Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity (‘Exsolve’ was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffith: plaudits to them for the album’s fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZHZl2ARMfI

(Video edit of ‘Mandrel Cantus’, filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)

Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of ‘Exsolve’ – along with all her earlier work – directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here. [link: https://joquail.bandcamp.com/]


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As a young child there was a lot of music around the house and I listened to Jacqueline du Pré play Bach’s Cello Suites every night before bed. I am not sure how attentive a listener I was – I believe the aim was for me to drop off to sleep! – but I refused to accept any other interpretation of that music! As for my decision to make cello my career, I became accustomed to the life of a touring artist on a series of cruises starting when I was five years old, during which I had fantastic experiences performing amongst top professionals, signing autographs and even being interviewed by Richard Baker before rushing back to the swimming pool!

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

I grew up attending my father’s concerts with cellist Alexander Baillie and listening through the door to their rehearsals at home. Musicians were often guests at our house and I remember discussing the finer points of ‘Lord of the Rings’ with Dame Emma Kirkby, whose individual approach to singing has always seemed the most natural to me. Lately, I have been influenced more by ideas and principles of making music than by specific performers: I am not aiming to emulate any cellist in particular but to reach my own personal sound in ways I am discovering myself. There are cellists whom I greatly admire such as Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker, but I have been more often inspired by musicians in other fields such as the conductors Claudio Abbado and Carlos Kleiber, the violinist Julia Fischer and pianists Claudio Arrau and Arthur Rubinstein.

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

The greatest challenges have been projects that I embarked upon with a view to expanding the repertoire of the cello. In 2014 I performed Jan Vriend’s ‘Anatomy of Passion’, a 30 minute work for cello and piano composed in 2004. It was a formidable challenge, not only because of great technical demands and complex rhythms to coordinate with the piano, but also because I decided to perform the piece from memory which I believe made my performance more convincing. More recently, I arranged and performed Bach’s iconic ‘Ciaccona’ from the Violin Partita No. 2 in venues including London’s Wigmore Hall and King’s College Chapel. This was an enormous statement, to take a piece which means so much to people and adapt it to another instrument which made it essential for me to transcend the substantial technical difficulties of performing this on the cello and create a performance which was musically worthwhile and not just an impressive show of technique.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I try to make every performance better than the last, but rather than pride, I experience enjoyment when I play. My performances of the two pieces mentioned above have been some of the most rewarding concert experiences of my life. I am also happy that the recording I made at nineteen years old of the Chopin Cello Sonata still seems relevant to me despite the six years of development I have had since then.

Which particular works do you think you play/conduct best?

I play a wide range of repertoire, from Bach through to brand new pieces and I try to approach every type of music with the same philosophy – to take a fresh look at the score and try to interpret what that particular composer means in their notation. I then put one hundred percent of myself into every moment of the music, no matter what the style. Having said that, I think music by Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich suits me well and I find the technical challenges of music from the 20th and 21st centuries to be the most fascinating. In terms of conducting my repertoire is smaller, but I have most enjoyed conducting 19th and 20th century music. In particular, I conducted Strauss’ Metamorphosen with the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in 2017 and since I felt a particular affinity with the piece I found it very natural to memorise and perform.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season as a performer and also as conductor?

My repertoire choices are often taken in collaboration with musicians I am working with and I am very lucky to perform regularly with my father, pianist James Lisney. We both enjoy crafting programmes with a unifying theme and have toured several of these ‘project’ concerts with titles such as the Beethoven Grand Tour (the five Cello Sonatas), Cello Song and Russian Connections. I enjoy playing contemporary music so I make a particular effort to fit some new music into most of my recital programmes. As for concerti and chamber music that is often a little more out of my control but I am eager to play all sorts of music!

You are also a composer and conductor. How do these disciplines impact on your performing career and vice versa?

My work as a composer impacts directly on my cello career as I often perform my own music. My conducting contributes less obviously to the rest of my career (though I have conducted my own music) but I believe that the experience of leading an orchestra through various types of music has improved my concerto playing and opened my eyes to particular considerations in composition. My experiences as a cellist are central to everything I do and it is almost impossible to separate it out. Of course, the technical knowledge is crucial to composing for string instruments but also the experience of performing gives me a certain empathy with musicians I am writing for; I take great care to ensure that the music I compose is rewarding both to perform and to hear.

As a composer, how would you describe your compositional language?

