Harriet Mackenzie, 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?

I started playing violin just before my fifth birthday after a long, hard and focused campaign to my parents from the age of three! Even from that age I knew that it was what I wanted to do – and I also wanted to be a composer. It’s hard to explain where such a fierce ‘need’ came from’. My sisters were both playing – one the violin and the other the cello, so I guess I could say my sisters were definitely an early influence and inspiration – and I remember listening to my sister practising the violin when I was in bed and I was desperate to play too. In the end, frustrated with my parents’ inaction and excuses “you’re too young… it’s too expensive”, I plucked up the courage and asked the teacher myself. She was so impressed with my determination and my aching need to play the violin that she put me top of her waiting list and I started in group lessons. I was incredibly lucky to study with such an inspiring, creative teacher – Sheila Nelson – and I will always be grateful to her and I owe so much to her.  I am also grateful to my parents for supporting me and encouraging me once I started.

There are so many musicians who have inspired me on my journey. I already know that I will miss people out! As well as some wonderful teachers, (Sheila Nelson, Howard Davis, Maurice Hasson, Hermann Krebbers, Ofer Falk). 

I am in awe of so many wonderful musicians – and my listening is broad, I don’t like to constrict my listening just to Classical repertoire and performers. Everyday I seem to discover other wonderful players. Here is a pretty random list of influences- 

The Carducci Quartet for their passion

pianists David Gordon, Julian Joseph, Mitsuko Uchida, Andras Schiff

Gypsy group Taraf de Haidouks

violinists Roby Lakatos, Augustin Hadelich, Janine Jansen

traditional Bulgarian choirs

traditional Greek violinist Kyriakos Gouventas

Jimi Hendrix

Turtle Island String Quartet

Ella Fitzgerald & Nina Simone

My parents are not musicians but they love music. My father is obsessed with opera. I grew up listening to recordings of singers. My father has exceptional ears and if he happens to hear a singer on the radio can differentiate not only the singer but also when they would have made the recording.   Despite not being able to read music, he writes articles about singing and how techniques have changed over the years and how ornaments are integrated – or not – in a musical line.  Enrico Caruso, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Maria Callas, – these divine voices provided the soundtrack to my childhood, the memory of their brilliance crackling on old recordings with the most incredible phrasing and musical intent.  In the car we would listen to various recordings and when my Dad was happy he would sing some Verdi arias at the top of his voice. This has definitely influenced my playing – the sense of line, phrasing and breath. Also the drama of the story-telling in opera. My father loves melody. My mother loves rhythm. She likes innovation and contemporary repertoire and being surprised musically by interesting sounds and unexpected textures. I think I inherited an interesting balance from them both!

I was always obsessed with the sound of the violin though. There is something intangible about the exquisite but deeply human sound that resonated with me on a deeper level. Even as a toddler I wanted to create that. Being on stage and performing was secondary and a by-product of that urge to create beauty.

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

This is a challenging career, that is for sure! The great violinist Heifetz apparently said: “It requires the nerves of a bullfighter, the stamina of a woman running a nightclub and the concentration of a Buddhist monk” (as written in ‘Gregor Piatigorski:The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist’ by Terry King, at a point when Heifezt and Piatigorski were both feeling the strains of touring and performing in the autumns of their lives.)

I would add to these that one needs one’s fingers to have the flexibility of a top acrobat; one needs to be a magician – to have the same sense of illusion as a conjurer whipping the tablecloth from the fully, formally set table with china and cutlery to make the fierce technical demands look possible and even effortless.

It is physically and mentally challenging. I have suffered from injury and I had to work on my playing, my diet and my physical fitness in order to be able to continue. It took a lot of discipline. It is also hard sometimes to ‘allow’ oneself to take stock, to relax and to invest in oneself and to prioritise health and sleep. Travelling can be intense. There is always a risk which is hard to gauge especially with new music – not knowing how long it will take to learn or how much energy it will take to learn / perform it and of course, we have a hard cut-off when we have to stand up on stage to perform. With other musicians, we often joke about schedules looking perfect ‘on paper’ – things can look do-able, but then add flight cancellations, trains being late, composers needing more time etc etc and the ‘possible’ starts to creep into stressful, unsustainable, impossible… There have been many times when I’ve had to choose between learning notes or having any sleep. The notes pretty much always won, but I’m not sure that was the right choice and it came at a cost. I have made lots of sacrifices in order to do what I do, but it was always a choice.

