Steven Isserlis CBE (Class of 1973)
Steven Isserlis CBE was at City of London School from 1969-1973 and has gone on to be acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest cellists.
Alongside recording and performing with the world’s leading orchestras, Steven curates festivals and teaches and is an active advocate for providing access to classical music for young people: Steven has written two books on classical music for children and one for young musicians, as well as collaborating with Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley on a series of musical stories for children.
Steven’s many honours include receiving the CBE for services to music, in 1998, and being a guest on Desert Island Discs, in 2007. He shares his musical and non-musical enthusiasms via stevenisserlis.com and, Twitter, @StevenIsserlis.
How is the lockdown for you? You keep busy, don’t you?
I do. Not just keeping myself busy – I get all these requests to do things online, Zoom Q&As… Sometimes they ask me to play too but I USUALLY say, ‘No’.
It’s a busy time. Not lucrative, but busy.
I’m enjoying playing the Bach Suites, which I haven’t played for ages; I’m getting to know Beethoven’s last quartets too which, for some reason I hardly know. There’s definitely some positive aspects to it.
BUT I do look forward to normal life resuming and not hearing everyday about some new set of tragedies.
When you come to play a well-known piece, do you revisit other people’s interpretations first?
No, not at all. I avoid them like the plague. I will know other versions from my childhood but I wouldn’t have listened to them since then. Rather than listen to the Dvorak or Schumann Cello Concerto for pleasure, I’d listen to a piece I don’t know so well.
Is that unusual?
I don’t know. Some people collect all the recordings and study them but I think that’s just… mad. I just want to go straight to the score and talk to the composer. Why go to a vicar for his opinion when you have the chance to look at the score and talk to ‘God’?
How did you come to go to CLS?
I auditioned for a music scholarship and I got it. I was in competition with another boy. My mother was somehow convinced she’d seen [Russian virtuoso pianist] Vladimir Horowitz at the audition to listen to this other boy and that therefore I wouldn’t have a chance! I don’t know where she got that idea! It wasn’t him.
I was very glad I didn’t go to a more pushy school. I was very lucky to have a very enlightened headmaster, Mr Boyes. He allowed me not to do any physical education or any science subjects in my last two years, so that I would have time to do homework from my other subjects during the day – because I was playing the cello every evening.
That was brilliant and I can’t think of any other major school that would have allowed that.
I was very lucky to go to CLS.
Were you helped and tutored in music at the school?
I took piano lessons for a bit there but most of my music was outside school.
Of the subjects you did attend, which ones did you enjoy?
English was far and away my favourite subject. We had teachers like Mr Clark - Nobby Clark. Pete Coulson was another very good English teacher. Pat Whitmore was a French teacher who was also my form teacher for a while. He used to bellow at the start of lessons – but he was a pussycat really.
I used to enjoy my Russian lessons with Mr Wyatt and I kept in touch with him over the years, although he has sadly died recently.
I remember some Soviet ladies coming to visit us as part of one of our Russian lessons. Jonathan Romney from our class – who has gone on to be a film critic for The Independent on Sunday, among many others - asked them, in Russian, whether they liked [dissident critic of Soviet system] Solzhenitsyn - and received a very firm ‘Niet’ as the answer!
I vaguely stayed in touch with Jonathan over the years and when I was asked to do a documentary about my hero Harpo Marx for Radio 4 [Finding Harpo’s Voice, broadcast in 2016], I thought, ‘Why don’t I get a film critic in?’ and I called him up.
Do the Marx brothers speak to the musical part of your brain?
Somehow Harpo Marx is in the same part of my brain as my musical hero Robert Schumann. He has absolute freedom; there’s no rules to what he does, nothing holding him back, pure creative freedom. And I love that, in both of them.
Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, is a great friend of mine. He’s a wonderful man. I had friends in Los Angeles who knew I was a Harpo fanatic and they knew Bill because he was a musician – a pianist - too and I gave them no peace until they introduced us!
So we were a bit in touch and then, having not seen him for years and years, the BBC drove me out to his house in Palm Springs and we spent three hours talking about his father for the documentary, which was great. During this crisis, I call him once a week or so.
Which extra-curricular activities did you do at school?
I played in the orchestra. There was a kind of informal music community of us who used to meet and chat by the music notice board, too. But not really anything else. I was always rushing off to the cello school.
