By Stephanie Powell
In his early teens, cellist Brinton Averil Smith read Gregor Piatigorsky’s autobiography Cellist. It’s a strategic read for a young, driven cellist, but unlike his peers, Averil Smith was transfixed by a specific chapter that would continue to haunt his thoughts throughout his career: Piatigorsky’s depiction of his 1935 premiere of composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.
Averil Smith realized he had never heard a recording of the piece. Nor would he—to this very day.
“I was looking for the music passively in the background for almost 20 years,” Averil Smith says. “When I was at Juilliard, I went to the archives and tried to find something about it from the original performance, and there was basically no record. There’s a program, but there’s no archival recording.”
It wasn’t until late 2015 that the music library at the Houston Symphony, where Averil Smith performs as principal cellist, helped track down a trial copy so the cellist could finally see the notes for the first time. He tackled the score for two weeks—no known metronome markings, no idea of how Castelnuovo-Tedesco had intended the piece to sound. After working with the trial copy, Averil Smith took his request to the management at the Houston Symphony: He wanted to revive the concerto, which hadn’t been performed live with a symphony in 80 years.
“There are just notes with the piano reduction,” he says of the trial copy. “I’ve played modern pieces, but here there is no precedent. It’s a different kind of style—now we’re talking about a piece in a very Romantic style in a different precedent with no metronome markings on the parts. For example, the second movement is just marked allegro gentile and it’s in kind of a 12/8 thing. There is probably a 30–40 point range of metronome markings that seem like they could work. And I kind of work backward. Eventually it settles in, you begin to understand the piece and you begin to understand the language and you put it all together. Now, I feel like I understand that this has to be the tempo, but it took almost a year of living with the piece off and on for it to gel and work together.”
The performance took place on April 13–15 at the symphony’s Jones Hall, with members of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco family in attendance. “I feel an enormous responsibility to the music,” Averil Smith says. “Sure, it’s not Brahms, but it would be a boring world if everything was Brahms—it’s a beautiful piece. It’s certainly as effective and deserving as a lot of cello concertos that we play.”
Averil Smith equates the reaction to the concerto to that of Rachmaninoff’s music in the 1930s or Korngold’s Violin Concerto—premiered in a time where it was considered “derivative” or “second-tier music.”
“They said by the 1950s Rachmaninoff would be a forgotten composer,” he says. “So, [the cello concerto] was kind of dismissed; it never really got a fair chance the first time.” Adding fuel to its disappearance, he says, Castelnuovo-Tedesco only wanted Piatigorsky to have the performing rights. While Piatigorsky was a champion of commissioning new pieces, he could have been stronger at advocating for the works, Averil Smith says.
But Averil Smith is confident that the revival will satisfy audiences and hopefully inspire other cellists to tackle the work. “This is a very effective piece for the audience because it’s very melodic; it’s flashy; it’s virtuosic, but it’s also got musical depth,” he says. “It has fantastic orchestration. When you hear it, you think that Castelnuovo-Tedesco sounds like Hollywood, but when you actually think about it you realize, ‘No, Hollywood sounds like Castelnuovo-Tedesco.’”
The composer immigrated to the United States in 1939, shortly before the start of World War II. He eventually landed in Hollywood, where, with the help of Heifetz, he landed a contract with MGM and went on to score more than 200 movies. His legacy lives on in the next generation of film composers—he taught John Williams, Andre Previn, and many others. While his career as a film composer may be what Castelnuovo-Tedesco is most known for, it was his Cello Concerto in G minor, Op. 72, that captured Averil Smith’s attention.
“Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote hard—it is quite a beast,” he says of the work. “It’s 28 minutes of certainly one of the most challenging cello concertos overall. He really wanted to show off Piatigorsky’s virtuosity so there are two big cadenzas.
“The third movement actually opens with a big cello cadenza, where you kind of just leave everything on the floor and then after three minutes, once you’ve finished jumping through every kind of hoop, the actual movement begins and you feel like you need a time out. But it is not just virtuoso writing; it makes sense musically. It’s well written.”
Averil Smith’s post-revival hopes for the work are simple: “This deserves a place—it deserves a place to be heard, and I hope that it might at least get more performances and that other people will be interested in looking at this music.”