Monday, 19 November 2018

Menuhin was an inspiring teacher for a young rebel

COLIN CARR was never very keen on playing the cello, but by the age of eight he had no choice.

COLIN CARR was never very keen on playing the cello, but by the age of eight he had no choice. His parents sent him away to boarding school to study music. But it wasn’t just any old school. It was the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey, set up and managed by the maestro violinist himself. Though Carr, now 55, was hundreds of miles from his home in Liverpool, he came to realise, after a few rebellious and homesick years, how lucky he was to have landed such an opportunity.

“I’m a Scouser,” he says, “I grew up in Liverpool and it was a little bit traumatic for the first year or so. But it wasn’t long before I realised that I was made for that place, and that place was made for me. I loved it. They were the best years.

“I needed an escape from my family anyway, and that provided the perfect escape. Liverpool was very depressed in those years. It’s a city, of course, and there was a little bit of oppression in my family, although I didn’t realise it at the age of eight. We were a Jewish family and it was felt that the children ought to be brought up that way. They were not completely gung-ho and serious about it, but there was a half-hearted effort to lean us in that direction of being Jewish.

“Also, I had had my arm twisted to play the cello.”

This was perhaps not surprising since he came from a musical family. His mother played the oboe and was centre stage in a concerto with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of 19. But then, like so many women of her era, she had three children, and her career ended abruptly.

“That was very frustrating for her,” says Carr. “She tried to play it again years later but it was a disaster. That meant I was the musician of the family and there was pressure on me. Let’s just say I had to be encouraged.”

Though he denies that he was a child prodigé (“There are prodigés and there are prodigés,” he says, “there’s Menuhin and then there’s me...”) by the time he was 16 he was accomplished enough to leave education for good and launch into a solo professional career, something that most musicians only achieve after years of slaving away at a conservatoire or university. But the one thing that comes across in conversation with Carr, apart from his passion for music, is his determination to do things his way.

“I never did anything I was told,” he says. “I was a horrible student. I never listened to my teachers. I thought the music they gave me was too easy. I had piles of music and I found things that were far too hard for me and played them.

“At the age of eight you don’t think much about where you are going to school or whether it’s good, but once I got over the initial homesickness it felt like my school. When I was 12 or 13 I started to realise it was an incredible place and a fantastic opportunity for me.”

One of the great advantages was having one-to-one tuition from Menuhin himself when he turned up on rare visits to the school.

“I think he felt a bit guilty about not coming enough himself, so he would send interesting people,” he said. “Lessons with Menuhin were wonderful. He was one of the busiest people in the world. He was always travelling but he always showed up a couple of times a year.

“He always had something new. It might have been an exercise for string players, or standing on his head or some new-fangled method of piano tuning. Once he wanted us to improvise along the lines of some jazz musician he’d heard. Often it had nothing to do with what we were playing, but it was inspiring. Some of the best things I’ve ever done have been the concerts I’ve played with him.”

Carr left the school at 16 and made his professional début with Menuhin in the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello along with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This would have been jumping in at the deep end for most teenage musicians, but though he shudders at the thought of it now, Carr was at the time full of zest and confidence.

“I was in way over my head and I didn’t really know it,” he says. “That was the end of my academic career. I regret missing out on university, because it would have been a lot of fun, but I was making money and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

He moved to London, staying in digs with a family friend, but by the age of 17 he had moved in to a flat with his girlfriend, and spent many years in Notting Hill.

“It was exciting. I had the time of my life,” he says.

His life as an international musician had started. He played many concerts with Menuhin senior, as well as his son Jeremy, and has worked with orchestras all over the world, including the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony and orchestras in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. He has played under the baton of some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Simon Rattle, but he also enjoys chamber music, and makes regular appearances at London’s Wigmore Hall.

When he was 18 he rented a cottage on the Elizabethan estate of Rycote Chapel near Thame, and he would escape there for weekends. He kept that cottage on until the estate was sold off 15 years ago, at which point he and his wife, Caroline, who were based in Boston, decided to buy a house in Oxfordshire.

