Julian Lloyd Webber: Bowing out gracefully

Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Julian Lloyd Webber’s latest CD, And the Bridge is Love, is his debut as a conductor but his final recording as a cellist. Katie Jarvis spoke to him about the injury that prematurely ended his cello-playing career, and his plans for the future

Katie Jarvis with Julian Lloyd Webber

Katie Jarvis with Julian Lloyd Webber - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

There’s a little girl, in the Noel Arms coffee shop, mesmerising everyone. She’s glowing in pink - setting off the shine of her jet-black hair - and making friendly advances to a boy of similar age, who cannot resist. Her mum is sitting on a nearby table, sipping coffee, looking on with amusement. I’m pretty sure I’m watching Jiaxin Cheng, wife of Julian Lloyd Webber, and their three-year-old daughter, Jasmine. But it feels a bit forward to ask.

Then Julian himself walks in, only to be smothered in wide beams by the two of them. Of course! Here, in this small room, are two amazing musicians and, just maybe, an embryonic third. (“Jasmine loves singing songs from her uncle’s musicals!” Jiaxin tells me, later.)

Jasmine’s godparents are here, too, ready to do a spot of babysitting while Jiaxin fits in some practice back in the family’s honeyed cottage in nearby Broad Campden. Julian and I, meanwhile, sit at a table, he with a piece of carrot cake (“Why are you not having cake? Shocking!”), I with a list of questions I hardly dare ask.

Why? Well, because. Because. Because finally, at the age of 63, he seems to have the happy, settled family life he’s longed for, married to a fellow cellist who understands the other great love of his life as well as he does. But also because, as Jiaxin heads off to ‘work’, Julian is holding his latest CD: And the Bridge is Love. A gorgeous CD, full of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Ireland – it even reaches The Moon, a piece composed in 1950 by his late dad, William. But, like the strains of the cello itself, there’s a bittersweet quality, for Julian’s performance of the title track – penned by Howard Goodall - is his final recording as a cellist, played on an old, old friend, his 17th century ‘Barjanksy’ Stradivarius.

[Now, listen a moment. Before you think this is a full-blown Fauré Elégie, there’s some very happy news that arrives just after our interview. But I’m doing this chronologically, so (if you haven’t already heard) you’ll have patiently to await the second movement, in a few moments.]

The CD cover is also of a bridge, especially painted by Chipping Campden artist Paula-Jayne: Mordiford Bridge in Hereford, where Elgar used to fish with his great friend, the violinist WH Reed, whose arrangements of Chanson de nuit and Chanson de matin feature on the recording. It’s a fitting reflection of Goodall’s moving title track, commissioned by the Chipping Campden Music Festival back in 2008, though the quote refers to a rather different part of the globe. And the Bridge is Love comes from an acclaimed novel by Thornton Wilder, in which five people die when an Inca rope bridge collapses. But Goodall had in mind another tragedy, as he wrote – the death, in 2007, of a teenage cellist he knew well. The elegy he penned in her memory seeks meaning in the midst of hardly-bearable pain.

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For Julian, this surely must have had an added resonance? Because – without being insensitive to a dreadful loss of life – the injury that has robbed Julian of his own immediate musical life must have been like a bereavement in itself?

He nods. “Yes, at the time it really was.”

It was back in October 2013 that he realised there was a problem: a herniated disc in his neck; not painful, but which completely robbed his bowing arm of strength. “Suddenly. Out of the blue. I was absolutely scared – terrifying; playing in the middle of a concert: I can’t hold the bow; I feel I’m going to drop the bow.”

Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

(It’s interesting to analyse the delivery of those words. Short, sharp sentences. Present tense.)

“The worst time was for six months, while I was playing and while I was touring with Jiaxin. I was very fortunate that the music was all very gentle stuff; but, even then, I had to play some solo pieces and I couldn’t have gone on for any longer.” He pauses. “A horrible feeling. And I was seeing experts and surgeons, all with different opinions, trying to do things that would alleviate the problem.”

They told him they could operate, but that the operation was dangerous. And would probably not work. “So I’m thinking…”

Quite. And brilliant though the doctors undoubtedly were, when one told him to stop playing the cello for six months to see if the problem improved, “I just thought: I don’t think you understand the music profession!” It’s now nearly a year since he stopped playing professionally and the condition is unchanged, which is why he thinks the cello wasn’t the problem in the first place.

But if the medics didn’t always grasp the impact, there was one person who did. “Luckily, I was married to a cellist. In many ways, I actually felt sorry for Jiaxin because we’d just started doing all these concerts together; then suddenly, it had to stop. That was quite horrible for her and she was very upset. But, of course, she understood; she also understood to the point where she knew why I was taking these decisions; because she knows you can’t play only half a repertoire and be happy with that.”

In fact, the two of them are now touring the country (including Hereford, Bristol and Cheltenham) in a rather different sort of event – An Evening with Julian Lloyd Webber – which combines live music from Jiaxin and pianist Pam Chowham with anecdotes from Julian, and video footage of him with an eclectic array of greats: Nigel Kennedy, Elton John, Katherine Jenkins, Cleo Laine and Stephane Grappelli, among others.

“I even found a clip of me with Kenny Everett. It was so funny, working with him. Comic genius. Completely mad.”

