My most exotic programme…

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Next Monday I play a very exotic programme in Portsmouth…well, exotic for me, which, in this case, is Schumann, Beethoven, Janacek and Brahms. I think it’s about 20 years since I have played a programme with nothing contemporary, electronic, Indian, Brazilian, improvised, or just generally weird. So it’s been a great joy to immerse myself in some of the greatest music ever written for cello and piano. I’m joined by Alasdair Beatson, (“Artistry incarnate – that was Beatson” Sunday Times) who is a truly magnificent pianist and musician, to explore the intimacies of Schumann, the lonely genius of late Beethoven, the ecstatic excesses of Janacek, and the sheer comforting beauty of Brahms. Part of the wonderful Music in the Round on Tour which is a great honour for me. Tickets here.

Leave your thoughts on this entry. Click the title, or on Comments below.

Charhdi Kala

Friday, January 29th, 2016


Imagine, in the course of a week, meeting, say, Colin Currie, Danielle de Niese Hilary Hahn, Piotr Anderszewski, Pekka Kuusisto, Laurence Power, Avi Avital, Mahan Estafani and a handful of others. Not only do you meet them, but you get to hear them all play for you in a private and relaxed setting, and then they talk to you about their musical world, years of training and philosophy of making music, after which you spend a couple of hours making music with them. That is a pretty close parallel for what I recently experienced in India, with 12 of their greatest musicians whose names I think would be unknown to our Western classical audience, but I’ve printed them all below for those interested.

It was breathtaking and inspiring. I met musicians who had experienced waking at 2.30 every morning and practising until 5 am, then from 7 – 10 and once again in the afternoon: this particular musician, Bagauddin Dagar, spoke of only practising slow scales in his early morning stint to such a degree that the conscious mind disappeared and he felt completely at one with his deity – a perfectly Buddhistic meditative experience where he simply disappears and becomes the music. (He also demonstrated flawlessly how he divides a tone into 14 equal parts.) And Kala Ramnath, violinist, who studied with a legendary singer and spent years perfecting every little nuance of his virtuosic shakes and decorations. At one stage she only slept four hours a night and either practised or thought about the music for all the other 20 hours – she even said that she practised in her sleep. And Kaushiki Chakraborty, the singer who developed a 3 octave range without a break in the voice through working 7 – 9 hours a day all through her childhood – something most Western singing teachers would say could only ruin your voice for ever. Then there is Ravikiran, who did his first public performance aged two, and a host of other extraordinary musicians and human beings.

I am reminded that India is the country of the Saddhus who, to take one celebrated example, might hold their arm in the air for two years until it totally atrophied and cannot any longer be lowered, or another who hopped around the coast of India, or one who spent a lifetime up a tree. This is a country of extremes, but – crucially – never gratuitously. There is a purpose to this, in the case of the Saddhus it is to get closer to god, and in the case of some of the musicians it is the same, and even if they wouldn’t put it into the same words, their pursuit of perfection in music feels like the same journey. Jayanthi Kumaresh describes the journey back to the tonic in music being one of return to the supreme consciousness. Giridhar Udupa, master of the Ghatam (a clay pot to the uninitiated) performs complex arithmetical sums at the speed of light to determine which patterns he will play in his oh-so-intricate totally-off-piste solos to arrive back on the first beat at precisely the right point – all with a huge smile on his face.

So what was the point of all this except to make me feel like I’m a complete musical beginner? Well, it’s the first stage of a collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra and UK-based Darbar Festival (the biggest Indian music festival outside India) which will culminate in a performance at the Royal Festival Hall next September 16th to open SouthBankCentre’s classical music season.

I have taken part in many wonderful collaborations over the years, and they usually feel rushed – there is a concert deadline looming and it feels like there is insufficient time to dig in and assimilate a new language, process it, and come up with something that is greater than the sum of its parts: this one is already different. The Arts Council and British Council funded this phase of R&D, so I travelled with a couple of Philharmonia musicians and composer Fraser Trainer, and work will continue over the next 10 months to create the new work. Some of our workshops were attended by journalists, funders and others, and there was a very excited response. Everyone could feel that something special was beginning. (Gulp….hope we can deliver!)