They chose the village of Pyrton, near Watlington, and now live there with their three children, Clifford, Frankie and Anya, who attends the local primary school.

“We decided we wanted English rather than American children,” he says, adding that his wife holds the fort “admirably” while he spends two-thirds of the year travelling back and forth to America, where he teaches music at New York’s Stony Brook University.

He was invited to play with the Henley Symphony Orchestra by conductor Ian Brown, whom he describes as a “great musician” and is looking forward very much to playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with them.

“For a long time I would listen to nothing but Wagner,” he says. “When I was younger I used to go to Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells all the time to listen to his operas and even visited his shrine in Germany. And there was two years when I would listen to nothing but Mahler symphonies. But by the age of 17 I loved all the great composers — Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn.

“As for Elgar’s Cello Concerto, I feel very engaged with it. As an Englishman it strikes me to the core. It feels very English to me. I didn’t know the great cellist Rostropovich very well but I did have a conversation with him once when he tried to tell me the Elgar was not a very good piece. He said great music is universal and Elgar is not universal, it’s like local music.

“I didn’t feel that at all. Rostropovich was a great man and a wonderful, brilliant musician but in this case he was wrong.

“I have played this piece hundreds of times all over the world. Whenever I play it I feel like it touches people, because he was pouring his heart out when he wrote it."

lColin Carr plays Elgar's Concerto For Cello And Orchestra In E Minor with the Henley Symphony Orchestra at the Hexagon, Reading on Sunday, March 10 at 7.30pm. The programme also includes three excerpts from Wagner's Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, and Brahms’ “pastoral” Symphony No 2. Tickets from £12 (students half price, one child free with one paying adult) are available on 01235 859210 or visit www.henleysymphonyorchestra.co.uk, or Hexagon box office on 0118 960 6060 or visit www.readingarts.com

World-renowned cellist Colin Carr, who lives in Nettlebed, plays Elgar’s cello concerto with the Henley Symphony Orchestra at the Hexagon later this month. He told LESLEY POTTER about his rebellious youth as a reluctant musician.

COLIN CARR was never that keen on playing the cello, but by the age of eight he had no choice. His parents sent him away to boarding school to study music. But it wasn’t just any old music school. It was the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey, set up and managed by the maestro violinist himself. Though Carr, now 55, was hundreds of miles from his home in Liverpool, he came to realise, after a few rebellious and homesick years, how lucky he was to have landed such an opportunity.

“I’m a Scouser,” he says, “I grew up in Liverpool and it was a little bit traumatic for the first year or so. But it wasn’t long before I realised that I was made for that place, and that place was made for me. I loved it. They were the best years. I needed an escape from my family anyway, and that provided perfect escape.

“Liverpool was very depressed in those years. It’s a city, of course, and there was a little bit of uppression in my family, although I didn’t realise it at the age of eight. We were a Jewish family. It was felt that the children ought to be brought up that way. They were not completely gung-ho and serious about it, but there was a half-hearted effort to lean us in that direction of being Jewish.

“Also, I had had my arm twisted to play the cello”

This was perhaps not surprising since he came from a musical family. His mother played the oboe as a teenager, playing a concerto with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of 19. But then, like so many women of her era, she had three children, and her musical career ended abruptly. “That was very frustrating for her,” said Carr. “She tried to play it again years later but it was a disaster. That meant I was the musician of the family and there was pressure on me. Let’s just say I had to be encouraged.”

Though he denies that he was a child prodigé (“There are prodigés and there are prodigés,” he says, “there’s Menuhin and then there’s me...”) by the time he was 16 he was accomplished enough to leave education for good and launch into a solo professional career, something that most musicians only achieve after years of slaving away at a conservatoire or university. But the one thing that comes across in conversation with Carr, apart from his passion for music, is his determination to do things his way.

