November 26, 2014

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Natalie Clein

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Natalie Clein
Whether it is playing a four-note warm-up exercise, demonstrating a phrase, or playing a concerto, cellist Natalie Clein plays every note with an infectious passion. She cares so much about her music that she would rather use her free time to warm up and practise than have dinner(!!!). Squeezing in time for a brief interview in a day of 8 students and rehearsal with the orchestra in the evening, Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with her in the final part of a series of interviews.

Natalie interviews Natalie!


First, a bit more about yourself: you come from quite a musical family, I understand. 
Did you choose to play the cello? 
I started on the violin when I was 4: it was definitely going to be a stringed instrument, that was on the cards, because my mother is a professional violinist and my father is a passionate amateur who plays the violin and viola. So I started on the violin and wasn’t getting on so well with it – I was wanting to tell my mum how to do it all the time! My father was very smart and came home one day when I was about six years old with a tiny cello, and I fell in love with it.
What was it like growing up?
We did sometimes play together, and it was fun, but sometimes fought as well, as all families do.. I would say that I was very privileged, because there was very often live chamber music around the house in the evenings; I got to hear live chamber music from a young age, and this is something I think all young people should be given a chance to experience, but of course many don’t. Many only experience music in the media, and they don’t understand what live music is – that it is a little bit like never hearing somebody sing for them, and only hearing pop music over the radio or something. Having live music experiences is very important, and you get the feeling of doing it yourself, and feeling empowered.
How much practice do you get in a day? 
A little less now than last time. I used to get about 5 hours in a day when I was studying, and now I’ve learnt to be a bit more economical, and I manage on about 2-3 hours. If I have to learn a new work, then it goes back to 5 hours. 
What would be a typical day for you? 
Oh, there’s no such thing as a typical day! Because everyday is a little different. But my day will nearly always consist of practicing, and either performing or teaching and sometimes both. Usually, if it’s a performance day, I might travel somewhere and then rehearse, have a short rest, and then play a concert. 
Otherwise I would be teaching at home or at the Royal College in London, and in between all of that I’m looking after my little daughter as well. I have busy days..
Do you ever get nervous when playing? 
I always feel butterflies in my stomach. That’s a kind of positive nerves – an energy, an excitement – it’s not always pleasant or a comfortable experience, but I think it’s essential for performing. But not letting it get to you is a skill, and it takes practice and some experience.
Let’s talk about your cello. I think musicians and their instruments are kind of like wizards and their wands in Harry Potter. You play on a Guadagnini cello. How long have you had it, and how did you know it was the one for you? 
I’ve had it for about 8-9 years. I was studying in Vienna, and I got to know of it through a dealer. Unfortunately I don’t own the instrument – these instruments are too expensive to own – they are owned by a group of shareholders, and I’m one of them as well. These instruments, I’d like to think we don’t own them, but we are just guardians if the instrument, for a certain amount of time. I’m very blessed to have it travelling with me on my journeys.
I see. And if you had the choice would you change this cello for another? 
I hope and pray to have this instrument for as long as I play. 

Natalie in rehearsal with the SNYO, playing on her 1777 Guadagnini cello


Is there a contemporary composer you would commission a work from? And why? 
There is a living composer whom I would love to commission a work.. It’s Sofia Gubaidulina. She’s about eighty now, a Russian composer, and I met her for the first time this summer and played a piece of hers. She’s fantastic, and very interesting composer. 
Besides commissions and collaborations with musicians, you’ve done some collaborations with a dancer and a writer. Can you tell me more about those? 
With a dancer I was playing solo Bach, and he was dancing. And it was just him, Carlos Acosta, and me on stage. It was like a chamber music piece together, a really successful production I have to say. It was exciting to learn a bit about dance, and to have this game of chamber music together. I hope to do more with dance in the future.
And with a writer it was a very creative project: she wrote, inspired by the Goldberg Variations. We were playing a theatre piece for string trio and actress. The actress was reading the words, and the string trio was playing the Bach. The writer was Jeanette Winterson, who is a great inspiration and also friend of mine. 
What do you think of Singapore and the musicians which you’ve worked with so far? 
Ah, I’m thrilled to be here in Singapore, and it is the Lanxess initiative which brought me here. It’s my first time in Singapore, and I have met lots of musicians here.. I’ve given masterclasses at NAFA and here in the conservatory as well, so in a short amount of time I’ve covered a lot of ground! 

The Youth Orchestra (SNYO) is a group of bright, hopeful, optimistic, young musicians with a great future, whichever path they choose, whether music or not: some will become musicians, and others will be music lovers, and that’s just as important. 
It has been a lot of fun for me, I went to the botanical gardens yesterday which was, really, very beautiful. And so far it’s been an inspiring and positive experience for me, and I hope, for everyone as well.


Name one thing about Singapore which you will come back for.
Many things! One thing I can say for sure is that I’ve eaten some fantastic food here, so that’s definitely always something I’ll come back for.. So, food, and all the new friends I’ve made.
Which composer do you wish would have written a cello concerto but didn’t?
That’s a good question! And an interesting one too because Brahms and Beethoven did not write cello concertos but they sort of did.. Beethoven wrote the triple concerto and Brahms wrote the double concerto, and both of them are cello-oriented because they are almost cello concertos. Still, saying that, I would’ve been fascinated to see what Beethoven would have come up with as a cello concerto, because the violin concerto is one of my all-time favourite pieces. And the same goes for Brahms, I adore the violin concerto, and would’ve loved to see what Brahms would have done.
After hearing Dvorak’s cello concerto, Brahms famously wrote that, had he known that one could write like that for the cello, he would have written a cello concerto. And of course there’s the beautiful cello solo in the second piano concerto.. So he was nearly almost there, but didn’t write a cello concerto.
I had a dream once actually, that I took up the floorboards in my old flat in London and I discovered Brahms’ cello concerto! I was reading the score, and it was speaking to me..  
And which composer wrote for cello but you wish he/she hadn’t? 
Beethoven! (chuckling) No no no, it’s not true, but it’s just that the Beethoven is so hard but very beautiful. No, I won’t say that. There’s very little cello music that I wish hasn’t been written because beggars can’t be choosers. We don’t have an endless repertoire, so we have to love everything that’s been written.
But I’ll tell you what I wish: if only Tchaikovsky had written a little bit more for the cello. And also the Rococo Variations are usually played in the revised version, which does irritate me. The original version is for me more musically satisfying although audiences and orchestras often don’t like it as much.
The pieces that are musically deep are often very cellistically interesting in some way. I guess you can always find something interesting in almost everything you play..

a post-interview picture

After the interview, a studio class of 3 and 5 other students in the day, Natalie showed no sign of tiring during that evening’s full orchestra rehearsal, where she gave an exhilarating account of a Saint-Saëns concerto followed by a soulful rendition of Faure’s elegie. Don’t miss this one-night-only performance, happening tonight at the Esplanade Concert Hall! Tickets are priced at $10, and available from Sistic.

photo credits: ©Jeff Low from

Plink, Plonk, Plunk is gratefully indebted to Jeff Low of Style Revisited for appearing at such short notice (40 minutes, please do not ever engage a photographer this way!) to help with photographs. Without him, photography would be limited to an iPhone 4 camera and most probably awkward-looking selfies. Jeff is an amazingly talented classical guitarist, a sensitive musician himself, and has an eye for special moments and the heart for people. That’s the soul of his work, of which the result is some stunning photography.

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