So, Paul, to start at the very beginning....why did you choose to play the cello?
It was all because of my first teacher Steven David who used to come over and play chamber music with my Dad and his friends…. But Steven was the coolest of the lot because he had a leather jacket, tinted glasses and could hold a cigarette in his right hand whilst playing the cello – he had a very relaxed bow hold! I used to love to sit in amongst the stands and listen and I think I was attracted by the fact that he was cool. I never became a smoker, but I did become a cellist!
Did you play any other instruments?
Just the piano – I started when I was about 3-4 and first picked up the cello at the age of about 7.
So it's fair to say you come from a musical family then?
Yes, they are very musical. Both my parents played - my father's a very good amateur violin and viola player and my mother, as well as singing and playing the piano was a class music teacher.
And your brother (Huw) composes?
Yes, and plays the piano – we do recitals together and he writes me pieces I can barely play….
So on the subject of pieces being written for you… your concert this week with the Philharmonia is of a new Cello Concerto from Richard Rodney Bennett –have you played much of his music before?
In truth I haven't – the only things I've played are some fantastic arrangements he did of Gershwin songs which were terrific. I know a lot of his music though – the chamber group I play with, the Nash ensemble, has, in its time played an awful lot of his music. There are so many styles and facets to his music – from the strict 12-tone stuff that he wrote when he was studying with Boulez, to his film music, to his more lyrical music, to jazz.
But he's moved his compositional technique back to a firmly tonal centre now?
Yes, absolutely. Last year Richard gave me all the music he's written for Cello and there's a cello sonata, which I really liked the look of, but it's much tougher than his later pieces and he said very categorically “I don't write like that any more”.
So do you think coming back to tonal music in the 21 st Century has its merits?
I think it's an interesting thing – Schoenberg wrote tonal pieces at the end of his compositional career. The discipline of working using serial (12 tone) technique can bring amazing benefits when you come back into keys. Certainly in the piece we're going to be playing there are lots of serial techniques - Richard sets the folk song “Ca' the Yowes” and within the piece it's presented both ‘normally' and backwards (retrograde) and upside-down (inversion). I think maybe he just got tired of the serial technique – he's such a musical guy and with his love of jazz and chords it just seems right.
You mentioned this piece is based on the Scottish Folk song “Ca' the Yowes” which is quite a common technique in British classical music isn't it? – The programme for this concert is a good example – hasn't this all been done already?
At the time we're in everything has been done before. If you look at Thomas Ades for example he innovates in everything that he writes but is writing for very conventional forms and combinations: operas, piano quintets etc, but what he does within that framework is very new. I think there's plenty of life in all these forms yet and in any case in this particular piece the form is dictated by the commission. I think you ignore at your peril the sentiment behind the commission which was that Prince Charles loved his Grandmother very very much indeed and really wanted to honour her in a very personal way. The Scottish connection is also very obvious – The Queen Mother loved Scotland and loved being there.
So did you and Richard have much contact with His Royal Highness as this piece was being composed?
Yes, Richard met Prince Charles and asked him about his Grandmother's taste in music. Apparently her first love was actually Edwardian Music Hall – songs like “Aunty Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers”. That didn't really seem to have much scope for a new composition, but Richard also found out that she used to sing the children to sleep and wanted to connect with the Royal Family's love of nature and The Queen Mother's love of Scotland . He thought a Scottish folk song would have been appropriate and the most moving one he found was “Ca' the Yowes”. Richard also found an old recording with a more chromatic melody than the more common version, so the piece is based on a mix of both.
Have you played folk music at all?
No, but I love listening to folk music, especially live in pubs. I go to a festival in the Orkney Islands each summer and there's always these sessions going on in.
Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall will be at the concert on Thursday night – does that add any pressure for you?
