Julian Lloyd Webber discusses a musical hero as he takes up a role with the Orchestra of the Swan. Christopher Morley reports.
Celebrated cellist Julian Lloyd Webber is a passionate advocate for the work of composer Edward Elgar. So passionate that he was willing to leap to the defence of the man who gave us the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance when forthright interviewer John Humphreys questioned his worth as a composer.
And now being such an admirer of this favourite son of Worcestershire has led him to become an associate artist for the Orchestra of the Swan in neighbouring Warwickshire.
“Elgar is a kind of central figure in my life, obviously through the Cello Concerto,” says Julian.
“When it was the 150th anniversary of his birth I did an interview with John Humphreys on the Today programme and he gave me such a hard time, saying ‘Elgar’s not really a great composer, is he?’. And I was saying ‘Hold on, he’s performed all over the world’.
“Then he said ‘Wouldn’t you agree, the Cello Concerto is the greatest work?’ I said, ‘No, because it’s one of many great Elgar works’.
“Actually I came to Elgar through the First Symphony, through seeing Barbirolli conduct it in the Royal Festival Hall.”
While Julian was a student at the Royal College of Music in London his admiration for the man and his work prompted an interest in the surroundings. He would borrow his father’s Mini for jaunts that would take him up as far as Worcester and he got to know the area well.
He is now president of the Elgar School of Music in Worcester and it was when he accepted the same role for the Elgar Society that the seeds were sown for his invitation to become associate artist for the Orchestra of the Swan.
“The first time I met their conductor and artistic director, David Curtis, was at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, when the Elgar Society announced I was their new president.
“There was a lunch there, and then we went to the Orchestra of the Swan’s concert in the afternoon. They played a John McCabe piece, very difficult and complicated. I was very impressed, and the relationship grew from there.”
He will be launching the orchestra’s season with a performance at The Courtyard in Hereford on Sunday, with a programme that includes Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Haydn’s Cello Concerto and Mozart’s Symphony no 41.
A performance entitled Arrival (and Departure) of the Queen of Sheba at the orchestra’s base, Stratford-Upon-Avon Civic Hall, next Tuesday is already sold out. However, there is a chance to hear it again the following afternoon at Birmingham Town Hall.
On the latter two occasions, Julian will be performing Vivaldi’s Double Cello Concerto with his fourth wife, cellist Jiaxin Cheng.
He recalls the two meeting when she was playing in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia.
She gently corrects him and says their first meeting came when she was studying for her Master’s Degree at Auckland University.
They reconnected in 2006 while he was touring New Zealand playing Elgar (of course) and Tchaikovsky, and married in 2009.
Naturally, for musicians, they have developed a harmonious working relationship.
“When we’re rehearsing, she tells me what to do,” he jokes, with a wry smile.
“I wish!” laughs Jiaxin Cheng. “We talk,” she continues. “We practise individually, and then...”
“We work out the bowing, the phrasing, and we have to be really sure about the speeds we choose,” says Julian, picking up the thread. “We’ll really start to get together on it two or three weeks before the concert.”
Julian confirms that he will get a chance to play the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of the Swan – but not until next June.
“It will be nice to do, especially in Birmingham, in the Town Hall,” he says.
It is a piece that owes much of its popularity with audiences to the famous recording by Jacqueline du Pre and I wondered if he felt she had ‘hijacked’ the piece.
“The one who started it first was Beatrice Harrison, when Elgar conducted that first recording, but it’s true that it never really took off until du Pre. It never was repertoire. All the cellists played it. Fournier recorded it, Tortelier, Navarra, but the way that du Pre performed it, with Barbirolli conducting, it captured people’s imagination, and she played it exceptionally well. I think her playing of it is very, very personal.
“There is certainly room for other interpretations. When I recorded it, I was nervous because her recording is so much a kind of a benchmark. You know you’re going to be compared with that.
“I thought my interpretation was different enough, and having Yehudi Menuhin conducting, who was such a strong link with Elgar himself, gave me a great confidence. I really do believe that the greater a piece of music, the more different kinds of interpretation it can take. Some pieces, perhaps they can only be played in one way, otherwise they don’t work. But the Elgar, there’s so much inside that music that it can take differing views.”
Julian also shares Elgar’s love of football. The younger Lloyd Webber brother is a fan of Leyton Orient and in a true test of his then wife-to-be’s affections, took her to see a game.
Elgar supported Wolverhampton Wanderers (something that was the subject of a recent concert in St Peter’s Church there).
Julian reminds me of the recent publication of a photograph of Elgar with the local team back in his birthplace, Broadheath.
“I’m sure that was never published before,” he says.
Future plans for Julian, apart from his work with the Orchestra of the Swan, include an ambition to perform the Delius Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, “Perhaps in 2012, which is the 150th anniversary of his birth. That doesn’t seem to have filtered through yet, but it is a very important year for Delius.”
* Julian Lloyd Webber plays the Haydn solo Concerto, and the Vivaldi Double Cello Concerto with Jiaxin Cheng in the Orchestra of the Swan concert at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday, October 20, (2.30pm, public interview with me at 1.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.