Why did we ever consider Karel Husa a harmless academic? Thursday night, hearing the world premiere of his Cello Concerto by Lynn Harrell and the USC Symphony, one found such an assessment completely absurd--or, at the very least, plain insulting.
In the new work, the Czech-born composer, an American citizen for 30 years, achieves the angry and noble rhetoric of his popular “Music for Prague 1968,” but goes beyond it. The Cello Concerto turns out to be thick of texture--a web of subtext gives it extra weight--almost painfully abrasive, and belligerently atonal.
At the premiere performance, in the welcoming acoustic of Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, soloist Harrell, conductor Daniel Lewis and the young orchestra gave an impassioned, taut, apparently fair reading of the new piece.
This first performance was a collaboration between, according to the large and informative program book, Ambassador Foundation, the USC School of Music and the Frank Kerze Jr. Fund--the latter created by Therese Kerze Cheyovich and Florence Kerze in memory of their brother.
In 23 intense minutes, the concerto progresses from unrestrained hostility to unresolved alienation, brilliantly articulated in orchestral writing of biting neo-expressionism. Nuances of feeling may color the four separate movements, but the embittered effect of each one achieves little contrast with the others.
At one point in the third movement, a wall of instrumental sound interrupts a rare moment of quiet in the solo part; that moment describes the temper of the piece.
Harrell, confronted with what seems an unrelieved series of technical hurdles, surmounted all of them, clarified the thicket of angular solo lines and invested the whole with an apprehendability of thought one usually cannot expect in music this recent. Lewis and the orchestra occupied a similar plateau of accomplishment.
Preceding the premiere, Lewis led the young musicians in a rich and faceted run-through of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Following intermission, they brought virtuosic skills, if not maximum transparency, to the many demands of Rachmaninoff’s rewarding Symphonic Dances.