Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Weaver of moonbeams…

Ahead of his two concerts – in Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham, conducting Orchestra of the Swan with this year’s Associate Artist, cellist Laura van der Heijden – I went to meet Julian Lloyd Webber: now Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and steering it through some exciting times as it prepares to move into its purpose-designed new home.

Entering his office in the old building – sadly nearing the end of its productive life, in the centre of the city – one cannot fail to be reminded, though, of his previous career as one of his (and my) generation’s greatest, and most successful, solo cellists: with posters of some of his most memorable achievements scattered throughout the room. Indeed, above his desk – in pride of place, perhaps – he points out a large framed copy of the cover of the CD I am nervously clutching between my fingers: a recording which confirmed his status of hero for me, and for many others. But more of that later: because, as he welcomes me in, and shakes my hand, there could not be a more genial and gracious interviewee. (As I am rapidly learning – as my first year of being OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence comes to a close – the majority of classical musicians are incredibly generous people: open, willing to chat, to treat you as an equal, to spend time with you… – they just happen to be incredibly talented, too – although no mention of this will ever pass their lips.)

Once seated, Julian expresses astonishment at the Lilliputian digital voice recorder sitting on the table between us – an enthusiasm, delight and attentiveness that never wanes in the thirty minutes we’re together. I ask him if it’s okay to talk about his ‘enforced retirement’ from solo cello playing – and, of course, he says, immediately, with complete relaxation, “Yeah: it’s fine”. Part of my interest is personal, though: as I, too, had to retire because of structural problems with my neck – although I did have the operation he simply could not risk.

“Did you have a lot of pain?” he asks. I nod. “Because I didn’t, you see. That’s why they didn’t want to do it. Because they said, well, we really only operate, do this, for pain. We’re not sure it’s going to work…. So how bad was it for you?”

“I lost my left arm completely – all the feeling; all the control,” I reply; a little stunned that he should care. But people who know him tell me that he always cares. “And this was because of the neck?” “Yes. But I was told that the op wouldn’t take away the pain; but that it would give me control of my left arm back; give me the movement back; and stop me losing my left leg in the same way. Which it did.”

“That’s amazing. But you’re still in pain…? Did it leave a scar?” I nod again; and show him the short, faint white line at the base of the front of my neck. This wasn’t quite how I’d intended the interview to go. But I now have even more respect for this humane gentle giant sitting opposite me. I stare at the list of questions on my iPad: wondering how to gently nudge things along, without wanting to spoil the moment.

“Actually… they thought the nerve was probably already damaged,” he says, pensively. “It might have worked…. How long did it take you to get over it?” “Oh, instantly,” I reply, a little stunned. “Fantastic! With the use of everything back?” “Yes. I woke up from the operation with an almighty migraine, but my arm was there, moving in front of me…. But don’t have it done just because it worked on me!” We both laugh – albeit a little reticently. But then Julian says, as if laying down the law: “If you’re in that kind of pain, and you can’t use your arm, then you get it done.” And he’s right – although it was a decision that, at the time, took a lot of time to make. “I wasn’t,” he adds. “So that was it….”

“Anyway,” finally drawing a line under a diversion that I think has been enlightening for both of us… he grins: “I’m interviewing you…!” Those lustrous blue eyes sparkle. And we get back on topic. (Not that we’d ever really left it, I think.)

Is it especially difficult conducting a work you know – and played – very, very well; being on the other side of the podium?
No! I think it makes it a lot easier. In fact, I haven’t been doing a huge amount of conducting. I made a conscious decision to go into music education, rather than conducting – although I enjoy doing that, and it’s still a wonderful way for me to make music. But, the thing I discovered is that I really like accompanying – conducting my wife in the Haydn C major concerto, as well as the principal cello of the CBSO – and, because I know it so well, I conducted it from memory! So it is a huge help to know it from the soloist’s point of view; and actually know how you can help while you’re conducting. So I’m really looking forward to doing the Rococo with Laura – a player I’ve admired from afar for many years. In fact, I’m looking forward to the whole concert: because I love Mozart, but have never had the chance to do any, because he didn’t write any solo pieces for cello. So this is a wonderful opportunity for me to perform one of my very favourite composers: particularly when it comes to a serious, great masterpiece like the G minor symphony.

