A: My parents guessed there was something musical when I was teething and music was the only thing that would stop me being grouchy. I started playing violin because my older brother had started learning, and I’m afraid I was just a right pain about it until they let me start too! I learnt violin and piano but where I was always nervy performing on piano, I always loved playing violin. I knew from really early on that I wanted to be a performer (deep down my dream was to be a dancer but I wasn’t anything like good enough). I was really lucky to meet an incredible violin teacher, and move from my primary school to Purcell School, a specialist music school and that was it really.
Q: Who were the most influential people in your development as a musician?
A: There have been so many! My Dad had an enormous collection of LPs, but 99% were old school with many recordings from the 50s and earlier. Whenever I was learning something he’d source as many recordings as he could for me to listen to, so I grew up hearing all these different sounds and voices, and that definitely affected the way I developed. I was also lucky to have lessons early on with Sidney Griller, a total legend who was then already in his 80s. His work ethic, generosity, sound, belief in me and so much more were fundamental. He was adamant I must always keep my ears open and question everything and I’ve always tried to hold on to that approach. I’ve been so fortunate to cross paths with so many inspiring musicians throughout my studies and professional life. People always surprise me, making me start questioning everything afresh.
Q: What is your favourite part of performing? Some artists say it’s the preparation leading up to a performance or the rush during the performance. What’s yours?
A: I guess the most important thing for me is the connection with people – both the other musicians and the audience. Sharing the emotions and beauty with others is for me what music is about. Having said that, I love the preparation, both on my own and in rehearsal. I commission a lot of new music, and love that journey too, learning to play something that nobody’s every heard before, and having that direct contact with the composer. Equally I love the buzz of performing. It’s strange in this lockdown – very quickly as all my work for months to come disappeared practically overnight I was very aware of how much I would miss that buzz. I’ve been experimenting with live streams from my living room. I would always have thought that you would need the audience to be physically present in the room in order to feel connected. But I’m finding just knowing people are there listening in real time, somehow that connection is still absolutely there.
Q: The inevitable deserted island question… You’re on a deserted island with your violin and you can only have 5 pieces of music. What are they?
A: Hmmmm… If you’d asked me this a few weeks ago, I would have answered really differently. There’s so much chamber music particularly I would have said I couldn’t do without. But I’m finding in this lockdown that being unable to be a part of the whole, even if I can hear the other parts in my head is actually really upsetting. So I’m throwing myself into unaccompanied violin repertoire where at least none of the music is missing. I’m going to cheat slightly and take ‘pieces’ to mean ‘books’:
Bach – Sonatas and Partitas
Cage – Freeman Etudes (to keep me on my toes – you should see the score!)
Ysaye – Sonatas
Bartok – Solo Sonata
Frances Hoad/Sutton/Crosse/Beamish/Hellawell/Maxwell Davies – Bach to the Future
That last one is a set of works I commissioned to partner Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas – they’re really great!
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
A: A drawing in my living room done by my Dad who was a fantastic artist.
Q: The Piccadilly Sinfonietta is a chamber ensemble. Can you explain to our readers what chamber music is and what draws you to chamber music as a performer?
A: Chamber music is something for a small number of players, originally music that could have been performed in a small chamber. A lot of the music I love most is chamber music. The musical intimacy and conversation is really different from music for bigger forces. It’s always wonderful to discover the way parts interact, and to work in depth with other musicians, often being drawn to ideas you might not otherwise have thought of.
Q: What is your most memorable concert experience?
A: That’s almost impossible to answer – there are so many incredible memories. Performances with my musical heroes, performances in really special venues, really wonderful audiences… I think audiences often don’t realise how integral they are to the performance. If I had to pick one, I’d maybe go with a late-night concert I did at St. Magnus Festival in 2015 – I premiered works written for me by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sally Beamish and Adrian Sutton, preformed alongside music by Bach, Biber and Schubert/Ernst. Performing at St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, and to the Festival audience is always a real privilege, and to add to the excitement all of the premiere composers were present. If Carling did concerts…
Q: I hear that your violin has a special story behind it. What is the history of your violin?
A: The violin I’ve been playing for the last few years is an instrument from the workshop of Peter Guarnerius of Venice. Ever since I was 10 I’ve borrowed violins to perform on, because my parents just couldn’t afford a decent instrument (violins don’t come cheap). The luthier I was borrowing an instrument from in 2013 often called me into the shop to try interesting violins that had come in. This one time after I’d been playing away for half an hour falling in love, he asked if I’d like to take it home with me. I thought he was joking. It turned out he’d been setting it up, and its owner was looking for a violinist who needed an instrument. I know they’re really just wood and metal, but you end up developing a very close relationship with a violin. Every instrument has a different personality, and getting to know its quirks and characteristics is an exciting journey. It’s been a beautiful few years together, but I soon have to return it to the foundation it now belongs to. I’m currently trying out different instruments and looking for a new solution. I always feel very fortunate that people are willing to loan me instruments – and it’s exciting developing a relationship with a new violin that will take you in different musical directions.
Q: In a concert setting, what is your definition of success?
A: Moving at least one person in the audience is the most important thing for me. Of course I always want to be ‘perfect’, and to have had a really great experience with other people on stage. But at the end of the day, for me the point of music is that connection, taking people out of themselves.
Q: For someone of any age who is thinking of learning a musical instrument, what are some words of advice you have for them?
A: Go for it – it’s the best thing! It’s never too late. I went to a really interesting concert/lecture with a neurologist showing the effects on brain cells of learning an entirely new instrument when you’re of retirement age. It was extraordinary the difference in brain scans. So aside from the obvious emotional, social and musical benefits of playing an instrument, it’s really great for a healthy brain too!
Q: In scary or unsure times, what keeps you going?
A: Beer. I’m joking. Nature really helps me, and particularly being by the sea – it has this way of reminding me how much bigger it is, how insignificant I am, in a really positive way. I also always come back to Bach and Biber whose music leaves me feeling safe and grounded.