This is a question we composers are asked very regularly and I am still struggling for an answer! The aspects of my music which might constitute a style or language are by nature the ones that recur in many of my pieces and as such, they are the very elements it is difficult to identify in one’s own music. My orchestration is often detailed and delicate, but I am not adverse to thicker symphonic textures. I do not write in a strictly tonal idiom but I think it is clear to listeners that I have a background in western classical music, and tonal direction is central to my music. I am very motivically-led and this is often the focus of my compositional process. I begin with one or two ideas which I develop, combine and transform in the same way Beethoven, Wagner and so many others have done before.

How do you work, as a composer?

Since I have never had my own piano I have become accustomed to working in silence at a desk. I tend to start out on manuscript paper and when I begin writing I usually have a significant portion of the piece mostly if not fully composed in my head. At some point in the process I will ‘run out’ of music and at that point I look back at what I have written so far and examine the possibilities. Later on I type everything into Sibelius [music notation software] but I do not use the playback function except for checking mistakes – I am much more likely to hear a typo than see one!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, ensembles and orchestras?

I find it very rewarding to write specifically for certain players or ensembles. For example, in 2017 I composed ‘Thread of the Infinite’ for the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra in the knowledge that they would perform this piece unconducted, directed from the violin by Thomas Gould. In this case I made sure that the coordination between parts was clear enough not to require a visual cue from a conductor and inserted several soaring violin solos for the Leader. I have recently written a piece ‘Spiralen’ for Ensemble Recherche, who specialise in the highly complex music of composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann. My music is far removed from this idiom but I found it very rewarding to work out what new things these musicians were capable of and how I could absorb this into my own style.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?

Many of the most challenging aspects of being a conductor are administrative! At this stage in my career I am running my own orchestra which involves a lot of non-musical tasks such as organising parts, venues and marketing. This means however that I have autonomy over the artistic direction the orchestra takes which I find very exciting. I love rehearsing with musicians and find it very interesting to think about how different musicians respond to words and visual cues. I often have to say something in two or three different ways to get all the players in a section to respond in one way. If I want a particular quiet sound, for example, some of the violinists might pick that up from my beat, others would benefit from some metaphorical suggestion and the final group might respond best to a specific technical instruction such as bow position and speed of vibrato.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players? Conveying the vision of the composer?

I see my role as a facilitator with a interpretative opinion… I wish to give the players both the framework and the freedom to perform, which involves bringing everyone together to a unified vision of the music. I hope that in a concert situation I can help inspire the players to find something magical and then very often as a conductor our work is done – less is more.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There are many works I would love to conduct, particularly some works by George Benjamin such as ‘At First Light’. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony totally captivated me and has filled my head since I first heard it. I am very excited that this dream is shortly to be fulfilled in a concert at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on 3rd March 2019.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I feel entirely free when I am performing and my main motivation in pursuing a career in music is to get the opportunities to show people the music that I love and believe in.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?

What I have learnt so far is to approach every work with humility and love; look at every work from a composer’s perspective, put one hundred per cent of yourself into it and value that input. I have also learnt that your understanding of something you take the time to discover by yourself is so much deeper than something given to you fully-formed. The journey is essential.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

10 years sounds an unimaginably long time and I cannot immediately see where my current trajectory will take me. I suppose that my ultimate goal is to be able to perform the music I want to perform to a willing audience(!) and I hope that I can combine the three strands of my career – cello, composition and conducting – to have a fulfilling musical life.

Joy Lisney conducts the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in music by Alma and Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge on Saturday 10th November. Further information and tickets


Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years. Her early promise as a cellist was highlighted by Carlton Television when they chose her, at the age of six, as a possible high achiever of the twenty first century.

She has since fulfilled expectations with a distinguished international career, launched by a debut series of two concerts at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2012.

Joy has enjoyed collaborations with artists including Dame Emma Kirkby, Alexander Baillie, Howard Williams, Huw Watkins, the Allegri Quartet and the Wihan Quartet and also performs regularly in duo with her father James Lisney. Venues for duo recitals have included Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and St. John’s Smith Square. In 2014 she performed all five Beethoven cello sonatas in a single concert in a tour concluding with a sold-out performance at London’s Southbank Centre. Projects in 2017 have included a Schubert Quintet Tour with the Allegri Quartet, concerto performances by Prokofiev, Haydn and Turnage and the Cello Song recital tour.

