Or Trouble Squared?

I’m in the thick of composing a double concerto for cello, bass and orchestra.  I’m having a fantastic time with it, partly because it poses some terrific challenges.

First of all, any concerto presents a balance problem – one player vs. many.  The balance problem, for me, manifests itself in two ways: volume and color.  Without much prodding, the orchestra can easily produce enough sheer volume to consume the soloist.  Add the range of color the orchestra has at its disposal, and a solo instrument can quickly seem dull by comparison.

Some instruments have a prominence, an attention-getting quality, that helps offset this balance problem.  Unfortunately, neither the cello nor the bass is one of these instruments.  Sure, there are some successful cello concertos and some interesting bass concertos, but it often boils down to a choice between sacrificing the possibilities that the orchestra brings to the table or creating a piece in which the soloist saws away to no discernible effect.

Then there is the problem of matching the cello and bass with one another, making them equal partners.  The part of the cello range that extends above where the bass can play (barring harmonics) can be very powerful, whereas the part of the bass range that lies below the cello is, however wonderful in its own right, easily overwhelmed.  It’s difficult to keep the bass from sounding like a weaker sibling, and the cello from sounding like a smartass bully.

My first concerto was a triple concerto for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn, a fun commission I got right out of grad school.  I had great dreams for the piece.  Whatever qualities it may have had, though, it mostly served as a quick introduction between me and the concerto world.  The oboists were clearly audible most of the time, but I found that wasn’t enough.  Whenever they were covered up, one couldn’t even tell if they were playing – so much of oboe playing is invisible – and the disconnect between what I was seeing (three musicians standing up in front of the orchestra) and what I was hearing (a rich orchestral texture with no solo element) bothered me.

(Whenever a student of mine is working on a concerto, I always point out that pizzicato is a concerto’s best friend.  The entire string family, playing pizzicato, can provide a full backdrop for a soloist that never risks overpowering the main voice.  I only wish I had taken that advice a bit more frequently in the five concertos I’ve written.)

Of course, I’m well aware that nobody in the audience will (or should) care a bit about the challenges I face in writing a piece.  “That wasn’t bad for a cello-bass concerto” is not the kind of reaction I’m looking for.  The piece has to somehow transcend its limitations, make us hear only opportunities.  And yet it can’t sound like it wants to be something other than it is, which is a piece that features cello and bass accompanied by orchestra.

So this is the private battle I’m engaged in these days.   Right now I’ve completed two drafts, which means I’ve set up a very specific relationship between the two soloists and a general idea of the relationship between the soloists and the orchestra.  Next I need to get down-and-dirty with the orchestral details, answering questions of how much is enough, how much is too much.

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