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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Weaver of moonbeams…

Julian Lloyd Webber – photograph © John Millar

Ahead of his two concerts – in Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham, conducting Orchestra of the Swan with this year’s Associate Artist, cellist Laura van der Heijden – I went to meet Julian Lloyd Webber: now Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and steering it through some exciting times as it prepares to move into its purpose-designed new home.

Entering his office in the old building – sadly nearing the end of its productive life, in the centre of the city – one cannot fail to be reminded, though, of his previous career as one of his (and my) generation’s greatest, and most successful, solo cellists: with posters of some of his most memorable achievements scattered throughout the room. Indeed, above his desk – in pride of place, perhaps – he points out a large framed copy of the cover of the CD I am nervously clutching between my fingers: a recording which confirmed his status of hero for me, and for many others. But more of that later: because, as he welcomes me in, and shakes my hand, there could not be a more genial and gracious interviewee. (As I am rapidly learning – as my first year of being OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence comes to a close – the majority of classical musicians are incredibly generous people: open, willing to chat, to treat you as an equal, to spend time with you… – they just happen to be incredibly talented, too – although no mention of this will ever pass their lips.)

Once seated, Julian expresses astonishment at the Lilliputian digital voice recorder sitting on the table between us – an enthusiasm, delight and attentiveness that never wanes in the thirty minutes we’re together. I ask him if it’s okay to talk about his ‘enforced retirement’ from solo cello playing – and, of course, he says, immediately, with complete relaxation, “Yeah: it’s fine”. Part of my interest is personal, though: as I, too, had to retire because of structural problems with my neck – although I did have the operation he simply could not risk.

“Did you have a lot of pain?” he asks. I nod. “Because I didn’t, you see. That’s why they didn’t want to do it. Because they said, well, we really only operate, do this, for pain. We’re not sure it’s going to work…. So how bad was it for you?”

“I lost my left arm completely – all the feeling; all the control,” I reply; a little stunned that he should care. But people who know him tell me that he always cares. “And this was because of the neck?” “Yes. But I was told that the op wouldn’t take away the pain; but that it would give me control of my left arm back; give me the movement back; and stop me losing my left leg in the same way. Which it did.”

“That’s amazing. But you’re still in pain…? Did it leave a scar?” I nod again; and show him the short, faint white line at the base of the front of my neck. This wasn’t quite how I’d intended the interview to go. But I now have even more respect for this humane gentle giant sitting opposite me. I stare at the list of questions on my iPad: wondering how to gently nudge things along, without wanting to spoil the moment.

“Actually… they thought the nerve was probably already damaged,” he says, pensively. “It might have worked…. How long did it take you to get over it?” “Oh, instantly,” I reply, a little stunned. “Fantastic! With the use of everything back?” “Yes. I woke up from the operation with an almighty migraine, but my arm was there, moving in front of me…. But don’t have it done just because it worked on me!” We both laugh – albeit a little reticently. But then Julian says, as if laying down the law: “If you’re in that kind of pain, and you can’t use your arm, then you get it done.” And he’s right – although it was a decision that, at the time, took a lot of time to make. “I wasn’t,” he adds. “So that was it….”

“Anyway,” finally drawing a line under a diversion that I think has been enlightening for both of us… he grins: “I’m interviewing you…!” Those lustrous blue eyes sparkle. And we get back on topic. (Not that we’d ever really left it, I think.)

Is it especially difficult conducting a work you know – and played – very, very well; being on the other side of the podium?
No! I think it makes it a lot easier. In fact, I haven’t been doing a huge amount of conducting. I made a conscious decision to go into music education, rather than conducting – although I enjoy doing that, and it’s still a wonderful way for me to make music. But, the thing I discovered is that I really like accompanying – conducting my wife in the Haydn C major concerto, as well as the principal cello of the CBSO – and, because I know it so well, I conducted it from memory! So it is a huge help to know it from the soloist’s point of view; and actually know how you can help while you’re conducting. So I’m really looking forward to doing the Rococo with Laura – a player I’ve admired from afar for many years. In fact, I’m looking forward to the whole concert: because I love Mozart, but have never had the chance to do any, because he didn’t write any solo pieces for cello. So this is a wonderful opportunity for me to perform one of my very favourite composers: particularly when it comes to a serious, great masterpiece like the G minor symphony.

