An Evening With Julian Lloyd Webber

Philip Hammond talks with the cellist about his big brother, fulfilling ambitions and leaving his instrument behind for the footie

Julian Lloyd Webber and I share something: the year of our birth. 2011 means that we will reach a certain age, and many of us 1951 baby boomers are celebrating - including Lloyd Webber, who begins an all-Ireland tour at the Grand Opera House on February 18 entitled Travels with my Cello, also the name of his early autobiography.

'This concert is going to be a much lighter, more informal concert than I usually give, where I talk to the audience and read a bit from my book,' Lloyd Webber comments down the phone from his home in London. 'The pieces I have chosen are light, but I fully believe in them and hopefully that comes across to the audience. There is also going to be a question and answer session with video clips.'

Talking to Lloyd Webber, I’m left in little doubt that he could sell coals to Tynesiders, if he so chose. He comes across as a chatty, warm and friendly man, and has that added factor of talent and repute. Was it a foregone conclusion, I ask, that he and his equally famous big brother, Andrew, were going to be the world renowned musicians that they are today? Their father William Lloyd Webber, after all, was a much respected teacher and composer.

'There was this kind of unspoken thing in the Lloyd Webber household that everything you did had to be good,' recalls the cellist. 'By the early 1950s my father had virtually stopped composing because he felt that his music was out of step with the contemporary music of the time. But at home we all knew he was a very fine musician.

'However, he never did what he should have done with his music and therefore there was that feeling that something hadn’t quite worked out for him. I can’t speak for Andrew, but for me it had the effect of wanting to fulfill whatever talent I had as best as I could. You’ve got to give it every shot that you can.

'So no, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. My father listened to such a range of music that my brother and I went in different directions. Andrew always wanted to compose and my earliest memories are of him sitting at the piano writing his own tunes. He didn’t ever want to perform and I didn’t ever really want to compose. So that was quite fortunate, in a way.'

In the Lloyd Webber household, then, it was a case of plenty of opportunities but no imposed pressure: many families could learn from that mantra. Lloyd Webber has brought this philosophy to his own work through his close connection with In Harmony, a government-assisted programme that works with young people to promote personal and community development in some of England's most deprived areas through orchestral-based learning and musical experiences.

Lloyd Webber is also passionate about new contemporary classical music. Another legacy from his father? 'No, I don’t think so,' he replies. 'When I first became interested in the cello, I was very influenced by the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostrapovich who brought a whole new repertoire to the instrument from endless composers like Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, whom he encouraged or even bullied into writing for the instrument.

'For me, classical music has to be a living thing and can’t only be about the past. At the moment, I have a new piece coming up by Eric Whitacre, the American composer who is better known for his choral work. I believe this is his first non-vocal piece, but he’s chosen a very vocal instrument to write it for. I would like to have done more to expand the repertoire, but you’ve got to find the right composer and that’s not always easy.'

Having personally commissioned over 50 new works from some of the biggest names of contemporary classical music, such as Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Jimmy MacMillan and the late great Joaquin Rodrigo, Lloyd Webber's track record isn’t that shabby. Nevertheless, he would liked to have seen more of these pieces subsumed into the repertoire, although, he says, you never know what’s going to happen in the future.

Throughout his career to date, Lloyd Webber has partnered and played with some of the greatest conductors and musicians in the world - and not just the classical music world. Like his father, his tastes are varied and he has worked with legendary conductors from Lorin Maazel, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Georg Solti to popular artists like Elton John and Stephane Grappelli. He will surely have plenty of stories to relate on his forthcoming tour.

'There have been lots, but looking back on the highlights I’d have to say that I have fantastic memories of working with Yehudi Menuhin on the Elgar Cello Concerto. I recorded the concerto with him in 1985 and in the late 80s we toured it around the world. Menuhin was such a spontaneous musician and that was right at the end of his extraordinary life.'

The mention of Elgar prompts Lloyd Webber to admit to a special affinity with British music. 'I don’t like the term "English music",' he admits, 'because, in these islands, we are a lot of mixed race people, aren’t we? So British music, particularly of the early 20th century, would be perhaps amongst my favourite repertoire.

'Composers like Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, a lot of them are very underrated. I’m playing a piece by Frank Bridge in this concert in Belfast – beautiful music, but not very well known. I have also always loved Russian music from Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev. These are composers with massive imaginations who speak to people’s hearts in some way and that’s very important to me.'

And then there is Bach. 'The extraordinary thing about Bach,' remarks Lloyd Webber, 'is that I don’t think he ever wrote a bad note! There are few composers you can say that about.'

Lloyd Webber’s cello was made in 1690 when Bach was five years old. It is the only cello that Lloyd Webber owns, and Irish audiences will be lucky to see and hear it in the flesh when it comes to Belfast. It is, after all, a Stradivarius.

'It was played by the Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky in the 1920s and 30s,' Lloyd Webber explains. 'Ernest Bloch wrote his Schelomo for him and it was Barjansky who gave the first performance of the Delius Cello Concerto.

'It’s a marvellous cello, but I don’t really think of it as “my” instrument. I’m playing it at this point in time and I hope it goes on being played when I stop. You can’t have these sorts of instruments just sitting around as this one did for 50 years in a bank vault before it came up for auction in Sotheby’s and I had endless meetings with my bank manager.'

No doubt that was before the recession. It’s clear and not surprising that Lloyd Webber’s world revolves around music, but outside of that he does have other interests, such as spending time in the English countryside. He keeps a bolt-hole, as he calls it, in the congenial landscape of Gloucestershire, but even there he is never without his cello. Perhaps the one place he doesn’t bring his instrument is to the football ground.

'Yes, I’m a Leyton Orient supporter,' he beams, 'which is a league one team who have just been drawn against Arsenal in the FA Cup. It's going to be very interesting. Unfortunately, I’m on tour in Ireland when the match is due and I can’t go!' His loss, as they say, is Ireland's gain.

Travels With My Cello: An Evening with Julian Lloyd Webber comes to the Grand Opera House, Belfast on Friday, February 18. Tickets are from £15.50 - £30, and bookings can be made on (028) 9024 1919 or via www.goh.co.uk.

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