Talking Heads: Brett Dean

interview by Ben Hogwood

Brett Dean is enjoying a productive start to 2022 in London musical life this year. Late January saw the UK premiere of his Piano Concerto, with Jonathan Biss and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the following month Lawrence Power gave a performance of the Viola Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The viola is Dean’s ‘home’ instrument, but more recently he has cast his eye further down the stringed instrument range to write for the cello. This work – the Cello Concerto – has had a number of high-profile performances around the world with its dedicatee Alban Gerhardt as soloist. Gerhardt now brings it to the UK for the first time, completing a date originally scheduled during the pandemic.

Australian composer Dean lives in the UK, and Arcana join him on a Zoom call from his home in a village near Newbury. We start by talking about the concerto’s genesis, which runs right back to when composer and soloist met for the first time. “I have known Alban for a long, long time,” he reveals. “His father, Axel, was a colleague of mine when I was playing in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic. They all have musician’s names – Alban, Cosima, Pamina – all quite quirky but very definitely music related names. I first encountered Alban when he was a teacher, and I taught his elder sister Manon the viola. For quite some years she has played in the viola section of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. I’ve known the family and known Alban since he was 16 or 17, and I played in the Berlin Philharmonic when he gave his debut, which would have been in the early 90s. He played the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and so it was coming full circle to write not only the Cello Concerto but prior to that I’d written him a piece for cello and piano, which he premiered with Steven Osborne. We’ve been collaborators for quite some time, and in recent years we have played in a string quintet which tours occasionally. It’s been a very special time, and great to unpack this piece with him.

Gerhardt is a fierce advocate of contemporary music. “With even the brand new pieces, he plays them all from memory”, reveals Dean. “He has an extraordinary dedication. He would play that down and say simply that he plays better from memory, but that’s underestimating what must go into that because it’s not easy to commit brand new pieces to memory.” Committing this new piece must have been a labour of love, given the distinctly shaded cello part? “It’s hard for me to judge, but it does have motifs and things you can remember. I do think my instrumental writing does allow and certainly uses motifs that you can remember. At the same time there is plenty of variation and modification and manipulation of those motifs such that it must be easy to end up going down the wrong path! That can happen in standard repertoire, having played quite a few viola concertos from memory – it is a very particular skill. It is liberating, I remember – although it’s been a while since I’ve played any of the big concertos from memory – but it is a great feeling when you get to that point.”

Was Brett writing the Cello Concerto as much for Alban the player as he was for the cello as an instrument? “Certainly”, he says emphatically. “The piece actually started life as a piece for solo cello, which strictly speaking I didn’t write for Alban. It was actually a competition piece for the Feuermann competition in Berlin, back in 2014 or 2015. It was called 11 Oblique Strategies, which was inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt‘s pack of cards. It is a pack of cards that they put together, and you pull out a card. It was meant for creative artists, in Eno’s case in a studio and stuck for an idea. You go to the pack, pull out a card and it will have some sort of aphorism on it, like building bridges, burning bridges, or “You are sitting in a very large room and it’s very quiet” – things that get the mind ticking over. It became quite a thing back in the ‘70s. Famously David Bowie used these strategies when he was in his Berlin phase, writing Low and Heroes.”

Dean’s approach differed slightly. “With this piece it doesn’t have the spontaneity that Brian Eno built into the idea, because I actually chose eleven cards beforehand and ordered them. I was fascinated by the concept though and given that it was a competition piece for young cellists it seemed an appropriate thing to write a piece that somehow was about the creative and the recreative process. Alban was part of it, because he was the first cellist I ever showed the piece to, and he would run through it for me and with me. That meant I had a profound cellist’s approval. It seemed somehow fitting then when the concerto commission came up to take these ideas, because I was really happy with how the solo piece turned out, as it seemed to be one of those solo pieces that was opening multiple windows for me. He explains further. “Some pieces lead you further than other pieces do, and this piece cracked a few hard nuts for me compositionally. It seemed appropriate to use it as the basis of a piece for Alban, given he’d been part of its early stages. It is for Alban, and also for the cello.”

Dean has a confession to make. “The cello is the instrument I probably would have liked to have been playing. I love the viola, it has been good to me, but there is something about the whole gesture of cello playing that is quite stupendous and grand, and all the mastery and the range it has, I have always enjoyed writing for it. Even with chamber pieces of mine that feature the cello, it ends up having a good time! My quartets have a full prominent part, while I’ve written for the twelve cellos of my former colleagues in Berlin, the piece Twelve Angry Men. So, it was a wonderful and pleasing opportunity to write a concerto and above all for Alban, who I’ve known so long.”

The Cello Concerto has a long, continuous span across its single movement, so while there are some distinct divisions it is very much one broad section. Dean considers his answer. “I mentioned the cracking of difficult nuts with that solo piece, and I think the thing I was able to unify in that piece, in its many short movements, was the first time I felt I’d been able to approach something in the manner of a composer like György Kurtág, who I admire greatly. The Kafka Fragments are a good case in point. They are around 60 minutes long but are made up of so many small components, and yet it somehow is this single statement. I’ve always been fascinated by how he does that. With the solo cello piece I felt I got somewhere along that path. I had these very contrasting and different eleven sections that somehow hung together in a way that I found pleasing, and that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. It was building on that to come up with this big span in the Cello Concerto, and I’m really pleased that comes across because that’s not a given by any means.”

