Who or what inspired you to take up the violin, and pursue a career in music?
Although neither of my parents were musicians, they were both very musical and liked to listen to classical music, so we often had BBC Radio 3 on at home and recordings of violin concerti by Elgar with Menuhin and Sibelius by both Heifetz and Ginette Neveu, were important influences. Apparently they discovered I was musical because the Sunday school teacher told my parents I was leading the singing at the age of 3!! Actually I don’t have such a great voice, but aim to sing through my violin. I am very grateful to my parents, who were not at all wealthy, for prioritising giving me piano lessons from the age of 6, over material things – they used to make some of our clothes and furniture and were generally very creative, which has imbued my life. I took up the violin 3 years later at school in shared lessons and was offered a Junior Exhibition to the Royal College of Music on both instruments and later a Foundation Scholarship to the RCM with a violin bought for me by my parents for £20. I had thoughts of becoming a composer when I was quite young and enjoyed harmony and music theory but my passion for the violin took over – I loved the possibilities, it’s such an expressive instrument and this is what made me pursue a career as a violinist.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was lucky to be awarded the Fulbright/ITT Fellowship to study for a master’s degree in New York for 2 years with some very fine teachers – Donald Weilerstein (then leader of the Cleveland Quartet and a most inspiring musician), Sylvia Rosenberg, a real artist who’d studied with Nadia Boulanger as well as Ivan Galamian, and Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and the Aspen Festival. But I later learnt as much from Jean Gibson – that “your body is your instrument” – to be free to channel and express the music. When I tour I’m likely to be be found in an art gallery; I find looking at paintings from Rembrandt and Vermeer to Cezanne, Monet and some abstract expressionists, very enriching.
Some of my most extraordinary musical influences in performing have been with Norbert Brainin and Ivry Gitlis. Being the violinist/violist in the Fires of London at the start of my career led me to meet all sorts of composers who then wrote works for me, such as Brian Elias, which has been a significant thread through my musical life.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Funding and fundraising (for which we are not trained) has become more and more difficult. I feel so passionately about being a musician and not selling my soul so there’s time to devote to one’s art, that in order to do so, I’ve often lived quite frugally. My generation were supported in our studies whereas now it has become more difficult with tuition fees, living costs and buying an instrument. To be a fine musician requires great sensitivity and yet in daily life it’s challenging not to be too sensitive and affected by things. I also think there is not enough appreciation that artists can improve with age! I think my playing has gradually developed over time. There’s a lot of emphasis on the latest talent of course, but you can take on too much at that stage when you’re flavour of the month whereas later on, where you know the music better, you can return to works with added experience and perhaps wisdom.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The Grammy-nominated Lou Harrison Violin Concerto with Percussion Orchestra (‘FiddleSticks’ album with new works for violin and percussion), my NMC Artist Series disc ‘In Sunlight: Pieces for Madeleine Mitchell’ with a range of works written for me by composers including James MacMillan, Michael Nyman, Nigel Osborne etc., and a personal collection of favourites – ‘Violin Songs’. I’d very much like to pay tribute here to the pianist Andrew Ball, my musical partner for some 20 years in concerts, broadcasts and 3 albums.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
There is so much fine music I like to play. Perhaps late romantic/early 20C works like Bruch Violin Concerto, Franck and Elgar violin sonatas and the more lyrical contemporary works suit me best however.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It depends on what I may be asked to perform, when I’m able to devise programmes or perhaps premiere a new piece. I’ve always loved putting programmes together, aiming for a good balance and being attuned to the situation – the audience or the occasion. I have eclectic tastes and enjoy playing a wide range of music from c1700 to the present and sometimes combining with the other arts.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Wigmore Hall, of course because of the sound and the atmosphere, also St. George’s Bristol, Djanogly Hall Nottingham and Carnegie Hall, but also venues such as some country churches – I was invited to be artistic director of a summer series called Music in Quiet Places with chamber music which was very special.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Too many to list but my Century of British Music recital for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, both in Rome and in the US, receiving standing ovations and the first performance I gave of Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps in the group I formed with pianist Joanna MacGregor in a special 6th century church, St Illtyd’s, which led to performances at the BBC Proms and a recording at Snape Maltings.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think to be able to say you’ve played your best, reached audiences in all sorts of places with the music and enjoyed it.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To aim to be a well rounded, cultivated musician, to have your eyes and ears open beyond your own instrument and to the other arts, nature and so on.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still playing well and perhaps in a wonderful chamber group.
What is your most treasured possession?
My violin, which has been my companion in concerts in some 50 countries and my hearing and vision. Although not my possession, my life treasure is my daughter.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I enjoy playing music I love, to the best of my ability and I very much enjoy travelling (including swimming in warm seas). Listening to music, from Mozart operas to Jazz, but I also cherish silence – the most profound I ever experienced was in the Namib dessert when I was on tour giving concerts for the British Council.
What is your present state of mind?
Grateful, thinking back over all the things I’ve done, people I’ve met and worked with, amazing places I’ve visited through music and to Frances Wilson for hosting this interesting series.
MADELEINE MITCHELL has been described by The Times as ‘one of the UK’s liveliest musical forces’ (and) ‘foremost violinists’. Her performances as a soloist and chamber musician in some 50 countries in a wide repertoire are frequently broadcast including the BBC Proms, ABC, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Italian TV. She has given many recitals in major venues including Lincoln Center New York, Wigmore and South Bank Centre London, Vienna, Moscow, Singapore, Seoul Centre for the Arts and Sydney Opera House. She’s performed as soloist with orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, Czech Radio, St Petersburg Philharmonic and most recently the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in the concerto written for her by Guto Puw, which will be included on her forthcoming album, Violin Muse, of world premiere recordings by established UK composers, for Divine Art.
Mitchell’s acclaimed discography for which she has been nominated for Grammy and BBC Music Awards, includes works written for her by composers such as James MacMillan and the popular ‘Violin Songs’ – Classic FM CD of the week. She has also championed early 20C British music in performance internationally and in recordings. A highly creative artist, Madeleine devised the Red Violin festival under Lord Menuhin’s patronage, the first international eclectic celebration of the fiddle across the arts. She’s also created programmes with poetry and unique collaborations with voices and solo violin with percussion and has been Director of the London Chamber Ensemble for many years. Madeleine Mitchell won the Tagore Gold Medal as Foundation Scholar at the Royal College of Music where she is a Professor and the prestigious Fulbright/ITT Fellowship to the Eastman and Juilliard Schools in the USA, where she regularly returns to give concerts and master classes.