BPO readies for world premiere of cello concerto
The excitement of a world premiere will surround Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, next Saturday and Sunday.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has commissioned a cello concerto in the style of tango, from Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila. The solo role in the work will be performed with the orchestra by their principal cellist, Roman Mekinulov. Del Aguila will be present in person, to perform the piano parts of his score and to witness the first performance of his creation.
We’ve had the opportunity to speak with both Mekinulov and del Aguila, recently, and I’d like to get you into the spirit of the premiere in the hope that you can participate in the performance yourself – at least by listening to the recording, which is scheduled for future release, if not in the seats of Kleinhans for yourself.
If you’ve attended a performance by the BPO within the past decade or so, you’ve almost certainly noticed Roman Mekinulov. He sits in the front row of the cello section, just to the audience’s right of the conductor.
Mekinulov is taller than most of the musicians and is younger than many of them. The presence of the handsome young cellist in the front row has been known to attract comment from members of the audience.
The cellist was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, which was then called Leningrad. He began studying his instrument at the age of 5 at the Leningrad Music School. At the age of 12, and again at 14, he was a winner of the Young Artists Competition of Leningrad. In 1985, he was presented in the Winner’s Showcase Series at the Great Philharmonic Hall of Leningrad. At 16, he was admitted to the Rimsky-Korsakov College where he began performances, both as a soloist and as a member of various chamber groups.
In 1988, he was awarded first prize in the Leningrad Chamber Music Competition.
In 1989, he came to the U.S. to study at the Juilliard School of Music where he has accomplished both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Among a list of accomplishments which goes on for pages, he was a principal cellist of the Juilliard Symphony and Orchestra, under the baton of Kurt Masur, Hugh Wolfe and Leonard Slatkin.
For three years, upon completion of his studies at Juilliard, Mekinulov journeyed to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he was appointed principal cellist of the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Pauloin. During his tenure there, he performed as a guest soloist and as a guest orchestral musician with orchestras throughout Brazil, and in many of that country’s neighbors. He attributes his intense interest in Latin sounds and rhythms to that period of his life.
In 2001, he was named principal cellist in the BPO and has become a familiar face at Kleinhans, in orchestral concerts, as a chamber musician – often with the Jupiter Chamber Players – and as a teacher of the cello. He lives in a Buffalo suburb with his wife, Sebnam, a lyric soprano and their two children.
I met Mekinulov in a Buffalo coffee shop on a chilly afternoon in which drizzling rain kept threatening to turn to ice. He laughed in agreement when I suggested that having been born in Russia must have prepared him for Buffalo weather patterns.
”I’ve never been a person who minded winter,” he said. ”When winter goes on long as this year’s has, I begin to miss the sun and the warmth but it doesn’t turn my life upside-down. I’m not the guy who sits around complaining about the weather.”
Mekinulov said that Buffalo has been so warm and has offered so many opportunities to himself and his family, that he has been more than happy that he has spent so many years in the Queen City.
His conversation is peppered with praise for JoAnn Falletta, the music director of the BPO. ”She was already in charge here when I started so I only have comparisons with leaders of other orchestras, but I stand in awe of her. She knows her music and she has a genius for making audiences feel involved in the process of making music. The orchestra is presently in very good shape, and it is largely due to her and her efforts.
Mekinulov found himself involved in a discussion with Falletta about possible directions in which the orchestra could go in the future. He said he had always believed that the excitement of a solo concerto would be enhanced by the drama and emotion of Latin music. He said that Falletta encouraged him to look at possible composers who might be open to creating a tango concerto for the orchestra and suggested a number whom she thought might do a good job.
Eventually, he came into contact with del Aguila, who has both performed as a pianist and composed for the BPO in the past, and who has spent periods in residence at Chautauqua. After nearly two years in negotiation, the orchestra commissioned the piece of music. Mekinulov received the score of the concerto in January of this year. ”Miguel is a talented composer and is supportive to the musicians who perform his music. When I found I had some suggestions of changes to the score, he was willing to listen to them and to make changes which worked better for me. Sometimes we spent three hours on Skype, wrangling with the music,” the cellist said.
When the orchestra received the score of ”Concierto en Tango,” they found that it required a great many changes of rhythm and relatively challenging rhythms, such as 5/16, 7/16, 9/16 and 11/16. Within the orchestral sound, it relies strongly on soloists. In addition to the cello, these are the violin, the double bass, the piano and conga drums. ”JoAnn suggested that we ought to ask Miguel to perform the piano part in his composition. Although it is not a featured solo part, it is very important in leading the musicians through the complexities of rhythms,” Mekinulov said.
He said in some ways, having del Aguila perform on the piano has turned out to be a win-lose situation. ”Of course, he does it splendidly. Who else could do it better? But, while he is playing the piano, there is no composer sitting in the auditorium, listening to all the parts and giving feedback about all of our efforts,” he said.
