The cellist takes a bow

Barbara Grunthal is a mainstay of the Manchester music scene

By Gita Conn, March 18, 2010
Barbara Grunthal

Barbara Grunthal

When the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier re-routed his bouquet to "the sweet cellist at the back" he was paying tribute to an obvious, but rarely acknowledged, truth. Accolades are gifted to conductors and soloists, but their performances can only succeed with the individual and collective efforts of the musicians in the orchestra.

Cellist Barbara Grunthal, 48, is one of those unsung heroes. As a much sought-after freelance player on Manchester's vibrant classical music scene she performs for the Manchester Camerata, a thriving chamber orchestra of which she is a member, as well as for the renowned Hallé Orchestra, the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic.

Currently, music-lovers are descending on the city's Bridgewater Hall for sell-out performances of the complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies, marking the 150th anniversary of the Jewish-born composer's birth. The Hallé is collaborating with the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic and the Camerata in this massive enterprise.

"It's a thrill playing with the big orchestras," she says. "Being in the middle of the sound of the horns and the brass in Mahler… it's such powerful, evocative music."

Grunthal grew up in Middlesbrough, where her parents were both music lovers. "I used to hear Dad playing his favourite piano concertos - always Mozart - floating upstairs when I went to bed," she recalls. One day, the school rang her mother to suggest that Grunthal, already proficient at the piano, should take up the cello. "Dad had suggested the flute which," she laughs "would have been easier to carry around, but Mum said: 'Give it a go'."

Her gift for the instrument was quickly apparent and she left home at the age of 13 for a boarding place at Manchester's Chetham's School of Music, the largest specialist music school in the country.

"I hated the first week," she confesses. "I remember lying on the top bunk on the fourth floor where I could hear the announcements from Victoria Station and see the road leading back to Middlesbrough. Then something clicked. I thought: 'You can be who you are here.'

The Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra’s string section

The Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra’s string section

As a professional musician, juggling the diary is complicated. As well as her performing commitments, she teaches at various schools, including Chethams, as well as special needs children. ("Music really gets through," she says, "it communicates to a primitive part of us.") There have also been orchestral tours to Japan and Australia.

She is determined to accept as high percentage of Camerata's 'offers' as possible while keeping all her other employers happy.

"You can't afford to say no," she points out. "Nor can you have an off day. You are as good as your last performance. It's more subtle than just playing the right notes. You mustn't play weakly… but you mustn't stick out either. It's about fitting in.

"Being onstage takes you to another level. Getting dressed up in your black outfit, putting on make-up has a psychological effect. It's a ritual; I suppose like putting on a tallit in shul."

Although she does give occasional recitals, Grunthal does not envy the soloists, preferring to be a member of the team that allows soloists to shine.

"We have the best seats in the house," she says. "I particularly love the opera galas. You have a singer with a wonderful voice right next to you. We are the winners. Doing something you love is priceless."

The Mahler cycle continues through to June. Tel: 0161 907 9000. Performances will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 every Monday at 7pm for 10 weeks from April 5

Last updated: 12:56pm, March 18 2010