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 Mandhira de Saram : talks about the first steps in establishing a career (GDn)

Only a year after leaving university, violinist Mandhira de Saram has already established an impressively diverse career. She is in demand as a recitalist and also regularly performs in chamber ensembles and London-based orchestras. Her musical tastes are equally broad, with baroque, romantic and contemporary repertoire rubbing shoulders in her programmes. When we met, I asked her about her recent recitals:

‘Recently I’ve been playing recitals with the American pianist Gregory Martin, who is from New York. I try to have a balance of romantic music that people are going to enjoy as well as introducing a few new works. Most of the recitals I do, especially at the moment, are of repertoire with huge piano parts like Beethoven and Brahms, so the performance is very much a collaboration between myself and the pianist. I love this way of working because I love performing chamber music, where a collaborative approach is so important. And it works so much better than just giving the lead and the pianist following.’

Playing in chamber ensembles is clearly a significant part of Mandhira’s schedule. ‘I always wanted to do chamber music, and my later teachers encouraged that a lot. I do a lot of quartet work at the moment and I also play in the Bernardi Chamber Ensemble, founded by Andrew Bernardi. He also founded the Shipley Arts Festival, and I play in that quite a lot with his chamber orchestra.’

Mandhira’s family hails from Sri Lanka and includes a number of notable musicians. Her father is the pianist Druvi de Saram and her uncle the cellist Rohan de Saram, formerly of the Arditti Quartet. ‘I heard them playing together a lot when I was growing up, Brahms, Debussy, Bach, and lots of Beethoven. I didn’t realise until I was much older that my uncle also specialised in contemporary music. I started playing the violin when I was about six, but as my parents are both musicians, they knew how important it was that I didn’t turn into some kind of violin playing machine. They didn’t like the idea of me being trained just to play, they wanted me to have some kind of balance.’

In the spirit of a rounded musical education, Mandhira opted to study music at university rather than take the more performance-focussed music college route. The decision was vindicated by some impressive academic results, a first class honours degree from Oxford University with a high first for performance. She was also awarded the Worcester College Arts Prize for the highest result in an arts subject. ‘I’m really glad I did that academic work. And I got so many chances to perform at university, far more than at a music college. At Oxford, you can perform whenever you want to really. You end up playing in everything, there is so much to do – orchestras, chamber groups, chamber opera....all sorts.’

Her violin technique has been influenced by a number of significant teachers, most recently Howard Davis and Levon Chillingirian. But she attributes her solid technique to her earlier studies with Russian teachers, including Igor Petrushevsky. ‘Russian violin technique is very into the string. It’s great for winning competitions because you have a huge sound and you blow the audience away. You can’t really loose a competition once you’ve got that sound.’ But moving away from the Russian approach also had its benefits. ‘It was when I left the Russian system that I started to be able to play in public properly. Before I used to get so stuck, but when I moved away from this Russian technique I found I was able to relax on stage and communicate better with the audience.’ Russian music remains close to her heart though, and the music of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev makes regular appearances in her recital programmes.

Contemporary music also has an important place in Mandhira’s repertoire. She leads Oxford University’s contemporary music group, Ensemble Isis, who perform a range of new works by established and student composers. She particularly enjoys the challenge of extended performing techniques. ‘It’s really fun to find ways of playing these pieces. It is often not obvious, especially when the composer is not a string player. I played a piece by Xenakis called Mikka and spent ages learning all the glissandi. I later asked a violinist from the Arditti Quartet how it should be performed. He said that Xenakis didn’t really want the glissandi to be played exactly, he was just looking for the general effect. And by then I’d spent three months working on it!’

Mandhira believes that close communication between composers and performers is essential for the success of adventurous modern works, and much of the new music in her repertoire is the result of her creative collaboration with composers. Recently, she has been working with the Nirmali Fenn, an Australian composer based in Oxford. ‘She is writing a string quartet and I am helping her out as she is not a string player. She uses a lot of effects and some of them are just impossible. But she really knows what sound she wants, so we often work with her singing the sound while I try to find the closest possible imitation on the violin. In the end, she often just writes down how an effect should be performed. Notations can be hard to decipher sometimes, so I think it is often better just to write down what it is supposed to sound like. But we work closely together, and I often make recordings of sounds and techniques for her so that she knows what I like doing.’

Another composer with whom Mandhira has worked closely is Robert Saxton. ‘He was my tutor at Oxford and was really supportive of me right through. He was my composition teacher, but I think he also helped me a lot with my playing. Just by listening to me and pointing me in the right direction. It gave me a lot of confidence and also gave me some sense of what I could work on.’ Mandhira is now working with Robert Saxton on revised version of his Violin Concerto. ‘He has asked me to work with him on it, to try to make it a bit more playable because it is really, really tough. The music is completely black with notes. It is one movement, about half an hour of non-stop playing. It is an amazing piece with an amazing ending, but it is going to take a lot of time to learn.’

And looking to the future: ‘My next duo recital is in September in York. I am also involved in a commercial project, a girl group with three electric violins. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s going to be...different. Next year I am hopefully going to be doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Beethoven Chamber Orchestra in London. I also hope to record a CD for the Landor label, either the Greig sonatas or some French music, Faure, Ravel or possibly some pieces by Lili Boulanger. They’re salon pieces, the Boulanger, so pretty and the audiences really love them, and they are not much recorded.’ A typically diverse range of projects, then, and opportunities for Mandhira to further expand her already varied musical portfolio. Creativity, imagination and a taste for new challenges underpin all of Mandhira’s musical activities; they are the foundations for what is sure to be a successful and distinctive musical career.

For more information about Mandhira de Saram see :

© Gavin Dixon 2009

Picture © Mandhira de Saram


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