Cellist Laura van der Heijden and composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad tell Keith Bruce how a Scottish world premiere came about
A very busy and multi-faceted musician, cellist Laura van der Heijden is not an especially regular visitor to Scotland, but she is the soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the next few weeks, oddly with both conducting Wigglesworths, Mark and Ryan, on the podiums.
The 2012 BBC Young Musician winner when she was just 15, Van der Heijden is playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 with the SCO this week in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and then returns in the third week of May to premiere a new cello concerto written for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first commissions as Chief Conductor of the SSO.
“I am in panic learning mode at the moment!” she told VoxCarnyx. “It’s my first time with the Shostakovich as well and I wonder if there will be more flexibility with Cheryl’s piece, while with the Shostakovich everything is on the page. But then I have never played Shostakovich 2 with an orchestra either – so all will be revealed in the coming days!
“It was the SCO who suggested the Shostakovich and I have always wanted to learn and play it, so I said ‘yes’. There is so much dialogue between the orchestra part and the cello part – there are some of the coolest classical music moments in that piece.”
With composer Frances-Hoad also part of our on-line conversation, it is clear that the new bespoke concerto holds as much exciting promise for the soloist. The BBC commission will be heard in Glasgow’s City Halls, replaced in the SSO’s Aberdeen concert by the Walton concerto that was her victory piece in 2012. When both are broadcast, listeners may spot some shared vocabulary.
“I love the opening of the Walton concerto and that shimmering sound and that’s something that comes up in Cheryl’s piece. I also mentioned the Martinu cello concerto to her and the brass stabs that I love in that piece – and we’ve definitely got brass stabs in hers too. Those are textures that I really enjoy and both of those appear in the concerto.
“But I haven’t heard it live yet, and I think there’s a lot that I am going to be surprised by. There’s no way of experiencing what it will really be like before I meet with the orchestra – playing it through with the piano is not the same.”
The Frances-Hoad concerto has come together with such easy synchronicity, both player and composer seem mildly astonished.
“We only started talking about it in Spring of last year,” says Frances-Hoad, “so it’s amazing because these things usually take ages.
“Laura sent me a message saying she was interested in me writing a concerto for her and I was overjoyed as I have always really enjoyed her playing.
“We had some discussions and then Ryan Wigglesworth rang me and said he was interested in commissioning me to write a concerto for Laura and the BBC Scottish, so instead of having to raise funding, Ryan made it all fit magically into place.”
“I might have mentioned to him that I’d like to have something by you,” adds Van der Heijden, “but it did seem as if the BBC commission was unconnected with that.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in the process of commissioning a piece and although I’ve done other new works, this feels like a new adventure. We had quite a few conversations, but I knew Cheryl’s music speaks to me and my playing style and it would be something I could connect to.
“We spoke about some ideas behind the piece and that we’d like it to be inspired by the environment and be a celebration of nature, rather than some sort of climate crisis appeal. But that’s just the inspiration behind the music, and it doesn’t need any programme.”
For Frances-Hoad, who began her musical life as a cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the big work is an important milestone in her composing career.
“When I was 14 or 15 I wrote a 15 minute cello concertina and that was what won me a BBC Young Composer Award in 1996. In 2013 I then wrote a piece called Catharsis for wind quintet, string quintet and solo cello. It was a cello concerto in ambition, but I haven’t written a proper cello concerto until now.
“I recently had an amazing year as a Visiting Fellow in Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford – which extended to 20 months because of Covid – where I had a studio and made friends with people from different areas of study and wrote a lot of pieces inspire by stuff they told me about – it was just a really productive, wonderful time.
“So I asked one of the biologists for ideas when I was writing the cello concerto, and he told me about this phenomenon of algae in the ocean that feeds off sunlight and carbon and blooms and grows incredibly fast, making beautifully patterns in the sea.
“What I love doing as a composer is learning about things like that because it makes my mind work in a different way. In the second movement, the harmonies are my response to the life-cycle of the algae.
“It’s a mind-gym that means I come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have done. The piece is a celebration of the beauty and wonder of nature, rather than bashing heads together about the importance of its preservation.
“But at the same time I was always thinking about writing a proper cello concerto, and about the balance in the orchestration. I wanted it to be a fulfilling piece to play with a proper slow movement where you can really appreciate the soloist’s musicianship, and show-off the talents of the soloist.”
Laura van der Heijden plays Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall this evening with the SCO under Mark Wigglesworth. The concert is repeated at Glasgow City Halls on Friday and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto has its World Premiere at Glasgow City Halls on Thursday May 18. Soloist Laura van der Heijden plays the Walton Cello Concerto in Aberdeen Music Hall with Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC SSO the following day.
Opinion: Touching a nerve
Although nervous energy can lead to inspired playing, it can also result in performance anxiety – unless we find ways to control it, writes cellist Laura van der Heijden
Performance anxiety has been on my mind for many years. I find it both a fascinating topic and a very real issue that I must tackle myself. It regularly comes up in conversations with other performers, and so often is approached with embarrassment, fear and shame. Performers worry that being open about their anxieties will ruin the illusion of effortlessness in performance, and even may threaten their employability. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that there is a growing culture of transparency as the desire to be open about our vulnerabilities has increased, and the space in which performers are received is more ready to be accepting. As with any type of anxiety, performance anxiety is personal and different for each artist. Nerves are a natural and understandable reaction to being in what is objectively quite a stressful situation, and can also be an important positive force in performance.
It has been interesting to spend time thinking about performance anxiety during the pandemic, particularly since (for the first time since I began my professional life) it has involved a very serious break from performing. I’m aware that this enforced sabbatical has affected many performers differently; some have been inspired to create more than ever, while others have lost their motivation to play without the goal of dates in the diary. I have found myself more in the latter group, but am grateful to witness colleagues bringing joy and music to us via social media on a regular basis. We have felt it necessary during this time to define what we regard as essential work, and live performance/art has not made the cut. I want to highlight the huge impact of prohibiting and failing to support performers’ work. Thankfully, there have been people and institutions trying to find ways forward against all odds.
In my experience, artists find it difficult to separate their personal identity from their art. The relentless work and dedication needed from a very young age to become a professional artist, and the lack of demarcation between working and non-working hours probably contribute to this. This symbiosis of ‘home’ and ‘work’ life can be a beautiful thing, but it can also result in severe self-criticism, and the persistent feeling that if you don’t succeed in your art, who you are as a person must also be flawed. Over-identification with professional achievements may also be a reason that performance anxiety can become problematic.
The enforced break has in some ways provided me with the opportunity to re-evaluate my relationship with music and performance. For a while I felt liberated from the anxieties of performance, and enjoyed exploring music like I did when I was a child: with curiosity, kindness and joy. I was asked to film a few projects during lockdown, and was determined to hold on to this rediscovered freedom, as it undoubtedly inspired my playing and deepened my own satisfaction. However, as soon as the red light came on, the pressure and tightness returned. This reaction made such an impression on me that I devoted some time to exploring the issue within myself.
The issue of performance anxiety is very complex, as it involves a very fine balance between performance-enhancing adrenaline, and performance-disrupting fear. I have definitely experienced the extremes of both of those states. If the adrenaline kicks in at the right level, it can lead to exhilarating, inspired, and deeply satisfying performances. On the other hand, I’ve heard many traumatic anecdotes of occasions when friends’ performance anxiety got out of control. So often, these stand-alone traumatic moments shape our relationship with our performance anxiety. My manifestation of performance anxiety is mostly about memory, which I can trace back to one of my first concerto performances when I was about 11. I had a huge memory-slip and did not yet know how to recover quickly, so ended up playing an open A for what felt like an absolute age. The fear pushed me to really think about ways in which I can manage and calm my own psyche.
There are a few methods I have found to be helpful, but before going into those I think it is useful to discuss some more general points. Being a performer involves life-long learning and self-improvement. Like the adrenaline of nerves, a fine balance is required between accepting where you are in that moment, and the drive to improve.
I used to swing between too much acceptance (resulting in laziness and complacency) and too much self-criticism (leading to stress and self-hatred). I have found it beneficial to search for a good balance in three ways:
Be realistic about when major improvement can happen. Nerves and self-criticism can serve you well leading up to a performance in that they push you to aim high and work hard. Then, on the day of the concert, it’s time to accept where you are.
Aim for small goals. If I go into a performance hoping/thinking that it will be life-changing and the best yet, it will lead to disappointment – it’s just too much pressure. I’ve found it’s better to aim for a particular phrase to be convincing, or an open unforced sound, etc. Then, afterwards, instead of wondering whether I’m worth listening to at all (a very unhelpful and useless pursuit), I can pick out something specific I was pleased with.
Learning how to criticise yourself constructively is extremely important. Adrenaline affects the way we feel during, and particularly after, a performance. For me the adrenaline of a concert often results in quite an extreme low afterwards, which makes me prone to unproductive self-criticism. One way I try to tackle this is to lift the burden of immediate self-evaluation post concert. I record/film the concert, which means I can go back and evaluate when my hormones are back to normal and I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
Another major part of performanceanxiety is focus: where it’s aimed, how intense it is, and how it’s applied. It can be a helpful tool of self-trickery.
For example, if a particular shift is making you anxious in performance (and assuming you mastered it in practice), in the moment of the shift, focus away from the fear and on something else entirely; focus on your body, your breath, or think about what you had for lunch. It is often over-thinking and self-analysis that hinders success in performance.
Shifting focus can also be useful during preparation: an example of this is a process I went through with Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C. It’s a piece I’ve played quite a lot, and continually tried to refine. The pursuit of ‘perfection’ made me more and more nervous in concert, and also made me lose sight of my feelings about the piece, which are that it should be fresh, rustic, and joyful. Over-complication made achieving this character very difficult, and I was constantly dissatisfied with the result. I needed to refocus on character rather than perfection.
