The composer Michael Alec Rose left an alarming – and intriguing – message on my answering machine the other day.
"Something absolutely horrible has happened," said a breathless Rose. "And something absolutely wonderful and miraculous has happened too."
First, the bad news: John Kochanowski, the Blair String Quartet's esteemed violist, recently injured his back. So he was no longer available to play the composer's Viola Sonata No. 3 at an all-Rose concert on Jan. 22 at Turner Recital Hall. Rose had titled his sonata "The Pedagogy of Grief." Seldom has a moniker seemed more prophetic. (Kochanowski is expected to make a full recovery.)
"John felt so terrible about canceling that he offered to fly another violist to Nashville as a substitute," says Rose. "Fortunately we had another opportunity."
That's the good news. Turns out one of Rose's students, Shelby Flowers, was scheduled to perform the composer's Piano Concerto "Interferon" in a Blair School of Music concerto competition. She agreed to perform it at Rose's Jan. 22 concert too. Piano virtuoso Craig Nies will accompany her, performing a keyboard arrangement of the concerto's orchestra part.
"The beauty of this program change is that the concert will now be devoted entirely to my concertos," says Rose.
Tuesday's concert will also feature the world premiere of Rose's latest work, Sedentary Dances: Scenes for Cello and Orchestra. Cello phenom Felix Wang, the concerto's dedicatee, will debut the work, with the composer playing the orchestra part in a piano arrangement.
Inspiration to compose the new cello concerto came to Rose in a flash last season. He was at a Blair School of Music concert, listening to a performance of his Opened Ground. Arranged for solo cello, Opened Ground takes its name from the collected poems of Seamus Heaney. It's a real virtuoso piece, full of blistering passagework and fiendishly difficult fingerings.
Rose was struck by the way the cellist, Wang, played the piece. He was intensely in the moment, playing with red-hot temperament, sending forth streams of rhythmically vital notes into the concert hall while remaining essentially motionless in his chair. "Felix seemed to be engaged in a kind of sedentary ballet," Rose says. "I knew at that instant that I wanted to a write a cello concerto for him."
Arranged in one movement, Sedentary Dances is an episodic piece. Lyrical themes are stated at the outset of the concerto. They return, like poignant memories, in elaborated form as the work unfolds. "This concerto is very expressive," says Wang. "It's also extremely well-written for cello. Michael keeps the melodies in the cello's middle range, which gives the music a rich, warm sound."
Rose conceded that it's unusual to hear a cello concerto performed in a chamber arrangement — that is, with the cello accompanied by a piano instead of an orchestra. "The chamber version is absolutely faithful to my original intentions," says Rose. "So I declare this Tuesday's concert to be completely kosher."
There's never been any question about the authenticity and orthodoxy of Rose's Piano Concerto. He composed it in 2000 for Nies, who later premiered it with orchestra in the Czech Republic.
Rose found inspiration for the concerto in a poem called "Interferon," by the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub. In the poem, the immune system serves as a metaphor for art. Music and theater, like white blood cells, have a knack for conquering the afflictions that plague mankind. "Holub tosses metaphors like benign grenades, all of them bursting with the power of the theatrical imagination," writes Rose in the program notes for the concerto.
Arranged in one movement, the Piano Concerto opens with a mass of sound, in a style Flowers describes as neo-tonal. "There's a lot of chaos in this piece, but also a lot of beauty," says Flowers. "Some of the slow melodies are truly transcendent and peaceful."
Flowers, a Blair senior, is a versatile young artist who has studied piano with Nies and composing with Rose. She's put all of that training to good use in the Rose concerto. In order to play the concerto in competitions, Flowers needed to have a piano transcription of the orchestra part available for accompanists. No such arrangement, however, existed. So Flowers created her own transcription of the orchestra music, which Nies will perform on Tuesday.
"Shelby's favorite passage in the entire concerto is a beautiful melody for oboe," says Nies. "I think she may be a little envious that I'm going to be the one who gets to play that tune."