British violinist stars in Prague world premiere of Niobe concerto

Tamsin Waley-Cohen, photo: Patrick Allen,

The renowned British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen is set to make her debut with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague’s Rudolfinum on Saturday. The graduate of the Royal College of Music and last year’s recipient of the ECHO Rising Star Awards will be performing a world premiere of a piece by the award-winning British composer Richard Blackford.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen, photo: Patrick Allen,
I caught-up with Tamsin Waley-Cohen between the rehearsals and I first asked her to tell me more about the program:

“We will be premiering Richard Bradford’s new concerto which is called Niobe, and it tells the story of the myth of Niobe. The violin plays the part of Niobe.

“It’s a very tragic and dramatic story, and other instruments within the orchestra take on other roles in the storytelling. It is incredibly exciting to be here to play with this wonderful orchestra in this beautiful hall. To present this music to the world for the first time is a great honor.”

How does the world premiere of Niobe come to be in Prague?

“Actually the Czech Philharmonic has commissioned this piece, so that’s why it is being performed here. It’s their commission and that makes it very much a Czech philharmonic project, so it is really wonderful to be a part of that.”

Is it true that Richard Blackford wrote the violin part especially for you?

“Yes, that is true. I’ve known Richard for quite a long time, although this is the first time we’ve actually worked together on his music. A few years ago, he had said that he had this idea for a violin concerto and he brought it to the Czech Philharmonic, who immediately said that they would like to be a part of it and that in fact they would like to commission it.

“We discussed a lot about Niobe and its relevance to today, as she was harshly punished for her enjoyment and for her boastfulness about her children and her family.

“I think women all over the world still experience this unfair censorship and punishment for stepping outside of restricted boundaries. So, it is not only a story about hubris, I think it’s very much a modern story that we can learn a lot from and try not to repeat.”

“Of course, it’s nearly 300 years old, but I think violins with greater complexity give you more artistic options.”

So aside from the Czech Philharmonic, it is going to be an all-British performance with British conductor Ben Gernon at the helm.

“That’s right. It’s a British team, apart from the Czech Philharmonic and apart from Mozart and Schubert. I’m very much looking forward to being able to hear the Schubert in the second half.”

What is it like playing with the Czech Philharmonic? I imagine it is not always easy trying to get in sync with a new orchestra, especially since you probably didn’t have much time for joint rehearsals.

“We’ve had the first rehearsal just now, and we have another rehearsal tomorrow and then the dress rehearsal. Actually, I feel very welcomed, which is really lovely and it is not always the case with orchestras.

“I feel that we are really working on this concerto together, and the violin is not the protagonist opposing the orchestra so often. In the big romantic concertos, it’s more part of the storytelling, so it’s very much a teamwork that we need to do for this concerto. At the moment I’m hugely enjoying working with them.”

You’re playing a very special violin, a Stradivarius. I believe there are only about five hundred of these violins around the world, so how did you come to be one of the lucky people to play this special instrument?

“This instrument is currently on loan to me, and the violinist who played it before me was Lorand Fenyves, a Hungarian violinist and teacher. I was lucky enough to know him and have lessons with him towards the end of his life at Prussia Cove. It’s a wonderful place of study for chamber music, founded by Sándor Végh, now run by Steven Isserlis.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen, photo: Patrick Allen,
“His family had the wish that somebody that new him would play his violin, so I’m incredibly lucky to have this wonderful instrument. It’s a complex instrument, full of dark colors and complexities.

“But I think as an artist, that’s what we are always looking for: more ways of expressing more emotion and more storytelling and more narrative. So the more it can offer me, and I’m always looking for that.”

Is it also more sensitive, would you say, compared to other violins?

“Certainly. I think that is the case for a lot of the great violins, particularly from that period. Of course, it’s nearly 300 years old, but also I do think that violins with greater complexity give you more artistic options.

“Sometimes the price you pay for that is that they can be more temperamental. Of course, they are just made of wood, so they are affected by their environment, but that’s a price I’m happy to pay for what it gives back to me.”

In November, you are releasing a CD called Bohemia, which features the work of Dvořák, Janáček and Suk.

“That’s right.”

Would you say that Czech music is close to your heart?

“Yes, actually very close to my heart. I’ve always absolutely loved Dvořák since I was quite a small child and in fact grew up playing Dvořák quartets. I first really got into Janáček’s music, again, through his quartets, and I absolutely adore his sonatas. The rawness of the emotion and the absolute honesty; that in a couple of bars he can break your heart or open up a whole world to the listener and the musician.

“I’ve always absolutely loved Dvořák since I was quite a small child. It gives me energy and it feels so full of the joy of living.”

“And in fact, I’m actually currently working on a Dvořák cycle with my string quartets, all of the complete Dvořák quartets. So, we’re playing five of them this season. It is music that I absolutely adore, it gives me energy, it feels so full of life, full of the joy of living and the visceral experience that we all have.”

How did the album Bohemia come about?

“It actually sits at the beginning of a series of CD’s I’ve done over the past few years, which between them tell the story of the twentieth century. The one that will come after it would be the 1917 CD, though the Janáček is the latest work on this disk, written in 1914 right before the outbreak of the first World War.

“The idea behind the disk is to give a music window into the incredibly cultured world of central Europe, which was completely lost after the first World War.

Out of these three composers, which of them seems to be the biggest challenge for you?

“That’s a very difficult question. I find everything challenging, to try and do it well and really get to the heart of the music I think is always a big task for a musician, and they demand very different things.

“Dvořák is quite optimistic and open, whereas Suk is incredibly melancholic. It’s quite a heartbreaking piece of music. It’s strange and unexpected and the harmonies in the piano are quite menacing.

Czech Philharmonic, photo: Petra Hajská / Czech Philharmonic
“And the Janáček, you just have to throw your heart into it. You really have to give yourself completely and that’s always a challenge and demands more of the person that’s playing it.”

As you said, you have a world premiere of a piece by Richard Blackford on Saturday, and then you are actually coming back to Prague to record this concerto, is that right?

“That is correct. On Monday we’ll be recording the concerto for release on Signun Classics, which is very exciting. I can’t wait for other people to be able to hear it. It’s a wonderful way to put the work out into the world, so that many people have the option to be able to experience it.”