On music, fine wines, and hypoallergenic rabbits…
Over a cup of Earl Grey on a sunny Friday morning in North London, we caught up with LCO cellist Robert Max (and family pet rabbit, Larry) to find out more about what inspires Robert musically, and what he gets up to away from the cello.
You’re very involved with LCO’s Music Junction: tell us about the recent project at Blundell’s School in Devon
Blundell’s was lovely. The kids are great, the younger kids are great, and it’s a pleasure working with them. The school has been incredibly on board and supportive – they filled up their hall for the concert, so they really worked hard to make a success of it. When you’ve got everyone pulling in the same direction it’s a huge pleasure. The kids were very well prepared and their improvised creative piece was one of the best I’ve heard since doing MJ. The thing I was noticing that as the project progresses, the schools and partner organisations get a feel for how it works and what it can be, what it can do for them, and then the students get that feeling too; they share it among themselves and the project’s activities are much less of a surprise to people. When I went to Meadows School about five years ago, we might as well have been Martians coming! For those who want to participate, there’s a real sense of excitement about being part of this, and when pupils see their friends take part, they want to perform too – “I want to do it I want to do it!” These were kids who might not have been inclined to engage with something. One or two kids at the schools have played instruments before, and it’s good for them because there’s something in their life that they can do well, that they feel good about and can share with others. There are several examples where I can think of the starting point, and the ending point at which they left the school – the transformation of them as people, in self-confidence and sense of self-worth is great. And for me this includes my own students over the years; it’s differently calibrated but not dissimilar.
How often do you work with young musicians?
I’ve been teaching at the Junior department of the Royal Academy of Music for 25 years – all of my professional life – so I’ve been working with several generations of talented teenagers. I’ve just started conducting the North London Symphony Orchestra, and I have an ex-student playing in the cello section with great pleasure. She’s now a GP and has a young child – it’s very surreal. I used to conduct and lecture music at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), and one of the first generation of students there had written recently an article in European String Teachers Association magazine, and when she told me she was 35 I couldn’t quite believe it! There are other students from RHUL who have become colleagues at a chamber music course which I’m very much involved with called Music Works, where we organise residential music courses for motivated teenagers and an all-comers course. Several of my former students at RHUL teach with me on the team there. Sometimes at LCO I turn up and discover two out of the three cellists are former students! It’s lovely to see them. Hannah, who has been working on MJ, is an ex student who went on to study at The Julliard School, and several of the violinists in LCO are people I knew as teenagers from Music Works.
What’s it like performing with Christopher Warren-Green?
I really enjoy the relationship of LCO’s bass sound with the rest of the orchestra. Chris gives us the freedom and, unusually as a violinist, he encourages the melody to flow with the freedom of the bass line, and I really encourage that with my conducting. I think that Chris’s professional wisdom is colossal; he has unparalleled experience of orchestral situations right at the top of the profession and in front of the orchestra for many years.
Tell us more about your Stradivarius cello!
Lots of history! It was made in 1726 when Strad was in his eighties. On the one hand, the most famous instruments were made between 1700-1720 – called the “golden period”. But, I think the finest sounding cello by him I’ve heard was the one which Steven Isserlis now plays, which my teacher used to play, and I used to sit opposite it for two years while I was at Julliard. It was made in the same year as mine and was modelled on the great B model, which he pioneered, and mine is a smaller model. When I first came across this cello, it was thought to be the only one of the smaller cellos, but since then several others have come out of the woodwork. It seems that he was exploring the sounds that could be made on smaller instruments. There’s a lovely note in one of the letters that accompanies the instrument that says “I can think of no other instrument in such a good state of preservation and with a more beautiful tone than this one”.
I love the sound of it and don’t mind that it’s smaller. I play other instruments from time to time – I don’t tend to take this one to Music Junction workshops! Sometimes people say to me “your Strad sounds fantastic” and I say “Thanks but I’m not playing it today, I’m playing an English cello!”. They can’t believe it. I think in the end you bring a sound to whatever instrument you play. It’s my responsibility to make a good sound with whatever I’m playing. I’ll pick up a student’s cello and play it, sometimes to their surprise, horror, disgust!