As a passionate advocate of new music Joy has commissioned two new works from the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, the first of which she recorded on her debut CD in 2012. In 2014 she performed as a London Sinfonietta Emerging Artist at the BBC Proms in a concert broadcast on Radio 3 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies. In April 2017 Joy performed on the opening night of the Park Lane Group Recital Series at St. John’s Smith Square, giving a solo recital including two premieres, one of which was her own composition ScordaturA. Joy has also given European premieres of works by Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall.

As a composer, Joy has won the Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss Prizes and she was also Composer in Residence at Cambridge University Music Society for 2016-17. Joy is in the second year of her PhD in Composition at King’s College, Cambridge, supported by the AHRC, and is Honorary King’s College Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet and she has since had music performed at the King’s Lynn and Aldeburgh Festivals and the Park Lane Group Series.

Forthcoming performances this season include the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto (with Emma Lisney), the premiere of her new work for chamber ensemble, and concerts at Temple Music Foundation, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, St George’s Bristol, the Purcell Room, and St John’s Smith Square.

Joy is also the founder and conductor of the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, a string orchestra which combines the best players of Cambridge University with young professionals from the South of England.

joylisney.com

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My singing career started when I was three years old, when I sang at a church event. My parents realised that I enjoyed it and encouraged me to perform as much as possible; my performing career developed from there. I started playing the piano when I was five and writing songs in my early teens, although I would never sing them to anyone! That confidence to perform my own work took a while to develop and I didn’t publicly air that material until I was in my early twenties. I was playing in church bands and leading worship on my own which helped me to develop my own style and rapport with people. With songwriting, the story is as important as the song and that connection with audience is something that you learn over time.

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

Too many to mention! But probably Karen Carpenter, I do think her best work was her solo album which she recorded with Phil Ramone. We can hear the real Karen, an artist who has matured and found her own style. Unfortunately, it wasn’t released until 1997, fourteen years after her death so she never saw the public’s fantastic reaction to it.

A love of music by female singer-songwriters and finding that I had a voice of my own has greatly influenced my work. When I was 18, I fell in love with Alanis Morrisette’s lyric writing and that gave me the impetus and confidence to write my own songs. Her brutal honesty inspired me and her ability to make just about any word rhyme, makes laugh a lot!

Judith Owen is an amazing songwriter and musical interpreter. Some of her arrangements of well-known popular songs are incredible and she loves to take traditionally male genres and add a female spin to them. Julia Fordham is also an incredible performer and songwriter and knows how to take the listener on an emotional and musical journey. The two albums that she collaborated with Larry Klein are amazing and are well worth a listen.

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

Embracing my training and then letting go of my training… There’s great value in good musical training and as a singing and piano teacher, you’d expect me to say that! However, there comes a time when you have to park your training and musical education in order to find your own, personal technique that makes you unique. I had to find my voice and embrace it. From a creative stance, this is liberating but can also be painful. You have to be prepared make mistakes and find the find the value in them in order to progress. It’s not only a musical journey, but a personal one too.

I didn’t realise how much people’s attitudes towards me would change after I reached a certain age and had children. For women in the music industry, doors close and opportunities are sparse once you hit 40 and have a family. We’re often seen as unavailable or unreliable which isn’t the case. It seems so old fashioned and unnecessary, especially when other employment sectors came in line with the law years ago. A few colleagues and I have made it our mission to make our own opportunities and create new paths for others to follow.

Which works are you most proud of?

I released my first album Conversations With The Heart in 2004 on the smallest of budgets (ie. barely none). It was recorded in my friend’s dining room which he had converted into a studio and served with a lot of tea and biscuits. It’s the album I thought I would never make and was achieved under difficult circumstances.

Some works surprise you. I wrote Do You Seek An Answer and then put it in a draw and forgot about it. Eventually it landed up on the At Second Glance EP and went on to be number one in the New Christian Music Chart in the UK and Europe. I didn’t see that coming or the reaction to the song from the general public.

Close That Door was a real departure for me in terms of style and music maturity. After years of writing, I felt that I had composed something near the mark of what I had always hoped to achieve. For a lot of songwriters, composing is the Holy Grail, we have great ambitions of what we would like to produce but it can take decades to start writing material that is near that goal. Have I managed to write anything like that again? No! I guess creative people are never satisfied and that’s what keeps us searching for the ultimate composition.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I saw George Michael in November 2007 at Earls Court as part of the Twenty Five Live tour. His voice was out of this world and far better than any of recordings! A real loss to the musical world. He knew how to connect with the audience and despite his shyness, was a well-seasoned showman. The whole show was well crafted and he obviously picked his musicians carefully as there was a palpable intuition between all of them.

