Virtual Sheet Music: Interview with cellist and conductor Richard Markson
September 11, 2010
Regarded as a world-class cellist and conductor, Richard Markson has performed 26 world tours, recorded numerous CDs and served as a senior fellow at the Trinity College of Music in London. We are delighted he has taken time out from his busy schedule to sit down and talk with Fabrizio Ferrari, CEO of Virtual Sheet Music, for the website’s debut interview. Markson talks about how he became a cellist and conductor, and answers questions from our Virtual Sheet Music members.
Fabrizio Ferrari: Hello and welcome to this first Virtual Sheet Music interview. My name is Fabrizio Ferrari and today our guest is Richard Markson. Hello Richard, and thank you for joining us.
Richard Markson: Hello, Fabrizio.
FF: And it’s a great pleasure to introduce you to our audience today. Richard has just arrived here in Los Angeles from Mexico for a concert he’s going to have in a few days at the USC.
Markson is one of the finest cellists of our time. He had his debut in Orlando in 1970, at which The Times proclaimed him a quite outstanding cellist. But how did his career start? Richard Markson began to study the cello at the age of 12, with Paul Tortelier who actually invited him to become one of his pupils. And that’s really amazing to me, Richard. How actually that did happen?
RM: Well, I started the cello actually before that. I mean, I started when I was eight. My mother was a musician. She was a pianist and she was determined that I should choose a more sensible profession than music. But my then cello teacher was very insistent that since this was my wish, and I really wanted to be a cellist, I was quite sure about this from a very early age that I should pursue it. And Tortellier happened to be coming to Glasgow, which is my hometown, to perform, and so she arranged for me to play to him. And I went there with my mother, and he listened to me and seemed to say the kind of things that every mother likes to hear about her son. And it was absolutely unequivocal that I should leave school, I should come and study with him straight away. And this was sort of an afterthought, he turned around to me and said, “And how old are you, my boy?” and I said, “I’m 12.” And he thought about it for… “It’s a little late, but we will manage.”
FF: That’s pretty funny. So did you move actually in Paris?
RM: Yes. My parents have lots of sleepless nights.
FF: I see, well, I believe you. And so after that actually, you worked with Pierre Fournier?
RM: Well, I stayed with Tortelier for about six years. And after that, I began to work with Fournier, and that was slightly different relationship because with Tortelier, I was seeing him very intensively. I was a part of a class of the Conservatory in Paris, which met twice a week for four hours with him. And with Fournier, it was a more adult relationship, and it lasted until he died. I was, I suppose, for about 17 years. I continued to go to Geneva to have occasional lessons from him.
FF: So, your soloist career started with your contact with Fournier in some way?
RM: Well, I think I was always playing. I think all through my studies, I was giving some concerts, but Fournier was particularly active in talking to people on my behalf.
FF: Oh, I see… I know that actually you played anywhere in the world and now that you made more than 26 world tours extending from Far East to South America and you are always around. And then in the mid-80s, you began your conducting career.
FF: So under what circumstances did that start?
RM: Well, I think the first thing I would say is that I think whether you want to be a cellist or violinist or trombonist or flautist or conductor, you need to be a musician. And I think that my interest in music perhaps was stronger than any particular interest in an instrument. Although I adore the cello, I fell in love with the cello, obviously, but the solo repertoire for the cello is very small by comparison with the repertoire that’s available to you as a conductor. So I was fascinated by the possibility of becoming involved with so much music. That was a very important factor.
Another factor was that I had also become very interested in teaching, and I think that a conductor in many ways is also a teacher. And, I have enjoyed very much working with orchestras where I have been able to somehow make use of my experience both as a teacher and as a cellist to develop the orchestra.
FF: That’s wonderful. In fact about the teaching, I know that you have been involved in teaching your entire career and you had master classes anywhere in the world. I have a list of countries here where you taught: U.K., the United States, Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Colombia, Hong Kong, Peru, Taiwan, Singapore and India. Did I forget something?
RM: I am not sure. I’m not sure.
FF: It’s amazing. How many pupils do you have around the world?
RM: Well, I wouldn’t say they were all pupils. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I’ve sort of Googled myself.
RM: And found pupils claiming to have studied with me that I don’t remember anything about at all.
FF: I understand. I don’t want to forget also your recent appointment to a senior fellowship at the Trinity College of Music in London. That’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations.
RM: Thank you!
FF: Also, Richard has recorded several CDs during his entire career. And, the latest ones include the complete Bach Suites, the complete Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas with Jorge Federico Osorio, and the Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Orchestra Filarmonica de Queretaro conducted by Jose Guadalupe Flores in Mexico. And he also took care of our best sheet music editions, such as the major cello repertoire and much more. You can go on our website at www.virtualsheetmusic.com/interviews/markson to find out more about Markson’s CDs and sheet music digital editions.
