An Interview with Julian Lloyd Webber
Internationally acclaimed cellist Julian Lloyd Webber says he is moving on from the shock of his performing career being cut short by a serious health problem. He talks to Sheena Hastings about bouncing back and finding another way to express himself.
Julian Lloyd Webber is the sort of man who will always find a way of communicating his passion for music.
He says returning to the Harrogate International Festivals will be like is like a homecoming for him. He’s guest curator at HIF this summer.
He’s performed at the festivals a dozen times, going back to being featured in the Young Musician series. “It’s one of the very first places I performed in public,” he says. “I played the Royal Hall in 1970 when I was 19. In a Beethoven bicentenary concert with John Lill. Things took off from there.”
It was there that he records Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yehudi Menuhin. It’s a version considered by many to be the finest ever.
“Harrogate has great venues and a great musical tradition. You know you’re going to get a good audience of people who follow classical music and are very warm and appreciative.”
“Circled the globe”
He’s lost none of his zest for music and desire to inspire others. But a spinal problem diagnosed early in 2014 means he can only play in short bursts or to demonstrate technique. But he’ll be taking a masterclass and is involved in suggesting artists for this year’s programme, including rising star pianist Jenna Sung from South Korea.
“I heard her at an audition. She was outstanding, really one to watch,” he says. He’s an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of young talent. He’s also an avid supporter of Leyton Orient FC, with club memorabilia festooned about his bathroom.
Julian Lloyd Webber and his older brother, King of the West End musical (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber, grew up in a noisy house in Kensington. Andrew is always much more interested in composing music. Julian doesn’t take to the piano but is curiously drawn to the cello from the age of four.
He says its allure has to do with “a quality that speaks almost like the human voice”. Once he hears the magic of Rostropovich in concert he is hooked.
He is privately educated, yet the family are late adopters of labour-saving devices, such as a washing machine. Dad is a composer, Mum a piano teacher. There is a lot of clatter, as you expect, but very little rivalry between the brothers.
“There wasn’t any overlap, really,” says Julian. “I wanted to interpret the work of great composers. He wanted to write his own music. We have done the odd thing together. He played at my 50th and 60th birthdays. But generally we just do our own thing.”
After the Royal College of Music, Julian dedicates his life to the cello. He practices for five to six hours a day. He circles the globe in concert, and his first three marriages ended in divorce (there is an adult son, David, by his second wife, Zohra Mahmoud Ghazi).
Does he think that his absolute dedication to music and the globetrotting it entails played its part in marital breakdown? “It can’t have helped,” he says simply.
“Certainly being married to a musician (he married fellow cellist Jiaxin Cheng in 2009 and they have one child, four-year-old Jasmine) means she understands the stresses and strains on a performer.
“She wouldn’t, for instance, pick a fight on the day of a concert,” says Lloyd Webber with a wry smile.
He met Chinese-born and trained Cheng while touring in New Zealand. The couple have toured together over the last few years.
Now, after 40 years on the road with his Stradivarius and many collaborations with artists including Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, Neville Marriner, Georg Solti, Cleo Laine and Elton John – and awards that include a BRIT for his Elgar Cello Concerto conducted by Menuhin – the musician’s performances are very different.
Julian Lloyd Webber is no longer able to weave the magic on his beloved Stradivarius, and clearly regulars at his concerts will miss his unique interpretations. But, in An Evening With Julian Lloyd Webber he will provide the wit and anecdotes while others play musical highlights from his career.
Telling the story of his musical journey, from the first moment of rapture in hearing the cello live, to performing with the greats. Even becoming the first official busker on the London Underground, he uses film and photos from his private collection.
Jiaxin Cheng will play musical highs from his career, alongside pianist Pam Chow. These will include a Philip Glass piece created for Lloyd Webber, as well as Bach, Faure, Rachmaninov and others.
Should a young cellist or two turn up with their instrument, they may well be joining him onstage, he says. The feel of the evening will be “intimate and spontaneous”.
The idea came about a few months after Lloyd Webber’s injury is diagnosed as being so serious that he is stripped of his ability to play with any sustained intensity.
At only 62, and in the middle of a highly demanding festival appearance in Southwold, Suffolk in late 2013, he lost most of the power in his bowing arm. An MRI scan revealed a severely herniated disc. It was pressing on the spinal canal and causing nerve root damage.
Three specialist surgeons all say that they should not operate, mainly because Lloyd Webber suffers discomfort and loss of muscle power, but not pain. The risks of surgery included paralysis, loss of his voice – or possibly death.
The damage already done can’t be undone by other means, he says. But the surgical option is just too dicey. Especially as he and Cheng have a child to consider. But he still needs to earn a living, albeit in a different way.
Without the injury he could continue to play professionally for many more years. But the condition means the game is up. He says there were “some very dark days” after the diagnosis. He describes the trauma as “Something like a bereavement. Because in a very real sense I was losing a large part of who I was.”
Picking himself up means that his beloved Strad, which he struggled to afford in his 20s, is now on the market. He says it’s part of moving on from the blow. He’s looking to the future and is delighted, given his enthusiasm for young talent, that from July he will be Principal of Birmingham Music Conservatoire.
Developing young musicians is a role he already relishes. He continues to be evangelical about the transformative power of playing music for children.
A few years back Lloyd Webber and his friends, flautist James Galway and percussionist Evelyn Glennie, formed a charity. It received government funding for music education in disadvantaged areas via a scheme called ‘In Harmony’.
“We’ve done good things. But I find it unbelievable that a school can still be judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted without music being part of the equation. We need parents and teachers to understand that children are not either academic or musical. They can be both – and making music helps other kinds of study.
“We have seen some so-called ‘problem’ children flourishing academically after they’ve started to learn an instrument. Music isn’t a frill – it’s a necessity.”