“At the moment I am obsessed with Beethoven…” – interview with cellist Clare O’Connell

Ahead of her concert with pianist Viv McLean at Café Yukari, near to Kew Gardens, on 28th April, we caught up with cellist Clare O’Connell to find out more about her musical life, her influences, and what provides inspiration for her offstage…..

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have always loved music. Singing and playing the piano and the cello as a child was part of how I defined myself, and the community of people I met and loved playing in my county youth orchestras and playing chamber music made me realise that I wanted to pursue a life dedicated to expressing myself through music.

My teacher Alexander Kok’s passion for seeking truth in music was a major influence on me, but the musicians who have influenced me the most are those I have worked closely with over the years – my great friends and collaborators who by their brilliance, imagination and bravery inspired me to challenge myself.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge of my career has been in learning to understand myself and combat tension, fear and self sabotage.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of my ‘Isolated Cellist’ album  which I made during the lockdown in 2020. All the pieces are my arrangements, except one stunning piece by Alex Mills, which I’ll be performing a few times over the summer.


Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

Those that I love with a passion. You have to love and believe in what you perform, I think.

At the moment I am obsessed with Beethoven, and the works of Edmund Finnis which are stunningly spare and yet express so much.

I’ve also just commissioned a new piece from the wonderful composer Nick Martin, which I’m COMPLETELY in love with. It’s called ‘Vocalise’, and builds a simple Ukrainian folk tune into a mass of incredibly moving cello lines piled up on top of each other.

Commissioning and celebrating the work of living composers is so important.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I read a lot and talk to my colleagues. It’s important to me to have a real connection with the people I play with. I love visiting art galleries and I’ve started making an effort to go to concerts again – the last one I went to, the latest in Freya Waley Cohen and William Marsey’s amazing Listenpony series, introduced me to some extraordinary new music.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I like to choose whatever it is I feel most passionate about, whatever is inspiring me, and what feels relevant. I also like to mix it up and keep it as stimulating, refreshing and varied as possible.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite audience to play to is the one I built up in Berkhamsted where I live – my Behind the Mirror series audience. They are so loyal and such lovely people. It feels like a community.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I feel that we need to work on getting our potential audience to trust us more, and then to keep them guessing and surprising them with new music, new juxtapositions  and  provoking thought with idea led programmes.

I want audiences to feel excited at the prospect of going to concerts where they might not quite know what will happen next, or how a piece might be presented.

We need to be really imaginative and then to back that up with beautifully executed  and passionately committed performances.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

 One of the most memorable concert s for me was Chroma’s debut performance at the Purcell Room back in 2000 – it was my first recital in that space playing with musicians I really looked up to. I was extra nervous but somehow managed to lose myself in the music and play to a level I could only achieve by jumping off a cliff. I remember how it felt vividly.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It is very difficult to be a musician these days. So many compromises need to be made, and the odds are stacked against us at the moment with Brexit  making travel so difficult and streaming limiting our ability to make money out of our recordings.

I think if you are able as a musician to sustain yourself and live a happy balanced life doing the work that feeds you to the best of your ability without having to compromise your vision, then you are on the road to achieving success.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Research! Read and learn as much as you can around your musical projects and ideas.

Find out what you want and go for it.

Don’t stop questioning, practising aspiring – try not to get too comfortable!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I think the music industry has so much covered these days diversity, inclusivity and so many new groups and organisations to promote marginalised musicians – we are looking at it all the time on social media.

I think the constant need to be seen being BUSY needs to be addressed. And the way that that consumes time which we could be devoting to our creativity. The fact that it is demanded of us by funding bodies is particularly damaging because it puts the focus in the wrong place. On pleasing our audience to get more likes, rather than creating something deep and new and challenging for the sake of it alone.

I also wonder if this incessant awareness of what everyone else is doing is actually stifling variety in our creative output.

We need space away from the noise to feed our inner creativity.

What is your most treasured possession?

My imagination

Beethoven at Café Yukari with Clare O’Connell & Viv McLean, Thursday 28th April at 8.30pm.