So, let’s move on with the questions we have been collecting the past few days on our website from our audience. We’ve got actually more than 50 questions, so we could pick the most voted ones and organize them by topic.
The first questions are about music performance in general, and the most voted one was by Matthew Ventura, who asks: “What do you consider to be the most important lesson learned in your musical career?”
RM: Very difficult to say. There are so many lessons. Very hard to say. I think a theme that would run through all my experience is the importance of being an all-around musician and the importance of not looking at music through any particular instrument but really standing back and seeing music in a different scale.
I remember for example, Tortelier made his career initially with Don Quixote. That was the piece that propelled him to fame when he played it with Sir Thomas Beecham in England. When you read the novel of Cervantes, the physical description of Don Quixote resembles Tortelier a great deal. He looks very much like the knight of Don Quixote. And on stage–Tortelier who was also a wonderful comedian and a wonderful actor–on stage, he actually lived the part. Died at the end and things like that. Dropped his, bow, and it was quite theatrical. But what I remember after all these…things would happen on the stage, I remember coming back home–this was in Glasgow–I remember him coming back after performance with Don Quixote and sitting at the piano without any reference to the score and simply going through the entire piece and analyzing it and explaining to me about the different harmonies that Strauss used and why he had done this rather than that. And how his genius had enabled him to come up with this rather than that, And he knew absolutely every single note of the piece and he’d really studied it so, so deeply. And this impressed me, because whatever showmanship there was in the public performance, there was such a serious musician underneath, which is why he was Paul Tortelier, of course. So that impressed me as being perhaps…perhaps you could say that was the important lesson about music.
FF: Okay, the second question is actually by myself. I posted this question, but I didn’t think that people would have voted for it so much, and the question is, I can ask you directly: “What’s the best experience you have ever had in your musical career?”
RM: Well, I have to ask you, do you mean as a performer or do you mean just…
FF: In general.
RM: As a musician?
FF: Yes, as a musician.
RM: I’ll give you two different answers. As a listener, there are just certain performances that I attended that were, for me, sort of unrepeatable and could never be equaled again. Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto with Claudio Arrau, (who) happened to be one of my mentors and somebody who I was very close to and that I admired perhaps more than any musician. Hammerklavier with Rudolf Serkin, when I heard him play that in Paris. Brahms C Minor Symphony with Kurt Masur and Leipzig Gewandhaus in Mexico once. There are certain performances, which just somehow rather stood up. Kurt Sanderling conducting Tchaikovsky 4 in London at the Festival Hall when it was ’87. I’ve never heard that symphony sound so wonderful before or since, and I never will. I’m sure I never will. So these were a handful of performances that to me were in the highest possible musical, spiritual and inspirational level– by people who are absolutely giants in their field.
As a performer, that’s more difficult. I sometimes feel that one movement or one piece went quite well. I’ve had enormous pleasures as a conductor in getting to know certain works, getting to know them more intimately. Like the opportunity in Brazil a few years back of spending a month with nothing on the agenda, except Faure’s Requiem and working with everybody. Working with the choir, working with the solos, working with the orchestra and just living that piece. That was something absolutely amazing for me.
Last year, I learned for the first time the Scottish Symphony of Mendelssohn, and I fell in love with that piece, absolutely. I was in another world with it.
FF: Okay, the third question is by Orlando Manta, who asks: “Can musicality be taught?”
RM: The quick, short answer I think is no. I think musicality–if that’s the word–musicality is innate, but obviously, if you have musicality, there’s an enormous amount that you can do to develop it into musicianship. I don’t think musicality and musicianship are necessarily the same thing, but I don’t really think you can be a musician if you don’t have an innate musicality.
FF: And then we got an interesting question about conducting by K.M. Hall, who asks: “What makes a great conductor?”
RM: Well, I’ll go back to my Leitmotiv and say that I think you have to be a great musician. That’s the first thing. I think you can’t be a great cellist or a great conductor without being a great musician. And that’s the first thing. But a conductor, I think there are specific things. Actually, a lot of people have gone into conducting without really training and…
FF: I know what you mean.
RM: I think…
FF: I’ve been a violinist in orchestras for many years, and I know exactly what you mean.
RM: You’ve been in a long sufferer, yes?
FF: Yes, absolutely!
RM: When I met my teacher, who was a wonderful…he was a great master, Ezra Rachlin, he was a protege of Fritz Reiner. Actually, he was a phenomenal pianist; he gave his first piano recital when he was four or five years old, I think he was. But anyway, when I went to him–already at a fairly mature stage–he asked me whether I’ve had any conducting lessons. And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, thank God for that.” And he then started to train me properly, because there is a lot, which on a purely technical, physical level, which can make things a lot easier.
