Joining the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme
German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich on starting out in the classical music industry
The study of music is a long one. We start our ‘undergraduate’ course aged five studying at schools, conservatoires, colleges and universities. Then, 15 or 20 years later, we start our ‘postgraduate’ course - that is, performing widely and making recordings. In order to play well you need to complete both courses. But in order to get to the second course, you need to play well. And there’s the rub.
Luckily, there are institutions that offer a kind of apprenticeship to bridge this chicken-and-egg dilemma. In my life, the first was granted by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. When I was nineteen she took me under her wing, not only to introduce me to conductors and musicians I still perform with today but, perhaps more importantly, to give me an access-all-areas pass to the reality of concert life – something that educational institutions cannot offer.
The second apprenticeship, for me, has been the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists Scheme. Of course, every musician selected for this programme is already a performing or recording artist and will have made their mark in order to attract the BBC’s attention. But how often does a cellist – especially a cellist – get to perform and record 12 different cello concertos within a year, including those by Kabalevsky, Dutilleux, and Bridge? And how would one be spoilt with the gift of a feeling of familiarity each time they found themselves in a recording studio with that red light.
The repeated experience of hearing my playing in my own head, then within the studio, and finally aired on the radio, has taught me so much. Interpreting a piece of music starts, like any creative process, with a sort of mapping of an overall structure. In a concert, this is transformed through numerous momentary inspirations and deviations among which we try to create some sort of comprehensive narrative – a kind of alchemy – that will never be the same twice.
The risk with a studio recording is of losing that momentariness – something unsettling and exhausting for us, afterall – and focus only upon the initial map; the ideal structure we hold so dearly in our heads. The result is a vanity project that pleases our getting it just right and bores everyone else.
What I have learned over the last year is, instead, to treat recordings like a sort of über-concert, filled not only with one stream of momentariness but several, back-to-back and in the moment, later layered on top of each other and put together in the editing. Something more 'live' than live. This is necessary because in a recording you miss the visual aspect of live performance, which is an undeniable addition to the artifice created in a listener’s or spectator’s mind, and you miss that intensifying catalyst of the concert hall: a large group of people joined in spirit to witness the same singular event, in silence, darkness and togetherness. So a recording needs that bit of cranking-to-eleven.
Nobody ever taught me any of this in twenty years at ‘college’. Thank you, BBC New Generation Artists scheme, for giving musicians this priceless education.
- Leonard Elschenbroich, BBC New Generation Artist (cello)