From my own performing career, the most memorable concerts are the ones where I’ve collaborated with other artists. A few years ago, I was a backing vocalist for Darren Hayman (formerly of the band Hefner) for his Chants For Socialists project. I hadn’t performed much folk material, so it was great to work with a band and quite a diverse group of vocalists, recapturing William Morris’ mission to improve life for the poor through these political chants.

Working with the saxophonist and composer, Rachael Forsyth is always amazing. We met at university and over the years, we have performed and written together. Our work has involved over time and these days is more about composition rather than performance, but who knows? This may change in the future.

As a composer, how do you work?

The way I work has changed over the years. I used to sit at the piano for hours fleshing out ideas but I began to feel restless with that way of working. Now I tend to work more “on the go” and add ideas to my phone or notebook which I can then work through later. You have to keep changing the way you do things to keep the creativity flowing and growing.

I’ve also find it helpful to have a set topic for a project. Recently I have been working with the Buckinghamshire County Archive, creating songs based on stories for the county’s World War One collection. It’s been fascinating and inspiring to bring history to life through song. It also led to some opportunities at performance events with a wide range of artists who told the stories of local people through different artistic media.

A few months ago, I decided to break away from songwriting and compose some instrumental pieces. I needed a new challenge and wanted to create music that didn’t rely on my voice. Over the years, I’ve been asked for the backing tracks for my songs as people have wanted to use them instrumentally, this gave me the confidence to start thinking about making non-vocal music and what it could be used for. I’ve also been creating short films to go with the pieces. I haven’t unleashed them on the public, but I think an instrumental project maybe something I produce in the future.

How would you describe your compositional/musical style?

That depends on the day! I never quite know how to answer this question as my style changes for each song but I definitely lean more towards a jazz, soul style of music. I’m always striving to improve and build on the previous work to see how far I can push my technique. In the past, one producer I worked with always wanted my work to have a commercial edge, but for me, I felt that it killed the music and some of my message was lost in the stylistic translation. But that’s the dilemma for all music artists, please the masses or please yourself? There’s no answer to that question…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think success is very hard to define in music, it’s different for everyone. I try to set small levels of success as in music they can be a moveable goal! If the goals and levels are small, they are far more achievable. That’s not to say that attaining success isn’t important, but you need a high amount of realism and flexibility to work in music. Having a varied career helps, when the teaching is going well, the performing might not be as lucrative and vice versa.

I mostly ignore what the industry claims is success as everyone’s path is so different, how could we even compare each other? I found that this has made me much happier as I’m working on a route that suits me. Having supportive colleagues is a great help: we all cheer each other on and listen to each other when it’s needed.

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

A flexible approach to a music career. My career has involved teaching, composing and performing which keeps things fresh but also widens the landscape for opportunities. Be prepared to take on non-music work in order to live, then you can pick and choose the projects you want to work on without the pressure of the mortgage looming over you. Do whatever you have to, to make it work. A few years ago, I went through a family crisis which pretty much brought everything to halt; I didn’t know if I would be able to continue in music, but I decided that I had to find a way that worked for me. I can’t say that I’ve recovered everything, but I made a conscious decision to not give up.

Tenacity and perseverance. You need to be steely-eyed and have a thick skin to be a musician. It’s a rollercoaster ride with many twists and turns. Some seasons you’ll be to support yourself financially through music and other seasons you’ll need to get other work. It’s part of being a troubadour and an artisan.

It also good to be inspired by other musicians, but at the same time you need to develop a musical character of your own as this is what moves an audience. I’ve seen too many acts trying to emulate someone else’s musical style – it never works. Be yourself: there’s a reason you are created as YOU. It’s also better to move the audience than to impress them; if you can take them on an emotional, musical journey they will remember that forever.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Mostly hanging out with friends and catching up. Being with people you love and make you laugh is better than therapy! I also like painting and over the last few years, I’ve been getting back into that after a break of more than 20 years. I enjoy being creative whether it’s music, art or writing a blog: it’s all cathartic.

Being active is also very important to me. I find that I can clear my mind when I’m running, swimming or walking. It’s good way to let my mind wander and begin to solve my problems, probably because I let my thoughts switch off and my mind can be calm. I’ve had some of best ideas while running on the treadmill!

What is your present state of mind?

Rather unusual for me, but I would say looking to the future. Over the last few years, my outlook has been “take one day at a time” but now, I’m starting to think more about what I want out of life and also music!

