An Interview with Steven Isserlis

Stephen Isserlis

“My words are going to be immortalised,” says Steven Isserlis.

Yet again. He must be sick of it by now.

“No, it’s attention. And I’m never sick of attention!”

Isserliss has self-parody down to a fine art.

His tour for Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary season will be his 16th trip to Australia, and his fourth Musica Viva tour. How can he bear the long flight?

“I like the flight!”


“I do. You can watch movies, you can eat a lot, you can read books – I like it. And I LOVE Australia when I get there. I feel so at home. I just love the lifestyle, and the positive attitude to life. The audiences are open. For my last Musica Viva tour I played an all-Schumann programme, and we filled the Melbourne hall twice over. I don’t think I could do that in any other country in the world.”

This time, Isserlis brings a French-themed programme.

“Well, basically Gallic – Cesar Franck was actually Belgian. And Tom Adès’ piece has a French title. The pieces go really well together.”

Saint-Saëns, whose first cello sonata he will play, has been a personal love for some time.

“A love, yes,” Isserlis agrees. “Not with the same passion that I adore Fauré, but I think he’s wonderful, both as a composer and as a figure. He was a complete Renaissance man, and that’s one of his best chamber pieces, I think.”

The composer’s mother, whom Isserlis considers to have been something of a monster, hated Saint-Saëns’ first attempt at a last movement, which prompted him to destroy and re-write it.

“I have it to hand,” says Isserlis. “I’ll read it to you. He had told her that he was worried he might not play as well as some of the other great pianists who were performing. She replied ‘…you make me ill with your fears. You are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I’d brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play, an artist of great talent. Either you will play well, or I will have renounced you as my child.’

“Anyway, the sonata is really a wonderful piece. And perhaps she did do the piece a favour, because the original last movement was good, but the new last movement is outstanding – wonderful. A very strong, dramatic piece, a deeply-felt, beautiful, stormy piece.”

The programme moves on to Fauré’s second cello sonata.

“For me the greatest 20th century cello sonatas are the two by Fauré. I adore them. Passionately. They are completely original, and ecstatic. They are really from another world. Fauré was very frail when he wrote it, and completely deaf, and he just created this amazing world of joy. Such energy!

“I played that piece, I think, in my second recital ever. I was 15. My teacher loved Fauré. We named Gabriel, my son, after Fauré. The more you know his pieces, the more you love them. It never fails to astonish me. Fauré touches something inside me.

Stephen Isserlis

“He was not necessarily an innovator. He was writing at a time when the Second Viennese School was in full swing. Stravinsky had written The Rite of Spring long before. I suppose he was even more backward than Debussy or Ravel. But it was different. I mean, Bach was considered old-fashioned in his day.”

Thomas Adès, who is unquestionably an innovator, wrote “Lieux retrouvés” for Isserlis.

“I was very surprised when he agreed. One can’t persuade Tom to do anything. He’s got a will of iron. But then he agreed to record it, with lots of other music, and to orchestrate the piece – the first concert will be in Lucerne in 2016.”

It was Adès’ 2004 opera “The Tempest” that, as Isserlis tells it, really made him fall in love with the composer’s music.

“He’s amazing, because he takes you everywhere. He knows so much music, and he can take any language and make it his own. He has his own voice, not ignoring the past, but drawing upon it. He knows exactly what he wants.”

Isserliss tries to perform “Lieux retrouvés” as often as he can.

“Once you’ve learned it, you want to carry on. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever played in my life. If you hear it, you’ll know why. It’s monstrously hard. But it’s fun. It’s a romp. The difficulty should be incidental – the audience is supposed to enjoy it.”

Returning to familiar territory, Isserlis rounds off the concert with the cello version of César Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A major.

“I came to know Franck’s music through Fauré. Fauré loved Franck. Saint-Saëns didn’t.”

Why not?

“Oh, they just didn’t get on. At one stage they were in love with the same woman. Eventually she went for Franck.”

Isserlis has a knack of gossiping about dead composers as though they were in the next room, perhaps a partial clue towards his trick of bringing so much life to their scores.