We are aiming to find common ground as well as celebrate differences and Fraser Trainer is one of the keys to how this project will define itself. Usually I would collaborate with other performers without the presence of a composer, but I think the fact that we are bringing together the two most sophisticated classical traditions in the world means that we must represent the compositional side strongly as that has been the heart of our tradition for centuries.

In each session we listened to the Indian musician perform and then played for them before learning something from their world – melody, or rhythmic pattern. Sometimes these were astonishing difficult for our western ears – in certain melodies the level of ornamentation is so, so complex that I could only learn a few notes in, say, 15 minutes. And then would have forgotten it half an hour later! But the satisfaction of getting those few notes was immense and the cello can get very close to some of those sounds – I’m very much looking forward to practising this material. And then we would apply some of our compositional processes to bits of Indian music. This often involved layering different voices on top of each other in a way that Indian music doesn’t – we created some magical textures, and high points included a spontaneously created rendering of a Thumri style of song (with Kaushiki Chakraborty) with harmonic 4-part accompaniment; and listening to Bahauddin Dagar on Rudra Veena improvise over the chords of La Folia. We planted some seeds and time will tell how they germinate, but I learned a wonderful new word, Charhdi Kala, meaning eternal optimism. I’m totally full of Charhdi Kala.

I shall be posting updates over the coming months. Watch this space.


Praveen Godkhindi                        flute

Shashank Subramaniam             Carnatic flute

Anupama Bhagwat                        sitar

Udupa Giridhar                         ghatam

Guruprasanna                         khanjira

N Ravikiran                                    Carnatic chitra veena

Jayanthi Kumaresh                         saraswati veena

Kala Ramnath                         violin

Bahauddin Dagar                         rudra veena

Kaushiki Chakraborty             khayal vocal

Niladri Kumar                         sitar

Rakesh Chaurasia                         Hindustani flute

Leave your thoughts on this entry. Click the title, or on Comments below.

Happy Birthday Joshua!

Monday, December 7th, 2015

My dear nephew is 10 today, out in California. I miss him, and one of the high points of next year will be some work on the West coast – can’t wait to see you Joshua, and have a great 10th Birthday! Love you! Uncle Matthew

Leave your thoughts on this entry. Click the title, or on Comments below.

Amsterdam with Manu Delago

Friday, November 13th, 2015

November 24th and 25th, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Kleine Saal in the series Tracks: I’ll be playing with Austrian hang drum player, Manu Delago. Apart from a small set at 3am in my Barbican all-nighter they will be our first performances together, so I’m really looking forward to sharing that stage and acoustic with such a fine musician. Our programme is quite a journey. From solo Bach, Kodaly and Sollima on the cello, to solo material of Manu’s on the hang drum; new versions of well known classics like The Swan from Carnival of the Animals (sounds SO cool with a hang drum!), to unusual new arrangements of movements from Monteverdi’s Vespers – also, very magical in this sounds combination – the whole thing will run without a break. The effect should be a deep immersion in the beauty of sound and musical shape in the great acoustic of one of my favourite halls. There is a loose theme of nature – the pieces are ones that evoke for me the elements of water, earth, air or fire, and the hall will be dressed up like you’ve not seen it before – I can’t really give anything away now, but it will be very striking! If you have never heard a hang drum before, it is simply one of the most beautiful instruments in the world (along with the duduk, and the cello – pure soul), and you can check out a track of Manu’s here.

Leave your thoughts on this entry. Click the title, or on Comments below.

Sabbatical: Revelations and Reflections

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

I guess you want to know the revelations first? Well, in a nutshell, last summer I nearly gave up playing classical repertoire in favour of concentrating on the collaborations I do, and improvising – because of the effect nerves had on my playing. I only changed my mind because of four extraordinary sessions of hypnotherapy with the wonderful Jacqueline Hurst.

More of that later, but now, some reflections that will show how I got to this point.

Taking 3 months off is a wonderful way to get some serious head-space and do some thinking – not to mention lots of precious time with family and friends, movies, cooking and generally living what felt like a normal life.