’It is not all about you, you are just the medium for the composer’s message to the audience.’
Common advice regarding performance anxiety is to shift the focus away from yourself and towards the piece and/or the composer. If you have ever performed anything in your life, you will most likely be familiar with the sensation of standing under a glaring spotlight, feeling that all eyes are on you. Focusing on the composer’s intentions can be a very helpful tool to combat this. It can, however, also result in the opposite: the pressure of ‘doing justice’ to a well known work, for example, can increase performance anxiety.
I personally find this approach too reductive and for me it doesn’t reflect the wonderfully complex web of relations between performer, composer and audience. Ultimately, it is up to each individual performer to decide how they view the hierarchy of these components, and whether they wish to consciously place their art within a hierarchical structure at all.
Dealing with performance anxiety can benefit from targeted approaches: either targeting the symptom (ie: memory slips, shaky limbs, over-cautiousness), or the underlying fear (ie: feelings of inadequacy, fear of rejection, fear of taking space). The first approach is probably a more immediately attainable goal, and can help resolve the underlying issues. It is quite rare to have a ‘eureka moment’; much more realistic is a slow, steady path, breaking the aim down into achievable steps. This is what I did to deal with my fear of memory slips; I approached my preparation from many different angles:
Visualising the notes and playing the piece in my head without the instrument – particularly before bed
Writing out the piece from memory
Getting to know the score and other parts to give more context to my part
Playing through the piece in slightly stressful environments, e.g for another person or a camera.
I also decided on a small shift in attitude: instead of aiming for a memory-slip-free concert and then being upset if that didn’t happen, I established that one memory-slip would happen anyway, and once that slip had happened, I could allow myself to relax (this mostly worked!).
Right before a performance, I’ve found it helpful to have a little ritual that is flexible enough not to unsettle me too much if I’m not able to execute it fully. This involves getting myself concert ready (getting dressed and doing my makeup) at least half an hour to an hour before the concert starts, so that I have plenty of time to warm up and be with the instrument. Before that, I like to have a short power nap. Bananas are also a performer’s friend! Before a concert, the adrenaline can often result in excess nervous energy, which leads to an uncentered body (shallow breathing in the chest rather than from the diaphragm), and also for many, shaky limbs. One way to help this is with breathing exercises (Elena Urioste of Intermission has lots of helpful exercises and information for musicians on anything body/breathing related), and another is to use up a bit of that energy: to run around, or to shout/sing very loudly. I have found the latter quite liberating, even though it may not be the most pleasant thing for anyone in a neighbouring green room!
Once I’m on stage, I also go through a few processes I find helpful:
Knowing that the first few minutes will very likely be the most challenging in terms of nerves
Focus on centring your body – or in cruder terms, focus on your bum and core (if you’re seated, your feet if you’re standing)
Take some of the pressure/focus away from yourself, and concentrate on your connection with the other musicians around you (or if you’re alone, perhaps the space around you)
Finding the right balance of methods to help you with your performance anxiety can be a long journey; everyone responds differently and finds different things useful. One of the most helpful things to take in, however, is that we’re always prone to thinking we’re alone in the struggle with performance anxiety, and that everyone else copes so much better – but this isn’t reality. Sharing your worries with others and realising they have similar fears can be very comforting.
London Mozart Players
Overcoming Performance Nerves
At Home with the London Mozart Players
BBC Young Musician of the Year Makes Walt Disney Concert Hall Debut - Laura van der Heijden is Making a Splash
LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN IS SET TO MAKE HER US CONCERT DEBUT THIS MARCH AT THE PIATIGORSKY INTERNATIONAL CELLO FESTIVAL AT WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL. WE WERE ABLE TO CATCH UP WITH THE YOUNG ARTIST AND LEARN MORE ABOUT HER ACCOMPLISHMENTS, US DEBUT, INSPIRATIONS OFF-STAGE, AND HER ADVICE FOR YOUNG ARTISTS.
Van der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition in 2012 when she was just a young teenager. She said winning the competition changed her career prospects hugely and she was thrilled, as she was initially aiming to just get through the first round. While preparing for the competition pushed her playing “in a way it hadn’t been pushed before,” she’s incredibly proud of the progress she was able to make through the process.
With such a promising musical career ahead of her at such a young age, it’s no wonder her all-Russian debut album, ‘1948’, was acclaimed as “dazzling” and “imaginative.” The album, featuring pianist Petr Limonov, was released globally nearly six years after her 2012 BBC win.
Van der Heijden says, “It took a long time for me to feel ready to record, and I’m really glad I waited.” Along with her successful album debut in 2018, Van der Heijden is also proud of her part in the chorus of an unconducted performance of Bach’s St. John Passion in her first year at Cambridge. She says being part of such a highly collaborative project was “extremely rewarding and challenging, both logistically and musically.”
So, what’s next for Laura van der Heijden? Her US debut at the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival is something the musician is most looking forward to this year. Van der Heijden expressed her excitement to be making her debut linked to Ralph Kirshbaum, as she’s been on several masterclasses with the esteemed American cellist and admires his musicianship.
Furthermore, Van der Heijden shares with us her anticipation for three upcoming recordings, which will be a mixture of chamber repertoire and her first concerto disc. When it comes to what she would like people to take away from her artistry, Van der Heijden said it’s all about the feeling her work emotes.
“I would love for people to feel a sense of warmth, love, positivity, and maybe something a bit different,” she said. As far as musical inspiration, Van der Heijden finds that inspiration can be a “sudden, fleeting thing.”
In order to find her own interpretation of a piece, she says that she approaches it from different angles; inventing a narrative, imagining colors, dance, or a film alongside the music. Van der Heijden also shares that she will listen to recordings of different pieces of the same composer in order to surround herself with their “sound-world”.
Her inspiration and interpretations of pieces are always changing and she is convinced that there is a correlation between the way she performs and how she lives her life.
“The more I build a sense of self-trust, the easier I find it to connect to the music and not to be distracted by nerves or anxieties,” she said. “As a young artist, find out what you really want out of your career and your life, and then you can try to make your decisions accordingly.”
Reflecting on her strong support system and the crazy music industry where dedication to your music and your career clash, Van der Heijden emphasized the importance of staying true to yourself and your personal ambitions. Her own ambition? “To be the best musician I can possibly be, and to enjoy it as much as I can — to live my life with joy and light.”
Laura van der Heijden makes her US concert debut in March at the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall (from March 13 to 22nd).
Laura van der Heijden has won an Edison Klassiek Award
The cellist joins a line of previous winners that includes Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim.
The cellist Laura van der Heijden has just won an Edison Klassiek Award for her debut album ‘1948’, which focuses on music for cello and piano from the Soviet era. The former Young Musician of the Year Winner (2012), together with the CD’s pianist Petr Limonov, was presented with the prize on Sunday November 11th at Amsterdam’s De Hallen, in a ceremony which was broadcast live on Dutch TV.
‘It is not often that a 21-year-old music student receives an Edison Klassiek Award, but we could not ignore the cellist Laura van der Heijden,’ said the jury statement. ‘Equally rare is that a cellist fills a debut album predominantly with Russian repertoire from after the Second World War.
We know Sergei Prokofiev, but who has heard of Yuri Shaporin? Laura van der Heijden places the two composers side by side and adds Myaskovsky and the 19th-century Lyadov. … Together with the Russian pianist Petr Limonov, Laura van der Heijden delves deep into the Slavic soul. We will doubtless hear a lot more from this cellist in times to come.”
Awarded annually for outstanding achievements in the music industry, the Edison Award is one of the world’s oldest prizes. Past winners across the Classical, Pop and Jazz/ World categories include Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Igor Levit, Janine Jansen, Maxim Vengerov and Jean-Guihen Queryas.
Van der Heijden’s performance can be viewed here:
Life Lessons: Laura van der Heijden
Seven years after winning the BBC Young Musician competition, the British cellist discusses how different forms of music making inspire her
Because I’ve just finished studying,
I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how I want my musical life to pan out. The really exciting thing about that is that there are so many avenues to choose from. My life so far has already been filled with lots of different kinds of music making and that’s the way I want to keep it.
I recently tried continuo playing for the first time, performing on a Baroque cello and with a Baroque bow. The experience drummed into me the importance of pulse and harmonic rhythm and changed the way I approached a performance of a Haydn concerto a couple of weeks later. Playing the bass-line means you don’t have much melodic material to overcomplicate things with – it reminded me to keep my playing simple and to always have a visceral sense of direction.
New experiences like this one really help me grow as a musician. Sightreading through a Haydn quartet at two or three in the morning with some friends at the East Neuk Festival in Scotland was another. We were only doing it because we were having such a good time discovering the music with each other. There was no stress or pressure and we were getting so much joy from finding all the quirks and details in the music. Things like this fire me up and keep my motivation going.
I love singing and I learn a lot from it.
Whether it’s with my cello or with my voice, my aim is always to sing. In my first year at Cambridge University I sang in a performance of Bach’s St John Passion that had no conductor but was led by Baroque violinist Maggie Faultless. I was so inspired by the whole thing that I organised a conductorless performance of the St Matthew Passion. I’d never balanced so many aspects of a performance before: playing in it myself as well as fundraising, booking musicians, creating schedules and printing the posters. Cambridge is full of amazing singers but most of them are used to relying on a conductor or director. I think I was quite naive before I started the project – I thought everyone would immediately come up with lots of their own ideas. After getting to know each other and the music better, and with the inspirational help of Maggie and tenor Nicholas Mulroy, people’s contributions came into their own. The result was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had!
My first cello teacher,
Marina Logie, had her own system for teaching beginners. She used books she had drawn herself and which were full of really lovely exercises and help with things like holding the bow properly. I remember a drawing that showed it was just like a spider climbing up a tree. Getting to know the instrument was always the focus but without any pressure. Her teaching was inspired by what she had learnt from the Russian school, so hidden behind the colour and fun was a fantastic technical ability that we weren’t even aware she was transmitting.
LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN: MY MOTHER NOTICED THAT I ENJOYED MUSIC A LOT MORE THAN MY SIBLINGS
International Chamber Music Festival Krzyżowa-Music 2019 is just beginning – the 5th jubilee edition. Many young musicians from all over the world will come to Krzyżowa and other localities where festival concerts will take place. Our interlocutor, cellist Laura van der Heijden will be among them. She agreed to answer Presto a couple of questions.
Władysław Rokiciński: You are a very young musician. Will this be your first visit to Poland? Why did your choice fall on Krzyżowa-Music Festival?
Laura van der Heijden: This will be my second visit to the festival, I first went about two years ago. I heard about the festival from Viviane Hagner*, who is in the same agency as me, and it sounded like a very exciting concept!
*Viviane Hagner is the Artistic Director of Krzyżowa-Music 2019.
With whom and in what repertoire will you be playing at the festival, is it already known?
I will be playing Martinů’s Quartet in C Major, H 139 with Pablo Barragán, Radovan Vlatković, and Wojciech Herzyk; Christian Jost’s Piano Quartet No. 3 “Spinnwebwald” with Midori, Daniel Orsen, and Sam Armstrong; and Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor, K. 516 with Midori, Maciej Strzelecki, Nils Mönkemeyer, and James Yoon.
In 2018, in the age of 21, you released your debut album, together pianist Petr Limonov. Its title is significant: “1948”. If we change the order of the two last digits, we will get the title of the famous novel by George Orwell. The novel was published in 1949. And the Cold War is said, by historians, to start in 1947. What kind of music you present in your album, and what historical events it, in a way, commemorates?
The album features Myaskovsky’s and Prokofiev’s cello sonatas, Shaporin’s Five Pieces, and Lyadov’s Prelude in B minor. The concept behind the choice of these pieces and the title of the CD is their connection to the decree of 1948, issued by Andrei Zhdanov, which condemned several Russian composers of writing ‘formalist’ music. Myaskovsky’s cello sonata was written in 1948, and Prokofiev’s sonata in 1949, so the composers no doubt felt the harsh consequences of the decree and the volatile political climate at that time. I was fascinated by the different ways in which each composer related to Stalin’s regime. Shaporin continuously remaining in favour with the authorities, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky falling in and out of favour according to the fleeting passions of the governmental rule. Their compositional styles differ as their attitudes did. Prokofiev interweaving irony and wit typical of Russian composers with noble lyricism and naive openness, and Myaskovsky harking back to the romantic melancholy and nostalgia of past Russian composers.
Where did you get your interest in the Russian music of that period from?
I have been fascinated with Russian culture ever since I started learning with my teacher Leonid Gorokhov, who also inspired me to start learning the language. I have also always found Russian music deeply moving. I was particularly taken by the Prokofiev sonata, due to its striking combination of inventive modernism and melodic grandeur.
The album was extremely warmly received, got the Edison Klassiek Award, and the BBC Music Magazine selected it for the album of the month. The same magazine awarded you with the title of Newcomer of the Year. Did you expect such success?
I waited a long time before deciding to record my debut CD, and was absolutely certain that I had to be sure of a strong concept and programme before recording. I’m very glad I did, as recording had previously been an extremely daunting prospect for me. Ultimately, I tried to execute the entire project to the best of my abilities, which was, to be honest, mainly for my own sense of satisfaction. The reception that followed was a great surprise but also a wonderful nod to the hard work that went into the project from everyone who was involved!
You were 9 years old during your first public performance. Then, at the age of 15, you won the BBC competition for the Young Music of the Year. Did the people around you think that little Laura was an infant prodigy of music? And you yourself?
Before winning the BBC competition, I do not remember being conscious of my own playing on a greater scale than just for my own pleasure. I was very lucky to grow up without much comparison to other musicians, and was free to develop at my own pace with great teaching from Marina Logie and tons of support from my parents. I think this helped me to develop quite a healthy attitude to playing, which is that your own playing is not made greater or lesser by comparison to others – it is just what it is. The only thing that my mother did notice, however, is that I enjoyed music a lot more than my siblings did, which is what encouraged my parents to continue supporting my musical education.
Today, Laura van der Heijden is a 21-year-old cellist already of worldwide renown. Where and in what role do you see yourself in, let’s say, 30 years?
In 30 years time, I would love to have several years of lots of travelling and playing behind me, and to have collaborated with many interesting musicians. At some point, I could perhaps see myself having a teaching position somewhere and also starting a family – but at this stage it feels like the future is very unclear – something that is both terrifying but also incredibly exciting!
The whole life is in front of you and in your hands, Laura. We wish you good luck in all you do. Thank you for your time.
Cellist Laura van der Heijden: 'I like talking about questions that can’t be answered'
ALTHOUGH it takes place in June, Cambridge University’s graduation celebration is known as the May Ball, and shortly before I speak with one of its newest graduates there were pictures in the papers of the young folk celebrating in all their finery, regardless of the rain.
Among them was cellist Laura van der Heijden, BBC Young Musician of the year 2012 when she was just 15, and, seven years later, a Bachelor of Music, with, in her own words, “a solid 2:1”. Her teens and early 20s have been a process of combining a performing career to which the competition gave a flying start with the sort of complete education she wanted for herself. Van der Heijden has made the university town, where her boyfriend is a choral scholar, her home for now, but the completion of her studies heralded a step up in her demanding recital schedule, which sees her arrive at Paxton House in the Borders on July 26 to perform with one of her regular duo partners, pianist Tom Poster.
“I am happy that they are finished and that my exams went well, but it has been tough to balance my playing career with studying and having a social life,” she tells me. “I couldn’t invest too much time in studying, so I am pleased with how things have gone.”
Although a preciously-talented instrumentalist, as the judges at The Sage, Gateshead, in 2012 determined, van de Heijden decided to pursue her post-school education at university rather than a conservatoire, so that she could combine her music with languages – specifically Russian – and a more academic approach to her main study.
“I already had great cello teaching,” she says, “ and I needed something more for my own confidence and development.”
She explains that she needed to know more of the history of the music she was playing, and to be able to understand the context of the composition of a work like Brahms’ Requiem and how Schumann worked in his era. In particular she praises the teaching of Dr Peter McMurray and a course he calls “Decolonizing the Ear”. She credits the Harvard-trained saxophonist with widening the cultural context of music education at Cambridge, as well as making her think a lot about the role of Western classical music, and how she should programme recitals herself.
“I learned to address bigger philosophical questions from a broader perspective, and, although it can be frustrating, I now like talking about questions that can’t be answered!”
Her undergraduate degree out of the way, van der Heijden is eyeing the possibility of post-grad musical study at a conservatoire, but more immediately her goal is to practise a lot and do a great deal of playing, with a packed concert schedule that sees her criss-crossing the UK and visiting Germany, Poland and Russia before the end of the year, performing a huge volume of music.
“There a certain time in a career when you just go with the flow of what people ask you to do, and the concert diary just piles up. The next couple of weeks are ‘quite interesting’! Although I have tried to be careful through my studying, it has really been pretty full-on since 2012.”
A balance between orchestral and chamber music is another facet of that career, and the necessity of learning Martinu’s Cello Concerto No 1 before concerts with the touring Prague Symphony Orchestra in November is also in van der Heijden’s mind.
Her second album, and the first for a major label, is planned to be a recording of the Walton concerto with which she won the BBC competition. “It’s an amazing work for me, both personally and musically, and not so widely recorded,” she says. But it will be 2021 before that sees the light of day, and her debut album, 1948, which appeared last year, is still winning awards.
A duo recording of Russian works, the music is associated with the year of Stalin’s decree limiting the state’s approval of music composed for its own sake rather than the good of the Party. It was recorded with another of her recital partners, pianist Petr Limonov, for the small Champs Hill label and won her Newcomer of the Year in the BBC Music Magazine Awards in April. The repertoire is just as significantly formed by the cellist musical life story.
“I’ve been fascinated by Russia since before I was 11. My first teacher was from Romania and her father was an amazing Russian cellist, so that influenced my style of playing and my interest in Russian culture and in learning Russian. Whenever two or more Russians were talking together I wanted to know what they were saying; it is a very beautiful language.
“A debut CD carries a lot of weight and I was very afraid about that, so making 1948 was lovely because I had complete freedom in how and what was recorded. I needed to make it something that reflects me as a musician, not just a demonstration of my playing. The album meant something to me, and I am proud of the product even if I think I’d play some of it differently now. I was true to myself.”
As she concedes, she is “very self-critical”, because the critics found much to praise in her “cello singing out long lines of sustained intensity” that get to the heart of the music of Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Shaporin.
If that disc focused on a very specific period and locale, van der Heijden’s recital with Tom Poster, the culmination of the pianist’s two-day residency with Music at Paxton, ranges widely geographically and over 200 years.
As her conversation would lead you to assume, a great deal of consideration goes into the structure of one of the cellist’s recitals, so when she says that she and Poster are playing Bach, Britten, Boulanger and Brahms because they all begin with B, you can be certain she is joking. That would be the sort of tokenism for including the Three pieces for Cello and Piano by Nadia Boulanger of which she would not approve.
“I was introduced to those by Huw Watkins [composer and another pianist recital partner] and they are not played a huge deal and should be. I want to get more female composers into my repertoire, and I am actively making a conscious effort to put more women into my recitals.”
Poster has demonstrated the same aim, with his Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, including van der Heijden with violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White and Rosalind Ventris on viola, playing a fascinating programme of music by women at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Sunday July 14, featuring Boulanger’s sister Lili, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach.
The Paxton programme will also contain music that helped win the cellist her degree, in Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C, Opus 65, which she included in her final recital at Cambridge. What’s the betting that the audience in the lovely Picture Gallery at Paxton House will wonder only why this most thoughtful of young musicians was not awarded a First?
