Interview by Tim Janof
Widely regarded as one of the most creative musicians of his generation, Julian Lloyd Webber has collaborated with an extraordinary array of musicians, from Yehudi Menuhin, Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner, and Georg Solti to Stephane Grappelli, Elton John, and Cleo Laine.
Julian’s twenty-year partnership with Philips/Universal Classics has produced many outstanding recordings, including his Brit-Award winning Elgar Concerto, conducted by Yehudi Menuhin (chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine), the Dvorák Concerto with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the London Symphony under Maxim Shostakovich, and a coupling of Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Concerto with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which was described by Gramophone magazine as “beyond any rival.” Julian has also recorded several highly successful CD’s of short pieces for Universal Classics, including Made In England, Cello Moods, and Cradle Song: “It would be difficult to find better performances of this kind of repertoire anywhere on records of today or yesterday” – Gramophone.
Julian has given more than fifty works their premiere recordings and has inspired new compositions for cello from composers as diverse as Malcolm Arnold and Joaquin Rodrigo to James MacMillan and Philip Glass. Recent concert performances have included three further works composed for Julian: Michael Nyman’s Double Concerto for Cello and Saxophone on BBC Television, Gavin Bryars’ Concerto in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, and Philip Glass’s Concerto at the Beijing International Festival. Julian’s recording of the Glass concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz will be released on the Orange Mountain label in September 2004.
TJ: There is a picture of William Lloyd Webber on your website. Is that your father?
JLW: Yes. He started out as an organist and composer, but he virtually stopped composing when music took its modernist turn in the 1950’s. His music was very melodic and romantic, all the things that music in the 1950’s wasn’t, so he felt completely out of step with the times. He went into academia and became a professor at the Royal College of Music, and then he became the director of the London College of Music. At the very end of his life — he died in 1982 — he started writing again, and several recordings of his works have come out in the last few years.
TJ: Is your last name “Lloyd Webber,” or is there a tradition in your family of using the same middle and last names? Your brother, Andrew, also shares this.
JLW: My father’s middle name was Lloyd. He adopted it professionally to avoid confusion with another organist, William Webber. I guess the name has stuck!
TJ: Was your mother a musician?
JLW: Yes. She used to teach young children the piano, specializing in four- to six-year-olds.
TJ: I would imagine you were surrounded by music as a child?
JLW: Absolutely. Music accompanied my entire childhood. There was even a concert pianist, John Lill, who lived with us. Needless to say, my home was a noisy place to live.
TJ: Did you go through a series of instruments before choosing the cello?
JLW: My mother tried to start me on the piano when I was four years old, with her as my teacher, but as is often the case, studying with one’s own parent isn’t a great idea. I couldn’t stand it.
One day my mother took me to a children’s concert at Festival Hall in London and I saw a cello in the orchestra. I was fascinated by the look of it, and by the look of somebody playing it. It looked so natural, especially when compared with the violinists.
My mother immediately went out and brought home a 1/8-size cello and I took to it right away. I never felt like playing was a chore, it was more like a pleasurable hobby, and I practiced longer and longer as I became increasingly interested in playing.
When I was around 11, I started taping music off the radio that contained a solo cello. I’ve still got a bunch of those old reel-to-reel tapes, even though they probably don’t work anymore. It was through this process that I became interested in lesser known works. The pieces one heard on the radio were pretty much always the same — the Dvorak Concerto, the Haydn concerti, and so on, and I grew impatient hearing them over and over again.
Then Rostropovich came to England when I was 13 and my prayers were answered, since it was he who introduced the world to so much new repertoire. He gave nine concerts in a row, each night with different repertoire and I attended all of them. It was incredibly refreshing to hear new music, not to mention such a great cellist.
Rostropovich seemed to play the cello differently from everybody else. I had seen all the cellists that came through London, like Fournier and Tortelier, but Rostropovich stood out as someone very different. In the program notes for the concert series, Rostropovich said something like, “The cello in our time has become like a tribune, an orator.” And that’s how he seemed to play, as a true soloist, totally dominating the proceedings. He was such an incredibly communicative player, and he made each person in the audience feel as if he were playing just for him or her.
