Wednesday 29 April - Sunday 3 May 1998
Thoughts from inside - a student's perspective

It's always an exciting time when the year of the Cello Festival arrives at the Royal Northern College of Music. When the schedule for the String Department's year comes out in September, it's nice to flip through to the months of April and May and start to wonder what the Festival's going to be like. I actually ended up in Manchester as a result of coming to the Cello Festival in 1994. One day I was flipping through the Strad magazine, saw the advertisement for the Festival and managed to convince a friend to come with me to Manchester. During my week there, I was overwhelmed by the standard of playing in Manchester and by the spirit of the College. At that time I had just finished my third year at the University of British Columbia and had started contemplating where I'd like to go for a Masters' degree, and attending the Festival made me wonder if I'd like to come here. And it turned out that while I was in Manchester that week (with my cello which I dragged all the way here) I did an audition for the Head of the String Department and got accepted. I started here in September 1995 as a postgrad. cellist and this year I was taken onto the staff as a 'Junior Fellow' and a 'Scholar in Chamber Music' with my piano trio (the Saskia Piano Trio including two colleagues that I met at the R.N.C.M.). I've now lived through 2 Festivals as an R.N.C.M. student and the '94 Festival as a delegate, so I've experienced two different sides of the coin. This report will give you a summary of the entire festival, as well as giving you the occasional tidbit of behind the scenes information!

Early April:

Sometime in the second term various resident cellists get asked to participate in the Young Artists' Recital. Some people get a chance to play a solo, some a duet, but most of the older cello students are put into a group of some sort. This year I was asked to play in an international cello ensemble, involving R.N.C.M. students from China, Holland, Canada (me), Germany, Argentina, Australia and Spain. ) At the end of the second term we started rehearsals on Villa-Lobos'Bachianas Brasilieras #5 (with Swedish-Australian soprano Anna Ryberg, who is also an R.N.C.M. student, and recommenced on April 20 to make the final preparations for the concert.

April 27:

This is when the Festival starts for the students who have volunteered as helpers. The majority of the College's cellists volunteer to help out since there are several benefits for those who lend a hand. Most people get the privilege of helping out a visiting artist and, as thanks for our work, we get free tickets to sit in the balcony for the evening concerts. The fun of being an R.N.C.M. student at the Festival (who managed to snag a free ticket to the concert) means that we all sit in the balcony over top of where the orchestra's double bass section would be and get a bird's eye view of everything. Although this location does have its advantages and disadvantages, it is beneficial in two ways - you get an overhead view of the 'cellist's technique and a view into the auditorium to see the audience reaction and to see which famous cellist is sitting next to Starker, or Kirshbaum! At the meeting this year I was delegated to show Lluis Claret, a Spanish cellist, around the Festival and help out when needed. At this point I was hoping that his English language skills were better than my Spanish, which are non existent! During this meeting, we were all given a schedule which detailed when each cellist would arrive-, and where each had to be at a given moment in time, when they had to be picked up from the hotel, when they had to be taken back to the hotel.. it was an amazing feat of organization by Alison Godlee, the Festival Administrator!

April 29:

The official start of the Festival started early for all R.N.C.M. cellists. We had been asked to be at the College, in the Concert Hall, for 8:15 am to play a piece specially written by Simon Parkin, a Manchester composer who teaches at the R.N.C.M.. This was to be broadcast by the BBC, live on radio and television, so we were all looking forward to a bit of excitement. Unfortunately, when we all dragged ourselves in at that early hour (okay, it wasn't that early, but it sure felt it!), we found out that there had been a schedule change and we weren't needed until 10:15 (the only glitch in our scheduling during the Festival!). Several cups of coffee later, the College cellists assembled and played through the piece. There must be about 40 cellists in the College, and seeing them all playing on the Concert Hall stage was pretty amazing! The piece was a fanfare and chorale, and the chorale had these wonderful pauses where everyone except three solo cellists hit a note, and then the three soloists played various recognizable sections of famous cello concerti (ie. Dvorak, Haydn D+) sul ponticello one after the other. It's hard to imagine from my explanation, but it was a wonderfully quirky piece!

By this point in the Festival, and keep in mind that it hadn't actually started yet, we were already having one crisis! There were large photographs of each cellist mounted impressively on a wall of the College's reception area, and by that morning (after only having been up 12 hours) some were already falling down. We kept having to replace Jian Wang or Christophe Coin, until someone managed to find a notice board on which to tack all the photographs!