Cellist Laura van der Heijden on the Optimism Within Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello & Piano
Laura van der Heijden
I think I first heard the Prokofiev Sonata performed live by cellist Fedor Amosov, and was taken by the cutting wit of the second movement. I had been familiar with Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg’s recording, but after that performance, I listened with greater understanding and interest. Shafran’s recording demonstrates the intense color palette of the work and the vast emotional landscape on which it rests. I was also fascinated by the ever-changing relationship of the piano and the cello in this piece: At times, the melodies are beautifully interwoven, and in other passages, the piano remarks critically or supports the cello with gentle accompaniment. The opening of the Sonata is totally captivating, as it showcases, in my opinion, the cello’s best register: the rich, penetrating sound of the C string.
I first started learning the Prokofiev Sonata with the CD 1948 in mind, as I knew that it would work perfectly as the centerpiece for my Russian-themed recording. The CD’s title, 1948, was based on the decree issued by Andrey Zhdanov, the leading Soviet cultural policymaker, published on February 10 of that year in the Russian newspaper Pravda. This decree aimed to encourage a return to Russian aesthetics in music, and attacked any Western-leaning or “formalist” (music that contained any hint of modernism as perceived by the government) composers, and continued on from previous resolutions, which had condemned artists, writers, and filmmakers. Amongst the composers named in this article were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov, and Myaskovsky. Pianist Lev Naumov described that fateful day in his autobiography:
“It was devastating. At a meeting, held in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, Shebalin, who was mentioned in the decree, refused to plead guilty, showing incredible bravery. His students surrounded him, silently crying. This decree aimed to destroy the lives of the very best Russian composers.”
The composers knew that this decree was to be taken seriously; anyone who remembered the bloody purges of the ’30s knew that artistic disobedience could result in a death sentence.
During Stalin’s regime, artistic obedience was measured through the awarding of “Stalin Prizes,” which ensured that the authorities were aware of any new works being written. Myaskovsky wrote his second Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor in 1948–9; it quickly won recognition as the best instrumental work of the year by a long mark. Shortly after its premiere given by Rostropovich, the Sonata was nominated for a Stalin Prize. Prokofiev and Myaskovsky were close friends and had shared the same teacher, Anatoly Lyadov, so it comes as no surprise that Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata was inspired by the premiere of Myaskovsky’s Second Cello Sonata. Both include melancholy lyricism in the “old Russian style,” but Prokofiev’s work is distinctly more satirical.
Much like his first Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonata touches upon the subject of war and the futility of violence. This similarity is particularly striking in the undulating harmonics of the final bars of the first movement of the Cello Sonata, which echo what Prokofiev described as “wind over a graveyard” in the finale of the Violin Sonata. As it comes to rest on C major after such a turbulent section, one could hear the terrifying silence of death: Perhaps Prokofiev’s reflection on the estimated 26 million Soviet citizens who perished in the Second World War.
The Sonata demands great efforts to comprehend both the difficult context in which it was written and how the piece reflects Prokofiev’s own response to the political climate. Aspects of his character and his music have been described as naïve and childlike; however, when preparing this piece, it is hard to distinguish between ironically simple melodies, and those that are genuinely open, which is part of what makes the piece so special. My interpretation of the sonata was greatly helped by the pianist Petr Limonov, who created a sense of the work’s visceral nature by describing certain passages using evocative Russian imagery.
The finale of the piece is appropriately optimistic. After all, Prokofiev needed to appease the Communist Party, and pieces ending on a tragic note were not in favor with the officials. Alternatively, in the context of overcoming the terrors of the war, Prokofiev’s optimism could be interpreted as an affirmation of humanity’s ability to create rather than destroy.
Interview: Strings attached with Laura van der Heijden
Crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2012, aged just 15, Laura is now an international cello soloist. Performing at Kettle’s Yard next month, the 21-year-old is also a final-year student at the University of Cambridge. Jasmine Watkiss chats to her
How old were you when you started playing cello, and how did you get started?
I started playing the cello when I was 6. A close family friend in our village, Marina Logie, happened to be a fantastic cello teacher for beginners. I think the combination of my father being an amateur cellist and my personality led my parents to the idea that the cello might be right for me. I had started the piano and recorder the year before and had clearly taken a liking to making music!
How did you become so accomplished at such a young age?
I was very lucky because I started off – and continued – with very good teachers. No matter how much you practise as a child, if you’re not taught well then it’s going to be quite difficult to become comfortable with your instrument. My parents encouraged me to practice, and my mother often sat with me and helped; they knew the hard part for me was starting, but once I got going I really enjoyed it.
Who or what has been influential in your musical career?
Many people have helped shape my career hugely: my parents, of course; my teachers Marina Logie and Leonid Gorokhov; Alison Rhind, who coached me for several years; and the BBC Young Musician Competition played a very important role in the development of my career.
What has studying at Cambridge been like? What have you enjoyed most about it?
Studying in Cambridge has been a total whirlwind. The pressure of balancing my work, music and social life is intense, but meeting incredible people and being around buildings steeped in history has been amazing. The musical culture here is so diverse, and I’ve been involved with projects that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across – including playing regularly with the St John’s College Choir and recording their 100th CD Locus Iste with them, which is coming out on April 26. I feel very lucky to be here, and also very sad that it is coming to an end so quickly! I’d love to do it all again.
How have you managed to juggle your academic work with international concerts?
It has been a real challenge, not only due to time constraints, but also because concerts require such a different mindset; I find it very hard to switch from practising to writing an essay. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, because playing and performing is a huge part of my identity, and without it I don’t feel quite myself. Coming to Cambridge has made me question many things that I have previously taken for granted. The decision to devote my life to music was a natural one, but I wanted to make it actively. As much as I have enjoyed exploring the academic side of music, it has also helped me realise how much I miss playing the cello when work pressures pile up.
What have been your favourite moments from your professional career so far?
There have been so many; seeing Tokyo when I performed there last summer was amazing, as was playing in Australia and New Zealand. I have also really enjoyed collaborating with inspiring musicians, including Krzysztof Chorzelski, Tom Poster, Elena Urioste, Savitri Grier, Juan-Miguel Hernandez, and many more! One particular highlight was the process of recording and producing my CD 1948 with Petr Limonov. The experience was a challenging one, but very satisfying – we both really put our heart and soul into it.
Do you get stage nerves? How do you cope with them?
I get quite nervous before almost every concert, which I think is very normal and also healthy. I make sure I am breathing well, focusing on good posture, and feeling comfortable in my body. A banana before the concert also helps.
You’re about to leave Cambridge University – what are your plans for the future?
I’m excited and curious to see what the next chapter of my life will bring. Finishing university is a bit of a scary time for everyone: it feels like it’s finally time to begin your ‘real life’. The music world is ever-changing, so throwing yourself into it isn’t as secure as getting a nine-to-five job, which is both exhilarating and terrifying! At the moment, my main plans are to continue playing concerts and travelling around the world.
What other interests do you have? What do you do in your down time?
I love cooking and eating with my friends, in particular Japanese food, going for walks, watching movies, reading books. . . and panicking about deadlines!
I often go through phases of listening to music on repeat. At the moment I am listening to a lot of jazz and funk, but I will always have a soft spot for Bach, Schumann, Beethoven, and Brahms. I can’t really imagine my life without music.
• To find out more about Laura’s debut album ‘1948’, featuring Russian works for cello and piano, visit lauravanderheijden.uk
Laura will be performing at Kettle’s Yard on May 9 as part of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, with Tom Poster on piano, Savitri Grier on violin, and Juan-Miguel Hernandez on viola. The quartet will perform a wonderful programme of works by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann. For more information and to buy tickets, visit kettlesyard.co.uk/events/kaleidoscope-chamber-collective
Laura van der Heijden: ‘Zonder muziek word ik somber’
Klassiek Cellist Laura van der Heijden won in 2018 een Edison voor haar overweldigend goede debuut-cd ‘1948’. In maart soleert ze bij het Orkest van het Oosten.
Haar naam is zo Nederlands als kan, en haar overgrootvader Martin Spanjaard (1892-1942) was dirigent van het Orkest van het Oosten. Maar voor celliste Laura van der Heijden (East Sussex, 1997) is Nederland vooralsnog alleen een geliefd vakantievaderland. Als kind leerde ze fietsen aan de Zeeuwse kust. Als ze in Amsterdam is, logeert ze bij haar oom aan de gracht. Maar verder groeide ze met haar Nederlandse vader en Zwitserse moeder op in Groot-Brittannië, omdat haar ouders niet wilden kiezen voor een van beide herkomstlanden.
En zo kon het gebeuren dat Laura van der Heijden („Heerlijk dat iedereen mijn naam hier meteen goed spelt en uitspreekt!”) al in 2012 werd verkozen tot BBC Young Musician of the Year, terwijl Nederland haar eigenlijk pas leerde kennen door haar vorig jaar verschenen, zowel in originaliteit als kwaliteit excellerende en met een Edison bekroonde debuutalbum ‘1948’, gewijd aan relatief onbekende werken van Russische componisten als Ljadov en Sjaporin.
Optredens in Nederland geeft ze nog niet vaak, maar net voor Kerst was ze even in Amsterdam, voor haar debuut in het Concertgebouw. „Ik studeer musicologie aan St. John’s College in Cambridge en zij vroegen me een stuk te spelen als onderdeel van het kerstconcert van hun koor”, vertelt ze. En ja: de legendarische Grote Zaal bleek inderdaad zijn reputatie waard. „De akoestiek is heel warm en de sfeer sluit daarbij aan”, zegt ze – in bijna vloeiend Nederlands. „Nu ik heb ontdekt dat Nederlanders ook heel veel Engelse woorden door hun zinnen mengen, voel ik me veel vrijer het gewoon te proberen.”