Another feature of the concerto is its striking orchestral colours, which prompts the question – does he find it advantageous writing for the orchestra having been part of one? “I’m sure”, he says emphatically. “I can’t imagine writing for orchestra without having had the background I’ve had. I’ve always felt it’s a bit like a home game writing for orchestra, because I go back into my orchestral mindset. I do still get a printout of the viola part and play through it, to see what it feels like. Even when I finished writing Hamlet, I got the viola part and slogged through it over a couple of days. It was bloody hard! It doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense. Just the viola part of an opera, but you know, the viola part of something like a cello concerto, given the action in in the divided strings, it gives you an indication of whether the energy is working correctly. It’s incredibly valuable in orchestrating contemporary music to know how to gauge energy. I find it really important to write parts that are challenging for orchestral players, but in that challenge it needs to be achievable, not too complex. That’s what I really liked about pieces in my own time in a professional orchestra. In the early years of the Berlin Philharmonic, it didn’t include that much really contemporary music, but I also did a lot of chamber music, and that included a lot of contemporary music with like-minded younger members of the Philharmonic. Yet as Claudio Abbado took over from Herbert von Karajan, and then Simon Rattle took over from Abbado, the repertoire changed significantly anyway.”

In writing for orchestra, Dean drew inspiration from one of his contemporary composers, Helmut Lachenmann (above). “As he said, an orchestra is an incredible kind of fascinating machine. It’s got 100 moving parts, and they all have a human brain, but getting them all to move in the same direction at the same time is another matter altogether! I met him a few times, and never had lessons with him, but we did talk a bit about those sorts of things. It was fascinating to also see the very different and quite extraordinary sound world that he creates. It’s much more about particular sounds and noises that you can get out of instruments. He could tell a brass player exactly where to put the embouchure to get exactly the sound he needs, which is why he’s been so convincing when he steps in front of an orchestra. On the page they look daunting, but he knows it’s achievable, and I learned a lot from that, to make it somehow a really positive challenge for each and every member of the orchestra rather than giving them a page load of black, notes everywhere! You won’t get the orchestra on side that way.”

The concerto is a collaboration of forces, rather than a contest between them. “That was something I was pleased about. The solo piece had a title Oblique Strategies, but it was about the creative process. It’s not necessarily trying to tell a story in the way quite a few of my pieces, including a couple of the concertante pieces, do. The first movement in my Trumpet Concerto, which I wrote for Håkan Hardenberger (below), is called Fall Of A Superhero. It is about pushing this trumpet to the max, so that actually the trumpet conks out at the end of the first movement. My Clarinet Concerto is called Ariel’s Music, and is a requiem for Elisabeth Glaser who was one of the first but one of the most prominent early campaigners in the AIDS era. She had been infected with HIV in a blood transfusion, and possibly because she was not from the gay community but from a straight community she had traction with the Reagan administration at the time, which was doggedly blaming it on lifestyle choices. That is also very much a ‘one pitted against many’ scenario. In the Cello Concerto I was pleased to try writing a concerto that was more about a collaboration. It is about the cello initiating ideas that get picked up by the orchestra, then sometimes the other way around, and about finding colours of the solo cellist with the orchestra rather than being in competition with them.”

Dean agrees that it is gratifying having the concerto performed several times as part of major orchestral programmes, each time with Gerhardt as soloist. “It’s obviously thrilling for me as a composer, even despite quite a few performances getting ‘Corona’d’! The performance in London was going to happen in 2020 but got rescheduled. That’s the big advantage of having a soloist like Alban, who is such a genuine champion of new music. There are many soloists who, dare I say it, feel it is a good move to commission a new concerto every now and then, but Alban is very committed to the idea in itself. Again, as in Håkan’s case as a trumpeter, you’ve got to build the repertoire. Yes, you can play Haydn and Hummel all your life, but that’s what his guiding principle has been, to create repertoire for the trumpet as a solo instrument. In the cello’s case, there are plenty of great pieces you can rely on, but not as many as the violinists or pianists. Alban’s dedication to really forging new repertoire is extremely genuine, and the other advantage is co-commissioning to get several guaranteed performances, because you’ve got various stakeholders in in the game, which is a blessing. It really makes a huge difference for me as a composer.”

Dean’s mention of Brian Eno earlier in the interview deserves to be revisited, as it implies the composer has been very open in his musical education and what he takes on as a composer. It wasn’t always that way. “The irony is that my education, my practical upbringing, was very much classical. I learned violin as a kid and progressed to the viola and chamber music. Then I went through the conservatory, and it was all classical music. However, the person that really got me fired up as a budding composer, and who awoke the latent, ambitious composer in me was a rock musician, a guy called Simon Hunt from Sydney.”