My afternoon was spent on a shift at the front desk, dealing with the onslaught of delegate registration. This is always a fun shift, because you get to see where people are from and occasionally you connect with various people you knew from somewhere else. The only downside of this Festival being in Manchester is that not many people from outside of Europe manage to make the trip. There are a few that come as students for the master classes (having been recommended by their teachers - each teacher giving a master class at the Festival recommends two students to play in another master class) but not many people make the trip as delegates. I can understand, as the cost of flights is expensive, but the Festival costs, especially for students, are reasonable for what an experience it is! And if you write in early enough, you can get cheap student accommodation for 10 pounds per night! So I urge every student to make plans for May in the year 2000 and start saving now!

The opening evening concert was the official beginning of the Festival and our first chance to encounter the amazing artists who had come to inspire us! The BBC Philharmonic, resident in Manchester, always come and squash themselves into the College's concert hall for at least one concert and they play various staples of the cello concerto repertoire, as well as the occasional premiere of a new piece commissioned for the Festival. To start the evening we had Miklos Perényi playing the Haydn D+ concerto. Perényi is a Hungarian cellist who came to the last Festival and blew us all away with his rendition of a Tartini concerto. Previous to that performance, few of us had heard of this quiet, unassuming man but we were all amazed by his style and technique. His performance of Haydn measured up to the previous standard and left all of us students wanting to run upstairs and start practicing! Next we had Steven Isserlis, always a Festival favorite, playing a BBC commission and world premiere of Peter Sculthorpe's Cello Dreaming. This piece was an interesting 20 minutes of lovely melodies countered with occasional bird noises, the odd reference to "the drone of the didjeridu", and an unfortunate incident with reverb coming out of the amplification for the solo cello.. due to this we were treated to a repeat performance of the last five minutes of the piece, certainly the best part! To finish off the first half we were all waiting with eager anticipation for Natalia Gutman's performance of Shostakovich's 2nd concerto. Again, we were all impressed by her appearance at the '96 Festival - her performance then of Shostakovich's 1st concerto was strong and committed and we were eagerly hoping for a repeat performance in this Festival. And we weren't disappointed. Gutman's Shostakovich makes you think that this is the way the piece was meant to be played. After the interval we had Boris Pergamenschikow giving an astounding performance of Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto - not a well known piece, but definitely a challenging one! And the last performance of the evening was an extroverted Saint-Saëns, by Arto Noras. This Finnish cellist certainly made an often tiresome piece seem completely different!

After each evening concert, there is always a late night performance, and the succession of long days and late nights challenges the stamina of even the most dedicated cellist at the Festival! The first night was a cabaret performance by a duo called 'Kit and the Widow' who played and sang various pieces of the classical repertoire with words added. The highlight of the night was Grieg's Peer Gynt with the words "..hundreds of Norwegians on the London Underground.."! During the Festival there was also a late night evening of films and recordings with Alexander Baillie and another late night cabaret called "Une Soirée Parisienne".

April 30:

This was the first full day of the Festival, complete with master classes and our Young Artists' Recital. The morning master classes were with Arto Noras, and Lluis Claret. Each artist had his own particular style of taking a class and it was interesting to float between the two venues (as each class was at the same time) and compare styles. Claret was involved in the whole body approach to playing, while Noras was more concerned with giving his rendition of the piece played and adding various anecdotes as he went along! Master classses are always a bit of a nightmare for the student helpers in that one student is given the task of keeping the class on schedule. Each participant in the class is given 45 minutes, and occasionally you luck out with an artist who watches his clock and follows his schedule to the second. But you often get an artist who would prefer to continue to the end of the piece - completely understandable - and you, as the student in charge, are required to walk up and give surreptitious signals to try and move things along! Luckily I managed to avoid this type of duty this year.

