Premiere of Sally Beamish's concerto 'The Song Gatherer'

New work for cello gets thrilling debut with Minnesota Orchestra.
By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press

How do you expose classical concertgoers to new music? Well, it helps to combine some familiar with the fresh. It's a system that works, if Thursday morning's almost-soldout Minnesota Orchestra concert at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall is any indication. But the audience may have been surprised to find the most exciting part of the program to be a new cello concerto by English composer Sally Beamish — given a thrilling debut by cellist Robert Cohen.

Anyone reading Beamish's program notes beforehand might wonder if this would be a concerto with legs. The composer created the work specifically for Cohen, tailoring some of its themes to his life experiences. But the end product — which received its world premiere Thursday — is a work of great emotional depth, one that sounds as if it would stand up well to the interpretive approaches of other outstanding cellists.
The concerto's troubled tone is reminiscent of Shostakovich, a thread of tension and anxiety weaving through the work. Asserting his instrument's voice above a menacing orchestration, Cohen was inspiring in his energy, most notably on a first-movement cadenza suffused with unease.

A touching gift, a major new work.
Composer Sally Beamish gives a great birthday present to her friend, Robert Cohen.

By Larry Fuchsberg. Special to the Star Tribune

November might well be proclaimed "new-music month" for the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmö Vänskä. Last week saw the premiere of Kalevi Aho's extroverted "Minea"; next week's "Future Classics" concert showcases emerging composers from across the country. And this week belongs to Sally Beamish, native Londoner and adoptive Scot, whose new Cello Concerto No. 2, "The Song Gatherer," was co-commissioned by the orchestra for superb cellist Robert Cohen. 

Turning 50 this year, Cohen (a friend of Beamish since childhood) wanted a piece that would speak to his journey, not least his Jewish family's flight from Poland to South Africa and ultimately to England. Beamish has given him more than he could have hoped: a major work, probing and allusive, woven from fragments of half-remembered song, tinged with the calls of migratory birds. Cohen, undeterred by the heights to which the composer takes his instrument, inhabits her music -- which, strongest when sparest, sometimes feels improvisatory -- and lets it inhabit him. I can't imagine a better birthday present.

reviewRobert Cohen