Dat Laura van der Heijden als kind na de blokfluit voor de cello koos, was deels toevallig. „In ons dorp woonde een heel goede docente, Marina Logie, die bovendien met mijn ouders bevriend was”, vertelt ze. „Ik vond de lessen leuk en had ook aanleg, hoewel het studeren me niet altijd even soepel afging. Ik was soms lui.” Wat dan weer leidde tot lange „doe wat je wilt maar doe dat goed”-gesprekken met haar moeder, psychiater, die er steevast op uitliepen dat Laura toch maar weer ging oefenen. „Want ik had ergens wel het voorgevoel dat de cello ooit écht belangrijk voor me zou worden.”
Toen ze rond haar elfde technisch zo ver was dat het tijd werd voor een nieuwe leraar, raadde iemand haar de Russische virtuoos en docent Leonid Gorokhov aan. Vanaf de proefles was er een klik. „Leonid weet precies wanneer hij wat hoe moet zeggen. Aanvankelijk was hij vooral heel concreet: strijkstok zo, hand zus. Maar door zijn technische raadgevingen leerde ik hoe ik alle denkbare kleuren en sferen kan oproepen.”
Met Gorokhov kwam Rusland in haar leven: een tweede beslissende klik. Het weemoedige prachtrepertoire dat hij haar aanreikte, de „rijke, diep donkere klank” van musici als violist Jascha Heifetz en cellist Igor Piatogorsky die ze altijd al had bewonderd, de literatuur – ze intrigeerden haar zo dat ze het Russisch inmiddels goed genoeg beheerst voor een alledaags gesprek. „En als ik aan het einde van dit academisch jaar klaar ben in Cambridge, ga ik mijn Nederlands en Russisch zo opvijzelen dat ik ook echt kan zeggen wat ik denk.”
Gorokhov was geen typische Russische leermeester, denkt Van der Heijden. „Leraren in Rusland zijn of waren doorgaans veel hardvochtiger, die koersen compromisloos op kwaliteit. Gorokhov is ook veeleisend, maar blijft aardig. Hij zegt wel vaak tegen me dat ik ‘niet genoeg heb geleden’. Maar muziek gaat voor mij over emotie en liefde. Ik wil niet geloven dat die geweldige Russische musici alleen maar bestonden bij de gratie van hun zware levens. Ik hoop en denk dat je ook in een prettige leefomgeving hetzelfde kunt bereiken door heel hard te werken en intens van muziek en kunst te houden. Wat overigens nog steeds niet makkelijk is. Een stuk is nooit af, het is nooit weekend, de kritische stem in mijn hoofd staat nooit uit. Soms droom ik zelfs dat ik word ontvoerd en mijn vingers worden afgehakt.”
Maar die diepe fysieke en mentale verbondenheid is ondeelbaar van de aantrekkingskracht van muziek, vindt ze. „Dat je je levenlang beter kunt worden. Dat er altijd nieuwe ideeën zullen zijn over interpretatie. En dat je altijd je visie kunt verdiepen op alle emoties die in de muziek besloten liggen.”
2019 wordt een spannend jaar. In maart soleert ze bij het Orkest van het Oosten – wat maar één serie is van een aanzwellende reeks optredens buiten het Verenigd Koninkrijk. En in de zomer studeert ze af aan Cambridge. „Daarna begint het volwassen leven. Maar wat dat inhoudt, is voor mijzelf ook een vraagteken. Amsterdam trekt, misschien dat ik hier kom wonen. En ik ga een nieuwe muzikale mentor zoeken, niet per se een cellist. Technisch kan ik mezelf goed vooruit helpen met geluidsopnames. Hoe je studeert, is oneindig veel belangrijker dan hoeveel. Mijn eerste lerares zei altijd al: ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.’ Als ik iets fout speelde, moest ik het daarna tien keer foutloos spelen, opdat mijn vingers de goede, niet de foute speelwijze zouden onthouden.”
Eén ding is zeker: een leven zonder muziek is geen optie. „Tijdens mijn eerste jaar in Cambridge had ik geen tijd om cello te studeren. Ik werd somber. Het verband realiseerde ik me pas toen na een uur op de cello opeens alle bedruktheid van me afviel. Met mijn cello voel ik me levend.”
Het album ‘1948’ van Laura van der Heijden (cello) en Petr Limonov is verschenen bij Champs Hill Records). Laura van der Heijden soleert bij het Orkest van het Oosten in Dvoraks Celloconcert 28, 29, 31 maart en 4, 5, 7 april.
30 SECONDS INTERVIEW: LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN
Since winning BBC Young Musician in 2012 at the age of 15, cellist Laura van der Heijden’s career has gone from strength to strength.
Following her appearance on the long-running BBC competition, there’s been no shortage of accolades. In 2014, she was awarded the Landgraf von Hessen Prize at the Kronberg Academy’s prestigious international masterclasses, while the following year she was named Young Artist in Residence of the London Mozart Players.
Praised for her mesmerising performances and poised expression, Laura’s toured all over the world with the likes of the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra, BBC Proms Australia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and kicked off 2018 with the release of her critically acclaimed debut recording, 1948.
Currently studying for her Bachelor’s Degree in Music at the University of Cambridge, the emerging talent splits her term-time between study and performance, and is gearing up for her Tokyo debut this August with the Dvorak Concerto.
Ahead of that, we catch up for a quick-fire round of questions to get to know her…
What was the first song you developed an obsession for?
When I was very little I listened to a CD, which had Let’s Twist Again on it, over and over again, whilst dancing, of course.
What’s the first gig you went to?
At about three months old I was taken to hear our local chamber orchestra, the Jupiter. I must have enjoyed it, since I didn’t cry or cause any problems.
What’s the first instrument you ever got hold of?
I started the recorder properly at four, but when I was two, I tried out my dad’s full-size cello and was quite excited by the scratchy sounds I was making!
What is your worst musical habit?
I procrastinate a lot, so starting practice is always a bit of an ordeal. Once I get going it’s fine!
What’s the best piece of musical advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s very hard to choose one piece of advice, as over the 15 years I’ve been learning the cello I’ve had lots of it! Different pieces of advice have been extremely helpful in different stages of my development; at the moment, the focus on trying to make the cello speak and sing is propelling me forwards.
Where do you discover new music?
The wonderful thing about music is that you come across it in every situation. I love finding out what other people listen to when I get to know them, and often ask them to make me Spotify playlists. I also enjoy going to concerts where I don’t know the music, and getting involved in projects to learn new pieces (ranging from choir to baroque cello).
What’s your favourite venue?
That’s very hard to choose. I just performed a BBC lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall, and the acoustic and atmosphere there is really wonderful to play in.
Who is your current favourite band/artist?
It depends in which genre! I am listening to a lot of jazz, funk, and chill-hop at the moment, but in the classical genre I tend to gravitate towards the ‘old greats’ like Daniil Shafran, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Wunderlich, Henryk Szeryng, Gregor Piatigorsky and many more.
What inspirations outside of music impact your playing?
I love finding inspiration everywhere; in nature, literature, films, relationships, even food!
What’s next for you?
I am in my second year of studying music at Cambridge University, so I have one more year left. During the holidays (and terms too) I am playing concerts. I’m especially looking forward to my debut in Tokyo, Japan with the Dvorak Concerto in August!
BBC Music Magazine
Recording of the Month
Why did you decide to wait a while after winning BBC Young Musician before recording?
There was quite a lot of expectation for me to start recording immediately after the competition, but I feel that recording is such a special and specific thing – the CD is around forever. I felt I needed to develop as a cellist, and I wanted to find a programme that really meant something to me. That’s what has happened. I feel very passionately about the music on this disc.
What is the appeal of Russian music in particular to you?
I started studying with the Russian cellist Leonid Ghorokov when I was 11, and my teacher before that was Marina Logie, whose father was an amazing Romanian-Russian cellist, so perhaps I feel close to Russian culture because of my teachers. I’m very interested in Russian literature because it’s so intense and colourful, and I’ve been learning Russian for five years. Then there’s the Russian school of playing: Daniil Shafran is my ideal cellist. So I don’t know if this was building up in my soul, or if there’s something about Russian music that draws me in.
How did you adapt to the recording process?
It was intense, but I was lucky enough to work with the Russian pianist Petr Limonov who has done so many recordings and was very supportive. He has a huge amount of knowledge about this repertoire. Another thing I love about working with him is that we quite often disagree. I find disagreements lead to a much deeper and more thorough interpretation of a work. It’s healthy and interesting.
A tale of two cellists: Meet Laura van der Heijden and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
What are the chances? You wait years for debut albums by cello-playing former winners of the BBC Young Musician, then two come along at once.
2012 winner Laura van der Heijden was first out of the gates with 1948, an album reflecting that year’s purge of musicians in Stalinist Russia.
A decree by the congress of composers denounced the likes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich for writing “inexpressive, unharmonious” music that “smells strongly of the spirit of the modern bourgeois music of Europe and America”.
“You don’t really know about the effect of a decree like that if you just hear about it in history books,” explains van der Heijden. "But several composers were crying that day in the Moscow conservatory.
“It had a really huge effect on the musical community in Russia.”
Her album includes compositions by Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, while Shostakovich appears on Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s album via the cello concerto he performed to win 2016’s Young Musician competition.
His record, called Inspiration, also features interpretations of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (which the cellist memorably performed at last year’s Bafta Awards).
“I put a lot of time into thinking about what I wanted to record,” he explains of the eclectic track listing. “I wanted to pick pieces that I’ve loved for a long time.”
Coincidentally, both musicians were educated in state schools, fitting their musical tuition around regular school hours.
“It was definitely the right decision,” says van der Heijden, “because if you’re a musician it’s so easy to end up only in music circles, which is perhaps not the best way to have a very open mind.”
