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Freidrich Gulda, Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the opening concert of the 2022 Blossom Music Festival,"Fanfare for the Common Man."

Black and white photo of Austrian composer and jazz great Friedrich Gulda

Like the Roman god Janus — who governed beginnings and endings, doorways and duality — Friedrich Gulda had two faces to show the world. The first was that of a virtuosic concert pianist in the great Austro-German tradition of Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin. The second, an iconoclastic artist who tested the limits of every musical boundary around him.

As a pianist, he taught Martha Argerich, collaborated with Chick Corea, and introduced Mozart sonatas to techno clubs before handing the crowded dance floor over to his friend DJ Vertigo. And as a composer, he wrote variations on themes as motley as Johann Strauss waltzes, jazz standards, and The Doors' "Light My Fire." Employing both faces throughout his career, Gulda was a singular force of nature — a musical high priest equally devoted to the sonic possibilities of jazz and the sacred temple of European art music.

Born in Vienna in 1930, Gulda trained in the traditional path of a classical musician. He received his first piano lessons at age seven and entered the Vienna Music Academy at 12. After winning first prize in the Geneva International Pianists' Competition at 16, Gulda was thrust onto the global stage, giving some 140 recitals in three years, including his Carnegie Hall debut in 1950.

While in New York City for his Carnegie performance, Gulda trekked five blocks south along Broadway to a new underground venue that had become the talk of the town: Birdland Jazz Club. The performances he witnessed from Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington on the smoky Birdland stage would forever change the trajectory of his career.

Exhausted by his demanding concert schedule, Gulda hated the idea of a career dictated by classical music's rules and regulations. In his words, he didn't want to "fall into the routine of the modern concert pianist's life" or "ride the cheap triumphs of the Baroque bandwagon." So he submerged himself in the world of jazz and improv, making his debuts at Birdland and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, and launching his Eurojazz Orchestra and an improv academy in the '60s. In jazz, Gulda had found, "the only music of our day, the only modern, progressive music ... [an] absolute contrast to the pale, academic approach I had been taught."

Challenging those pale, academic norms would become Gulda's hallmark. His recital programs mixed foot-tapping Mozart with jazz and free improv. He abandoned the traditional concert dress of white tie and tails, instead choosing a signature uniform of casual black and a woven skullcap. (That's if he wore anything at all — for a 1980 performance at the Brucknerhaus in Linz, Gulda danced around the stage playing a wooden flute in the buff.) And in a move right out of Ziggy Stardust's playbook, Gulda released false news of his death in 1999. Days later, after confirming he was very much alive, he used the coverage to promote an upcoming concert as his "resurrection party."

All showmanship aside, Gulda's popularity in both the jazz and classical worlds was a testament to his skills as pianist and composer. The same approach he brought to Bach — described by one critic as "architecturally clear ... and often quite astonishing in its uncomplicated directness" — manifests in his compositions too, perhaps nowhere so colorfully as in the Cello Concerto.

Composed for Heinrich Schiff in 1980, the five movements of Gulda's concerto transport the listener through blues-rock, Austrian ländler, free improv, a courtly minuet, and a finale of bawdy, lederhosen-clad polka. Even the work's instrumentation could only have been devised by Gulda. Banishing the orchestra's string section, he instead merges the woodwinds and horns of 18th-century Viennese serenades, the bright punch of a big band brass section, and the electric guitar, bass, and drum set of a jazz combo.

The result is a work full of sonic trap doors and fun-house mirrors, with music both virtuosic and uncomplicated. It's a dizzying journey that leaves us happy to have been along for the ride.

The soloist launches the Ouverture with a propulsive, syncopated melody — a brisk prelude to the high-octane blues-rock groove set up by the jazz trio. But just as Gulda begins developing that one motive, we encounter our first trap door: a moment of silence, followed by a simple cadence in the winds and a swaying folk dance that evokes the sunlit summer landscape of Austria's Salzkammergut region. As is often the case with Gulda, this moment of pastoral peace doesn't last long. Dissonant snarls from muted brass plunge us back into the fever dream of the opening rock groove.

A gentle brass chorale sets the scene for Alpine Idylle, the golden warmth of French horns sharing with the soloist a soaring melody of unaffected simplicity. Oboes and clarinets playfully introduce a rollicking waltz theme, which the cello answers with a wistful, minor-key countermelody in its most expressive range. Woodwind scales, bubbling up like flutes of Sekt, Austria's beloved sparkling wine, lead us back to the opening chorale, where the burnished timbre of clarinets and bassoon add to the richness of the cello's song of longing.

The dramatic heart of this otherwise explosively upbeat concerto, the seven-minute Cadenza sees the soloist run a gamut of emotion — from quiet resignation and melancholic sighs to Shostakovichian levels of pathos. Here Gulda calls for two extended sections of free improv — one in which the soloist moves through different musical intervals in sinewy, serpentine fashion, the other a hushed display of the cello's ethereal harmonics.

From the moody cadenza emerges the Menuett, a florid neo-Renaissance dance led by woodwinds and the quiet rustling of a tambourine. After the soloist takes up the opening theme, the flute introduces a languid second melody that glistens against gentle, silvery taps of the triangle. Following traditional dance form, the Menuett's opening tune returns, but instead of a full repeat of the material, Gulda sets another trap door for us, and the music suddenly vanishes into thin air …

What's on the other side of that silence? The jaunty oompahs of a beer-garden polka band, of course! Following the first blast of the Finale alla marcia's brassy bacchanal, the cello begins a wild dance of its own — an unceasing rush of sixteenth notes that fly up and down its four strings. A lyrical second melody momentarily calms the mood, but as we've already seen, Gulda can't restrain himself for long. The polka music doesn't relent. In fact, it becomes more strident, more insistent with each return, adding rowdy wails from the clarinets and piercing trills in the piccolo — that is, until another moment of quizzical silence from which a completely new mood emerges.

Against a trembling growl in the bass, the soloist and drummer playfully egg each other on. Fragments of the cello's rushing sixteenth-note melody are answered by insistent slaps of the high hat. The drummer adds snare, cymbal, and bass drum one by one, adding to the mystery. Dissonant chords from muted brass harken back to the Ouverture's blues-rock, ratcheting up the tension, making us believe the concerto will end in the same jazzy world in which it began.

But no — Gulda sends us through another of his trap doors, and we're back in the beer garden. The brass polka reigns supreme, propelling the cello into its final sprint and ending with a blast of wild, unadulterated joy.

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