It was around this time that I switched to a great teacher, Douglas Cameron, who taught at the Royal Academy of Music and I ended up staying with him until I was 16 years old. He had taught an entire generation of fine cellists, including Keith Harvey. Cameron increased my love of the cello to the point that I decided that I wanted the cello to be much more than a hobby, I wanted to be a soloist.
Up to that point I hadn’t practiced with much focus. I had just played for fun. But now I had a goal, and I realized at age 13 that I had a huge amount of work to do. I started taking technique very seriously and I practiced even more.
When I was 17, I went to the Royal College of Music in London and studied with Joan Dickson for the next four years.
TJ: Was Joan Dickson a bit more dictatorial with you?
JLW: Yes, much more so than my other teachers, and we weren’t a good pairing because of this. I responded better to those who coaxed the best out of me, rather than telling me how I had to play, which is what she did. She told me exactly how I had to hold the bow, exactly how the fingers had to be placed, and so on. She was also very insistent when it came to interpretational matters.
I must admit that once I was away from her and I had a chance to think back on what she was trying to tell me, I realized that she had some great things to say. Although I didn’t appreciate her advice at the time, she did help to establish a good technical foundation for me; all those Feuillard and Cossmann drills were very helpful. I still regard Douglas Cameron and Pierre Fournier as my primary teachers, however.
TJ: How long did you study with Pierre Fournier?
JLW: I studied with him for about a year. I would travel back and forth between London and Geneva to have private lessons with him at his house. When I walked into his home for the first time, I heard him practicing the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony Concerto), which I don’t think he ever performed. I delayed going in so that I could listen to him for a few minutes. When I finally entered the room, he said “You know this piece is for Rostropovich. Do you think I should ever play it?” He was asking me, a young cellist at that time! Of course, I told him he should.
I think it’s fair to say that Fournier has never been thought of as a fantastic technician. It was his sound and his musicianship that were greatly admired. But he surprised me when I was studying the first Shostakovich Concerto with him. We got to that bit just before the end of the concerto, where there are all the lightning fast runs. One hardly hears when it’s played in concert because the orchestra is going strong at that point. I asked him what to do about that part, which some cellists choose to fake. Much to my surprise he demonstrated it and played every single note! I was quite amazed because I didn’t associate him with that sort of technique.
I also studied the Laló concerto with him. I thought it was one of the pieces he played best, so I was eager to work on it with him. He made a very interesting remark while we were working on the last movement. There are lots of places where there are numerous pianos and fortes marked in the score and I asked him if he followed all these directions. He said that he didn’t. “Some of these you have to disregard, just like in the Elgar concerto.” This took me aback at the time, but I ended up thinking he was right about the Laló, though I can’t say I agree about the Elgar Concerto. I believe that Elgar’s very detailed markings work.
Julian Lloyd Webber with Yehudi Menuhin conducting.
JLW: We worked on music. He wanted to go through a huge amount of music, which I found to be rather difficult. I remember doing in one week Tchaikovsky Rococo, Laló, Shostakovich 1, and the Beethoven G minor sonata. He didn’t want to hear things again and again; he wanted me to bring something new to each lesson. It wasn’t easy, but it was good practice.
TJ: Were there any general musical principles that kept coming up?
JLW: I think he was a very instinctive player. I don’t think he was someone who sat down and analyzed a piece of music very carefully. As an example, his Bach Suites would probably be considered very romantic these days, but they worked because he had such wonderful musical instincts.
For me, the greatest aspect of Fournier’s playing was his absolutely gorgeous sound. He could make that sound on pretty much any instrument. I remember him taking the awful cello I was using at the time and sounding incredibly beautiful. This has made me wonder at times why we all place so much emphasis on the quality of our instruments.
TJ: I’ve often heard that the idea is to first hear inside yourself the sound you want to create. Once you know what you want, then you try to reproduce it. This is how a great player is able to produce a gorgeous sound, even on a mediocre instrument.
JLW: That’s true, but there comes a point where there’s only so much one can get out of certain instruments. A lesser quality cello can be severely limiting.
TJ: What instrument do you use?
JLW: I play on the ‘Barjansky’ Stradivarius cello, which was previously owned by the Russian cellist, Alexandre Barjansky, who was the dedicatee of Schelomo and who gave its first performance. He also premiered the Delius Concerto. I believe his cello was purchased by an investment banker when he died, so I found it very difficult to discover its whereabouts, but it finally surfaced in an auction in London in 1983.
