Julian Azkoul, violinist & artistic director

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 was exposed to music early on; my mother used to listen to Brahms’ violin concerto when I was still in her womb and my father Jad Azkoul is a classical guitarist. He was the first musician in his family and paved the way so to speak for my brother, the rapper Dr Koul, and me to dedicate ourselves to music (admittedly in quite different genres!). We couldn’t have done it without the vital support (and patience!) of both of our parents.

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

I think one of the challenges I and other young musicians face is figuring out our role and place in a profession where the influence of major institutions is waning (conservatoires, record labels, orchestras, even teachers). This has opened up space for many original approaches to music making, but it is also daunting. The demands of the ‘portfolio career’ are varied, and nowadays we are trained with a view not to being specialists but rather jacks-of-all-trades (performing a wide range of repertoire and styles, playing in orchestras, teaching, recording, chamber and solo work). It can take some time to figure out a) what one wants to focus one’s energy on, b) what one is good at, and c) what kind of lifestyle and working rhythm one wants or can sustain. Having embraced the possibilities of a freelance career, I also have to consider the impact my frequent travels have on the environment, my relationships and my mental health. One has to be incredibly disciplined and organised, and I can see why it wouldn’t suit everyone. As we get older, our priorities shift; I find that I want to be more selective in my professional activities, conserve more energy, travel less and focus on the most important personal and professional relationships.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have been lucky to be involved in many recordings with excellent orchestras and ensembles, but I am most proud of the work I have done with my ensemble United Strings of Europe and our three full-length albums on BIS Records since 2020 (‘In Motion’ BIS-2529, ‘Renewal’ BIS-2549 and our third ‘Tchaikovsky’ BIS-2569 out in November this year). I feel incredibly fortunate that we partnered with such an open-minded label with an incredibly rich and varied catalogue. They have embraced our distinctive approach of devising programmes that bring together a range of styles with new arrangements and premieres. We’re finishing our fourth album in October and we have 3 more in the pipeline (!). Signing with BIS in the first few weeks of the pandemic at a time of frightening uncertainty and against the backdrop of aconstant stream of cancellations was a real shot in the arm. If I had to pick a favourite from our albums it would have to be ‘Renewal’ which explores themes of loss and transformation through powerful and evocative works re-arranged for string orchestra. We’ll be performing some of these at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival on 30 Sept.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

This is hard to say…I have a predilection for Classical, Romantic and contemporary music, as well as a keen interest in traditional Arabic music (although I am by no means an expert in the latter). I also relish the rare opportunities I have to cross over into other styles such as jazz and Latin American music. I definitely have a soft spot for the variety and inventiveness of European music composed between the two world wars, in particular the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ravel…I also really enjoy performing new works and where possible interacting with the composer.

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

I listen to A LOT of music. I love discovering new repertoire and really like listening to vocal music (pop, folk and classical). There is of course the aesthetic pleasure I derive from it, but also (and this is with my arranger/music director hat on), a constant search for new repertoire that could be adapted for string orchestra.

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

At United Strings of Europe we try to create work that is culturally or socially relevant, and we are very interested in interdisciplinary projects that combine artforms. We initiate a number of these projects each year, like the film ‘send back the echo’ we produced with composer/director Jasmin Kent Rodgman that explores deafness and isolation with text by Beethoven about his struggle with hearing loss expressed in British Sign Language (the film was selected for the London Short Film Festival and featured on BBC Arts). Or take our new show Apollo Resurrected which will premiere at King’s Place on 28 October before heading up to Leeds on 3 November. It is a re-staging of Stravinsky’s Apollo featuring 4 jugglers instead of dancers, with a new story for our times by theatrical director Bill Barclay and a new work we commissioned from Joanna Marsh. Given our partnership with BIS, we also develop programmes that would work well both on disc and in concert, and then we love collaborating with different soloists and engaging with them to devise a programme together. Our guiding principle is very much about finding threads between different works and epochs, blending the familiar with the new, and hopefully delivering exciting and moving performances that encourage people to listen to works in different ways and to discover new repertoire.