I would say other challenges are managing what I have heard described as ‘toxic perfectionism’. It is necessary to be self-critical to improve, but this also has to be balanced with self-belief. That is a hard combination. I think perhaps this is particularly challenging in this era of recordings and social media.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud and which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I find that hard to answer, but I feel very lucky to have worked intensely with composers and to feel that I really understand their language and to have the chance to work on their music with them. I really love the ongoing cross-art project with composer Deborah Pritchard and artist Maggi Hambling.  Deborah is a synaesthetic composer – she sees colours when she hears certain musical intervals. I am also passionate about art and I am a keen artist so this project was a joy for me. We visited Maggi in her studio and worked alongside her incredible paintings. Deborah has written a couple of concertos and solo pieces for me, inspired by Maggi’s work. I loved the creative nature of the project and I love Deborah’s language. Having the chance to work together so intensely has been a real artistic treat and I could really get into the depth of the notes, explore the musical landscape and feel inspired by the artwork. The premieres and recordings of these works are something that I am really proud of and I’m excited for the next part of this project.

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

Love. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? In all its forms. It feels cheesy and un-English to write it down, but there you are! Being a performer one has to be able to put oneself on the line and be able to make oneself vulnerable, so there you go. Also, being in nature, swimming, yoga, spending time with my incredible husband, listening to music, going to the theatre, reading, art, breathing exercises, sharing food, wine and laughter with loved ones. At the end of the day, everything you do, everything you experience, by some alchemy, provides the fuel which goes into creating magical strands of musical light on stage….

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

There aren’t any rules… I think for me, there are some projects which I work really hard to make happen. I’m a driving force – a lot of the premieres and the collaborations I actively pursue and make happen. Like all creative processes though, there are also a fair number of things into which you put energy and then they don’t necessarily happen. There are a lot of unfinished pieces! Then there is also repertoire that one is asked to play by promoters – pieces which fit in with festival themes etc. I think I have a particularly wide range of things that I do – I play world music styles and I improvise and compose as well as performing the Classical canon and the most contemporary repertoire too. I really enjoy having a smorgasbord of musical creativity and I feel all the different genres support and go into a musical, creative pot!

At the moment I am really excited to be working on a new work by jazz legend Julian Joseph. It will be premiered at the Salisbury International Arts Festival. It’s a really different musical language for me – utterly brilliant – and I’m so thrilled that he is writing it for me.

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

There are a few concert halls where everything is in place, the halls themselves are beautiful, the acoustics are amazing, the backstage is warm/dry/convenient (it exists! Sometimes, especially in churches there isn’t really a backstage or somewhere to warm up which can be tricky!). Halls that will always stay with me are the Wigmore Hall, The Concertgebouw, The Beijing Oriental Arts Centre and Seoul Arts Centre. I really loved these last halls in Asia – beautiful, innovative designs and incredible acoustics. There have also been concerts in less than ‘ideal’ settings, but sometimes these have been really moving. There was a wonderful festival where I performed with my group Kosmos – Padova River Festival. The stage was literally floating on the canal in the middle of the water and it was beautifully lit with a scenic Venetian-style bridge behind us, we were taken to the stage by gondola and we performed under the stars. I will also always remember performing Gorecki’s String Quartet in the Jersey War Tunnels. It was cold and damp and there were slightly creepy models of Nazi officers overlooking us and the audience. There was something about this repertoire being performed in such a setting – the power of the human spirit, the combination of the atmosphere and history of this place and this powerful music which made it truly unforgettable both for the performers and also the audience.

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

I think music needs to be given the same importance and exposure as sports in the news. I think it has to start at a grass roots level.  It’s such a wonderful, life-enhancing experience. Music also needs to be considered a core subject in our education system. Children should all be given access to music lessons, singing and instruments. Children will be the audiences of tomorrow and children need exposure. It’s such an incredible tradition and there are so many benefits – social, neurological, for mental health, giving creative outlets, a sense of achievement and discipline, confidence on stage. The list is endless really. I believe every child should have access to a musical instrument and to music lessons. It should just be incorporated into our education system and be totally integrated. There have been so many studies to prove that it improves every subject at school and every aspect of a child’s life. I’m proud to work at a school in London – The World Heart Beat Academy – that provides instruments and lessons for children who wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise. I believe this needs to be done on a National and Government scale though.  