He can segue from Augusta Holmes, the woman Franck stole from Saint-Saëns, to his pianist Connie Shih as though the two women were contemporaries.

“Yes, I first heard her when she was 17, in Vancouver, playing Saint-Saëns, actually. And I said, ‘Who is this girl? She’s AMAZING!’

“I probably work with her more than with any other musician. She’s wonderful. Very passionate playing, very warm, also very delicate. She has been likened to Martha Argerich, and although she is very different, there is something of that instinctive, natural playing. A wonderful artist.”

Isserlis’s reflections on Musica Viva’s four core values are characteristically pithy.


“Definitely. You need that. This implies good quality, of course.”


“Yes. If not perversity.”

What constitutes challenge for him?

“Tom Adès. For instance.”


“Actually in the pieces I’m playing, it’s ecstasy. Which is still about communication. The Fauré, the end of the Franck, the last movement of the Adès – they are all very joyous. I like that in music. It’s important.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit:

On The Vine – May 2015

Stephen Isserlis
Musica Viva hasn’t presented Steven Isserlis since 2009, so it is especially exciting to welcome back one of our most popular recital artists ever to help celebrate our 70th birthday year. He occupies a unique position in the universe of cello players, balancing equally successful careers as a concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber music collaborator, while also being an author (part time) and Artistic Director of the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall.

Steven’s musical partner for his national concert tour in June is the Canadian pianist Connie Shih who made her orchestral debut at the age of nine playing Mendelssohn’s first Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has appeared around the world in concert and on radio, in solo recital, chamber performances and concertos, and has been performing with Steven for many years now.

The repertoire for the tour was chosen by Steven as his assemblage of the finest penned by French composers, including the work he considers one of the greatest of the 20th century. Saint-Saëns’ first sonata joins Franck’s sonata in A along with the holder of that most exalted title, Fauré’s second sonata.

But this mighty music also serves as a perfect setting for the Australian premiere of a work most dear to Steven’s heart, Lieux Retrouvés, by his friend and long-time collaborator, Thomas Adès. The finale of this finely wrought piece is the most difficult music Steven has ever tackled, but he also finds the entire work an achievement of extraordinary imagination and beauty. Lieux Retrouvés was commissioned jointly by the Aldeburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall, and its first commercial recording was made by Steven Isserlis with the composer himself at the piano.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit:

On The Vine – April 2015

Goldner SQ

As Musica Viva celebrates its seventieth year in 2015 so the Goldner String Quartet, named in honour of our founder Richard Goldner, celebrates its twentieth. Few classical ensembles manage to last this long without a single change in personnel, while the Sydney-based Goldner Quartet seems to grow ever stronger. Our International Concert Season focuses on the best musicians in the world, and we are incredibly fortunate to have just such a world-class ensemble in our own backyard.

The Goldners were keen to mark this special anniversary with newly commissioned music, and Paul Stanhope’s third string quartet, “Dirrari”, was generously crowd-funded by the audience of the Huntington Estate Music Festival specifically for the occasion. As we now move well into the 21st century, the Goldners also wanted to include a masterwork of the 20th century, the first string quartet (1954) of György Ligeti.

I was keen for the Goldners to show off their brilliance at interpreting Beethoven on this tour, and there was much discussion about which of his works they would be content playing over and over again on one of our gruelling national concert tours. They decided that there is one work of which they could never grow tired, and so each concert ends with one of the greatest works ever written for string quartet, Beethoven’s 15th.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit:

Goldner String Quartet Celebrate 20th Anniversary with National Concert Tour

Goldner SQIn the run-up to their 20th anniversary as an ensemble, the members of the Goldner String Quartet admit to a certain confusion around the matter of time.

“We’re trying to come into the 21st century,” says violinist Dene Olding, “but sometimes I don’t know where we are. We’ve just come straight from 1780, rehearsing Haydn.”

Our conversation links Berlin to Sydney via Skype; the connection breaks down at regular intervals, as the quartet moves from one device to the next, seeking a better communication solution.

“We want to be part of the 21st century,” laughs violinist Dimity Hall. “We’re just not very good at it! We’re technologically challenged.”