WWW.HELENSANDERSONWHITE.COM

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

My mother was a woodwind teacher, so music was always in the house. She used to sit me at the piano in my highchair and I’d happily play away to myself as a baby. When I was potty trained, I asked for a recorder as my reward which I then learnt to play the same day. I could read music before I could write. I chose the clarinet because my arms weren’t long enough to play flute and I didn’t like the look of the curved head flute! I was six when I started clarinet and never really looked back.

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

There have been a few major influences who have really influenced and supported my career development.

The late flautist Sebastien Bell was Head of Woodwind at the Royal Academy of Music when I was a student. He understood my developing passion for contemporary music and bass clarinet and gave me a huge amount of encouragement to go my own way. I can’t thank him enough for that and he taught me so much about playing new music.

Whilst a student at the Royal Academy, I wrote to Czech bass clarinettist Josef Horak who developed the bass clarinet into a solo instrument in the 1950s. At that time I had little repertoire or knowledge of the bass clarinet world. He would send me piles of music, CDs, past concert programmes and set me off on the journey I am on today.

And of course, we have our godfather of bass clarinet Harry Sparnaay who died last year. I regret never studying with him, but the help and support I got from him whilst doing my PhD was just incredible. His influence lives on today in myself and all of my bass clarinet colleagues.

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

Specialising in contemporary music means that the greatest challenges appear several times a year and never stop arriving! It may be in a new work written for you that you have to master or an existing work that pushes your technique. I’ve had many moments of opening a score and thinking that I’d never in a million years be able to play the piece. Luckily I’ve been determined and it’s a great feeling to overcome these challenges and see works all the way to performance and recordings!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am the clarinettist with Northern Ireland’s Hard Rain Solist Ensemble. I’m incredibly proud to be in this ensemble which specialises in performing core contemporary repertoire and commissioning and promoting Northern Irish and Irish composers. Every one of the concerts we do is a massive achievement and it’s like a second family to be with.

I also work with my bass clarinet and piano duo SCAW and rarescale. I’ve recorded with both and love my work with both ensembles.

I just have a new recording of Strauss, Beethoven and Glinka works out on the Hyperion label. I know it’s surprised people as I’m playing clarinet on the CD. Recorded three years ago, it was at a different part of my career, but pushed my playing skills in a different way.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love contemporary music where you have to discover the music as you learn a piece. If you can find the music, untraditional phases, melodies, thematic material in such a piece and engage an audience in your interpretation, then I think that is mission accomplished. I love the music of composers such as Franco Donatoni. You can live with his music for years and it still keeps revealing new exciting secrets each time you play his pieces.

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

As a contemporary music specialist, your programme choices are often influenced by who is writing for you at the time. I’m recently working with composers writing for contrabass clarinet and these pieces will feature in future programmes along with currently unwritten works.

I also like to perform core contemporary music within a programme of music writen for me and always have projects of existing repertoire on the stand. I currently have Monolog, by Isang Yun for solo bass clarinet, Ombra for solo contrabass clarinet, by Franco Donatoni and Bug for solo clarinet, by Bruno Mantovani on the go.

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

I don’t think I have a favourite, but I enjoy playing in small and intimate venues and also in rural places where there is limited access to live music. I’ve had some fantastic experiences playing on small Scottish islands over the years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Gosh – that’s a hard question, as there are so many! I love all types of music and there are players in all genres I appreciate. I like musicians who are able to express emotion and a sense of enjoyment with their music. Be it a player like Pat Methany who plays from the heart, the jazz playing of bass clarinet greats like Eric Dolphy and Bennie Maupin who make you appreciate the bass clarinet for where the contemporary side has partly come from. And then of course, the late Harry Sparnnay, our godfather of bass clarinet for all he achieved and for just being the greatest bass clarinettist ever to live!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My first solo bass clarinet recital in the Purcell Room was special because it was a defining moment for me when I was being accepted in the UK for being a bass clarinettist. It was also one of the scariest concerts I’ve ever done as the repertoire of Donatoni, Cardew and Marc Yeats was some of the most difficult repertoire I’d ever performed and on a prestigious stage.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you find yourself and your direction as a player. As a bass clarinet specialist, it’s nice to be respected for what I do and to have people from all over the world contact me to ask questions or to ask to study with me. Publishing my multiphonic book was a special moment for me, because it was the final step in a huge project and enabled me to contribute to an area of bass clarinet development that needed clarification.

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

Be yourself and follow your own ambition. Some players want to play in an orchestra, some want to play chamber music and some want to be soloists. Grab all the opportunities you can whilst studying and consider all the options. Being an orchestral player, a chamber musician, a soloist or a combination of all is great, but ultimately never be afraid to specialise if that is what you want to do.