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been so many incredible and varied experiences, I find it almost impossible to pick one. One that sticks in my mind was performing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in St- Martin-in -the-Fields. It was my last performance before the lockdowns. I was really aware this was probably going to be my last time on stage for a really long time. St Martin’s is a beautiful place to play anyway and in the candlelight it is particularly atmospheric. There was a special atmosphere with the audience, who also recognised it was probably the last time they would be able to attend live music for the foreseeable future. I felt every note in a particularly focussed and memorable way that evening. There was one of the longest silences that I remember after we played the last note, before the applause started. I think we collectively held our breath and sighed together, not wanting the moment to end.

As well as all the high-profile concert halls around the world, I have also been lucky to work a lot bringing to music to those with little, or no access to live music – in prisons, care-homes, hospitals, special schools and working with dementia patients. There have been countless moving experiences from these concerts which I will never forget. For example, dementia patients who have lost the ability to speak will suddenly burst into song – and sing all the words! Their carers and any family who are there are often speechless themselves then! For a brief moment they feel like they have their loved one back and they can communicate with them. There are no words for experiences like these. There was one particular concert where we were doing an interactive concert for adults with special needs, there was one lady who had never uttered a word, not managed to sign, for the whole of her life. We put signs to go with the music that we were playing – harmonics were butterflies, pizzicato was falling rain etc so that they could interact when we were playing. Angie started to make the sign for rain as we played the pizzicato. The carers all started crying. These experiences are transformative – not least for us musicians – and are truly life-changing. The power of live music and its life-enhancing properties are proved to me again and again.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I would say, firstly, that the performers I am working with enjoy the experience, as – broadly speaking – music is about how we make people feel. I think creating a positive environment which brings out the best in people is something I will always aim for. This should create the atmosphere and the ability for us to collectively be our best selves and to create something special together, Secondly – and most importantly and related to the first – to move the audience. In my practise, I aim for perfection. On stage, I hope that the aim from my practise has put things securely in place to be able to forget that the notes are even there and just to focus on the message of the composer and on the emotions of the music. That is what I believe is important as an artist. As Beethoven said: “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” I also think that the ‘trappings’ of success do not necessarily equal success. It’s not about how many albums you’ve sold or how many people ‘follow’ you on social media, or how much money one has. If one is chasing that, I don’t think one will ever be truly ‘successful’. For me, at the end of the day, it’s about positively impacting people’s lives, it’s a personal inner journey and one that is constantly changing, but with some core principles. I am constantly trying to work on myself and my musicianship and the way I interact with people. I believe in the transformational power of music and if I can bring people on that journey with me, if I can move them with my music, then I feel like I have achieved something important.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

If it is your passion – do it! Stick at it! Even when you are thinking of giving up, keep going! There is so much reward from it – unquantifiable rewards! Neurologically, socially, spiritually….. It is such a gift to be able to play and to share music. Just. Keep. Going. I think stamina has to be one of the most important and under-rated skills. And be kind, both to yourself and others. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You learn more from failures than successes: ‘Remember the lesson, not the mistake’ was one of the best bits of advice I was ever given.

Harriet is the Associate Artist for the Salisbury International Festival (27 May-17 June) and will perform on 28th May the premiere of Christopher Gunning’s Violin Concerto – 3rd movement with the Bournemouth SO under Mark Wigglesworth as well as a series of chamber music concerts throughout the festival at a variety of locations in the area.  On 14th June is the premiere of Julian Joseph’s Violin Concerto ‘Kayryouacou’, written for Harriet.

From 18-20 June, Harriet is Resident Artist at the First Light Festival in Lowestoft where, on Sat 18th June at 6am, she will perform the premiere of Christopher Gunning’s ‘Dawn Light’, written for Harriet.  This is the most Eastern point of the UK and it will be performed on a stage on the beach.

On 29th July, Harriet will appear at the Holt Festival as part of her Kosmos Ensemble.

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Image credit: Tassos Hadjicocolis