The self-deprecation masks an utter assurance in today’s repertoire. It is entirely in keeping with the quartet’s character that its members elected to celebrate two decades together by performing a new quartet by Paul Stanhope.

“He doesn’t write bad works,” violist Irina Morozova says. “Everything of his that we’ve heard has been really good.”

“His music is well-crafted, approachable, but sophisticated,” says Olding.

“And always drawing aspects from other different influences or sound worlds,” adds Hall.

What do they expect from the new piece?

“A piece that we can play again,” Olding responds immediately. “And that will be well-received, and a useful addition to our repertoire.”

Also on the quartet’s birthday wish-list for the tour is Beethoven’s String Quartet no 15 in A minor, op 132.

“We love to play it,” says Morozova. “We’ve played the slow movement for a lot of people, unfortunately, who were very dear to us, who have died. It’s so profound and so beautiful.”

“It’s life-affirming,” adds Olding. “It’s all about his recovery from an illness, a song of thanks, and it means a lot to me personally, too. It’s a glimpse of something beyond what we usually understand.”

In the year 2000, the Goldner String Quartet presented a 10-concert musical retrospective of the 20th century over 12 days at the Adelaide Festival. It was for that occasion that they learned Ligeti’s first string quartet, “Métamorphoses nocturnes”.

“That project was one of the highlights of our life,” remembers Morozova.

“It nearly killed us, but it was fantastically rewarding,” agrees Hall.

Twenty years in the same line-up is a remarkable achievement for a string quartet. It is impossible to resist the urge to ask the players about the secret of their long-term relationship.

“Marriage!” they chortle in unison (the quartet is made up of two couples).

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” continues Olding. “You get less than that for murder.”

“We’ve survived because we have,” observes cellist Julian Smiles drily. “It is purely a chance thing when a string quartet is formed whether they’ll work. Ours happens to do so. I don’t think that there is a secret.”

Goldner SQ

“I think we have common ground in many areas,” hazards Hall.

“We’re all Australian,” Olding agrees. “We all have some sort of similarity in background and education. Even though I went to university in America, Dimity and I actually studied with the same teacher in Amsterdam for a while. And we all knew or studied with or were friends with Richard Goldner. That’s why we named the quartet to honour his memory.”

But it is not only the similarities which define the group.

“I’m particularly proud that within our quartet we are four distinct voices,” says Smiles. “I’ve known many quartets where one figure dominates both in personality and on the stage. But I think we have four very strong people, both as individuals and as players, and I think we maintain that while we work on playing together.”

“We can have very individual flavours if the music calls for that,” notes Hall. “But then we can immediately morph into this one organic 16-string instrument.”

Many things have changed over the quartet’s twenty years, not least the role played in everyday life by digital media. Olding immediately thinks of 1780.

“Presumably there was a concert once a week for the local aristocracy in Haydn’s time. They seemed to have a more leisurely lifestyle, and there was more time to do things. Everyone is rushing around now. Who knows what the audience of the future will look like?

“At a concert, we’re there for a reason. We’re professional musicians. But why does the audience go? What drives them to be there? I’ve had various answers over the years, but I think in a way it’s a kind of searching for a way to stop time. In a good concert, time stops for everybody. They’re absorbed in what’s happening. It’s actually a different world. And if we can make time stop for those people for those minutes or hours, then I think we’ve done a good service.”

Their tour repertoire, Smiles observes, is a faithful reflection of Musica Viva’s core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy.

“You couldn’t find four better words to describe this programme. The pieces are all well-crafted, which we will also bring to the audience with great attention to quality. There’s fantastic joy in the Beethoven, which is remarkable for a composer who was nearing the end of his life, suffering all kinds of health issues. And challenge – I’m sure the Ligeti will be challenging for the audience, but in a really great way. As for diversity – it’s this programme!”

What hopes does the quartet have for its next two decades?

“A nice view, good food…” says Hall.

“A blue drink underneath the palm tree…” adds Morozova.

“No,” counters Olding. “I think it’s to continue to find balance in life.”

“Darling,” says Morozova, “that’s too sensible.”

