Hello Rachel! Firstly, congratulations on your win at the BBC Music Magazine Awards. We’re really looking forward to your performance at our Summer Festival this year. Could you tell us a little bit about your programme – why Vivaldi and Bach?
Vivaldi’s 12 concertos entitled L’estro Armonico (‘l’estro’ meaning imagination or innovation, ‘armonico’ meaning harmony)and published in 1711 were considered by Bach as ‘admirable compositions’ according to Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. He goes on to say in this biography (published in 1802) that they were an indispensable guide to Bach who transcribed 6 of them around 1714 when he was in Weimar. Vivaldi had broken new ground with these concertos, showing off his creative genius at its best. It is a collection of some of the most lively, effervescent and freely styled compositions. The recently established strict ritornello form doesn’t hold him back, in fact the restrictions of the structure seem to encourage him to be inventive, and when he does break out of the form, it’s all the more effective.
In contrast to this, Bach’s Contrapuncti from his Art of Fugue adhere to a strict ‘academic’ structure: complex counterpoint weaves up to four different fugal themes fitting in with each other at the same time, forwards and backwards. The ability to do this requires not just knowledge of complicated mathematical and architectural structures combined with an extreme talent; it takes a genius to make it sound beautiful and conclusive, the effect of which is extremely moving.
You founded Brecon Baroque in 2007 – what do you enjoy most about having your own ensemble?
Brecon Baroque is getting busier by the year; a wonderful development in itself, but also interesting to see how the group is changing and gelling together more and more with each project we undertake. All our players, who are already extremely busy with their own various chamber music and soloist roles, bring different qualities to the whole; it’s an engaging dynamic group which never stands still and makes the music making exciting and always varied, and I love this about Brecon Baroque.
What inspired you to pick up the violin? Were there any experiences you had growing up that made you think ‘That’s my instrument’?
I remember dancing around the living room to Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring from his Cantata BWV 147, when I could just about walk and loving the flow and peaceful sensation I had – one of my earliest memories! Apparently I was always keen and alert whenever a violin played on the radio or in live concerts I was taken to, and I asked my mother whether I could play it when I was 3 after being impressed by a group of little Japanese children playing their Suzuki tunes on Blue Peter. I finally started playing at the age of 5 along with my brother Julian and my mother too – what I loved most was playing rounds together and making up bits in between, so not much has changed really!
What’s the most challenging piece of music you’ve played and why?
It’s hard to say as there are so many different types of challenges; technical, mental and musical. When all three levels are challenged at the same time it’s tricky; this happens in most solo Bach movements, but probably the most challenging being the C major Fugue from the third solo Sonata. The trickiest thing here is to shape the long phrases of the fugal theme whilst playing 4 note chords and bring out the varying voice leadings at the same time. Playing Lawes 6 part Consorts was hugely challenging in a different way; a lot of it sounded consistently ‘wrong’, and playing off the manuscript without barlines didn’t help any sense of security I might have had, but I learned to count and play with conviction during that experience!
Playing modern music without being able to rely on your ears has always challenged me and I remember staring at my copy of the music during a session at college where you try out a composer’s latest piece wondering what to do next. Every piece has its own challenges, and if there isn’t one I most probably make up my own as I thrive on a challenge!
In addition to touring with orchestras across the world, you founded the Mozart Music Fund – tell us about the fund and why it’s important to you.
My family (partner and 2 girls) live in Brecon (hence the name of the group) which is in the county of Powys in Wales. There is no music service in this county, so a self-governed organisation called South Powys Youth Music was set up in 1993. It’s a thriving organisation with weekly meetings of all sorts of music groups for children aged 7 to 18 (choir, percussion, string groups of all abilities, wind band and youth orchestra). Tim Cronin (my partner) is the director of SPYM, conducts the Youth Orchestra, and teaches violin and viola in the area. A number of years back I remember Tim coming home after a day’s teaching and telling me that a few of his pupils had been forced to give up because the school could no longer afford to subsidise their lessons and the financially challenged parents couldn’t afford the tuition costs. I was outraged and had the idea, there and then, of starting a fund to help the children of these families. The situation felt completely unfair and I felt I couldn’t sit back and watch talented children giving up playing their chosen instrument due to the lack of financial support from the county council.
We therefore set up the fund in 2006 and called it the Mozart Music Fund. I do a number of concerts a year in Brecon in aid of the fund and invite colleagues and students to do the same. With the proceeds from these concerts, and a few very generous private donations, we have been able to help dozens of children to continue with their instrumental lessons. Dedication and commitment to practising are taken for granted!