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Stephen Brown: Compositions

Concerto for Two Cellos and String Orchestra

"The Big Twin"
“The Big Twin”

In January, 2012 the SCO performed Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor with the SCO’s cello section, Joyce Ellwood and Laura Backstrom, in the roll of soloists. I was quite taken with the vigorous and lyrical sound Joyce and Laura produced and wanted to hear more of it.

When we decided to do another two cello concerto for a concert in April, 2015 I discovered that there weren’t any. That year, wanting to hear Joyce and Laura play again, I arranged Handel’s Trio Sonata Two Violins and Harpsichord in G minor, Op. 2, No. 8, for Two Cellos and String Orchestra.

Hmm, I thought, if I am going to get to hear Joyce and Laura again I and going to have to write a two cello concerto, and besides, seeing as there is a shortage of the darn things perhaps it might get played elsewhere.

The Big Twin is in the same key as Vivaldi’s and is sort of a companion piece. One could play both on the same program. Vivaldi’s concerto is just under 10 minutes in length and mine is double that at 20 minutes. Both have three movements, fast-slow-fast, and there are other similarities. However, The Big Twin, is much more virtuosic requiring fast runs two octaves above the open strings and triple and quadruple stops.

Mvt. 1 opens with the brief orchestra introduction in a series of repeated staccato chords played Allegro mysterioso (medium fast with an aura of mystery). Then the two cellos take off, Allegro con brio (fast with life), in solo bits and bouncing over each other is a wild ride that has a Metallica Heavy Metal feel. Half way through the movement the introduction returns, and then once again the cellos take over in a sort of three stage tempo takeoff: medium - fast but not too fast - very fast.

Mvt. 2 is in one tempo, Adagio (slow and lyrical). Again the orchestra opens with an introduction, this time lyrical and sustained. The cellos then take turns soloing and playing together in canons at the intervals of a 2nd above and 2nd below, as the orchestra, Vivaldi like, lightly accompanies them in the high register. Towards the end there is a brief cadenza.

Mvt. 3 opens with a similar orchestral introduction as Mvt. 1 but this time the orchestra is joined by the cellos playing an aggressive melody. And then, once again, the cellos take off, ‘soloing’ over an orchestral accompaniment. However this time it is in a rollicking jig alternating between 6/8 and 9/8 time (two and three beats in a bar) The structure of the Mvt. 3 is similar to Mvt. 1 with the introduction returning at the half way mark. Also, there is an extensive cadenza near the end, quite slow with many multiple stops (more than one string played at a time - tricky).

The Big Twin is dedication to our two cellists, Joyce Ellwood and Laura Backstrom, who have been with the SCO for over 10 years.

Stephen Brown

Premiere Performance
Joyce Ellwood - cello
Laura Backstrom - cello
Sidney Classical Orchestra
composer - conductor
May 19, 2016
St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church
Sidney, British Columbia, Canada

Three movements
Duration 19:00

Swan House Victoria SJB 1371A
Score and parts: $60.00

Two Cellos and Piano (orchestral reduction) SJB 1371B
Score and parts: $25.00

Review. Deryk Barker, Music in Victoria
The first half of the concert close with the evening's premiere: Stephen Brown's own concerto for two cellos, "The Big Twin" — neither in his programme note nor in person did he explain this — written for and after hearing the orchestra's own cellists, Joyce Ellwood and Laura Backstrom, playing the concerto for two cellos by — who else? — Vivaldi.

This music alone would have been more than worth the trek up the Pat Bay Highway.
The concerto is cast in three movements, quick slow and quick, which sounds conventional enough, although the tempo marking for the outer movements, Allegro mysterioso, did give me some pause for thought: was this a deliberate misspelling of "misterioso" or simply a typo?

But the music itself was far too engaging and involving to be distracted by mere questions of spelling. The opening built the tension nicely until the initial, almost aggressive solo entries. The music proceeded with a driving momentum, until a slower, more lyrical episode intervened, in which the duetting cellos' gorgeous harmonies summoned forth memories of the wonderful second subject of Schubert's great string quintet, before resuming what Brown himself described as a "wild ride”.

The adagio featured an ethereal introduction, the soloists playing over deep pizzicatos in what sounded like a nod to Vivaldi. This movement was really lovely and the duo cadenza really rather moving, which is not something one necessarily expects from a cadenza.

The finale opens in similar style to the first movement and segues into a lively gig in a style somewhat reminiscent of Percy Grainger. The music here was especially catchy and mine was far from the only foot tapping in time. The cadenza, with its overtone of a sarabande from a Bach suite, was delectable, although perhaps just a little too long in this context, the bounce back the speedy coda was excellent and the final chords brought storms of well-deserved applause.

Ellwood and Backstrom played superbly throughout, as did their accompanists, even though some of the music was clearly far from easy.

This was a most enjoyable work, which I would certainly be pleased to hear again. I have never understood why Stephen Brown is not a better-known composer; I can think of several with international reputations who are far less interesting, have far less to say and far lesser means of saying it. He really is something of a local treasure.