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

This depends on the ensemble size and repertoire, but the Snape Maltings Concert Hall is an incredible venue in a beautiful setting, and it is particularly good for strings (the sound literally ‘glows’). For a group of our size, Geneva’s Victoria Hall is also ideal, and it has particular significance to me as it is the main venue in my hometown (USE will make its debut there on 9 October with soprano Ruby Hughes). For symphony orchestras, the best venues I have been fortunate enough to perform in are the KKL in Luzern, the Musikverein in Vienna and Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences as an audience member was a concert version of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ that I attended at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge during my first week as an undergraduate, with the Academy of Ancient Music directed from the harpsichord by the brilliant Richard Egarr. There were moments with incredibly beautiful improvisations from Richard and the theorbo player (whose name I sadly cannot recall). Their rapport and the ease with which they seemed to be playing together blew my mind. I had the great fortune of working with Richard a few years later with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in an exhilarating programme of Schubert, Haydn and Mozart.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Gosh, I think success for me is being able to do rewarding projects that stimulate me both intellectually and emotionally, to collaborate with people who inspire me, and to make a difference to an audience, to have an impact in the moment of performance.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Be curious, take risks, try things that push you out of your comfort zone. Don’t rely on the advice of just one person, even if it’s your main coach/teacher.

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

We probably need to grow or expand the meaning and conception of ‘classical music’. That means taking it out of concert halls, experimenting with durations of performances, combining it with narrative and storytelling, incorporating other musical styles. We need to find out what is relevant to potential audiences and make connections with our practice. My sense from giving concerts in unfamiliar settings and lots of outreach work is that people like to discover and try new things. We need to capitalise on that if we are going to reach more people. Eschewing concert halls is a good start, and we’re very much looking forward to our residency at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival from 27 Sept-2 Oct which will include performances in the house as well as in venues across Hatfield.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

My answer also relates to the previous question. Emerging from COVID, I think there was a (missed) opportunity to develop more local music-making in pubs, parks andcommunity centres. I think there was a genuine need for communities to come together after so much isolation. In many cases musicians and artists took a leading role in trying to facilitate this in their communities and neighbourhoods, developing several original initiatives. I would like to see the music industry and funders embrace this approach. It’s an important way for artists to share their work and hopefully inspire others to become concertgoers and in some cases even learn to play music. It would be wonderful to see some of these local initiatives nurtured and further developed. In a narrow way it perhaps challenges the model of major concert halls and festivals, but I view it as complementary andimportant if we want to grow audiences also for those events.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

United Strings of Europe will have its busiest season yet in 2022-23, with the new Apollo Resurrected show, performances at St Martin in the Fields on 1 November with Maya Youssef and on 25 Nov with SANSARA Choir. I think there is every reason to expect that the ensemble will keep going from strength to strength, with debuts in Scotland and Belgium next year and the release of our 4th album ‘Metamorphosis’ in October 2023. I hope that the group will continue to develop and mature and that we’ll still be giving exciting performances ten years hence.

United Strings of Europe performs at this year’s Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. Details here

Violinist Julian Azkoul is a guest concertmaster of Camerata Nordica in Sweden and Camerata Venia in Switzerland, and has featured as a soloist with the Lebanese National Philharmonic Orchestra and several chamber orchestras. Julian’s chamber music partners include Walter Delahunt, Ofer Falk, Joel Quarrington, German Clavijo, Burt Wathen, David McCarroll, the Allegri and Piatti string quartets. A regular guest, he has co-led the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Welsh National Opera, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and is the co-leader of Camerata Alma Viva. Julian regularly performs with the London Symphony Orchestra at major festivals and venues around the world as well as the Geneva Chamber Orchestra and Les Siècles Orchestra. Raised primarily in Geneva, Switzerland, Julian went on to study at King’s College, Cambridge University and the Royal Academy of Music. He is the Artistic Director of the United Strings of Europe and the first violinist of the Aurea String Quartet.