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?
Though neither of my parents are professional musicians, they both play well. Music was always around at home, to the extent that I almost took it for granted. In my late teens, it became a conscious choice and I became aware that it was something you could do for a living. By far the most important factor was playing principal clarinet in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra under its artistic director for 20 years, Peter Ash. It was a potent combination of being immersed in great music making with passionate, like-minded kids, and round-the-clock socialising. I think many musicians spend their careers chasing the high of their youth orchestra days. I also began to compose in my mid-teens, and that was really my way into classical music as something you think and care about.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Without a doubt, becoming a parent just over a year ago! Everything else seems simple by comparison.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
In September 2020, when music had completely stopped for 6 months, I managed to put on a series of outdoor concerts called the Bandstand Chamber Festival, with four amazing string quartets. I joined the Solem Quartet for Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. I feel proud not so much because of how well we played, but because it was an emotional series of concerts for performers and audiences alike, having been deprived of that for so long.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
Works where I feel the composer has an appreciation of the sound of my instrument, which enables me to play as naturally as possible. If I have that freedom, to make my best possible sound as appropriate for each moment, then that feels like a completely intuitive, physical way to communicate with a listener.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
There is no separation between life and music, so everything I experience is reflected in my performing – people I meet, places I have been, things I have read, seen, heard or tasted. In terms of music, I feel more inspired to work hard and play the best I can when I hear a truly wonderful performance or recording by another musician, and mostly that will be someone who plays a different instrument to me.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
My repertoire choices depend a lot on who I’m playing with – their current projects, their personality, their tastes, and how that fits with what I’m feeling enthusiastic about. For example I’m currently working with a wonderful pianist, Antonio Oyarzabal, who has released critically-acclaimed albums of music by female composers. So we have devised a programme of music by female composers which has evolved over the course of several recitals. On the other hand, I do also play in orchestras quite a lot, in which case I have literally no choice what I play.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I’m biased, but I think my series Spotlight Chamber Concerts is a great place to play – particularly since its venue, St John’s Waterloo, has just had a beautiful £5.5m refurbishment. The audience are in the dark and in the round, with performers spot-lit in the middle. As a performer you can’t really see the audience, but you can sense them; there’s an atmosphere of intense focus but it’s also somehow quite informal, as none of the audience feel they are on show.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A few years ago I was invited to give the annual Concerto per Peggy (‘Concert for Peggy’) at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. I played the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with the Philharmonia Orchestra string quartet, and the concert took place in the gallery’s gardens on a hot summer’s night, surrounded by amazing sculptures.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I used to care more about what my peers thought than what the audience thought, partly because of how intense the competition seems at the start of a classical music career. Now I care much more about what I’ve managed to communicate to each individual in the audience through my playing, and that dictates to me what is or isn’t successful. I think the shift came about as I began to do more and more solo and chamber playing alongside my orchestral work, which for me involves a more direct relationship with the audience. I also think that being busy is worn as a badge of honour in your early career, but in the end it’s the quality of what you do that counts.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Listen widely, read, meet people both in and outside of music, try to experience and understand the world. Look after your body, it’s not just a tool for making music. Some concerts will seem more important to you than others, but if you try to play your best regardless it’s easier to respect yourself. In turn that makes it easier to put in the hard work behind the scenes.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
Widen participation by making music as central to every child’s development as English or Maths. Beyond that, I think we should learn from other parts of the entertainment sector, particularly professional sport. They make every match seem urgent and significant, even though it’s happening all the time, and you can always find out what’s happening. Social media, presentational values, and even just basic information (when is this person’s next concert?) are maddeningly bad in the classical music world. Sport also manages to be expensive, elitist (in the truest sense), time-hungry and attention-hungry without deterring anyone. Maybe it has more self-confidence.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
Fortunately, there are now lively discussions around all sorts of subjects in the music industry that used to lack airtime, from diversity to audiences and pay – that’s the first step towards making progress in those areas.
To add to the mix, I think classical music lives too much in its own world. I appreciate that the commercial incentives aren’t there for a lot of corporate sponsorship deals, as you see in sport for example. But if only for cultural relevance, there should be closer links with the worlds of fine art, fashion, film, and so on. I see photos of Stravinsky, Picasso and Cocteau all socialising in the 1920s, and can’t really imagine the same thing happening today with leading figures of classical music involved.
Clarinettist Anthony Friend is Artistic Director of Spotlight Chamber Concerts, whose new season begins on 14 November. Performers include Alina Ibragimova, Samson Tsoy, Angela Hewitt and Doric Quartet. Full details / tickets here
Anthony Friend is a clarinettist who has been praised for his “delicious” playing (The Times), his “liquid tone” (Seen and Heard International) and performances that are “energised and raunchy, but not too much” (The Telegraph). Anthony’s chamber music collaborators have included string quartets such as the Allegri, Solem, Maxwell and Philharmonia Orchestra quartets, pianists Alexander Ullman, Karim Said, Joseph Havlat and Florian Mitrea, cellist Laura van der Heijden, double bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, the Pelléas Ensemble and the Magnard Ensemble. In 2019 he was invited to give the annual Concerto per Peggy at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, at which he performed the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with the Philharmonia Orchestra string quartet.