Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There are probably a thousand reasons that pushed me towards the doors of a musical career as a soloist. I am originally from La Rochelle which is an Atlantic port in France. My family nucleus is divided between skippers and musicians. Travelling and classical music have therefore been my daily life as a child. From the moment I listened to Rostropovich and YoYo Ma in my parents’ car when I was very young, the cello vocation never left me. The French singer Isabelle Germain gave me the Rostropovich recording, with Karajan, at the age of 8 and this recording more than influenced me in my future artistic approach. The same year I was captivated by the St. Matthew Passion at the Saintes Festival in France. Throughout the work I didn’t lose my attention for a second!
Later on, great pedagogues such as Erwan Fauré, at the Schola Cantorum and the Paris Conservatory, and Karine Georgian at the Royal Northern College of Music made me work very hard but always with the encouragement to make a solo career by preparing for international competitions and broadening my conception of art in general. At the Adam International Cello Competition (presided over by the late Alexander Ivashkin) in New Zealand, where I won first prize, the legendary German conductor Werner Andreas Albert really helped me in my solo career by giving me a lot of advice and recommendations. My wife Pamela, who is a concert pianist, helps me not to lose direction and we challenge each other artistically on a daily basis!
For my last CD (released by Rubicon classics) the collaboration with composer Gareth Farr, the historical research through the themes of war, peace, tribute to soldiers and hope has been a source of cultural and human enrichment for me. Thanks to this work, I have come closer to Elgar as if he were a friend, a close person to whom one can confide. The result of this research now allows me to play each piece as if it were the work of a friend, a close friend, even if the composer is no longer with us.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career so far?
The biggest challenge is to be and to remain free: free of these choices, free of artistic ambitions and to keep a gargantuan appetite to have many projects for the next 30 years, despite the current pandemic. It is also a challenge to always learn, to never rest on one’s own knowledge, in order to open up to the world and to others.
My last challenge was to work with the New Zealand composer Gareth Farr on the co-production of the CD. We went from A to Z in areas we had never worked in before.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Of course I can talk about the latest recording of the Elgar and Farr concertos. The collaboration with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Australian conductor Benjamin Northey was perfect.
I am also very happy about the last concerts before the pandemic where I performed Dvorak’s concertos with the National Orchestra of Metz, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote with the Katowice Philharmonic on tour in Europe, and, in a very different tone, Friedrich Gulda’s concerto with the Bratislava Philharmonic, which left me with very good memories.
Before that it was the European premiere of Farr’s concerto at the International Festival of Laon that moved me the most with a silence of 10 seconds in the audience after the last note. Very strong in emotion and the feeling of a great communion with the public.
What particular works do you think you do best?
Although I play a fairly wide concert repertoire from the 19th-century to the present day, I have a natural taste and a type of playing that corresponds with the post-Romantic and 20th-century repertoire: for example, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata op.19, the concertos of Dvorak, Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s Symphonie Concertante, Korngold’s concerto, Elgar’s concerto and of course Garth Farr’s Concerto ‘Chemin des Dames’ which was dedicated to me and which I consider to be ‘my’ concerto. In a completely different style, I think I will be ready to record the cello suites of J S Bach within two years.
What do you do off stage that inspires you on stage?
Like a Formula 1 driver, I visualize, hear, feel in my mind all the music I’m going to play. On stage it allows me to be on the edge between control and letting go. Recently, a friend of mine, a Slovenian violinist, introduced me to the 5 Tibetan’s sequence which is a kind of Yoga and which refocuses both body and mind. Since I practice it every day, I channel my energy perfectly and I never have the slightest muscular tension on and off stage.
How do you choose your repertoire from season to season?
I divide between what the directors obviously ask me to play and also the proposals I can make according to the inspiration of the moment and the repertoire I wish to defend. It is also a rule for me to play my favourite concertos regularly so that they are always ready for unexpected concerts.
Do you have a favourite concert hall to perform in and why?
I would say that the venue that combines wonderful acoustics and fantastic memories is certainly the Town Hall in Auckland, New Zealand. Many happy projects and encounters happened after my concerts on this stage. The Auckland Town Hall is a replica of a concert hall in Leipzig, Germany. It would be interesting to play in the original Town Hall in Leipzig when we come out of this pandemic.
For chamber music, I am thinking of La Salle Cortot in Paris, where I have played many times in sonatas for piano and cello, notably with my wife at the piano. The Salle Cortot with its perfect acoustics for chamber music is a kind of “Wigmore Hall” à la Française.
