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Profile: Cathy Mathews, violinist

30/06/2020

Who have been the main influencers on your decision to pursue a career in music?

My parents were refugees from Hitler. My mother was Austrian and my father was German. My mother, a violinist, had played in a piano trio with her father and brother since early childhood. My father played the cello. They met in a string quartet which was arranged with the express purpose of matchmaking. It worked!

I wanted to play the violin as soon as I knew of its existence.

I was a member of the National Youth Orchestra which was great, except that there were very strict rules about socialising. If you went for a walk alone with a boy you were thrown out. Perhaps that has changed now!

My parents wanted me to try for Oxbridge but I rebelled, left school and got a place at the Royal Manchester College of Music. I studied with, among others, Yossi Zivoni.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

I spent about thirty years playing full-time in various orchestras, including Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Welsh National Opera, BBC Radio Orchestra and BBC Concert Orchestra. I loved every minute of it, but it was not an enormous challenge. As a string player you are simply part of a very slick team. In a good professional orchestra, on the whole everything just works. The biggest challenges were getting the positions in the first place! And you do have to become very good at sight reading. Also you can’t really have a normal home or social life because there is so much travel.

I will now drop a name! During the Bournemouth Sinfonietta years, I lived in the same road as Simon Rattle, who was nineteen years old and had just won the John Player Competition. We became friends and he would sometimes invite me to his flat and cook me Rattletouille!

In Liverpool I was a sub-principal 1st violin and sometimes co-led. That was something of a challenge.

In WNO I grew to love the excitement and drama of the combined forces of singers and players. You are a small cog in a massive and thrilling wheel.

In the BBC Radio Orchestra we accompanied the BBC Big Band at Maida Vale and I developed a love and some understanding of jazz.

In more recent years I went twice to Fiddle Frenzy on Shetland and enjoyed learning about folk fiddle.

I also love improvising and did a lot of this when I belonged to a free, evangelical church.

Both from a musical and technical perspective, my greatest challenge now is playing chamber music, including sonatas, piano trios and playing in my string quartet, Speranza.

And teaching, of course, is always a challenge!

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Relationships can be an issue. You spend a lot of time playing with the same people. On the whole if you are being paid you put up with more! In an amateur setting, it is easier to feel irritated by each other’s quirks. Music is a language. It is a way to connect with others. We are doing it for the love of it. It is more fulfilling if we all get on. But in the end, the music brings us together.

I have played much chamber music with very good local musicians. It is a joy and a privilege.

My greatest pleasure at the moment is playing string quartets because I have found a group of people who appreciate each other, both musically and on a personal level. That is not so easy to find. It should not be taken for granted.

Which works/performances are you most proud of?

I am not proud, as such, of anything. It has been great to play so much symphonic and chamber music. I have appreciated the opportunity to play the solo violin parts in, for example, Scheherazade and Don Juan with Havant Symphony Orchestra. In recent years, one interesting group to which I belonged for a while was a mixed wind and string octet called Pieces of Eight. The Schubert Octet was a highlight. Also it was a privilege playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto with the Havant Chamber Orchestra and the late Brian Howells. Brian gave me my first job in the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

I enjoy playing music by most composers. I don’t always enjoy playing works by lesser-known ones just in order to give them a chance to be heard. Usually there is a reason they are not famous!

I feel a degree of affinity with Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

I am perhaps most comfortable with the Austro-German classical repertoire, as above, because of their structure, scale, humour, grace and poignancy. Also there is a link with my heritage. I used to listen to my grandfather playing a lot of this music on the piano, especially Schubert lieder.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are too many to pick one out, but if I had to, then playing the opera Pelleas and Melisande in Paris with Pierre Boulez conducting must be in the running. His beat was tiny, just caressing the air with his fingers, yet crystal clear and so expressive,

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

Only do it if you can’t bear the thought of doing anything else.

How would you define success as a musician?

There are many ways success could be defined. In the end I came up with this. If a discerning audience appreciates your performance then you must be doing something right.

Keeping sane under lockdown

There is an assumption here that one was sane before lockdown. However, the antidote to over-exposure to teaching on Zoom and Facetime is teaching in the back garden. Unless the neighbours are mowing their lawn.

Author: Cathy Mathews with Simon O'Hea

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