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Artist on Artist: Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman in Conversation with Samir Savant

Admired for her captivating sonority and creative programming, Laura van der Heijden has emerged as one of the leading cellists of her generation. Now thriving in one of classical music’s most dynamic and exciting partnerships with pianist Jâms Coleman, exciting adventures are on the horizon. Ahead of their upcoming performance at St George’s and the release of their highly anticipated album early next year, St George’s CEO Samir Savant caught up with Laura and Jâms to discuss communication, healing and bright futures.

“When we perform together, we’re both thinking equally about how we can make it the most convincing or the most fun. It just feels like we’re both in it with our hearts and also have a really fun time together.”

Samir Savant: When did you both first discover your love for classical music and how did you get started?

Laura van der Heijden: I started playing the cello aged six but before that I started playing the piano aged five. But even before that I played recorder and had recorder-slash-knitting-slash-baking lessons with this lovely lady in my village who is still a great supporter of mine. That was such a great nice way to be introduced to music. She even taught me how to read music and that was a very wholesome experience. My first cello teacher also developed her own system that she uses with beginners—again very wholesome with lots of fun games—and it was just a really lovely, non-pressured environment to start.

S: And learning multiple skills at the same time! And how are your knitting and baking skills now?

L: To be honest, pretty non-existent!

S: And Jâms, did you start at an early age?

Jâms Coleman: Yeah, I started at five as well I believe and before that I started in the local brass band in North Wales. I had an older brother that was doing it already and I wanted to be involved as well.

L: What did you play in the brass band?

J: Tenor horn.

L: At four?! That’s really young to play a brass instrument!

J: I know—I dread to think what we sounded like…

L: I really hope there’s some video footage somewhere of that.

J: There is some hilarious video footage somewhere… But I guess it was also a social thing. As a pianist you’re often on your own but to start off and experience music as a social thing was great—I loved it.

S: Then I believe you were both at Cambridge? Did you know each other at Cambridge and how did the two of you meet?

J: No actually—we met at the IMS Prussia Cove course in Cornwall. We weren’t actually at Cambridge at the same time—I had graduated before Laura started. But when we met at Prussia Cove there was that obvious connection. So that was when we started playing together and it just went on from there.

S: We were chatting earlier, Laura, about winning BBC Young Musician and having multiple awards for your debut album. You’re already rocking it at an age when people are normally just beginning their career. How has it been, this pressure-cooker of expectation?

L: It’s been an interesting journey and I wasn’t expecting to win the competition. My aim and those of people supporting me was to get through the first round. We had been putting a lot of time and effort into my playing and into my music and we thought it would be nice to get past that point. So, it was a bit of a surprise to then keep continuing to get through and then win in the end. I keep saying ‘we’ because at that age my parents and teacher were very involved so all the decisions were made as a group, even though I could of course have the last say. I really felt like I didn’t want to do anything I wasn’t ready for. There were offers for recording deals and things like that but I really wanted to wait with my first recording because I didn’t feel ready—it was a lot very suddenly.

But one thing that did happen—in the final itself I really wasn’t very nervous. I was just excited to play with an orchestra and was just absorbing the whole experience. I’d only just turned 15 and I think at that age, you’re not fully aware of the pressures that are around. However, pretty much straight after, I had much higher expectations of myself to live up to this thing and I became quite hard on myself and I’m still trying to work through that now, over 10 years later. I feel like other people who have won have had a much more ‘pressure-cooker’ experience but I think I’m quite a sensitive person, definitely an over-thinker and sensitive to the environment around me—I soak up a lot of what’s going on. In the music world, that can sometimes be a bit difficult. I haven’t had any really bad experiences, I think I’ve just been hard on myself and I’m trying to work on that at the moment.

S: But it sounds like you have a very sensible, well thought-out approach to it all in just taking that moment to step back. The Strad has described your partnership as ‘emphatical… and convincingly real.’ How has your relationship as musicians grown and how do you complement each other?

J: I guess from the moment we met, really, we had something that’s almost indescribable. There’s an approach to the way you make priorities and the decisions you make with the music. There’s the sound you’re making and the unconscious communication. What do you think Laura?

L: I think the thing that I value most about our relationship is that I really feel like we’re a team. It’s the same with romantic relationships, so often if anything feels uneven it doesn’t work. I think often with the cello and piano, the pianist can just be seen as an accompanist and they’re not treated as a proper duo partnership. But even in smaller admin things, I’m always so positively surprised by the effort and the thought Jâms puts into it and I really hope and feel that we both put in equal amounts of effort. And when we perform together, we’re both thinking equally about how we can make it the most convincing or the most fun. It just feels like we’re both in it with our hearts and also have a really fun time together—that’s equally important!

J: We started playing together 6 years ago and within that time you grow and your priorities can change and our partnership is one that has flourished with that. We might have different priorities from at the start but they’re becoming more fruitful in a way.

L: I think one perfect example of how we function is when we were going through our album that is coming out in February and pretty much on every track, our comments were almost the same. There was no time when we were in disagreement. It’s just so nice to have someone who really sees eye to eye with me. We also really support each other in going for what we want. Again, in the edit process, it can be quite stressful—you start to wonder if you’re going crazy or overthinking things—but with each other’s support, you can really drive for the sound you want.

S: I guess what you were just saying Laura is utter trust really—you have each other’s back and are genuine partners.

You mentioned the CD there, Laura and that’s obviously going to be a big highlight for you in the early part of next year. What else is on the horizon?

J: We release the CD in February which is just after our St George’s concert but hopefully by that point we would have released a single—so there’ll be a little teaser! This is obviously our second album together. Laura is then taking a sabbatical between June and October but when Laura is back we’ll be taking part in the Cello Biennale Amsterdam. So lots to look forward to!

S: And looking forward to the St George’s concert, we obviously can’t wait to welcome you both here. It’s quite a varied programme—how did you put this together and what are you particularly looking forward to?

L: This particular programme is structured around pieces from the CD we’ve just recorded—the Debussy and Walker Sonata are both on there. And the Franck Sonata is something that we’ve always wanted to play together. I love the Schnittke! It’s just a really cool piece and it’s not the Schnittke a lot of people are used to—it’s not the hardcore, gritty stuff. It’s a suite in the old style as the title suggests but definitely with a funky Schnittke twist.

S: And obviously Nadia Boulanger—a female composer at a time when most people composing were men—does this have a particular resonance for you, Laura?

L: I really believe in trying to diversify concerts and present music that is just really fantastic and hasn’t been heard as much as it should, so we often programme pieces that we feel deserve to be heard more often.

J: We’re about championing works that are masterworks but, for whatever reason, aren’t being performed very often.

S: So finally, if you could each choose one Desert Island disc what would it be?

L: Right now I’m actually into an album by Art Garfunkel but I’m not really sure if that’s all I’d want to listen to in a month’s time!

J: For me, the first thing that sprung to mind was an album with Jessye Norman of Strauss’ Four Last Songs—I don’t know if you know it—and it’s just the most gorgeous music ever. Whenever I listen to that album, that’s where my heart is!


Don’t miss out on the chance to see Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman perform live at St George’s on Friday 26 January.