It does add a bit of pressure, because having met the Prince of Wales last year I know how much he knows about music. I went to Clarence House with Richard to play the piece through to the Prince in its “short-score” state [with the orchestra parts arranged for piano] but I'd only had a very little time to look at it. I played a slightly ‘sketch' version of the piece to him and afterwards he came over and said to me (with a twinkle in his eye) “Was that sight-reading?” Of course, he played the cello himself, and is a great music lover (and president of the Philharmonia) so it will be a big occasion.
You perform as a Cellist and as a conductor these days – which one do you find is more pressured?
I try not to think about it…. I suppose physically there's more adrenaline going for the Cello playing, because there's always an element of doubt about how you're going to feel and how that will physically effect your playing and whether you'll make a particular shift or not. I find the pressure greater for conducting in rehearsals because that's where you really show the orchestra what you want which can be difficult.
It must be an interesting switch for you because you were an orchestral player for many years – how do you find being on the other side of the baton?
Well so far I've found it great because my colleagues that I've come across in orchestras have been incredibly supportive. People who comment on classical music love to set up this great antagonistic relationship between orchestras and conductors, which generally just doesn't exist – dictatorships just don't work, so the only thing players don't like is mediocrity. If I do my job well then I think people will support me – certainly no-one's thrown anything at me yet.
So presumably you know from your playing days what the orchestra needs to see from you in terms of movement?
It helps to a certain extent - if there are tricky passages I do often think “what would I need to see if I were in the orchestra?” but I don't think about that all the time as I have to concentrate on the overall sweep of the piece and how it sounds to me. As a conductor you can't help everyone all of the time – if you micro-manage the thing just becomes a mess.
And so the other way around – how do you find working with conductors as a soloist now you've got experience on the podium?
I sympathise with the conductor – when I'm working as a soloist what I need is a conductor who can listen and respond. Music making like this is not a one-way street – performances can come apart because the soloist is too wilful and doesn't have the flexibility. It all comes down to chamber music – listening and having the feeling that to play together with someone is perfect.
So is a concerto like chamber music for two entities?
Well some are a bit showier, but a concerto like the Elgar or Dvorak for a really good performance the soloist has to be listening to the orchestra all the time. Playing a concerto is difficult enough as it is, because it's technical, it's from memory etc, but to add to that listening and responding to the orchestra is the big challenge.
This piece is more of a fantasia than a concerto – it's called ‘Reflections'. It's sort of a theme and variations, but we don't get the theme until the very end. But it's a long fantasy (at 27 minutes long).
If you weren't a musician what would you be doing now?
Do you want fries with that?..... Seriously I've always had this fantasy that I'd like to have been an actor. I like to put myself into different characters when I'm playing and I used to act when I was at school. I never thought I'd be able to do it because I'm partly quite shy, but once I get going I'm more of a show off!
So do you find you get nervous when you're playing?
I think if you're going to do anything on stage then you have to have a certain confidence in what you're going to do, but that can manifest itself in many different ways. If you look at the way that, say Alfred Brendel approaches the stage - he almost shambles on - but once he's seated at the piano his concentration becomes so intense which is a statement of intent. Whereas if you look at Simon Rattle he absolutely bounces on to the stage. I think you've got to show people that it's an event.
So do you ever get tempted to play in an orchestral section?
No. Never. Well actually I have been slightly tempted but resisted so far – I do so many things at the moment and to add that back into the mix would be too much.
And where do you see yourself in 20 years time – still juggling all these different jobs?
Alive I hope! I'd like to see myself as someone who made it possible to juggle all these different things and not to specialise. I was taught to view specialism with a lot of scepticism when I was at school. Music is such an all embracing art that I think it's a shame to limit yourself if you can make a good fist of doing different things. It was always the case a hundred or two-hundred years ago that musicians were musicians, not conductors or composers or soloists. Bach wasn't a composer –he was an organist, choir-master… (not that I'm comparing myself to Bach). Even more recently people like Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten did a whole range of things and I think that's what I'd like to do (although I'll leave composing to my brother!)
Paul, thanks so much for speaking us, and we're looking forward to the premiere tomorrow.
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