Pianist Yulia Chaplina starts her series of interviews “Musicians in Isolation”. Last week she spoke with Sir András Schiff. This week Yulia is in conversation with the great British cellist Steven Isserlis.  Acclaimed worldwide for his profound musicianship and technical mastery, British cellist Steven Isserlis enjoys a uniquely varied and distinguished career as a soloist, chamber musician, educator, author and broadcaster.

Steven Isserlis

As a concerto soloist he appears with many of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, including the Berlin Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra Washington, London Philharmonic and Zurich Tonhalle orchestras, He gives recitals every season in major musical centres, and plays with many of the world’s foremost chamber orchestras, including the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Australian, Mahler, Norwegian, Scottish, Zurich and St Paul Chamber Orchestras, as well as period-instrument ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Unusually, he also directs chamber orchestras from the cello. Steven works with many contemporary composers and regularly premieres new works on the international concert stage.

Steven Isserlis and Yulia Chaplina

Yulia Chaplina: Steven, you have been wonderfully engaged with audiences online via your social networks (on Twitter and Facebook). Your audiences, myself included, are absolutely thrilled with this daily interaction during this uneasy time. Do you feel it is your social duty as an artist to engage or is it also fun for you? 

Steven Isserlis: It’s definitely fun – though it does take time. I presume you’re referring to my daily exchange of musical recommendations with the singer Matthew Rose? I don’t know when we’ll stop – we’ll have to, sometime soon! But it has been interesting; and I’ve got to hear (through his choices) some glorious vocal music that I didn’t know.

Yulia Chaplina: There are some musicians who are happy on their own just with their instruments, especially pianists. Is the isolation a blessing or a curse for you?

Steven Isserlis: Well, it’s a major curse in that tragedies are occurring every day, of course – some of them truly heart-breaking. On a smaller scale, I’m missing concerts a lot, and wondering when on earth they might restart. But it’s true that there’s a lot to do – so far, anyway – and I find that my days are still too short. I’m lucky in that I have some space, and I live with family, and have my cello; so I can’t complain. Yulia Chaplina: Very few artists of your stature are engaging with audiences via social media at the moment, which is a shame. Do you wish that to change?

Steven Isserlis: It’s up to each artist to choose his or her path. Almost all the online activity in which I’m engaged has happened more or less by accident, or by request; I feel pretty comfortable with what I’ve done so far – but if a musician doesn’t feel that they want to perform or talk online, then so be it. There shouldn’t be any pressure.

Yulia Chaplina: What are your thoughts on the future of live concerts? Do you think people will be cautious to attend live concerts for a long time? Has this pandemic changed the performing art world forever or will there be a return to “normal”?

Steven Isserlis: I hope there will be a return to normal when we finally have a vaccine – let’s just pray…!

Yulia Chaplina: Recently you have done an absolutely marvellous informal concert for children online. What is your feeling towards the informal home streaming many musicians turn to? 

Steven Isserlis: Well, the acoustics in my music room aren’t great – and I don’t have sophisticated equipment, just my phone; but despite the basic sound, it felt like a fun thing to do – and I was very encouraged by all the questions coming in live, which reassured me that I wasn’t playing into a vacuum. I’m planning to give maybe one more children’s concert online, with the violinist Amarins Wierdsma (who lives here here with my son Gabriel, who films most of the things I’m doing). After that I’ll be out of repertoire, until I can play with a pianist!

Yulia Chaplina: I know it is very uneasy to make any assumptions, but do you think younger people will appreciate live concerts more or less after the pandemic? Will the high level of online streaming result in more younger audiences in the concert halls?

Steven Isserlis: One hopes! I think people will be very grateful for, and moved by, concerts when they return. Yulia Chaplina: What do you think about online teaching? I know you as a fantastic and inspiring teacher. Have you done any online tuition? Do you see it as a viable option for the time being or a waste of time?

Steven Isserlis: Certainly not a waste of time! I’ve so far given four lessons, all to students who were supposed to attend my course at IMS Prussia cove; the sound quality has varied, but they’ve all been fairly normal lessons. It’s certainly possible to teach usefully; and my friend Roberto Prosseda, the Italian pianist, has spent the last two years designing a sophisticated online teaching platform, which will be unveiled next week – good timing! I think it’ll help.

Yulia Chaplina: Would you mind sharing the books you are reading at the moment (and maybe any online productions if any)? Would you mind sharing 3-5 of your favourite books, recordings?

Steven Isserlis: I’ve been reading the new novels by Sebastian Barry and Philip Hensher – both very absorbing and satisfying, in their very different ways. I also read a very fIne book by Daniel Mason, called the Winter Soldier. Now I need something a bit lighter!  Hmmm…favourite books and recordings – I can only come up with a very random list, just the first things that come into my head: Books: Armadale by Wilkie Collins; Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield; A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry. Recordings: Schubert Fantasia in F minor played by Lupu and Perahia; Faure short choral works sung by chorale Gabriel Faure; anything Russian played by the cellist Daniil Shafran.

Yulia Chaplina: Do you have any special routine at the moment?

Steven Isserlis: I try to have – I do try to work at one Bach suite every day – that keeps me grounded. Bach is the best companion one could ever have.

More interviews from “Musicians in Isolation” series: Interview with the pianist Sir András Schiff.