Kanneh-Mason agrees: “I had a lot of time to play football at school, as well as doing maths and physics. It was wonderful to have that broader experience. I’m very grateful.”
The two musicians spoke about the challenges of making a debut album, and reflected on their experience of winning the BBC Young Musician title, in interviews with BBC News.
LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN
It’s six years since you won BBC Young Musician. Why did you wait so long to put out a CD?
I felt it was really important to wait until I was ready, and that I had found a repertoire I was really passionate about.
This Russian repertoire means a lot to me because I’ve had many links with Russian culture through my cello teacher, Leonid Gorokhov, and I’ve learnt Russian – I’m still learning it!
What made you choose these works?
The subtitle of the CD is “In the shadow of 1948” because all of the pieces, apart from the Lyadov, are influenced by that year. My aim with the CD was to show the turbulence of that time, and how easily you could be in favour or out of favour with the government. Because Myaskovsky and Prokofiev both went from being incredibly popular composers to people who’d been banned from writing.
It’s so hard to imagine what that must have been like.
Something I’ve found really interesting is how different their responses were. Someone like Shostakovich – you can really hear the torment in his music. That cold oppression. Whereas in Prokofiev’s music, it’s slightly more subtle and hidden.
One of the things we actually struggled with in the interpretation of the Prokofiev sonata was knowing to what extent his writing was ironic or satirical. His melodies can be so sunny and naive and childlike – but [we had to decide] whether they were written with this undertone of “this is what we’re being forced to feel”.
Obviously, you can’t interrogate these composers on their intentions, so how did you approach that?
Partly research. You have to approach it from all sides – exploring different phrasings, different interpretations of certain lines. But in the end, you have to play what feels most natural to you.
Did you play them in concert first?
Absolutely. That’s another really important part of the recording process – because in performance, you change your view of pieces. There’s only so far you can go in a practice room.
You recorded the album with pianist Petr Limonov. How does he affect the way you play?
That was really wonderful – to play these [pieces] with a Muscovite, who knows this culture inside out, and who has this inherent knowledge of the Russian soul.
For example, his grandfather fought in wars in Russia and he’s had this experience of the turmoil of that time. As an outsider you can read about that, but you can never have direct experience. So playing with him was a great inspiration.
What’s your working relationship like?
We disagree quite a lot – and I think that’s very, very helpful for a working relationship because it means you dig deeper. The most interesting part of rehearsal begins when we start to argue our point of view. And usually at the end, we come up with something that neither of us had considered beforehand.
You started playing when you were six – and within four years you had a grade eight distinction not just on cello instrument but also the piano. How did you do it?
First of all, it’s quite a long time ago so I can’t really remember! But I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life to have a huge support system and a really fantastic first teacher [Marina Logie]. That’s so important – because so often people get to my age and move on to another teacher and have to start everything again.
Also, my parents were really supportive and encouraged me to practice – sometimes when I didn’t want to!
Now that you have your first album out “in the wild”, what’s next?
I’d really like to record the Walton Concerto, because that’s what I played in the BBC final and I feel very passionately about the music. It’s one of the most wonderful cello concertos out there, and it’s not played a huge amount, so I’d love to record it.
BBC Music Magazine
Music to my ears
What the classical world has been listening to this month
Laura van der Heijden, Cellist
I’ve been really enjoying Henryk Szeryng playing Schumann’s Violin Concerto – mainly the slow movement. He manages to be completely honest and pure in sound, while still being incredibly colourful. The slow movement is the epitome of this; it moves from being very tender to frustrated and agitated. His playing sounds completely naked – it’s very intimate and revealing. I think Schumann should be played with no pretences, as there’s so much emotion in every note.
I go through phases with my listening, and at the moment I’m in a jazz phase. I love Billie Holiday singing ’I’ll be seeing you’. It speaks so much about an emotion we’ve all felt before. Her voice is very raw, as opposed to Ella Fitzgerald, who is incredibly refined and does so much with her voice. I find Billie’s voice more immediate and perhaps less polished and refined, and I love that about it.
In a way, I feel like all I’ve been listening to for the last few weeks is Erroll Garner. He has so many recordings of the same song, but they all sound completely different. He’s one of the most refined jazz pianists – particularly with dynamics and textures. In ‘How could you do a thing like that to me?’ on the live album Concert by the Sea, he playes so quietly when the main theme of the song comes in and the whole audience goes mad.
I first heard Richard Strauss‘s tone poem Tod und Verklärung on a fast-moving train, and had one of those vivid and exhilarating mental videos going through my mind of racing through fields on a horse with thunderous clouds above. Strauss has a way of accessing these worlds, and has the ability to really change the listener’s state. You can really trace a linear emotional shape of the piece, and you feel emotions as extreme as the acceptance of death. It’s quite hard to make someone feel like that.
Hampstead Arts Festival
60 seconds with ... Laura van der Heijden
Since winning the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2012, Laura has been building a major solo career. In 2016 she played the Saint-Saëns Concerto No 1 in the inaugural concert of the BBC Proms Australia. In addition to concertising, she is currently an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and is an Ambassador for both the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts and Brighton Youth Orchestra. Laura has performeded at the Hampstead Arts Festival in two previous seasons and, in November 2017, will appear as part of the Elie Ensemble.
How old were you when you first started playing the cello?
I was 6 years old.
What made you choose the cello over other instruments?
My dad is an amateur cellist and there is a fantastic cello teacher 5 minutes walk away from us! I also think that the cello really suits me more than other instruments.
Who has influenced your career most and why?
It’s impossible to name one person, as my career has been influenced by everyone involved! However, beginning with my teacher Leonid Gorokhov could be considered the real start of my desire to become a cellist.
What is the best piece of advice you could give a budding classical musician starting out?
Surround yourself with helpful, supportive people whom you trust and know will be honest with you. Never forget why you are doing what you are doing – it is a privilege to play such wonderful music as a job!
What is the largest and smallest audience you have played to?
The smallest audience would probably have been 1 animal – my dog, and the biggest has (I think) been at the Royal Festival Hall.
What is your favourite relaxation activity when not working?
I enjoy cooking, walking, reading and chatting to my friends!
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about the power of music in education and about chocolate! (And many more serious things too..)
If you were to have a dinner party, which 3 people who would you invite (dead or alive) and why?
I would invite my paternal grandmother and her father because I never got the chance to meet them. My great-grandfather was a conductor and I would really love to sit down with him and hear all his stories and how he felt about music. I would also love to meet Johannes Brahms and get to know his personality. Of course there are many more people that I would like to have at a dinner party – 4 is not a very big group!
Do you have a favourite gadget, if so what is it?
I hate to say it, but it would have to be my phone. I use it a lot to keep in touch with my friends as I don’t see them often and they are spread around the globe!
In an alternate universe, if you were not a classical musician what other profession would you go into?
I am tempted to say I would like to be/ could be an astrophysicist but that would be lying. I am very interested in psychology, so that would be my other option.
Laura van der Heijden’s progress from wunderteen to young professional has been achieved at a relaxed and steady pace – and it is only now, five years after her BBC Young Musician win, that she feels ready to release her first CD, writes Phillip Sommerich
Five years on from being shot to fame by winning the BBC Young Musician competition as a 15-year-old, Laura van der Heijden getting round to making her first recording.
Interviewers and critics invariably note the maturity and thoughtfulness the cellist displays in her words and music, and that applies to her choice of repertoire for the sessions with the Champs Hill label.
The repertoire for the album – Prokofiev’s cello sonata, Yuri Shaporin’s Five Pieces, Myaskovsky’s second cello sonata and Lyadov’s Prelude in B minor (that last an opportunity for her recording partner, pianist Petr Limonov, to take a solo spot) – underlines those qualities. ‘I have had a strong link to Russian culture and russian people’, she says.
‘My cello teacher, Leonid Ghorokov, is Russian and I felt very close to Russian music through his teaching. I felt this CD should have some kind of personal meaning.’ She has even learnt Russian – meaning she can now converse in four languages.
A veteran now of a string of international competitions and platform debuts, van der Heijden admits she was still apprehensive about going before the recording mics. ‘It is very different thing to playing in a concert. In a concert you get so much inspiration from the acoustic and the audience. It’s all about the flow of the music and your performance as a whole, not just your cello playing, the atmosphere you are creating.
‘With recording that’s much more difficult to do, but you get into the swing of it and the producer, Alexander van Ingen, was fantastic in making us both feel very comfortable and understanding what I wanted to say musically.’
Typically, she agreed to record only after much thought. ’It is something I had to make peace with. For a long time I thought I am not ready yet to put down something that will last to the end of time.
But then I thought it is just a snapshot of where I am in my development as a musician and I feel quite passionately about this repertoire and feel I have something to say about it. I would hope I will be a lot better in many years’ time and look back and say that’s where I was then in my development, and be happy about it.’
When interviewed for Classical Music magazine nearly three years ago, van der Heijden was looking forward to the transition from school to university, but has taken a gap year which, unlike most teenagers’ breaks, was filled with debuts in Australia, New Zealand and Germany, concerto, chamber music and recital dates, and learning new repertoire, before beginning music studies at St John’s Cambridge.
It was a break from balancing the demands of classroom, concert platform and rehearsal space, a stress she knows will only intesify at Cambridge. ’My school was very lenient. Cello was always my priority but I also wanted to get good grades in my GCSEs and A-levels, so there was an element of precise planning.
Then there were the social sacrifices – I did have to decline birthday parties and not see my friends as much as I would have liked, and being out of the loop.’
Inevitably she was wooed by record labels immediately after the BBC win and is now beginning to consider recording concertos. The Walton, which took her to victory in 2012, is on the wishlist, but she also loves the Schumann concerto.
She has been playing on a range of cellos recently, having been given on loan by a family from near her home in East Sussex a 1780 Joseph Hill instrument, alongside the Arcellaschi she has had for some years.