Until around eighteen months ago, I was still under pressure to pursue orchestral auditions and yet, deep down I knew I didn’t want too. I love doing occasional orchestral work, but I love contemporary solo, chamber music and also my university and research work much more. At that recent point in my life, I dug my heels in and made some firm decisions about what I wanted and what was right for me, and have never been happier.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully still playing, premiering new works and teaching at university/conservatoire level. I teach at RNCM and am Director of Performance at Sheffield Univeristy, so I intend to work hard to develop both of these roles and courses. I’m also planning further research and want to write at least one more academic book.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting down somewhere on the Isle of Raasay, Scotland where I have a cottage and looking at the sea and views to Skye and appreciating the peace that comes with it. Sometimes the silence or simple sounds of nature is as great as music and is a very humbling experience that puts life into perspective.

What is your most treasured possession?

Two things! My cottage on Raasay. I purchased it ten years ago sight unseen on an island I’d never been too. It’s the best thing I ever did!

The other is my contrabass clarinet which is known as ‘the beast’. It’s been amazing to learn this instrument over the past year and to start to commission works for it.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m doing what I love to do which is playing contemporary music, teaching at Sheffield University and RNCM and preparing some research projects. I also have some fantastic contemporary music ensembles I play with. I’m very content knowing that I’ve achieved that.


Sarah Watts studied clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music with Angela Malsbury and Victoria Soames Samek (bass clarinet). Sarah then decided to specialise in the bass clarinet and continued her studies at the Rotterdam Conservatorium bass clarinet with Henri Bok, funded by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and a Leverhulme Trust Studentship. Sarah was awarded the Exxon prize for the best classical music student in Rotterdam.

Successes include: Winner, UK Howarth Clarinet Competition 2000; Winner, Hawkes Clarinet Prize (RAM) 2001; Winner, Sir Arthur Bliss Chamber Music Prize (RAM) 2000; Winner of wind section and Faber Prize, UK Performing Australian Music competition, 2001 (her clarinet and bass clarinet recital was broadcast on ABC radio); Finalist, Wind section, Royal Overseas League Competition 2000.   Sarah has performed clarinet concertos with the Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia, European Union Youth Wind Orchestra and the Nottingham Orchestra of the Restoration.

Sarah specialises on the bass clarinet and has gained an international reputation as an artist, teacher and researcher on the instrument. She has performed solo repertoire across the UK, Ireland, Asia, Europe and the Americas and has attracted composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Piers Hellawell and William Sweeney to write works for her. In January 2003, Sarah performed a solo bass clarinet recital in London’s Purcell Room as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artist Series.  

Sarah teaches bass clarinet at the Royal Northern College of Music and clarinet at Nottingham University. She is Associate in Music Performance and Director of MA Performance at Sheffield University. Sarah hosts bass clarinet and clarinet courses on the Isle of Raasay in Scotland and runs and tutors on other wind chamber music courses in the UK and France. Sarah has given workshops on bass clarinet technique at many establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College of Music, The Royal Welsh College of Music, The Royal Northern College of Music, The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Keele University and Edinburgh University.

Sarah performs with Hard Rain Ensemble, rarescale and SCAW.

Sarah has completed a PhD in bass clarinet multiphonic analysis at Keele University and has published ‘Spectral Immersions; A Comprehensive Guide to the Theory and Practice of Bass Clarinet Multiphonics’ via Metropolis publishers.

Sarah is a Selmer artist, a Vandoren UK artist and a Silverstein Ligature artist.

In 2016, she was made an assocaite of the Royal Academy of Music, London.

sarahkwatts.co.uk

 

 

(photo: David Carslaw)

Guest post by Michael Johnson

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. She was, after all, only human.

My elder musician friends recall her as a brilliant analyst of composition yet as a person she tended toward the tyrannical, impatient and cantankerous. Composer Philip Glass, who studied with her for two years, wrote that she tried to be kind but “stayed pretty much in the range between intimidating and terrifying”.

She was like a lot of piano teachers, one might add. Fanny Waterman used to crack the knuckles of her young students with a ruler if they missed a note or dragged a tempo.

