Mark Votapek appears cool and unflappable just a half hour before taking the stage to perform Arnold Schoenberg's expansive Pelleas und Melisande for a Friday morning Coffee Concert. "It's so loud onstage, it's hard to hear yourself warm up when you're a cellist," says the SLSO Associate Principal Cello. So he takes some pre-concert time to talk about Concertpiece, a work for cello and orchestra by the Hungarian composer Ernst (Ernö) von Dohnányi, which Votapek performs with the Symphony in March.
"You don't expect me to know anything about the piece, do you?" the cellist jokes before revealing considerable understanding of a work that is unfamiliar to most. "Not too many people know about it," he admits. "I had provided a small list of concerti I'd like to do with the Symphony and was very surprised that (Guest Conductor) Eri Klas knew it."
Votapek suspects the lack of recognition for Dohnányi comes from the composer's inclination toward romanticism in a modernist age. The 20th-century composer and musician failed to follow the modernist dictum to "make it new."
"Dohnányi was most influenced by Brahms and Liszt," Votapek explains. "He incorporated the romantic sensibility out of a Hungarian idiom. His music didn't sound incredibly new at the time. He was not that far ahead of Bartók. Old-fashioned music was not as celebrated."
Yet the SLSO cellist has found a quality more lasting, if not always fashionable, in Concertpiece. "It's just really pretty," he says, matter-of-factly. "There's not that many great cello concertos out there. You'd think something this beautiful would be played all the time."
There are reasons why one piece of music is programmed season after season while another goes neglected. For example, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, which the SLSO performed with ecstatic precision under the baton of Carlos Kalmar in February, gives the audience and musicians a dramatic ride that ends with a stunning silence. Concertpiece, however, "doesn't end big," says Votapek. The conclusion to the work "is not a breathtaking moment." He pauses to find a word to describe the work's finale accurately: "It's more a happy sigh."
A Michigan native, Votapek comes from a family of musicians, and he has borrowed from his mother's practice regimen for Concertpiece. "My mom is a pianist," Votapek says, "and she had this habit of putting on a record and playing along with it. And I thought that was so silly, but with this piece, I did it."
Votapek says his preparation for a new work begins "with the big picture, studying the score, then breaking it down slowly. I did a couple of sessions with (former teacher) Janos Starker back at Indiana University. We went through it measure by measure."
If Concertpiece poses any particular challenges for a cellist, Votapek says, "I'll find out what the biggest ones are when I play it."
Then he adds, "When you're playing a cello concerto, you're up against so much sound. The tendency, as with the Dvorák concerto, is to play very aggressively. This piece doesn't take that kind of playing. It is too warm to have any hard edges. You have to resist pushing too hard, because you want the piece to feel as if you are playing within a small room with a few friends." Votapek hopes that the only challenge for the audience with the Dohnányi concerto is "to sit back and enjoy something beautiful."
The beauty of the work belies the difficult life of the composer, who lost two sons in World War II. One was executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After the war, Dohnányi made his way to Argentina, and then to Florida to become a teacher and highly regarded concert pianist. His grandson, Christoph von Dohnányi, is the renowned Music Director Laureate of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
"He went through a lot of political strife," Votapek says of the composer, "but was known as a charming, flirty kind of guy. He was in the middle of the romantic sensibility. There is some tension in the piece, but also ease. You walk away not feeling the tension so much as the resolution."
When asked to define that problematic word "interpretation," Votapek at first demurs. "People write dissertations about that," he says. But then he gives it a try. "It means 'What's the point? Why did the composer write the piece? What was he trying to convey?'"
And has the musician uncovered the answers to those questions? "It's about charm and beauty and love. And I don't think there's anything more vexing about it than that."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.