Having recently played a Baroque cello at St John’s, she is also mulling other ideas. ‘I would at some point in my life like to do a project with the Bach suites. That is different to recording a sonata or concerto because it is wonderful to hear every cellists’s interpretation of the suites, because they are all so different.’
Looking back on her journey so far she says: ‘The balance for a young person between playing enough and playing too much is very difficult, but I feel I have been very lucky.’
Interview: Laura van der Heijden
The 2012 BBC Young Musician competition winner talks to Frank Au about her musical development and her plan to study at Cambridge.
The University of Cambridge is full of musical talents, but not many prospective students have made regular appearances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). Last week, the 18-year-old cellist Laura van der Heijden performed Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the RPO at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. This was her sixth performance with the RPO since 2012. I asked Laura about her experience as a soloist with the orchestra.
“The biggest thing I’ve done with them was the Elgar concerto in the Royal Festival Hall. That was an amazing experience – also nerve-wracking, because it was a huge hall, and a serious occasion. But the orchestra members were very supportive and friendly; it’s so nice to play with them.”
Elgar’s cello concerto is famously associated with another British cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, whose 1965 recording with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra has inspired generations of musicians and listeners worldwide. How does Laura approach this concerto?
“If you’re an English girl playing Elgar in England, you have to be so careful – you want to listen to a great recording to get inspired, but there’s also a need to stay away so you don’t start copying things.
“You have to develop your own ideas. Jacqueline du Pré plays in a way that is very energetic and outward-looking. I see this concerto as more inward-looking. I just feel that this piece is so noble, and there’s something very painful deep down in its nobility. So I play it very differently, but I still get comments that I’m so much like Jackie! Her sound is so much in people’s heads that they almost superimpose it onto what they hear.
“While it’s flattering to be compared to her, I would rather be known as ‘the new Laura’ than ‘the next Jackie’.”
Laura started learning the cello when she was six; her father is an amateur cellist. By the time she was ten, Laura had gained ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) grade 8 distinctions on both cello and piano. How did she do it?
“My mum helped me a lot with practising. I often needed someone to help me start, because I didn’t like starting to practise – I still don’t. I found practising quite daunting. It can be so frustrating, when it takes so many attempts to achieve what you’re trying to achieve.”
Anyone who has tried to learn an instrument would understand Laura’s frustration: it is the reason why many young people quit. Why didn’t she?
“I didn’t like practising, but I have always loved music. My parents and I would have these talks – ‘am I practising enough’, ‘do I really want to continue with this’. I always carried on with it because I wanted to be able to choose one day. If I had given up, I would no longer be able to choose. I would want to have that choice when I’m 18 or 19, and I knew that I would regret it deeply if I couldn’t make music.
“Cello happens to be my instrument and it allows me to express my music. If I had given it up, I would be devastated now.”
Laura’s persistence paid off in 2012, when she won the BBC Young Musician competition. This biennial competition, broadcast on BBC, was billed as a “search for UK’s best young musician”. Winning was a major turning point.
“I had just turned 15, and wasn’t really thinking about a career in music. But the day after the competition I suddenly had new expectations of myself, and I was no longer content with the way I was doing things.” Laura had a new goal: “To become the best musician I can be.”
For many maturing artists, the transition from childhood to adult life can be difficult. How was Laura’s experience?
“It’s been tough. I think it was Picasso who said it takes a lifetime to paint like a child. In a way, that sort of child-like openness and just playing what comes out without any walls or boundaries is actually very hard to achieve once you become conscious of how you should play. For me it’s a day-to-day struggle to be connected to that raw emotion. I think every musician struggles with it.”
In her quest to “become the best musician I can be”, Laura is currently taking full advantage of a gap year, performing at different venues in Europe and elsewhere (including a scheduled performance at the BBC Proms festival in Melbourne). But in October 2016, she will come to Cambridge and study Music at St John’s College.
“I want to explore the academic side of music, because my focus so far has been on the performance side.”
It might have taken Picasso a lifetime to paint like a child, but along the way he produced many interesting paintings. Laura believes that learning music is a lifelong project, but as those who attended her concert last week can attest, she makes beautiful music along the way.
The Amati Magazine
YOUNG ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Laura van der Heijden, cellist
The British cellist Laura van der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2012 and has been making waves ever since in the concert scene, while also studying for her A levels. In March she tours the UK performing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1. Here she tells AMATI about juggling workloads, her new cello and why it is vital that the music and the arts maintain a strong presence in our schools…
Laura, please tell us about some of your earliest musical memories. Is your family musical? And how and when did you realise you wanted to be a musician?
My dad is very musical and plays the cello for fun- we have always had music on at home, classical and other genres too. I started learning the cello when I was six, and was lucky enough to begin with a great cello teacher, Marina Logie, who lives five minutes walk away from us. I have never made the conscious decision to become a musician, but I can truly say that my love for music, and the life of a musician, is growing all the time.
What would you say were the most vital factors enabling you to start a career in music?
Winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year has really given me a career – before the competition I had to ask people whether I could play for them. None of what has happened in the last three years could have happened, however, without the support of my family, community and, very importantly, my teacher Leonid Gorokhov. I have also always been lucky with my schooling, both my primary and secondary schools have been supportive regarding my musical commitments. The truth is that achieving a successful career in music requires a ridiculously large amount of factors, and even if the support is all there, luck still plays a big part. All we can do is try our best.
The nation fell in love with you when you won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. What was it like to take part?
The BBCYM Competition was an amazing experience. I learnt so much throughout the process. The competition is unique because, including the preparation time, it spans the best part of a year. Usually competitions are over within a month (or less) so there isn’t much time to grow as a person and as a musician. I also really appreciate the effort that the BBC have put into making the competition child friendly – it could very easily have been a stressful, pressured and scary experience but it was fun, exciting and very interesting.
How have you managed to combine a busy performing schedule with schoolwork and exams? Has it been difficult to strike the right balance?
The most tricky time for balancing the two is right now, I have a lot to do cello-wise and am trying to finish my A levels this year. All things considered, though, I think the balance has been pretty good. I have very organised teachers who make sure I’m always on track.
You’re playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1 on tour in March. What attracts you to this piece and what are the biggest challenges it poses? Please tell us something about what it means to you?
This is the first time that I’m playing this piece, so I’m very excited to explore and get to know it well. I’m currently trying to memorise it – which I’m finding quite tricky! I love the power of the concerto, but the lyrical moments are stunning too.
Which musicians do you most enjoy listening to (cellists or others)?
I’m a great fan of Daniil Shafran, Jascha Heifetz, Emanuel Feuermann, Maria Callas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich and many more. I find it really hard to just choose a few.
What instrument do you play the moment, and where did you get it from? What qualities in it do you like?
I have just recently been lent a new cello by Louise and David Kaye (family friends and very distant relatives) – a 1906 Pedrazzini. I think it has a deeper, richer and earthier sound than my Archellaschi and I love playing on it.
What three or four pieces and/or composers would be at the top of your wish-list of repertoire?
There are so many wonderful pieces of music… There are a few particular pieces that I haven’t played yet but would love to: Schumann Cello Concerto, Brahms B major Piano Trio, Bach Suite No.6, and I can’t wait to play the Walton Cello Concerto again.
What do you find most difficult and most rewarding about being a musician?
The fact that your work is never completed – the journey never ends.
What are your plans for further study? And what concerts or other musical events are you most looking forward to doing in the next year or so?
I am hoping to go to St. John’s College, Cambridge in October 2016 to study music after a gap year hopefully filled with exciting trips abroad and lots of music courses – and maybe also recording my first CD…
Do you think classical music needs to be “saved”? If so, what would you do to save it?
I feel very passionately about including the arts more in early education, and all education. I feel that due to the importance that is put on the core subjects like maths, science, English etc., and the cuts in art funding, many children are being denied the opportunity to grow up surrounded by the arts. I personally believe – and Gallions Primary School in Newham/East London is the proof – that if you support the core subjects with music and art, or use the arts as a means of learning, then results improve and children are much happier. Music encourages self-confidence, teamwork, a good work ethic, patience, open-mindedness, and offers a safe and stable world to children who may not have the support they need at home. I feel that music has benefited me in so many ways, more than just my cello playing, and I wish that all people could be given the same opportunity.
Hear Laura play at the BAFTAs during the tribute to Richard Attenborough, earlier this month (her performance begins at about 00:55)
Laura is on tour in March around the UK, performing Shostakovich’s Cello concerto No.1.
Behind the Scenes
1. Did you grow up in a musical household?
My dad is very musical and plays the cello for fun- we have always had music on at home, classical and other genres too.
2. Could you tell us about your early cello training? What was it about this particular instrument that drew you to it?
I started learning the cello when I was 6, and was lucky enough to begin with a great cello teacher (Marina Logie) who lives 5 minutes walk away from us. I now think that the cello suits me, but at the beginning I just enjoyed it without much thought!
3. You achieved Grade 8 in both cello and piano by the age of 10 – can you remember what it was like juggling practice, school, and friends?
It wasn’t always easy, sometimes I wanted to be ‘normal’ like everyone else and to go to school full time, but whenever I could enjoy music with other people, I realised that all the sacrifices were worth it, and of course now looking back, I’m very glad that I spent my time the way I did.
4. One of your most notable achievements so far was winning the BBC Young Musician competition – what was that experience like and how did it feel to win?
During the whole competition I felt very motivated to improve my cello playing, I think competitions always add an extra ‘kick’. I really enjoyed meeting other young musicians and sharing thoughts about our lives and the BBCYM production team were lovely too! Winning was quite a shock, but of course, very exciting – since then I have had many wonderful experiences!
5. What are some of your performance highlights? Are there any memorable moments that stand out for you?
It’s very hard to name one highlight- a performance can be memorable in so many ways. There have been stunning venues, very kind and generous hosts, fun audiences, and fantastic musicians on many occasions, and sometimes even all of them together!
