Finding her own way: I chat to cellist Clare O’Connell about her innovative concert series in Berkhamsted, Behind the Mirror

Finding her own way: I chat to cellist Clare O’Connell about her innovative concert series in Berkhamsted, Behind the Mirror

Clare O'Connell performing at Light Night in the Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds (Photo Tom Arber)
Clare O'Connell performing at Light Night in the Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds, 2021 (Photo Tom Arber)

There is much talk at the moment about going local; the importance of being involved in and supporting your local community. The music world has, however, been as guilty as any other field for its fondness for distant travel. Cellist Clare O'Connell has been well ahead of the game in respect to concentrating on the local community, and for over ten years she has been running a highly regarded concert series in her home town of Berkhamsted. And it isn't just another classical concert series, Behind the Mirror includes a strong element of contemporary music allied to innovative programming. For the series, Clare has commissioned many new works from composers such as Alex Mills, Leonardo Margutti, Luke Bedford, David Bruce, Freya Waley Cohen and Rubens Askenar, as well as experimenting with varying instrumental line-ups, making her own arrangements of a vast array of music for unusual groups of instruments, and interweaving music poetry and storytelling to add another dimension to the concert experience.

Clare comments that as musicians we are now realising how relevant it is to be local, though her efforts have taken time and she does everything herself with the aid of 'a coterie of helpers'. As a cellist she performs with ensembles such as Lontano and Propellor, and recently released a solo album, The Isolated Cellist on Stone Records, containing solo music she had developed for performance locally during lockdown. So she now finds herself in an interesting place, yet in an artistic culture which expects you to be able to tick certain boxes to achieve certain things, Clare feels that her career has never really ticked any of the boxes, she has rather found her own way.

Clare O'Connell (Photo Suresh Singh)
Clare O'Connell (Photo Suresh Singh)

She studied Ancient & Modern History at Oxford, though she had always been interested in music but never took herself very seriously as a musician, feeling that if you hadn't been to the Menuhin School from the age of five then you were not cut out to be a professional musician. She finds, now, that as a story-teller in music, her degree at Oxford is very useful, but at the time she spent three conflicted years studying Ancient & Modern History yet also wishing to study music. She did go on to music college (the Royal College of Music and the Hochshule für Künste Bremen, Germany) but found she had an immense amount of catching up to do. And with a string instrument there is so much technique to learn, but also you need the right psychology as well as physical confidence. Playing an instrument at such a level is very much a recipe for a life dedicated to learning, and there were a lot of burn-outs whilst she was at college. 

But there were also lots of nerdy conversations with other cellists, and she comments that we teach ourselves in the end. There can be a lot of mysticism in leaning classical music, but no-one really knows what 'good' is and you need a lot of self belief, otherwise you find yourself wading through a mist.

At music college she took a contemporary music course, led by composer Simon Bainbridge (1952-2021). This was the 1990s, there was no Sibelius software to easily create scores and parts, instead there were lots of bits of paper. Everyone else hated the course but she loved it, she loved the direct access that music gave her. With contemporary music it felt as if you simply read what was on the paper and did it. Whereas with the music of Mozart and Beethoven, performances are loaded with tradition. For Clare, contemporary music was an area where she could let go. She still values contemporary music and still needs to play it, finding it a way of accessing freedom, and it is important that contemporary music is played. 

There came a moment when she felt that she couldn't fit in the orchestral world in London, either as an orchestral player or as a soloist, and she felt that she wanted to look at what was actually important in her life, family, community and sharing things you love. She and her partner moved to Berkhamsted when the children were little. After having the children she felt that she only wanted to do worthwhile projects. It helped that her husband is a composer who works in a hut in the bottom of the garden, so they were able to share responsibilities for the day to day activities of bringing the children up. She also wanted to fight against the idea that when you have kids, your life is over. She felt strongly that it was not, and points out that when children are young, you can have a lot of space, times when they doing things such as having naps. This time gives you space to do things, and she as found a lot of women who turned artists and makers, doing interesting things during these times.

