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?
Oddly enough for a ‘cellist it was initially the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose distinctive sound I heard for the first time whilst being dragged around a shoe-shop when I was six. (You’re unlikely to hear a Bach violin concerto in Clarks these days!) Up until that point (good) music was rather absent in childhood – and in any case, I’d harboured ambitions to be an Olympic runner; thus, my reaction to this music came as something of a surprise at the time. You see on that pivotal occasion I spontaneously burst into tears, prompting the shop assistant to ask if I was looking for my mother! Having reassured her that it was the sound of the music making me feel sad, not the absence of a parent, she then kindly reached for the record cover (that dates it), which featured Menuhin holding his violin. It seemed baffling to me how anyone could create such a searing, burnished tone with some horsehair and a set of strings – this felt like some sort of alchemy. Like spinning gold. I knew right away that creating a sound in this manner could potentially lead to finding a true voice, at a time when I did in fact suffer from a stutter; if words weren’t working, then music could. It became the bridge between two lives.
Once I’d got hold of a cello, the focus towards trying to discover and reveal this inner identity became an intense goal. How lucky was I to have stumbled across a teacher who encouraged this and more, (in a school where there was virtually no music – how modern!)
The first cellist I heard live around that time was Paul Tortelier and I’ll never forget that strength of personality on stage. His joyous, radiant spirit was an inspiration, as was of course the scorching, inescapable energy of Jacqueline du Pré. Such life forces! Then once I’d calmed down a bit, Pablo Casals took over and he became the word of Truth for me. What they all had in common of course was an uncompromising nature and that has always struck a chord with me. You must be yourself, at whatever cost.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think the majority occurred during those early, formative years around childhood. Nothing since has been quite as tough as that, not that an upbringing is relevant to a career as such – but in many ways it can determine how and why you pursue one, so perhaps it is. (We sometimes forget that a career can be as personal as it is professional.) However, what doesn’t destroy you can most certainly make you stronger, better equipped perhaps to confront those inevitable challenges later in life. This taught me very valuable lessons about focus, willpower, and the genuine pursuit of dreams. It also forces you look ahead and never back, which can be healthy and is an approach I’ve applied ever since. There have been lots of great challenges of course: from raising the necessary funds for cellos, festivals, and concert halls, to fighting hard for grants, dealing with rejection, industry politics etc – but I think these are normal for any career.
However, a real test came back in the summer of 2020 when forging ahead with the (North York Moors Chamber Music) festival to live audiences, as planned and without compromise, at a time when everything was being cancelled. It did seem impossible at the time but sheer fury over how the Arts were being treated fuelled an angry passion which ultimately led to finding a way through, despite the warnings. Any challenge is surmountable with the right tools to hand (and heart), especially if they are emotionally driven. That was certainly the case here and the experience taught me a lot about what music did in fact mean to me! I was certainly prepared to fight for it.
Similarly, the construction of a new recording studio (www.ayrielstudios.com) around that same period, at the height of the pandemic, was also one of those ‘here goes’ moments – although that process felt more like a creative and logistical challenge rather than a difficult one. If a vision is clear enough, it naturally finds a way to manifest – you’ve just got to believe in it absolutely. We were also very lucky in having a wonderful team of mutual believers, investor/supporters, as well some strong relationships, at that strange time when so much fear was in the air (and the media). This combination of forces helped to bring into focus a more optimistic world looking forwards. It was a fantastic distraction – almost a diversion – and now that we’re fully up and running, we all feel immensely proud of what Ayriel Studios has become, against the odds: a state-of-the-art residential and soundproofed recording facility in the middle of a National Park. That feels right and good!
Looking back, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have met, learned from, and become close to so many extraordinarily supportive, generous individuals, teachers, and organisations whose friendships and tireless support helped convert adversity into creativity, the energy of which has seldom lapsed since. One’s greatest challenges are usually overcome with the help of those firmly behind you.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
That’s quite hard to answer, especially if you never look back (nor listen to any of your own recordings!). Being rather self-critical I’m going to struggle with this one – but shall give it a go.
During one of those creative outbursts, I had the fantastic opportunity to perform and record a series of concertos (for Signum) with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alexander Briger. I think we laid down ten in all, then a further three with the RPO – I must have been feeling particularly manic and impatient at the time! This set of CDs inevitably included the beloved Elgar cello concerto, a masterpiece so personal for all cellists it was important to avoid any interpretation saturated by influences. I do feel proud to have put down an uncluttered version, relating instead to the inherent sadness within the work, which was perhaps a risk at the time. Elgar for me is dignified, not especially wrought.
