March 16, 2018

Stéphane Tétreault does battle with the Barber cello concerto

Peter Robb, Arts File

Samuel Barber‘s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 22 is a technically difficult piece of music. It is rarely performed because of this but that isn’t stopping Canada’s cello whizkid Stéphane Tétreault. Indeed it’s just the kind of challenge the 24 year old relishes.

He has played it once with Tania Miller on the stick and will give it a second go on March 19 with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alain Trudel. It will certainly put Tétreault’s 1707 Countess of Stainlein, Ex-Paganini Stradivarius  cello to the test.

He’s worked with Trudel before when the maestro was leading the Laval Symphony.

“We get along very well. He asked me to come to Ottawa and we decided to do the Barber concerto. It’s less often played, recorded and heard. Still, it’s a masterful work. It’s also one of the most difficult concerti.”

There are two components that present a challenge, Tétreault says.

“First, the emotional depth of the piece is impressive. It written during the Second World War. Some say that is why the beginning of third movement is so intense and tragic and moving. Apparently Barber wrote those few bars when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, while he was serving in the U.S. military.

“The second slow movement is one of most beautiful I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It’s extremely touching. Barber certainly knew how to write slow movements.

While the emotion of the piece is powerful, the technical side of the work is challenging.

“I have never seen that many double stops in a concerto in my life. Just to tackle those is quite a challenge.

“It’s relatively new to my repertoire. I have only been playing for a few months. I played it first last month with Orchestre Metropolitain.”

It is the kind of piece where wrong notes happen but Tétreault still wants to nail it.

“With a technically challenging piece such as this I practice like a mad man and do my best. It’s really important to be methodical when practicing.

“When you are on the stage you have to keep control of technical attributes of the piece as much as you can because first and foremost the duty of the performer is to try to relate the emotional meaning of the piece.”

And in this work you can hear the war as Barber heard it.

“In the Shostakovich 11th symphony, you really hear the machine guns. I wouldn’t say there is that sort of translation of war in Barber’s music. I do, however, feel tragedy and despair and pain and sadness and fear. These emotions you feel first and foremost in the concerto.”

It is, thus, a draining piece to play, he says.

“It is well-constructed for the soloist; you do have a couple of measures off here and there. You do have time to get through the work, as compared to Shostakovich’s 1st concerto which is never ending. But the emotional depth of Barber is challenging.” And making for an interesting contrast between a wartime piece written by a Soviet composer as compared to an American.

“To complicate things further, the concerto was written originally for a Soviet cellist (Raya Garbousova) who was performing in the U.S. a lot” with the Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.who actually commissioned the piece.

The concerto was written for Garbousova and features her technical skill at double stops and high notes. Intriguingly, Koussevitzky intervened with the American military on Barber’s behalf to have him released from his service in the years after the war, Tétreault says.

The young cellist has been tabbed for greatness since his early years as a student of the late Yuli Turovsky.

Lately he has been busy travelling the world with the Orchestre Metropolitain as led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He’s done a Canadian tour with the OM and has just finished the orchestra’s first tour of Europe where he got to play in some pretty famous halls including Amsterdam’s legendary Concertgebouw.

He calls Nézet-Séguin a mentor. And he calls the rising Canadian keyboard star Jan Lisiecki a colleague and friend. The two have been performing together after a few years of talking about it.

Another collaborator is the Ottawa native and violin prodigy Kerson Leong. Tétreault has been performing the Brahms Double Concerto with him.

“Since age 12 it has always been my dream to have a career in music and to be a cellist and to be able to travel everywhere in the world and share my passion for music with as many people as possible.”

Where he finds himself today is “between a surprise and hard work. I’m always very grateful for every opportunity” such as hooking up with Lisiecki?

“We had been chatting online and on Facebook and watching each other’s progress on YouTube. We always said it would be great to play together but an opportunity didn’t come along until last summer. He was invited to Stratford Summer Music Festival and he asked me to do a recital with him there. I hope that will be the first concert of many with him.”

As for Leong: “We have known each other for ever. the first time we played in the same concert was in 2007. I was 14 and he was 10.”

Now Tétreault wants to keep “sharing music with as many people as possible but also to perform with different musicians. Chamber music has always been a huge passion for me. Now I want to work with other musicians and to live similar emotions on stage and interact with as many as possible.

“To work with artists like Jan and Kerson, or with Alain is really inspiring.

He still, though, takes to heart what he learned with Turovsky.

“I hear him every time I pick up my bow. There are a lot of lessons that stay with me but the one that has impacted me the most was when he stopped me during a lesson and said ‘Stéphane you have to play each note as if it were your last’.

Over the years that has guided his my life, his style and his approach to music.

“That’s very important. He always had a sense of urgency in his playing and his conducting and in his teaching. That was a precious lesson.”

After Ottawa, he’s back on the road in Quebec and then in April a highlight: his first performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Brighton, England.

Yes, it’s good to be Stéphane Tétreault.

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