You said, many years ago, that you admired both Toscanini and Furtwängler: because – although contrasting in style – they were “conductors who put their ideas over with tremendous clarity”. Are there any contemporary conductors that you find so inspiring; or that you have enjoyed working with? And if I don’t get you to mention David Curtis, I think there may be some sort of forfeit involved!
I very much enjoyed working with David: because, again, he’s a string player, viola player, who understands what kind of back-up a soloist needs. Sometimes, the big ‘starry name’ conductors can get in the way of a soloist, by doing too much; and I always liked the way that David let things happen naturally. I did many different concertos with David: I did the Rococo; I did the Shostakovich First – which is perhaps my favourite, because I love the work… – I did the Delius concerto with him. We must have done Elgar, I’m sure… – in fact, we definitely did. I did four or five concertos with David: and always enjoyed them thoroughly.
     I was very fortunate to work with some absolutely great names, who are sadly no longer with us: like Menuhin, Neville Marriner; and I really enjoyed working with Richard Hickox. These were people who knew how to accompany…. I can tell you that I admire the younger generation: for example, Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla] is going to be phenomenal. She’s barely thirty, and has tremendous interpretive gifts. She does not deliver a dull performance. She’s very clear with her intentions; and has rather a unique conducting style. That is the kind of music-making I like: it’s always alive and always inquisitive.

A bit of a nerdy question – but I also have to write the programme notes…! I presume, since you recorded it with Maxim Shostakovich in 1991, that you’ll be doing Tchaikovsky’s original version of the Rococo Variations…?
No, we won’t! But, you see, Laura plays the Fitzenhagen version: and so that’s the one we’ll be doing… – which threatens to be confusing, if I don’t do my homework! I love the Rococo, and have played it many times in the Fitzenhagen version. It was only later that I started playing the original version. They both have their strengths, though. The Fitzenhagen is, on the face of it, more audience-friendly: because it is a very well-constructed piece. Rostropovich, for example, wouldn’t play the original: he believed the Fitzenhagen was better…. But they’re both good!

Is there any reason you grew to prefer Tchaikovsky’s original version?
I don’t feel incredibly strongly about it; but it’s what he wrote. It’s what, I believe, Tchaikovsky approved to be published. And there’s more music in the original version: especially as Fitzenhagen cut out all of the last variation. I just felt that it was a more substantial piece for cello. I couldn’t see a reason to go on doing the Fitzenhagen – except that it is a very effective concert piece.

It turns out that Julian has an encyclopaedic memory (hinted at above) containing every single one of his performances – and at this point we reminisce about a performance of the Fitzenhagen version of the variations he gave at the Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, “years and years ago”, with Martyn Brabbins conducting – “now he’s a very good accompanist…” – in fact, when I was still a student in the very early 1980s. But then I ask the question my initial request – with regards to his retirement from playing – concerned. I could not have wished for a better answer.

What sort of emotions – if it’s not too personal a question… – do you think it will bring back conducting the Rococo Variations with the Orchestra of the Swan: when this was not only the last piece of music you played with the orchestra; but also in the same venues: Stratford ArtsHouse, and the Town Hall, just across the road…?
I played at both Stratford and the Town Hall many times with the Orchestra of the Swan: and a lot of players will be the same… and it’s great! I’m making music with people still; and it’s a great joy to be able to do that… when I’ve had to stop playing. I can still make music with these people: many of whom have become my friends. It will be great to see them again; work with them; make music with them again. And, actually, Laura’s got a tough job with the Rococo – so I’m quite relieved to be just conducting!

