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A Celebration and a New Concerto: The cellist Robert Cohen in conversation with Gavin Dixon (GDn)

Cellist Robert Cohen celebrates his fiftieth birthday in 2009. To mark the event, he has invited Sally Beamish to write him a concerto based on his past and his family roots. He talks with Gavin Dixon about the new work and the events that inspired it before looking forward to some other future projects.

I understand this is your second collaboration with Sally Beamish.

Yes. I had always had an issue with the idea of inviting a composer to write for me, about committing myself to perform a work before it had been written. I felt that it would be difficult for me to identify so completely with a composer’s language that I would feel able to approach them to write me a concerto. It was easier with Sally, because I have known her virtually my whole life, although I hadn’t realised she was a composer until I heard her Oboe Concerto. I attended a rehearsal for the premiere and I was completely bowled over. I decided that I now finally felt safe in asking somebody to write for me. So that was how our first concerto came about. With this one, I was thinking about how I should celebrate my fiftieth birthday. A party or a concert is the usual way, but I wanted to do something more significant. I like to think of this as the halfway point in my career, so I thought it would be great to have a piece of music, not just about the birthday itself, but about the journey up to this point and looking forward to the future as well. Sally thought it was a great idea, but we needed somebody to pick it up and commission it. Fortunately both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra liked the plan and said they would commission and perform it.

Your family roots were an inspiration for the work?

The way that Sally writes, she always likes to start from a specific point of inspiration. She and I had been talking about my experiences over the last fifty years, and she started to notice that I was talking a lot about what made me, me. And one of the special elements of that was the relationship I had with my maternal grandfather. He had come from Poland, escaping really, and had ended up in South Africa by accident. He and his family had expected to come to England, but like a lot of immigrants at the time, had boarded a ship where they didn’t speak the language, and when they got off they were in Cape Town. He made his life there, although I knew him much later on, after he had brought his family to England. We spent a lot of time together and were very close. I feel very similar to him in a lot of ways. He died when I was thirteen but he remains with me very strongly. That was just at the time I made my Festival Hall debut, the start of my next life. So he was there up until that moment and then he went. Sally listened to me talk about these things, and it was clear to her that all this was strongly connected to my development as a musician, my growing sense of self-expression through music. So she took elements of the story and used them as the basis for the concerto. And now that I am learning the music I am realising how brilliantly she has brought those nuances in. I immediately recognised so much in the music; I really feel at home in it.

So what sort of interaction was there between the two of you as the piece was coming together?

We talked a lot about the types of music that I am particularly drawn to. The harmonic minor scale, for instance, has a lot of significance for me. I also like music that has a soaring energy, that uplifts and powerfully communicates, even in the quietest and most beautiful moments. She went away and thought about it. Then suddenly something happened. We had another conversation, talking about movement and about looking to the future, and suddenly it was like a crack opened for her, and it just poured out. She then wrote the structure and the main parts of the concerto very quickly, which must be a good sign. I didn’t interfere too much with that part of the process, but when she had finished we met again and went through the whole concerto, and she explained what she had done and why. And I had very little to suggest to her, partly I think because she had built the concerto around the way that I play. She has been watching me play since I was fifteen, so she knows the sorts of things that I like to do and the way I express myself. Even from a technical point of view, although I did not want to restrict her in that respect. I said to her that it could be as difficult as she liked, and I’d find a way to deal with it.

That’s a dangerous thing to say to any composer...

She was worried that some of the passages were very high. I said to just write it like that, I was sure it would work, and it has. Of course, she is an expert. She knows what will work and what won’t.

I imagine there is a great deal of stylistic diversity in the work.

Yes, and I was very keen for the music to be very vocal in places. For me, cello playing is not just about making a warm, beautiful sound. That is a part of it, of course, but I see the instrument as a vehicle for making any kind of sound, for saying whatever the music needs to say. So the cello will sound different when you are playing Beamish or Beethoven or Bach. It depends on the language of the composer and on my way of speaking it. I wanted the concerto to reflect this interest in speaking or singing through the music, and I encouraged Sally to use vocal styles. So she has taken elements of Polish and South African folk singing as inspiration. She has also used nuances and inflections from Yiddish singing, a very earthy style that comes from untrained voices, very much a folk quality. It has been included in subtle ways, particularly in the middle movement. The music here is almost in free form, it has an almost improvisational quality. It is no use trying to plan ahead too much for performing these passages, it has to be more instinctive, a direct, very human, response to the emotional content. I can see that each performance could be very different.

