My first visit to Spitalfields Music and the first time I’ve heard pianist Melvyn Tan live. More importantly, the concert included three premieres, by Rolf Hind, Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove, including a new addition to the ‘Variations for Judith’ which opened the evening.

Composed as a special gift for Judith Serota when she left the Spitalfields Festival in 2007 after nearly twenty years at the helm, the Variations comprise 11 short reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ (G H Stölzel arr. JS Bach, realised by David Titterington), composed by other Spitalfields Festival Artistic Directors, all people with whom Judith worked. An initial collection of seven variations was presented to Judith and a further four were added, all by composers associated with the Spitalfields Festival. The Variations hark back to a precedent probably set by J S Bach – a collection of short pieces of varying difficulty – and rather like Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which Bach presented to his wife, the Variations for Judith were presented to Judith Serota to encourage and inspire her own piano studies.

The pieces which make up ‘Variations for Judith’ are often described as “music for amateur pianists”, and while they may be short and mostly roughly Grade 4-7 level, I would refute the suggestion that these pieces are exclusively the preserve of the amateur pianist. Nor should they be: the suite works very well as a complete concert piece. Each work is unique, portraying its composer’s distinctive compositional style and soundworld, yet they are all connected by the opening theme. In some variations the theme is obvious, in others it is fragmented or subtly veiled. The works are varied in their individual characters, some displaying sparkling wit and humour (those by Anthony Payne and Judith Weir, for example), while others are fragile, tender or lyrical (Thea Musgrave, Jonathan Dove).

Melvyn Tan

Pianist Melvyn Tan originally premiered the ‘Variations for Judith’ in June 2012 and he is evidently very at home with this music, adept at drawing out each variation’s individual character and alert to the swiftly changing moods of the pieces. In addition to a creating an appealingly translucent sound (helped by a beautiful Steinway D and the acoustic of the venue, St Leonard’s Church), his playing was gestural and sensitive: each miniature was elegantly shaped and coloured. The newest variation by Rolf Hind, premiered at this concert, began with a fleeting sound in the bass and stamping feet, before the main theme emerged. There were chiming bells and plangent bass chords, utilising the timbre and decay of the piano.

The Variations were followed by two more premieres of works by Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove. ‘I’ve turned the page….’ by Judith Weir was a witty musical take on the phrase “I’ve turned the page”, implying that one is start afresh, and each turn of the page in the score brought fresh ideas, from a boisterous dance (page 2) to a haunting twirling melody, then a frenetic rising figure, culminating in treble flourishes and clusters redolent of a Chopin Etude.

Jonathan Dove’s ‘Catching Fire’ was written as a birthday gift for Melvyn Tan (who turned 60 this year), a work which combines elements drawn from the toccata and perpetuum mobile genres, with passages which flicker and shimmer at the far reaches of the keyboard. At times the insistent throb of the music was almost industrial in its sound, while the clever use of repetition and pedal effects called to mind other instruments such as drums and horns rather in the manner of Somei Satoh’s atmospheric ‘Incarnation II’. Tan’s sensitive pacing, dynamic shading and colouristic nuancing ensured the work remained “musical” at all times, and the piece provided an interest complement to Liszt’s three Concert Etudes, which Tan executed with understated bravura.

(picture of Melvyn Tan by Eoin Carey)

Who or what inspired you to take up the ‘cello and make it your career?

Ahhh! that is a long story, I will try and shorten it as much as possible. Perhaps this might even be the beginning of a funny book for later on in life.

I come from a family musicians, everyone plays an instrument, my mum the piano teacher, my dad played the Jazz trombone (so did my grand dad), my sister the violin, my grandmother was a singer and she had 17 brothers and sisters, all musicians, piano, flute, violin, cello, clarinet, singers etc…