Nadia, who died in Paris in 1979, moved in the best circles of 20th century music. Leonard Bernstein often visited her in Paris. On one occasion, when he was already established as a composer and conductor, he recalled being made to feel small when he played one of his compositions for her. She objected to a certain b-flat. He recalled later, “I am 58,” but suddenly “it was like I was a child.…”

One musician friend of mine in Paris who studied with several of her students goes further, accusing her of “castrating” them (especially the males) by constant criticism and tedious exercises that had them “jumping through technical hoops for hours, years, on end”. Some of the exercises she wrote for her charges were “soul-destroying”, he says.

Nadia knew she had a mixed reputation and was comfortable with that. She maintained that musical training without rigor cannot be of value. Virgil Thomson wrote that she had a “no-nonsense approach to musical skills and a no-fooling-around treatment of anyone’s talent or vocation”. She once turned down a young girl applicant, exasperated, saying she would never find the patience to work with her. Fortunately, she added, her father was soon transferred to another country and the family left France.

I have just read an extraordinary collection of Nadia’s opinions and memories as assembled by Bruno Monsaingeon and published in 1980 as ‘Mademoiselle’ (Editions Van de Valde). Long out of print, I found a dog-eared, mildewed French copy in a bookstall and have studied it minutely. It is a portrait of a complex lady who describes herself as “pitiless” in her treatment of students, adding that she was just as rough on herself.

Originally an aspiring composer, she said that “if there is one thing I am sure of … it is that my music is useless”. Some listeners today would agree while others don’t. Her blandness and lack of originality seem evident to me. She admitted that she realized early on that she “had absolutely nothing to say.”

A student of Gabriel Fauré, Nadia gave up composition after the death of her beloved sister Lili, the more talented of the two sisters. Lili died of an affliction now known as Crohn’s disease, at 24, in 1918. Broken by Lili’s death, Nadia threw herself into teaching, inviting students from throughout the world to come to her Paris apartment and be forced into her straightjacket. There she taught conducting, analysis, harmony, counterpoint and composition as well as piano performance.

Some of the most important musicians of the 20th century worked under her harsh regime: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Pierre Schaeffer, Igor Markevitch, John-Eliot Gardiner, Daniel Barenboïm, Dinu Lipatti and others. Her list of students has never been completed but I should add the jazz composers Quincy Jones and Donald Byrd. The list goes on – Jean Françaix, Roy Harris, Peter Hill, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Michel Legrand, Gian Carlo Menotti, Jeremy Menuhin, Emile Naoumoff, Soulima Stravinsky.

Nadia was particularly critical of her American students who queued up to suffer under her rigorous demands. About 600 Americans took lessons from her in the 1920s to the 1970s. She found some of them brilliant but many, she said, lacked fundamentals or even a good ear. “The truth is that the study of the basics makes you understand that to be a good musician you must be a good grammarian.”

Conductor Igor Markevitch, who studied with her, recalled that she went out of her way to assert herself, even wearing a pince-nez to appear professorial. This, he said, helped her advance in a world then dominated by men.

She could be so harsh as to leave students stunned. Glass recalled in his recent autobiography ‘Words Without Music’ that while recuperating after a group class studying Bach chorales, the students would sit down at a café for coffee or beer. The Boulanger experience, he remembered, “invariably left us shaken and silent”.

Confused by the contradictory opinions in the air today, I turned to one of my main interests, portraiture, to try to get a better feel for the person behind the mask. Portraits can afford the artist a good opportunity to study a subject up close. In her case, I found nothing but severity — a strong jaw, narrowed eyes, arched eyebrows, a hard, thin mouth, and body language that students such as Glass found intimidating.

Watching her come to life on the page, I had to turn away. I felt fear. As a student, I would not have lasted an hour with her.

The Monsaingeon book is the most comprehensive account of Nadia’s views on music. He directed a television documentary on her 90th birthday and produced a book-length compilation of some five years of meetings and conversations with her. For easy reading, he reordered the material as an interview – inserting questions among her monologues.

I have produced this edited and translated version of Monsaingeon’s work, capturing the most pertinent extracts for a modern audience.

Aaron Copland described you as the most famous professor of composition alive.

Allow me to doubt the veracity of that statement. I believe a professor is dependent on the quality of the students. The professor’s role is less grand, less omnipotent, than one might think.

When did you discover music?

As a child, I could not stand the sound of music. It almost made me sick. I screamed. My sobbing could be heard in the street. The piano was a monster that terrorized me. Then one day I heard a fire truck passing by, siren blaring, and I sat down and found those notes on the keyboard. Suddenly I had discovered music with a passion. I can still hear my father saying, “What a strange little girl we have here.”

Your father was a French music professor and you mother was Russian?

