CHICAGO — To the pantheon of great musical works that touch on the essential creativity of madness, the cruelty of fate, and the quixotic tenacity of those of us who tilt at windmills, one is happy to welcome the cello concerto of 49-year-old Soviet-born American composer Lera Auerbach. She herself has a merit badge in beating impossible odds.
Auerbach arrived in the States as a touring teenage violinist in 1991, abruptly decided to stay, and found herself welcomed at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. She made her Carnegie Hall debut as composer-performer with violinist Gidon Kremer in 2002 and has been making headlines as a composer ever since. (Did I mention that Auerbach is also an award-winning poet who paints and sculpts?)
Her new cello concerto, Diary of a Madman, is a four-way commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and, in performances yet to come, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic (Dec. 8) and the Royal Philharmonic Stockholm (May 10-11, 2023). Auerbach was unable to attend the world premiere in Munich last January, but she was present in Chicago for the U.S. premiere on Nov. 17. The masterful cellist was Gautier Capuçon, who performed in both cities. Auerbach’s remarkable opus is a natural addition to the cello repertoire.
The Chicago Symphony program, led by guest conductor Manfred Honeck, included Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and made the case for the Auerbach and Shostakovich as spiritual kin. Capuçon, who also gave Diary of a Madman its world premiere, got to the grinding, emotionally volatile core of Auerbach’s nonstop 35-minute work. He certainly has a deft touch for the brilliant strangeness and pessimism of this music. And he is apparently so attuned: Capuçon’s debut with the CSO, back in 2012, was as soloist in Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, with a first movement subtitled “Keep your dreams: wise men do not have as beautiful ones as fools!”
Perhaps at some point in the future, a person looking for world solutions will say, “Let’s let Lera have a crack at it.” This remarkable composer gets right at the heart of the essential cruelty of a time in which a person can survive only by denying the obvious, that he is losing, or indeed has lost, the battle. Her concerto is lyrical, loving, brooding, and tragically funny. It honors Cervantes, Gogol, and Arthur Miller, too. The work’s title alludes to Gogol’s hapless Poprishchin, a lowly civil servant who keeps getting it wrong with his delusions of grandeur. But as with Willy Loman, it might be said, attention must be paid, and therein lies the protagonist’s dignity.
The title Diary of a Madman doffs its cap to Gogol, the 19th-century writer of Ukrainian origin who penned a short work of the same title. His grotesquely humorous, almost surrealist inventions have long been favored as source material for others. A tale called The Nose, about a schnozz that abandons its owner’s face and chases off on a life of its own, was turned into an opera by Shostakovich. And Gogol’s story The Overcoat, about an impoverished government clerk who endures untold hardship to save up for a new cloak, only to have it stolen in a dust-up with ruffians, became a ballet, also to Shostakovich’s music.
Auerbach talks about her motivation to write this concerto, below:
Auerbach’s earlier venture into the great Russian author’s territory was for her 2010 opera Gogol, which premiered at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien and was similarly observant about the human condition. She recently recalled, “We are unable to see what is right in front of us, but through the metaphor of art we recognize our own past. That is why a melody or a line in a book can move us to tears.”
Honeck’s insightful Chicago program was a stunner that underscored the stylistic tendencies Auerbach and Shostakovich share, particularly their penchants for hypnotic brooding and sudden sarcasms, dizzying changes of course, and machine-like surges.
The concerto doffs its cap to the crazy turns of our time, the worldwide sense of denial, the urge to shake our fists at forces beyond our control. As a cello concerto, it put me in mind of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, which likewise tells its entire musical story in one uninterrupted span. Like Strauss’ hero, Auerbach’s madman clings to his illusions. Capuçon, who took his phrases to the plaintive, pianissimo threshold, began as if with logic, only to trail into places wonderfully strange.
Capuçon’s latest album release, Sensations, for the Warner Classics label, is now out: It samples the songs of Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel, the cinematic music of Ennio Morricone and John Williams, and various opera and Broadway hits, as well as classical favorites by Dvořák, Grieg, and Villa Lobos. Almost all the titles have been transcribed by Capuçon’s long-time collaborator Jérôme Ducros, and many tracks feature the Orchestre National de Bretagne with the German conductor Johanna Malangré. New transcriptions, commissioned for this album, include “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and “Mambo” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Artists joining Capuçon include the young French trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary, who performs in “L-O-V-E” by Bert Kaempfert, the Egyptian soprano Fatma Said, who sings the Cantilena from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, and the young cellists of Capuçon’s class at the Louis Vuitton Foundation.