I’m very fortunate to have a Strad because these instruments are increasingly difficult to obtain. It was a huge relief to finally have a world class instrument, because until then I had played on some pretty awful instruments. I had been playing professionally for ten or eleven years at that point, so I was getting desperate. I had made quite a few recordings at that point and I was not at all happy with my sound. I had reached the point where my instrument was holding me back, so I was overjoyed to find a Strad.
TJ: You have a huge discography, and you’ve had a twenty-year relationship with Philips/Universal. How did you land that highly coveted contract? There aren’t too many artists who can claim to have had such an enduring relationship with a record company.
JLW: It didn’t happen overnight. I got a lucky break in 1973 when I had just graduated from college. I was asked to record something by a small label, Discourses. They were making a series of recordings about different instruments and one disc was going to be devoted to the cello. I recorded the Delius Sonata for this series, and it received positive reviews. That recording provided a springboard to quite a few concerts in the mid 1970’s.
I was then asked to do two recordings by another label, Lyrita, which specialized in British music. Yo-Yo Ma made his very first recording — the Finzi Concerto — with this label at around the same time. I recorded Frank Bridge’s Oration, which was its first recording. The entire recording was done in two sessions, including an overture. I had never played it, the orchestra had never played it, and the conductor had never done it, so the performance could have been better.
After recording a disc of modern British music with Decca, I made a CD with my brother, Andrew, called “Variations,” which was basically scored for cello and rock band. Andrew was in top form when he wrote it, and he was full of new ideas. The music still sounds fresh to this day. The recording was very successful in England, but I don’t think it did too well in America because it wasn’t well promoted.
At the same time I’d been asked by Enigma Classics, at that time a new label, to make a disc that I loathe more than any other I’ve made! It is called the “Romantic Cello,” and I advise no one to buy it! It was made in a freezing cold church in January, and I could hardly move my fingers. Unfortunately, one of the pieces I had to play was Popper’s Elfentanz, so you can well imagine that the performance was not my best work. I also hate the sound on it, because it was made with the worst cello that I had ever used during my career, and the engineering didn’t help. Unfortunately, I think the recording is still available.
I made a couple more discs for that label, one of which I don’t like, the Debussy and Rachmaninoff sonatas, basically because of the sound. The third disc I made for them was the first recording of Britten’s third Cello Suite, coupled with the John Ireland Sonata and an Elegie by Frank Bridge. This recording turned out much better. By that time I had learned more about the recording process and I was beginning to put my foot down because I was so unhappy with the previous two recordings. I got a bit more of my way in this one, and I think it still holds up pretty well.
After my time with Enigma Classics, I was signed by RCA in the early 1980’s to make three discs, which is where I’d say I got my major recording break. The first in the set was called ‘Serenade’ and is comprised of short pieces with orchestra. After that, I recorded the Rodrigo Concerto, which Rodrigo had written for me. I have a feeling that’s why RCA signed me, because they knew I had the Rodrigo Concerto and they knew their competition would be happy to record it if they didn’t. Then I made what I consider to be the best of the three CD’s for RCA, which was of the Delius Concerto, a work I’ve always adored. It also contains Invocation by Gustav Holst and a Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Sussex folk tunes, which had been written for Casals. The latter two pieces on that disc were their very first recordings.
After I made those three discs, RCA began to run into financial difficulties and that’s when I was signed by Philips in 1984 to make one disc, Travels with My Cello, which ended up selling very well, and I’ve been with them ever since.
After being with Philips for five or six years, they had begun to trust my choices of repertoire, so I was able to record lesser known works such as the Honegger Concerto on a French music disc and the Miaskowsky Concerto on a Russian music disc. I was fortunate to record some quite unusual concertos that I really loved. I’m not sure record companies are as daring as they once were, so it is going to be increasingly difficult to record that kind of repertoire.
TJ: One of the lingering questions about your career is how much influence your brother had in your success. It sounds like he didn’t have much to do with it.
