Joseph Spooner, cellist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music, and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Music played a huge, escapist part in my life at school and university, but it was only during doctoral studies in a field unrelated to music that I began to wonder whether I ought to give the cello my undivided attention (and indeed, whether it was wise, given that I was already 24). The musical urge was not going to be satisfied any other way, so I played, at very short notice, to David Strange at the Royal Academy of Music. He was very encouraging and squeezed me onto the audition list a couple of months after we met. Several people – many of them now dead – have been huge inspirations, but I should mention my late RAM professor Derek Simpson, a no-nonsense but consummate musician who understood me well, and Karine Georgian, a profoundly inspiring human being.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge has been – and always will be – to remain true to oneself musically. It is easy to be distracted by the need to make money and the successes of others, so nurturing one’s own musical aspirations needs particular care.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I think I have always loved the most recent recording I have made. Some stick out because they have garnered more critical coverage – I’m thinking here of ‘At First Light’ by Francis Pott (Gramophone editor’s choice for September 2020), the premiere recording of Alan Bush’s magnificent ‘Concert-Piece’ (a comment on the Fascism then rising in Europe), or the complete works of Percy Sherwood – but I have a place in my heart for all of them: recordings mark out your life. A performance I have wonderful memories of is Moeran Concerto in St Petersburg, in the beautiful Kapella hall.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Really hard to say. Again, I often think that the ones I play best are the ones I have most recently performed. I surprise myself sometimes – for example, when I find can actually play Beethoven – but I perhaps feel most at home in the rare works that I perform: there is no ‘performing tradition’ to contend with, and my musicianship is both challenged and stimulated.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Identify those parts of life that correspond emotionally to what I am performing.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Repertoire choices are often dictated by what the latest recording project is. I have on occasion decided that I need to do something specific, so I have done, for example, all the Beethoven sonatas, all the Bach suites, all the Bloch suites, all the music by the Mighty Handful, etc. Composer anniversaries have become a programming trope, but they are very helpful: you have the opportunity to contribute to a wider push on a particular composer.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love St George’s Brandon Hill in Bristol: capacious, but wide, so you don’t feel you’re having to ‘shout’ to listeners who are far away. The Turner Sims in Southampton is also a perfect size and shape for chamber music – again wide, with the first row on the same level as the performers.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

There are so many ventures that attempt to bring exposure to Classical music back to the levels it once had, and these are all not just laudable, but essential. From a personal point of view, I think it’s important to talk to an audience in recital: to tell them about the composer, tell them about the piece, say why it is beautiful or what it perfectly expresses. One important aspect of this is that you can move from (say) a Baroque suite, to a virtuoso Romantic work and then a late twentieth-century sonata without placing them in the same musical sphere. Just occasionally, one should play a surprise work without giving the composer or the title, and let the audience have only the music to go on, or perform a short, unfamiliar work twice, on either side of the interval.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are so many! Alan Bush and Aaron Copland centenary concert at the Purcell Room? Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto no. 1 with the Samara State Philharmonic Orchestra? Premiere of Francis Pott’s ‘At First Light’? UK premiere of the Ernst Toch Sonata at King’s Place? Oh, and being very sick on stage during the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ when I was sixteen.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Engaging the listener in the music. That sounds trite, but it is very hard to achieve a performance of a familiar or even an unfamiliar work that is revealing just of the music and not the performer. There can also be so many outside-world distractions – the weather, the fee, the travel, the rehearsals – but the successful musician will leave all these things to one side on stage.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The need to understand and appreciate any individual work in its historical context, but also to uncover the eternal in it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Rome in late spring, supper outside with my partner, after a hard day’s rehearsal/performance/research.


Joseph Spooner has been exploring the cello repertoire for many years now, and this is reflected in his critically acclaimed discography and performances.  This is recognition not just of the passion and beauty of his playing, but of his success in rediscovering works previously abandoned through ignorance and changing tastes. Yet Joseph’s repertoire encompasses also mainstream classical and contemporary works, facilitating an exceptionally broad and flexible approach to programming.

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