Turning to education, and particularly what you do here…. In the Observer, at the beginning of March, you said that: “It is our job to plug the gaps, as the government continues to pull back on providing music education in schools.”
We have to try. And if we can help introduce music to children who wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance, then we must do it. In a sense, it can only be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a splash in the ocean that we’re trying to make here, with our outreach work.
     But I’m so against this EBacc: taking music – taking all art subjects – out of the school curriculum. I think it’s very short-sighted. I think it’s very narrow. And I don’t think it’s fair on our children: who should be able to experience these things without having rich parents who can afford to pay for instruments and lessons.
     I’m really passionate about it. It follows through from my whole approach to classical music. I’ve always believed it’s for everyone – and right through my whole career – from when I started playing music; from the inspiration I took from Rostropovich: who always played the cello as if it was to every single person in the concert hall…. And I’ve always believed that music can reach everyone; and that people have the right to decide whether they like it, whether it’s for them.
     And, at the moment, a great deal of the population aren’t even getting that opportunity. And I feel very strongly about that. I’ve always tried to bring music to people. So this job to me, as a music educator, is very natural; and I want this conservatoire to be for everyone. I want it to be for the public. I want the public – not just students – coming through those doors; and for us to be part of the community.
     Birmingham City University is an urban university. It’s not in leafy Edgbaston – like the University of Birmingham! And therefore we have a certain role to fulfil in this community. For example, we are going to be doing concerts with the Indian composer, Nitin Sawhney; and a Polish festival with Nigel Kennedy.

As well as being keen to get out there, and get ‘out there’ to come in; you once said that it is “very important that musicians are aware of what’s going on in other fields”. You obviously have led by example throughout your career: with not only Variations, but the Oasis album – and the conservatoire is obviously continuing to do so. Are there other ways the staff here instil this in the students; or do they arrive already ‘multifaceted’ (for want of a better word)?
I think this conservatoire is very open-minded. One of our most famous alumni is Laura Mvula: who came through the composition department; and has always credited us for introducing her to all kinds of different music. And I think her classical training has been a big help to her. A lot of conservatoires wouldn’t have accepted what she was doing. If we have a good singer-songwriter who wants to study here, we will help them. You will not find the composition department here saying you have to write in one style. If they see talent in any particular direction, they will try to help.
     We also have a fantastic jazz department; and have had for a long time. And we’re going to have the first dedicated jazz club in Birmingham for a decade in the new building – which will be open every night.

To finish… You chose Beatrice Harrison’s recording of the Elgar concerto – with Elgar conducting – as your ‘Desert Island Disc’: because, you said, she “follows Elgar’s markings”. Four years later, you recorded it, with Yehudi Menuhin [chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine], and you followed Elgar’s markings. In fact, the reason I brought it with me for you to sign was that you were the first contemporary cellist not to do a Jacqueline du Pré… – which I found utterly refreshing.
That’s why I had the confidence to record it. We all know about the Jacqueline du Pré recording… – but there were two reasons for my confidence. Firstly, I knew I played it completely differently: so there’s no point of comparison. Second, there was having Menuhin as conductor: who was completely my idea. The record company wanted some younger names: who, though so not well-known now, were very trendy at the time! The record company’s objection was that “Menuhin doesn’t really conduct”. But I said: “he worked with Elgar; Menuhin knows this music…” – and I was completely right: he was wonderful to work with!
     Those two things made me really want to do it. Also, I love the concerto; and I don’t think it’s healthy for a piece of music to just depend on one performer – which it was beginning to, dangerously so.
     I don’t want to criticize Jacqueline du Pré. It’s the last thing I want to do. But hers is a very personal interpretation; and a lot of the time it does depart from the score. And that’s fair enough. But… there is an argument for saying that Elgar marked his scores and his music probably in more detail than any other composer. It’s absolutely marked… what he wanted. So, therefore, there must be an argument for following that. He was very clear in what he wanted.
     There was a kind of ‘elastic’ way in which Elgar conducted, though… – and Menuhin has got that; and he would have learned that from Elgar himself. That ‘elasticity’ is key – one which is still faithful to the markings and the score. And I think it’s very important for that tradition to survive.