You said, many years ago, that you admired both Toscanini and Furtwängler: because – although contrasting in style – they were “conductors who put their ideas over with tremendous clarity”. Are there any contemporary conductors that you find so inspiring; or that you have enjoyed working with? And if I don’t get you to mention David Curtis, I think there may be some sort of forfeit involved!
I very much enjoyed working with David: because, again, he’s a string player, viola player, who understands what kind of back-up a soloist needs. Sometimes, the big ‘starry name’ conductors can get in the way of a soloist, by doing too much; and I always liked the way that David let things happen naturally. I did many different concertos with David: I did the Rococo; I did the Shostakovich first – which is perhaps my favourite, because I love the work… – I did the Delius concerto with him. We must have done Elgar, I’m sure… – in fact, we definitely did. I did four or five concertos with David: and always enjoyed them thoroughly.
     I was very fortunate to work with some absolutely great names, who are sadly no longer with us: like Menuhin, Neville Marriner; and I really enjoyed working with Richard Hickox. These were people who knew how to accompany…. I can tell you that I admire the younger generation: for example, Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla] is going to be phenomenal. She’s barely thirty, and has tremendous interpretive gifts. She does not deliver a dull performance. She’s very clear with her intentions; and has rather a unique conducting style. That is the kind of music-making I like: it’s always alive and always inquisitive.

A bit of a nerdy question – but I also have to write the programme notes…! I presume, since you recorded it with Maxim Shostakovich in 1991, that you’ll be doing Tchaikovsky’s original version of the Rococo Variations…?
No, we won’t! But, you see, Laura plays the Fitzenhagen version: and so that’s the one we’ll be doing… – which threatens to be confusing, if I don’t do my homework! I love the Rococo, and have played it many times in the Fitzenhagen version. It was only later that I started playing the original version. They both have their strengths, though. The Fitzenhagen is, on the face of it, more audience-friendly: because it is a very well-constructed piece. Rostropovich, for example, wouldn’t play the original: he believed the Fitzenhagen was better…. But they’re both good!

Is there any reason you grew to prefer Tchaikovsky’s original version?
I don’t feel incredibly strongly about it; but it’s what he wrote. It’s what, I believe, Tchaikovsky approved to be published. And there’s more music in the original version: especially as Fitzenhagen cut out all of the last variation. I just felt that it was a more substantial piece for cello. I couldn’t see a reason to go on doing the Fitzenhagen – except that it is a very effective concert piece.

It turns out that Julian has an encyclopaedic memory (hinted at above) containing every single one of his performances – and at this point we reminisce about a performance of the Fitzenhagen version of the variations he gave at the Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, “years and years ago”, with Martyn Brabbins conducting – “now he’s a very good accompanist…” – in fact, when I was still a student in the very early 1980s. But then I ask the question my initial request – with regards to his retirement from playing – concerned. I could not have wished for a better answer.

What sort of emotions – if it’s not too personal a question… – do you think it will bring back conducting the Rococo Variations with the Orchestra of the Swan: when this was not only the last piece of music you played with the orchestra; but also in the same venues: Stratford ArtsHouse, and the Town Hall, just across the road…?
I played at both Stratford and the Town Hall many times with the Orchestra of the Swan: and a lot of players will be the same… and it’s great! I’m making music with people still; and it’s a great joy to be able to do that… when I’ve had to stop playing. I can still make music with these people: many of whom have become my friends. It will be great to see them again; work with them; make music with them again. And, actually, Laura’s got a tough job with the Rococo – so I’m quite relieved to be just conducting!

