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Warm thoughts on Florida, flying with cellos, Elgar concerto

Maximilian Hornung, the 37-year-old German cellist, makes his living going from one city to another with his instrument, enjoying invitations from many of the world’s top orchestras and chamber groups.

A native of Augsburg who became principal cellist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at age 23, Hornung now devotes himself to a career as a concert soloist, to acclaim most everywhere he appears. His schedule is intense, but at each destination he walks on stage and shares an intimacy and passion that belie the rigors of travel.

Florida Orchestra listeners may remember his performance of the Dvořák concerto in 2018, and those hearing him for the first time this weekend at Mahaffey Theater and Ruth Eckerd Hall are in for a night of fervent making music.

We asked Hornung about traveling, performing, and the featured work for this latest Masterworks program, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

Q: Welcome to the Tampa Bay area in February, where the weather is sure to be nice. You perform in many cold cities. Does this affect how you prepare for a concert? After all, you make a living with your hands.

A: It’s definitely easier for me to get my hands in shape when performing in a warm climate. I’m a summer person anyway and my body generally works more smoothly when it’s warm, so Florida is actually the perfect destination for me. In a cold climate I just simply need a bit more warmup practice time before going on stage.

More challenging are extremes in humidity, because then my instrument starts to get confused and does not listen to my hands so well anymore, you have to adjust your playing, which can be tricky sometimes.

People always ask how a cellist travels with their instrument. What are the challenges of being on planes, trains and automobiles with such a large fiddle?

The most annoying thing is actually that random people constantly telling me that the flute would have probably been a more practical choice of instrument. Of course, the cello needs space and care while traveling. It’s always with me, on the plane it has the seat next to me, as well as on trains and cars. It’s a very brave travel companion, and you even get two meals on the plane.

The Elgar is an exceptional concerto, highly personal, introspective, even sad. What does this music mean to you?

To me this piece is Elgar’s musical testament. It’s his last big symphonic work and probably his most personal one, and he summed up his entire life. He was already an old man, World War I was over, his wife just passed away, and he moved from the city to the countryside to spend his last years there.

The piece is full of love, deep honesty and mature wisdom. It could be depressing for some listeners, but to me this process results in a lot of positivity, forgiveness and peace. I can say without hesitation that this is my favorite cello concerto.

How do you approach the Elgar compared to other concertos, such as the Dvořák? Are they two different worlds for a cellist?

Actually, Dvořák and Elgar are quite similar in their approach. The musical language is almost the same, especially when it comes to sound. And there are even similarities in the composers’ lives at the time when they wrote their concertos.

Some critics say (cellist) Jacqueline du Pre nailed this concerto in a recording from 1965, and that her rhapsodic performance defined it. Has it made an impression on you? 

This particular recording was one of the first ones I listened to when I just started playing the cello at the age of 8 and it made me want to play the Elgar concerto when I was barely able to hold the cello in the right place. But it was and still is a huge inspiration, as well as many other recordings, not only with concerto repertoire, but also chamber music and symphony works.

Many violinists, cellists and pianists tour with a handful of concertos in their pocket, performing them night after night. How do you keep them fresh?

I never stop exploring them.

Finally, what do you want audiences to take away from your performances?

I hope that they are leaving the concert hall filled with inspiration and peace.

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