Meet the Artist……Fenella Humphreys


Who or what inspired you to take up the violin, and make it your career? 

My older brother had started on Suzuki method, and I always kicked up a big fuss if he was allowed to do something I wasn’t!   So when I was 6 my parents got hold of a violin and a teacher for me.   I think I decided pretty much right away I was going to be a violinist – although I was also convinced I could be a pianist, singer and ballerina at the same time.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My biggest influence was the wonderful Sidney Griller who I was fortunate to learn with when I was 10 – he was both ceaselessly generous with his time and knowledge, and unrelenting in his expectations, and I know I could never have had the same courage to explore the music and stretch boundaries if it hadn’t been for Sidney.   Since then so many people have opened my eyes to new ideas, colours, sounds and music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I think probably the biggest continual challenge for me is to find balance.   It always seems so impossible to find the place where you’re doing enough to excite and stretch you, but without half killing yourself, and still managing to have a life.   Of course today I’m failing miserably – I’m typing this in a hotel in the middle of the night after a long day of rehearsals, practising and admin, listening to my colleagues having a fabulous time in the room next door!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Strangely they aren’t necessarily the ones where I feel I played especially well.   But when someone has been particularly moved it reminds me there is a real point to performing.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I think probably anything that really has something to say for itself and isn’t just tricks or noises.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

A lot of decisions are made for me by concert promoters.   But I do enjoy looking out fantastic music that isn’t played much – either less well known works by celebrated composers, or music by people who have been unfairly forgotten.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

There are the obvious places with amazing character and acoustics like Wigmore Hall, of course.   But in the end a venue for me is more made by the audience – you can play in a terrible acoustic but have a fabulous audience, and that will make the venue feel special.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

There’s so much great music out there that for performing, it’s usually what I’m playing at the time – the last few weeks have included things that were wonderfully enjoyable, including Bartok Contrasts, Schubert ‘cello quintet and Sibelius Concerto.  But in a few weeks I’d probably give you a different list!   To listen to, going by the plays on my iPod, it’s a strange mix of John Coltrane, Bartok playing Bartok, Britten Violin Concerto, a Shetland fiddle group called Fiddlers Bid, Sibelius Symphonies and U2…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Possibly the first concert I went to when I was 7, listening to my first violin teacher leading a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at St. Paul’s Cathedral.   But there have been loads of very memorable performing experiences too, like playing Walton Concerto for the opening of the open-air amphitheatre in his home on Ischia, or a particularly unforgettable Death and the Maiden at IMS Prussia Cove a few years back with Pekka Kuusisto, James Boyd and Richard Harwood – and one of my very first performances in a local music festival playing a piece that mostly used open G and D strings, when slowly but surely, throughout the duration of the piece, my G String completely unwound.

Tell us more about your exciting Kickstarter project

Just over a year ago, after months of preparation and taking part in a big competition with my former piano trio, I realised I needed to do something for myself to focus both on my playing, and on who I was musically outside the ensemble.   In a moment of complete madness, having found that none of my favourite 20th Century British composers had written anything for unaccompanied violin, I decided to commission a set of 6 new works to partner the Bach Sonatas and Partitas from some of the living composers I love best.   It’s a wonderful project, and 6 extraordinary composers have agreed to take part – Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse, Piers Hellawell, Sally Beamish, Adrian Sutton and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.   As well as adding what will be an incredibly rich and varied body of work to the repertoire, the project will enable me to take some of the music I love best to all sorts of venues and audiences I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach with other ensembles.    But it’s also rather an expensive project, with the commission fees alone coming to £25,000!   I’ve been doing fairly well with fundraising, including awards from the RVW Trust and PRSF for Music Foundation.  But I still have a fair way to go, so having seen friends fund projects successfully through crowdfunding, I decided to have a go at Kickstarter, trying to raise £3000 of the remaining £13,000 over 30 days – I have until 24th February 2014!

***Update: Fenella has achieved the £3,000 she was aiming for, which means she can commission works from Cheryl Frances Hoad, Gordon Cross and Piers Hellawell. She still needs to raise a further £10,000 to commission the final three pieces from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sally Beamish and Adrian Sutton***

What are you working on at the moment? 

Sibelius Humoresques, lots of Bach, concertos by Bruch, Prokofiev, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky – and I’m having lots of fun learning The Four Seasons for the first time!

What do you enjoy doing most?  

Walking on the beach and talking to the seals in Orkney

What is your present state of mind?

Mildly addled, completely exhausted and quite overexcited because I just had an email to say another pledge had been made to the Kickstarter!

Fenella received her early training from Sidney Griller C.B.E. and Itzhak Rashkovsky whilst a scholar at the Purcell School, where she was awarded the Gertrude Hopkins Prize and the Guivier Award for an outstanding contribution to the string department.    She then won a scholarship to study with David Takeno at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.   Fenella completed her post-graduate studies as a scholar at the Robert Schumann Hochschule, Düsseldorf in Ida Bieler’s class, and was awarded the highest attainable mark both for the ‘Diplom’ exam and the ‘Konzertexamen’ soloists’ diploma.   At the same time Fenella studied in Andreas Reiner’s chamber music class at the Folkwang Hochschule, Essen.   Masterclasses have taken Fenella as far afield as Keshet Eilon, Israel, the Schleswig Holstein Festival and the Rheinischen Streicherakademie in Germany, and IMS Prussia Cove, in Cornwall, studying among others with Pamela Frank, Lorand Fenyves, Ferenc Rados, Gabor Takacs-Nagy, Levon Chilingirian, Thomas Brandis, Simon Rowland Jones, Thomas Riebl, Steven Doane, Johannes Goritzki and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Fenella’s full biography

Bach to the Future