Yes, my father was totally French and my mother Russian (Princess Michesky). We never spoke Russian in the home because she did not want the family language to be one that my father did not understand.

Do you believe your Russian ancestry has been important for you?

It has been very important … but I do not like to talk about personal background. There is no point talking about me all day long because it would interest no one and certainly not me!

Is it true that at the age of twelve you knew Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by heart?

It was an obligation. I was instructed to learn one prelude and one fugue per week. But you know, let’s not exaggerate. One prelude and one fugue per week is not so much… After this kind of training, though, one has a good basis in mind.

It is said that you already had an encyclopedic knowledge of music when you began teaching.

You know, people say all kinds of things, few of which are true.

How did you end up at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau?

Walter Damrosch founded the school and Francis Casadesus was the first director. I was brought in to join the faculty. I spoke two words of English, “Hello” and “Goodbye”. My first student was Aaron Copland. After Robert Casadesus, other directors followed, including Maurice Ravel, Charles-Marie Widor, and I succeeded Casadesus in 1946.

I understand that the conservatory was founded after World War I for American troops but after the war, what happened?

The Fontainebleau school became very important for the Americans. They had brilliant schooling and were very gifted but they lacked fundamentals in many cases; their musical ear was underdeveloped and they had bypassed the everyday details of music education. Why? Because — it was believed — one must not overwork the children.

What were your basics in the curriculum?

I had to insist on the fundamentals – hearing, looking, listening and seeing.

You trained a large number of Americans. There must be hardly a city in North America that doesn’t have one of your students.

Yes indeed, I had a great number of American students. One must remember that fifty years ago there was no such thing as American music. An immense change has happened since – Monsieur Copland, Monsieur Bernstein – their works are performed all over the world. The term “American musician” is no longer something unusual.

Didn’t you bring Aaron Copland to the attention of the American public?

A. Yes, in September 1938 I encouraged Walter Damrosch and Serge Koussevitzky to program his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Damrosch conducted it in Boston (in 1938) and was probably disturbed by the modernity of it. He turned to the audience as said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if a man of 23 can compose such a work, he will be capable by the age of 30 of murdering his own parents.” He was laughing but he was serious too. Naturally there was a reaction and agitation among the public but Copland’s reputation was made. Copland’s piece seems tame by today’s standards.

Music goes through phases of popularity. Is this a problem?

I am tormented by the phenomenon of fashion in music. Since I am an old fusspot, I don’t much like change. Of course change for reasons of necessity can be marvelous. But change because one does not know where to go next is fatal and destructive.

What about new voices in music?

Rather than deepening one’s understanding, we see too many people chasing discoveries as an end in itself — finding that unknown masterpiece at any cost. The less these people understand, the more enthusiastic they are. I recently heard a piece that made me wonder if the composer was ill, on drugs, or victim of a serious mental disorder.

How important is music in your life?

I am an absolutely mad consumer of music. I call it a sickness because even when I am exhausted after eight or nine hours of teaching, my first move – to the annoyance of the household – is to switch on the radio and listen. I am insatiable. I love listening (to music).

You say you can appreciate the good and bad elements of a work. What are your criteria for a masterpiece?

I have no idea. I don’t say they don’t exist but I have no idea.

And yet listening to a masterpiece you seem to be certain of your judgment.

It comes down to faith, to belief. Just as I accept the existence of God, I accept beauty, I accept emotion and I accept a masterpiece… Exactly what makes up a masterpiece escapes me… I can analyze anything. But a page, a line, a measure of Schubert, I have no idea.

How much training is necessary to appreciate great music?

One can be totally without training and yet feel the senses penetrated by melodic emotion – this is perfectly respectable.

How do you balance rigor and creative freedom?

I hope my teaching has influenced students to appreciate the need for rigor, for order. But in the area of style, I have never intended to exert any influence. If I am working with a foreigner and I try to make him or her into a French person I am sure to fail.

Isn’t it possible to list composers in a hierarchy of importance?

The seems very difficult to me.

Still, one could rank Beethoven against Max Bruch, for example.…

There you are falling into the abyss. You compare the Himalayas with Butte Montmartre. Really, I must say that I honestly almost never think about Max Bruch whereas hardly a day passes that I don’t think about Beethoven.

How would you sum up your role as a professor?

I know my job. I am someone who can help students acquire a basic technique, to listen, to hear, to transpose, to practice, to memorize. The role of the professor seems to me to be modest.


Another version of this essay-interview originally appeared on factsandarts.com

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

 

Illustration by Michael Johnson

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