JLW: Andrew and I have always followed our own paths. It is impossible to know what effect the Lloyd Webber name has had on my career. On the one hand the name is so well known, but on the other there are some people in classical music who don’t like his music, which hasn’t always been helpful. When, after waiting many years, I recorded a CD of his songs, it really stirred some people up! They immediately seemed to forget all my classical recordings, like the Dvorak Concerto, Rococo Variations, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar, the latter conducted by Menuhin, who had worked with Elgar himself. That Elgar recording was particularly well received by the critics and won some awards too. I now let other people worry about the so-called “Andrew connection.” I’ve followed my own path, as has he.
Andrew is my brother, so I’m not totally objective, but I truly believe that he has written some wonderful music and I’m proud to have recorded some of it.
TJ: Did you commission the Rodrigo Concerto?
JLW: Yes, and it cost me virtually nothing because he was so eager to write something for me. I had written to him about composing a cello work, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Much to my surprise, he wrote back saying that he was interested, and he wondered if I would be willing to go to Madrid to play for him. Of course, I quickly hopped on a plane, and I ended up playing lots of cello music for him, including some British pieces he’d never heard. He indicated that he would write something for me and I returned to London, excited to see what he would come up with. I didn’t have any contact with him until after he had composed the piece, at which point I returned and went through it with him. I believe the first performance was in London in April 1982, and we recorded it soon afterwards.
The Rodrigo Concerto is one of the most technically difficult concertos I’ve ever encountered. I tried to get him to make some modifications but he refused. As a result, there are some extremely awkward passages, but it’s worth the extra effort. It’s quite a nice piece and I hope more cellists play it. I believe Naxos recently recorded it, which would be the first time since my 1982 recording.
TJ: What was Rodrigo like as a person?
JLW: He was very old when I worked with him, probably in his early 80’s, and he was almost totally blind at the time. He couldn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish was pretty poor, so his wife served as our interpreter. It was fascinating to work with someone who reached way back into the roots of Spanish music for inspiration. I found him really pleasant to work with, but trying to get him to change even the tiniest thing was a lost cause.
TJ: Didn’t you also commission a piece by Malcolm Arnold?
JLW: Yes, he first wrote a solo cello piece for me, called “Fantasy.” I had heard his trumpet concerto in Albert Hall, which was the first piece he’d written for some time, and I thought it was very good, so I thought I’d ask if he would write a cello work. I’d always wanted him to write a solo cello piece because the standard solo repertoire is not huge, and I thought he could write something special, which he did. He was going through a very hard time personally when I approached him about writing something for me, and he had virtually stopped writing, but he agreed to do it. Amazingly, he wouldn’t accept a commission, saying, “If I want to do something, I do it,” which was very generous, given that he probably could have used the money.
Malcolm Arnold is one of those underrated composers who actually produced some remarkable works. He’s in his early 80’s now, so he doesn’t write too much these days. A two-part film was recently made about him, which will be released in September. I hope it reaches America because he has an extremely interesting story. He was an atonal composer who fell out of grace with the establishment and kept getting dreadful reviews, including some appalling reviews for really good works. The London Times critic said of his Fifth Symphony’s premiere that it was the “work of a creative mind in an advanced state of disintegration.” Today that symphony is considered to be one of his great pieces. He also had a host of personal struggles, but when he was in top form, he was a composer of genius.
I then asked him to write a cello concerto a few years later. Frankly, I didn’t think it was one of his better works, and I reluctantly premiered it in Festival Hall in London with the London Philharmonic. I was asked to record it, but I declined because I didn’t think the piece did him justice. I was also hesitant to have the sheet music published, but it has been and it’s available to those who want to try it.
It’s a shame that the piece isn’t better because I had planned on pairing it on a recording with the Walton Concerto. Walton and Arnold had been close friends, and Walton had greatly influenced Arnold, so I thought it would make a great disc. I ended up choosing the Britten Cello Symphony instead. I consider this disc, which is on the Philips label, to be one of my better recordings, actually. It’s unfortunate that the Arnold couldn’t be on it too.
Julian Lloyd Webber with Philip Glass
JLW: No, I didn’t commission that one. I had attended a Philip Glass Ensemble concert, and I went backstage afterwards and asked if he would be interested in writing a cello piece for me. He knew my playing because I had recorded a piece by his friend, Gavin Bryars, and he indicated that he would be willing to compose something. We left it at that, with no firm plans.
