The standard repertoire is much loved, but shouldn’t concert halls be promoting the performance of less familiar works too?

Natalie CleinWed 24th September 2014

'There are so many beautiful, exciting, fierce, shocking, surprising, challenging pieces out there that are very, very rarely performed'

I was trying to work out the other day how many times I've played Elgar's Cello Concerto. I'm not sure, but perhaps 250 times, perhaps 350? I remember that my teacher, Heinrich Schiff, always liked to write the date and venue of each performance of a work he gave on the front of his music. I must ask him how many times he's played the Haydn C major. Maybe 1000 times? 2000? I understand, of course, why a promoter would want to invite him to play Haydn (again). There are relatively few works of real genius written for the cello, in contrast for example to those written for the piano or arguably also to the violin, and if there are only going to be one or two cello concertos per season, let's have the best. We would all agree that the masterpieces of the literature – Dvořák, Elgar, Haydn, Brahms Double, Shostakovich, just to name a few – need to be heard, perhaps for some in the hall, for the first time. They are pieces that many of us have fallen in love with through specific recordings, grown up with and then relived in unforgettable moments in concert. These moments are rare, precious and essential. 

But I think the balance has tipped too far in the safe direction here. Concert promoters know that a Dvořák or an Elgar will put 'bums on seats ' (I suppose the cellist's bum is a given) and are weary of experimenting with their precious and sorely needed box-office certainties. But what are we as cellists and, far more importantly, the public, left with? There are so many beautiful, exciting, fierce, shocking, surprising, challenging pieces out there that are very, very rarely performed. I am still waiting for the chance to perform the Bloch Schelomo live in a professional setting and forgive me for blowing my own cello here but this is even after a highly successful recording I released in 2012. My agents happily sent off glowing reviews but too often the reply from the orchestra came back that they enjoyed the recording and would I like to come and play the Elgar concerto next season? I mustn't complain, but...aargh!

I also wonder if the bosses in charge of programming are in danger of patronising their audiences somewhat. Often the audience will welcome a new experience as long as they are given context, either in the form of a pre-concert talk or, even better, a during-concert demonstration as I did when I played the Lutosławski concerto (surely one of the top five cello concertos from the 20th century) with Heinrich Schiff conducting. Before the concerto performance, instead of a five-minute overture, Heinrich spoke about the work and I and the orchestra gave musical illustrations of what he was explaining. The concerto was immediately made clear and understandable and this was all it took for the audience to embrace the piece wholeheartedly. 

I have recently started up my own chamber music festival in Purbeck, Dorset, and received the best compliment I could have hoped for this year. The programme (at the famous Bovington Tank Museum, so already not a usual setting) consisted of Sally Beamish, Ligeti, overtone singing, Kodály and Elgar (the Piano Quintet) in one concert. I was told afterwards by one audience member that she trusted us as musicians and so came to the concert despite not knowing exactly what she would be getting.

And I think trust is the fundamental issue here. A healthy musical life of an individual or an organization should, in my opinion, be mixing the old favourites that are so dearly loved for good reason with new and exciting repertoire. Many orchestras and halls do this but not all - so that's not enough! And that's why I feel privileged to be able to record and to mix a known and loved piece – in this case the First Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto with a piece that was new to me, the orchestra and most of the virtual audience (the Second). My wish now is that some listeners will hear No 2 and create new associations which turn to love through familiarity, and that these listeners will jump for joy when they see the piece is being programmed in concert. I know I will!

Natalie Clein

One of the UK's leading cellists, Natalie Clein has commissioned and premiered works by Thomas Larcher, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Sir John Tavener, Dobrinka Tabakova and Fyfe Dangerfield, and collaborated with the dancer Carlos Acosta and writer Jeanette Winterson. Her new recording of the Saint-Saëns cello concertos for Hyperion has just been released and is reviewed in Gramophone's Awards issue 2014.

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