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Rohan de Saram on Berio and new musical horizons.

by Anne Ozorio

Since the age of 11, when he came to Italy to study with Gaspar Cassado, Rohan de Saram has moved in the most interesting musical circles. He studied with John Barbirolli and Pablo Casals. Dimitri Mitropoulos called him "a rare genius, a born musician". Heís worked with many of the interesting composers of our time, among them Poulenc, Kodaly, Shostakovich, Berio, Xenakis and Elliot Carter. Yet he remains a natural, unassuming person. Once he starts to talk about music, though, his face lights up with enthusiasm. His love for the violoncello literally shines through, animating his conversation.

His long awaited recording of Berioís Sequenza XIV is at last available. Itís marvellous and is a milestone in the repertoire. When Berioís Il Ritorno Degli Snovidenia, for cello and orchestra was given its UK première by Rohan, a tape of the performance was sent to the composer. In reply, Rohan received a very appreciative letter from Maestro Berio where, among other things, he wrote, "Your performance of Ritorno is splendid, but besides Ritorno, your sound, your perfect intonation, your phrasing and bowing technique, make you a great performer of any music." They met for the first time in Florence in the 1990s. De Saram played the transcription of Sequenza VI for viola, which he had made for personal study as he was particularly interested in contemporary writing for solo stringed instruments. Afterwards, Berio asked him to send it to his publishers, Universal Edition in Vienna. Later, it was included in the major Brussels performance of the complete Sequenze written up to that time, in the composers presence, for there was as yet no Sequenza specifically for cello. During these years Rohan also had the opportunity of giving further performances of Il Ritorno Degli Snovidenia, with Berio himself conducting, in various European cities including London, where it was played at the Barbican Centre.

Berio was fascinated by folk instruments from other cultures, so when developing the cello Sequenza, he asked about music from Sri Lanka, where de Saram grew up. "I have played the Kandyan drum from Sri Lanka since I was a boy. He asked me to send him some recordings of some of the Kandyan drum rhythms, which I did, along with my written notations which would clarify the intricacies of the rhythms", he says. "Some years later, Sequenza XIV was completed, two sections of this piece using some of the drum rhythms from the collection I had sent him. This was realised in a unique way where the cellistís right hand, playing without the bow, taps the rhythms on the body of the cello while the left hand synchronously plays percussively on the strings. In these two sections, intervals of a tritone are prominent in the left hand percussion on the strings. The main bulk of the Sequenza uses the cello in its unrivalled capacity as a lyrical singing instrument, with almost vocal flexibility and range of expression. These long melodic lines use a very wide range of constantly changing dynamics and timbre, interspersed with "Bartok pizzicato" and very ornamental passages. Towards the end of the piece, a two-note "glissando" figure, to be played ffff, "violente & aggressive", alternates with very distant notes sounding ppp. Although different in character from the violin and viola Sequenze with their more obviously "virtuosic" natures, the cello Sequenza is nevertheless very demanding on the imaginative perception and virtuosity of the performer in the widest sense."

Having played more new music for his instrument than perhaps any other cellist, together with a wide range of classical repertoire, hearing him make links and connections is fascinating. For example, he compares Sequenza XIV with Brittenís Third Suite for solo cello, which he has also recorded along with Suites no. 1 and 2. "In both cases the composers use folklore from the countries of the dedicatees, Russia in the case of Britten and Sri Lanka in the case of Berio. The former, which is dedicated to Rostropovich, uses melodic material as a basis for the whole Suite whereas the Sri Lankan drum rhythm material is used by Berio as a contrast to the melodic writing in the rest of his "Sequenza". It is also significant that both these works were written at the end of the composersí lives. In Brittenís case, his quotations from the "Kontakion", the chant for the dead from the Russian Orthodox service, make his thoughts explicit."

In addition to encouraging composers both eastern and western to write for solo cello and for duos and chamber works for cello with a variety of other instruments, Rohan is convinced of the great importance of improvisation. As composers like Berio found, non-notational music, improvisation and music from non-western cultures can fertilise new ideas. Since leaving the Arditti Quartet at the end of November 2005 in order to pursue his own artistic vision, Rohan has been working with a wide range of artists and composers from around the globe, including in his programmes both classical and contemporary repertoire as well as improvisations. Itís a courageous, imaginative direction for de Saram, a man with a truly artistic soul.

Rohan de Saramís website:

Review of Berio Sequenzas


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