The two struck up a firm friendship and musical relationship. “We discovered a likeminded need to explore territory other than where we were, other than our day job. I was enjoying hugely my time at the Berlin Philharmonic, and yet I was aware of its limitations. The late von Karajan era was Richard Strauss and Bruckner, Beethoven and Brahms, and not a lot else. He was getting sick of I-IV-V chord progressions, if you like! He was the ‘interesting sounds’ person in this otherwise not especially enterprising rock band, and we started improvising together. It was through that, with close mic-ing of the viola and a piano frame and an early sampler, I was learning as much from being in a studio with Simon as I was playing in the Berlin Philharmonic. Somehow the ambition to compose came as much from retracking sessions in divey studios in inner city Sydney when I was back on holidays, or this little studio we had near Checkpoint Charlie, in the days before the Berlin wall came down. It was very enterprising and kind of pioneering, and I found it was a great complement to donning the tails and playing Bruckner, to be in alternative music cafes playing this new music. I still need the electronic geek to find my way around the studio! I’ve never really learned to operate the studio myself, but it liberated my ear to musical potential, even if it was a recording of shattering glass. Those sorts of things became part of the pieces that Simon and I were making, often for short films. They became part of the vernacular or the vocabulary of sound that I was only too keen to expand. Quite a few pieces of mine, particularly early on, included electronics.”

The appeal of his first discipline is clear, however. “Increasingly, whilst I will still have a kind of an extra few sounds created electronically, I do like to get as much variety of colour as I can out of the orchestra itself. In the Cello Concerto I have written for Hammond Organ for the first time, for example! I couldn’t say why, but there was something about it that was the sound I was after. I like the bizarre aspects of it, the oddness that it brings.”

On a more sombre note, our talk turns to the influence of the recently departed Harrison Birtwistle (above), who Dean has checked as a reference point even in the notes for the concerto. The two did meet, it turns out. “The first time we met was at a concert at the Wigmore Hall in mid-2019. It was a feature of his own music with the Nash Ensemble, including a premiere of a new piece for viola and cello, Duet for Eight Strings, which was performed by Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel. We chatted together afterwards in the downstairs bar, having been introduced, and as it turned out Harry was staying the night in the Garrick Club. We ended up sharing a taxi together, and I had to pinch myself! Here I was chatting away in the back of a taxi with one of my all-time heroes. I must say that I’m working on a new opera at the moment, and I’m happy to admit I have a vocal score of The Minotaur on my desk. I have to say there are scores of his that I turn to as much as anybody else and more than most. There is a strange arch of clockwork in his music, and yet I find it just so liberating. It frees up the imagination just to listen to it, let alone how he goes about it. It’s like a refresher course for your brain, and emotionally so engaging. I can’t say I knew him well, but I feel very connected to him through some of his pieces – in particular Pulse Shadows, one of my favourite Birtwistle pieces. It is a miracle of invention.”

Dean confirms the opera he is working on, for Bavarian State Opera, is called Two Queens. “It examines the relationship between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, but it does so not through Schiller / Donizetti but uses their own words, which have been beautifully put together and distilled by Matthew Jocelyn, who I worked with on Hamlet. It is due to be premiered in two short years, so I’ve got to get my skates on! It is progressing though, and I’m having fun with it.”

With that our allocated time is up – but Dean has shown in that time a keen and alert grasp of the music he is working on and its place in time, with reference to his time with the Berlin Philharmonic, his work within rock music and his vocation as a composer. Go to watch the Cello Concerto in its first London performance and you will get an idea of what he is all about.

Alban Gerhardt is the soloist, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner, in Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 27 April. The concerto will be complemented by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5. For more information on tickets, click here

In concert – Julia Fischer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Elgar Violin Concerto & Enescu Symphony no.2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Julia Fischer (c) Marquee TV

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910)
Enescu: Symphony No. 2 in A, Op. 17 (1912-14)

Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo (c) Marquee TV (Julia Fischer)

Could there be a more instructive coupling than the pieces in this concert, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor emeritus Vladimir Jurowski, for showing where musical Romanticism had arrived in the early 20th century and where it might have gone?

Relatively few concertos number among their composers’ most personal works, but Elgar’s Violin Concerto is one such and it was a measure of Julia Fischer’s identity that her account conveyed its conceptual richness as fully as its technical brilliance. Not least in the opening Allegro, Fischer drawing out that fatalism as germane to the heartfelt second theme as to its forceful predecessor such as pervades the initial tutti then the combative development. Here, as with the impetuous coda, Jurowski ensured textural clarity in even those densest passages.

Similarly in the Andante – the musing wistfulness of its main melody finding accord with the high-flown eloquence of what follows, with no undue lingering here or in those rapt closing bars. Its themes may be less overtly memorable, but the final Allegro molto follows a keenly purposeful trajectory whose dynamism is thrown into relief by that accompanied cadenza in which Elgar recollects earlier ideas as an intuitive interlude; rendered by Fischer with a poise as itself prepared ideally for the resumption of the finale then a powerfully rhetorical ending.

Enescu, who conducted the Paris premiere in 1932 with Yehudi Menuhin prior to the latter’s recording with the composer, might well have reflected on the success of this work compared to that of his Second Symphony – coolly received at the 1915 premiere, its score missing until 1924, and no revival until 1961. This might well have been the first hearing in London, but its formal and syntactical intricacy held no fear for Jurowski who, having previously championed Enescu’s Third Symphony and opera Oedipe, presided over a consistently assured rendition.

Not the least of its successes was in maintaining the impetus of the initial Vivace, whose ‘ma non troppo’ marking can easily lead to loss of focus among those polyphonic layers that were delineated with unfailing precision. Music this harmonically complex is (surprisingly?) direct as to melodic contours – not least its central Andante whose main theme, soulfully phrased by Benjamin Mellefont, has the evocative quality of those found in Russian symphonies several decades before. Here its inherent tenderness and its lingering regret could hardly be gainsaid.