Can you tell me something about the relationship between this concerto and the previous concerto that Sally Beamish wrote for you.

Sally writes music that is always very close to nature. She always uses nature sounds. In this new concerto she is using the sounds of species of birds that migrate between Poland and South Africa. The last concerto was very much about nature because it was based around the River Poems of Ted Hughes, with each movement reflecting a nature theme. This concerto is much more dramatic. Its focus is more human than in the First Concerto, so it is less other-worldly and more directly emotional.

Is it narrative?

No. She definitely didn’t want to do that, and I agreed. The idea was inspired by my story, or by the story of my roots, but those elements were really just a way of bring out the vocal and emotional qualities we were looking for, rather than actually telling a story through the music.

So it has a standard concerto structure in three movements?

Yes, the format is quite classical, there is even a cadenza in the first movement.

How much input did you have in that?

The cadenza is still in development actually. Sally wrote it, but it has a kind of improvisational quality, and we are looking to develop it further, to create more space for this improvisational sound.

Are there any unusual technical challenges?

The main challenge is that she uses the entire range of the instrument and goes right up to the top. The upper register is used in a very swooping, dramatic way. You literally fly up the cello. There are fantastic moments where it just keeps pushing higher and higher, and at the top you get this kind of soaring energy, really powerfully singing out. The way she sticks with it, maintaining this intensity in the upper register is really unusual.

So how does the pacing work with this level of intensity?

There is a kind of spiral effect, it goes around, and then it goes a bit further and then it goes a bit further. In the first movement especially, there is this feeling that the music has a momentum and it keeps building higher and higher each time, so you don’t know how much further it is going to go, which is really exciting. But I don’t see anything here which is really technically extraordinary. It is all within fairly common technical bounds really. Some of the vocal inflections move beyond standard playing techniques, the specific accents and way of moving off from notes. It needs a kind of spontaneous physical movement.

The issue of physical movement is very important to your approach to playing the cello. Does it play a role in this piece?

Physical freedom is an important aspect of the way that I transmit energy to the audience. When we talked, I think Sally was very aware of this, and I was virtually dancing as I was talking about it! So yes it is very import, and it has become more important to me in recent years for a number of reasons. Physical movement has always been important to my sense of making music, but it is now also an important dimension of my teaching and consulting activities. It is a way that I have been able to really help people. This is how the Cello Clinic started. I found that more and more people were coming to me with problems about making music or connected with music, even people who were having confidence problems when speaking in public. All these cases were to do with communication problems but really came down to issues of relaxation and with free movement in the body. They are exactly the same problems that cello players face, and I had found a number of key points through my cello teaching that seem to be really helpful to other performers in resolving these problems. It can be problems with memorising music or physical issues, string players having problems with their shoulders for instance. And it can lead to serious career difficulties, life issues. If you are a violinist in an orchestra and you can’t play, what is going to happen to you? But I’ve found that most of the time I can identify the root cause of these problems really easily. And it often comes down to issues of movement and to the relationship between psychology and physical performing techniques.

What is your psychological approach to the pressures of performance? Do think it is important to isolate the experience of performing from the way you live the rest of your life?

It is quite funny because I feel I have become an expert in this area. I know how to prepare myself and how to get the most out of myself. It would be nice to think that with this knowledge the rest of life would be perfectly organised and planned, but it doesn’t quite work that way. I specialise in focussing in on how to perform and how to feel good performing. It is a philosophy, and I try to apply it to the rest of my life as well. It might not be quite as successful, but then the rest of life is very broad, whereas performing is a very specific activity. But my philosophy is all about being very positive and eradicating anything negative about music making. There is no point in learning or practising music if you are going to do it in a negative way. As soon as I detect any sign of negativity I try to replace it with as many positive attitudes and thoughts as I can. Performing should be about creating a flow of positive energy from the first time you look at the music to presenting it onstage. And the faster this flow of positive energy is, the less likely you are to take on negative aspects.

Just looking at the concerto repertoire in particular, do you think that certain composers are more sympathetic to this performing psychology than others?

The way that music works is a very personal thing, and I find some music quite negative. Personally, I find that hard going.

Are you prepared to name any names?