The lunchtime Young Artists' Recital went reasonably well. This is a chance for the College cellists to have their moment in the sun and often to be completely handicapped by extreme nerves as you contemplate who is sitting in the audience! At the last Festival I was playing in another 'cello octet, but we were playing a piece by a British composer named Barry Guy which few people, if any, actually knew. That was great - no one could tell if you were playing anything wrong! But with the Bachianas I was involved in this year, if you did play something wrong, everyone would know, as I'm sure that each cellist has played this piece at least once! We didn't have the worst problem though - one group was playing an arrangement of Dowland's Suite from Lachrimae for cello sextet. And thus had to play with amazing bow control and no vibrato, which they succeeded in doing. There was a stunning performance of Tortelier's Quatres Pièces en Forme de Bis by Liwei Qin and Claes Gunnarsson, both students of Ralph Kirshbaum at the College. And another student of Ralph's, Katharine Wood, played Nadia Boulanger's Three Pieces with a beautiful sound and strong technical flourishes. But the concert spotlight was definitely stolen by Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady, arranged for cello sextet! This brought the house down and sent everyone off to the afternoon in a spirited mood!

The afternoon master classes were with Natalia Gutman and Miklos Perényi, and there were later afternoon workshops on unaccompanied cello repertoire with Zara Nelsova, and on French Music with Philippe Muller. All of these classes were of interest and, as always at the Cello Festival, one was left to make the difficult decision of which class to attend!

The Evening Recital was another stunning event - full of twentieth century music and a legend in that field of cello playing. The first half was comprised of three pieces played by Siegfried Palm, an unassuming man, short of stature, but large in his technical mastery of the instrument. He started off with the Zimmerman Solo Sonata (which I have attempted at one point during my study and failed miserably, so I can appreciate how difficult this is!) and stunned us all with his hands dancing around the cello. Then he played the Hindemith Kammermusik No. 3 with ten solo instrumentalists from the R.N.C.M.. This was a more relaxing and enjoyable effort, both for the player and for the listeners. Then Mr. Palm finished off with the Capriccio, written for him by Penderecki. This, again, showed his mastery at convincingly pulling off somewhat bizarre and highly effective music. The second half of the recital was full of cello duos played by Thomas and Patrick Demenga. They started off with Barrière's Sonata #10 - the last movement of which was played/sung by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin on their album 'Hush' - and then they premiered a piece by a Russian composer Alexander Knaifel (a Festival commission) called Lux Aeterna - for two psalm singers. This piece was challenging for the players and had some amazing effects such as playing high on the A string combined with some wonderful moments of duo singing by the two brothers. Then another premiere, this time a piece called Redshift, by Barry Guy, an English composer. This piece had some wonderful percussion on the strings done with paintbrushes that kept the audience in stitches as we watched Patrick Demenga obviously enjoying himself! And then, to top it all off, an arrangement by Thomas Demenga of Paganini's Caprice #24. This arrangement was an entirely different (and completely successful) approach from the norm and kept breaking the audience up into hysterical laughter! Tonight was definitely a concert that no one wanted to end - the Demenga brothers did play one encore, but even after that the evening felt far too short!

May 1:

Another day of master classes - the morning spent with Ralph Kirshbaum or Boris Pergamenschikow, and the afternoon with Janos Starker or Karine Georgian. Having attended Ralph's classes while at College (he does at least two a year), I decided to listen to Pergamenschikow's class. And I was pleasantly surprised that such a player, being involved to such a heavy extent in twentieth century music, was so interested in having more "authentic" performances of Bach and Haydn. During the afternoon I spent most of the time in Karine Georgian's master class. Part of this was spent listening to her diagnosis of and solutions for problems encountered in Kodaly's Solo Sonata, something which I'm trying to figure out at the moment. There was another lunchtime recital full of Young Artists, but this time these were already established cellists of the younger generation. Wendy Warner and Jian Wang were the chosen cellists of the day, and definitely lived up to expectations.

Friday evening brought the 'Fournier Award Gala recital' which is always an evening full of music and various presentations. These recitals, which start at 7pm, usually go on until at least midnight, after two intervals, one of which includes dinner! This recital, focusing on French composers and their influences, started with Christophe Coin, the French baroque cellist, playing another Barrière Sonata (in C minor) and then we had Miklos Perényi playing Dutilleux's Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher. This was a welcome surprise from someone who, up to this point, we had only experienced playing classical repertoire. To finish the first third of the concert, we had Steven Isserlis playing a piece which, to me, suits him perfectly. This was Poulenc's Sonata, which I first heard played by him, then bought the recording, learned the piece, played it for him in a master class, and now was finally able to hear live! After the first interval we had Philippe Muller playing Pierné's Sonata in F sharp minor and then Natalia Gutman playing the Debussy Sonata. Both performances had their own pizzazz, but Gutman's performance showed a whole new side to the Debussy. She probably played the dynamics as close to what was written than anyone I've ever heard! After the dinner interval, there were Awards of Distinction presented to Siegfried Palm and, posthumously, to Raya Garbousova. Then the concert continued with Couperin's Concert Royaux #13 played by Boris Pergamenschikow and Alban Gerhardt, Ravel's Pièce en forme de Habanera and Debussy's Minstrels played by Pergamenschikow, and then the marathon evening ended with the Franck Sonata played by Arto Noras.

