The SOI Autumn 2023 Season brings the promise of musicianship at its best. From the India debut of celebrated British cellist Steven Isserlis with the Symphony Orchestra of India to the anticipated return of pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and conductors Richard Farnes and Alpesh Chauhan, the season’s programme presents a tapestry of diverse repertoire, technical proficiency and talent.
By Beverly Pereira
Throughout his career, the award-winning cellist Steven Isserlis has been known for his virtuosic playing, soul-stirring tone, technical brilliance and profound musical interpretations. Regarded for his performances of classical repertoire, particularly the works of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Bach, Isserlis is known for his attention to detail and maintaining the integrity of the score. Rightly so, he is recognised as one of the most distinguished and nuanced cellists of our times.
Isserlis is also an advocate for lesser-known composers and is known to include their pieces in his concert programmes. He is loved for his seemingly effortless ability to stay true to the original intent of a composer while still infusing personal artistry into every performance. Isserlis’s commitment to the cello and to music at large is evident in his unique career not only as a soloist and chamber musician, but also as an educator, author and broadcaster.
A beloved figure
Isserlis has collaborated with major orchestras and conductors across the world—from the Berlin Philharmonic to the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He performs regularly with a long list of the world’s leading chamber orchestras including the Australian, Scottish, Zurich and Saint Paul chamber orchestras. And, then there is the ease with which he works with period instrument orchestras. His work with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is noteworthy, as is the fact that he also directs chamber orchestras from the cello.
Isserlis has curated a number of comprehensive series for some of the world’s most famous festivals like the Salzburg Festival and on prestigious stages like the Wigmore Hall, where he devised programmes that include In the Shadow of War, a four-part series that marked the centenary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. Another one of his engaging series explores the bond between the cello and human voice, while yet another makes a deep inquiry into the life and music of Schumann.
Born in 1958 in London, Isserlis grew up surrounded by music and displayed immense promise as a musician. His grandfather was the pianist and composer Julius Isserlis. His mother was a piano teacher, and his sisters played the viola and violin. The young cellist studied at the City of London School before moving to Scotland in his teens to study under the tutelage of Jane Cowan. At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Richard Kapuscinski, he honed his talent and developed his distinctive style.
A major breakthrough arrived in 1988 when Isserlis asked John Tavener to write a work for cello and orchestra—the outcome was The Protecting Veil that was premiered at the BBC Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. His recording and every other recording thereafter, really, has been met with critical acclaim. Another example of contemporary music premieres include Stephen Hough’s (who performed at SOI Autumn 2017 Season) Sonata for Cello and Piano. Isserlis’s contribution to classical and contemporary music has been immense and aside from a CBE recognition, honours bestowed on him include the Robert Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau and the Wigmore Hall Gold Medal.
A conscious commitment
Beyond performing and recording, Isserlis is an educator known to nurture the talent of young cellists. His genuine passion for music has put him on the global radar for intriguing masterclasses and workshops that encourage an appreciation for classical music. Since 1997, he has been Artistic Director of the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall. “Think inside, not outside, the music. Look for the composer’s meaning, not for the effects you can produce,” Isserlis tells us in an email interview.
On his engaging website are witty articles of interest for both the music enthusiast and professional. Blessed with a natural inclination for writing and playing for children, he has authored several children’s books including Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and has written the text for musical stories like ‘Goldiepegs and the Three Cellos’. Isserlis is a regular contributor to publications including The Guardian and Gramophone, and has guest edited The Strad.
A bon vivant
Isserlis’s website is also a repository of his reflections on books, films, TV series and people that inspire him. From his love for the Marx Brothers and their films, to a compilation of the lovable Fred Basset comic strip, Isserlis is a bon vivant. Another item on the list ties in with his visit to India. “I love Indian food, so I’m hoping for new, exciting tastes!” he says.
Schumann evidently ranks high among Isserlis’s enthusiasms. Later this month, audiences at the NCPA will be privy to both the art of cello playing and the compelling nature of the composer’s music when the British cellist takes to the stage to present Schumann’s Cello Concerto with the SOI under the baton of Alpesh Chauhan, Associate Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of Birmingham Opera Company. “It is probably my most beloved cello concerto of all—a truly searching, lyrical, touching work that conveys the very essence of Romanticism,” he says in the interview ahead of his arrival in Mumbai with his trusty instrument, “the wonderful cello kindly loaned to me by the Royal Academy of Music in London.” The instrument in question is a beautiful Marquis de Coberon (Nelsova) Stradivarius (1726).
“I’m looking forward to meeting a new group of musicians and working with Chauhan for the first time. Incidentally, I hear that he’s not only a very fine conductor, but also a wonderful cook,” he says. “And finally, I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse, at least, of a country in which several of my favourite books are set—especially A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. The only downside is that my trip is ridiculously short—it just worked out that way.”
The SOI Autumn 2023 Season will be presented from 10th to 24th September. Steven Isserlis will perform with the SOI, with Alpesh Chauhan at the podium, on 20th September at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre.
This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of the On Stage.