Cello concerto remembers Nelson Cooke

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Husband-and-wife composing team, Kirsten and Kenneth Lampl.

THE next concert in the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Llewellyn series looks like being a “Who’s Who” of musical talent, but there’s an intriguing local twist, too.

Conducted by Canberra-born Paul Kildea, now a world expert on Benjamin Britten, it will feature brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan performing a Roderigo concerto on guitar, while veteran cellist David Pereira will join 15-year-old prodigy Benett Tsai to play the world premiere of a concerto written by ANU husband-and-wife composing team, Kenneth and Kirsten Lampl.

It’s that concerto, “To the Memory of Nelson Cooke: an Elegy for Cello and Orchestra”, which has piqued our interest. Many Canberrans will remember the brilliant cellist Cooke, a founding staff member of the Canberra School of Music and a teacher to generations of young instrumental hopefuls.

Born in Bellbird, NSW in 1919, Cooke saw active service in PNG and the Solomon Islands, then moved to London in 1949 to study with the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. He went on in the ’50s and ’60s to become the principal cellist of the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras, the first Australian cellist to do so.

The late Nelson Cooke…headhunted by Ernest Llewellyn to become head of strings at the Canberra School of Music. Photo: Heide Smith

After teaching in the US, Cooke was headhunted by Ernest Llewellyn to become head of strings at the Canberra School of Music, later founding the Riverina Summer School for Strings.

The Lampls first heard of him about two years ago after arriving at the ANU School of Music from the US and deciding to study the history of the school and the university.

“It was really inspiring learning about Australian artists and scientists at the ANU,” Kirsten says, while Kenneth tells how one of the remarkable personalities they “discovered” was the poet Judith Wright.

Having moved to Braidwood last year, they were chuffed to find that she was a local.

They got talking to cellist David Pereira, who had met Cooke in 1975 just before he went to the US to do advanced studies and to cellist John Painter who, like Lampl, was a former head of the School of Music.

From then the Lampls heard of the strong relationships established between Cooke and the many students he had influenced. They met Nicholas Milton, artistic director of the CSO, who asked them to send him some of their music.

“We thought it was an opportunity to do something, especially since 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of Cooke’s birth,” Kenneth says.

Both composers emphasise that the cellists will be equal partners. Pereira, the 2010 “CityNews” Artist of the Year, is a familiar name to Canberra music-lovers, but Tsai, whom he has mentored, is known in Sydney as an up-and-coming star who, coincidentally, made his concert debut under the baton of Milton.

While technically a concerto, it’s just nine minutes long, so they have named it an “elegy” but they also describe it as “a one-movement concerto with full orchestra”.

The main melody, Kirsten says, came to them when they were composing an end-piece to the soundtrack for the locally-made film “The Furies”, soon to be released in cinemas. But as Kenneth explains, when composing for film one is restricted by having to match the melody to the character or a specific action.

“We thought it would be a great theme for a concerto,” he says. “It’s a kind of lamenting melody, suggesting loss and love.”

Unlike a lot of post-World War II compositions, they believe this new work is tonal and melodic.

“You can hear the spirit of romantic music but it’s modern,” Kirsten says, while Kenneth adds that, like a popular song, it has verses and choruses.

He believes that traditional romantic music didn’t die, it just moved to Hollywood, noting that great film composers such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, who moved to the US, had been students of Gustav Mahler.

As a film composer once mentored by John Williams, he says: “We are classical composers of romantic music for the modern era.”

Canberra Symphony Orchestra, “Llewellyn Two”, Llewellyn Hall, June 19-20. Free pre-concert talk, 6.45pm. Book at cso.org.au


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