Behind the Mirror

So Clare made some local concerts, the sort that children could come to. Having found an affordable venue, she started slowly and each event would consist of a children's concert plus and evening concert. From the outset the concert series has been self-funded, but she has always made sure to pay people. One of her inspirations was the 30-year coffee concert series on Sunday mornings in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. At the time she was playing a lot of chamber music with violinist David Le Page (now artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan), and both found they were interested in creating their own local concert series, and both rather egged each other on (Clare plays in the Le Page Trio with David Le Page and pianist Viv McLean).

It took time to build up and audience, and she had to find a way of presenting concerts that were appealing to people. Discovering a newly restored pub in Berkhamsted, for many years she was able to use the pub's upper room; a slightly different venue to which she added thematic, colourful programming. One of her contemporaries commented that "Going to the Quaker meeting house for a concert is hardly my idea of going out", so Clare wanted to create something striking and different. Of course, this requires her to be single minded, and she tends to programme stuff that she really loves and thinks is worth sharing. But you need to present work in a way that is accessible to people, so that they want to experience it. She has being doing the concerts, in one way or another, for 15 years and feels that she is looking for new direction.

Finances, and the wish to pay people, has meant that she keeps her forces very small and often does arrangements. The pub didn't have a piano, which meant being imaginative in the instrumental forces and the way they were used. They have performed a lot of contemporary music in the concerts, and she feels that she is lucky to have some amazing friends to draw on. And when she does arrangements for them, they always have a licence to change things. As a cellist, she has done a lot of classes playing through new pieces for young composers and finds that this has given her a lot of pointers for writing her own arrangements.

When it comes to new music, particularly brand new music, she feels that it is important that we never stop trying to play everything. There is a balance to be held between music that is unplayable and curbing a composer's vision by telling them not to do something because of technical issues. After all, if you write a piece of music and give it to the players and it doesn't work, then it is your fault as the composer.

Before lockdown last year, Clare wanted to make a recording of her own but didn't know what. When lockdown happened in 2020, she found that she still practised every day. The street where they live is a very social one, there was a photographer taking pictures and she started playing in her front garden, finding it fun. She started to develop things that she thought people would enjoy. She had done some work with viol player Liam Byrne (whose performances push the contemporary boundaries of playing the viol) and was encouraged to use her loop station for the performances in her street. So she created her own versions of things; she wrote to Scottish contemporary folk music fiddle player and composer Aidan O'Rourke whose epic tune-cycle 365 involved him writing a fiddle tune every day for a year. He kindly sent her some of his music. Thus, she created a body of work that was eminently affordable, and that no-one else was playing, and this has led directly to her disc The Isolated Cellist.

She has also started creating projects with Kate Romano. One of these shared projects is a planned programme inspired by farmer and writer John Lewis-Stempel's book Meadowland, about the life of a field over a year, involving music by English composers, Byrd, Dowland, RVW and contemporary ones. Creating programmes is so much work that Clare feels happy to be able to share them. The process involves making relationships, and can be a fun journey, whilst the result of all this collaboration is artist led programming, rather than something that a big concert hall has decided is worthy. 

World premiere of Behind the Mirror commission Look How Brightly the Universe Shines by Alex J Mills performed by the Le Page Trio in July 2021

The next concert in the Beyond the Mirror on 10 November 2021 is based around The Tempest, with music for clarinet, violin, cello and piano performed by clarinettist Jack McNeill and the Le Page Trio. The idea came from Jack McNeill who will be playing American composer Paul Moravec's epic Fantasy on the Tempest in the concert, and around this Clare has created a fantasia themed concert including Oliver Knussen's Fantasia on one note, a work she loves. The programme builds from a misty place to wild fury. There will be an instrumental movement from Clara Sanabras choral work The Tempest, and a work by Ryan Latimer (whose album Antiarkie has just come out on NMC), whom Clare calls an interesting young composer. Then on 15 December 2021, Bach Reimagined features a programme of  transcriptions of music by Bach and Vivaldi for string quartet and piano, interspersed with sparse and ancient movements from John Cage’s 44 harmonies from Apartment house transcribed for string quartet by Irvine Arditti. Next year she is planning to perform an Edmund Finnis' duet for cello and double bass, Figures of Eight, which she co-commissioned with double bassist Elena Hull, and needs to create a programme around this.

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