The biggest challenge comes in the finale – not least the gauging of an extended introduction whose processional needs to generate momentum sufficient to propel the main Allegro on its eventful if never discursive course. Here, too, the extent of Enescu’s instrumental prowess is made plain by the dextrous contribution from keyboards and percussion to already extensive forces; variety of textures underpinning stages in musical evolution through to a coda whose heady if methodical accumulation of themes and motifs makes for a resplendent apotheosis.

Such was the impression left by this performance, a tribute to Jurowski’s conviction and the LPO’s executive skill. Maybe Enescu’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies will yet be heard in the realizations by Pascal Bentoiu, his own symphonies themselves deserving of such advocacy.

To read Arcana’s interview with Julia Fischer, who talks about the Elgar and Mozart violin concertos, click here

For further information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here – and for the newly announced 2022/23 season click here For more on George Enescu, head to a dedicated website – and click on the artist names for more information on Julia Fischer and Vladimir Jurowski

In concert – Mitsuko Uchida, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Lachenmann, Beethoven & Bruckner

Mitsuko Uchida Justin Pumfrey

Lachenmann Marche fatale (2018) [UK premiere]
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 (1805-06)
Bruckner Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81) [ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs]

Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London
Saturday 9 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Justin Pumfrey (Mitsuko Uchida), Thomas Kurek (Vladimir Jurowski)

He might now be its Conductor Emeritus, but Vladimir Jurowski (below) clearly has no intention of curtailing his association with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – tonight’s concert being a distinctive take on what might have seemed a straightforward Austro-German programme.

Jurowski’s leisurely traversal through Bruckner’s symphonies (taking in various editions) has now reached the Sixth, long underestimated in the context of its composer’s maturity but now recognized among his most distinctive and resourceful works. Not least for the way Bruckner integrates those two markedly different tempos of the opening Majestoso so it unfolded here as a seamless span – with the heightened cross-rhythmic transition into the reprise thrillingly effected, then the tonal follow-through of the coda rendered for the mesmeric inspiration it is.

The Adagio is often treated as a forerunner of those from Bruckner’s final three symphonies, but Jurowski rightly placed emphasis on its flowing phrases and eloquent paragraphs as they merge into each other across its expansive yet never overly emotive course. The LPO strings, responding with a burnished richness, were no less attentive to the syncopated impetus of the Scherzo – its outer sections pointing up those martial traits in which this piece abounds, with the trio’s teasing ensemble interplay deftly caught. Never an easy movement to bring off, the Finale undeniably succeeded as to its quixotic traversal – the outwardly fragmented contours of its development endowed with a cumulative dynamism; before its coda stealthily drew the almost antagonistic thematic elements together into a striding march-past towards the close.

Whereas Bruckner was writing at a time of relative European stability, Beethoven composed his Fourth Piano Concerto just before France lay siege to Vienna in a marked intensification of the Napoleonic Wars. This may explain the pathos behind the poetry of its first movement, certainly as Mitsuko Uchida (top) now hears it in a reading whose thoughtful understatement was underpinned by a tension such as came to the fore in the stark contrasts of its (more familiar) cadenza before the fatalistic resolve of its coda. Confrontation between piano and strings in the Andante were similarly elided by the former’s improvisatory solo, while the final Rondo stole in with mischievous intent – the wistfulness of its second theme and its transitions not neglected through to an ending where any lingering equivocation was decisively overcome.

As Jurowski emphasized in his introductory remarks, those who equate Helmut Lachenmann with the ‘musique concrète instrumentale’ of his most (in)famous works may be taken aback by the idiom of his recent Marche fatale. Yet what might sound akin to the anarchic take-off of a cartoon score is essentially a parodistic denunciation of Western civilisation as it careers towards a point of no return, the disjunct and increasingly fractured course of this six-minute piece culminating in a percussive onslaught with gong left resounding ominously at its close.

Seeking to open-out the context, Jurowski prefaced this with the fourth then first of Mauricio Kagel’s Zehn Marsche um den Sieg zu verfehlen (1978-9) – the collisions of woodwind, brass and percussion ‘missing the victory’ in ways a near-capacity audience evidently appreciated.

For further information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the composer names to read more about Helmut Lachenmann and Mauricio Kagel, and click on the artist names for more information on Mitsuko Uchida and Vladimir Jurowski

Talking Heads: Julia Fischer

written by Ben Hogwood Photo of Julia Fischer (c) Felix Broede

Arcana has an audience with Julia Fischer, the multi-skilled violinist and pianist who is Artist-in-Residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Her most recent concerts have contained a complete cycle of Mozart’s five Violin Concertos, along with the Sinfonia Concertante and a chamber concert with LPO soloists. The Mozart will shortly be available to view online, after which Fischer will be busy rehearsing the Elgar Violin Concerto for performance with the orchestra in April.

Our online call finds her bringing a little sunshine to an otherwise grey morning, full of enthusiasm as she greets us from her home city of Munich. To begin, she recalls her first encounters with the Mzart concertos. “The G major Concerto, no.3, was taught by my first violin teacher when I was really very little. I must have been eight, and I remember hearing Arabella Steinbacher play it. I think that was my first encounter with that concerto.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fischer does not have a vivid memory of the impact it had on her – but was soon reacquainted with the piece. “A few months after that I actually performed the first movement of the concerto for my then teacher Ana Chumachenco so when I auditioned with her, it was with that first movement of the G major Concerto.”