When I left the Moscow Conservatoire just before the Berlin wall came down I didn’t know what to do with my life and returned to the UK to begin a very busy freelance career: I had a handful of nice solo gigs each year, guest-lead all the London orchestra cello sections, played loads of chamber music, contemporary music, did enough film sessions to know I never wanted to do them again, and also began to do some fantastic creative/education projects. Through my thirties I really developed this last element and began to be known as some kind of maverick/experimental cellist – mostly because, Jim Carrey-like, I just always said yes to things. I had a brilliant time, did some amazing projects, travelled the world and felt very happy and fortunate. However, I was dissatisfied that I had never really knuckled down to practice – a nagging feeling that I hadn’t actually realised a potential. I started to practice, and bit by bit solo concerts started appearing. All the while I continued to improvise and develop that creative side – arranging, collaborating with jazz and Indian musicians, working in education and so on. The prevailing wisdom in the classical world is that if you haven’t sorted your technique by a certain age (could be 15, 20, 25, or 9 if you’re my wife), that’s it. I was pretty sure this was wrong, and actually now I know for sure it is wrong. I improved nearly every aspect of my playing hugely and was starting to tackle some core classical repertoire and often enjoying it – it was always an upward curve, and I had high standards, sometimes brutally so. But I was never really happy with my classical playing – and because I was not happy, I imagine it showed. But things got better and better until around 5 years ago I as doing some concerts that I thought really had some good bits in them. What do I mean by this? What does this standard consist of? Well for me it is having a technical fluency that is so comfortable that I can devote my attention to the music. It came and went, but the problem was that I was so tense on stage that I just couldn’t ever perform the way I knew I could play – specifically, my left arm was so tight that I could not play in tune, shift or even vibrate. I remember one concert where literally my arm froze as I tried to do vibrato on one particular note (it was a bottom D). I practised more, I did 45’ of physical exercises a day, I meditated, I thought it all through from 1000 angles, and it did improve, but so slowly. It got to the point, in 2013 at the end of my huge Britten tour that some recitals actually began to feel good – even I was happy. I was experiencing an ease on stage I had never felt and was starting to begin to be able to make music. Intoxicating! I’m sure this is largely because I played that programme 70 times in one year – the nerves just disappeared.

2013 was a big year. I learned so much from this tour, how to prepare, how to be on stage, how to make music in a more satisfying way for myself. Then last year I had a few concerto experiences that made me realise that I was simply nowhere near that level of ease when I had an orchestra behind me – this was the most scary, and where I played my worst. I tried a few things to improve this and failed. This was where things began to get hard. Having tasted what it is like to play with freedom and lack of tension, I was no longer happy with less, and got to a point where I decided that I was going to give up on that classical side of my life, to put all my energies into collaborations and improvisation – I had had a great time, I had put 100% and more of myself into that road for so many years, no regrets, but time to change direction.

The only problem was that I still had a few concertos in my diary that I had to do – I figured I could cancel them all except the closest, an Elgar in Hong Kong which was too near to cancel – what to do? I began to get so scared, so fretful about how it would go that I was beside myself and realised I needed to do something to get out of this mess and was curious about hypnotherapy that had helped someone I knew the year before. Halfway through the first session I knew without doubt that something crucial had changed. I had always thought that my problems of nerves had come from years of studying with amazing cellists around me who seemed to be so much better, competitions that I was unsuccessful in, denting my confidences, but what I was told in the session was that this kind of therapy works on things that are lodged in the psyche between the ages of 0 and 6/7. That was a thought. Suddenly I remembered how, when I was 5, I had 6 piano lessons before my teacher called my parents and said they were wasting their money as I was totally unmusical! Not good enough to the core!!! It was quite a moment. We worked through this in 4 sessions and without doubt something major changed in my musical life. I have done a few concertos since, and they have been amongst the most satisfying concerts of my career: the Elgar with Hong Kong Sinfonietta, HK Gruber’s fiendish concerto with the BBC Phil (there is no way I could have had the guts to play this before – my arm would have fallen off), and lastly, just before the sabbatical began, the Protecting Veil in Mexico with the City of London Sinfonia – these were my favourite concerts of all. So it has been quite a journey, and a great moment of my life to take time to reflect.

I felt happy and fortunate before – now, ten times more so, and I am so excited about what feels like the second half of my working life ahead of me, where I shall do more than ever to mix these worlds that I love so much, of classical and non-classical music, improvised and written, and experimenting with presentation, electronics, education etc. I can’t wait to get back to work…although I’ll enjoy the rest of my sabbatical first – off to the Carpathian mountains tomorrow for a week.

Thanks for reading!

Leave your thoughts on this entry. Click the title, or on Comments below.

Back to top of page