SEATTLE — The Three Continents Cello Concerto, whose three movements were written by composers from three continents — America’s Nico Muhly from North America, Germany’s Sven Helbig from Europe, and China’s Zhou Long from Asia — received a stunning U.S. premiere by the Seattle Symphony on March 23. Soloist Jan Vogler, who commissioned the work with the Dresden Music Festival, delivered a performance as notable for his excitement, verve, showmanship, and sense of adventure as for the music itself.
The conductor was the far more understated Yue Bao, assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony. The latest in a string of guest conductors to lead the Seattle Symphony, which remains without a music director since Thomas Dausgaard suddenly vacated the position in January 2022, Bao led a program that also included Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The large number of empty seats in Benaroya Hall may have reflected as much on her status as an relative unknown as on the symphony’s continued sense of rudderlessness.
As if to ensure that his audience would pay attention, Muhly begins the opening movement, “Cello Cycles,” with a loud and piercing instrumental screech. With Vogler left to fend for himself against the ensuing orchestral barrage, the cellist had no choice but to dig into his instrument as deeply as possible. As such, the cello’s coruscating edge and sheer grit often predominated over beauty of sound. Energy, movement, and vibrancy were the ultimate guiding principles of a composition whose spectral radiance and accumulating “wow”-factor effects trumped substance. The movement’s ending intentionally failed to resolve, leaving the audience in a suspended state that cleverly called for resolution by the movements that followed.
Helbig’s middle movement “Aria” opened with slow, somber, and reflective music that at times resembled a death march. Vogler, who often began notes with straight tone before invoking vibrato, took advantage of the opportunity finally to be heard without effort by sinking into the cello’s emotional heart. The music, which was conceived as a bridge between movements as well as continents, grew more energetic toward the end, providing an ideal segue into 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Music winner Zhou Long’s concluding movement, “Tipsy Poet.”
In music inspired by “Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets,” an ancient Chinese poem by Du Fu, Yue Bao chose to emphasize exoticism and drive over the music’s inherent humor. It mattered little, because Zhou Long’s mastery of color and his ability to adapt the cello’s sound to the Chinese idiom carried the day. Vogler had a grand time, relishing the glory of every drunken explosion and the opportunity to evoke the sound of Chinese instruments. This was music to celebrate all that a gifted cellist and fine orchestra can do together. The ending was rousing, thrilling, and deserving of cheers.
The Three Continents Cello Concerto provided Yue Bao with her best opportunity to shine. Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal seemed to go by too fast, with propulsion prioritized over all else. This is not to say that the conducting lacked grace where Barber’s romanticism called for it, but passages that required the orchestra to be light on its feet fell a bit flat, and the overture ended without the requisite big bang.
Similarly, much of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra seemed more mired in morass than sprinkled with paprika. A bit too late in the game, the composer’s mockery of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 came through clearly, but again without the idiomatic tang and irreverence that many bring to it. Bao rose to the occasion in the final movement. The sound was grand, the music a fabulous, irresistible whirl. Even if the ending could have been more emphatic, the conclusion impressed with its brilliance.