Ten years ago, cellist-composer Sebastian Baverstam began a compositional journey, which will reach an important turning point on Saturday 28 May.and at 3:00 p.m. at the Church of the Covenant in Boston with the premiere of his cello concerto, he was once nicknamed “Superman” (after Nietzsche).
Not only will the concert mark the premiere of the 40-minute concerto, but it will also debut with the 60-piece Vangarde Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble* that is expected to offer many more Baverstam works, including a symphony and an opera. Max Hobart agreed to conduct the orchestra at this inaugural concert. His willingness to champion this work “is a tremendous honor and privilege for me, both personally and professionally.” Baverstam recounts the chimerical saga of the genesis:
My professional life during the pandemic has alternated regularly between completely inactive and completely overloaded. The premieres scheduled for the cello concerto that I finished composing in 2019 have been canceled, with no postponement in sight. The first months of 2020 were then quite difficult for me. I had just returned from studying composition at the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm with Per Mårtensson, where I finished composing this cello concerto. The theme of the final movement acted as a sort of personal mantra for the nine months it took me to complete as I busied myself in Stockholm, taking lessons in electronic music, Renaissance counterpoint, orchestration and teaching to private students. Although I had to cut my studies short for personal reasons, I was thrilled to come home and play my heroic piece of music for American audiences right away.
A few conductors showed interest and the Ludwig Symphony in Atlanta, Georgia confirmed a premiere of the first movement for April 2020. Then the pandemic hit and of course shattered everyone’s plans. The resulting cancellation caused a major emotional setback. I had poured every ounce of my soul into the composition and practice of this piece; the most difficult cello concerto ever written. I wrote it for myself and nicknamed it “Superman” because of its difficulty. Since then, I changed the name after some advice from friends to Baverstam Cello Concerto which will do the job very well. I thought my time had finally come to share my musical message with my friends, family and fellow classical musicians. But the journey was going to take a little longer. After recovering from a few months of crisis in 2020, and with the encouragement of a friend, I asked the musicians to record their individual parts so that I could edit them all together and hear an approximation of the orchestration.
I had never written for an orchestra before, so although I was quite convinced that the piece should work, I had no guarantees. Now I was going to put the music to the test and see if it matched my intention. Many colleagues have expressed concern about the project. Some have suggested withdrawing altogether. How could we get split and separated players to line up overall? It turned out to be a huge undertaking, but it did provide me with some return on input energy. Eventually I could see an orchestra of people working on something that only existed in my mind, and slowly I could hear what all the parts sounded like together. It took many hours of editing and the expertise of violinist-recorder Daniel Kurganov to help me put this juggernaut together. This required a deep understanding of the orchestra, musical score and concept art, as well as professional audio editing skills with software only available for several years. We stretched individual phrases and tweaked and balanced every second of the recording to make it sound like a real live orchestra.
We started with a piano cutback performance from February 2020 as a template for musicians to listen to and play with. I made a click track that tracked all the intricate rubatos, and a video of myself conducting the piece to help the whole thing along. Then came the hardest part for me, I had to record the solo part at the exact same tempo as I played it the first time.
For many reasons, it is the most technically demanding cello concerto ever written. For example, my style of composition often employs a method that uses many notes to outline a simple melody of fewer notes. Suppose I have 12 bars of triplets, each higher or lower note is the melody and the other notes are the rhythmic texture and coloring. This means that when you play the melody, you are also playing harmony and texture, but the melody must be in the foreground. Performers are used to providing phrase forms for note ranges, but not when the melody itself is the overall phrase form and they have to play the accompanying triplets at the same time. After a treacherous execution, the result sounds like a beautiful simple melody with accompaniment.