May 2:

Today's Master classes were with Steven Isserlis and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, both of whom charmed their participants and the audience listening to them. Tsutsumi's class was a discovery in taking the time to enjoy your shifts and making yourself feel comfortable while playing, both things which most cellists tend to forget! There was also another Young Artists' Recital at lunchtime - Gregor Horsch (1988 Fournier Award Winner - the Fournier Award is supported by the money that comes in through the Festival) and Alice Neary (1998 Fournier Award Winner). The Afternoon and early evening were spent listening to the semi-finals and finals of the Strad Cello and Bow Making Competition.

The evening's orchestral concert moved the Festival briefly to the Bridgewater Hall, the home of the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé Orchestras. This hall is a recent addition to the Manchester skyline, and has a wonderful acoustic for both small and large scale concerts. Due to large demand, I was unable to hear the concert in person, but the comments I heard all indicated that it was wonderful. There was a performance of Haydn's C+ concerto by David Geringas, which included a neat reference to Bach's 3rd Suite Prelude in the cadenza, and then Strauss' Don Quixote, with the solo part being played by Janos Starker. Starker's performance measured up to his usual standard and opened up a rarely played piece (which celebrates its centenary this year) to a lot of people unaware of its charms. To finish the concert , the Brahms' Double concerto played by Ralph Kirshbaum and "honorary cellist" Pinchas Zukerman.

May 3:

Sunday - the last day of the Festival. By this point, the delegates are either desperate for the Festival to finish, or sad that it's about to end. Most of the College students, especially the ones who aren't cellists, are of the former variety! Today's master classes were, in the morning, David Geringas and Frans Helmerson, and in the afternoon, a contemporary music workshop with Siegfried Palm and a Baroque workshop with Christophe Coin. I dropped in on Frans Helmerson's class, which was another exploration of more authentic Haydn techniques, and also a few comments of relaxing and letting the sound out during your performance! The Young Artists' Recital was by Alban Gerhardt and Quirine Viersen, and both performers finished off their part of the Festival with enormous panache.

The Closing Recital, a homage to Emanuel Feuermann (about whom there was an exhibition during the Festival), was a chance to hear some of the players who had arrived later than others, or who had been busy playing the cellos in the luthiers' competition. The Recital started off with a performance by Karine Georgian of Martinü's 1st Sonata. This performance was beautifully lyrical and her last movement showed technical mastery and nerves of steel! Then there was a performance of a piece called Soleil Blanc, by Marc Bleuse - performed by Lluis Claret. The piece was very difficult and highly involved, but had some wonderfully beautiful moments as well. Then we were treated to Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi playing Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata (one of the highlights of the Festival) and Popper's Spinning Song . I was unfortunately turning pages for the pianist and slightly disappointed that I couldn't watch him play the Popper from the front! After the interval, we had Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, played by Mihaela Martin and Frans Helmerson, and then Alexander Baillie finished things off with Jolivet's Nocturne and a flamboyant performance of Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody. And that was the end of everything! Balloons came down onto the stage, and all the artists gathered together - a fun ending to an amazingly packed five days! At this point we cleared up the registration desk and packed all the artists off to a farewell dinner in Manchester's Chinatown (there were many students trying to stowaway in the minibus!).

At the end of the Festival we always sit down and wonder where we'll be during the next one (May 3-7, 2000!). After being involved so heavily for five days, it's hard to believe that it's all over, but at the same time we're completely relieved that we won't have to listen to any more cello playing! I hope that this report gave you a few insights into the Festival, and I also hope that you've marked the dates for 2000 in your diary. Please contact me at the e-mail address below if you have questions about the Festival or the R.N.C.M. in general. I'm always happy to hear from other cellists! And I hope to see you in Manchester in 2 years!

Natalie Williams

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