Interview: Natalie Clein

The acclaimed musician believes classical music can provide the antidote to dumbed-down culture.


By Jessica Elgot, August 26, 2010
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Natalie Clein says her promotional photos are a “genuine reflection of who I am”

Natalie Clein says her promotional photos are a “genuine reflection of who I am”

Natalie Clein once said her pet hate is getting on an aeroplane with her cello, and people asking her why she does not play the flute. But almost as irritating for the world-renowned cellist is the suggestion that classical music is elitist.

Her green eyes blaze and her back stiffens. "When anyone says the word 'elitist' I can feel myself starting to bristle. I want everyone to come to my concerts," she exclaims.

"Nobody I know, bar none, in my profession wants to be elitist. But if somebody just wants to have music on in the background, I never want to be that music. I want to inspire conversation, I want to challenge people."

Known as one of the most personable and expressive professional musicians of her generation, the 33-year-old Clein feels a burden of responsibility to help her audience understand and love the music as much as she does.

I don't want to be a celebrity, but I do want people to come to my concerts

"I always talk about the pieces before I play them to give a context. Some people will know a lot about the pieces, but some people might be at a concert for the first time in their lives and I want to speak to both. The audience gives me energy. Some performers are happy to do their perfect piece behind a pane of glass. And they are usually incredible musicians. But that's not me."

Clein, the daughter of a professional violinist, has had an eclectic classical career. First picking up a cello at the age of six, she studied at the Royal College of Music and under Heinrich Schiff in Vienna. She rose to acclaim as BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of 16 and won a classical BRIT award.

Her most recent achievements include recording a widely-praised CD of work by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály and collaborating on performance pieces - one with novelist Jeanette Winterson and one with ballet dancer and choreographer Carlos Acosta.

Clein says she feels a duty as a classical musician to give people an alternative to what she calls the culture of "loudness, of shouting and fast food music".

"Last night, I went to see the film Inception at an IMAX cinema," she says. "The screen was so huge. And it was so loud I had to put earplugs in. I couldn't bear it. There was so much shouting.

"And that's modern life, that's what a lot of modern culture is trying to do, to throw it all at you, in your face. I think what my music does is it says: 'Come to me, come to me. I promise you'll love it, if you come.'

"Blockbuster movies and Shakespeare are both valid forms of culture. But I'm not going to apologise if I'm more on the Shakespeare side. You give some effort towards understanding classical music and you gain so much back. We need to have this still moment of calm where we concentrate. If you want to hear its subtleties, you have to be quiet. Silence is a canvas and I can start painting on it."

The London-based musician has a packed schedule of performances, meetings and rehearsals over the coming months, from Los Angeles to Chile to Wales. In September she will perform at the Schumann 200 Festival in London, four pieces by a composer who has always fascinated her.

"The music is very internal, full of expression, but also secrets. That's what attracts me to the music. He's a true genius; you have to find colours and expressions for Schumann that you don't for any other composer. It's very challenging and every time I go back to Schumann, I go a layer deeper."

Her next recording project is the music of the Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch, whose music draws deeply on Jewish traditions and folklore. That spiritual connection intrigues Clein. "His music is the Jewish soul, it speaks to me. The cello sounds like the cantor's voice," she says.

Clein, whose sister is actress Louisa Clein, has tried to steer clear of the marketing people who want to promote her as a classical pop star; but she admits it is impossible, as a young, pretty female cellist, to avoid the alluring promotional pictures.

She laughs: "I hope my music will last longer than any pretty pictures I might have taken. But I don't do sexy, really. Some musicians go much further than I do. I've said no to so much and in most photoshoots I wear my own clothes. It is a genuine reflection of me.

"I don't want to be a celebrity but I do want to be well-known so people to see my name and want to come and see my concerts."

Behind her warm smile and the infectious enthusiasm is a hard taskmaster, and Clein puts pressure on herself to perform better every day, including rehearsing for up to six hours.

She says: "I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers where he put forward the theory that you have to put in 10,000 hours of hard work in to be at the top of your game. I've done at least double that by now. I'd done that much practice by the time I was 17. Lots of people haven't. So I will be better than them."

But a great musician, Clein believes, has to be more than just a workhorse. "That's where the concept of talent becomes interesting, because you can move your fingers for 10,000 hours and be very good, technically. But if you are really fascinated by music, and intrigued to do something new with it every day, that's what talent is. But still, you can't have just that, and do no work."

Whatever the future holds, Clein cannot imagine a time where she no longer performs, even if that means having "some very well-travelled children".

But as demanding as her work schedule might be, she described herself as "blessed" that she can earn her living doing the thing she loves most. "I have a vocation, not a job. I still am very thankful every time I get paid for what I love doing. Of course, one of the things being professional really means is you have to do it. It's like any job. You sometimes have to go to work, even if work means getting up on a stage and playing one of the greatest pieces ever written. But I have a loyal group of people who keep coming back and that's really precious to me. And there's a responsibility to them which I feel strongly."

Natalie Clein's Kodaly recording in released by Hyperperion, priced £9.99. She performs works by Schumann at King's Place, London N1 on September 30. Tel: 0207 520 1490

    Last updated: 11:55am, August 27 2010