An Interview with Julian Bliss
Julian Bliss is considered the world’s finest clarinettist. He heads to Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series in February…
How far back can you remember? Scientists believe few adults remember anything before the age of three and a half. Some theories put this down to a lack of language skills before that age. Music is clearly a language of its own, because Julian Bliss remembers the moment that went on to shape his life, aged just four, when he began playing the clarinet.
“A lot of people assume it came from my parents or I’m from a musical family, but actually my family are complete non-musicians. So it was very much out of the blue,” Julian says. His dad owns a motorcycle shop and his mum is a full-time mother of three.
“I sort of just decided that I wanted to play music. I don’t quite know where it came from. And of course, as a four-year-old I didn’t know what instrument I wanted to play. Originally they gave me a recorder in an effort to keep me entertained. I played it for a couple of weeks. I guess I knew there was something else out there that I wanted to play. So my parents took me to a local music shop just to see if there was anything I liked playing. I tried pretty much every instrument under the sun, but the clarinet was the one. I probably knew a couple of minutes after picking it up.”
“The only reason I played was because I enjoyed it”
Aged four? Really?
“I can remember some aspects of it. I remember trying various instruments – the cello, a cornet. And I do remember some elements of when I was given the clarinet to try, yeah, some memories.”
Maybe his rich memory is also down to the fact that, at 27, he grew up in a digital age. There’s an adorable YouTube clip of him playing Gershwin on the clarinet, aged just five, for ITV.
Today, Julian has been claimed as ‘one of the world’s finest clarinettists’. Harrogate audiences will be treated to a collection of some of the greatest music, curated especially by Bliss for the 2017 International Festival. “I love Yorkshire. Harrogate has a great reputation for its appreciative audiences, and I regularly attend the Ryedale Festival. I hope to be back for that in 2018.”
Despite his early TV appearance, and the fact he performed at Prince Philip’s birthday aged six, he resists the child prodigy label.
“A lot of people like to put labels on things or people. The only reason I played was because I enjoyed it. There was never a sense of having to do it, or thinking of a career. As a four-year-old that doesn’t enter your mind. I had a great childhood, I did all the normal things kids should do and more.”
And a few extra special things too.
“My first big concert, one I remember particularly was for Prince Phillip’s birthday. What six-year-old wouldn’t like to have a look around Buckingham Palace and poke around probably where he shouldn’t be going?” he laughs. “It was an amazing experience. I didn’t really start to travel properly until my teens, really. After the Queen’s Jubilee concert when I started to do more concerts, and I love it, I love travelling. A lot of people say, as you get older you might start to like it less, it might be more of a chore, but I love it.”
As a soloist, family and friends are important to Julian, and he’s full of praise for his parents.
“Even though my parents weren’t musicians, they were still unbelievably supportive. I could never have done any of this without them. They were always there. My mum would travel all over the world with me and look after me when I was under 18. So my parents are my biggest influences, especially my mum, she’s great.”
There are many teachers who also left a positive mark, but one stands out.
“The one that sticks to my mind the most was the German clarinettist Sabine Meyer. She was the first woman to ever be in the Berlin Philharmonic, which doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but back then it was a very, very big deal.”
“Kids partaking in music for a couple of years have a higher IQ”
Meyer was appointed in 1982 but was voted out nine-months later by the orchestra who insisted her tone did not blend with theirs. But others believed the true reason was her gender. She went on to become a celebrated soloist.
“I studied with her for about six years. That really had a profound impact on my playing. She changed quite a lot about my playing, for the better.”
The role of teachers and education is one he is passionate about in music.
“Unfortunately in the UK, arts are the first thing to be cut. In America, in many schools in many states – it’s not the case everywhere – music is a lesson as part of the day. They have a choir, a band; it’s part of the fabric of the school as they have marching bands that support the sports teams. The difficulty is to make it part of the curriculum and show not only teachers, but parents, the benefits of having their kids involved in music. The benefits are far reaching. They’ve done studies and found kids partaking in music for a couple of years have a higher IQ and their social skills are better because they’re interacting with other people. That’s just two of the benefits.
“There’s a lot of good people in this country doing a lot of work trying to make that situation better. There are schools that have fantastic music programmes, but I think we should work on it more so music is part of the fabric of the school day. To be honest, a lot of young people probably do like classical music more than they thought as a lot of it these days is used in films and all over the place.”
“Young people see classical music as a very formal affair”
When he plays in Harrogate, Julian will deliver his trademark personality to really reach out to audiences.
“Young people see classical music as a very formal affair. You have to go to the concert hall, dress in a certain way, even listening there are a lot of rules. You can’t clap in certain places. I think they get put off by it a little bit, and even sometimes by the performer. Sometimes they don’t interact with the audience, they just glide on to stage and it’s all disconnected from real life,” he says.
“I always try and make my concerts informal in some ways. I always talk to the audience and explain a little about the music. The story behind what they’re about to listen to engages the audience a bit more. There’s a couple of pieces they’ll recognise – a Chopin Nocturne – and some they won’t, but it’s not too out there.”
So what’s going to be the next incredible memory in his life, apart from appearing in Harrogate of course? Well, he plans to tour with his jazz band across America in 2018, which he’s buzzing about, and hints at a few upcoming commissions.
“Hopefully some will be out next year. It’s very secret at the moment. There’s some pretty exciting stuff!”
Julian Bliss and pianist Robert Bottriell perform at Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series on Sunday 19 February, 11am at the Old Swan Hotel. The Sunday Series runs until April. For the full programme and to book visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com. Box Office: 01423 562 303.
images: Ben Wright