Fischer recorded the concertos for Pentatone with Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, recordings that have aged will in the 15 years or so since she made them. Having spent a relatively long time with them, has her view changed at all? “I suppose, yes, but not in a conscious way. I learned them between the age of eight and fourteen, when I played the Fifth Concerto, then the Fourth Concerto when I was 16. The First and Second concertos I learned for the recording in 2006. After that I performed the cycle two or three times, and of course there are always things changing from one performance to the next, but my emotional approach didn’t change much.”

There are smaller considerations to be made, however. “Maybe the technical approach, the bowings, the note relations have changed a little, as there is always something you can discuss. You can do it with a large or small orchestra, with a conductor or without a conductor, with a harpsichord or without. There are many options, and I don’t think that any of those options are wrong. For the moment you have to find a good approach, and it depends on the people who are involved and who you play with.”

February seems a good time of year to be discussing and playing these essentially sunny, optimistic works. She smiles. “Let’s hope that we can be optimistic, you know?!” The concerts have interesting and exciting programmes around the Mozart works. Many of them will be given under Thomas Dausgaard, a conductor Fischer has worked with before. “Yes, he is a wonderful conductor. He is a very kind man, a wonderful musician. I specifically asked for him for these concerts.”

Dausgaard it was who chose the Richard Strauss pieces accompanying the Mozart – Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung with the Third and Fourth Concertos, and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Sinfonia Concertante. Meanwhile Fischer herself took charge of one concert. “I will always play and direct the first and second concertos, because I really don’t need a conductor there. I put together the first two concertos with the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, and he did the rest of the programming.”

With the Mozart works, is there an assumption that the works are too easy to perform? “Yes. You can always find difficulties in any piece, but I think when you do the cycle it is important that each concerto has its own character, so that they don’t all sound the same. The First and Second Concertos are very different from Three, Four and Five, they are still very much from a perspective coming out of the Baroque-ish way of playing. I think Mozart probably had Vivaldi and Tartini in his mind, as they are much more difficult than Three, Four and Five.”

She expands on these three pieces. “The Third is probably the most lyrical one, and has the beautiful aria as its second movement, With the Fourth, it is a beautiful work, and as well as the portmanteau the second movement has this singing part. The Fifth is very different because it has the famous Turkish March finale, but with Three and Four you have to be careful that they don’t get too similar.”

Throughout the concertos, Fischer finds elements of Mozart’s operatic style. “I think it is everywhere”, she says emphatically. “In any Mozart, one has to see him first as an opera composer, and then it’s far easier to perform his instrumental pieces.”

From her answers above you will have gathered that Fischer learned the violin at an extremely young age. Indeed, she met Yehudi Menuhin well before her teens. Did she speak to him about the Mozart concertos at all? “Actually I played the Fifth Concerto with him, when I was 13, maybe 14. I remember playing that with him, but I don’t really remember the musicality of it. I also played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with him and that had a huge impact on me. We had a conductor for the rehearsals so he spent more time with me personally, and we worked on it together. The Mozart was a one-off concert in France, so we just met very briefly for that.”

As part her Mozart season with the London Philharmonic Fischer programmed a chamber concert, placing herself as soloist in the Dvořák Piano Quintet no.2 – for she is indeed a fully-fledged concert pianist. It is an extra challenge, but one that she warms to. “I have played the first and second violin parts in that piece, and the piano part!” Does she find chamber music an essential complement to playing concertos? “There’s no difference”, she says. “It’s not as if I use a different technique or different perspective. For me it’s very natural that music is about communication, and communication is crucial to chamber music as well as orchestral pieces. For me it is not a different way of playing.”

As part of the chamber programme, Fischer included the little-heard Octet for Strings by Max Bruch – a composer who is all too often solely represented by his First Violin Concerto. “I love many pieces of his, I think they are really fantastic. The Octet is such a great piece of chamber music, and of course it’s fun to play. My first violin part is like the Mendelssohn Octet, it’s very challenging, and I like the double bass added to it which makes it almost like an orchestral piece. Whenever I am in residence with an orchestra, I try to programme the Bruch because usually I don’t get the opportunity to perform it.”

Fischer is relishing being back on the road and performing to audiences overseas. “In November I did my first tour in one and a half years, so that was very interesting!” she says with characteristic understatement. “Then I lost the LPO tour to Germany in December, and in January I was supposed to have a tour with my quartet. We were supposed to have nine concerts but in the end we had three. It’s a little bit frustrating but I’m very happy to have had this residency to perform.”

Playing the violin was not a challenge during the initial lockdown of 2020, but there were more immediate challenges. “It was very easy for me to keep playing”, she says. “I have no problem with making myself practice every day. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I am a mother to two school-age kids, and German schools were closed altogether for something like two months in the first lockdown. In the second lockdown my son was not in school for around six months. I had problems other than if I practiced or not!”

While she was grateful for the freedom to keep playing, Fischer was aware of the hardship caused. “There were certain professions that had to suffer the most, and we belong to those. Some people kept working through the entire pandemic, and I was basically without work for one and a half years. Of course I am lucky because I didn’t have any financial issues, and have a house and great family and everything, but from a professional point of view, artists were suffering a lot.”

