Diary Piece for the Jewish Chronicle, September 2012
Day 1 - I have just returned from a weekend of concerts in Purbeck, Dorset. The concerts formed a brand new chamber music festival that I have just started up and I'm thrilled that the concerts were sold out and the musicians and audiences happy. It's the part of England that I grew up in and so going back there to play feels like a homecoming of sorts, as well as the fact that we could rehearse in my parents' home and be fed in true Jewish mother style. We performed in small and very beautiful churches in the area and the intimacy of intense music making close up seemed to inspire everybody present. I'm already buzzing with ideas for next year which I hope will also combine the local community and at least one or two local schools , as well as my international colleagues. Most of the musicians I work with feel as passionate as I do about bringing our work to new audiences of all backgrounds so I don't think I'll have any trouble persuading them to go on this journey with me.
Day 2 - As a freelance musician, no two weeks are ever the same. I see this often as a blessing but this morning as I queue to board the Eurostar on the way to a concert I'm missing my new born beautiful niece and cursing the ever demanding necessity to be in ' top shape', Olympic athlete style, ready for performance. I remember the words of my friend Jeanette Winterson "you constantly strive to find the work/life balance. You often don't succeed but you have to keep trying".
Day 3 - I walked through the centre of Cologne this morning and loved seeing the bronze Holocaust memorial squares, also known as 'Stumbling Stones/Stolperstein' glistening in the morning sunlight. They are strangely reassuring despite the fact they are simply a record of a name of an inhabitant that lived at the address where the stone lies, a date of birth, date of arrest/expulsion and, usually, which concentration camp they died in and when. The German word used is 'ermordet' - 'murdered'. I think Germany's ability to confront its past is one reason why I can feel so comfortable here. I speak to a German concert organiser who is interested to invite me next year to play Bloch's 'Schelomo' and Bruch's 'Kol Nidrei' with his orchestra. I have just recorded these pieces and am very happy to be able to bring some of this music to new ears. The Schelomo is awe-inspiring to me - such a deep and personal reflection of the composer's innermost soul. As Bloch himself said "I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent, an instinct much more than cold and dry reason, a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents...a voice which surged up in me". At the best of times, this is how I feel when I play his music.
Day 4 - Concert this evening outside of Frankfurt at a big cello festival. How challenging to play one of the most demanding pieces in the cello repertoire, the solo Kodaly cello sonata, in front of at least 100 excellent students and some world renowned colleagues. But I do think we cellists are generally quite tolerant and friendly creatures. It's probably because of the shared trauma of carrying our beloved yet unwieldy instruments across the world. I spend the after - concert meal talking to the cello pedagogue David Geringas and hearing about his family's history in Lithuania. Feel very lucky to have such 'culture' in the truest sense to draw from.
Day 5 - Had a typical cello airport scenario this morning as the extra ticket that I always have to pay for Mr Cello (don't ask me why, or if male cellists prefer a Miss) had been mysteriously cancelled. I was first given the option either to leave the cello behind (insert child instead of cello here to understand my attachment), hand the precious 1777 antique gem over to an unsympathetic baggage handler (again, I would first hand myself over before the cello), or pay for a new ticket which had now crept up to a healthy €800. I try to find out what's happened and am very grateful to Little Britain that I can chuckle to myself that 'the Computer says No' for a while. Keeping calm and carrying on is definitely the best tactic here. Finally the problem is sorted out and my cello and I both get seats together on the plane as usual, but I wonder when the whole of the cello world will finally go on strike. I should have rallied the forces in my concert last night.
Day 6 - I am in Berlin now and Autumn is really in the air. I am preparing to go on a month's tour to South America in October and am wondering how different the southern hemisphere will feel. I will be playing Elgar and Britten out there and I also wonder how the South American audiences will respond. Both composers have an inherent 'Englishness' at their core and I'm fascinated to see how I'll feel too, playing this music far from home. I find sometimes that distance brings an extra poignancy and clarity, bringing expression in to focus.
Day 7 - Back to London in time to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my family. As a child , this was one of the most memorable family gatherings and I treasure the chance to be with my parents and sister's family today - it seems to reset the compass in some way. I love the new year starting in September, as the leaves start falling, as a new term begins and as new possibilities seem to open up. It feels serious and yet full of hope and I've always believed that within such seriousness lies the real joy of life.
Notes for A Room For London, August 2012
Unlike nearly all of the other artists performing in this unique space this year, I don't think of myself as a creator but more as a re-creator. So the idea behind my performance next month is to create a tapestry of music, all for solo cello, written between 1730 and 2012. This also happens to encompass almost the lifetime of the instrument I play (it was made in 1777) and most of the buildings that I will see from my windows on the boat. I have nearly all of the pieces of the patchwork in my mind (and fingers!) already; but the interesting part will be weaving it together, which I will only complete when I go to stay in the Room. I'll write more about my choices of music when I'm there, but whilst choosing, I have been continuously drawn to music that has silence at its core, that sets up a dialogue between solitude and its opposite and music that feels as though it ebbs and flows like the river I'll be so close to. I'm hoping that the energy of all that has already taken place there will be circling around the Room itself; and I'm sure the awe inspiring view from the window will exert its own power. I'm also interested to see if the soul of Conrad's Heart of Darkness will be lurking in the silences, encouraging moments of stillness, contemplation and new horizons.
