Repertoire Search

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Cello Concerto (2016)
Commissioned by Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Barbican and Elbphilharmonie Hamburg
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
38 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen Cello Concerto (2016)
Some of the ideas for my Cello Concerto can be traced back by at least three decades, but the actual material for the piece was mostly developed in the summer of 2015 when I decided to spend a few months researching for new kinds of textures without a concrete plan how to use them. I decided to use some phrases from my 2010 solo cello work ...knock, breathe, shine… in the second and third movements as I always felt that the music of the solo piece was almost orchestral in its scope and character, and would function well within an orchestral environment.

I have never - not even during the quite dogmatic and rigid modernist days of my youth - felt that the very idea of writing a solo concerto would in itself be burdened with some kind of dusty bourgeois tradition. A concerto is simply an orchestral work where one or several instruments have a more prominent role than the others. A concerto does not suggest a formal design the same way a symphony does. I also happen to like the concept of a virtuoso operating at the very limits of what is physically (and sometimes mentally) possible. In Nietzsche’s words: "You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that.” (No programme note feels complete without a quotation from Thus Spake Zarathustra.)

I have learnt, however, that virtuosity doesn’t limit itself to the mechanics of playing an instrument. A true virtuoso can also capture the beauty and expression in the quietest moments, to fill near-stasis with life through a musician’s imagination and ability to communicate. In my other life as a performer I witness that almost every day: how musicians can create meaning from a single note. The composer-me is humbled by it, but also deeply grateful. After all, all those symbols on paper mean nothing until somebody gives them life.

It has been a very great pleasure and honour to write a concerto for one of the most unique life-givers and communicators of our time, Yo-Yo Ma. It has been inspiring to know that his technique knows no limits. Perhaps more importantly: nor does his imagination.

The first movement opens with what in my sketchbook had the title “Chaos to line”. Chaos here must be understood metaphorically, as a stylised version of the idea. I like the concept of a simple thought emerging out of a complex landscape. Almost like consciousness developing from clouds of dust.

This leads to the second semi-cosmological metaphor: a comet. I imagined the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/instruments/moving objects. A bit like a comet’s tail. In musical terms it could be described as a canon but not quite as the imitation is not always literal or precise. The gestus remains however almost identical every time. Sometimes the imitating cloud flies above the cello, sometimes in the very same register. It thins out to two lines and finally to one.

There are faster, more playful episodes alternating with the cloud, and finally the movement gains enough speed for the balance to tilt towards fast music. At the end a variation of the cloud returns.

The second movement is very simple in form, more complex in texture. It starts with a wedge-formed cloud [>] and ends with another [<], if one can imagine such a thing. The slow cello arches are looped to create harmony from single lines. Sometimes the loops are dispersed in space. The middle section is a playful duet between the solo cello and the alto flute.

Third movement starts with a slow, brooding cello solo under the residue of the second wedge-cloud. The expression quickly becomes more extroverted through a series of accelerandi. A rhythmic mantra starts to develop in the congas and bongos. It will appear often later in the course of the movement, mostly in the timpani. This music is often dance-like; sometimes gesticulating wildly, perhaps from the sheer joy of no longer having nothing to do with clouds and processes.

An acrobatic solo episode leads to a fast tutti section where I imagined the orchestra as some kind of gigantic lung, expanding and contracting first slowly, but accelerating to a point of mild hyperventilation which leads back to the dance-like material. Quixotic solo cello episodes lead to a joyful coda based on the “lung” music, but now with a solo cello line. Finally the kinetic energy burns itself out gently, the rapid movement slows down and the cello line climbs slowly up to a stratospherically high b-flat, two centimetres to the left from the highest note of the piano.

© Esa-Pekka Salonen

Hamburg, February 8, 2017

CSO: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma on putting it all together

Esa-Pekka Salonen explains that his Cello Concerto, co-commissioned by the CSO, was born "when I decided to spend a few months researching for new kinds of textures without a concrete plan how to use them." He wrote the work specifically for Yo-Yo Ma, whom he calls "one of the most unique life-givers and communicators of our time."

Esa-Pekka Salonen: The Conducting Composer

Speaking to euronews following the premiere season of his Cello Concerto, Salonen explains what it's like to be a composer day-to-day and why he like to write for friends. View the full article at

  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic
    Yo-Yo Ma, cello
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Classical:
  • 14 MAY 2020
    Tampere Hall / Iso sali / Finland
    tampere Filharmonia
    Torleif Thedéen, cello; Anja Bihlmaier, conductor
  • 17 MAY 2020
    Saarbrücken, Germany
    Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
    Nicolas Altstaedt, Violoncello ; Pietari Inkinen, conductor

★★★★ ... this three-movement concerto has an easy appeal. Salonen works magic with colour, and the score bursts with imaginative touches.
Rebecca Franks, The Times,26/02/2019
The opening movement had the cello gradually emerging from a nebulous orchestral haze to engage in quiet dialogues with various orchestral instruments, including an aviary of woodwinds. The music tended to meander, but the sounds were ravishing. The most directly appealing movement was the finale. Cascades of knotty double stops from the cello led to a hyperkinetic free-for-all that had Ma and CSO percussion principal Cynthia Yeh (playing bongo and conga drums) trading furious riffs, with accelerating waves of brass and percussion to send them hurtling to the double bar. A nanosecond burst of electronica and the packed house was up on its feet, clamorous in its approval.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,10/03/2017
This ingenious sensibility can be heard in every section of his own work, the new “Cello Concerto,” in which he and Yo-Yo Ma had the instrument making sounds you’ve never heard it make before. Language can’t fully capture the glorious range and complexity of this concerto, which is at once minimalist (many of the cello lines seemed not so much played as conjured by Yo-Yo Ma) and maximalist (with brilliant turns by every section of an orchestra that included piano, celesta and harp, with a smorgasbord of percussion, from timpani, bongos and congas to vibraphone, glockenspiel, maracas, cabasa, tuned gongs and more). The hum of vibration often seems to replace sound in this 30-minute work that is at once thrilling and immersive — as well as fiendishly difficult — and will leave you wishing to hear it many times over.
Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times,10/03/2017
In addition to being one of the CSO’s most popular and illuminating podium guests, Salonen is a consistently intriguing composer. His finest works (LA Variations, Insomnia, Nyx, and his Violin Concerto) display a quirky intelligence at work, Salonen wielding the color and sonic possibilities of vast symphonic forces with audacity as well as delicacy. The opening movement is engaging, brilliantly orchestrated, and skillfully twines soloist and orchestra.
Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review,10/03/2017
Close X

Newsletter Signup

Enter your email address to keep up to date with the latest news and special offers from Wise Music Classical.
Your data is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time. Read our Privacy Policy

Click here to receive regular news
© Copyright 2020 Wise Music Classical. Part of Wise Music Group.