Lost concerto’s revival marks the end of a long quest for Houston Symphony cellist

Tue Apr 11, 2017 at 12:01 pm
By Aaron Keebaugh

Brinton Averil Smith will perform the Texas premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto with the Houston Symphony Thursday night at Jones Hall. Photo: Sandy Lankford

 In January 1935, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and Arturo Toscanini offered the world premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Yet despite that starry, high-profile advocacy, the work failed to receive repeat performances and quickly fell into obscurity.

Until now, that is. Thursday night at Jones Hall, cellist Brinton Averil Smith and the Houston Symphony, led by Kazuki Yamada, will offer the Texas premiere of the work and the first professional performance of the concerto in over 80 years. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s time, it seems, has come.

In recent years, new recording projects have heaped attention onto Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music. The Naxos label has been in the vanguard of those efforts and has released recordings of Naomi and Ruth, as part of the Milken Jewish Music series, and Evangélion, a set of twenty pieces that deal with the life of Jesus, as well as a host of other works. This week’s performances of the Cello Concerto are planned for a future release on Naxos, marking the work’s first recording. 

“The music really tends to sell itself,” said the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who serves as an advocate for his work.

“There is a collection at the Library of Congress,” she said. “Today it has more than 7,000 documents, and we’re finding more things since my parents have passed away.” 

“What I’m doing is just to be kind of a clearing-house and make things available to different artists who want to do things and need information,” she added. “I guess my feeling is, as long as [the music] is out there then people can decide what they think about it, and try it out. It will find its own audience.”

The Italian-born American composer has a secure legacy among guitarists, having written close to 100 works for the instrument in addition to concertos for the legendary Andrés Segovia. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, too, had a champion in Jascha Heifetz, who commissioned the Second Violin Concerto in 1938. The composer and Piatigorsky became friends after the two performed a recital together in Florence in the early 1930s. The cellist soon asked Castelnuovo-Tedesco for his own concerto, which was completed in 1935.

There are several reasons for the work falling into obscurity. While the Italian music publisher Ricordi released the concerto in both full score and piano reduction formats, the music was only available for rental, not purchase. The composer, too, gave Piatigorsky exclusive performing rights, which limited its circulation during the cellist’s lifetime. Finally, Piatigorsky, shortly after the work’s premiere, concentrated on performing recitals rather than orchestral concerts.

“He and my grandfather remained friends, but it seems like he didn’t continue to play that particular piece,” Castelnuovo-Tedesco said. “Now everyone’s gone from that era so [the piece] is coming back.”

For Brinton Averil Smith, principal cellist of the Houston Symphony, these performances of the Cello Concerto are the result of several decades of interest and investigation into the work. 

“I’m something of a Heifetz freak, but I’ve always been really fascinated by the Hollywood School composers of Korngold, Rózsa, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco,” said Smith. “[The Cello Concerto] is actually mentioned in Piatigorsky’s own autobiography, The Cellist, which I read when I was 12, “ he added.  

 But tracking down the work took time.

“When I was back in Juilliard I was trying to look up the old archival recordings to see if there was any recording of Piatigorsky on the Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and there wasn’t. They hadn’t made anything. I was always trying to find the music, but it’s hard to get to without an orchestra library behind you. A year and a half ago I finally tracked it down and our library [at the Houston Symphony] helped me get the music.”

Smith said after two decades searching for the score, when he finally found it his belated thought was: Is it any good?

Not to worry, he said. “I actually think the piece is going to be very effective,” Smith said. “I’m not going to tell you that it’s the greatest cello concerto that’s ever written. But it’s definitely better than a lot of them that are played everyday. It deserves a place in the repertoire, and it definitely deserves to be heard,” Smith said.

Gregor Piatigorsky (left) and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in 1935, the year of the Cello Concerto’s premiere.

That’s a common theme lately surrounding the composer and his music. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, born in 1895 in Florence, Italy, dealt with extremes of popularity and rejection in his long, productive career. His early works, which reflect both Impressionism and Neo-classicism, were frequently performed by the Italian branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

But at the time of the Fascist government’s attacks on Jews in Italy in the late 1930s, performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music were banned and cancelled. The composer left Italy in 1939 prior to the outbreak of World War 2 and eventually settled in Beverly Hills, California, where he immersed himself in the film industry. He worked on 250 film projects, and, though he often didn’t receive screen credit for his work, he scored the film And Then There Were None and ballet and opera scenes in Down to Earth, Everybody Does It, and Strictly Dishonorable. In Hollywood, he also taught a number of students who would become major composers in the film world, including Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, and John Williams, among others.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music reflects a tuneful, romantic idiom, and the Cello Concerto, says Smith, is a fine example of that style. 

“Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not a modernist, he wasn’t out to change the world, “ Smith said. “He wasn’t writing in a dissonant tonal language, and in 1935 that made you an anachronism. He was writing just beautiful music.”

The Cello Concerto is cast in three movements and offers a personal take on a traditional form.

“It’s very motivic the way he writes,” Smith said. “It’s not so much like a main-theme, second-theme [format]. Instead he’ll have these two little themes and he’ll just keep layering them throughout the movement,” Smith said of the work.

“He really wanted to make it a kind of virtuoso showpiece,” Smith added. There’s a written cadenza in the first movement in the usual place and the third movement opens with another long cadenza, and the cello develops all the themes of the movement.

“It’s a performance issue because you’ve thrown your entire bag of technical tricks [at the opening],” Smith added. “You’ve done everything and then the movement starts.”

Smith says the second movement was the one that had the greatest success and seems to connect immediately with listeners. “Every time I’ve played it with a piano, people are like, ‘Ah, I love that!’” Smith said.

Works such as this one are currently enjoying something of a renaissance among concertgoers over the past few decades. 

“I think that melodic, tonal music was just out of style for a long time, and [the composer] didn’t want to change who he was to be more in style,” said Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco. “He just had this very innate sense of who he was and what he liked, and he just did what he wanted. And I think today, people are a lot more open-minded about appreciating different things for what they are.”

“There’s lots of beautiful music there [and] we’re happy people are rediscovering it,” she continued. “There’s more to even find in the future.”

Smith’ advocacy for he music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco won’t end with this week’s concerts in Houston. This summer in Aspen he will give the world premiere of the composer’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, a work written in 1955.

“I have spent all my life . . . learning how to play the cello. And ultimately what’s it for if I just do Saint-Saëns or Lalo or Haydn concertos that have been done a thousand times before? I mean, is that really helping anyone besides me playing a concert? Does it really do anything to change the music world?”

“It’s not up to us to determine if [these unknown works] ultimately stand or fail. But it’s up to us to get them out, to give them a chance, to get them to the world,” Smith says. “I think it’s important for every performer to stand up for the works that they believe in.”

Brinton Averil Smith performs Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto with Kazuki Yamada and the Houston Symphony 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Jones Hall.  The program also features works by Chabrier and de Falla. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575.

Aaron Keebaugh is a musicologist and regular contributor to Boston Classical Review. His articles have also appeared in British Post-graduate Musicology and the Musical Times.

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