How do you recall the early years of trying to make a career as a professional musician?
It was tough, because I just wasn’t getting enough work to live properly. But I had supportive parents so I was ok. I never starved. But it was a slow start.
What can you do, in those circumstances, to speed up the chances of success?
It’s tricky. Everybody follows their own path. Mine was quite unconventional: I hadn’t been to any of the main music colleges or a specialist music school. I didn’t know that many people in the music world and that does make a difference, I think.
But also I needed time to develop musically.
In what way was your career post-school unconventional?
I was going to go to Los Angeles to a famous teacher called Piatigorsky but he died, sadly. Going to him would have been more conventional; but then I happened to have a friend who said he could get me into his old college in Ohio, Oberlin College . It is a famous liberal arts college but it’s not by any means a music factory. After a year there, I had the chance to go to Julliard in New York but I didn’t want to. I wanted to find my own way without being forced into any sort of mould. So I stayed at Oberlin and I loved it.
Without the contacts from a ‘music factory’ how did you put yourself out there?
You try and make the contacts. I played chamber music with some people who really were very successful and they would recommend me to their agents and record companies and that made a huge difference.
I think you need luck. You need to go about things in the right way. Make friends! And if you are good and you do become popular among musicians, then hopefully that will spread.
Pushiness can pay, which is most unfortunate. Because music is a language that many people do not speak and unfortunately among them are the people who organise the music world!
I mean… some of them.
So it can be a bit dismaying.
What did you expect success would feel like and did it come true in the way you had imagined?
I just hoped that my diary would be full and it is full - but I can’t say I feel particularly successful. You’re just always trying to be better. But I’m lucky that until now I’ve been playing pretty much full time.
Do you decide what work you want to do or do you respond to suggestions from other people?
It’s both. If someone asks me to do a piece I don’t like, I won’t do it. But then I have ideas of programmes I really want to do and I submit them to a promoter and if I get to do it then that’s great. Then again if an orchestra calls me and says they want a soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto I’m very happy to go and play it. It’s a mixture.
In which ways do you improve as a musician over the years?
I’ve lived with the pieces for longer. I’m constantly thinking about the pieces I play. So hopefully I understand more than I did 20 years ago.
I love music more and more. In this lockdown, it’s been a lifesaver. Listening to late Beethoven, playing Bach.
What would you say to a 14-year-old interested in music as a career?
Make sure you really have to be a musician. For a healthy balance, we need maybe 1000 listeners for every player. So make sure this is what you really want.
On the other hand, we need lots of music lovers who can play a bit, not necessarily professionally; so it’s great if as many people as possible study music as children, not necessarily harbouring any ambition to make it their profession. But for those few for whom it is a necessity – then follow your dreams and work at it.
You need determination and an overwhelming love of the music. It’s probably best if you can get on with people but, even then, you get these most unpleasant types who make wonderful careers! I don’t know why that works.
Is being easy to work with an asset?
Not necessarily “easy”. Maybe “worthwhile”. I’m not easy to work with at all. I’m extremely obstinate. I believe in my vision of each piece but then when I find the right people to play with, it’s wonderful. And they’ll be strong characters as well. So there’s give and take.
Some people don’t like it. But then we don’t play together again!
Your success has led to your working with stars from other areas of the arts, hasn’t it? You could be forgiven for name-dropping someone like Sir Paul McCartney…
Yes, I’d met Paul and played with him for fun once; he got on the drums. But I hadn’t seen him for ages and I got a call to go down to his studio and play on his son James’ debut album. He conducted me for a bit during that session. Paul has been incredibly nice to me on the few occasions I’ve met him.
One of the good things about becoming a bit better known and making CDs is that if I admire somebody I can write to them and send them a CD and often they end up becoming friends, especially a lot of my favourite writers, who tend to love music.
I did a television show with Dudley Moore, called Concerto. I think I was the only one of the six soloists in the series who really knew who he was. I’d been a big fan since childhood and we just hit it off. I stayed in touch with him and I ended up playing Beethoven’s ‘triple’ concerto in a benefit concert with him at Carnegie Hall.
And that’s my last name drop. Although the last time I saw Dudley before he died I went with Barry Humphries. So maybe that’s my last name drop!
Photo: Steven Isserlis by Joanna Bergin