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15 Questions to Fenella Barton

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hackney, London, in my flat, looking over my neighbours’ back gardens, watching my seven year old neighbour boss her friends around.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I always need to have a cappuccino at my local deli to get me going. Today I spent all morning practising the first two variations and tricky arpeggios at the end of the Schubert Fantasie and the opening of the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata. This afternoon I’m having a massage.

Can you still remember the first time you heard a piece of classical music?

Yes! At my nursery school aged three or four. I can remember listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, imagining vividly a scene of birds, water and a thunderstorm. Even now, playing Beethoven I feel moved by his determination and resolve and the transcendental quality in his music. I love playing the Kreutzer Sonata, one of his absolute masterpieces.

What was the deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?

Hearing Paul Tortelier play the Elgar Concerto when I was ten. I really wanted to perform as expressively as him on the violin.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
The hardest part of being a musician is being served eggs as a vegetarian all over the world! More seriously though, a schedule of intense practising and touring makes it really hard to see my friends as much as I’d like.
For me the most fun part of being a musician is, when I perform, I hear what ever I ‘m playing as if for the first time. This is endlessly inspiring, however many times I ‘ve performed the piece. Performance for me is all about responding spontaneously to the music and the other performers. It’s lovely to hear afterwards from the audience that they’ve had a visceral response to the music.

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?
I was a young person once and want young people to respond as passionately as I did when I first heard classical music. I think it’s important to play to audiences of all ages and one of the skills of programming is to inspire a love for a wide variety of music from 18th century to 2008 regardless of the age of the audience I’m playing to.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for classical music?

I’m very excited by the whole shift of possibilities and expectations that technology presents to me as a player. For composers and performers alike, the developments are unprecedented. When I performed John Casken’s A Belle Pavine for solo violin and electronic track for the first time, it was a whole new experience for me as a musician.

With so many different recordings of a particular piece available – how do you keep yours fresh and different?
It’s never been an issue for me. This year I ‘m taking off six months to prepare a recording of all six of the solo Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Part of that preparation will be to listen closely to a whole variety of other violinists’ interpretations. I ‘ll listen with as much curiosity to Menuhin as to my contemporaries. And also to Casals’ recording of the cello suites made in the 1930s. But when the red light’s on it’s my own interpretation that counts.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

It’s got to be heartfelt. It’s also got to be authoritative and that comes from a profound knowledge of the composers’ intentions. When I’m performing at my best it’s a zen state of being in the moment.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
I ‘m looking for the essence of the music. Having said that, when I perform it’s different every time. I think of it as being my responsibility as a performer to allow each composer to voice their music through me. Playing with friends is the most rewarding. I love playing duos with my dear friend Simone Dinnerstein. We’ve known each other for 20 years and we’re giving a concert at Wigmore Hall soon.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
Every performer has their own response to the music they’re playing. But what you don’t want is any sense of indulgence. You really do have to listen terribly carefully all the time.

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and classical music?

I think that classical music can enhance everyone’s life from the age of three onwards, just as it did for me. I love enthusing people about music. Children need to be given the chance to learn an instrument, play in groups together, play in concerts and listen to concerts in the school given by professionals so they can experience music close up.  Every child deserves the chance to participate regularly in music making. I really believe that learning to play an instrument when you are young gives you the chance to develop across the board, particularly coordination and listening skills which are valuable in all sorts of ways for the rest of your life.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I get a real kick out bringing to light really good repertoire which is little known. There’s some gorgeous post romantic Russian repertoire for violin and piano which nobody plays.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
Passionate. Four years ago it looked as if my life as a performer was going to be taken away from me because of acute rheumatoid arthritis. At one stage I couldn’t even lift up my bow. Now, symptom free, I play with all the more abandon and freedom. Every performance is a personal celebration.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?

I had a few lessons on the sitar. I was never very good at contorting my self to accommodate the instrument even though I ‘m a string player, but I love listening to Indian classical music.

Fenella Barton

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