Julian Lloyd Webber, one of the world’s most influential classical musicians, was forced to step down from public performance in 2014 due to a neck injury. On Monday 11 May he visits St George’s for a special evening. Joined by his cellist wife Jiaxin Lloyd Webber and pianist Pam Chowhan, Julian will take his audience on an historical and musical journey, giving an insight into his extraordinary life.
Your show promises to be a kind of on stage autobiography. Tell us more about the format.
I’ll be telling stories and anecdotes of touring, recording sessions, concerts and TV shows to link with a new presentation of rare video footage of me talking and performing with people like Nigel Kennedy, Elton John, Katherine Jenkins, Tim Rice, Yehudi Menuhin, Joaquin Rodrigo, Cleo Laine, Stephane Grappelli and many others. Jaixin will illustrate by playing excerpts of music that have been important in my life including Faure’s Elegy, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Music of the Night and Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata through to composers like William Lloyd Webber, Frank Bridge, JS Bach and Philip Glass. The format is deliberately fluid with lots of time for audience questions so it will vary every night. It’s suitable for all the family and I’d love people to bring their children because I can offer insight into what it’s really like to be on the road as a musician.
You played your final concert in Malvern. What did you take away from that night?
It was an extraordinary evening. I’d just made this recording of English Music for Strings with the English Chamber Orchestra and I knew that when it came to playing heavy, louder, physically taxing music on the cello I couldn’t do it anymore because I’d lost the power in my bowing arm. I knew I could get through the Malvern concert because I was only playing for a short time, but I realised that I wouldn’t be able to do what was planned subsequently so I had to call it a day. It was the most moving concert. The orchestra were wonderful to me and there was a great atmosphere in the hall. I was playing music I loved and the connection to Elgar and Malvern made it very special and strangely appropriate.
You’ve described stepping down from concerts as a bereavement. What has sustained you since then?
I was devastated because there were a lot of things I still wanted to do on the cello but it’s not the only thing in the world. I had a fantastic 40 years but I have to move on. I’m a positive person and I recognise that I’ve got something to contribute, particularly in the area of music education. I played so much all over the world and saw other systems in action and through the many musicians I’ve worked with I can offer young musicians career advice. Plus I’m conducting so I’m still making music.
For 40 years you practised the cello for four or five hours a day. After stepping down, you had banned yourself from playing completely but what is the situation now?
I play a little bit every morning because I don’t want to lose the skill which took me so long to build up. I still give masterclasses including one recently at Birmingham Conservatoire where I demonstrated a lot but I can’t go out and give public performances of major works.
As a cellist your work was all about moving people with music and hundreds of tributes speak of the solace and pleasure you’ve brought. What is it about music that is so special?
It has no barriers of any kind so it’s an incredibly direct means of expression. It’s very moving because often, you will have an musician interpreting the work of a composer to an audience so as the musician, you’re like a medium. There’s definitely a spiritual level to making music, particularly from the perspective of a classical performer but it’s true in other genres too. I’m a massive Buddy Holly fan and the way that he could communicate so directly with people was a fantastic gift.
With your brother Andrew, you belong to arguably the most influential musical dynasty of modern times. What was it about your upbringing that allowed such talent to flourish?
It was the most extraordinary background to grow up in because we took it for granted that there was music at every turn. My father was an organist and composer, my mother was a piano teacher and all the time there were these famous musicians drifting in and out. The concert pianist John Lill came to live with us and later on so did the lyricist, Tim Rice. There was no pressure to make music but we did take it for granted in that it was there and that’s why I’m so interested in music education. After all, if it hadn’t been available to me, who knows if Andrew and I would have discovered it? It’s why there should be systematic music education in this country. If we deny children opportunities we may miss out on a lot of talent.
What enabled you to tap into your creativity at such an early age?
It all evolved gradually. I started playing when I was four and I always enjoyed it but I didn’t take it seriously at all. The event that most changed that was the arrival of a young South African teacher, Rhuna Martin, who started taking me to hear great cellists in concert. It was way beyond the call of her duty but she must have seen something in me that she thought she could awaken.
So how did that alter your view?
It was such an eye opener for me. With role models, I suddenly realised what the cello could do as an instrument and the power it has. I’d always thought that it was the most vocal of instruments, and felt able to communicate through it which is why it appealed to me, but I owe it all to her. Again, it shows how important teachers are. She was a very special person; what she did changed my life.
You’re known as a man of drive and ambition. What would other people say about your approach to music that enabled you to excel?
I was never influenced too much by what other people thought or said. I enjoyed playing music and I loved the music that I believed in. I wasn’t someone who thought a classical musician should shut himself away from everyone. Going back through old video clips recently, I realised that I did a lot of light entertainment shows that the puritans thought were disgraceful. Even if I was playing a classical piece to the best of my ability, some thought it was the wrong outlet. I totally disagreed with that because I believe that music is for everyone. If I had a chance to play, say a Benjamin Britten piece on a TV show, I could reach millions of people who might not otherwise have heard it. To me that was very important. It’s depressing that children don’t generally see classical music on TV today. I’ve always wanted to bring the genre to a wider audience because if you love something you want to share it. It’s the thing I’ve most missed in the last year, going out on a platform and communicating with an audience.
What are the performances you’re most proud of?
Recording the Dvorak Cello Concerto in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic in the very hall in which it was premiered was special as was recording Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin who had known Elgar so well. I also loved working with my wife recently as ‘Two Cellos.’’
Where are you heading now?
This series of concerts promises to be interesting but I’ll only do a tour like this once because it has elements that are retrospective and I want to do new things. I’m likely to conduct more and my first conducting CD is coming out in March. I’m also working with two charities, Sistema England and Live Music Now, both of which share the aim of transforming people’s lives through music.
Tell us more about Live Music Now.
It’s a terrific charity which was set up by my good friend and colleague Yehudi Menuhin who had the simple but brilliant idea to pay young musicians to go into hospices, care homes and SEN schools so it helps both ways. First, talented young musicians have a means to earn money at the start of their careers and they learn a lot about engaging with audiences. Second, they help the people they’re performing to. The charity now gives almost 3,000 performances a year.
You founded Sistema England which takes music to children in disadvantaged communities. How can music help education?
It works on many levels. First, it gives kids something completely different in their lives. It also teaches them a specific set of skills including co-ordination and self discipline which, once acquired, can be applied to other areas. Then you’ve got the sheer enjoyment factor so we often find that a project will raise school attendance rates. It’s also a great way of bringing staff and pupils together as playing music breaks down barriers. As I know from my story, music can change lives. My charity work is about raising awareness of the power it holds.
Monday 11 May, 7.30pm
Tickets £15, £12 (*plus fees)
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