Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A great cellist goes west...

A couple of years ago the much-loved British cellist Robert Cohen made a move that took many of us by surprise: despite having enjoyed a strong solo career since his youth, he joined a string quartet. And not just any old string quartet, but the Fine Arts Quartet, one of the most distinguished and distinctive chamber ensembles in the States, and very much a full-time concern. They're coming to Kings Place, London, on Thursday (22 May): this will be their first concert here with their latest line-up, Robert included. 

The concert will be filmed by Hibrow TV for its online arts broadcasting platform. Hibrow now has ACE funding and Robert is one of its "curators". Its founder, film director Don Boyd, apparently felt he needed to do something to counter the disastrous loss of arts on mainstream TV.

I first met Robert when I was about eight and he must have been 14-ish and the Purcell School's young whizz-kid cellist. This seems like a good time to catch up...so I asked him to tell us how and why he's joined up, and what it's been like to make the change. 

JD: Robert, please tell us why you’ve decided to join a full-time string quartet? It’s a huge move…

RC: In January 2011, I was invited to play with the Fine Arts Quartet on a European tour. I had played sextets with them 6 years before and that experience had been an extraordinary and wonderful one. Playing quartets with them was even more thrilling. Not only are they amazing musicians, but exceptional individuals. I enjoyed every moment playing and being with them. Later that year, when they invited me to join the Quartet, my feelings were that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t possibly miss; at age 52 to open a whole new life into the fabulous world of string quartets with an ensemble that so beautifully suited my kind of music making. The decision was remarkably easy!

JD: …and you’ve shifted to the US. How do you feel about that?

RC: We set up a home in Chicago, which we all love - it’s such a stunning city - but we also keep a home in London because we have family there. Given that the Quartet tours globally much of the year, it’s nice to have a foot on either side of the Atlantic. (I can pop home relatively easily, whichever home is nearest).

JD: Tell us something about the Fine Arts Quartet and its history, please? It’s a hugely distinguished group and has made some gorgeous recordings. 

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet was founded in Chicago in 1946, and has been based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1963. It has recorded over 200 works and has won numerous awards. The Quartet members have also nurtured many of today's top international young ensembles.

JD: What qualities about their playing do you like and what is it like to work with them? What qualities do you feel you have that enable you to fit in?

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet is instantly distinguishable because of its unique sound; inspired by the golden era of string playing for which warmth, beauty, passion and humanity emanate from every note. I grew up with these sounds in my ears, listening to the greatest ever string players; Casals, Feuermann, Heifetz, Kreisler, Primrose, the Amadeus Quartet... I absorbed those values and aims into my playing and they are part of what I bring to the Fine Arts Quartet. They are fundamental qualities in the Fine Arts Quartet’s way of communicating music. So when I started playing with them, it was really natural for me to slot in.

JD: What’s the most difficult thing about joining a long-established ensemble as kind of the new kid on the block? How do you know - and how do they know - if you are the right person for them? 

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet have an extraordinarily large repertoire. In my first year, I learnt around 75 quartets, almost all of which the others know and have performed for years. I’d never even seen the music for these works! I wanted very much to arrive at rehearsals  playing and knowing each piece as though I had performed it with them many times. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I was on the edge of my seat with my antennae straining every millisecond to catch and memorise every detail. Gradually I found it easier to anticipate how the Quartet structured its work on the music and how the dynamics within the group affected the rehearsals. And finally when I felt I was balanced within the Quartet, it was more natural for the others to absorb my own input of ideas. The experience of growing into this Quartet and into such a history has been really exciting and fulfilling.

JD: Are you going to keep up your other activities - your solo career, your chamber music festival, etc?

RC: I do still give solo concerts and continue to make concerto recordings. For example this summer I'm returning to the ‘Chopin and his Europe’ Festival in Warsaw to perform with the Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia. However, the majority of my time is devoted to the Quartet. After a wonderful 35 years of solo and concerto performances, I feel privileged to be discovering the glorious quartet repertoire and to be performing with such wonderful partners. The Fine Arts Quartet schedule is so busy that for now my Chamber Music Festival at Charleston Manor is on hold. 

The Fine Arts Quartet is renowned for its enormous range of repertoire, much of it unusual. Here they are in action, filmed by Hibrow...