Cellist to play Elgar concerto to launch ASO’s fall season

Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller wanted something special to open the orch

Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller wanted something special to open the orchestra’s season on Saturday.

“I knew I wanted to do the Elgar Cello Concerto,” he said. “We’d never done it during my tenure and it’s a great piece and one of my favorites.”

But who would play the cello part?

Two years ago Miller was guest conducting the Belgrade Philharmonic in Serbia and the soloist was cellist Ralph Kirshbaum.

“I’d known about him forever,” Miller said.

Although born in Texas, Kirshbaum had spent most of his professional life in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, where he had also taught for more than 25 years at the Royal Northern College of Music. Because of his commitment to teaching, he founded and directed several international cello festivals, particularly the Manchester International Cello Festival, that annually hosted up to 22 performers over a 10-day period.

Albany Symphony Orchestra

— Saturday, 7:30 p.m — Palace Theatre

— Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m. — Troy Savings Bank Music Hall

— Oct. 23, 3 p.m. — Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College

— Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m. — Troy Savings Bank Music Hall

— Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m. — Palace Theatre

HOW MUCH: $19–$54, except for Joshua Bell $30–$85.

MORE INFO: 465-4755, www.albanysymphony.com

Three years ago, he moved to California to become only the fourth cellist to hold the Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, even as he continued to play up to 60 concerts worldwide.

“He’s a deep-thinking musician and very celebrated within the cello world,” Miller said.

Impressive recording

Of Kirshbaum’s many recordings, one of the ones that has proved the test of time is the disc he made in 1979 of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos). Since then, it has been re-released in various packages in 1994, 2001, and 2006.

Miller said he knew right away that Kirshbaum was the one to engage for Saturday’s concert. That was just fine for Kirshbaum, who will make his debut with the orchestra. As a side note, Miller has even greater familiarity with the concerto — his son, a cellist, has been working on it for the last two years, he said.

“I adore the piece,” Kirshbaum said. “He didn’t have to wring my arm.”

Edward Elgar wrote the work in 1919 at a time when his wife was near death and he’d been badly shaken by the events of World War I. There is much poignancy and regret within the beautiful melodies, but also a nostalgia for what would be the lost Edwardian era.

“There is that,” Kirshbaum said, “but there is also great dignity and courage that is part of the musical dialogue.”

The concerto has been one of significance in Kirshbaum’s career. It was the first concerto he ever played in London (with an amateur orchestra called the Informal Symphony Orchestra) in the 1970s. It was the concerto he played in 1973 with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra after he’d just learned his mother was dying. It was the first concerto he played with his 1729 Montagnana cello, which he was at the time only thinking of buying. He played the Elgar for Queen Elizabeth’s 1977 Silver Jubilee at London’s Proms for a televised concert. And almost every year since, he has played the work, often to other notable occasions in his life, he said.

Other composers

With the Elgar in place, Miller decided to build the program around other English composers’ works. He chose a work by Anna Clyne, a young British composer who currently is composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“I heard the piece and it’s a seven-minute curtain-raiser,” Miller said.

The work is very electric and pop-inspired to simulate a video tape playing backwards, he said.

To contrast this and the elegant grandeur of the Elgar, Miller chose Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

“It’s very technicolor. It’s about astrology and is mystical,” he said. “We’d also not done it in several years.”

Miller and Kirshbaum will talk about the program at noon at the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Avenue. Miller will also give a pre-concert talk one hour before the concert.

Remainder of season

As for the rest of the fall season, Miller will focus the Oct. 22 and 23 concerts around composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ work and those pieces that have inspired him. The program includes Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”), Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, five Debussy Etudes that Kernis arranged, Kernis’ “Concerto with Echoes,” and the world premiere of Kathryn Salfelder’s Soprano Saxophone Concerto with saxophonist Tim McAllister, who Miller said was remarkable.

Nov. 19 will be a portrait of several composers, Miller said. This includes a venture into John Williams’ serious concert music of “On Willows and Birches,” which is a harp concerto written for and will be performed by Ann Hobson Pilot, former harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky’s “spiky, rhythmic” Concerto for Piano and Winds with pianist Orion Weiss reflects 20th century tastes, as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 reflects those of the 18th century. Missy Mazzoli’s “Violent, Violent Sea” is a nod to the 21st century.

Besides the orchestra’s annual Magic of Christmas concerts Dec. 3 and 4, violinist Joshua Bell returns for the Dec. 17 concert with a blockbuster concert that includes the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Bizet’s Suite from “L’Arlesienne,” Bruce MacCombie’s charming “Chelsea Tango,” Strauss’ overture to “Die Fledermaus” and Jeff Tyzik’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

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