What do you think needs to be done to develop the audience/audience for classical music?
This is a very delicate question. It depends on the country you are in. I would like to draw a parallel between classical music and the theory of the famous French physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes regarding his reform in the teaching of mathematics in France. According to him, you have to reach all strata of society simultaneously to bring about change.
At this time, during this pandemic, it is even more important to put classical music at the centre of our lives by making our governments understand that this art is a universal message that must be considered essential.
Another aspect to develop classical music among the greatest number of people is the mediation with the public. During a festival, before playing a contemporary work, the Penderecki Suite, I had the opportunity to give a humorous and pedagogical speech to better prepare the audience, and they loved it! This proves that the audience is much more open than we think, provided that we are mediators of the work we play and make it human and accessible.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
In November 2018, during the celebration of the Armistice of the Great War at the Cathédrale des Invalides in Paris, where I was invited to perform Gareth Farr’s concerto and Elgar’s concerto. These two works, written 100 years apart, are the two most emblematic cello concertos of the period of the Great War and peace. This is the concert of which I am most proud because there was a palpable emotion among all the musicians, officials, and the public. We would all honour the memory of the anniversary of the end of the First World War.
The speech by the Australian Ambassador, Brendan Berne, which opened the concert was so strong. He said: “100 years ago Australians, New Zealanders, French, UK soldiers and many other nationalities fought together for freedom. One hundred years after, an Australian conductor, a New Zealand composer and a French soloist joined together to honour the peace and the memory of the soldiers!”. I shiver with emotion as I recall this speech and my concert.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The most beautiful compliment after a concert and the word “THANK YOU” means that the musicians have left their mark on the hearts and minds of the audience. Success is when the public, journalists, colleagues, orchestra and festival directors thank you warmly for the moment they have shared and wish to invite you back regularly throughout your career. The success of a career is judged over time.
In your opinion, what are the most important ideas and concepts to pass on to aspiring musicians?
The great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who had the greatest composers of the 20th century as her students, said that the most important thing was to have character. From this determination of the child then you can learn everything and learn throughout your life. The technique of the instrument is only 10% of our work. The text work is 90%.
Classical music is a voice towards excellence. This ability to understand that we hold hidden treasures within ourselves while being all our life curious and attentive to the outside world and to the illustrious composers of the past that we must respect and honour through regular work by constantly developing our ear as musicians. We should not play with the ear of a performer but with the ear of the composer!
I currently have students auditioning for prestigious schools: Oberlin, Juillard, Yale, etc… the most important concept is to make them autonomous. To teach them to have great confidence, to teach them to discover their own playing technique. With this base of confidence, the musician can then allow himself a useful questioning which always leads to surpassing himself but without ever losing his confidence.
What is most important is not to make a memorable performance once, but for a career to have the highest possible minimum. When touring, one should never show on stage that travelling is tiring because one’s minimum level must always be high and demanding. A good exercise is to get up in the morning and play your programme without warming up. If the quality of the work is good then you can go around the world with it!
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
10 years in the world of classical music is almost “TOMORROW”. My present is therefore linked to my tomorrow in 10 years. I would like to be a cello professor in a very prestigious university while continuing my international career as a soloist all over the world playing the classical cello repertoire while continuing to commission the greatest composers of our time. I am a traveller curious to discover new cultures and build bridges between peoples through classical music and the cello.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness is when my daughter and my wife say “I love you”.
It’s also great concert moments when the chemistry of the moment is perfect.
What is your most precious possession?
The most precious thing is my cello which I acquired in 2014 even though I regret not having the wallet to buy the Stradivarius “Archinto”, the cello of my dreams! It cost some million of Euros…
What is your current state of mind?
Your future is in your hands if you respect your present!
Sebastien Hurtaud’s recording of cello concertos by Gareth Farr and Edward Elgar is available now on the Rubicon label. Further details
The French concert cellist Sébastien Hurtaud was born in La Rochelle, France. Influenced by his family consisting of artists and skippers, the focus of Sébastien’s career has been on classical music and traveling around the world to discover new cultures and new composers, and to imbuing his interpretation of cello works from past centuries with this knowledge and experiences.
He first garnered international attention in 2009, after winning the “Adam” International Cello Competition, established by Alexander Ivashkin. Since then, Sébastien has developed a career as a soloist in Europe, New Zealand and the USA, as well as his native France, as a live and recording artist.