Striking his own chord

British cellist Steven Isserlis’s Reign of the Cello is one of many tantalizing items in this year’s Chamber Music Festival.

Steven Isserlis (photo credit: SATOSHI AOYAGI)
Steven Isserlis
(photo credit: SATOSHI AOYAGI)
This year’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival will take place in our southernmost resort February 2-7. The six-day program includes 15 concerts that cover expansive sonic and disciplinary terrain, including the works of many of the usual suspects – Mozart, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Schumann and J.S. Bach, but also material from contemporary composers, such as 20th century titans Francis Poulenc and Gyorgy Ligeti, and 57-year-old Marco Beasly. There will also be intriguing readings of extramural numbers by the likes of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, George Gershwin and even rock singer-bass guitarist and sometime cellist Sting.
The lineup also features numerous master classes presented by the likes of German violinist Joshua Epstein, Canadian trumpeter Jens Lindemann, French pianist Eric Le Sage and compatriot cellist François Salque. The latter will not be the only stellar cellist around in Eilat next week, and it is the definitive feather in the festival’s decade-old hat that it has acclaimed British cellist Steven Isserlis on this year’s roster.
Isserlis will front the Reign of the Cello concert that will take place at 9 p.m. on February 5. For the occasion he will join forces with Swiss ensemble Camerata Geneva and 37-year-old Israeli conductor David Greilsammer in a program that takes in works by Haydn, Ligeti, Mozart and late 17th century French composer and viol player Marin Marais.
Isserlis is one of the most colorful characters on the global classical music circuit, and he is clearly blessed with a healthy sense of humor, in addition to his polished instrumental skills. When I asked him what, for him, is so special about the cello, his response was: “What isn’t special about the cello?” As we all know, answering a question with another question is a typically Jewish trait and Isserlis certainly has the requisite ethnic, besides artistic, genes. He was born into a musical family in London in 1958. His grandfather, Julius Isserlis, was a Russian Jew who was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian culture. Happily, he never returned to the USSR. Musical talent permeated through the generations. The cellist’s mother was a piano teacher, and his father was a keen amateur musician. His sister Annette and Rachel are both professional musicians, on viola and violin respectively.
Unsurprisingly, for Isserlis, music evokes a sense of togetherness and closeness. “I don’t remember a world without music,” he says. “I used to go to sleep to the sounds of my father practicing the violin, and/or my mother [playing] the piano. Music still keeps my sisters and me close. We know many of the same people, think very similarly about music and can share endless musical memories.”
In fact, Isserlis claims an impressive musical and cultural familial backdrop which, presumably, may inform how he goes about his work. Mendelssohn is one of many famous characters who feature in his lineage.
“I’m not sure that it informs how I go about my work,” he muses, “but I’m proud of it! Karl Marx and Helena Rubinstein are also on the Isserlis family tree. On my mother’s side is the important [nineteenth century Jewish German liturgical composer] Louis Lewandowski. I can’t claim any credit for it, but I still like to think of it.”
Isserlis was clearly keen to get on with things and started studying with cello teacher Jane Cowan, at the City of London School, at the age of 10. When Cowan relocated far from Isserlis’s home, five years later, the teenager upped sticks and cello and followed her to Scotland. That must have been quite a move for the youngster, and quite a challenge to be so far away from his family at such a young age.
“I attended Jane’s school up there, between the ages of 15 and 17,” he recalls. “The terms [semesters] at her school – the International Cello Center, as it was rather grandly called – were short, though, so I didn’t really feel like leaving home.”
Even so, making the effort to relocate hundreds of kilometers from home is, presumably, an indication of how important music was to the youth.
“I was certainly passionate about the cello, of course!” Declares Isserlis. The British cellist says that Cowan facilitated his steep learning curve, and made him feel at ease with the challenge of mastering the cello. “She made me feel that the great composers were my friends, talking to me through their music, and also that playing the cello was easy.”
Cowan, it seems, adopted a user-friendly approach to the craft. “All of her technical teaching was completely at the service of the music,” Isserlis continues. “One got things in the right order to play the pieces one wanted to play, not because one had to learn a method.”
Isserlis fed off a few other sources of inspiration along the way. “Many people have influenced me, including several Hungarians – [20th century violinist and conductor] Sandor Vegh, [composer] Gyorgy Kurtag, [80-year-old pianist and composer] Ferenc Rados and [61-year-old pianist and composer] Andras Schiff. My cello heroes are Pablo Casals and Daniil Shafran.”
In keeping with Isserlis’s tongue-in-cheek ethos, he cites another musical performer in his list of influences, although this one is mostly known for his comedic side. “The personality of probably my greatest hero of all, Harpo Marx,” says Isserlis, “and there are others.”
It is safe to say that most – if not all – musicians, at some point or other along their learning curve try to emulate their professional idols. Isserlis was no different. “I used to imitate Shafran’s style far too much. It drove Jane Cowan crazy!” It has proven to be an enduring element in Isserlis’s approach.
“I can still hear his influence on, for instance, my new recording of concertos by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.”
But, it seems, aping is not always a bad thing. “Well, better to imitate a genius than a mediocrity!” Isserlis safely points out.
Besides the “serious” stuff, Isserlis also caught some pop and rock music in his childhood and youth, and some has stayed with him. “I loved the Beatles – I still love them,” he exclaims. “I listen to them before every concert. But I sort of stuck there, I’m afraid. I occasionally hear today’s pop-rock music. Some of it I really like, some I hate. I feel I understand it better than I understand most modern jazz.”
Isserlis’s repertoire is about as diverse as they come, so one wonders if he works on contemporary works differently from “the classics.” Isserlis says he approaches modern and older works in a similar way, although there is one important logistical benefit to working on material written by composers who are still around.
“It’s usually a bit easier [to work on a contemporary piece] because if you have a question you can call the composer and ask him/her about it. That’s tricky to do with Beethoven,” Isserlis adds with a laugh.
“Maybe it’s because he’s deaf – he doesn’t even answer the phone!” Safe to say Isserlis’s audience in Eilat will not be deaf to his skills, and would gladly answer if the cellist ever called.
For tickets and more information about the festival: *9066, (08) 637-7068 and