But speaking of dignified and towering figures, I should have cited Benjamin Britten as an influence earlier on because in many ways he is probably my biggest inspiration for different reasons. Recording his complete works for cello (and a film/DVD about the solo suites, directed by Paul Joyce) was monumental. My love for Britten’s music runs deep and as a teenager I was completely bewitched by those solo works. To then have the chance to record them in this way was extremely cathartic indeed. We paired Britten’s Cello Symphony with Shostakovich’s second concerto I seem to remember – so that was a hummable and jolly release! Joking aside, what music – and what an experience.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
I may have just answered that one! Britten has always struck a chord, as I say – and repertoire in which one can dig deep yet at the same time ‘sing’ is also a natural fit. Therefore, composers like Elgar, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Schumann and Fauré resonate, particularly in chamber music which is my main passion. French music also feels special for me, for its colour and palette – and an obsession with Fauré only seems to increase as I get older (music I discover which can also influence your sound enormously). One of the joys in curating a festival is that you get the chance to programme works which push you even further, be that Maxwell Davies, Schoenberg, Berg, Adès et al. I have tree-trunk hands you see, so Boccherini and his contemporaries don’t suit my style at all – thus, being no good with music on the lighter side, I tend to stick with the heavy stuff!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
My husband and I are keen walkers and fortunate enough to live within the North York Moors National Park, so we have plenty of options on our doorstep. This incredible landscape provides us with constant inspiration for the rhythms of life, the vitality of it – and ultimately music itself which can express that on different level. Musicians often comment upon how differently they play having spent time on the moors, ahead of a performance or recording – and that fascinates me.
I also like to keep busy with various projects away from performing, be that festival curating, campaigning for concert halls (such as Cedars Hall, Wells which was a joyful experience), developing recording studios and suchlike. These goals give me a healthy focus on the wider picture and an aim towards manifesting a varied, cultural life which is never complacent nor repetitive. Seeing the industry from many angles can only be a good thing. Creating your own is even better.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I bowed out of some circuits a while back partly because I got rather tired of being asked to play the same thing! With a different focus these days, I’ve headed in a new direction when in charge of programming, erring towards the more radical, adventurous, and inventive. This is also partly because I find it hard to focus purely on one thing only and need to be constantly challenged or on the move (hence all the juggling).
In terms of the festival repertoire, we establish a main annual theme, then within that a series of 14 or so concerts comprising mini themes of their own, relatable as part of the overall ‘story’. Thus, the many parts become the whole.
Then of course one must factor in the talent you have around you, with the desire to bring out their strengths, which is when the repertoire really falls into place. We like to take our audiences on a palpable journey you see, irresistible enough to want to see it through to the end (which is why there’s such a loyal and established audience I suspect.)
When asked to perform elsewhere, it really depends on what I’ve been researching for any given project at the time. I’m actually sat here on a plane to Singapore right now, having been given carte blanche when it comes to sonata choices. (Fauré won!) I think it’s important to champion what you’re absolutely in tune with – then it’s never a ’gig’, only a passion.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I do have very fond memories of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with its generous acoustics, stunning in both concerto and recital – you never feel the need to project and there’s a real warmth there. Similarly, the Melbourne Recital Hall remains a favourite, a space which feels as if you’re playing inside an actual cello – I adored performing there when it first opened. But going from one extreme to another, there‘s a Norman Church about a mile from our house, down in Lastingham, with an even earlier (Anglo-Saxon) crypt; it is within that very church where we put on a series of about 50 concerts before setting up the festival, such is its magical allure and atmosphere. For such an intimate venue, it is very powerful.
I want to make it my ambition to ultimately create a favourite concert venue, preferably on the edge of the North York Moors, overlooking the coast…
Tell us more about the North York Moors Chamber Festival. What makes this festival distinctive and what are the particular pleasures and challenges for you as Artistic Director?
We set this up back in 2009 after concertising in the region for a few years, building up our audiences and developing a community around music. There was so much repertoire to champion, a two-week festival seemed like an obvious solution in the end, although at the time it was only meant to be a one-off event to see how people felt about it. What ensued was a complete revelation and since then we have always tried to push boundaries but ultimately retain the same principles (and format). Through consistency (and keeping going through pandemics!) you can develop your own voice which then potentially carries people with it My main pleasure as artistic director is to see how this ‘family’ grows year upon year, with such a harmonious team, incredible artists, great camaraderie and warm, passionate audiences who embrace it all. This is life-affirming.
One of the more unusual aspects about our festival is that we seldom feature established chamber groups, despite it being all about chamber music. The key for us is to provide a creative, almost utopian retreat where talents and personalities can combine forces in an inspirational and charged environment, leading to fresh and dynamic interpretations. Artists are comfortably ensconced, and the food is not only delicious (thanks to our amazing caterers) but savoured within an informal setting up on the moors, round a campfire or perhaps in the garden, with a bar in the barn set upon the edge of the breath-taking North York Moors National Park. You are also encouraged to leave your stresses and strains far behind and so this heady mix results in some electrifying music making where the performances are vibrant, invigorating, and new. The chemistry offstage is translated to the stage. We also pride ourselves on making artists feel inspired and treasured, with hospitality to match their musical generosity.
Challenge wise, the main ones tend to be beyond our control like train strikes or pandemics – although when it’s our turn to host the dinner gatherings during the festival, I’m having to spin so many plates whilst rehearsing, performing, and catering for 50 guests, I need to be three people at once! But on a more serious note, the main challenges are of course with the logistics – but we’re incredibly lucky to have an extraordinary organiser in Hannah Ahrens, who also happens to now run Ayriel Studios, luck us. We are blessed.
