I conceived the idea of writing a solo sonata as a going-away present for my close friend Robert deMaine, formerly principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony, and my recital partner in the duo "CELLOMANIA!." In October, Robert was appointed as the new principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony. He took me out to his favorite Italian pastry shop to celebrate. While there, I jotted down the first three "weeping" bars on a napkin and pushed it in front of him. His reaction: "This is REALLY nostalgic." A few days later, I played the opening and closing of the piece for his girlfriend Betsy (a hornist in the Symphony). She looked at me with wide-open eyes and said "This looks back... way back." I admitted that it did, to the time when I was a young cellist of 18 or 19, but to what specifically?
The answer came in the form of a reminder from Tim Janof that a woman named Erika (Czako) Lloyd was searching for information about a half-sister whom she had never met: the late cellist Eva Czako Janzer. I volunteered to send her my recollections of Mrs. Janzer, who had been my very first cello instructor at Indiana University in 1974, and my chamber music coach, by request, for many semesters when I was an undergrad. Mrs. Janzer had died of bone cancer in the fall of 1978, while I was working in Mexico City. The news came as a complete shock and was a loss to all of us who had loved her and been inspired by her. I never had the chance to say good-bye, and in fact had been completely unaware even as to how serious her illness had become, so her passing was a wound which somehow never really healed.
I realized that I somehow needed to make an attempt at a cellistic tribute to the memory of Eva Czako; something beautiful which, I hope, she would have loved. The "weeping" chords (themselves an homage to the "canti" of the Britten Second Suite) became the pillars of a large-scale rondo structure of roughly 19 minutes' duration. The first episode is an elegy; a sort of funeral march with an unsteady, broken tread. It introduces my musical signature -- a long note which drops a major second and almost immediately returns again to the original pitch. The second is a perpetual-motion scherzo almost entirely in tremolando bowing. (The origins of the folk-like principal motif have already been variously ascribed by my friends to Hungary, the Balkans, Russia, and the Caucasus; I certainly don't know!). The third and longest episode is comprised mostly of a manic scherzo in tarantella tempo, interrupted twice by a series of hushed, harp-like chords in unrelated tonalities. The coda "looks back" indeed, exiting with a treading ostinato deep in the lowest register of the cello and interrupted by fragments of the prominent descending-and-ascending major-second motif in disembodied harmonics.
I strove above all to make the sonata a piece with a noble purpose; as polished a piece as my finite abilities as a composer would allow. But I also, as a purely secondary consideration, strove to make it a piece which was excellently conceived for the cello, conjuring up as many colors and effects of "orchestration" as would befit its serious character. And so, while it is not easy, I am satisfied that it is a thoroughly idiomatic and cellistic work, written "in cooperation" with the cello, and which takes advantage of the instrument's many coloristic capabilities in ranges where it sounds best. I personally dislike the extreme treble range of the cello, preferring mostly to exploit the "Russian bass" range, the noble baritone, and the soaring, serene tenor regions of the instrument, where neither the cello nor the cellist needs to "work" to sound magnificent.
Editor's Note: This piece is very satisfying and idiomatic for the cello. If you would like more information on how to obtain a copy of it, please send an e-mail to James Nicholas.
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Editor: Tim Janof
Director: John Michel
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