More information / tickets

Clare O’Connell

Meet the Artist – Mei-Ting Sun, pianist

Mei-Ting returns to The OSO in Barnes on 24 June, to wow audiences once again with a generous programme of music by Scriabin, Schumann, Hindemith & Brahms. He is joined in the second half by Michelle Chow.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I started piano when I was three, so the question wasn’t so much who inspired me to take it up but rather who started me on it, and the answer to that would be my parents. I always liked music – I remember marching on the bed when I was 2 or something to the march from Aida – so my parents thought it would be an interesting experiment to have a young child sit at the piano for hours. In terms of a career, it wasn’t anything other than music itself that inspired me. I decided at the age of 16 that I could not live without music in my life every day, and playing music made my happy.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There have been many, since different influences played important parts during different periods of my life. The most important influences during my formative years must have been my professor at the time, Dr. Edward Aldwell, who really taught me everything I know about how to study music among other things, and going to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for 13-15 performances every year from when I was 14 to 18.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The ups and downs of a career in music can be extremely challenging, mentally, physically, and financially. Finding a balance not to be too high or too down, and to focus on what I love to do without always having an end meant creating projects for myself, which turned out to be a major source of entertainment. One of the biggest challenges was to learn, perform, and record the complete works of Chopin published during his lifetime, and that is also the series of performances and recordings that I am most proud of.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

This is a most difficult question for me to answer! Of course I feel affinity towards certain composers and works, but I think one of the challenges for me is to get into the minds of every composer I want to play, and to truly – as much as I personally believe I can – understand the works I perform. When that happens, that work will be one that I feel I play best.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

This is a most easy question. I do that by thinking, what haven’t I played recently and what can make my life richer, more diverse, and more interesting?

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I can’t say that I do. I like all kinds of venues, ranging from the biggest halls to the smallest salons, but I would perform different kinds of repertoire in each. Acoustically, my favorite is the Auditorio of Zaragoza.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are too many, so I’ll just list a few of the dead pianists: Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking, Myra Hess, Artur Schnabel, Clara Haskil, Sergei Rachmaninoff, William Kapell.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A recital in Lazienki Park in Warsaw. I ended the recital with the Heroic Polonaise of Chopin, and an older gentleman wobbled to the stage, and told me about how he used to be a soldier, took part in the Warsaw Uprising, and how they played a record of the Heroic Polonaise during the uprising. Then he said, “when you played the Polonaise, it reminded me of the Uprising,” with tears flowing down his cheeks.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To love music, to share music, and to share that love of music with as many people as possible.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Work hard, and enjoy working hard. If you can’t enjoy working hard, then there’s no point in working hard, and no point in working in music. That being said, one must also enjoy life and work hard at it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness would involve too many things that’s not under my control, such as world peace, so perhaps a smaller and more achievable definition would be in order here. A moment of perfect happiness: sitting in a quiet bar with good company, a glass of Bruichladdich 40 in hand, 45 minutes after a perfectly satisfying performance of something by Bach or Schumann.

Critically acclaimed pianist Mei-Ting has been heard in many of the world’s greatest concert halls performing an extensive repertoire that includes the complete works for solo piano of Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy, in addition to all 32 Sonatas of Beethoven.

After winning several major competitions, including the first Piano-e competition and the National Chopin Competition of the US, Mei-Ting’s career has taken him throughout most of the US, Latin America, Asia, and Europe, at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, Auditorio Nacional in Madrid, Tonhalle in Zurich, and Obecni Dum in Prague.

He has collaborated with many major orchestras, including the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, the Prague Philharmonia, Orquesta Nacional de España, the Warsaw Philharmonic, and the National Symphony of Mexico, working with eminent conductors including Stanisław Skrowaczewski, Antoni Wit, Jakub Hrůša, Michał Nesterowicz, Lü Jia, Antoni Ros-Marbà and Pablo González.

While performing the complete works of other composers, Mei-Ting transcribed and arranged several orchestral and operatic works, expanding the technical and tonal possibilities of the modern piano. This project, which encompasses selections from R. Strauss’s Rosenkavalier and Salome, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite from 1919, and a brand new transcription of Ravel’s La valse, has already garnered rave reviews around the world.

Mei-Ting is a Yamaha artist. He is represented by Ibermusica in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, and Caecilia Artist Management Agency in worldwide.