Turning back to the more immediate future, Fischer will be performing the Elgar Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski in early April. “It was my debut piece with the LPO in 2004”, she remembers, “it was my first performance with them. It was the first season that I played it in concert, but I learned it two years before that when I actually graduated from school. For my graduation I took five months off from concerts, so I didn’t perform for five months. My teacher said, “OK, let’s learn a few concertos in that time”, so I learned the Elgar and the Khachaturian. That was when I first learned it. I had it on my London Philharmonic tour with Vladimir Jurowski to Asia three years ago. And yeah, we actually wanted to play it on the December tour to be prepared for the April concert, which didn’t happen, so now we have to start over again, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

She is fulsome in her praise for the conductor. “Jurowski is absolutely phenomenal in these huge pieces, because it’s so big. You have such a big orchestra, the piece is very long, and you really need a conductor capable of finding the architecture of such a huge piece, and also one who is capable of accompanying because it is a very free concerto. You need somebody who can really follow you well, so I’m very much looking forward to that.”

She did not get a chance to converse with Yehudi Menuhin about the Elgar. “I remember when I met him, I started to collect his recordings. I have the recording of him when he was 16, with Elgar conducting, and that’s when I first heard the piece. My first encounter was with his recording, but I never talked to him about it.”

The Elgar concerto will be coupled with the Second Symphony of George Enescu, a typical example of Jurowski’s imaginative approach to his concerts. “I know Jurowski is pretty amazing with programming”, Fischer says. “When I need to find new programmes I text him and ask for his opinion, because I know that it’s not my strength, programming – so I always try to get inspiration from somewhere else!”

Fischer has not yet recorded the Elgar – is that something she would like to address? “I was supposed to record it a few times, and then something always just didn’t happen. We are recording the concert in April, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. I don’t think the Elgar is a piece I would want to record in a studio, because it’s so long. It’s hard to find the excitement through the piece, but in a concert recording I think it is entirely possible.”

In the longer term, are there other pieces Julia would like to learn and record? “I have always been very curious, and I used the pandemic to read through a lot of music and learn a few pieces. I don’t have a master plan though. When a conductor asks me to learn something I think about it. For example I’m playing in a year from now in Warsaw with Andrey Boreyko, and he asked me to learn the Violin Concerto by Karłowicz, which dates from around 100 years ago. I’m very happy to do that. I think it’s tough to judge a piece, because usually with many pieces you only know if they are going to work or not when you are on the stage. It’s worth learning and performing them once to decide if that is a piece you are going to keep in your repertory or not.”

Julia has a busy performing schedule for the rest of the year – pandemic permitting, of course. “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen! I’m very much looking forward to touring Europe with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in May. The past two tours fell apart and this is a big tour. The problem with touring is that if you lose one country then the entire tour can fall apart. Unfortunately it is usually Germany that is the country with the most strict rules, and with the least support for arts, I have to say. I don’t think as many concerts have been cancelled anywhere as they have been in Germany. Or, even worse, when they don’t cancel but have these 25% or 50% rules. Until last week in Bavaria we had 25% and rules of being vaccinated two or three times. Some people wanted to come but it was too much of an effort, and in Austria it was the same. With those restrictions it is impossible to programme anything, so we will see – but for May the prognosis is good. That sounds hopeful but what we’ve learned in the last two years is not to be certain of that!”

She remains busy as a teacher, “a bit busier than I should be! I have too many students, which was a great thing during the pandemic of course. I was teaching every week, and that gave me a lot of joy, with a wonderful class and wonderful students, some very interesting musicians. We even did little concerts for each other just so that we could keep on performing, even if it was four or five of us we continued to do that. I am a very happy teacher!”

Julia Fischer performs and directs Mozart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in two concerts set for broadcast on Marquee TV on 5 March and 12 March. For more details click here.

In the first concert she is soloist and director in the first two concertos, while Thomas Dausgaard conducts in the third. The second concert pairs the Fourth and Fifth concertos, while viola player Nils Mönkemeyer joins for the famous Sinfonia Concertante.

Fischer will perform the Elgar Violin Concerto with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 13 April, with Enescu’s Second Symphony. Tickets for that concert can be found here.

Finally, for more information on Julia Fischer’s European tour with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, click below:

Talking Heads: Sir James MacMillan

Music has had an important role to play in the celebration of Christmas for as long as we can remember. In spite of the enormous choice of repertoire available, however, new works continue to be created, the inspiration never waning – and the next premiere is less than a week away as we write.

It is a major work, too – Sir James MacMillan filling a whole concert with his Christmas Oratorio. Written in 2019, it had a European premiere in Amsterdam in January 2020, and was due for performance by the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra later the same year. For sadly predictable reasons that did not happen, but happily MacMillan is now ready for the UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall.

Arcana hooked up with the composer via Zoom at his North Ayrshire home, to find out more – and began by asking him for the first experiences of Christmas music he could recall. “The magic of Christmas was the music for me I suppose, going back even to the days before I was involved in music. Hearing the carols at school, and the church, and the home, amongst families, with the piano being played, are all very early memories. I loved it at school especially, and then gradually we were ushered into actually singing and performing the music. I would be pressed into service eventually to accompany some of the carols in the class, and that sort of thing.”

