Meet the Artist – Philippa Mo, violinist

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin and pursue a career in music?

I was so small that it is a little hazy but I think it went like this: my Mum asked if I would like to choose an instrument to play. We had an upright piano at home so I had already started playing that by myself as my older sister had begun lessons and I was trying to catch up alone….  but this was a whole different matter. I was just six. I remember being absolutely entranced with the shape of the violin, so when I had the chance to choose – after examining the curves, edges, the smooth tiger’s-eye stripes of the varnished wood and that high string tension of the violin – my imagination was absolutely caught.  I began lessons locally and found there were many challenges to overcome, both musical and otherwise – but my strongest memory was that whatever the obstacle, I always knew above all else that I really just wanted to play the violin. My mum and dad were amazing too – they ferried me to early Saturday lessons and continued to enable practice even if i was, like any child, a little reluctant – and would far rather run up the garden to make my escape!

I think it was only when I met my teacher Xue Wei that I considered a career, and aged 15, it was just about the right time to be thinking about pathways ahead. In fact, if I look back, I realise that until then, most people tried to put me off a career in music. School teachers had been very keen to promote an academic musicology route, I had been begged  “was there “anything” other than music that I could consider?”

When I was adamant, Xue Wei’s view was that  I was spending far too much time at school and should go to China to practise. So aged 17, right before A-levels , I went to Beijing for six weeks to live with his own former teacher, the legendary Lin Yao-Ji, and had lessons twice a week or more.

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

I think the teaching of Professor Lin was without doubt exceptionally important to me. He was a teacher responsible for an elite group of students who were winning international violin competitions worldwide, left right and centre, and was possibly a little perplexed by the arrival of student from England with unreliable technique and no Mandarin! Happily, with his support, that all changed!!

Following the inspiration during my years of studying, it has always been my colleagues who have influenced and spurred me on. Working in duos and trios gives one an intimate insight into character and drive of chamber partners and travelling and essentially living with them through long rehearsal days and on tour brings people very close. Being witness to just how hard some musicians work whatever else is going on in their lives is always enriching.

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

Seeing how little protection and support has been historically awarded to those at risk of and damaged by abuse of power in teaching. Thankfully this is now being faced more boldly by institutions.

Which performances/ recordings are you most proud of?

I think the invitation as the only British player to the International Roaring Hooves Festival in Mongolia in 2002 gave rise to a couple of my most personally meaningful performances – it was one of my first international trips as a soloist and I was among the most awe-inspiring gathering of musicians from the US, Australia, Europe and leading ethnic instrumentalists from Central Asia and the Far East too. In the capital city Ulaan Bataar, I played in the stunning Opera House and at the world famous Natural History Museum (right underneath a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (not a cast but the actual skeleton)); within the walls of Erdene Zuu Khid, the former stronghold of Genghis Khan and among the high yellow dunes of the Gobi Desert – and it was at this final concert I played Maze Dances by John McCabe, as a line of nomadic horseman appeared in silhouette along the line of dune tops, against the setting sun, and I felt unbelievably lucky that choosing the violin enabled me to share that musical moment with that stunning landscape and the Mongolian people as well as my new musician friends..

A couple of those new friends invited me to play at the Lincoln Center, New York City in the following year and I was particularly proud to perform the Respighi Sonata with the legendary Joel Sachs on piano, my now friend , founder of Continuum Ensemble, conductor of the new Juilliard Ensemble  and one of the most active performers and commissioners of new music anywhere in the world …

And I think a more recent highlight was the recording and launch concert of my first CD with Retorica (with partner-in-crime Harriet Mackenzie): our English Violin Duos disc. I absolutely loved our hard work that went into assembling the repertoire – trawling the British Library for early English works and discovering William Croft and the excitement of having three works written especially for the duo by John McCabe, David Matthews and Jim Aitchison and the stories behind the conception of each of those works. I remember the intensive weeks of preparation before we set off to Potton Hall in Suffolk to record and our total immersion in the music for the days we were there.. We then decided to challenge ourselves to what seemed a monumental task of playing all those works in one concert. It was such a celebratory night though, as we began the evening with a conversation with all three composers, and heard their thoughts on the pieces and crucially on the value and significance of the genre of two violins  – and something that has been exceptionally important to me since my first exploration into the repertoire with the Croatian violinist Mislava Mikelic. John McCabe had been instrumental in encouraging my pursuit of two violin music and I still have all his letters in which he suggested I try various compositions to make up interesting programmes.

