Alban's Blog

Experiments on Stage – Too Risky?

In an interview I was recently asked if after playing the premier of the Chin Concerto by heart there were no more risks to take. I didn’t quite understand the question, and I felt it was necessary to indulge a little bit in what “taking risks” actually means. Obviously it is the opposite to “playing it safe” which already at the age of 21 I felt wasn’t my way. My father wanted me to join his orchestra (Berlin Philharmonic) and I would have been safe for the rest of my life, at least financially. I opted against it, feeling deep inside the need to keep on living on the edge, with no fixed income.I remember very vividly when in April 1991 I played my debut in Tokyo. Together with Tomoko Masur, the conductor’s wife whom I had met there at a private party, I visited a Japanese temple where one could draw a little piece of paper, size and content similar to the ones in fortune cookies. I had the choice to disregard the prediction of ones future by throwing it away or accepting it by tying it to a certain cord which was hanging there. What I drew wasn’t very good: it said that my ship was still in safe waters but that it was directed into a huge storm, the outcome would be uncertain. Guess what – I accepted it!

Why? Well, my father had always told me that all the great musicians worked through a lot of adversities in  their lives, that there was no easy way to becoming a real musician. No, he was not talking about success, acclaim or money, but just purely musical qualities. If everyting comes too easy it also goes easily. And even if it stayed it might stay on a very shallow level (it being music as the essence of being). You might not believe me, but my ship really moved towards very, very rocky waters, huge storm, in every aspect: privately (girl-friend back then broke up with me at least 10 times), careerwise (possible recordings with EMI fell through) and also in my playing I felt much less secure as before, a true musical crisis.

I worked through this without accepting nor receiving much help, and to be honest, I never felt that my ship had arrived in any safe harbour yet – do I regret having accepted this Japanese fortune cookie? Sometimes I wondered, but at the end of the day I love the uncertainties in life, they give me creative energy, because I can’t afford to stop challenging myself. As happened yesterday:

During the Walton performance in Brussels on Friday evening my cello started making some funny little side-noises and I decided to bring it to a cellomaker in town who had contacted me before and shown his instruments. He found out that not only was my fingerboard incredibly bumpy but also loose and he advised against playing on it the concert that same day in Namur (run-out with the Orchestre National de Belgique). He tried to fix it in time, but no chance, the glue didn’t dry quickly enough so I played the concert on his newest cello – exactly two weeks old.

Rostropovich once said that it takes years to know your cello (he was talking about a Stradivarius though), and it is also a known fact that every new instrument needs some time to before it reaches its true potential – the body has to get used to the vibrations and the wood has to learn how to swing in a way. But already in the shop of Thomas Meeuwissen I felt that his newest baby, although nobody had properly played on it, new quite well how to swing and sing, so I decided to play on it that night.

What do I know how it sounded out there in the hall – but at my seat in the (acoustically very dry) hall it was quite fulfilling, and Walter Weller, the conductor, couldn’t believe when I told him afterwards that this cello had just been varnished 10 days ago, he absolutely loved the sound of this modern instrument. Not only old Italian instruments can play…

Thomas, the luthier, asked me afterwards how it was possible to adapt so quickly (I had about 90 minutes practise time on the cello before the concert) to a new instrument with completely different measurements. My answer brought me back to what “taking risks” means:

Each performance, never mind if it’s Bach or Chin, I try to go through the creation process meaning I kind of pretend of improvising or composing the piece as I go along. If you look at my parts, they are blank; no fingerings, no bowings, no phrasings, no other words of wisdom – I want to leave myself the space to explore many different options. When going on stage I have not decided on exactly what to do at any given spot – I kind of go with the flow, let the music lead me while forming the phrases as I feel them in the moment. No, I don’t play every single performance differently, I don’t try to play differently, but I try to “speak freely”, not tied to an absolute game plan. And this by itself presents a huge risk – it is easier to play perfectly (hit every single note) if there is only one option (or two), but if you speak spontaneously, you might get some words wrong.

And for playing the cello in a technical sense it is absolutely the same: There is hardly any automatism in my technical approach, but my fingers more or less follow what my ears want to hear, and that’s why they find their way on any instrument. In masterclasses I always use the instrument of the student, which used to throw me off when I came back to my own cello, but not anymore. After a minute or two my fingers understand the instrument, they find the invisible keys and press them down, being lead by the ears. Gosh, I don’t know if this makes any sense, it’s very difficult to explain the sensation of exploring a new instrument, which is so much fun.


  • Peter Achten

    Lieber Alban,

    sitze auf dem Flughafen von Ashkaba (Turkmenistan) fest, und habe soeben Deinen neuesten Blog gelesen. wie immer wunderbar, lehrreich, unterhaltend und eben auch eine Welt, die fuer mich weniger bekannt und damit auch faszinierend ist. Du schreibst uebrigens wunderbar, und ich koennte mir als Journalist davon eine grosse Scheibe abschneiden…..
    Peter (Achten, Peking)

  • Alban

    Lieber Peter,

    das ist ja nun wirklich viel zu viel der Ehre, ich bin wirklich geschmeichelt – solch Kompliment von einem Mann wie Dir! Ich erröte und danke Dir für die lieben Worte, die ich natürlich nicht für bare Münze nehme, das habe ich ja zum Glück von meinem Vater so gelernt… 🙂

    Bis hoffentlich ganz bald, liebe Grüße aus Berlin,


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