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?
When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have attended Emanuel Hurwitz’s Summer chamber music courses. This was the start of everything for me. The first year I went, I was one of the youngest pupils on the course, and everyone there inspired me – from the older students to the wonderful teachers, who have now also become colleagues. I am still in touch with many of the people who were on those courses with me at that time, from the Broadbent family, who now perform in the electric quartet Stringfever, to Sean Bishop (Bishop Strings), who has often supported our Callia Quartet, and, probably most importantly, Hartmut Ometzberger, who is the first violinist of the Callia Quartet. We started playing chamber music together on those courses when we were each about 18 and it is a huge testament to the legacy of Emmanuel Hurwitz, and also the amazing chamber music repertoire which we both love, that we are still playing music together all this time since.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Everything is a challenge, but when you learn to overcome whichever challenge it may be, you gain a little more knowledge and understanding, and know that you can see it through. Then on to the next challenge. On the most practical level, Hartmut lives in Vienna with Chrisoula Kombotis, our viola player, and of course Brexit has been a huge challenge, but we have found out how to make it still possible to work together, just now with a little extra admin and costs involved.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Most recently, I would say that commissioning three pieces from Thomas Hewitt Jones, the first of which we premiered just before covid hit; we will be reviving in our next concert this November (www.calliaquartet.co.uk/callia-quartet-in-bloomsbury/) . The other two pieces, written in 2021, were premiered via Livestream, and not in person, but the Duo for violin and viola has subsequently has several in-person performances this year.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
Hartmut and I both studied for several years with Emanuel Hurwitz (known to most people as Manny). With his own quartet – the Aeolian Quartet – Manny recorded all of the Haydn String Quartets. And so Haydn is probably the biggest inspiration of them all to us. But from that everything else in our programming emerges. Mostly we will also try and include a newer work, or a little-known work so that there is something – possibly even something unexpected, for everyone in the audience. It has been a great joy to discover so much of the newer repertoire, or maybe find something which has been out of print for a while and might be a recent discovery – but we will always have a Haydn Quartet as the start of the planning.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I think knowing each other in the quartet very well helps. Hartmut and I have obviously known each other for a long time, but when he and Chrisoula come to rehearse, they will stay in my house, and I stay with them when I travel to Vienna. We discuss ambitions and plans for future concerts, and repertoire we would have on our wish list, and eventually these discussions and plans and wish lists somehow become reality. David Kadumukasa, who is the cellist for this concert, has taught on the Chamber Players courses for many years. All of us are teachers as well as performers. Being a teacher gives another type of understanding of the repertoire which we play. When you also teach it to others you see things in another light.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
One of my favourite venues is the Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe. I had heard several of my friends perform there a long time ago, through the concert series TunedIn London. It was once the entrance hall to the first underground walk-way under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping (what is now the London Overground line) and was designed by Marc and Isambard Brunel. The acoustics are incredible because it’s circular – a bit like the Royal Albert Hall on a very small scale. Then for a few years it was closed for renovations. After it re-opened, they had installed a beautiful staircase, lit up with LED lights, which gives it a very contemporary feel: combined with the Victorian engineering, this creates a performing and listening experience which is really incredible and is one of my favourite venues in which to perform.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
Thinking beyond the traditional safety net is great. Exploring new work and working with living composers is very exciting. Finding new venues where the audience may feel a sense of discovery can add something unique to the occasion, and also not being afraid to talk to the audience. Whether this is introducing the pieces during the concert, or after the concert, spending a bit of time to chat to the audience can help break down any possible barriers, and is something I like to do, as that personal connection can be really gratifying.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are many concerts from when I was a teenager, to now that have been totally unforgettable, but one which sticks in my mind most is connected to a special place. It is the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall. Again, I was there first of all as an audience member when I was on holiday as a teenager, and then I returned much later to take part for many years as a performer. The first time, when I was in the audience, and my family was on holiday nearby, I saw that some of my friends (coincidentally, they were friends from Manny’s course) were performing the Schubert Quintet that evening, so I was lucky enough to get a ticket, and went along to the packed out church. I knew the viola player and both violinists, but I didn’t know the cellists, and for years afterwards, I never knew who they were, except that it was the most spell-binding performance of that piece of music that I had ever heard.
One year (many years after this,) I was fixing the tutors for the Chamber Players course, and I had just done a concert with Joely Koos. She struck me as someone who had just the right energy and enthusiasm to teach on the course, and luckily she said she was available, and would like to be part of the tutors team that year. It was only then whilst chatting to her during the course, that I put everything together and realised that she was one of the cellists in that memorable concert (the other being her husband, Tim Gill). I was then able to tell her in person that I had never forgotten that moment. Having inspired me when I was a teenager, I am sure that she would have had been just as much an inspiration to the pupils who she was teaching on the course that year.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Happiness (is that too much of a cliché?). There are challenges, and moments of huge frustration, but if overall you are still extremely happy in doing what you are doing, then I think in any profession, this must be the definition of success.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
Maybe it is not something not easily discussed – and that is the financial side of the business, and more a general awareness that ticket sales alone won’t cover the cost of most events. The performers fees plus venue hire, not to mention promotions of the event, often travel costs too, will often outweigh the income from ticket sales, and yet as musicians, we know we have to go on doing what we are doing. The extra balancing of the books needs to come from somewhere: Donors or sponsors are a huge necessity in making these events happen, and I personally think it is really important to thank and acknowledge every part of what has gone on behind the scenes to make each event happen. Social media is playing a good part in helping break down these barriers, but more understanding of the reality can hopefully be a positive thing.
What is your most treasured possession?
Integrity, and always being true to yourself – I treasure that quality in other people too.
Lucy Melvin is founding Director of Chamber Players chamber music courses, which have been running since 2009. Chamber Players is quite unique in its ethos in that there are no audition requirements, and pupils are welcome from pre-grade 1 through to Diploma and above. Through experienced knowledge of the repertoire and care and attention to each pupil’s age and ability, every pupil is placed in an appropriate ensemble with their peers, according to their ability, age and previous experience, finding the most appropriate parts to suit them.
Previously a member of the Illyria Trio, with pianist Annabel Thwaite and cellist Sheida Davis, and duo with Italian pianist Luca Verdicchio, she has performed in concert halls, and intimate chamber music settings across Europe.
Lucy’s interest in education and chamber music performance led her to coordinating Classical Collective: a diverse concert series organising exciting performances for audiences of all ages, in venues across South London, as well as managing the performance opportunities for the Callia Quartet.
Header image: Lucy Melvin with composer Thomas Hewitt Jones