Were there any particular pieces that made a strong impression? “The usual ones or the popular ones, but I always remember it was the Advent carols that got me really excited, as that was the indication that Christmas was coming. It was things like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and a few other children’s carols. I was at a children’s Catholic school, and there was a lot of that kind of thing covered in the way that the school ran.”

Recalling the first piece of Christmas music he composed proves a little trickier. “I do remember as a teenager being asked to write a setting of one of the Isaiah texts for a singer. It was one of the teachers at the school, who sang it at a local Christmas concert. I would have been around 16 or 17, and I’ve lost the music for that. There isn’t a lot of Christmas music in the catalogue, as most composers get asked to write more music associated with Passiontide If anything. There is an issue perhaps that there isn’t enough Christmas music, as it’s not necessarily the kind of liturgical area that composers get drawn to, which is a pity because there’s a lot to be done! There’s a couple of little things in my catalogue written as a student, and Ex Cathedra asked me to write something a couple of years together which got me going.”

The Christmas Oratorio is a much larger piece – billed, like Bach, as a celebration of Christmas? “I think so. On the basis of what I’ve just said about the lack of Christmas music, my mind turned towards trying to fill the gap in a substantial way. In my discussions with the LPO in the early days, I had flagged up the idea that at some stage I would like to write a big Christmas piece. It had been in my mind for some time. I’ve written two passion settings already, and quite a lot of my music already relates to that point in the liturgical calendar, and it just seemed to be a big, empty space that needed to be filled. The LPO picked up on it and liked the idea, and they gave me carte blanche to produce a very substantial piece. It’s a full evening’s programme, in fact.”

The compositional process, as he recounts it, seems remarkably straightforward. “The next stage was what text do I set, what forces do I use, and it became clear that the chorus should be used quite substantially as well as the orchestra. Then I thought about soloists. Once those practical considerations were made and in place, the next question was what do I give to the different choral groups? The way it worked out was that I decided on a mixture of early English poetry, mostly given to the two soloists, liturgical texts in Latin associated with liturgy and scripture given to the chorus, largely, and then these orchestral interludes. All are inspired by the memories of Bach cantatas, and the sinfonias. A pattern emerged by starting and ending each half with a sinfonia, and using a palindromic structure, with arias for the soprano and baritone, choral items and a central tableau in each part to bring everybody together on a big gospel narrative, a New Testament text.”

At every point the composer had his eye on the bigger structure. “When I began to break it down and look at all the constituent parts, the question was how to build it up into a coherent structure, one that was replicated from part one to part two.” This multi-layered approach would seem to suit audience involvement. “When I did the performance in January, we went over to Amsterdam and did it live on Dutch radio. There was no audience, but I was able to prepare the piece and perform it knowing that there were people listening. I got a sense of how it was stitching together and how the different sections related to each other. I’m pleased with how the different movements complement each other, and how they go from Latin to English, from one aspect of the story to another, in very different ways. The instrumental commentaries stand back from the drama of the storytelling and allow a reflection of either serenity, joy or exultation.”

It might seem odd performing a Christmas work in January, but this proved surprisingly natural for MacMillan. “In essence it’s still part of the season”, he explains. “In Holland and Germany especially, they keep their Christmas trees up until early February. The key thing is to keep the decorations up to the Feast of the Presentation. In European terms there is still something of the Christmas character alive at that time, although we Brits have flat packed our decorations away! It was odd stepping back, but any excuse for live music making was happily received.”

MacMillan took an approach that was aware of what other composers have written for Christmastime, but one presence especially loomed large. “When I’m writing these big pieces, I’m certainly aware of antecedents and models established by great employers in the past. As far as the Passions were concerned when I was writing them it was very much the Bach passions that stuck in my mind, but sometimes it’s more of a hindrance than a help, and it’s trying to put all of that out of one’s mind. Nevertheless, the pattern was there, and the model was set in the Bach Christmas Oratorio, which was very much in my mind. Bach is an inescapable ghost, he hovers over all our shoulders. It certainly has been the case with me as I’ve written these big liturgical pieces.”

The composer has been writing more for choir of late, part of a general resurgence for choral music in the last few years. “That’s true. My background as a young musician was in instrumental music. I was a brass player, I played in brass bands as well as school and university orchestras. I did have some choral involvement as a teenager at high school, and that was that was a very important experience for me. I sang and conducted a lot of choral music as an undergraduate. There was something about a general thrust in modernism especially at that time – the 1970s and 1980s – which emphasised instrumental music over choral music, and certainly over vocal music. It’s probably because modernism valued that kind of extreme virtuosity that instrumentalists were able to achieve. When you look at the great modernists, composers of that time, even their vocal music looks and sounds instrumental, for instance the Berio Sequenza for voice.”

He continues. “Even the choral music of Webern and Schoenberg, going back into the early part of the 20th century, it’s very instrumentally crafted. I was exposed to early polyphony, and the Bach cantatas, and then more modern music that I regard as really important by British composers like Benjamin Britten. You see that there is a different way of imagining the choir and the kind of muscle memory of choral singing that has been kept alive in the British tradition. I grafted myself on to that. Britten was a great composer and there are these other great British composers that keep the choral tradition alive. It’s partly through the church experience and experience of the great English cathedrals in particular, but it’s also the local choral unions and choral societies.”

