Monday 19 September 2016

It’s all in the playing…

This year’s Orchestra of the Swan Associate Artist is cellist Laura van der Heijden – the winner of BBC Young Musician 2012 – who many of you will have seen and heard deliver an astonishing rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto during July’s Last Night of the Shakespeare Proms. As I wrote then…

Laura’s interpretation of this masterpiece is definitely all her own. (As [David] said, so perspicaciously, in his pre-concert talk: she has made it so by first, wisely, returning to the source material – interrogating and understanding Elgar’s clear, precise, multifarious directions….)
     Additionally, she seems to have realized that, just because a work is known for its emotion, not all of that needs to be of the negative variety. Undoubtedly, there are many passages of profound, sublime sadness. However, there is also a great deal of joy to be found – and to be expressed. And this Laura did with incredibly fresh, youthful vigour….
     Such passion, as Laura so beautifully demonstrated, is contained in the notes themselves (such is the wizardry of Elgar’s writing and orchestration). And, although I would never argue that any musician should not bring their own experiences and feeling with them when playing any work, I do believe that they should not then impose them on it (especially not to the music’s detriment). Performer and creator need to find a balance where both voices speak equally – and it is this quality so evident in Laura’s playing that is so utterly impressive (if not so utterly stupefying…).
     Her thoughtful rendition showed such a keen understanding not only of this requisite harmony, but… of the composer’s expressed intentions – as well as how to convey them through the prisms of her own heart, mind and body.

The first concert of OOTS’ 21st Anniversary Season at Stratford ArtsHouse is on 27 September; and is entitled Laura van der Heijden and ‘Mercurial’ Haydn. As you may have inferred: the evening not only begins with that composer’s lyrical ‘Mercury’ symphony, no.93; but features Laura playing the D major cello concerto – a work that exploits the timbre of the instrument to the full, as well as its range and volume. It is also quite technically challenging!

With her “phenomenal performance” of the Elgar still ringing around the space between my ears, I caught up with Laura just as she comes to the end of a busy gap year “dedicated to the cello” – which has included debuts in Germany, New Zealand and Australia; as well as recital tours and chamber music projects in the UK. Her enthusiasm, and love of what she does – as well as the thoughtfulness with which she delivers her answers – come across with incredible intensity. Here is someone who really understands the power of music; as well as her role in communicating it – as you can also see in this short conversation with David:

From watching you rehearse and perform the Elgar concerto, you obviously have a strong rapport with David and the orchestra. How much does this help your performance? Does it change your attitude, or the way you play?
Absolutely! I think it’s so important for the orchestra and conductor to hear the music in the same way as I hear it; to have a shared idea in mind. And I feel, with David, that we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to how we want music to be played; that we’re therefore both working towards the same ideal – respecting what the composer wants.
     One of the wonderful things about David is that he’s very easy-going; and it seems to me that he’s very keen on not necessarily having his own way; and that he doesn’t have fixed opinions. This makes it so much easier for me: because I then don’t have to worry about discrepancies or disagreements! It’s all in the playing.

That chimes with something I came across recently. Steven Isserlis stated in an interview that “My goal is to have the technique to be able to listen to what the music is saying and let it lead me.” He also discussed playing Haydn: “Classical music expresses emotions every bit as profound and varied as romantic music; they are just expressed in an elegant language – without swearing, as it were.”
     So… how do you approach the Haydn: which is quite beautiful, but obviously “classical” – and yet contains so much ‘hidden’ virtuosity… including some rather thrilling (from the audience’s viewpoint) double-stopping: especially the octaves and thirds in the last movement…? Is it different than for other styles of music…?
No. I would like to say that I approach it as I would any other piece of music. In every piece there are technical difficulties – even within a simple melodic tune.
     I think it’s a wonderfully emotional piece, though: so, even where there are a few moments that are technically ‘uncomfortable’, they are, for me, just part of the bigger picture. But they do need a little more attention, of course!

Do you feel that Haydn wrote the concerto to ‘show off’ just what the cello – and its original performer, Antonín Kraft – was capable of?
I think that’s quite likely. But I don’t feel, when I play it, that it’s all about virtuosity. I do feel that it’s very much about colour and the singing qualities of the cello. And then there are moments with fiery, jolly, virtuosic sorts of explosions! I don’t feel that it’s a “show off” piece, though.
     What I love so much about Haydn’s cello concertos is how simple the middle, slow movements are – simplicity; and a sort of innocence and purity. There’s such a great beauty in that: which I think can be much more beautiful than a highly romantic sort of sentimental melody. I love this purity! And I think the cello sound can work wonderfully well with it.
I agree. The cello, for me, has a very ‘human’ voice; and I think that middle movement is an aria – from an opera or oratorio – by any other name. It sings beautifully!

One last question about the Haydn: Whose cadenzas are you playing…?!
I am playing my own! It’s a bit mad, really! It’s fun… – you can be creative and playful! And I don’t think Haydn would have wanted anyone to follow any rulebook with cadenzas. That wasn’t the point of a cadenza. There may be people who frown upon such a practice, though…!