Turning to education, and particularly what you do here…. In the Observer, at the beginning of March, you said that: “It is our job to plug the gaps, as the government continues to pull back on providing music education in schools.”
We have to try. And if we can help introduce music to children who wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance, then we must do it. In a sense, it can only be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a splash in the ocean that we’re trying to make here, with our outreach work.      But I’m so against this EBacc: taking music – taking all art subjects – out of the school curriculum. I think it’s very short-sighted. I think it’s very narrow. And I don’t think it’s fair on our children: who should be able to experience these things without having rich parents who can afford to pay for instruments and lessons.
     I’m really passionate about it. It follows through from my whole approach to classical music. I’ve always believed it’s for everyone – and right through my whole career – from when I started playing music; from the inspiration I took from Rostropovich: who always played the cello as if it was to every single person in the concert hall…. And I’ve always believed that music can reach everyone; and that people have the right to decide whether they like it, whether it’s for them.
     And, at the moment, a great deal of the population aren’t even getting that opportunity. And I feel very strongly about that. I’ve always tried to bring music to people. So this job to me, as a music educator, is very natural; and I want this conservatoire to be for everyone. I want it to be for the public. I want the public – not just students – coming through those doors; and for us to be part of the community.
     Birmingham City University is an urban university. It’s not in leafy Edgbaston – like the University of Birmingham! And therefore we have a certain role to fulfil in this community. For example, we are going to be doing concerts with the Indian composer, Nitin Sawhney; and a Polish festival with Nigel Kennedy.

As well as being keen to get out there, and get ‘out there’ to come in; you once said that it is “very important that musicians are aware of what’s going on in other fields”. You obviously have led by example throughout your career: with not only Variations, but the Oasis album – and the conservatoire is obviously continuing to do so. Are there other ways the staff here instil this in the students; or do they arrive already ‘multifaceted’ (for want of a better word)?
I think this conservatoire is very open-minded. One of our most famous alumni is Laura Mvula: who came through the composition department; and has always credited us for introducing her to all kinds of different music. And I think her classical training has been a big help to her. A lot of conservatoires wouldn’t have accepted what she was doing. If we have a good singer-songwriter who wants to study here, we will help them. You will not find the composition department here saying you have to write in one style. If they see talent in any particular direction, they will try to help.
     We also have a fantastic jazz department; and have had for a long time. And we’re going to have the first dedicated jazz club in Birmingham for a decade in the new building – which will be open every night.

To finish… You chose Beatrice Harrison’s recording of the Elgar concerto – with Elgar conducting – as your ‘Desert Island Disc’: because, you said, she “follows Elgar’s markings”. Four years later, you recorded it, with Yehudi Menuhin [chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine], and you followed Elgar’s markings. In fact, the reason I brought it with me for you to sign was that you were the first contemporary cellist not to do a Jacqueline du Pré… – which I found utterly refreshing.
That’s why I had the confidence to record it. We all know about the Jacqueline du Pré recording… – but there were two reasons for my confidence. Firstly, I knew I played it completely differently: so there’s no point of comparison. Second, there was having Menuhin as conductor: who was completely my idea. The record company wanted some younger names: who, though so not well-known now, were very trendy at the time! The record company’s objection was that “Menuhin doesn’t really conduct”. But I said: “he worked with Elgar; Menuhin knows this music…” – and I was completely right: he was wonderful to work with!
     Those two things made me really want to do it. Also, I love the concerto; and I don’t think it’s healthy for a piece of music to just depend on one performer – which it was beginning to, dangerously so.
     I don’t want to criticize Jacqueline du Pré. It’s the last thing I want to do. But hers is a very personal interpretation; and a lot of the time it does depart from the score. And that’s fair enough. But… there is an argument for saying that Elgar marked his scores and his music probably in more detail than any other composer. It’s absolutely marked… what he wanted. So, therefore, there must be an argument for following that. He was very clear in what he wanted.
     There was a kind of ‘elastic’ way in which Elgar conducted, though… – and Menuhin has got that; and he would have learned that from Elgar himself. That ‘elasticity’ is key – one which is still faithful to the markings and the score. And I think it’s very important for that tradition to survive.

In the middle of all this, I try to convey how Laura’s approach to the work is, in some ways, similar… – although, like his, completely individual – and certainly astounding for one so young. An online review captures it: “Although, thank goodness – unlike so many other performers… – and this was evident even during rehearsal – Laura’s interpretation of this masterpiece is definitely all her own. (As conductor David Curtis 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 – rather than simply aping what has gone before.)”
     I tell Julian that, one day, I hope Laura records it – with him at the helm. He listens intently; and perhaps it prompts that last line…? Regardless, I will now prize my battered 1985 recording of the Elgar concerto even more.

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