What are the differences between playing in a chamber orchestra and a symphony orchestra?
I went in as a guest principal with the LSO in the 1990s. I think one of the reasons why we all enjoy LCO is because we really are given a free rein. We can express ourselves in a way we want to, and ‘telepathically’ we play with a lot of enthusiasm and aren’t worried if something doesn’t work in rehearsal – we’ll try it again another way and have a chat about it. When you had a large section behind you in a symphony orchestra, it’s much harder to send the message back and the communication lines are so much more difficult. In LCO, we come together and see our friends and make music together. LCO is a pleasure and something great to come back to amid all the other work we musicians do. One of my colleagues came to an LCO rehearsal and was sat very close to me, and in the interval she came to me and said “Robert, is it always like this?” And I said “What do you mean”. She replied with “Well, everyone’s really happy… Most of the time people aren’t so happy!”. We aim to have a nice time!
My arm nearly dropped off at Blundell’s playing Shaker Loops in the concert. Charles also turned over two pages at once and ended up with a blank piece of paper in front of him, which I saw coming! In a moment of over exuberance at a concert in St John’s Smith Square, my bow pulled off a small corner of the Strad cello… that’s probably a few thousand pounds of woodwork flying around! In Hong Kong last year with LCO, I was sat next to Joely Koos in one concert, and I think we may have had too much supper beforehand as one of my waistcoat buttons popped off, pinged against the cello and flew across the stage. Joely was completely out of control with hysteria for the rest of the movement. I always have an enormous laugh with Joely, she’s a tremendous stand partner and a really good friend, and we love playing together. We know what each other are thinking!
What do you get up to outside of music?
I love cooking, skiing and walking, and I have to look after my daughter’s rabbit at the moment because she’s away in America. I came home from a music course one summer, and suddenly there was a rabbit here. He’s sweet and we get on well; he’s quite self-contained and has a passion for Heritage purple carrots! I have been a passionate Indian cook. I don’t do it often enough. But anything, really! I made brunch for twenty-five people for my wife’s birthday. Passover is coming up and we’ll have a seder night involving lots of traditional Jewish dishes. I actually do Nigella versions of some things with a few variations! Ottolenghi is great, too – plenty of lovely recipes, really eatable food.
But my main hobby is making music. I’m artistic director of a small music festival in Frinton-on-Sea; 2017 will be our fourth year and I basically do everything! I have some help to sell tickets and some local people who help out. The other day I was driving around Tendring in Essex and drove around every single village putting up flyers on telegraph poles and village noticeboards and in shops. I play in every concert, write all the programmes, and I print all the programme notes, design the posters and I engage the musicians and write the cheques to pay them. I was even in touch with the local advertising agency putting ads on the nozzles at the petrol station pumps. Literally everything. I’ll probably go to the local BBC radio station in Chelmsford sometime soon. One of my helpers is somebody who came to one of the concerts because it was at the end of her road, and she had never been to a classical concert before. She came to me in the interval and said “I’ve never heard anything so beautiful in my life – I had tears streaming down my face – how do you do that?” She’s a retired paramedic, and has helped me send leaflets off to 450 people. And these are the types of people I meet at an LCO concert when we meet in the foyer after the concert. It’s a lovely way to round off a concert for the audience and player alike, and I talk to person after person who say they’ve never been to Cadogan Hall before, or they’ve never seen an orchestra play while standing before – “everyone’s smiling” they say and “I’ve never heard this music before… I want to come all the time!”
Mr Wheeler Wine, which is my sponsor for my festival in Frinton, sells a wine called Bacchus, made near Chelmsford, and it’s absolutely delicious!
I’ve also enjoyed drinking old wine. My cellar goes back to a 1967 bottle of Château Palmer – which I bought as an anniversary bottle for my wife’s birthday. Most of my wine was bought around the late 80s early 90s. I’m very fond of Château Brane-Cantenac, which is a very reasonably priced Margaux. It’s a quite a soft, rounded claret, not very muscular. We’ve had bottles from various years and it’s always been a real pleasure. I think winemaking has improved a lot and even modest properties around the world in places like Australia, Chile, South Africa, produce some fantastic wines.