Cellist Gautier Capuçon embraces the rich poetry of ‘Diary of a Madman’

French cellist Gautier Capuçon first met the Soviet-born American composer Lera Auerbach at the Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps in 2010. “I had been aware of her music before, but that was the first time in person,” he recalled recently from Europe, before his upcoming concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “My first concert with Lera was entirely of her own music. It was my first immersion into her world.” ’

At Verbier, one of works he played was Auerbach’s Requiem for a Poet, which features cello, mezzo-soprano, choir and orchestra. “I was totally amazed,” Capuçon said. “The cello is a singing instrument, but it also has this thing that Lera has in her music, this rare intensity, this deepness.”

Thus began Capuçon’s persistent campaign for something that Auerbach would write specifically for him, which became a co-commission by Verbier and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “It took a little bit of time to get our schedules together, and I was so happy with it when we did the world premiere of the concerto — Diary of a Madman — in Munich,” Capuçon said. Auerbach’s title refers to a surrealistic short story by Nikolai Gogol about a browbeaten Russian civil servant, named Aksenty Poprishchin, whose diary entries become increasingly unhinged.

“Gogol’s prophecy is full of doubt and craziness and drama,” Capuçon said. “It’s incredibly rich, and Auerbach puts all of this story into the music, into this madman. It is so expressive, so poetic, so pictorial, so crazy. When I received the score, I started to work on it immediately.” For the work’s U.S. premiere Nov. 17 and 19-20 at Symphony Center, Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck will conduct. (The program also will be presented Nov. 18 at Wheaton College.)

“The cello is a singing instrument, but it also has this thing that Lera [Auerbach] has in her music, this rare intensity, this deepness.” — Gautier Capuçon

A rare multi-talent, Auerbach is not only a composer, pianist and conductor in her own right, but also an accomplished visual artist and poet. She has written of her childhood as a Soviet-born Jewish child who defected to the United States as a teen, was then admitted to Juilliard and later to Columbia University. She made her Carnegie Hall debut as a composer-performer while still in her 20s.

Capuçon hears qualities in Auerbach’s music that many people also associate with Soviet-era composers: “There is this rare intensity in what she wants to express, this great sadness, but also with a kind of humoristic and sarcastic manner that reminds me of Schnittke and Shostakovich,” he said. “Lera is such a kind person, very affectionate and caring, always with sparkling eyes, even though sometimes in her music, there is this incredible depth, which, along with this light, is quite amazing.”

Capuçon is also a great fan of Auerbach’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for Cello and Piano. “You can put them as a mirror, in a way, with Bach and Shostakovich,” he said of similar magnificent, comprehensive efforts for his instrument.

In a video communication before the Munich premiere, Auerbach confirmed the meandering, off-kilter and suspenseful pitch of this work as having much in common with the state of the world today. She found herself asking, given the sense of the world gone mad in the last three years, “What is a concerto in our time?” She considers this piece her invitation to each listener “to connect in a very personal way.”

When Capuçon first received Auerbach’s score, he was expecting to work through it with Auerbach in person, but COVID-19 nixed those plans. “We had to do it with technology, but it is an amazing work, which is always the case with Lera,” Capuçon said. “She is so clear with what she expresses. She knows exactly what she wants. And she insists until she finally hears what she has in mind.

“The premiere in Munich was quite amazing, a great success, and I was also totally amazed by all the [positive] comments of the cellists in the orchestra. So I can’t wait for this second time performing, with all those different characters.” By “characters,” Capuçon was referring to the many subjects of Poprishchin’s delusional tales. 

“The form of the piece is something which doesn’t otherwise exist,” he said. "There is nothing close to it, and therefore it enriches the repertoire so much. I can’t wait to do it again in Chicago, because the premiere is always the premiere, and then you live with it, you live through it, you experiment. The piece matures in a way.”

Some more details about Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman: Poprishchin, a low-level government clerk, is a mender of pens, slowly going mad. He is browbeaten by his boss and obsessed with the boss’s daughter, not to mention the daughter’s dog, along with other crazy, fabricated characters. It’s a bizarre mix of diary entries that show increasing delusions of grandeur and societal disconnect. Ultimately, and utterly untethered to reality, on “the 43rd of April of the year 2000,” as Gogol writes in the short story, published in 1885. Poprishchin believes he is king, and soon thereafter is judged insane.

In her notes about Diary of a Madman, Auerbach observes that Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia on the seventh of May in the year 2000, and that after the premiere of her opera Gogol, in Vienna in 2010, she was condemned as an enemy of the people in an open letter from Russia. Her website was hacked with a symbol of a skull, and with the slogan “Death to the Jews,” although she said she was not thinking of Putin at all when she wrote the concerto. “Perhaps Gogol, the visionary and one of the great writers who ever lived, could see beyond the 19th and 20th century into the heart of the 21st, where we are doomed to continue the eternal tale,” she said.

Counting the Auerbach opus, Capuçon has added three major concertos to his repertoire in fairly short order. Another is the Cello Concerto by the American composer, singer and songwriter Danny Elfman, which receives its U.S premiere with the San Francisco Symphony just before Capuçon comes to Chicago. “I always knew his music since I was a little kid,” said Capuçon, who was hesitant at first about asking Elfman for a concerto, “because there is always a danger with a film-score composer who writes classical music. Very often they think they have to write in a different way. And what I really asked Danny was to let me really hear his DNA, and totally his own music, which I love. I am so, so happy to get this concerto, and I can’t wait for the U.S. premiere.” 

The third new work is a concerto by Thierry Escaich, a fellow Frenchman, who has written for organ, film, ballet and orchestra. “We have known each other for 20 years, and we have been working on this project for about 10,” Capuçon said. “We will have the premieres between Leipzig, Salzburg, Boston and Carnegie Hall, this last one in April 2023, so I am really also looking forward to that.”  

Finally, just out on the Warner Classics label comes Capuçon’s “Sensations,” a collection of classic, pop and film hits, all arranged for cello and orchestra, including tunes such as “Over the Rainbow,” the “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the spiritual “Amazing Grace,” “Mambo” from West Side Story, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” from Turandot and lots of other short pieces.