“When I look back over the last couple of decades, it’s been a whirl of activity,” Olding answers earnestly.

Smiles snorts. “His gravestone is going to say, ‘Still looking for balance…’ “

The four players dissolve into contrapunctal laughter.

Interview by Shirley Apthorp

The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit:

On The Vine – March 2015

MVF Full Front Cover_2600x2600

Welcome to Musica Viva Festival 2015, a concentrated explosion of music performance, learning, exploration and enjoyment that overtakes the Sydney Conservatorium of Music the week after Easter. Chamber music is a most incredible human endeavour, and its full spectrum being compressed into a few short days is an essential encounter for both the aficionado and the novice.

Our collaboration with the Australian Youth Orchestra and its remarkable Chamber Players Program once again brings exceptional young Australian musicians into the spotlight and under the microscope. Directed this year by renowned German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, the Chamber Players spend a week learning from international masters imported to perform in the festival, and display their achievements in a series of concerts spread through the festival. Alumni of past AYO Programs, the Orava Quartet, perform for the first time in this year’s main concert events.

The Sydney Con provides the perfect location for this tightly packed series of events, and the Con’s staff contributes a special Showcase Concert on Saturday afternoon directed by Associate Professor of Music Dr John Lynch.

Internationally acclaimed cellist Mischa Maisky heads the register of wonderful musicians performing in the festival. It is a great thrill to welcome back some of the greatest artists who have appeared recently for Musica Viva – Serbian pianist Aleksandar Madžar, Armenian clarinettist Narek Arutyunian, the Doric String Quartet from the UK and the Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic. Brilliant young Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova, winner of the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, makes her Australian concert debut. Outstanding Brisbane guitarist Karin Schaupp and accomplished Melbourne pianist Daniel de Borah round out the masterful cast of the main festival concerts, alongside their Sydney colleagues Kees Boersma, Umberto Clerici and Timothy Constable.

The 2015 festival features not only great masterworks of the classical canon, but also the world premiere of two works by Australian composers. Lachlan Skipworth’s first Piano Trio, and Natalie Williams’ Saudade octet will be performed for the very first time by some of the world’s finest musicians. Chamber music is not only alive and well; it is thriving and evolving before your very eyes at the Musica Viva Festival.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

The 2015 Musica Viva Festival takes place April 9-12 at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit:

On The Vine – January 2015


Welcome to Musica Viva’s 70th birthday!

Three years ago the outstanding Canadian chamber orchestra, Tafelmusik, performed The Galileo Project around Australia for Musica Viva. It was not widely known then that, just before arriving here, the orchestra had premiered its brand new multimedia project, House of Dreams. These two shows are such remarkable achievements in musical stagecraft that we wasted no time in ensuring that the new production would be back in Australia to help us launch our special birthday year.

Instead of looking outward to the stars like its predecessor, House of Dreams looks inward to the junction of Baroque music and art, by visiting historic homes where compositions by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Marais are heard against a backdrop of paintings by their visual art contemporaries, Vermeer, Canaletto and Watteau. This magical journey through five historic European houses is illustrated by glorious images of the paintings and their locations, and narrated by Canadian actor Blair Williams. Like Galileo before it, House of Dreams was devised by the group’s double-bass player Alison Mackay, and delves into the philosophy, society and sensibility that gave life to the music of the time.

Tafelmusik was formed 36 years ago, and for 33 of those years has been directed by violinist and leader Jeanne Lamon. In 2014 Jeanne stepped down as Music Director, but still continues as Chief Artistic Advisor, and will perform with the orchestra on this tour. As Jeanne says, “It is quite likely…that this will be my last tour with Tafelmusik to Australia. I hope it won’t be, because it’s just about my favourite place on earth!”

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

Tafelmusik’s ‘House of Dreams’ will tour Australia 19 February – 14 March 2015. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit;

An Interview with Tafelmusik


Philippe’s home was a cultivated place. The west wing of the Palais Royale held his art collection, the best in Europe of its kind. The east wing held the theatre of the Paris Opera.   The Duc D’Orleans had his own box, and could slip directly from his living quarters into the opera.  For his wedding anniversary, Marin Marais wrote the opera “Alcyone”, based on a tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis”.