6. What can the Tewkesbury audience expect from your performance?
I would hope that the audience in Tewkesbury will have fun during my performance and that they will enjoy the programme as much as I do!
7. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I like to take a short nap about half an hour before the concert, eat a banana, warm up on the cello and chant an ancient Inca proverb backwards 50 times just before I walk on. You can guess which one of those aren’t true…
8. As a young musician who has already achieved so much, do you think music, and learning an instrument from a young age, is important?
Absolutely. I think I won’t be able to list all of the benefits here but I will try:
Learning how to learn step by step
Teamwork in chamber music/orchestra/choir
Having a whole world of colour and emotion literally at your fingertips
Being able to communicate and play with other people with whom you may not share a common language
Learning about different cultures through national musical styles
Connecting progress in the history of music with developments in politics, science, philosophy, technology, maths etc.
Knowing that you have something that will always be there when you need it: music.
9. What do you enjoy doing when not practising? How do you manage your time?
I love going for walks with my dog, talking to friends, listening to music (any genre), reading, watching movies, doing homework (not something I particularly enjoy but I do it anyway..), cooking and most other things that 17-year-olds enjoy doing! Time management is always tricky. I like making a plan of the day in the morning. That way I can make sure to get the most out of my day – although I always plan too much on purpose, because I know that I will manage to procrastinate enough to only complete about 60% of what I had originally planned.
10. Who are your musical inspirations/heroes?
I think that every musician can be inspiring in some way. I love listening to singers like Fritz Wunderlich, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Maria Callas and Dietrich Fischer-Diskau. As for instrumentalists my teacher Leonid Gorokhov is a great inspiriation, and so are Jascha Heifetz, Daniil Shafran and Yehudi Menuhin, only to name a few.
11. Could you tell us something about yourself that may surprise people?
I have 12 toes.
12. Is there anywhere you haven’t yet performed and would like to?
There are many places I haven’t performed yet but would like to! I would love to play abroad more, and I’d like to play in the Barbican.
13. What’s the best advice you’ve been given about performing?
I have been given lots of great advice about performing, mainly about how to deal with nerves. One very helpful point (and even though it may seem obvious, it is easy to forget) is that people come to concerts to enjoy themselves, not to judge and criticise, so why not just enjoy yourself too?
14. What would you say to encourage budding musicians who are striving for similar success to your own?
Support and organisation are very important, a good teacher is also vital, but most importantly you have to love what you do. It is not the easiest career choice, but I consider it to be soul nourishing and one of the most exhilarating and interesting worlds to be a part of.
Celliste treedt in voetsporen overgrootvader
TVGelderland – Laura van der Heijden, Dvorak Cello Concerto with Het Gelders Orkest, December 2013. Her great grandfather was Martin Spanjaard who conducted the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra (now Het Gelders Orkest) before he was sent to Auschwitz where he perished in 1942.
A Winner's Story
We caught up with the current holder of the title, cellist Laura van der Heijden, and asked her what the whole BBC Young Musician experience was like for her…
Here’s an easy one to start with .. describe the whole BBCYM experience in three words!
Am. Az. Ing!
Why did you enter?
Well mainly as a ‘why not’, and also as a slight test to see whether all the effort ‘Team van der Heijden’ were putting into me, was worth it. My aim was to get through the first round, my dream was to get to play Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘The Golden Cockerel’, which meant I would have to get to the category final.
Bearing in mind that there can only be one winner, what is there to gain for everyone else?
A competition gives very clear goals and it motivates me to be thorough and focused, and the whole process is very exciting! You get to meet new people, experience new situations, and focus wholly on music, which is fantastic.
How hard is the whole experience? Would you describe it as fun?
Of course, the competition had its challenges, many in fact, that I, and everyone supporting me had to face. But all the thrilling situations more than made up for it!
Did it require a lot of time? Was it difficult to fit it into your life?
The preparation for BBCYM required effort and commitment, lots of practising, many lessons with Leonid Gorokhov, Patricia Calnan and Alison Rhind – and many others too, performance practice, many rehearsals, lots of research about the music I played and countless other things! I am very lucky to have had so much support from so many people, and a wonderfully organised mum who managed to juggle everything to make it work. Schedules, schedules, schedules!
What was it like, dealing with TV cameras and interviews?
It was really interesting seeing how everything is done, it makes me look at other TV broadcasts in a very different way now. Of course it was all very exciting and, if I may say so, felt rather glamorous!
When you finished playing the Walton, were you happy with your performance? Did you think you had a chance of winning the competition?
After I finished the Walton I just felt incredible, I utterly enjoyed playing with the Northern Sinfonia and Kirill, they supported me, lifted me, and pushed me to another level! Another bonus was playing in the amazing hall at the Sage Gateshead. I didn’t really think about how I had actually played, even less whether I would win or not, I just really really enjoyed myself.
What was it like, that moment when you heard your name announced as the winner?
When I realised that my name was announced, I mainly felt shocked, it didn’t sink in for quite a while- perhaps it still hasn’t!
What was the atmosphere like amongst the competitors through the competition?
I felt the atmosphere was very supportive, encouraging and well wishing – mainly in the string final and in the semi-final – for the final we were all so busy with rehearsals and filming that we didn’t have much time for contact! I enjoyed the company of Juliette, Julia, Joel and Christian very much, I hope they felt mutually!
Do you feel that BBCYM changed you as a musician? How?
I think that BBCYM has changed my life, me as a musician and as a person. Immediately after the final I started to have new expectations of myself, I now am no longer content with playing that may be good for my age. To become the best musician I can be will of course take a lifetime and more.
What difference has it made to your career?
It has given me the most unbelievable start to my career!
How has winning BBCYM changed you as a person?
I have had to learn how to deal with situations I had never been in before, and I have had to decide what my priorities in life are. Taking part in the competition has encouraged me to become more confident and to take more risks.
What would you say to someone who couldn’t decide whether or not to enter BBCYM? Would you recommend it?
I think BBCYM was so well organised, everyone was so supportive and kind, it was such an exciting experience. I believe every young musician should give it a go, just the experience is worth it.
And what advice would you give to those who do enter BBCYM 2014?
Plan plan plan! Even if you think you won’t go far, plan the repertoire you would play in every round, and try to start learning it as soon as possible.
Laura will be back to perform at the BBC Young Musician 2014 Final on 18th May 2014.
Britain's Got Talent: Young Musician of the Year 2012
Throughout the preliminary rounds of BBC Young Musician 2012, the judges have stressed that the emphasis is on musicianship, on looking for that extra spark that makes every performance really special, but also on the importance of enjoying music. This was the one thing that really stood out at tonight’s final, as all three soloists really communicated their love of what they do to everyone in the hall.
They also treated us to a fascinating programme that balanced the unknown and the familiar, beginning with that much maligned and neglected instrument, the recorder. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, celebrating her 16th birthday, made a huge opening statement by playing an extended improvised introduction to Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. At this point, I have to declare an interest, being a recorder player myself, and hearing the magical sound of a solo recorder filling Hall One of the Sage is one I won’t forget, although in style her improvisation didn’t entirely fit with the Vivaldi that followed. Accompanied by a much reduced orchestra of just 3 violins, bassoon, double bass, cello and harpsichord, Charlotte managed the tricky job of achieving a good balance with the other instruments and gave a wonderfully vibrant performance. There were some nice changes of tempo in the first movement, the Largo was poised and elegant, and and the Finale’s fiendish fast passages – full of big leaps, where the recorder mimics the sound of a double-stopping violin – sparkled with excitement.
We were then taken back into the realm of the familiar by pianist Yuanfan Yang who played Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. This was an excellent choice for showcasing his range of dynamics and colour, and the audience loved it. From the dramatic crash of the opening chords, much of the piece was played with the youthful bravado that it deserves. Northern Sinfonia, under the direction of guest conductor Kirill Karabits, matched Yuanfan’s energy, and the last movement was particularly exciting, right from its clipped and rhythmic opening. As a whole, though, this movement could have improved if Yuanfan had just allowed it to cool off a little, to let in a touch more contrast. He did this beautifully in the slow movement, where the quiet passages were wistful and tender, before the passion built up again. Yuanfan looked and sounded particularly assured, as if he’d been playing major piano concerti in front of packed houses for years, and I’m sure we will see great things from him.
The overall winner of the competition, Laura van der Heijden, exhibited incredible musicianship and maturity from the moment of her first appearance in the category finals, and her thoughtful approach showed through even in her choice of concerto. Instead of playing one of the “big” famous cello pieces such as the Elgar or the Dvořák, she opted for William Walton’s relatively unknown concerto, and made it her own. Walton’s concerto reverses the expected form, consisting of two slower outer movements, and a virtuosic second movement. This fast movement glittered with colour from the woodwind, matched beautifully by the cello solo passages. The concerto opens with a gently swinging, seductive theme, and the lyrical passages sang out beautifully. The final movement (Lento – Tema ed improvvisazioni) contrasted poised beauty with an exciting cadenza, followed by bold orchestral flourishes, before dying away to almost nothing. The beauty of Laura van der Heijden’s playing lies in the fact that she has a wonderful expressivity, but never, ever overdoes it, and the pianissimo ending of the concerto was enchanting, ending with just the solo cello, captivating the audience, just as the solo recorder had done at the beginning of the concert.
While the judges made their decision, we were entertained with a very relaxed performance of the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto by last year’s winner Lara Melda. All three finalists are to be congratulated for their wonderful performances: in a weekend where a dog won a national talent competition, these three, and all the other category finalists, showed that Britain really has got plenty of talent. I have no doubt that they will all go on to have very exciting careers, and Charlotte Barbour-Condini will be a marvellous ambassador for the recorder – but in my mind there is no doubt that Laura van der Heijden is something quite special, and her title of BBC Young Musician 2012 is well deserved. Look out for her: she’s going to be a star.