Ideally, you want to be able to get up in front of an orchestra and say nothing, and the orchestra should be able to understand exactly what you mean. Ideally. Not always possible. But…also, I think the force of personality, I mean you actually need to be able to persuade a hundred or so musicians to do what you want them to do. You have to persuade everyone to phrase something the way in which you want the piece to go, and that requires personality, as well. It needs a certain personal magnetism, I think.
And I would have said perhaps some kind of psychological ability to know how to handle people. It may be that you handle them with charm, maybe that you handle them with absolute relentless persistence. It may be that you are the kind of conductor who explodes and has tantrums and all the rest of it. But whatever you do–and maybe you need all of these at different times–you have to be able to command the authority necessary to persuade, not necessarily holy sort of…
RM: (Laughs) Not everybody in the orchestra is necessarily well-disposed to the conductor. I would say, in fact, it’s the exception rather than the rule when orchestra musicians actually like the conductor; they don’t like conductors on the whole. They get very annoyed with conductors, very irritated with conductors, who’d stop and give them long lectures about things. They just want to know where to come in and where to stop and they want someone to beat time clearly and everything and just…
It can be very difficult to handle the musicians, to sense the dynamics of how to get the best out of everybody. So yes, first and foremost, you have to have the authority of being a really fine musician. But then I think there are lots of other things.
FF: I agree. I think you got the point the right way. And then we have several questions about the cello itself and the technique related with that. And the first question is by Karyn Grove, who asks: “What suggestions do you give students for producing marvelous tone?”
RM: Well, bowing technique is the most important thing. I mean the bow is what produces the sound, not the left hand. The left hand has to be in the right place at the right time. There is, of course, vibrato, but vibrato is almost like an extra quality. It’s almost like the varnish on top, but really the essence of the sound comes from the bow. And I think bow contact, which has to do with how you position the bow, the speed of the bow, how close to the bridge or far away from the bridge, how much weight, how much natural…finding natural weight, rather than force.
Again, I was tremendously influenced by Claudio Arrau on the piano, because he was brought up in the Liszt tradition. He studied with Martin Kraus, who was a pupil of Liszt, and the whole philosophy was that the upper body should be entirely…all the muscles should be entirely loose and relaxed, and you just play with the natural weight. And Arrau succeeded, even in fortissimo, never to make a harsh sound. And I found that actually very interesting, and I think I perhaps adapted some of what he had to say to the cello. But it has to do with being relaxed, using a natural weight, and above all, having bow contact, which in the case of a string instrument involves the use of the fingers a great deal. The wind players have the embouchure, which involves the interplay between the tongue and the teeth. And I think it’s very important on a string instrument that we use the phalanges, and that we really control the sound from it with the tips of the fingers.
FF: Are there in the cello, like in the violin, different techniques to handle the bow with the hand?
RM: Absolutely! But everything we do comes from the violin. I mean, Casals was never taught by a cellist, he was only taught by a violinist.
FF: That’s right, actually. Okay, so the next question about the cello is by S.R. Ross, who asks: “Would you give us some suggestions for daily warm-up and scale practice?”
RM: That’s an interesting question. We have debates in various musical institutions as to whether scales and exercises should be part of the curriculum. Some people are strongly in favor, and some people are strongly against. I just feel that one should never really separate music from technique, and if you are going to work at technical exercises–and I think you should–always do so in a musical way. You should play a scale as if you were playing a Mozart Sonata. It should never be just something that, “Well, okay, this is a mechanical thing I do to warm up, the same way as I might brush my teeth, or whatever.” It has to be something that’s musical.
But having said that, and having myself done all of that as a student…nowadays, I don’t really believe in it very much. I think it’s far better just to start with the music, to have a musical conception, and to work at the technique in the most detailed and physical way, but in relation to that musical conception. And then from there, it might be the case that you would develop specific technical exercises that would assist you, but it should always be led by a musical conception. That’s the way I feel about it, nowadays.
FF: Absolutely, I agree with that, completely. Thank you. The third question about the cello is by Gail Tivendale, who asks: “What technical advice would you give to an ex-violinist who wants to play the cello?”
RM: Well, funnily enough, I have known a few violinists who picked up the cello, and the problem is always the angle, because they tend to play…their hands are a little bit twisted, their arms are a bit twisted. I think it’s very important on the cello to have a fairly square position. I think the left hand should be perpendicular to the fingerboard and the bow. Actually, the position of the cello is in some ways more natural than the violin. I think it should be more natural.