At around the same time, the Duke published a three-volume set of etchings in a limited edition.  It was the 18th-century version of a coffee-table book, enabling the well-heeled to page through facsimiles of the west wing paintings – many of which were also based on Ovid’s stories.

Fast forward three centuries. Some of the Duke’s books have made their way to the rare books room of the Royal Ontario Museum, where double-bass player Alison Mackay can page through them.

“The Palais Royale has really changed since then,” says Mackay. “Inside, it is nothing like it was in the 17th century. But technology allows us to take pictures of the rooms that the music would have been performed in, and acquire the rights to the images of the paintings from museums, and put the paintings and the music back into the rooms together.”

This is the essence of “House of Dreams”, Toronto-based chamber orchestra Tafelmusik’s new multi-media performance. Five countries, five homes, five historic art collections, five places where music was once performed, and five selections of pieces which could once have been played there.  Through the ensemble’s dramatic alchemy of photographs, videos, projection, lighting, choreography and programming, audiences around the world can travel through time and space to experience a truly baroque marriage of music and image.

“It’s a very un-Baroque thing to do,” admits Mackay. “We’ve memorised the entire programme, and to do that we had to rehearse for weeks.  Musicians in the baroque sometimes didn’t rehearse at all.”

For the Bach family’s Leipzig concerts in the neighbouring Bose house, much of the music would have been sight-read.  The living-room of Handel’s house in London was the venue for the first read-through of his opera “Alcina”, a mere five days before the premiere.

“We’re not trying to be authentic in every aspect of what we do,” Mackay says. “We’re trying to be authentic in the sense of bringing the music to life in a way that was true to the composer’s musical intentions. I think authenticity is just a tool for getting at the heart of the music. It’s not an end in itself. We don’t resist change. We embrace the new, but only as it serves our goal of communicating this wonderful music in the most honest way we can to the largest number of people possible.”

The “House of Dreams” project is the second time Tafelmusik has made the unlikely leap from conventional concert to a fully-choreographed, dramatised performance.  The first, their “Galileo Project”, saw them reach for the stars with a memorised account of music linked to baroque astronomy.

“We thought it would be almost impossible to memorise all that music,” Mackay recalls.  “Then, having done it, we discovered that there were a lot of wonderful benefits – that we enjoyed it, that we had better contact with each other and the audience, that we could move around.

“We now see music stands as an enormous physical barrier.  Without the music, we can simply look at each other and be wherever we need to be for each piece.  It gives us so many more options.  And because we have memorised the music, we know it much better than we usually would.”

Tafelmusik has performed its Galileo programme more than sixty times around the world – far more often than any other programme the ensemble had assembled before then.

It also took them Down Under for the first time ever.

“I think it was our favourite tour EVER,” says the ensemble’s musical director, Jeanne Lamon.  “We loved everything about it.  All we’ve been able to think about since then was how to get invited back.”

The task of putting together “House of Dreams” took members of Tafelmusik and their associates on a new series of journeys, both virtual and physical.

“I don’t think these projects could have happened without the internet,” says Mackay.  “The internet makes it possible to very quickly find the world authority on any topic, and to get in touch with them.”

In the case of the Handel house collection, only discovered when an auction catalogue came to light in the mid-1980s, this meant finding the man who had written the leading journal article on the topic and asking for his help.  In Delft, the house which was once home to 20 of Vermeer’s paintings, as well as to a collection of instruments, is now a pancake restaurant.

“Yes,” admits Mackay. “We did eat pancakes there.”

More significantly, she and the ensemble have been able to develop solid relationships with the managing bodies of each of the five houses, some of which are now museums. Some are to become partners for future projects.

“I think the most important thing in our minds is always to play great music, especially when we are memorising it. It has to stand up to the fact that we will live with it for hundreds of hours.”

Both memorised programmes, says Lamon, have brought huge rewards for the effort.

“The challenge has made us grow enormously, and breathed new life into Tafelmusik.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp

Tafelmusik’s ‘House of Dreams’ will tour Australia 19 February – 14 March 2015. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit;


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