In the middle of all this, I try to convey how Laura’s approach to the work is, in some ways, similar… – although, like his, completely individual – and certainly astounding for one so young. An online review captures it: “Although, thank goodness – unlike so many other performers… – and this was evident even during rehearsal – Laura’s interpretation of this masterpiece is definitely all her own. (As conductor David Curtis said, so perspicaciously, in his pre-concert talk: she has made it so by first, wisely, returning to the source material – interrogating and understanding Elgar’s clear, precise, multifarious directions – rather than simply aping what has gone before.)”
     I tell Julian that, one day, I hope Laura records it – with him at the helm. He listens intently; and perhaps it prompts that last line…? Regardless, I will now prize my battered 1985 recording of the Elgar concerto even more.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The greatest and most satisfying manifestations of human expression…

Emma Johnson – photograph © Helen Maybanks

On Thursday, 13 April 2017, “internationally acclaimed clarinettist, recitalist, chamber musician, recording artist and lecturer” Emma Johnson will be joining OOTS for an evening of sublime 18th century music in the Forum Theatre, Malvern. Although in the middle of a busy concert schedule, Emma was kind enough to carry out the following interview, via email.

There don’t appear to be many famous classical clarinettists in the world (indeed, at any one point in time). Is this because of the lack of mainstream repertoire – especially, say, compared to that for the piano or violin?
The solo repertoire for violin and for piano is far larger than that of any of the woodwind instruments, and that is why the clarinet is usually considered an orchestral instrument. When you are nine years old and picking an instrument to play, you don’t know these things. But once it became clear I wanted to be a musician, it was naturally assumed I would try to play in an orchestra.
     However, I gradually discovered that the solo clarinet repertoire is richer than people realize: spanning from Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Schumann, to Finzi, Poulenc, Copland and many modernists; as well as playing a pivotal role in jazz. There is, in fact, ample material for a clarinet soloist; and I have expanded the repertoire, too: by making arrangements and transcriptions, and commissioning new pieces.
     In addition, winning BBC Young Musician at the age of 17 allowed me to think differently, and to develop my clarinet playing so that it had the variety and range of a solo recitalist. Because of the opportunities the competition opened up to play solo, it enabled me to realize a vision I had of how a solo clarinettist could be.

A few months ago, I interviewed Laura van der Heijden, who won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2012: and wondered – looking back at your career, so far – how important you think winning that competition was for you, in 1984? Do you think talent will out; or that such competitions are necessary in establishing yourself as as soloist?
Winning BBC Young Musician was vital: because it enabled me to follow a more soloistic path with the clarinet, rather than a more conventional orchestral career. It is possible that this might have happened without the competition; but I am not naturally a very pushy person, so it might easily not have happened!
     I think such competitions are necessary in the process of finding soloists: because they can favour those who are not already well-connected.

You’re playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra. This work must be the foundation of any classical clarinettist’s career, I suppose. Do you think you will ever get tired of playing it? (I never get tired of listening to it!)
     And, staying with the Mozart: there are some slow movements – that of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto; the famous Adagio sostenuto of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, for instance – but especially the Adagio of Mozart’s concerto, being composed so close to his death – that I find so moving – that I struggle to understand how the performers reach the end without turning into quivering wrecks. Just how do you keep your composure?

It is an emotional experience to play the slow movement of the Mozart concerto; and if the performer doesn’t feel that, then neither will the audience. The lively music of the third movement then snaps you out of that sadness; and, like an actor, you have to learn to manipulate your emotions so they express the work of art you are performing. I sometimes draw upon life experiences, such as bereavements, or I conjure up mental pictures, to help access the right mood for a given passage of music.
     You are right that one never tires of the Mozart: because it is one of those examples of pure beauty in art. In some ways, because it is so venerated, it feels quite a responsibility to play it for people. Interestingly, it wasn’t always revered – when it was first played with the Hallé Orchestra in the 19th century, people found it overly long and repetitive!

