Cellist Laura van der Heijden and composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad tell Keith Bruce how a Scottish world premiere came about
A very busy and multi-faceted musician, cellist Laura van der Heijden is not an especially regular visitor to Scotland, but she is the soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the next few weeks, oddly with both conducting Wigglesworths, Mark and Ryan, on the podiums.
The 2012 BBC Young Musician winner when she was just 15, Van der Heijden is playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 with the SCO this week in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and then returns in the third week of May to premiere a new cello concerto written for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first commissions as Chief Conductor of the SSO.
“I am in panic learning mode at the moment!” she told VoxCarnyx. “It’s my first time with the Shostakovich as well and I wonder if there will be more flexibility with Cheryl’s piece, while with the Shostakovich everything is on the page. But then I have never played Shostakovich 2 with an orchestra either – so all will be revealed in the coming days!
“It was the SCO who suggested the Shostakovich and I have always wanted to learn and play it, so I said ‘yes’. There is so much dialogue between the orchestra part and the cello part – there are some of the coolest classical music moments in that piece.”
With composer Frances-Hoad also part of our on-line conversation, it is clear that the new bespoke concerto holds as much exciting promise for the soloist. The BBC commission will be heard in Glasgow’s City Halls, replaced in the SSO’s Aberdeen concert by the Walton concerto that was her victory piece in 2012. When both are broadcast, listeners may spot some shared vocabulary.
“I love the opening of the Walton concerto and that shimmering sound and that’s something that comes up in Cheryl’s piece. I also mentioned the Martinu cello concerto to her and the brass stabs that I love in that piece – and we’ve definitely got brass stabs in hers too. Those are textures that I really enjoy and both of those appear in the concerto.
“But I haven’t heard it live yet, and I think there’s a lot that I am going to be surprised by. There’s no way of experiencing what it will really be like before I meet with the orchestra – playing it through with the piano is not the same.”
The Frances-Hoad concerto has come together with such easy synchronicity, both player and composer seem mildly astonished.
“We only started talking about it in Spring of last year,” says Frances-Hoad, “so it’s amazing because these things usually take ages.
“Laura sent me a message saying she was interested in me writing a concerto for her and I was overjoyed as I have always really enjoyed her playing.
“We had some discussions and then Ryan Wigglesworth rang me and said he was interested in commissioning me to write a concerto for Laura and the BBC Scottish, so instead of having to raise funding, Ryan made it all fit magically into place.”
“I might have mentioned to him that I’d like to have something by you,” adds Van der Heijden, “but it did seem as if the BBC commission was unconnected with that.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in the process of commissioning a piece and although I’ve done other new works, this feels like a new adventure. We had quite a few conversations, but I knew Cheryl’s music speaks to me and my playing style and it would be something I could connect to.
“We spoke about some ideas behind the piece and that we’d like it to be inspired by the environment and be a celebration of nature, rather than some sort of climate crisis appeal. But that’s just the inspiration behind the music, and it doesn’t need any programme.”
For Frances-Hoad, who began her musical life as a cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the big work is an important milestone in her composing career.
“When I was 14 or 15 I wrote a 15 minute cello concertina and that was what won me a BBC Young Composer Award in 1996. In 2013 I then wrote a piece called Catharsis for wind quintet, string quintet and solo cello. It was a cello concerto in ambition, but I haven’t written a proper cello concerto until now.
“I recently had an amazing year as a Visiting Fellow in Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford – which extended to 20 months because of Covid – where I had a studio and made friends with people from different areas of study and wrote a lot of pieces inspire by stuff they told me about – it was just a really productive, wonderful time.
“So I asked one of the biologists for ideas when I was writing the cello concerto, and he told me about this phenomenon of algae in the ocean that feeds off sunlight and carbon and blooms and grows incredibly fast, making beautifully patterns in the sea.
“What I love doing as a composer is learning about things like that because it makes my mind work in a different way. In the second movement, the harmonies are my response to the life-cycle of the algae.
“It’s a mind-gym that means I come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have done. The piece is a celebration of the beauty and wonder of nature, rather than bashing heads together about the importance of its preservation.
“But at the same time I was always thinking about writing a proper cello concerto, and about the balance in the orchestration. I wanted it to be a fulfilling piece to play with a proper slow movement where you can really appreciate the soloist’s musicianship, and show-off the talents of the soloist.”
Laura van der Heijden plays Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall this evening with the SCO under Mark Wigglesworth. The concert is repeated at Glasgow City Halls on Friday and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto has its World Premiere at Glasgow City Halls on Thursday May 18. Soloist Laura van der Heijden plays the Walton Cello Concerto in Aberdeen Music Hall with Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC SSO the following day.