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Julian Lloyd Webber is part of Britain’s musical elite. But his greatest passion is for bringing the classical repertoire back to schools. Here he talks to Samantha Laurie ahead of the Barnes Music Festival (22 March-6 April)
He is one of the world’s most celebrated cellists; one of the finest classical musicians of modern times. So when Julian Lloyd Webber steps on stage at this month’s Barnes Music Festival, dedicated this year to three great British composers – Elgar, Holst and Delius – whose work has been pivotal in his career, there will be no shortage of audience acclaim.
Adding extra piquancy to the evening is the fact that Julian will be performing several pieces with his wife and fellow cellist, Jiaxin Cheng, as well as music by his father, William, an accomplished composer whose scores have rarely been heard. Only Andrew, the cellist’s prodigiously talented brother who long ago made the West End his own, will be silent when the family roll call is read.
“The cello,” muses Julian, whose latest recording venture is an album of cello duets performed with his wife, “is the closest sound to the human voice. These duets sound like two voices singing. It is a wonderful introduction to classical music.”
Wishful thinking? Well, possibly. For what Julian won’t see in Barnes is what he experienced during his recent tour in China: a sea of teenage faces. Audiences for live classical performance in the UK may be thriving, but they’re not getting any younger. And this worries the star greatly.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in my profession is that classical music is no longer part of the mainstream in the UK. When music disappeared from schools in the 70s and 80s, it left behind a generation with no interest in or knowledge of it; a generation that is afraid of it. And those people are today’s TV executives and newspaper editors.
“When I was growing up, the Daily Mail and Daily Express would have a daily concert review. Now, the only way they’d write about classical music would be in relation to some performer’s chest size. It’s a big underestimation of what audiences want.”
A point highlighted by the closing ceremony of London 2012, when Julian’s performance served as background music for a speech by Winston Churchill.
“I was delighted to be there, but it did seem that they were scared to let classical music speak for itself, even for a few seconds,” he reflects.
Returning music to schools and opening up the classics to new audiences is his passion. In 2003 he formed the Music Education Consortium that “bullied and badgered” the then Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, into ringfencing money for music in schools – a commitment that has been honoured by the Coalition. Then, in 2007, he heard a performance at the Proms that was to change his life. It was the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra showcasing El Sistema, Venezuela’s extraordinary, publicly funded education programme that draws children into music from lives of poverty and crime.
Lloyd Webber determined to bring El Sistema to the UK’s most deprived areas. Over four years, he has overseen the setting up of six projects in different parts of the country. Schools that participate in the programme – known in England as In Harmony – set aside four and a half hours a week of curriculum time for children to learn and play music together. And the results have been dramatic: at Faith Primary School, West Everton, in Liverpool, literacy and numeracy levels of the pupils involved have soared. Once just 35% attained the national average – now it’s over 80%.
But it is the social and personal transformation that most moves Lloyd Webber.
“When you hear families say that it has changed children’s attitudes and expectations, given them respect for each other and their communities, you realize that this is about real social change through music,” he says.
Yet what is curious about his passion for El Sistema, with its focus on collaborative musicmaking, is that it is almost the antithesis of his own musical path. Born into an extremely musical family – his father a fine organist and composer, his mother a piano teacher to talented youngsters, his brother destined to create a string of blockbuster musicals – Julian describes his upbringing as chaotic and disorganised.
“We were all in different rooms, all doing our own thing. Meals must have got made and eaten, but I’m not sure how.”
He chose the cello to escape his mother’s piano tutelage, but at 13 it was hearing Rostropovich, the Russian maestro, play in London that made him realize how much he longed to make it his life. He wanted to become a soloist, he reveals, because that was how he heard the instrument in his head. From then on, he lost interest in schoolwork and focused with resolve on the cello, practising six and a half hours a day.
“I had the great fortune to be exposed to many musical influences. I was able to make my own choice about music. But without that influence in the home, the only place for children to encounter a wide range of great music is school.”
At 17, Julian won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. He was one of the few students from fee-paying schools, whereas now it would be the reverse, he points out. Around the same time, he was given a score of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by his godfather, the composer Herbert Howells, and this sowed the seeds of a profound musical relationship between Lloyd Webber and the piece. It has been, he says, “a constant, significant presence in my life”.
Cello music is often a composer’s last or very late work. Many of the deepest, darkest pieces are written for the cello, in part because of its versatility – it has the widest range of pitch of any instrument other than the piano – but also because of its similarity to the human voice.
Conducted by Yehudi Menuhin, Julian’s recording of Elgar’s haunting lament – written in the aftermath of World War I – is considered by many to be the finest ever version.
Between the Lloyd Webber brothers, there was little musical rivalry: their paths, says Julian, were quite different.
"I would go with him to hear the great rock and rollers, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers; he would come with me to classical concerts. But he always knew that he wanted to compose, and played only so much piano as enabled him to do so. I knew I wanted to perform.”
As adults, their professional paths have rarely crossed. The one exception was in 1978, when Andrew wrote Variations for his brother – the only instrumental piece he has ever written.
Their father’s story, however, casts a longer shadow over family life. An accomplished musician he may have been, but William’s true vocation was composing. He wrote his most substantial orchestral piece, Aurora, in the year Andrew was born, but was reluctant to champion it.
“He didn’t have the temperament. He wasn’t prepared for people to say it wasn’t good, so he stopped writing.”
Pressure to earn a living, along with a suspicion that his romantic, sensual musical style was out of step with the prevailing fashion, drove William away from composing and into teaching.
He rarely discussed his work with his sons.
“He was a remote man,” reflects Julian. “Disappointed, certainly at the end.”
The brothers had no idea of the quality and quantity of their father’s work until he died. But in recent years, Julian has unearthed and republished much of it. William’s cello composition, Moon Silver, is on the new album, A Tale of Two Cellos, and his work will also feature at Barnes.
The album marks a new direction for Julian: for the first time he is travelling, practising and performing with more than just his Barjansky Stradivarius for company. He met his fourth wife when they were performing in New Zealand. At 39, Jiaxin Cheng is 23 years his junior and Lloyd Webber’s first significant partner from the same musical world. Together they have a two-year-old daughter.
For a man who has spent his life as a soloist, Julian is rather enjoying the shared experience.
“Maybe I’ll look at doing more chamber music in the future,” he muses, aware that the pressure would be shared. The life of a soloist, he admits, requires total dedication that doesn’t get any easier with age.
He is also savouring the pleasures of an energetic toddler who already shows signs of a love for music. With her lineage, she will scarcely lack for musical influences and opportunities. It’s for her peers that her father worries.
Julian Lloyd Webber performs with Jiaxin Cheng and the Verter Trio at St Mary’s, Barnes, on Mar 29. £20 (£18 concs). For full festival programme: barnesmusicfestival.com (also for booking)
The Richmond Magazine series has three copies of A Tale of Two Cellos to give away.