When did you first meet Brett Dean?

Brett was my sister’s first viola teacher 30 years ago and a colleague of my father at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, so I’ve known him for quite some time – I’ve always admired his courage and conviction in leaving the orchestra to fulfil his destiny and be a full-time composer. About 15 years ago, he had written a beautiful work for cello and piano, Huntington Eulogy, for Steven Osborne and myself. Inspired by that, I’ve lobbied for a cello concerto ever since.

Have you worked with other composers who have also been chamber music collaborators?

Only once and that was with Jörg Widmann, a wonderful clarinettist and composer, but he never wrote anything specifically for me. This collaboration with Brett goes deeper and is rather unique as I know Brett so well as a musician and as a person – I can feel his beautiful personality through his music.

Alban Gerhardt, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Brett DeanAlban Gerhardt. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

Were you closely involved with the composition of the new cello concerto?

Not at all – I respect Brett far too much to dare to give him any ideas or restrictions. Would I have told Shostakovich or Benjamin Britten what to write? No! I just hoped he would write music from his soul – which he did – and it is a sheer joy to be learning this beautiful masterwork.

Can you tell us about the music?

One thing is certain: the cello is being treated as a cello, and not as some trumpet-violin gone crazy. It is written in one movement, carefully crafted so that the cello is not fighting for survival, but able to make music together with the other musicians – the orchestra – on stage.

Most important to me is that every note matters. There is no passage where what I’m playing is completely random, and it leaves enough space for the performer to actually express something, to shape phrases and work musically, not just technically. In my life, I’ve come across contemporary pieces where you’re happy when you’ve managed to play about 80 percent of the notes in the right rhythm and right approximate pitch at the right time. In the Dean Concerto, one has the chance to interpret beautiful music that people will love listening to. The best part is that the next cellist who will (hopefully and most certainly!) pick up the piece, will play it completely differently to me, as there is enough freedom for individual interpretation. Brett plays with a pretty characteristic motive which appears throughout the entire piece, a witty short phrase being played by orchestra as well as the solo cello, almost like a code.

What are the challenges of Dean’s concerto?

So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that this concerto is not so much about technical challenges, but the music. Yes, some passages are difficult – playing in tune is always more difficult when the audience can actually identify what the notes are supposed to be and when you can actually hear the cello – but all the technical, rhythmical or melodic challenges make so much sense that they don’t feel all that difficult. The biggest challenges for me are some of the rhythmical intricacies which I hope I will remember as I am attempting to play each performance by heart, even the world premiere!

Alban Gerhardt, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Brett DeanAlban Gerhardt. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

I understand you make a point of memorising new concertos wherever possible – why is this important for you?

It is important to me as I can play the cello much better when I know a piece by heart. Being lazy by nature, I would only practise half as much if I allowed myself to play from music! But more importantly, while learning a piece by heart, I understand (and this is very personal, for other people it is quite different) the work much better – I need to, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to memorise it! Funnily enough, a long piece like this, 25-30 minutes, feels like 45 minutes when I’m first starting to practise it. The more I know it and the closer I come to playing it by heart, it gets shorter and shorter. In the end, a half hour work feels like 15 minutes, as I know the full story behind it and know how to tell it.

You’ve premiered a number of new works, how important is it for you to work with living composers and why?

I think it is the duty and privilege of any living performer to expand the repertoire, but not only for the sake of expanding it, but also for the sake of establishing new pieces. We don’t achieve this by merely premiering as many concertos as possible. In order to bring a new piece into the standard repertoire, it takes a lot of repeat performances, which requires lots of energy to convince not only orchestras and conductors, but also fellow cellists to pick up the concerto you believe in.

It makes me very happy that Truls Mørk and Tanja Tetzlaff are now playing the beautiful Cello Concerto by Unsuk Chin, which I premiered almost 10 years ago – although it is still a long way from being “established.” I’m attempting the same effort with Brett Dean’s piece because I believe it is one of the most compelling and beautifully written concertos since the Dutilleux Tout un monde lointain – the last piece for cello and orchestra which “made it” – and that was almost 50 years ago! One way of telling if a certain concerto has found its way into the standard repertoire is by the number of recordings it has. Most of the time, there are none or maybe one. Inspired by Rostropovich, many of the important works (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux, Lutosławski and some others) have now been recorded numerous times. How did he manage this? He kept pushing them into the limelight, using his star power of performing new, or not often performed repertoire, instead of taking the easy way of playing the same pieces over and over.

Alban Gerhardt performs Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra August 22 – 25