So many concerts mean so much but I would love to add that I was asked to play Meditation on Thaïs by Massenet at my dear friend Rudy’s funeral. He was a neighbour, a teacher, a confidante and surrogate grandfather  – and he taught me to chop wood with a long handled axe like nobody else. He was 104 when he passed away and I had hoped he may defy death and would just live forever  – I played my guts out for him that day. I think he would have loved it .. he always told me to break a string and laughed when I seriously told him what an inconvenience that would be! Dearest Rudy I was glad I got to play for you and say goodbye ……

Do you have  favourite concert venue to perform in and why

Oh what a hard one to answer…. I want to cheat and mention my top five if I may:

I remember adoring the Wigmore Hall and Kings Place for the golden glow they gave the sound of the solo violin, but I think I might now say that my favourite two places are Sladers Yard in Dorset because I have built up a really enthusiastic friendly audience for my series there and I get to play surrounded by the most incredible art AND see the sea after the concert, and now the Shortwave Cafe in Bermondsey because the launch of the new series Shortwave Nights was such an exciting start for me and the acoustics are absolutely great!  The fifth has to be the concert hall in Tianjin, China – one of the most beautiful and huge interiors I have ever played in and with the most perfect acoustic design, even two violins filled the place..

Which particular works do you think you play best

This is an impossible question to answer but I can tell you where I feel most at home  – and although this changes all the time, I do find that the expressive and geographic demands of works by say, Strauss and Respighi have taught me more about getting round the instrument than any etude….. I love the soaring lyricism given to the violin in these excessively romantic works.  I adore the grit and fire in composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky and after numerous performances feel that Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins is by now a true friend.. I love contemporary music and have adored the sheer agony of learning the only-just-within-technical-realms-of- possibility solo writing by Jim Aitchison such as his monumental work Shibboleth and his ultra finely crafted Fugue Refractions too… I cherish the opportunity to decide alone how to interpret a score for the very first time without the weight of tradition and it is always nice to be able to speak to the composer and ask what they really hand in mind in terms of colour and texture .. I would love to say Bach, but right now I am only exploring the full set of Solo Sonatas and Partitas in public for the first time so ask me again in a few years!

Guarea by Leo Geyer written for Philippa Mo

Shibboleth by Jim Aitchison

How do you make your repertoire choices season to season?

This is very much driven by the nature of the concert invitation and the colleagues involved. As a chamber player I am asked to play an enormous variety of music ranging from double violin concerti with full orchestra to directing chamber orchestras to piano trio and quartet programmes;  from first performances of contemporary chamber operas to solo recitals in halls as well as in venues never originally intended for concerts..  Giving recitals with established groups like Retorica means that we can draw on our large body of repertoire and make programmes together with promoters and adapt to bring in new works wherever possible and my own solo series I am running in the gorgeous gallery Sladers Yard, Dorset affords me total freedom in selecting works to fit in with my series concept Partita, Fantasia, Caprice… I love the fact that there is nothing rigid here and programmes are always thought through with individual attention . On longer tours it is also fun to stick to one programme and take on the challenge of repeating works whilst looking for new ways to invest them with life! The options are endless!

Tell us more about your new project Tuned In to Shortwave Nights

I am so happy to have finally launched this brand new series Tuned In to Shortwave Nights in my local area, Bermondsey. I have long admired the series Tuned In London run by Eleanor Thorn who is a true music lover and has worked tirelessly to seek out acts and bring together a vibrant series of world music concerts in gorgeous locations in Rotherhithe for a number of years now. We have talked for a similar number of years (!) about joining forces to promote a classical strand,  and she came up with the venue of the Shortwave Cafe which is part of the Peek Frean Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey and I came up with an absolutely stellar group of musicians to kick off our first six concerts.

The idea was simple – I wanted to find a relaxed and welcoming venue where the audience could get up close to the musicians and where the musicians could have total freedom to be experimental with their programming.  The musicians introduce the pieces and where possible, I have programmed new music and invited the featured composers to talk about their music too so that the audience can witness the full triangle of work between composer, musician interpreter and listener..

Now we have had two concerts already, I can tell you that the audience have been buzzing with the standard of the programme as well as the atmosphere of the events,  and our last concert was a sell out – which is remarkable, given the number of events competing for a musical audience in the capital on any one evening!

We are going to go on to welcome musicians from London: the viola player Timothy Ridout who won the prestigious  Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition, the Grammy award-winning cellist Jakob Kullberg from Denmark and the phenomenal Danish percussionist Ronni Kot Wenzell who lives in Rio but has coordinated tour dates to fit in Shortwave Nights. The second concert held in February with the brilliant Swedish guitarist Martin Fogel was a triumph, and he showed off his expert knowledge of Toru Takemitsu alongside his own brilliant compositions and an exquisite Bach Suite (to name but a few works) leaving the audience wanting more.

For me – there is an immense joy hearing these players live, and performing alongside them is a real honour, so I already consider the series an achievement. I think the audience will also enjoy the excitement of one or two completely fresh collaborations.

Having spoken to members of the audience, I can also say that many of my hopes have already been fulfilled – people have been delighted by the music, delighted by hearing certain instruments live for the first time, delighted to chat to the artists and the composers , delighted by the informality and the fact they can sit with a drink and trust to see what happens.. and the majority have already come back which makes for a really friendly open listening experience.. we have also had a raft of composers, artists, authors and musicians in the audience so I am really excited about this and getting to plan the next series too.. Watch this space!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having health, luck, determination and one or two basic practicalities in place to enable the love and the practice of music to flourish…..