Will you be playing with your standard Peter Eaton ‘A’ clarinet, or the basset clarinet you had made, I think, especially for a recording of the work? (Listening to your recordings side-by-side, the basset clarinet, to me, has a much warmer, expressive – even more human, ‘singing’ – sound; with a much ‘grittier’ chalumeau.)
I shall be playing the normal ‘A’ clarinet: because I find it makes a bigger sound than the basset – which will suit the big hall at Malvern. Unfortunately, the original manuscript of the Mozart concerto is lost, anyway (the dedicatee, Stadler, is said to have pawned it!) – so, although we know the piece would, in the first few performances, have been played on a basset, there is no definitive, authoritative text showing exactly how the version for basset clarinet worked. The most authoritative text is the first printed edition: which was already written out only for the standard clarinet.

How do you find working with the Orchestra of the Swan – who you’ve performed the Mozart with before?
I love to work with the Orchestra of the Swan: because they play with such intelligence and spirit. We played the Finzi concerto not too long ago: and the string playing was the best I have ever heard in that piece.

Máté Hámori (the conductor for the concert) is a new name to me. How do you approach working with new conductors – especially when you’re performing a work you know so well?
Each conductor is different; and you have to see how they want to rehearse. Sometimes, they only allow time for a basic run-through of the concerto. Other times, they are very keen to rehearse details. The soloist must be very flexible! In the case of the Mozart, it is very much like chamber music: and how the orchestral players respond directly to the sound of the clarinet is very important, too.
     As I have played the Mozart with OOTS a number of times, the piece will come together very quickly; and then it is a question of deciding how we want it to go on this particular occasion: i.e. choosing tempi that will work in the acoustic, and working out how to get the range of moods to come across optimally in those surroundings.

Did you have any musical heroes or idols, growing up, who inspired you? I must admit, that, until the cassette finally snapped, I used to carry a recording of the Mozart concerto and quintet played by Jack Brymer everywhere! You studied with him, I believe, whilst at Cambridge?
Yes, Jack Brymer was an inspirational figure. I was fortunate to have lessons with him: and he was a very natural player, so I learnt a lot from hearing him play, as well as from things he said. I have always been keen to carry on the English tradition he was part of: involving a very vocal way of clarinet playing, that is akin to singing, where notes are voiced in different parts of the head and chest.
     I also admired recordings of Benny Goodman, when I was growing up – in both classical and jazz. I was amazed, when, in 1986, a message came via my record company that Goodman would like to meet me on his forthcoming tour to the UK. Very sadly, he died just before the tour took place.

Are there any works that you would love to perform publicly, that you’ve never had the chance to; or any composers you would like the chance to commission?
One of the most skilful composers of our age is the film composer, John Williams. It would be great if he wrote a clarinet piece! I have just made a recording of concertos written for me by four wonderful composers: Will Todd, John Dankworth, Paul Reade and Patrick Hawes. All are great additions to the repertoire.
     I hope to persuade more orchestras to take on more unfamiliar repertoire that I know the audience will respond to. It would be nice to regain the audience’s trust in new music.

Was there ever any other instrument in your life; or that you wished you could play – and for any specific reason (or piece of music)?
I love to play Bach on the piano. The clarinet hadn’t been invented, yet, when he was alive. But playing the piano is my favourite way to start my clarinet practice sessions!

Finally – and I admit that venues such as Malvern on a Thursday evening can exaggerate this – with classical music audiences often appearing a sea of grey heads from the stage (often including mine). What do you see as its future? Is there any one thing that will ensure its healthy survival long into the future?
Yes, there has been a contraction of audiences: because people are not educated about classical music at school, and by the media, in the same way that they once were. But I feel sure that there will always be a hard core of supporters for this artform: which represents some of the greatest and most satisfying manifestations of human expression.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Commissions accomplished…!

As part of OOTS’ 21st Anniversary season, four composers, who have all worked with the orchestra before, were invited to write “companion pieces” to classical ‘concertante’ works – which they would then be premièred alongside – an idea conjured up by orchestra trustee Tim Richards. As David points out, “this gives our principals the opportunity to shine, as well as thanking them for their commitment”; adding that pairing music in this way “gives the orchestra, soloists, audience and composer both context and inspiration”.

