the product of dogged, unchanging resilience in the face of an undeniably greater power. In a protracted, rather magical, period of repose, the orchestra softly resonates the cello’s pitches in its deepest registers, before unleashing its most lengthy outburst so far, coalescing into an even more lengthy sequence of rolling surges, the impulse from the cello turned into large, undulating waves. They slowly thin, revealing an inner core of strings in close harmony with the soloist, ebbing into a warm consonance of fifths. Having finally united, Miller then twists things in an unexpected ending, a couple of orchestra strings perpetuating the fifths while the cello launches into a somewhat folk-like cadenza of harmonics, in almost every way remote and detached.
Cassandra Miller’s Duet for cello and orchestra is odd, beautiful, challenging in some ways but ultimately deeply engrossing. While she hasn’t called it a concerto, the work’s overwhelming emphasis on the relationship between soloist and orchestra goes to the heart of what so many composers have explored in concertos; naming it a ‘duet’ is an interesting choice, one which in its own way gives one pause concerning the nature of the instrumental connections and influences. All highly fascinating. The world première was given by cellist Charles Curtis with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tectonics’ founder and grand vizier, Ilan Volkov.