So there you have it. Varied maybe. But the life of a self-employed musician – even one with the name Lloyd Webber – has also always been full of insecurity. And, though he’d never have given it up voluntarily, the one thing he doesn’t miss is the travelling. “Travelling with a cello was always nightmare. I always dreaded going by air. Even with a ticket for the cello, there were problems.

“What I really miss is communication with audience. With this tour I’m still going to have that, which is nice. But, of course, I’m not playing the music. It’s a strange time, especially listening to my wife playing pieces I would have been playing.”

Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

And then there’s the other new string to his bow – the conducting. He has, he says, no real ambition to be a conductor (“You’ll never find me doing Mahler symphony cycles”); but he did love the idea of working with the English Chamber Orchestra on pieces he’s known and loved all his life. Thus, And the Bridge is Love marks his debut recording as a conductor.

Did it feel strange, being the other side of the podium?

“Not really, actually. I wasn’t that great in the first rehearsal but, very quickly, I learned what to do.”

So what sorts of skills do you need to be a conductor?

“Working with an orchestra as good as that – really one of the best in the world as a chamber orchestra – means you shouldn’t get in the way of them. You encourage their music-making. Of course I have ideas about the music, but the basic thing a conductor does with pieces like this is set the temp – set the speed. That sounds easy but it’s not; it’s crucial to get the right speeds for things. And, of course, there was a big piece on there – Elgar Introduction and Allegro – where there were a lot of timing changes. That’s where so many performances go wrong – because they’re not balanced; they’re not structured.

“I conducted an orchestra in January abroad – I’m not going to say anything because people pick things up - and they were not nearly as good. I had to work very hard with them in rehearsal; use every second. I enjoyed it. I like music and I miss music, and I learned a lot from that, too.”

What he’d really like, though, is more of a 9-5 to get the discipline back into his life. Ideally in music education. He’s patron of the education arm of Chipping Campden International Music Festival, which takes place this month. (He has huge admiration for its founder, Charlie Bennett, of whom he says “When it started [in 2002], people would say, ‘The Chipping Campden Festival? What are you talking about?’ Now, it’s ‘Oh,yes! I’d like to play there.’ That’s what Charlie has created.”)

He’s particularly enthusiastic about the Festival Academy training orchestra, where students are able to play alongside professionals and world-class soloists: “The kind of visionary idea that should be happening much more. It’s so difficult to get started within the profession.”

I know he (and many others) has had worries about music education within state schools. Has that improved at all?

“It certainly hasn’t got worse in recent years. The potential to make it better is all laid out in the Government’s national music plan. The trouble is, they don’t seem able to implement it. There are several problems but the biggest is Ofsted. They are calling schools ‘outstanding’ that might not have a note of music in them, and I don’t think that should be allowed. Of course, every head teacher would want a school to be called outstanding; but, if music’s not a part of that, they will purposely ignore it because of the timetable.

“But what we as a music sector – I hate that word, but there you go – should really focus on are the statistics that we have across the board. They prove that, if you learn a musical instrument and if you do study music, it actually helps other schoolwork. So it’s not a question of either/or. Actually, if you don’t have music, you’re missing something with the schoolwork.”

He talks about his involvement with the charity Live Music Now, a little–known gem set up by Yehudi Menuhin, which gives more than 2,500 performances a year in places such as special schools and care homes. “We went to see one form, which was known as the worst in the school, full of children with serious problems. They said of one little girl, ‘Don’t worry about her. She’ll just run around. She’ll never sit still. She can’t’.

“Then a musician came in with a bassoon, which she played to the children – all kinds of different things. And this little girl sits down, looking at this bassoon. And she sat still. And the teachers just couldn’t believe it. This is the effect of music and I see it for myself. You know, there must be more recognition of this. By stifling music, we stifle creativity. Not everyone’s going to be a musician but some might and we’re missing a lot of talent, I think.”

He also thinks we lose something when we pigeon-hole music as ‘classical’. The point is, there is good music and there is bad. Indeed, when I ask him which musicians he would most like to have met, he names Shostakovich: “The funny thing is, I could just have met him in theory. He died in 1975 and he came to London in ’73.” And Buddy Holly. “Both were geniuses, which is a word I rarely use. Buddy Holly was killed at only 22; he had 18 months of recording. It was a tragedy. He was talking about writing a classical guitar piece; about doing film music. If you listen to the many recordings there are – at least half of them were never supposed to be released – you never hear him sing a note out of tune. A total natural. A very unique voice.”

So how far can we take this? Would Mozart have liked rap?

“He’d probably have liked it. Because he was quite a difficult character, I think he would have appreciated it.”

And so, a few weeks after our interview, the news he’s been hoping for comes through. Julian has been appointed Principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire, replacing David Saint, who retired last month.

May I have a quote, I ask. Certainly, he emails back. “I am thrilled to be chosen as the new Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. The new campus will open in September 2017 and the state-of-the-art facilities will be second to none and superior to many. I am especially excited about the fantastic opportunities that will be on offer to our students.”

As far as I’m concerned, the short version is “Yippee!” all round.


For details of tour dates for An Evening With Julian Lloyd Webber, visit www.julianlloydwebber.com

Chipping Campden International Music Festival runs from May 11 to 24. For more information visit campdenmusicfestival.co.uk or call 01386 849018.