Anthony Marwood interview - the long version

by Guy Somerset / 21 September, 2012
"I find it really exhilarating to play a new work."

Anthony Marwood is a brilliant violinist - the Royal Philharmonic Society’s ‘Instrumentalist of the year’ in 2006 - but he is relaxed and easy to talk to, never the celebrity star he easily could be if he wished, a genuine music-loving violinist who likes making music in all its genres. I had met him face to face when he was in New Zealand performing Ross Harris’s Violin Concerto in 2010, but in this phone conversation we started by talking about Pēteris Vasks’s violin concerto Distant Light, which he will be playing with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and then with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been listening to the CD of your performance – it’s certainly an approachable piece, and yet I expect very few people in the audience will know of Vasks. How, in your experience, do audiences react to it?  It’s a remarkable piece, isn’t it? And somehow even more so experienced live; it has a real emotional punch to it. Of its type, I think it’s a masterpiece; in his own language, he doesn’t compromise at all, and as you say it’s an incredibly approachable piece. In concert, I’ve found that people very often react in an incredibly forceful and emotional way – he doesn’t talk down to you in any sense but there’s something about the architecture of the piece that he gets exactly right. He takes you on some sort of lifetime in 30 minutes, and the resolution that it finds at the end, it’s hard fought, hard won, it’s in-cred-ibly touching. [Marwood draws that word "incredibly’"out to about three times its normal length.] So, yes, it’s a very powerfully achieved masterpiece, I think. 

Do you think the fact it’s scored for strings only helps to focus one’s attention on the musical content rather than on any distractions, such as colouring in the orchestration. Right, right, yeah! That’s true, it’s very specific in that way.

And I suppose it’s because it’s for strings only that you often direct the performance as well as being the soloist – will you be doing that in the New Zealand performances? In New Zealand, both performances are actually conducted – which is unusual for me - but that’s fine, too, I can go back to how I originally performed the piece.

I’m wondering if you know Christopher Seaman, who will be conducting in Auckland? [At this point, there’s a change in the sound of his voice. I can visualise him smiling into the phone smiling as he talks; the words he wants to emphasise are drawn out into separate syllables: "extraordinary" lasts twice as long as you would expect, "very’"and "really" are often repeated.]  Well, you know, it’s wonderful because when I was a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra [of Britain] he came to conduct, more than once, I think, and I have very, very wonderful memories of watching him and his extraordinary musicianship, and I’m really looking forward to working with him again. I remember as kids how incredibly impressed we were by him – and kids aren’t easily impressed, but we really, really were, and I haven’t worked with him or seen him since.

Orchestra managements in New Zealand have just been told that they should cooperate more over the use of visiting artists, as well as being aware of who is touring Australia. But I see that after you leave New Zealand, where you give two performances with different orchestras, you will be touring Australia, and will be performing the Vasks concerto there as well. Clearly, this is already happening, and I presume it makes sense from the artist’s point of view as well? Certainly from a visitor’s point of view it does make a lot of sense to tie things together a bit more, but you have to remember that there are some wonderful soloists who can’t necessarily do that, who can’t be away for as long as I’m going to be on this trip. I’ll be away for two months and that’s not always possible. As it happens, for me this trip works really, really well. After my visit to New Zealand, I’ll be in Australia for about six weeks doing a directing project at the Australian National Academy of Music [in Melbourne], which will include directing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which will be quite something – I’ve directed the First Symphony before but I haven’t directed beyond that yet. And then I’m doing a big recital tour for Musica Viva with [pianist] Aleksandar Madžar and that concludes with a coming together of those two projects at the Huntington Festival, Sasha [Madžar] will be there and so will some of the musicians from ANAM as well. It’s very nice, a quite gigantic project overall. The first thing that happened with this tour was the invitation from Musica Viva [in Australia], who run the Huntington Festival. And then my trip to New Zealand [came about as] I have a wonderful benefactor who lives outside Christchurch and ...

That ‘benefactor’ I take it is Christopher Marshall, who commissioned the Ross Harris concerto for you? Yes, indeed, Christopher Marshall! He’s really quite an extraordinary man, his life’s work seems to be helping and facilitating musicians. He was the main mover, really, in the purchase of my wonderful violin. So when I come to Christchurch at any point, it’s a very special event. I think that at some point Christopher mentioned to the [Christchurch Symphony] orchestra that I might be in the area and they were very keen to book me. And somehow, for me to play the Vasks, of all pieces, for Christchurch after everything that has happened to that city - I’m probably more aware than many people over here what they’ve been going through because of my friendship with Christopher and his family. It’s one of those things where you get to hear about the initial disturbance and trauma and then it’s quietly forgotten over in this part of the world because other things are happening in other places. I realise that it’s very, very traumatic and ongoing – so to go and play in that environment – for me that is a very special visit which I am looking forward to because I can barely begin to imagine what people have been through. Then when my agent mentioned the interest from Auckland ... They very nearly played the Ross Harris Violin Concerto as well but the dates didn’t work out because they were too far apart.