“I never did anything I was told,” he says. “I was a horrible student. I never listened to my teachers. I thought the music they gave me was too easy. I had piles of music that had been given to me and I found things that were far too hard for me and played them.

“At the age of eight you don’t think much about where you are going to school or whether it’s good, but once I got over the insitial home sickeness it felt like my school. When I was 12 or 13 then I started to realise it was an incredible place and a fantastic opportunity for me.”

One of the great advantages was having one-to-one tuition from Yehudi Menuhin himself when he turned up on rare visits to the school.

“I think he felt a bit guilty about not coming enough himself, so he would send interesting people,” he said. “Lessons with Menuhin himself were wonderful. He was one of the busiest people in the world. He was always travelling but he always showed up a couple of times a year.

“It was quite funny really. He always had something new. It might have been an exercise for string players, or standing on his head or some new-fangled method of piano tuning. Once he wanted us to improvise along the lines of some jazz musician he’d heard. Often it had nothing to do with what we were playing, but it was inspiring. Some of the best things I’ve ever done have been the concerts I’ve played with him.”

Carr left the school at 16 and made his professional début with Menuhin in the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello along with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This would have been perhaps a little like jumping in at the deep end for many teenage musicians, but though he shudders at the thought of it now, Carr was at the time full of zest and confidence.

“I was in way over my head and I didn’t really know it,” he says.

“That was the end of my academic career. In some ways I regret now missing out on going to university, because it would have been a lot of fun, but I was making money and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

He moved to London, staying in digs with a family friend, but by the age of 17 he had moved in to a flat with his girlfriend, and spent most of his younger years in Notting Hill.

“It was exciting. I had the time of my life,” he says.

His life as an international musician had started. He played many concerts with Menuhin senior, as well as his son Jeremy, and has worked with orchestras all over the world, including the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony and orchestras in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. He has played under the baton of some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Simon Rattle, but he also enjoys chamber music, making regular appearances at London’s Wigmore Hall.

When he was 18 he rented a cottage on the Elizabethan estate of Ryecote Chapel near Thame, which he would escape to for weekends. He kept that cottage on until the estate was sold off 15 years ago, at which point he and his wife, Caroline, who were based in Boston, decided to buy a house in Oxfordshire. They chose the village of Pyrton, near Watlington, and now live there with their three children, Clifford, Frankie and Anya, who attends the local primary school.

“We decided we wanted English rather than American children,” he says, adding that his wife holds the fort “admirably” while he spends two-thirds of the year travelling back and forth to America, where he teaches music at New York’s Stoneybrook University.

He was invited to play with the Henley Symphony Orchestra by conductor Ian Brown, whom he describes as a “great musician” and is looking forward very much to playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with them.

“For a long time I would listen to nothing but Wagner,” he says. “When I was younger I used to go to Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells all the time to listen to his operas and even visited his shrine in Germany. By the age of 17 I loved all the great composers — Bach, Beethoven, Mendelsohn — and there was two years when I would listen to nothing but Mahler symphonies.

“As for Elgar’s Cello Concerto, I feel very engaged with it. As an Englishman it strikes me to the core. It feels very English to me.

“I didn’t know the great cellist Rostropovich very well but I did have a conversation with him when he tried to tell me the Elgar was not a very good piece. He said great music is universal and Elgar is not universal, it’s like local music. I didn’t feel that at all. Rostropovich was a great man and a wonderful, brilliant musician but in this case he was wrong.

“I have played this piece hundreds of times all over the world. Whenever I play it I feel like it touches people, because he was pouring his heart out when he wrote it."

* Colin Carr plays Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Henley Symphony Orchestra at the Hexagon in Reading on Sundya, March 10 at 7.30pm. The programme also includes Wagner's The Mastersingers: Three Excerpts, and Brahms Symphony No 2. Tickets from £12 (students half price, one child free with one paying adult) are available on 01235 859210 or visit www.henleysymphonyorchestra.co.uk. Also available from the Hexagon box office on 0118 9560 6060 or visit ww.readingarts.com

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