On Jacqueline du Pré (Gramophone Hall of Fame)
When I think of Jacqueline du Pré I think of a performer who thrived on stage and of a musical spirit who swept up all around her in her enthusiasm and love of her art . It was a gift for me as a young cellist to have such a strong woman player as an idol and I certainly found her a great source of inspiration throughout my early cello years. When I was about 12 years old I was given a book about the Great Cellists of the 20th century and I used to read over and over again the passage about her , at about the same age as I was, rushing towards the stage , raring to play. I loved that image of her; fearless and joyful, and I immediately understood that that must be the ideal state for all performers to aspire to . And I still believe that now .So putting aside her natural ability and innate musicality that is impossible to define but that touches everybody who hears it, I believe it was her generosity of spirit and ability to transcend the small worries of everyday performing that made her so great and that will continue to inspire us all, far in to the future.
5x15 talk at The Arts Club London, February 2012
When asked to speak today, 5x15 gave me the simplest of briefs: simply talk about why you do what you do. So I will try - perhaps first explaining for those of you that may not know what I do and then speaking more about why.
Perhaps the best way to describe my relationship with the cello is to say that we have recently celebrated our Silver wedding anniversary. I began playing the cello when I was about 6 years old but I can pinpoint my first realisation of commitment at the age of 9 when I played some chamber music with my parents at a local concert. I understood at that moment that I wanted to be better - much better. I wanted to have a sound similar to my teacher and I wanted to be free on the instrument so that I wouldn't find things difficult to play (by the way I still hold this ambition). Perhaps if I'd known then that this wish for true freedom on the instrument is a lifetime's journey and a yearning which will never truly be satisfied I might have been disheartened, but probably not if I had also been given the chance to understand that the work and striving is where much of the satisfaction and excitement lies.
So I spent the next ten years being driven tirelessly up and down the M3 to and from London by my mother for cello lessons (highlighting as ever how essential it is to have strong parental support), playing a concerto with my first professional orchestra and then aged 16 winning BBC young musician of the year and the Eurovision musician competition and then being flung rather too quickly in to the glaring spotlight of public life where I had to learn fast, and on my feet, how to keep hold of my integrity and listen to the still small voice telling me what I should be doing next.
I decided to keep studying rather than say yes to all the record deals and agent offers coming my way and, looking back now, this was certainly the right decision for me. After meeting Heinrich Schiff at a cello festival in Manchester, it was clear that he was the guru I needed and, aged 18, I packed up my stuff and moved to Vienna to become, along with 5 others, his apprentice. In some ways the art of playing an instrument is one of the most resistant to modernisation and I use the word apprentice in a true sense. Indeed I often feel grateful that my world of strings and a piece of word carved in 1777 stubbornly refuses to become totally modern, even if I do travel on airplanes and post my concerts on Facebook. My canvas will always be silence and my music will always demand the attention and concentration from me and my audience just as when it was conceived. As time goes by I appreciate this more and more.
So what do I do? The same as since the beginning of our marriage: I try to be free enough with my body and mind to express on this wood and horsehair what I believe the composer was trying to express. To do this, I try to understand the language that each composer has invented - because each composer does have their own language even if the root is firmly planted in a style and from an influence that came before them - and then once I think I understand the language, try to interpret the text. But this is a constantly evolving state - something I think I understand and grasp one day can morph into something different the next. Sometimes it can be a little like the magic eye effect - one moment the image is clear and then it's gone again, leaving you wondering if it was just a mirage. That is why, for me, the act of recording is such an artificial one and the only really true state is the ephemeral world of the performance - how you felt about that phrase and that piece at that particular moment in time. But preparation on a physical and intellectual level is essential and builds reserve and new ideas. And, sadly, you never reach anything close to perfection anyway. As the genius pianist Martha Argerich said, you practise and work by yourself for 120% so that in a a concert you get 60% of it. Some days I feel that even 60% would be nice.
And why do I do what I do? There have been many times, battling with airline companies and being asked as I've just forked out an extra £500 for Mr cello to fly next to me why don't I play the piccolo, that I have asked myself the same question. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle convincing people that the music I play has relevance today and is important on some deep level even if it can't be quantified. And sometimes it's depressing to accept that modern culture is saturated by entertainment and distraction and if we're not careful we may all lose the ability to really commit to something that demands our attention and may take a bit of effort in some way on our art. But I think (apart from the airline fights) that these difficulties are also what keep me interested. I am grateful to be going against the tide in some way. To be able to disappear into an eighteenth century Sarabande written by Bach in a Court in Cöthen and to feel, each day of my life, that I may be creeping slowly towards a deeper understanding of it. This is culture, in the deepest sense of the word. A handing down, through generations of skill, knowledge and human experience. Ultimately I can think of no greater privilege.
On Heinrich Schiff (published in The Guardian 11 JAN 2012)
Heinrich Schiff is a true 'cello animal'. His hands seem moulded around the instrument as if he was born playing it and he has a Ferrari-like 0-60mph agility and power which is thrilling- if also a bit intimidating!- when you are experiencing it close up. He taught me that there's always something more to search for; that you can endlessly explore new colours and textures on the cello, so long as you are guided by the score. He strikes the balance between individuality and faithfulness to the composition perfectly in my view, and always keeps hold of a deep integrity and 'old school' seriousness. There is a high voltage electricity in his vibrato, a breathlessness which keeps you endlessly listening, and also a sensitivity and a generosity of spirit that makes his sound instantly recognisable. Schiff's intellectual musical overview is far-reaching and his interpretations are to cherish and love.