A couple of months later, in 1999, I played a couple of concertos at the Beijing Festival. I was rather surprised to notice Mischa Maisky in the audience at one of the concerts. One might expect that sort of thing to occur in New York, but certainly not Beijing. Anyway, the concerts were sponsored by a Chinese mobile phone network, Xin de Telecom. Their managing director is an American, William Kreuger. After the second concert, Kreuger asked me if I would be interested in coming back in a couple of years to play with the China Philharmonic, which was a new orchestra, and if I would be willing to bring a new concerto. I said I’d be interested, and he asked who I thought could write a new piece. I told him I had recently spoken with Philip Glass and that he might be willing. Being an American, Kreuger was very familiar with Philip Glass and was thrilled at the thought. Originally, Xin de Telecom was going to commission the work, but Kreuger ended up commissioning it himself and I premiered it in Beijing in 2001. I played it at another concert six months later in New Zealand, but I didn’t play it again until my recent recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Gerard Schwarz. The recording will be released in late September.
TJ: Did you have any input into what Philip Glass wrote?
JLW: Not really. What typically happens when I work with composers is that I listen to their other works and I let them know which parts I like and don’t like. This gives them an idea of what I’m looking for. I don’t think there’s much more to be done by the performer after that. It’s important to just let the composer write what he or she wants. Once the piece is written, I may make some suggestions in terms of playability, but that’s about it.
In the case of Philip Glass, I knew some of his older music, like his film scores and some of the music he had written for the Kronos Quartet, but I didn’t know his more recent works, so I went out and got a bunch of his CD’s and thoroughly enjoyed what I heard. I decided that if he was going to write music that good, my job would be easy. I felt totally comfortable in telling him to just write whatever came to him. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.
I did have some input into the work after he sent me the first movement, however. He had written much of the piece in the cello’s lower registers. This isn’t a problem in the beginning because the orchestra is very lightly scored. But it becomes troublesome later when the solo cello has to contend with a loud and thick accompaniment. To remedy this, I suggested that the solo cello play one or two octaves higher in some places. This surprised him because he had no idea that the cello could play that high.
TJ: I noticed that much of the piece still has the cellist play in the middle register. Does it project well in a concert hall?
JLW: Yes, it does, since it’s not always thickly orchestrated. But there are places where the cellist is not intended to be the focus, like towards the end of the piece, where it’s sort of a free-for-all. It’s like in the Britten Cello Symphony when the orchestra takes over until just before the very end, and then the cello re-emerges.
TJ: How was Glass to work with?
JLW: He was a perfectly lovely collaborator, totally without ego. If I made a suggestion, he would consider it and give me a gentle ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
TJ: How would you rate the piece in terms of technical difficulty?
JLW: There are some very difficult moments. Oddly enough, the opening, although in a very low register, is difficult because there are long periods of fortissimo with lots of left hand extensions. Playing full blast for four or five minutes requires a tremendous amount of stamina. I also made the piece a little harder by adding octaves and other virtuoso effects.
TJ: There seems to be a rock-n-roll influence in the piece, at least in the first movement.
JLW: Perhaps, but I try to resist the common impulse to categorize everything. In the end, it’s either good or it’s not. Different people can hear different things in the same piece.
Contemporary music draws from many sources these days. Our increased awareness of ethnic music, for example, has resulted in new ingredients being used in contemporary music. You hear a rock influence, while others might hear a film score.
TJ: Actually, I was thinking that too.
JLW: That doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed in the concert hall. The piece stands on its own very well.
TJ: I noticed his use of castanets and maracas, so he certainly seems to be mixing in some ethnic influences.
JLW: Philip has been working with ethnic musicians lately. He recently wrote a piece that incorporates instruments from various countries, so he’s certainly exploring how he can use World Music in his own compositions. He did ask me if he should incorporate some Chinese influences in the piece, given that it was going to premiered in China. I suggested that he not, and that he just write a cello concerto.
TJ: Did he mention having any story or imagery in mind when he wrote the cello concerto?
JLW: No, not at all.
TJ: How would you summarize what your career about been about? What have you been striving for?
JLW: I have always loved the cello and I have always wanted to bring it to as many people as possible in the best way I can.