Interview: Robert Cohen

The gifted British cellist talks about his clinic for fellow performers and the specially-written new work he is unveiling in Manchester


By Jessica Duchen, November 26, 2010
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Robert Cohen commissioned a cello concerto for his 50th birthday

Robert Cohen commissioned a cello concerto for his 50th birthday

Many of us might be tempted to throw a party for our 50th birthday, but not Robert Cohen. The celebrated British cellist had a better idea - he asked the composer, Sally Beamish, to write him a new work.

It is a concerto, entitled The Song Gatherer, that draws inspiration directly from Cohen's Polish and South African Jewish family background. The substantial half-hour piece was a co-commission between the Minnesota Orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, where Cohen will give its UK premiere on December 2.

Beamish was Cohen's immediate choice of composer, not least because the two have known each other since childhood, when they used to play in a string quartet together. "Her way of writing is something I can identify with," he says. "She likes to have a point of inspiration around which she can focus an entire creation. In this case, it seemed appropriate to look at my life, where I am and where I've come from."

During their discussions, Cohen found himself telling Beamish about his roots, especially the story of his maternal grandfather, to whom he had been very close. "As I grow older I discover more and more similarities with him. His background is tied in with explaining my Jewish roots and my sense of being a kind of gypsy musician: never really having a home, always moving around, involving myself in other cultures."

I suddenly felt a powerful connection to my grandfather

Cohen's grandfather was born in Poland, but at the start of the 20th century his family decided to emigrate.

"They arrived in London expecting to board a ship to America," says Cohen. "In London the Jewish community looked after fleeing migrants from the east; the law was that they were not allowed to stay in England for more than three nights. There were two shipping lines they could take, one to America and one to South Africa. Probably nobody ever knew which line they'd be on; they just got tickets if they were lucky and had to leave within those three days. So they thought they were going to America and ended up in Cape Town."

In this powerful history Beamish found her inspiration. Her concerto mixes a strong cocktail of allusions: the idea of migrating birds, traditional patterns from Jewish music, memories of Robert's enthusiastic playing in their childhood quartet, and the Yiddish and South African songs that Cohen's mother used to sing to him.

"I love the concerto's narrative energy," says Cohen, "and I like to communicate this to the audience. This energy in music and in the communication between performer and audience is very much what I feel is important in my own playing.

"The first time I started to learn the concerto I felt completely at home with it. I was wiped out with emotion when we premiered it in the US - I suddenly felt a powerful connection to my grandfather."

It is, though, thanks to the other side of the family that Manchester makes the perfect home for the concerto. Cohen's father, Raymond, was born there and at 17 became one of the youngest violinists ever to join the Halle Orchestra. Afterwards he embarked on a solo career, and with his wife (the pianist Anthea Rael) and the youthful Robert, the family formed the Cohen Trio. "My father is 91 now, but he still plays the violin for three hours a day," Robert says happily.

Cohen shot to fame at the tender age of 19 when his first recording - the Elgar Cello Concerto - became a runaway success, selling some 250,000 copies in the UK in its first two years. As a child he had been prodigiously gifted; William Pleeth, who was also Jacqueline du Pré's mentor, accepted him as a student when Robert was only 10.

But he says that he is grateful to his parents for keeping him clear of the life of a child prodigy. Instead of starting a performing career in short trousers, he studied at the Purcell School until he was 15, when he left to concentrate on his cello studies; then he made his Wigmore Hall debut two years later. "The Elgar's success enabled me to be recognised internationally, so I started travelling at 19 and I've never stopped," he says.

When he is not on the road, Cohen has another strand to which he is devoted - he runs a "cello clinic" for musicians who are experiencing problems, whether physical, psychological or, often, both.

"I discovered that I am able to pinpoint the root causes quickly and can set up a strategy for resolving the problem. Part of it is a kind of healing process - my awareness that music heals. When you play music, you can also heal yourself."

Robert Cohen plays Sally Beamish's Cello Concerto No.2 , December 2, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Tel: 0161 907 9000

    Last updated: 1:54pm, August 28 2014