Q: Why did you pick the cello?
A: The sound of course..! Although I must admit my earliest memory of the cello is an old black and white photograph of my grandfather Percival Harding with his cello, and it’s appearance simply attracted me. There is something so human about the sound of the cello. The range encompasses the rich dark tones of a bass, through sensuous tenor and alto range, up to the soaring heights of a soprano. I just felt drawn to it, and still have an immediate closeness to everything about the cello.
Q: Your first cello teacher was Hong Wang?
Yes, he is a wonderful musician, cellist, and teacher. I had only played the cello for two years before I met him so I consider him to be my first major teacher. He stressed the importance of technical basics, organisation, and bow distribution, as well as inspiring in me a sense of curiosity.
You also studied with Paul Katz, cellist of the Cleveland Quartet?
I studied with him for four years in Boston. He was very inspiring when it came to the production of a beautiful sound, resonance and textures- which of course start with listening! But he also stressed the importance of the fundamental habits of cello technique, and of listening to your body. I’ll never forget something he said during a lesson-
Thinking can be dangerous, but necessary..
And over the summers you worked with Richard Aaron at the Aspen Music Festival?
Yes! that was both wonderful and frustrating to go back and forth between two very strong, and different personalities. Richard Aaron impressed on me the importance of scales, etudes, and exercises, he was incredibly gifted at explaining cello technique, a true pedagogue! In fact, his approach to teaching has certainly inspired many things in my own.
Then you moved to Germany to study with Michael Flaksman?
Michael Flaksman spent a lot of time with me on refining musical details, and encouraging me to develop a more individual ‘voice’. I’ll never forget the way he demonstrated certain passages; his sound was just wonderful -— always developing, warm, and incredibly beautiful. He was very particular about creative uses of vibrato and tone colors and making sure that the vibrato and bow speed fit the character of the music.
And you finished your studies with Thomas Demenga in Switzerland?
Since first hearing his brilliant recordings of the Bach Cello Suites paired with modern works, I had always wanted to study with him. My lessons with him presented both the wonderful inspiration of his demonstrations, as he was, and still is, a very active performer; and his fresh innovative approach to music. I remember my first lesson- coming to him with the Elgar Concerto, and specifically for help with my sautillé in the second movement. I had already performed the Elgar Cello Concerto and Rococo Variations many times but I still struggled with that stroke. He recognized immediately that I used too large a movement in my upper arm, which was preventing the natural spring of the bow from working for me. After he explained what I needed to do in just a few sentences, he gave me a wonderful prescription to work on for a week, and I suddenly had a good sautillé. He is uniquely gifted when it comes to understanding intricate technical matters, and in connecting them to the musical gesture.
He also impressed on me a very different definition of what technique is. That true technique is, to paraphrase him..
The ability to create a specific musical expression.
He taught me that after a certain point music is technique- and you can’t simply separate the music from the technique in order to ‘master’ technical skills.
He also emphasized the importance of the score, and of different musical styles. While studying at the Music Academy of Basel, I was exposed to the musicians of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, one of the best early music schools in the world, which inspired me to begin experimenting with early music, a baroque bow, gut strings and tuning down to A’415.. Suddenly so many of the questions I had had regarding the music of Bach began to resolve themselves, and the spoken, articulated nature of the music came alive to me.
You use a curved endpin. Tell me about that?
I am rather tall, so during my studies in Boston Paul Katz introduced me to the bent endpin to allow more room for my long arms, but I wasn’t ever quite happy with its appearance. I first saw a curved endpin used by the brilliant Israeli cellist Gavriel Lipkind, and as I had been experimenting for years, immediately went to the garage, put my endpin in a vice and ‘curved’ it. It worked perfectly! I prefer a curved endpin to an extra long strait one because it raises the cello up without forcing the cello into my chest, allowing the cello to move more freely.
Isn’t the cello less stable?
I think of it as more flexible, rather than less stable; which is exactly what I want. I want the cello to move freely with my body so that it doesn’t feel mechanically blocked.
In the end why do you play music?
Actually the great Hungarian cellist and teacher Janos Starker answered that better than I can..
Music is one of the essentials in human existence, almost identical with eating, sleeping, making love, the basic functions that keep a human being alive. Music simply, is one of the blessings and joys of civilized human existence. – Janos Starker