Are there any plans for you to record that? Well, yes, I’m very keen to record it. But, it sounds boring I know, but it’s down to money in the end! I would like to record it, the conductor would like to record it, the composer would love to have it recorded, but it’s not happening this time and in a way that’s not a bad thing, as I was a little bit worried about doing a big recording in the middle of a [touring] schedule  - it’s very, very intense for quite a long time. But I’m coming to Australia again next year, I’m coming in 2014, and I’m coming in 2015 as well, so that gives us a lot of opportunities to do it. I’ve been in touch with Tecwyn Evans, who conducted the premiere, and I very much want him to conduct the recording and he really wants to do it as well. There are enough people who want this to happen so I really, really hope that it will translate into reality.

Can you fill in the background to the commissioning of Harris’s concerto? Yes, indeed. The concerto was Christopher Marshall’s idea. He sent me Ross’s Second Symphony and said, "I hear a violin concerto in this, what do you think?" And I readily agreed, it was very easy for me to say, "Yes, let’s go for it." But having said that, when you approach a new piece you have to amass information from other works [by the composer], or other routes into the composer’s language to assist with the "decoding" of the music. That you have to do for yourself, and it’s a process I enjoy very much.

I can see that from looking at your repertoire and the works you have recorded and commissioned like Thomas Ades, Kurt Weill, Stravinsky and so on. Clearly, you are not the sort of soloist who tours the world playing just the Beethoven. No, no. And yet I love the Beethoven and that part of the repertoire; all these great works in the standard repertoire were frightening new things once, that shocked people quite often, and now they are much loved older friends. But I don’t feel there’s any sense in my playing them; whereas playing new repertoire that I can believe in feels like a very important part of what I do. I find it really exhilarating to play a new work.

In particular, I see you have just recorded the Britten concerto, a wonderful, yet strangely little known work? Oh, I love that piece so deeply, I’m glad that it sounds like you do, too. For a long time, it was really rather sidelined but not so much any more; it’s been recorded a few times now, and certainly deserves to be better known.   

There’s surprisingly little on your web page about your growing up and who you studied with. Yes, that’s true, isn’t it? I am a Londoner, I was born in London. I’m the youngest of four and we all became professional musicians even though our parents were not musicians. As a youngster, I don’t even remember music not happening. It was always there, in a way I just took it for granted. Naturally, I just wanted to play as well. Where we grew up [in Chelmsford], it was just a very fortunate kind of musical community. At school [King Edward VI Grammar School] just inspiring, interesting, enlightened teachers – a lot of young people playing music. Without knowing very much about the profession, I was just keen to do this crazy thing. When you are young, and then a teenager, and you enjoy playing and have a gift, you have no real idea about how the profession works. In a way, I think, we were at an advantage because when you have professional musicians as parents they know too much about the profession and they almost discourage their children; they know too well what the pitfalls are. My dad was a bit more cautious but my mum was very supportive. But it worked out fine. [Marwood went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Emanuel Hurwitz.]

Can I come back to Christopher Marshall and your "wonderful violin", the 1736 Carlo Bergonzi? You will be playing it here? That’s correct. He’s the major investor, he was just so proactive in that whole very complicated process; finding a great instrument, finding the right one for the player, finding the right one for the investors, getting other people involved. He was just so proactive at every point, while I, myself, did remarkably little. And it’s really wonderful that he and his family have become such good friends and such an important part of my life as well.

How did you come to meet him? I met him on an airplane. It’s really quite extraordinary how some of the most important things in life seem to come by complete chance. And this was such an occasion. I was on a flight to Los Angeles and he’d seen me put a violin case in the overhead bin and he asked if I was going to play in Los Angeles and I said I was actually on my way to New Zealand – this was quite a few years ago - to play in a concert tour with my trio [the Florestan Trio]. He said, "What’s the name of your trio?" and he asked if we were giving a concert in Christchurch where he lived. So when we finally got to Christchurch there he was. Hanging out afterwards, we had a talk, then three years later [in 2001], when I was back, again with the trio, on that occasion he was very, very interested in the violin I was playing then, which belonged to my teacher, a beautiful Amati violin. He said, "If you ever get a chance to buy that violin I’d like to help you buy it."  As things were, that instrument wasn’t going to come up for sale, so when I got back I wrote to him very boldly, and I said, "Thank you so, so much" and told him about the situation with the Amati, and I asked if he was only interested in that instrument or was he interested in helping me? And he liked that direct approach and said, "I’m interested in helping you." Then started a very, very long convoluted process – one day I will publish my five-volume novel about it, which will then be turned into a wonderful film. It was an amazing adventure and there were amazing people along the way, both good and not so good. But at the end there was a very beautiful outcome to the story.

PATRIOTS, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with Anthony Marwood, conducted by Christopher Seaman, Auckland Town Hall, October 4; REVOLUTION, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra with Anthony Marwood, conducted by Tom Woods, Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Wigram, Christchurch, October 13.  
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