Another unusual twist in the festival is that audiences aren’t told in advance which combination of musicians they’ will hear, until they reach the concert itself – this way we ensure that they come for the music first and foremost, on the understanding and trust that what they’ll hear will be excellent and exciting anyway. Obviously, the festival brochure contains the details of our artists-in-residence – but without specifying who is playing which piece. (This also gives the musicians tremendous freedom!).
We are also proud to be keeping ticket prices low, so that most can afford to experience the festival fully, particularly the locals – thus our audiences encompass a huge range, which in turn contributes to the special and inclusive atmosphere. The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was our one-time Patron and he used to love the informality and friendliness, as well as the acceptance towards his own music. They’re feisty in Yorkshire – but equally open minded!
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
Firstly, stop dumbing it down. By presuming that playing it safe will in some way help the music scene become more accessible and approachable is perhaps misguided in my view. Quality always wins out in the end and being consistent, excellent, brave, and confident – rather than ticking certain boxes – is perhaps a stronger foot forward. That I think is more likely to get audiences talking. If there was also greater support from this government, one could more easily educate (and subsidise), which could ultimately transform how our music scene is perceived and experienced. I suspect this argument will be down to how we build from the ground up and break down barriers.
It is not the music which needs a change (or even apologising for), it simply needs to be communicated convincingly. There are some current trends out there which really set off alarm bells, surprisingly perhaps after the pandemic – and I wonder how we will look back on these in a few years’ time. With so much talent bursting onto the scene, this should be maximised and not made to play certain music which happens to be the latest trend. Innovation will be our savour I suspect.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A recent spell (quite literally) deep within a Sussex forest performing alongside folk singer Sam Lee to an intimate audience, then improvising with nightingales, was rather memorable! I’d never done anything quite like that before, let alone hear a nightingale live. That was magic. It was also 3 degrees Celsius so by 1am I had no feeling left in my fingers – so I won’t forget that in a hurry either.
An equally unforgettable concert on the other end of the spectrum was when I performed the Lutosławski cello concerto in Poland, having just spent the afternoon visiting Auschwitz. Needless to say, I found the experience completely overpowering.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Personal fulfilment, not anyone else’s. Ted Hughes wrote a wonderful line:
’The moors are the stage for the performance of heaven; the audience are incidental’.
I love that because it refers to beauty in the ‘thing itself,’ whether it is observed or not. In other words, the music is first, the performing of it secondary (because one’s observation of and relationship to the music is the most important aspect.) I personally feel that true success is when you stop trying to impress anyone and continue to develop and grow for the right reasons. This is when I think your true voice comes through. ‘Success’ for me is all about finding that truth and not worrying about how that is interpreted by others.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
I would like to start with the previous response – but when you are young and full of healthy ambition, it’s important to find your own way and experiment. One thing to remember is that your struggles ultimately define you and they are in a sense some sort of gift, not a curse. A knocking back forces you to develop resilience and ultimately tests your passion, which helps you to discover your true individuality and ultimate destiny. It’s important – and also fine – to make mistakes. In fact, they’re vital! The problem is we’re pressured not to make any.
It’s also healthy to experiment with as much repertoire as possible and focus only on the aspects of your talent which instinctively work for you and in which you thrive. Never compromise. It’s tougher to climb the perilous path upwards, perhaps alone for a time – but the views up there are better and longer lasting.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
Why it’s becoming the norm to consistency fill programmes with previously forgotten vignettes as a matter of course – whilst shunting aside some great music so that we don’t upset anyone and instead tick a few boxes.
I’ll keep that short! . . .
What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
Some more recording. I’d also like to campaign for a concert hall within our National Park, putting Yorkshire firmly on the cultural map. In ten years’ time I’d like to be doing exactly what I am now, enhanced by this new facility.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Married life at home on the North York Moors, plenty of walks, great food with friends and a healthy wine cellar – plus plenty of musicians to make music with up at Ayriel Studios.
What is your most treasured possession?
What is your present state of mind?
Motivated, contented and inspired.
Noted for his deep sound, purity of tone and unsentimental style, Jamie Walton has established a reputation for his engaging, imaginative performances and uncompromising musicality. A versatile, searching musician and something of a maverick, Jamie combines a career in both chamber and solo capacities, having appeared regularly throughout Europe, USA, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and the UK.
Jamie has appeared and recorded with many of the country’s finest orchestras such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra with whom he has committed ten concertos to disc, including the Dvorak and Schumann concertos under Vladimir Ashkenazy. He has also recorded three concertos with the RPO. Jamie’s discography with Signum Classics extends to much of the sonata repertoire as well as the complete works for cello by Benjamin Britten. As part of this project, Jamie collaborated with director Paul Joyce on a film about Britten’s solo suites for cello which was released on Signum Vision and premiered on Sky Arts.
Photo credit: Matthew Johnson