The tradition reaches well beyond professional singers. “The whole amateur way of working has kept the choral flame alive, and it is a very important part of the musical ecology of these islands. There is that love of choral music which is very deeply embedded into the amateur experience as. As that grew in me, I decided to start writing more and more choral music. And the other thing that has to be said, is that as a young composer in the 1970s in particular, I and many others didn’t see the rise of those fabulous English choral ensembles that have become much more prominent in recent years.”

He name-checks a few examples. “Those are The Sixteen, Tenebrae and Polyphony, The Marian Ensemble and other new groups that are making music of a very, very high standard, and increasingly, incrementally higher standards. This is a very exciting time, not just for British choral singing, but for those of us who value choral music. You’re beginning to see that these groups are commissioning and getting living composers to write for them, and they’re being programmed alongside early music, which makes sense. A brand new piece of 21st century music sits alongside music from the past, and all audiences seem to be at ease with that and seem to see it as a natural complement.”

It is an approach which, to your interviewer at least, makes the early music feel current while the new music gains a historical perspective, the two meeting in the middle. Talking of new music, and MacMillan’s work nurturing new composers, does he have any pointers for the next generation? “Yes. Very recently I’ve been involved in a mentoring process along with The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen, set up by the Genesis Foundation and directed by Harry Christophers. I’ve worked with them the last seven or eight years now. The last tranche of three composers I met and worked with just a few weeks ago, and Genesis Sixteen brought the course up to Scotland for the first time. There was a Scottish composer, Lisa Robertson, who I have mentored before in choral music at the University of St. Andrews, and also in orchestral music. She’s an all-rounder in that sense, a very gifted young composer. There was an Irish composer, Eoghan Desmond, a very gifted composer, and Anna Semple was the third, a very fine composer too. We workshopped their music – three works in progress, but close to completion. Eventually The Sixteen will take on board the completed works, perform and record them.”

In the wake of the pandemic – be it ending or ongoing – has MacMillan’s approach to composition altered at all? “The only difference I’ve noticed is that I’ve got on with more music writing. Some of our projects were brought forward, because a lot of the other things I do were just obliterated, and I had no contact with universities or students. In a sense I was able to get back to the day job. I wouldn’t say I was more focused on inspired than usual, but I suppose I was given more space to think about the music in more detail. I have written a lot – some choral, some orchestral, some chamber music, which I’m writing just now.”

He continued working with ensembles to. “I did a couple of things with orchestras, because as you know, choirs were shut down. I got to work with the LPO on a mentoring course, but not to a live audience. We recorded the process of rehearsal and performance with several young composers, and I did a Radio 3 recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I did filmed concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, too, and I eventually got to conduct them with a live audience, which was wonderful. It’s just a great thrill to get back to the live concert.”

Does he get nervous before a premiere such as the Christmas Oratorio? “I can never tell before just how nervous I’ll be. Sometimes I’m placidly calm, other times, I’m really on edge, and there’s no single factor determining how I’m going to be.”

Turning back to the music, I ask if it is important with composition to express the importance of being Scottish, and MacMillan’s Catholic faith? “It’s part of my DNA in different ways, part of the given circumstances of who I am. When I was younger, I got involved with Scottish traditional music. I played and sung with folk bands, and I did feel at the time as if it was a kind of absorption process, deliberately trying to absorb the experience of what it was to perform Scottish traditional music with an eye on how it might transform itself into the music I was writing. I was aware that that was an ongoing process, but performing Scottish folk music was a very important experience that had a knock-on effect on some of the music that I made. I don’t do that anymore. Perhaps the experience of Scottish traditional music is much more kind of underground, subconscious rather than conscious.”

He takes more time to consider. “There is perhaps an analogy there with the religious thing. There were times in the past where I thought more consciously and more anxiously about what it meant to engage with religion in modern music, and now I don’t think about it as it’s become much more part of the natural pattern. It’s what I do, it’s who I am. I will write lots of pieces with settings of sacred text, but then I will turn my hand to something else that has nothing to do with text or directly theological considerations.”

Does that make for a stronger connection with the audience, music that is part of MacMillan himself rather than consciously signposted? “That would be good if it was the case! I feel I have a lot in common with my audiences regardless of whether they are Scottish or English, Brazilian or Russian!” You do tend to meet people who love music as much as I do, who will use almost quasi spiritual language to account for the impact of music on their lives. Those are sometimes deeply sceptical people when it comes to religious matters, but it’s an acknowledgement that there’s something about music which is bigger than who we are, and perhaps it does point to a spiritual dimension in the art form.”

Finally, a completely different subject – craft beer! James has been sampling some during lockdown, so does he have any tips to pass on to a likeminded enthusiast? “I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I’m very much a dilettante, finding things as I go. I keep meeting people who know much more about it than I do. I did manage to get to the States during the summer and ended up in Vermont, where the local craft beers are just wonderful, if a whole lot stronger! After a few of them you’ve had an experience, put it that way!”

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio will be performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 4 December at the Royal Festival Hall, and then again on Sunday 5 December at Saffron Hall. Sir Mark Elder will conduct the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with soloists Lucy Crowe (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone)

For ticket information, click here for the Royal Festival Hall and here for Saffron Hall. Meanwhile you can find a web guide to MacMillan’s choral music from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, here