Steven Isserlis: ‘Music is an international language – it’d be terrible if we shrink it’

17 December 2018, 12:59

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Tonight, the great cellist Steven Isserlis will be joined by a host of international soloists for his 60th birthday concert, at London’s Wigmore Hall. We met him there to ask about his musical influences, music education, Brexit – and why he won’t stay away from Twitter.

What was your experience of music lessons at school?

My main school was very musical – the City of London School. I can’t say the teaching was always inspired, but I was getting inspiration from my family, who were all musicians. And again, that’s such a great thing for a family.

If you all play music, you’ve got so much more in common and you can’t drift apart. I hardly know any musical siblings who drift apart. You meet the same people, react to the same things and always have so much to talk about – and that’s true for me and my sisters.

But also, I was getting inspiration on a daily basis from my great teacher, Jane Cowan. I think I had six lessons a week at one point – so I was very lucky in that way. But I think schools should offer music, and they should offer it as a pleasure, a chance for the children to enjoy themselves.

The subject of music education has been in the news a lot. What are the dangers of denying children the chance to study music?

I think it’s very sad if a child is denied music. There are dangers in offering it if the teachers are boring – they have to be inspired and inspiring.

But if you do have a child fall in love with music from an early age, it will help them for their whole lives. As I’ve often said, you don’t get a child on the street, beating up other gangs, selling drugs and humming Mozart. If a child is singing Mozart, that’s a happy child.

Unfortunately, not everyone will get the opportunity, and that’s very sad. But to actively deny the children [that chance] is a bit like Hard Times by Charles Dickens where all the education is completely practical and the children grow up miserable. Music and all the arts fill a child’s life with light.

Who have you worked with in your career that you particularly admire?

In terms of teachers, there was my teacher Jane Cowan and then there was Sándor Végh, the great if sometimes difficult Hungarian violinist. Then there are two people who are, thank goodness, still with us and I hope they will be involved in my birthday concert: the composer [György] Kurtág, who is an absolute fanatical idealist and I love him.

And then Ferenc Rados, who is a wonderful pianist who taught András Schiff, who is also in my birthday concert, and he has X-ray vision into music – that’s always been very helpful.

There are also so many wonderful players I collaborate with all the time, like Joshua Bell the violinist, Connie Shih the pianist, Steven Hough, Olli Mustonen, Tabea Zimmermann. They have all been regular markers in my career.

You’re an avid Tweeter. Do you think social media is important for today’s musicians?

I don’t think anybody who doesn’t feel like doing social media should feel they have to do it. But I just have little sentences come into my mind so I share them on Twitter. I’m not sure I’m proud of it, but I do enjoy it.

We’re surrounded by news of Brexit. How will it affect British and European musicians – and have you seen any effects so far?

I can’t say I’ve seen any effects so far, but of course we’re all a bit in fear and trembling. If I have to get a visa every time I go to Germany, it’s going to be a pain for me personally.

I don’t think I’ll be the one who really suffers. It’s more players in orchestras who have permanent jobs in other European countries – they’ll feel very insecure and that’s such a pity because like our football teams, these orchestras benefit so much from having people from other countries in them. The sound and the atmosphere of the orchestra changes.

Music is an international language – it’d be terrible if we shrink it so that only the people from here can play over here.

Join Steven Isserlis tonight (Monday 17 December) at Wigmore Hall for his 60th birthday concert. Tickets here.