Interview with Niklas Walentin, violinist

Ahead of his appearance with the Walentin Trio at Craxton Studios on 16 March, violinist Niklas Walentin talks about his influences and inspirations, significant teachers, repertoire, performing and more……

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin and pursue a career in
I was first introduced to the violin and classical music “live” when attending a chamber music concert in Germany at the age of 6. The programme included, among other pieces, the famous C major string quintet by Franz Schubert. It had an immense impact on me, and I startet leaning the violin later the same year. At the age of 10, and not having found much interest in school, I decided to stay in the world of music into which I had been so luckily invited. At the same time, I had already been participating successfully in many competitions and masterclasses, so that taking the decision of becoming the best violinist I could possibly become, was not so far away.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The number of people and their endless support it has taken makes up a list longer than one could possibly imagine. I know of very few careers where from childhood, one is in the need of such strong and continuous support. But naturally, every member of my family is the initial answer. Then, my teacher and mentor, Søren Elbæk, who both as a violinist and musician has inspired me tremendously, but also his personality and as a human being has been a great support through my youth.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It is difficult question to answer, as there are so many different things I have encountered at different times in my career. But looking back, I would say the most challenging thing has been to accept how the world of classical music works as a business. Even though it sounds quite harsh, and in some way ruins the romantic image of this wonderful world filled with so much incredible music, musicians, composers and so forth all need to make a living. To me, having slowly experienced how all that works, and to accept in some situations, that even though one has done ‘the job’ exactly as intended to highest standards, and all the work it takes around building up a career has been done, still sometimes, doors just simply won’t open. And that has been quite a challenge.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The perfect answer would and should of course in many ways be them all. Yet there are some I am particularly happy about. One of them was by debut concert in Carnegie Hall two years ago: it was a childhood dream come true, and a truly magical evening. I was at the time releasing my second album with four grand works for violin by Carl Nielsens, and even though my fourth album is on its way with my piano trio, I am still very proud of the recording of Carl Nielsen.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I have spent a lot of time with Carl Nielsen and his music. He is definitely a composer woth whom I have strongly identified. I have a passion for playing solo violin, and have many plans of doing much more in the future. But next to my solo career, I have a very busy ensemble with my piano trio, Trio Vitruvi, and this spring I will return to Carnegie Hall together with my colleagues. We will be releasing our first album together, with the second piano trio by Schubert, and his music; being some of the first classical music I ever experienced, it has a very dear place in my heart.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It is far from easy to choose, and a lot of the time, other circumstances do the choosing for me. But when I have my hands totally free, I choose pieces I simply can’t help but play. There comes an incredible and very naturally overflow of passion when performing pieces that you simply must play, and this is something that I feel always transmits to the audience very positively.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall is unique. But I have to admit that I have fallen equally in love with Wigmore Hall. Also, the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg is to me, when performing violin concertos, a gem!
Who are your favourite musicians?
I would say the violinist Henryk Szeryng has had a very big influence on my playing. But my chamber music professor, founding member of the Alban Berg quartet, Hatto Beyerle, is a musician to whom I very much look up. Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen is also very high on the list!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Lately it was when I was at the Verbier Festival, I had a free evening to attend a concert with Ana Chumachenko, who together with friends performed Schubert’s String Quintet in C. I had not heard the work for many years, and I was in tears more or less throughout the piece.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To remain yourself throughout your career and not to be confused by the many who want their influence to show through your character and way of playing. I have had many faces in my life, where I have been torn between two parties, and their way to do things would be the best. But when I finally learned to take the final decisions myself, a true sense of freedom followed.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
One thing which can be difficult to impart is the experience of the life itself as a musician. How to overcome issues of not undestanding why things don’t come your way when you work hard, or to restrain the pressure of nerves when performing at a high level. So much time is spent on learning how to play the instrument and the pieces, but I find advice for when you are actually out there on your own, and you need to show your very best to an unfamiliar audience that demands the highest level of quality, is rarely given enough.

Niklas Walentin performs with Alena Walentin (flute) and Viv McLean (piano) at Craxton Studios, Hampstead on Friday 16 March in a programme featuring Franck’s Sonata in A for violin and piano. Further details and tickets here