FF: That’s right, it is more natural.
RM: But in general, I found violin students tended to angle their positions too much in relation to the violin. So, I think that’s the main thing, is to correct that.
FF: Perfect, thank you! And the fourth question is by Anne Finlay-Brown, who asks: “How do you control nerves when playing in public?” That’s something that interests me, too. (Laughs)
RM: Well, you know, there have been many books written about this, and many people have done their Ph.D. thesis on this subject as well. But, I actually think that the only answer is the answer that Pierre Fournier gave to a student in my presence. He was asked,–and I still remember him sitting there smoking a cigar when this pupil said– “But maestro, what do you do about nerves?” and he took a puff of his cigar and said, “Learn to play with them.” That was all.
FF: Easier to say than to do.
RM: But it’s true. I think people sometimes are nervous about the fact that they’re nervous. I think people think, oh dear, I’m nervous.
FF: Well, yeah, that’s right. That’s absolutely right.
RM: Of course they’re nervous. We’re all nervous. And I say to my students, that if they’re nervous, they haven’t seen anything yet. Just wait another 10 years or 20 years, they’ll be even more nervous.
FF: So what you’re telling us, there’s not a technique to avoid having stage fright.
RM: Being prepared, I mean learn the pieces properly, be really very solid musically and technically and everything, so that you don’t have a bad conscience. I think that would be good advice, perhaps. But apart from that, just accept the fact that you will be nervous, and perhaps even play better because of it. But having said that, I think it’s also true that there are certain people that I would say have performing temperaments. Certain musicians–no matter how nervous they get–when they’re out on stage, it somehow, brings the best out of them. And there are some people, unfortunately, who are just not performing animals, and who perhaps will play better at home than they do in public. But I don’t think there’s any particular psychological preparation that helps. Not really, no.
I think it’s important that you’re concentrated. And you focus on what you’re doing. I don’t think you should be going out playing basketball five minutes before you have to go on stage or things like that. You have to be focused on what you’re doing. And I think in my case, I often find that what helps me with nerves is just to be really concentrated on the music.
FF: Absolutely. Thank you. And the sixth question about cello, actually the fifth question, sorry, is by Maggie George, who asks: “What made you feel cello was your instrument rather than violin, viola or bass?”
RM: I just heard the cello when I was very young. Actually, I mentioned earlier that my mother was a pianist. She studied with a very distinguished pianist and conductor called Walter Susskind, who’s first wife, Eleanor Warren, was a cellist. That was how I heard the cello for the first time and just asked my parents if I could have a cello. Simple as that.
FF: That’s very simple. Alright, and then we have the sixth question, which is by Christine Krueger, who asks: “Are there any pieces of music you recommend for beginning cellists?”
RM: Well, I’m not sure what she means by beginning…beginners.
FF: I think beginners.
RM: I tend to feel that in the early stage, people are kept in the early stages too long. For example, if you think that the fingerboard of the cello is like a keyboard. I mean, I remember the first lesson I had from Tortelier, he put the cello on his lap and he said, “Now, we have a keyboard.” And this was to illustrate the importance of the angle of the hand being square and all that sort of thing.
But actually, if you were playing the piano, for example, you wouldn’t spend so many years working at pieces that only went from middle C to one octave above and one octave below. You wouldn’t limit yourself to any particular part of the piano. And, I think it’s a big mistake that so often cellists are actually kept in the first four positions before you get thumb position–for years and years and years. And then when they do learn thumb position, it becomes such a major adjustment that they are never quite comfortable with it. Whereas, I think, if you actually incorporate thumb position almost from the beginning or very near the beginning, you have the position of your hand.
The reason I’m saying all this is that this would then enable people not to be so restricted in repertoires. But even if you were not playing in thumb position, the Vivaldi Sonatas are wonderful music. Wonderful music! And I think that’s obviously something that would be good to play when you’re young, when you’re starting up. I don’t see any reason why a reasonably gifted beginner couldn’t, within say 18 months or so, attempt to play some of the Vivaldi Sonatas. And, it’s far better than some really silly little pieces that are given to beginners.
FF: Yeah, I think this will make happy a lot of people. So they may start playing advanced pieces of music before than expected, so that’s great.
Okay, I think we are done with the questions from our audience. My final question is: “How many times do you plan to come here in Los Angeles again in the near future?”
RM: I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. I never know what’s around the corner. The last time I was here, I didn’t know I was going to be here now. I thought it was possible, but I wasn’t sure. But I hope very much to come back soon.
FF: Yes, we really hope to see you again. Thank you very much, Richard.
RM: Thank you.
FF: And thank you for watching. Thanks.
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