More than once I have been asked if cellists other than myself would be able to play this piece. The answer is of course yes. The technical capabilities of today’s top performers far exceed those of previous generations. Performing a Beethoven piano sonata is not even considered virtuosic anymore in comparison to Liszt or Rachmaninoff. To play my music successfully, it just takes getting used to a few new techniques and perspectives. When Brahms was writing his music, everyone complained about the difficulty of playing the piano. Over the years, techniques that seemed revolutionary when first requested have become part of the interpretive arsenal.
But back to the saga of bringing this concerto to life. After successfully completing the online recording, I felt vindicated in my orchestration efforts. It sounded coherent, logical and efficient, and as I had imagined it, while of course still being very far from the sound of a real live symphony orchestra. In fact, I started to resent the recording sometimes because it sounded so below the real sound of an orchestra.
A little over a year ago, with no performances with established orchestras on the horizon, I felt the need to find closure, to free myself artistically to be able to move on. I have other works on which I want to concentrate all my energy, my opera, my symphony, my chamber music, my piano sonatas. But the backbone of my songwriting philosophy is that I write for myself to perform. So I have to play this song. I can’t leave this piece behind without performing it at least once, correctly, no matter how hard it takes to make it happen.
Thus the Vangarde Symphony Orchestra. The spelling of “Vangarde” is a pun on “Avant Garde” and means the same thing: people at the forefront of something. Most of the players are my friends, they believe in me, in this project and in the music. They understand the struggle. They have been an emotional lifeline supporting me through this dark journey of suppression. I care what my fellow artists think. I started to write for them, for us, play music that speaks to us and through us.
Early in this process, I asked Max Hobart if he would be interested in directing the performance. Max is a longtime friend of my family and immediately came to mind as someone who might be interested. But what I didn’t know was how engrossed in the work and emotionally invested he would become. For local audiences, Max needs no introduction, but for other readers, Max was assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted the Boston Civic Orchestra for many years. For him, believing in my work means the world to me. He helped me revise the score, making sure everything was in order for the rehearsals to go off without a hitch. He stayed up late listening to and studying the score for months and we had many meetings and conversations about the piece. We had a long discussion about the title which, among other things, did not do the music justice, and he expressed his disbelief to me at how I even found such “fresh themes”. We are reworking the bows now and adding more queues to the parts, so we can use every minute of rehearsal effectively. If the concerto has a life of its own in the years to come, it will be largely thanks to Hobart’s engagement.
In my humble opinion, this cello concerto is comparable to any great cello concerto by Dvořák or Haydn. In fact, I don’t think I’m inferior to any of the great composers in history, even though I haven’t reached my full potential yet. But before the kind reader scoffs at “Hubris!”, I’m posting this artistic testament not to brag, but rather because it’s relevant to the work itself and to the backbone of my compositional philosophy.
In the culture of high art and classical music, confidence is immediately confused with arrogance and is generally met with contempt, as if it were some sort of heresy. Not since 19and century, composers proudly proclaimed their own abilities, but today’s popular music icons come to mind who boldly embrace this same ambitious spirit. If we are still the same human race that we were centuries ago, then where are the Beethovens and Mozarts of today?
I define my music by the relevance it has for our society today. He is self-aware and has his own agenda. I use myself as a delicate instrument, relying on my intuition. I then step back, observe objectively, draw conclusions about what I have created, and follow my intuition again. Music cannot exist without ideology, so my perspective on our culture supports and inspires my musical voice. Although I am acutely aware of the vibrations that divide our country, I have high hopes for American culture and the world.
avant-garde symphony orchestra
Alliance Church on Newbury St. in Boston
67 Newbury Street Boston, MA 02116
Saturday May 28 at 3:00 p.m.
Haydn: Armida Opening
Baverstam: Cello Concerto (world premiere)
*Main actors :
First violin: Jean Huang
Main 2n/a violin: Jessica Amidon
Solo viola: Anna Stromer
Principal Cello: Seth MacLeod
Solo double bass: Eric Duback
Principal clarinet: Kristian Baverstam
Solo horn: Ryan Ramey
Solo percussion: Timur Rubinshteyn