When I was born my parents thought it would be nice to carry on the tradition without thinking necessarily of a career and they tried me on the piano first, but it’s really tough to have a mum piano teacher… too much pressure. Then I tried the violin, apparently I was really talented and they found me a great but very tough Russian teacher, and being 5 years old at the time all I wanted to do was have fun, and he was making me do so many exercise, scales etc…so I got tired of it all and threw the bow at his face at one lesson, then came the percussion which I loved, but after too many complaints from the neighbours and one too many visits from the local police we decided to stop that, I tried the flute, but kept hyper ventilating and fainting, then the saxophone ( which I did more for my dad ) and eventually they just decided to give up and let me be a normal person… But as my grandmother the singer always wanted to play the cello, she had other plans and she bought me a cello for my seventh Christmas. Imagine the scene; there is a massive wrapped up present with my name on it and I was sure it was the bike I had been begging for for so many months and then my disappointment when I realised it was just another piece of wood without wheels or a seat. I felt cheated, I was still very much a child.

Being disappointed, I did not even want to try what looked to be an instrument of torture, but a month later my mum organised my first cello lesson. Being fairly small and having to carry the big case around to the teacher’s house, I could not help but feel people were looking at me as if I was a wounded gazelle limping around in the Serengeti, with predators all around looking at me and thinking ”humm… I don’t know what that thing is, but I really feel the urge to have a bite at the person carrying it…”

The cello teacher was great, she made the whole experience fun and little by little I discovered a trusting friend in this instrument, and it has stayed like this ever since.

I could not imagine my life with out playing the cello now, I am the first musician in my family to be a soloist and I thank my Grandmother every time I am on stage. It’s the only place where I have always felt completely at home.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

There are so many musicians from the present as well as of course from past generations: Gregor Piatigorsky, Mistslav Rostropovitch, Yehudi Menuhin, Daniil Shafran as well as from the present and especially from all the colleagues I play with.

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

There have been a few. One of them was juggling four jobs at once which started when I was appointed principal cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London at the age of 20 (the youngest ever apparently). That same year, I started my position as cello professor at the Royal Conservatory of Mons in Belgium. Of course, I had all my solo and chamber music concerts and I was also finishing Masters Degree at the Guildhall School of Music too. There were some incredibly early mornings and very late nights practicing on stage of the Royal Festival Hall just after having done concerts with the Philharmonia.

It taught me a lot about efficiency.

My first recording was done in the middle of the night. This was my first solo CD and we recorded it in Bruxelles while I was working in Paris at the “Chatelet”. Each night, I had to dash after the performance to catch the last TGV to Bruxelles in time to start recording at 1am until 6 am and then back to Paris with the first train in order to make it for the rehearsal and concert. This went on for three days and nights straight… I was younger and even more crazy than I am now, although I’m sure many of my friends might disagree with me on that!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I always see playing as a soloist like making chamber music but with an impressive size group. I love to communicate with everyone on stage and it’s not so easy to engage with every single player in the orchestra, but when it happens, I find it magical.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Each of my recordings have something that I am proud of, it is difficult for me to say, as I am so very critical but each happened under a different set of circumstances.

My Lalo cello concerto recording was done in 4 hours of recording and the orchestra had not performed it before. The conductor arrived late for the recording, and we could not extend the recording because of union rules which I totally appreciate, so we did the last movement in two full takes, no edits.

My YouTube recordings of the Rococo variations with the N.H.K Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy had kind of a funny start. I did not think that I was jetlagged when I arrived the night before the first concert, we rehearsed and feeling relaxed I had about 1h30 to kill before the performance (which was being filmed live), I decided to just sit for a bit and relax. The next thing I know I hear a knock on my door and someone telling me that I am on stage in five minutes…I was not dressed, had fallen asleep…a very deep sleep and thank god I did not have to put make up otherwise I would have been in real trouble. I just had time to change clothes, tune the cello and off we went… It does not look like it, but the whole thing seemed surreal to me at the time… almost comical

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

There are so many: Palais des Beaux Arts of Bruxelles (because it’s home) Vienna Musikverein because it is so beautiful, has such an amazing acoustic and always reminds me of my Rising Star Tour. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw is not a bad place either of course (-; and of course I would not mind going back to Carnegie Hall, it was my debut stage in America and I was so young I did not have time to embrace and breathe in all the amazing vibes that this hall has experienced

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are so many, and each of them for different reasons: Ricardo Mutti’s incredible control of the orchestra and of the magnificent delivery he manages every time. Misha Maisky for his courage, he has the courage to speak his voice through his cello in the way that is true to him regardless of the criticism, Mikhail Pletnev and his mastership of the technique of the piano and his cool on stage. Steven Isserlis’s incredible musicianship and the research he implements into his unique sound.

