Cellist Maya Beiser Premieres New Cello Concerto with DSO

By Stephanie Powell

Maya Beiser and composer Mohammed Fairouz had a story to tell. The Israeli-born cellist and Arab-American composer met in New York through mutual friends, and were immediately taken with one another’s music, Beiser says. The duo first teamed up in 2013 with Beiser performing the premiere of Fairouz’ “Kol Nidrei” for solo cello.

Three years later, with the help of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Peter Cummings, chairman emeritus of the DSO, the pair are at it again. Beiser premiered Fairouz’ latest cello concert, Desert Sorrows, on January 16. “It was wonderful on all fronts,” Beiser says of the premiere, “playing with the orchestra—and Maestro [Leonard] Slatkin is such a wonderful conductor and spirit.”

It was Beiser’s debut with the DSO, an orchestra she felt was perfect for the premiere. “Detroit has the largest Arabic community in the US, and it also has a huge Jewish community,” Beiser says. “We wanted to tell that story because the story of an Israeli-born cellist and an Arab-American composer is an important one. It’s important to me and Mohammed, and we wanted to do that in an environment where we could engage the community and get them to start talking.”


During the three performances in Detroit, the first of which Beiser notes was extremely special due to the venue, which was a synagogue, the pair “did a lot of outreach in the Jewish and Arabic communities.”

“[We] share a vision: We believe in the power of music to heal and unite,” Beiser says of the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict. “We believe that what connects us as humans is far greater than what tears us apart.”

Beiser also admires the DSO’s commitment to premiering new works—something she has made a cornerstone of her career. The orchestra slated six world premieres for its 2015–16 season alone. “It’s such a great orchestra and has an amazing track record with commissioning new works,” she says. “They are really trying to connect with the current environment and culture.”


Desert Sorrows, a three-movement piece, has a handful of terrific moments for the cello, Beiser adds. “It’s pretty idiomatic and traditional writing for the cello. It allows the cello to show its beautiful colors. The concerto actually starts rather low on the cello and slowly, as it goes through the second movement, is just this soaring, beautiful lament that sings and uses the full capability of the instrument.”

The piece incorporates both Arabic and Western harmonic structures. “I heard [Fairouz’] music and was so taken, in particular, by his sense of melodic abilities. He has such a way with it, and he writes beautifully for the voice. Composers who know how to write for singers, who know how to write a beautiful melody for the voice, are great to write for the cello, too, because we share a lot of similarities.”

It ends on a high, like a “crazy dance,” she says. “It really goes into the higher octaves on the instrument. [The concerto] kind of has it all—it’s great in that way.”