Merel Vercammen, violinist

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?

To be honest, there hasn’t been a specific moment in which I decided to pursue a career in music; I don’t feel like I intentionally chose this path. When I was little, I wanted to become either an inventor, a rabbit breeder or a violinist. In my teenage years I thought about becoming a scientist. I even tried to go for other career paths – I studied mathematics, music cognition and cultural economics at university – but in the end I discovered I just can’t live without sharing music with audiences.

And now I’m actually combining my interests with my violin career. I have started a new festival in which I seek to connect Music and Science. I ‘invent’ music on the spot through ‘instant composition’ or improvisation. I also share an Instagram account with my rabbit, who is the Cover Boy of my improvisation CD The Zoo.

The experience of a live concert is what has always inspired me most; the atmosphere and vibrations of a hall or special place, the expectations, the excitement, the communication, the feeling of tension and releasing tension. What I love about a live concert experience is the feeling that you are creating a unique moment in time, in history even, in which everything is special. In the best cases (although it happens rarely) both audience and musicians feel like everything falls into place, it can almost be a spiritual experience.

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

Given that sharing music with live audiences is my greatest source of inspiration, the coronavirus pandemic has been quite a big challenge for me! Normally I get energy from playing concerts, moving from one performance to the next, but it has been quite unusual for me not to have any concert to work towards.

However, I have developed some new ways of communicating with my fanbase. I have, for example, been offering an ‘animal on request’ improvisation video, which has been a lot of fun and a nice way of getting direct input from audiences. I don’t easily get bored either, so I have developed a lot of new projects during the lockdowns here in The Netherlands, including the recording of my new album The Boulanger Legacy with pianist Dina Ivanova. We performed the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger on Dutch TV just before the lockdown, and when the pandemic hit our countries we had a lot of time to do research on the Boulanger sisters, and this is how our idea for the album was born.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

That is not an easy one! I am quite proud of my improvisation album ‘The Zoo’ because of the nature of the project. I’m also really happy with the result of my latest album. My duo partner Dina Ivanova plays so incredibly well, and I had great pleasure in preparing everything ahead of the wonderful recording sessions we had.

I feel the urge to present female composers who, unfortunately, aren’t programmed as much as male composers. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to talk about gender in music, but there’s still work to be done. I am quite chuffed, that since my first album release two years ago, I have been able to present five amazing female composers on disc: Poldowski (daughter of Wieniawksi), young Dutch composer Mathilde Wantenaar, Lili Boulanger, her older sister Nadia Boulanger, and student of the latter – Grazyna Bacewicz. I always hope my enthusiasm inspires others to have a listen to their works as well, and maybe someday programming their music will be the most normal thing! That would be my dream.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I would prefer to leave this up to the judgement of others, as it is hard to look at yourself objectively. I guess my strength lies in music that needs a lot of different colours and various expressions – at least, that is what interests me most, more than virtuosic repertoire.

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

I very much like to go to concerts by other musicians and I very much enjoy having “jam sessions” with other musicians. Apart from interacting with audiences, I take a lot of inspiration from communicating with other musicians. Everybody brings their own background into their way of playing, performing, and reacting. In a jam session your own playing is influenced by this – that’s how you discover new sides to your own musical identity.

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

I always try to create programmes that offer something new, something that doesn’t exist yet.

I look for adding value to the world, however small it may be.

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

I performed at Wigmore Hall which was absolutely magical, and I’d love to play there again! In the Netherlands, I enjoy performing at TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht – a venue with multiple halls where different art forms and genres blend -, and at De Vereeniging in Nijmegen, my birth town. I have vivid memories of of attending a concert as a teenager sitting in the first row while Janine Jansen performed the Tchaikovsky concerto. An experience I will never forget! Several years later I performed the Brahms concerto in that same hall which was very exciting.

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

I actually did research on audience development and how to engage young audiences for classical music. In short, the outcome was that young audiences want to be invited by their peers, they want shorter concerts, preferably a format which highlights one composition, they prefer an informal setting and presentation, nice lighting/visuals, but no adaptations to the music itself. There should not be any insecurities for them – one should be very clear about the end time, for example.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you’re able to give your audience a memorable evening, or a moment in which they have got moved, or a moment of joy in which they forget their troubles. Even if you achieve this with only one person, you are a successful musician in my opinion.

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

I think it is important to ask yourself the following question: what can I add to the world with the music I make? There are so many musicians around who play so incredibly well. You must find your own voice, find out what makes you thick, what is it that you have or love that make you special and may set you apart from others. What do you have to offer to the world. When you know how to answer these questions, you know what you want to strive for, and everything else will fall into place.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Holland Lop rabbit, called Darwin. (We share an Instagram account: @bunny_and_violinist)

Merel Vercammen is a Dutch violinist, known for bringing improvisation into classical music performances. She recently released her new album ‘The Boulanger legacy’ together with pianist Dina Ivanova on the immersive TRPTK label, featuring works for violin and piano by the Boulanger sisters, Bernstein, Bacewicz, and Piazzolla. The album brings to light the versatility of legendary conductor, pianist and composer Nadia Boulanger in her role as a teacher and mentor through the lens of her pupils’ compositions for violin, and with three pieces by her sister Lili Boulanger, whose work Nadia championed throughout her life.

Merel is a Royal College of Music graduate who has played with major orchestras as well as in chamber music ensembles. As a soloist, she has performed violin concertos by Beethoven, Brahms and Otto Ketting. In 2017, she premiered a violin concerto by composer Mathilde Wantenaar, written especially for her. Merel is convinced that improvisation will play a bigger role in engaging audiences in the future, and she is an avid champion for programming music by female composers.

Twitter: @MerelMC

Instagram: @bunny_and_violinist

Facebook: @MerelVercammenViolinist

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