by Andrew Mellor
Only in Finland has the cello – that instrument we think of as mellow and elegiac – found itself a firm foothold in the world of rock music. Olli Virtaperko’s new concerto for amplified cello Romer’s Gap was written in 2015/16 for Perttu Kivilaakso, one of three cello-playing frontmen in the metal band Apocalyptica. But Kivilaakso isn’t the only cellist to have been a member of a rock band in Finland. Virtaperko is known as a Baroque cellist and violist as well as a composer, but for six years from 1995 he was a vocalist in the Finnish group Ultra Bra. Throughout his composing career, Virtaperko has explored and tested the common ground occupied by early music performance practice and contemporary popular music.
Romer’s Gap is a concerto, not a rock anthem. But it takes its inspiration from Kivilaakso’s work with Apocolyptica and his playing style in general, which has been shaped as much by his time in the band as it has by his love for classical music, particularly opera. Combining two musical languages is fraught with difficulty, as Virtaperko experienced in the ‘intense laboratory work’ that surrounded his Knifonium Concerto Ambrosian Delights. Romer’s Gap might not aim for the balanced synthesis of that piece, focusing instead on aesthetic versatility, craftsmanship, virtuosity and the communicative potential of all those things combined. But it does hinge, in a sense, on the two very different worlds occupied by Kivilaakso and his cello. The solo part in Romer’s Gap can has the lyrical power and sweep of a Formula One car but also the delicacy and fragility of a butterfly. Even after Magnus Lindberg’s two cello concertos, the instrument’s expressive range is blasted wide open in Romer’s Gap.
‘Perttu’s candid approach to the cello as an instrument had a deep effect on the way the cello part of the concerto was constructed’ says Virtaperko. But the composer also acknowledges that his own personal background as a cellist was ‘crucial’ in the composition process, during which he ‘used the cello as a primary working tool.’ The piece is scored for amplified solo cello and small orchestra, and is cast in three movements. The title comes from evolutionary biology, where ‘Romer’s gap’ refers to a period for which no relevant fossilized materials have been recovered – a biological lost age.
For all Kivilaakso’s power, it’s fragility that is revealed in the concerto’s first movement, when from the spiraling vortex of classic Virtaperko harmonies the cello appears to ‘birth’, unsure of the world it is emerging into. It finds its rhythm in a passage marked ‘intensively and vigorously’, but appears to collapse into an abyss. In a cadenza the cellist is instructed to ‘improvise a texture that is devoid of all melodic elements and focuses on the concepts of friction, noise and pressure.’ But that heavy darkness is destroyed by light, heavenly celesta and xylophone.
In the second movement we hear more Virtaperko hallmarks: the playful tread of a vibraphone and those funked-up, psychedelic harmonies that appear to suck the music up momentarily like tiny tornadoes. Here the cello’s sliding glissandi together with the pitch-shifting and prescribed improvisation of the orchestra conjure a fleeting view of a barren wasteland, perhaps the lost age of Romer’s gap itself. The third moment begins with a display of classic rock virtuosity marked ‘shamlessly, with attitude’. The music is wild and ominous until the solo cello discovers a lyrical oasis, and from that same material gathers the strength it needs to confront the orchestra at last. Each chases the other down, until the concerto ends with a sudden descent somehow disguised as an ascent.
Concerto for amplified cello and orchestra (2016)
11 August 2016 by Turku Philharmonic Orchestra at the opening concert of Turku Music Festival.
7 September 2016 by Jyväskylä Sinfonia at the opening concert of the season 2016-2017.
Perttu Kivilaakso, amplified cello; Ville Matvejeff, conductor.