Let’s jump straight in and talk a little about career development. When you’re a young artist in training, where many of your hours are spent refining your technique and doing exercises and working on precision, how do you begin to create your own musical personality; your own creative conscious?
I wouldn’t separate out the question of technique and precision from the creative and musical because, in my opinion, the two do have to work in a good relationship. If you do spend all of your time focussing on precision and technique though, for me at least, I find that that leads ultimately to some kind of dead end where the preoccupation is in the technical and you kind of lose sight of what it is you actually want and need to be doing… the joyful interpretation, living, and embodying of music. I mean, of course, there are certain things that need to be analysed and focused upon but at a certain point, I think it is necessary to let go of all that and trust that the precision will work. It is like The Inner Game of Tennis. As soon as one is focused on the right thing, it is amazing what can happen - both artistically and technically.
So how do you strike a balance while you’re developing?
For young musicians working through tertiary studies, the whole purpose, I would imagine, is this sort of glorious possibility of immersing yourself wholeheartedly in the practice. In a way, the greatest challenge always arrives once the formal training comes to an end - it is the question of how you make the transition away from an institution. I remember that period being very uncomfortable for me, and I think it is for a lot of people. Naturally, one has to start looking at what the options are and be aware of how the time you have goes by very quickly and then suddenly you’re out in the big world and the answer is that there are no concrete answers! I’m a great believer in being open to whatever opportunities come, and as part of that philosophy, I don’t think one can force things to happen that aren’t ready to happen. One does have to have a certain faith in the process and if your work has integrity, you have to believe that will lead you where you need to be, however serendipitous. That was certainly my experience - certain things came to me that I wasn’t necessarily looking for just because I was in a certain place doing what I was doing. I think one can waste a lot of energy worrying, not just at that point but honestly, at all points along the way. There are a number of times when I find myself worrying about a particular situation and a month later I realise what a complete waste of energy that was. It’s funny sometimes that when you have a certain fixed idea about what it is you are after and then it doesn’t work out, something else that you hadn’t thought of comes to you and you have to be open enough to read those signals. I think this is a good way of living generally, actually. You just read the signs and remain in an open-hearted place from which you can see, be and receive.
Did having an awareness and an openness to unexpected possibilities help you get through some of that discomfort moving from a tertiary institution into the “real world”?
Yes, I think it did. I think I was lucky, but then, of course, you could say that luck comes to you when you’re most ready to receive it. For me, the journey started off very gently by meeting certain people and by sitting next to certain players I was completely in awe of. I was always wanting to improve; I was less skillful at playing the game of career building, so I just worked on being a better player. The opportunities that I missed out on when I was in my early twenties I possibly was not ready for, but when I did start to receive things later I was in a much better place to accept them. I think it’s really a game of trial and error and one makes mistakes but the great thing is to be able to learn from every situation. To expect everything to work out perfectly… you have to just discard that because life doesn’t work out that way. It’s a process of learning and at a certain point once things are underway you can embrace certain teachings and discard others, but being able to take something away from all situations good and bad is a great gift to develop.
And I suppose the more that you try things and they don’t work out the better you get at climbing back on the horse. Has that had a major impact on what you’re doing now?
I absolutely think so, because every success or failure adds to a picture that builds gradually. This whole soloist/director part of my career is case in point - it began quite coincidentally about twelve years ago, through invitations from The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I had to figure things out relatively quickly! If you throw yourself into the opportunities though, your experiences start to fill in and your confidence grows. Working with the students at ANAM has been part of that development for me because working there has given me space and time to discover things and explore ideas. I mean, not many violinists have been able to direct four Beethoven symphonies and a violin concerto! It’s not just the students who are presented with great opportunities there, it is me too!
How much of your chamber music experience has been translated into the way you lead ensembles?
This is a very good question. I would say a considerable amount. I think chamber musicians have to develop a way of interacting and being able to encourage and give criticism to each other in a way that is not hostile but constructive. This involves a certain generosity and sensitivity, as well as a certain command of language; skills that you don’t necessarily learn in other musical situations. I suppose it gets a little more amplified when you have a lot of people in front of you, but nevertheless, the chamber music skills of listening and communicating are completely key. I think its one of the reasons I enjoy it so much because it combines different sets of skills; being the soloist, being the conductor, and being the colleague.
How do you prepare for that kind of role?
It is all about going to the score and trying the music with refreshed eyes and ears. It is amazing how you think you know a score, but then you go back to it and see many things that you missed. When we are talking about a musical masterpiece … well, that is rather exhilarating because you’re never “done” with the score.
And when you’re working with people who might be experiencing these masterpieces for the first time bring a new energy?
It certainly can. One of the requirements of being a good leader I think is having your own very clear interpretations but also leaving room for the surprising things that might come your way during the rehearsal process. Performing with other people is a two-way street that requires a very open dialogue. Of course, you can’t take on every single idea but you should always be open to incorporating or modifying if the opportunity arises.
You’ve mentioned quite a few of the skills, particularly those pertaining to communication, that are not always taught at school, and I wonder what you would like to see being developed in more young artists?
I have a great love of going back to the score like an actor would, to delve deeply into the “text”, if you will. So I would like to see a little more enthusiasm to do that kind of work, I suppose. It is very easy to be the kind of instrumentalist who gets a certain immediate gratification by picking up the instrument and reassuring oneself that it is all working fine and that’s enough, but I think that it is the people who are also fascinated by the material that bring the most to performance. Also, knowing how to speak to people is so important, both inside and out of the rehearsal room. I’ve seen conductors speak to orchestras in a way that is entirely inappropriate and they don’t get the result. One of the conductors that I have certainly very much admired is Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was just completely stunning in the way he used imagery to ignite the imagination of the players in front of him. So rather than him saying “this needs to be louder”, he would invoke some sort of fantastic imagery which would inspire the players to use their own imagination to produce the result. I don’t know if that’s something you can be taught, but I do think it’s incredibly important.
When you are out the front of the orchestra, performing as a soloist, do you bring those chamber skills to the way you communicate both forward to the audience and back to the orchestra?
We work on this so much - the mental switch between watching and listening. All of a sudden the players don’t have that visual impulse, so it is important to find other ways of using your body language to communicate backward. It is one of the many reasons I like the entire ensemble to stand - the signals are much more powerful that way. And that is a large part of our work; sharpening the chamber music reactions. My friend Steven Isserlis always says everything is chamber music and I couldn’t agree more. Whether it's a concerto, a symphony, a string quartet - it’s all about listening, its all about reacting, it’s all about connection, and that is the most profound truth.