Mekinulov said he has traveled extensively in Latin America, and has come to admire and enjoy the tango very much. ”Many people think of the tango only in one style. Perhaps they know the dances done by Valentino or they are familiar with the Tango Nuevo created by Astor Piazzola. But this work has elements which are soulful, some which are sexy – a whole spectrum of emotions and styles. I think the audiences are going to enjoy it a great deal,” he said.
From the cold, wet streets of Buffalo, we sought the concerto’s composer in the sunny climes of our nation’s opposite coast, where we were able to reach him by email and by telephone. We’ve interviewed and reviewed both the performances and the compositions of Miguel del Aguila with both the BPO and with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, and we learned a great deal by having him here as a resident composer in the 2004 season.
The composer was born in Uruguay, a small country which is tucked between the giants of Brazil and Argentina, along the Rio de la Plata. It was along the banks of that river that tango music was first heard. Many people think of tango as a dance, although it can be sung as well. A quick computer scan turns up 12 different styles of tango and the admission that there could be many more around.
”I was glad when Roman suggested a tango concerto for cello,” the composer said. ”The cello has the intensity and expressive quality of the typical tango singer, so that makes it an excellent medium for tango.”
The composer said that he consciously worked to make his composition different from the cello concertos with which the audience is probably familiar. ”The intense, romantic sound of many cello concertos would combine with the melodrama of tango and have resulted in a very dark work,” he said. ”The result has been a work in which there is one segment in which it goes for 100 consecutive bars in which each measure has a different rhythm.”
There is no specific program to the music, according to del Aguila, although he has used his music to envision his country’s recent history. Growing up, he remembers the tango as representing happy, family events with the adults dancing, and the children watching and playing games. That is present in the form of humorous and light-hearted passages. Then in the 1970s, there came economic collapse and the rise of military dictatorships in the region.
”The overall form is A-B-A: fast-slow-fast,” he said. ”The middle, slow section features the tradition cantabile and expressive qualities of the cello, while the outer, fast sections require an utmost rhythmic precision, bow control and accuracy of intonation in the highest registers of the instrument.”
Miguel del Aguila has performed and has had his music performed professionally at Lincoln Center in New York City, and at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In addition, he has had successful engagements in Moscow, Vienna, Zurich, Budapest, Tokyo and Rome among many other cities. His catalogue numbers more than 100 compositions.
”I’ve dedicated ‘Concierto en Tango’ to honor the memory of my brother, Nelson del Aguila, who died in 2012,” he said.
Already in 2014, del Aguila has completed four major works of music. In addition to ”Concierto en Tango,” he has written a piano trio, a flute/viola/harp trio and a flute/piano which just had its premiere in Miami. He will be attending performances of his ”Wind Quintet,” in Chicago and in Montreal this month. His ”Salon Buenos Aires” will also be performed this month in New York and Vancouver, and in June, he will perform the European premiere of ”Seduccion,” in Paris and the European premiere of ”Miami Flute Suite” in Germany.
The BPO, del Aguila and Mekinulov will perform ”Concierto en Tango” on May 10 at 8 p.m. and May 11 at 2:30 p.m., at Kleinhans Music Hall, which is located at 3 Symphony Circle, in Buffalo. Tickets range in price from $76 to $28. You can purchase them in person at the Kleinhans Box Office, by computer at www.bpo.org or by telephone at 885-5000.
The tango concerto will be the middle work on that evening’s program, which will begin with Ravel’s ”La Valse” and will conclude with Rachmaninoff’s ”Symphonic Dances.”
When the recording of the program is released on compact disc, we will share the information with you as soon as we receive it.
Tomorrow at 4 p.m., the three orchestras of the Chautauqua Region Youth Symphony will perform their spring performance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center.
All three ensembles are under the direction of Bryan Eckenrode. Music performed will range from Johann Strauss’s ”Thunder and Lightning Polka” to ”Led Zeppelin Reunion.”
Tickets are $12 for the general public, and $8 for students. They may be purchased in person at the concert, or by phoning 484-7070. For additional information, go to the orchestra’s website at www.CRYouthSymphony.com.
Speaking of the Buffalo Philharmonic, if you were unable to be part of the record-breaking number of Western New Yorkers who made the trek to New York City’s Carnegie Hall to hear the orchestra’s prize-winning performance there and you were unable to make it to Buffalo to hear the orchestra perform the same program, the main piece of music on that program, lasting 71 minutes, has at last been released in February of this year on compact disc on the NAXOS label.
The disc presents Reinhold Gliere’s rarely performed ”Symphony No. 3, ‘Ilya Muromets.” Although it has been released only about one month, it has won a number of awards and prizes including a ”pick of the month” designation by BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom. Shortly after its release, the website Bachtrack took a poll of the world’s favorite orchestras. The BPO won eighth place among more than 100 ensembles, with more than half of the votes coming from Europe.