Julian Lloyd Webber - conversations with a cellist

2011 HAS been a milestone for Julian Lloyd Webber, one of the greatest and most admired cellists of our time. This year saw the birth of Julian and wife Jiaxin Cheng’s daughter Jasmine Orienta; the release of the double-CD collection The Art of Julian Lloyd Webber; and Julian’s 60th birthday.

To mark his birthday the cellist is playing a series of concerts entitled Travels With My Cello - an evening with Julian Lloyd Webber, throughout Ireland next month. As part of this tour Julian will make his Galway debut when he plays the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday November 3 at 8pm.

Travels With My Cello will see Julian perform pieces by Bach, Fauré, Sant-Saëns, and Debussy, as well as work by his father and brother. He will also read from his memoirs and take questions from the audience.

“It’s a more intimate concert than I would usually give,” Julian tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “You can

go around the world playing concerts and not have much interaction with the audience, but in smaller venues you can see the colour of their eyes and you get to talk to them. Doing the questions and answers is quite new as you never know what questions will be thrown at you. It will be different.”

My cello and I

Julian grew up in an extraordinary musical family. His father was the composer William Lloyd Webber, whose own father was a keen amateur musician; his mother was pianist Jean Johnstone; while his older brother Andrew would go on to compose such legendary musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and The Phantom Of The Opera. Yet despite this there was no demand made of either Lloyd Webber child to become musicians.

“There was always music, of all kinds, playing in the background while we were growing up,” Julian says. “There was no pressure put on us to do music so that allowed us to go our own ways. My brother was more interested in theatre and I loved classical music. Mum did try to get me to play piano but I didn’t like it and I thought if I take up something else maybe I can give up the piano.”

Julian believes “everybody has an instrument that suits them if they just persevere” and he found his calling through the cello which he took up at age four.

“From the start I always enjoyed playing the cello,” he says. “I didn’t practice well, it was a hobby, but the more I stuck at it the more I developed good technique. I became fixated by the repertoire. I would tape anything that came on the radio for solo cello - I still have those reel to reel tapes - and at 13 I thought this was that I want to do with my life. I just worked really, really, hard at it.”

The cello is, as Julian points out, an “incredibly versatile instrument”. This versatility has led composers like Bach, Britten, Chopin, Phillip Glass, Ligeti, and Paganini to write solo pieces for it, while bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana have shown that the cello sits very comfortably with, and adds to, the typical rock set-up of guitar and drums.

“One of the reasons it’s so versatile is that the cello can be played very high or very low,” says Julian, “and it is in the same register of the human voice. It speaks to people and I am surprised that nobody has written a concerto for the electric cello, which is an instrument I have played only once, but it’s interesting.”

Since 1983 Julian has played the ‘Barjansky’ Stradivarius cello, which dates from 1690. Over the past 28 years it is the only cello he has played.

“That’s my cello, that’s my sound,” he says. “I don’t want to turn up somewhere without it and have to give a performance on a second rate instrument. I don’t think of it as my cello though. It’s only mine until the next person who comes along and plays it. I have a duty to look after it. It has to be a working cello.”

Passions

Julian attributes the atmosphere he grew up in at home to his passion for musical education for children. “I am passionate about music education,” he declares. “The experience of music should be every child’s right.”

This has led him to be involved in and lead England’s In Harmony, an on-going programme which offers children in the deprived communities the opportunity to achieve their full potential through music and the symphony orchestra. The programme is running in Liverpool, Norwich, and Lambeth.

“Often the children have not been given a thing in their lives and we give them free tuition and free instruments and they just love it,” he says. “The effect it has on their schoolwork has been amazing. In the area we work in Liverpool, the literacy level among the children has risen, in one year, from 34 per cent to 84 per cent - which isn’t intentional but it comes about with the discipline it takes to play the music and the enthusiasm the children have for it.

“In anotehr of the areas where we work, there were two estates that were barely speaking to each other and now they are as their children have taken part in the programme. People laughed at us at first when we began this, but music has no language barriers and knows no race and no class. We are breaking down barriers and building bridges.”

If music education is a major passion of Julian’s, then so is the work of English composer Sir Edward Elgar whose music he has recorded on numerous occasions, including in 1985 his Cello Concerto.

“Elgar’s music is very bound up by the English countryside which is something I am also very fond of,” he says. “It is something we have that is totally unique. It is referenced in his music and so is Elgar’s complex character.”

Another composer whose work Julian recorded is Joaquín Rodrigo (the Concerto como un divertimento in 1982 ), but Julian was also fortunate enough to be able to count the Spaniard as a good friend.

“I was 29 when I met him and he was in his early eighties,” Julian recalls. “He was completely blind from an early age and his wife would help him write down the music. The thing I admired most about him was his strength of character. He would not change his style of composing which was typically Spanish and tuneful and criticised for being too light. I was very lucky to work with him.”

While music has come to define Julian’s life, it is not the artist’s only passion. He is also a lifelong supporter of the east London football club Leyton Orient FC. How did he become a supporter of the team?

“Through my mother,” he says. “There was a friend of my mother’s who lived in Leyton who my mother would go down to see. I would be going to the college of music on Saturday and she would pick me up and we’d go around to his house.

“While there I was always aware that there was activity going on outside as I’d see all these people heading off towards the stadium and wearing team scarves and hats. One day I got fed up of the adult conversation and I decided I’d go along and see what all these people were up to and I’ve been going since.”

The O’s, as their fans call them, are currently in Football League One, and are unfortunately languishing near the bottom of the table, but Julian was happy to point out recent wins against Scunthorpe and Preston. With his busy touring schedule, does he often get to go to home matches?

“Not as often as I’d like,” he says. “Saturdays are often out but I can usually make the Tuesday evening matches when they take place. One of my favourite football memories though was when we drew against Arsenal in the FA Cup fifth-round in February. I remember sitting in a pub in Limerick watching the match with the locals. That was great.”

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

 

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