How would you describe your style, your approach to playing, to learning a piece and then performing it?
That’s an interesting question! I’ve never had to describe myself before. How would I describe my style…?!
     I can say that I try to be true to what a composer wanted. But I have no idea, really, what the composer wanted. So, of course, I would hear his music in a certain way; and try to empathize with the emotions and feelings that the composer was going through. But, of course… they are my emotions. So, I may say that I’m true to what the composer says; but at the same time I’m also inventing what the composer says. I think everyone, really, has that approach….
     What I love to do with a piece of music is… I have several levels and stages with it. The first stage will be technical: just learning the notes; making sure I can ‘get around’ the piece, without too much difficulty. And then I start to think about the big picture: What kinds of emotions do I think the composer was going through; what kind of story do I feel this music is telling?
     And then comes the detail – which will be, for example: What do I think this bow-stroke means? Is it a sigh; is it an exclamation…? One of the things I really like doing – which helps me very much – is I like to give words to certain phrases. If I’m struggling a little bit with a phrase, or I feel nervous about it, or something worries me about it, I like to put words to it. I also try to make these words in the language of the composer: to help me feel my way into the culture of that country: and, therefore, the bigger context in which a piece is written. I can then focus on expressing the words with my playing, instead of worrying about how I’m playing and what I sound like.
     Music is a form of story-telling, of course! What is so difficult, but also so wonderful about music, is that not every piece clearly has a story… – it can be quite enigmatic – so it’s very much up to the performer to decide what the music is going to mean. And that’s a very big responsibility – but also a wonderful sort of freedom!

What would you be doing if you hadn’t picked up the cello when you were a small child…?
That’s a difficult question! I’ve no idea…! However, I also play the piano; and I started that when I was five… – and I really, really enjoy the piano. I actually preferred the piano, I think, when I was little: because there was something so amazing about being able to have all the harmonies at your fingertips. And, of course, practising the cello by yourself… – there’s something not quite as fulfilling about it….

A tough question, now. But I know that you have feelings about this…. This year’s BBC Young Musician winner, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, has stated that “Within the education system, music is not valued enough for what it can do…”. Any comments?!
I completely agree with him. I think that music has such an incredible power: really on every level – on an emotional level, on a mental level, on a physical level. And it’s seen as a waste of time in a lot of, if not most, schools, I think. I feel that a lot of children are really losing out.
     There’s a primary school called Gallions in East London: and everything there is to do with the arts – music, in particular. All the children are taught using the Kodály method, and learn a stringed instrument. They also do loads of singing – they sing on the way to assembly; they sing in assembly; in class… – and the teachers, to attract the attention of the children, they clap rhythms, and the children have to clap them back, instead of shouting at them! They do a lot of painting, etc.… and their results are incredible! And the children are beaming, they are polite… – it’s really, really amazing!

So it’s all about the emotional development of the child…?
I think that what many people don’t realize is that the emotional state of a child affects their results. And yet pushing just for results rarely gets those results! Teachers are very well-trained in showing pupils how to take an exam – which is not good. Education should be about teaching children so that they learn, and can take that information on into life….

How do you feel about Pudsey the dog…?! I just wondered about the value we give to different forms of culture….
I think the question is: How can we get classical music viewed and heard by more people? And I think that is really going back to the school issue: because just making people listen to classical music, without them having had any background in learning about music, or getting used to listening to it, I think, is ineffective.
     Yes, on some occasions it can overwhelm someone when they have never heard it before; but much more common is that it doesn’t have an effect. I’m not sure: but I think one does need to have had some kind of background of having learned about music, or just having heard it more often….

A quote: “I like to take a short nap about half an hour before the concert, eat a banana, warm up on the cello and chant an ancient Inca proverb backwards fifty times just before I walk on. You can guess which one of those isn’t true.”
     You’ve obviously got a great sense of humour. How necessary is this for coping with all the demands you make on your life, and other people make on your life?
I think it’s very important. I’m very lucky in that many of the musicians that I’ve met, that I’ve played with, are very easy-going, and have wonderful senses of humour. And that just makes the whole experience even more wonderful!
     There are times when it can be quite draining, though: because you give a lot in a concert: especially something like a recital tour. Every night, for a week, you’re giving yourself for an hour-and-a-half; and really playing very intensively. And then, often you’re stuck in a car for a long time; or on a train, or a plane; or staying in a hotel. And often the hotels are very nice: but they don’t have much character; they’re all the same. And, in times like that, you really need to find something fun to do. Of course, when you’re travelling with someone-else, thankfully, there are always many jokes, funny stories that you hear….
     So, yes, a sense of humour is really important, I think – most of all, not taking anything ever too seriously; and being able to step back; looking at that big picture; remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’m doing it because I love music – not because of anything else.

Finally: you’re about to start university – at St John’s College, Cambridge… – for which, much good luck!
Thank you! I’m really looking forward to it… – although I sort of fluctuate between being incredibly nervous and terribly excited!

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