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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!

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HK Gruber Cello Concerto

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Much of my last few months, in between and during other tours, has been taken up learning a cello concerto by HK Gruber. It’s an astonishing piece. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for Yo-Yo Ma in Tanglewood in 1989 it has received quite a good number of performances around the world, but not enough, in my opinion, for such a masterwork – maybe because of its quite extraordinary technical difficulties – check this video of Yo-Yo saying he really doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to play it. But it’s worth it. Gruber is a fascinating composer. He says himself that he gets bored with music if there isn’t a beat somewhere pretty much all the time, and yet the music is a long way from simple – he builds textures and piles of rhythms over driving bass lines that are nothing short of psychadelic. He was born in Vienna about 30 years after Mahler died, and you can hear that connection – to my ears it is unmistakably Viennese – maybe a 3rd Viennese School – with sumptuous harmonies, searching melodies and beautiful structure. I’ve known Nali (as Gruber is known to everyone around him) for a long time, and during an evening of good food and wine in Graffenegg in the summer of 2013, he suggested we performed the piece with his Rolls Royce – his affectionate nickname for the BBC Phil, where he is associate composer/conductor – sometime in the future. The piece has not been performed in the UK since 1995, when I played the cello in the orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as soloist and have wanted to play it since then. When the actual invitation came through I got around to looking seriously at the score and got so scared by it that I actually wrote an email to Nali saying I couldn’t do…my finger hovered above the ‘send’ button on my computer, and something stayed my hand. I put it in drafts instead, where it lay for a couple of months until I realised it was too good a chance to turn down, and summoned up the courage and determination to learn it, thoroughly! I have loved most of the process, and hated about 10% of it, when it has seemed impossible…but for better or worse, it’s next week in the Bridgewater Hall on Friday 17th at 7.30, live on Radio 3. But if you’re anywhere near Manchester, do come to the concert, as, heard live, it will be super-exciting. It goes an octave higher than anything else I’ve ever played – my left hand is more than half way between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge – faster passage work, crazier double stopping than I’ve ever come across, and simply the most intense cadenza ever written. And it ends with a pop song (Webernised, to quote Nali) in Bb minor that you will go away whistling. Seriously, it’s catchy.

So that’s it for now, but I will be posting updates through the week as I’m so excited about playing this one.

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East Helsinki Music Institute – Perfect!

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

I’ve just enjoyed an extraordinary week making music with 75 children aged 10 – 20 and 25 teachers from the remarkable East Helsinki Music Institute. Much of the skill of the children seems to be down to their wonderful teachers and in particular a method called Colourstrings that gives fantastic ear-training at the same time. It is such a great experience to work with so many children who are intelligent, focused, happy and just so musical – they were so quick to pick things up, adjusting to unannounced key changes and following changing rhythms without raising an eyebrow! We did some really good improvising, some crazy unison Indian rhythms, made up some pieces, laughed a lot, worked hard on all sorts of technical corners polishing the work they had done, and did a lovely improvised/decorated version of Scarborough Fayre. It’s a privilege to be in the company of children like this.

And to top it all they have a really amazing canteen with homemade pies and wonderful green tea. Heaven.

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A new page: Music is…

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

On the left you’ll see a tab called Music is… and there you will find a whole bunch of wonderful quotes about music. Some really incredible ones: why is that so many of the world’s greatest minds (not necessarily musicians) think that music is the deepest most powerful of all the arts? These quotes illustrate that fact, and if you have any suggested additions, please send them via a comment for possible inclusion. They should be from non-musicians, preferably (although I’ve included a few from musos).

Hope you enjoy reading them.

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Kings Place with Vanessa Benelli Mosell

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Back at Kings Place tomorrow for a first recital with Vanessa Benelli Mosell, a gifted young Italian pianist I’m really looking forward to working with. The programme is a delight. After Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro (one of my all time favourite cello and piano pieces), the rest of the music is all classical compositions influenced by folk idioms from various countries: Schumann’s 5 Pieces in Folk Style reveals German folk melodies; the little known Tsintsadze from Georgia also wrote 5 Pieces in Folk Style (a commission from Danil Shafran) using fabulous Russian and Georgian folk tunes; Janacek’s Pohadka (Fairy Tale) mixes Czech and Russian styles, and Bartok’s whirling 6 Romanian Dances end the programme. Come along if you can – 3.30 in Hall One at Kings Place

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