There are just so many… I find something extraordinary in every Musician that I meet and work with. I feel blessed to have had the chance to come into contact with them and look forward to continue learning forever.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In one of my few visits to Vietnam, I performed a recital during a lightning storm. While performing Paganini’s Moses Variations on One String, there was a massive bang that erupted in the packed French style theatre and all the power went out. As we had just started the piece, and not knowing if the power was going to come back on after a few seconds, we carried on performing the piece in total darkness. After 30-40 seconds the mass of spectators in front of us started using lighters, mobile phones and directed their lights towards us. It was like a rock concert. The whole piece finishes on a very virtuoso climax; we played still in the dark until the very last note, when- as if it had been planned and choreographed- all the lights came back on at the very final chord! I will never forget the incredible roar and cheers from the audience. It was the most electrifying performance and reaction from an audience in my whole life.

What is your favorite music to play? To listen to?

I love absolutely every kind of music, and I know it’s a cliché, but I really do. When I am in the car I hardly ever listen to classical music, more like pop and rock, in a hotel room I like listening to jazz… it somehow fits the bill for me and at home is were I listen the most to classical music. If I had to choose composers I enjoy performing, there are so many, but very often like my mood I will go through stages in the year where I am hooked on Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Frank and then it would be Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Britten, Barber etc…

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

It’s such a big question and it would require several paragraphs to answer it really in depth, I think that it’s important to adjust the answer specifically to the young musician/student. Not everyone is the same and not every one requires the same kind of advice or encouragement. I guess the universal advice is be true to yourself and do what you enjoy most doing, this is what will make you the most happy in your professional life and thus in all other aspects of your life.

What are you working on at the moment?

Many different things, Barber Cello Concerto, Elgar Concerto, Dvorak Cello concerto, Schubert, Brahms and Britten sonatas and Bach Cello Suites.

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

I love what I am doing now, I just want to keep going in the same direction, but as many of my friends and family know, I am a bit of a workaholic and perhaps where I should be in 10 years is for a brief time at least …on holiday….but with the cello (he never leaves my side!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Apart from the obvious on stage, performing with great friends in one of my favorite halls.

I do feel incredibly at peace swimming in the sea or skiing down some slopes. I guess I would also feel incredibly happy if every so often I get upgraded to first class seats when I am flying long haul flights…

What is your most treasured possession?

I am not a materialistic person, but my cello is my most prized possession, it’s my baby.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from the few dangerous sports that I do (surfing, skiing, scuba diving etc…) I love to perform and I also love to share what I have to offer and this is also why I love to teach so much.

I do also love to work in my garden in London, I am very good at DIY, I love animals especially spending time with ‘Tempo’, my golden retriever.

What is your present state of mind?

I am calm, relaxed and really looking forward to the challenges the future will bring my way.

David Cohen will be performing at this year’s Spitalfields Summer Music Festival with the Rambert Orchestra in a programme including a work by Cheryl Frances Hoad . Further details and tickets here

David Cohen has established a reputation as one of the most charismatic and exciting young cellists of today. Hailed by critics as “Magnificent”, Gramophone, “demonstrates total commitment, combining vitality with expressive feeling in the most spontaneous manner”, the Strad, “an individual, and an exceptionally gifted one,” New York Stereo Review.

Born in the town of Tournai in Belgium, David made his solo debut with the Belgium National Orchestra at the age of nine.

His international career as a soloist soon flourished with invitations from the Saint-Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Soloists Chamber Orchestra, l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Liege, l’Orchestre Symphonique de la VRT, l’Orchestre de la Beethoven Akademie, l’Orchestre National de Lille, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, l’Orchestre de Chambre de Lauzanne, l’Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie, l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, l’Orchestre Symphonique de Grenoble, the Polish Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Seoul Philharmonic, the N.H.K. Symphony Orchestra, as well as the BBC Concert Orchestra.

David Cohen’s full biography