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Oh this makes me feel old! but I would say after knocks here and there and by now a bit of experience in my own way: learn to embrace hard work without expecting any particular trajectory of results. Look after your health and stay fit: performing can amount to a pretty punishing lifestyle with its long hours and ongoing physical exertion. What with travel and a myriad of other considerations, there can limited access to sensible food too so carry oatcakes and bananas! Keep listening to music and other musicians to stay interested and inspired and look for ways to share your gifts as well as earn from them. Pass on your knowledge generously – I have been taught by my friends that musicians are like a family – competition is a bit artificial beyond a certain basic point and there is always room for many interpretations. Look after your colleagues. Stay kind in rehearsals. Music is always personal, so choose the gentler words … and above all, keep going.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

Literally speaking – I think I adore London so much and all it has to offer artistically that I would like to be living here as I do now and maintain the freedom I currently enjoy to travel and to play wherever my music takes me in collaboration with musicians who make me feel glad to be alive.

What is your most treasured possession?

……unsurprisingly my violin.  I forget sometimes how truly wonderful it is and how fortunate I am to be able to play it every day – when I do stop to think,  I get a jolt and stop to admire it and polish it a little more carefully and yes I do talk to it kindly and thank it for putting up with some especially violent new music or extreme temperature change I just put it through….. it has certainly seen me through some highs and lows and I hope I am lucky enough to spend the rest of my life looking after it ..

What is your present state of mind?

Totally excited.

 

Details of Philippa Mo’s Shortwave Nights series here


Philippa studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing. Philippa now performs extensively as a chamber musician. She has given performances and live broadcasts worldwide, including her acclaimed debut at the Wigmore Hall, recitals at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, St John’s, Smith Square, London, the Deutsches Museum, Munich, the Natural History Museum, Ulaan Bataar, when she was invited as the only British musician to participate as soloist in the International Music Festival of Contemporary Music, Mongolia in 2002. Philippa has also been invited to play at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and The Tate St Ives in the UK and more further afield at the Ankara International Music Festival and the Lincoln Center, New York.  

A champion of contemporary music, Philippa has given workshops on British music at the Central Conservatory, Beijing and at Bilkent and Hacettep Universities in Ankara, Turkey. She coached students of the Kurmangazy National Conservatory of Kazakhstan in Almaty 2007-09. She has worked closely with many leading British composers including Gabriel Prokofiev, Robert Fokkens, Cecilia McDowall, Leo Geyer, Deborah Pritchard, David Matthews, John McCabe, Jim Aitchison, Wendy Hiscocks and Errollyn Wallen and has given premieres of their solo and violin duo works.

Philippa has established an ongoing relationship with the Tate St Ives and recently recorded a solo work written for her by Leo Geyer on the anniversary of Barbara Hepworth to be used as a sound installation at the Tate. She also premiered a new solo work by composer Jim Aitchison alongside his monumental solo work Shibboleth at CAST, Helston and at the Porthmeor studios, St Ives.  Concerto appearances include a newly commissioned work for Truro Cathedral as part of the innovative Online Orchestra Project with the Philharmonia Orchestra. and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires in The Venue, Leeds with conductor Natalia Luis Bassa as well as John McCabe’s Les Martinets Noirs at the Lidköping Festival, Sweden.

Philippa has released critically acclaimed recordings for the NMC, Dutton and Nimbus labels.

She was appointed Senior Lecture in Violin at Leeds College of Music and awarded Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM) in 2015. 

Philippa is also the founding member of the Retorica violin duo:

“The two violins are wielded with enough delicacy and charm to immerse the listener into some really penetrating expression on the vivid scale of a full symphony orchestra” – British Music Society News 

“…faultless technique and unfailing insight.” Gramophone Magazine

Philippa Mo and Harriet Mackenzie met at the Royal Academy of Music, London. Since then, Retorica have performed worldwide to great acclaim. Highlights include recitals in the most prestigious halls in China, the Beijing NCPA and Shanghai SHAOC, Sweden, Italy, Ukraine, Japan, Germany and the Channel Islands. In the UK their performances include the Barbican Centre,  International festivals of Bury St Edmunds and Ripon, Presteigne and the William Alwyn Festival. 

Retorica’s debut CD English Violin Duos was chosen as Gramophone Magazine’s ‘Editor’s choice’ and the ‘must hear’ CD for chamber music: “superbly responsive playing from Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo…. faultless technique and unfailing insight” . Retorica have also received critical acclaim for their Dutton recording of John McCabe’s Double violin concerto and most recently received five stars for their receding of Paul Patterson’s Allusions with the English Symphony Orchestra. 

Philippa plays a violin by Julius Cesare Gigli from 1786. 

www.philippamo.london