Yes, I think something like the Britten Cello Symphony is a work that has enormous darkness. It has a lot of negativity and is therefore an enormous challenge for me, because I have to accept that I cannot turn it around and make it a positive thing. That would be to ignore what the music is about. So I have to work with myself to accept that kind of colouring, the darkness of the music so that I can be faithful to Britten. But it affects me when I am working on it. It makes me a much darker person, which of course is not a bad thing at all. In fact, if anything, I seem to prefer minor key music to major key music. It is not that I am trying to make everything happy, not at all, I just like forward moving energy. But there are times when it seems to go backwards and then it is hard work.

You mentioned the Cello Clinic. What other plans do you have lined up for the future?

The Cello Clinic is very much a one-to-one thing, but I am also doing similar work with orchestras. The two are closely connected, because I see my role as a director/conductor as being about bringing positive energy back to professional players, who have perhaps lost the sense of creativeness and excitement that they came into the profession with. Again, it is all about finding freedom in one’s playing, and I am trying to demonstrate how expressing music as a group can be so incredibly exciting. I see the role as one of imparting good energy, and when players pick up on that, the performances can be really fantastic.

I am also working with producer Don Boyd on a new internet TV project called It is going to be launched in the spring, and we have already started filming. The idea is to film the arts in a way that has not been done before, in a very free, creative way. We want to allow access on many different levels and from many different points of view, so that you are not just spectating but are getting really involved in the feeling of the performance. The filming has been fascinating, exploring how to integrate this into my performances. I have always felt that closeness really helps the power of music. There is an energy which pours out, which can literally be like a gale force wind. If you are close enough to it, you are really exposed to that energy. Of course, if you are at the back of the Festival Hall listening to a piano recital, it can be really difficult, it is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. If you watch a performance on the television, you can feel just as detached as you would if you were in the back row of the Festival Hall, so it has to be filmed in a different sort of way, so that you really get a sense of being close to it. I want this television project to sensitise people to this energy, so that then when they sit at the back of the Festival Hall, they are able experience something really powerful, and not just if they are sitting in the front row. That’s a tall order, but I’m an idealist.

In the next few weeks, I will also be launching another web project: Cohen Podtalks. I have been drawn to the idea because I feel that with many prominent people in the arts and culture, we only hear about them when they are promoting large-scale exhibitions or events. I thought it would be really good to talk to them, not about specific productions, but rather about what is ticking on in the background and what makes them want to be involved in these things. Wouldn’t it be great to go backstage after a concert and hear what the performers really thought of it, and what they are saying to each other? So I have been going out and talking to these people, finding out what they think of the state of culture in the Britain today, what sort of hopes they have for the future. And it has been really useful the fact that I am one of them, that they are talking to somebody from their side of the fence. At first I wasn’t sure how much they would be willing to reveal, but people have been really happy do to it, and we have had some really interesting discussions.

I think you are right that discussion based around specific projects can be limiting. There really aren’t many forums for artists to discuss more general issues outside their work.

No, it is the same as the limitations of art coverage on television. If you have a fantastic new show at the Tate, a programme might be interested, but it is unlikely to give any idea of what is really going on in the artist’s mind. That is why is going to be so different from the Southbank Show, for example. And the podtalks are going to work on the same principle, to have the flexibility to let cultivated people talk about what matters to them.

It sounds like these projects are designed to help creative artists look beyond the roles that the arts world has defined for them. Do you think that pigeonholing is a serious problem for musicians?

Oh, incredibly so, and I think that this is an important part of my growing understanding of what is going on in my life. When I started, it was all Elgar Concerto. I was 19 and made a hit record and the agents and everybody else just wanted me to play the Elgar 365 days a year because they could sell it. It went on for years, everybody liked the way I played the Elgar, and there was this record to sell. As an artist it is unbelievably limiting. It got to the point where I just said I was not going to play the Elgar at all. I went through a period of not playing it for years. Then I decided I was going to look at it myself again. So I restudied it, and decided that now I had a new view of it, a more mature view and I was prepared to play it again. But I could have carried on just playing it forever. And as an artist, that is so stifling. You just can’t be creative and carry on doing that. And if you do, I don’t think you are a real artist. I feel that it is important to always push against those expectations. So developing diversity is a top priority for all my projects over the next fifty years.

© Gavin Dixon 2009|

Robert Cohen will perform the Sally Beamish Cello Concerto no. 2 “The Song Gatherer” with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on the 12th(world premiere) and 13thNovember 2009 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, MN. He will give the European premiere with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester in December 2010. Visit Robert Cohen’s website: for information about his future performances and about and the Cohen Podtalks.

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