Last year’s commissions – Douglas J Cuomo’s Objects in Mirror and Paul Moravec’s Nocturne – were both instant hits. (In fact, I described the Cuomo as “a cracking work: the perfect foil to the Bach that inspired it”; and reported that Moravec’s “left me with a mammoth lump in my throat, and several large somethings in both eyes”.) I am therefore certain that this year’s will follow in their winning footsteps.

Julian Philips’ composition (to be premièred in June) is for viola and double-bass. David commented that “Julian is an old friend of OOTS, and I expect something slightly more ‘traditional’. Because he knows us so well, I’m sure he will want to capitalize on our distinctive string sound.”

Asked about Joanna Lee – whose Blue Blaze – Dance Suite will be performed this month – David explained that “Joanna is relatively young: and OOTS believes in championing emerging talent.” He went on to say: “I have always been struck by her inventiveness and highly individual voice: so her work is likely to be quite challenging for audience and players – fully exploiting the characteristics of the solo instruments – but also very witty and light-hearted!”

I passed these comments by Joanna – which, perhaps, was a little cheeky of me… – but OOTS is, after all, one big happy family: and such remarks are always taken at face-value! “I chuckled – and, to be honest, was a little unnerved – when I read that David said that my piece would be ‘challenging’,” she replied; but added that “I imagine it would be for any audience. It’s a curious situation, though. I do recognize that many listeners find elements like atonality – not that my music is atonal – bizarre, or sometimes even offensive; but having been exposed to it for many years, my ears hear atonality as tonal and clear! It’s familiarity, I suppose; but still a curious occurrence. I do worry, though, that listeners may think that composers are just being awkward on purpose to pursue such things. And I suppose some may be…. But my approach isn’t founded in that at all…!

The three commissions produced so far have all been refreshingly different in response: e.g. form, style, and nature: so I asked Joanna what had prompted her to produce a ‘dance suite‘. And – apart from sharing the solo instrumentation with the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds – if there were any other connections to its progenitor. (I also gave her the chance to explain her “approach”!)

“I always take account, albeit loosely, of all the companion pieces in the programme – namely whether this is a more traditional or contemporary concert; what the inspiration was for those pieces; as well as their genre. I then endeavour to place my piece within that framework to as much an extent as I can. For example, the use of the words ‘dance suite’ in my title – it’s a standard title for the Classical era; and the four movements of my piece are all inspired by some form of dance. However, this might be where the comparisons to the other pieces end!

“I do find it daunting, though, to be placed alongside such icons of music as Mozart and Haydn. They found perfection in their own voices – so I feel I would only set myself up for failure if I tried to mimic their music in any way. Therefore, I have to confess to also ignoring the other works in the programme to a degree!

“I know I have a slight rebellious streak. Playing the piano throughout my childhood, I wasn’t so much interested in perfecting a piece, but re-arranging it: even if it simply meant playing it (usually considerably) faster, or an octave higher. This is why I became a composer: I preferred pushing boundaries and trying new things. I played plenty of Mozart’s piano pieces, and I enjoyed his playful style; but I found greater affinity for composers like Debussy and Stravinsky. Indeed, upon being asked what ‘rules’ he followed, Debussy answered “mon plaisir”, or “whatever I please”. This approach went much further than following the experiments of the 1950s/60s avant-garde composers: who threw all rules out of the window! So I think you cannot pigeon-hole the styles of composers today, as their music is so varied… – but this sense of adventure, of finding your own voice and new possibilities remains.

“So, returning to what David said: I am conscious that this approach, and the musical style that it produces, may seem challenging – arrogant, even. But, actually, it simply stems from a desire to try new things, rather than something that has already been fully explored and perfected. Why rewrite what has already been done so well?”

Notes
* Blue Blaze – Dance Suite will be premièred at Stratford ArtsHouse, at 19:30, on Tuesday, 14 February 2017; and repeated at Town Hall, Birmingham, at 14:30, on Wednesday, 22 February 2017.
* You can read more of Joanna’s words on Fran Wilson’s wonderful Meet the Artist website.
* Joanna’s own website can be found here.