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Profile: Lynden Cranham, cellist

01/06/2020

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

There is a long tradition of music-making on both sides of my family (there have been numbers of organists, pianists and singers). Indeed, music was such an integral part of my home life that I seem to have inherited these influencers and their traditions: I can’t actually remember ever making a decision to become a musician.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother and great aunt playing the piano or singing (they’d both studied at the Royal College of Music), and of my father playing the piano. He took me when I was very young to organ recitals at Westminster Cathedral (the sounds, seeming to come down from the darkened upper part of the building, were so atmospheric), and my great aunt and I went to Sir Malcolm Sargent’s Messiah performances at the Royal Albert Hall.

I sang a lot as a child and started piano lessons around the age of 5, so might well have followed in that family tradition; but on one of our daily family afternoons in Richmond Park we met, quite by chance, a lady called Julia Pringle. She offered to teach me the cello and I became her first pupil. I owe a great deal to this kind and nurturing musician. Had this meeting not occurred I doubt that I would have started to play the instrument that has defined my musical life; and then, sometime later, had I not played the cello, I would certainly not have met the musician friend who introduced me to my future husband; our children and grandchildren would not have existed!

Later on I was lucky to study with further inspirational teachers: Jennifer Ward Clarke at the Junior Royal College; Milly Stanfield at the International Cello Centre (established to propagate the teachings of Pablo Casals); Douglas Cameron at the Royal Academy of Music; and Maurice Eisenberg at the Cello Centre, in Portugal and in New York.

I’ve always loved playing chamber music, and after my studies at the Royal Academy was a member of the Burnell Piano Trio, which broadcast and gave a large number of concerts in Britain and Europe. During this time I also played in the London Mozart Players and made numbers of commercial recordings.

I increasingly became influenced by colleagues who were switching from “modern” to “historical” performance practice. I found that playing music of the eighteenth century and earlier in this fashion was musically and intellectually satisfying. Just after I made this switch I moved to the US with my husband and very young children, and we lived in Ithaca, New York. I taught at Cornell University and was a member of the Accordo Perfetto Piano Quartet, which toured the US and New Zealand. But I also continued to play baroque cello there, with colleagues such as Sonia Monosoff and Malcolm Bilson, and frequently came back to England to record and tour with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Chris Hogwood was one of the people who were influencing this whole revolution in music-making, and on my return to live in England I worked regularly with him and others, such as John Eliot Gardiner and his three ensembles, and Frans Brüggen, William Christie, Simon Rattle and many others with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. With these and other period instrument ensembles, I’ve made many recordings and toured many parts of the world.

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

As a cellist I have found that rather than the greatest challenges being musical, some of the biggest issues have been practical ones – travelling around, basically carrying another person with you and often a suitcase as well.

Rush-hour trains speak for themselves (I’ve frequently had to stand from Waterloo to Petersfield, with a book balanced on top the cello case), but some of my worst experiences have involved aircraft. Different airlines have different rules for the accommodation of cellos. Even though a seat will have been bought for the instrument the people at the check-in desks often seem not to know their company’s rules.

On an Academy of Ancient Music tour of the US one of the other cellists and I were, literally, put off a flight with our instruments as the plane was about to start taxiing. Passengers had refused to move from what were considered “safe” seats for the cellos, and we were left in the airport in New York as the rest of the orchestra and our luggage flew off to Miami. On another US tour, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the cellos were travelling in “laundry baskets” in the hold. As we waited at the airport in Chicago it became clear that the cellos had not been put onto the flight from New York with us. The baskets were eventually found and the cellos arrived in time for the next evening’s concert!

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

Playing in large international concert spaces is of course exciting; but such spaces can inevitably feel impersonal. As a baroque cellist I particularly enjoy music-making with small groups and in more intimate venues. Collaborating with other musicians can be such an intense experience. You rehearse and travel together, and trust is built up. The results will always have an element of risk, but it is especially rewarding when the group empathy is such that a player can do something unrehearsed, on the spur of the moment, and the whole ensemble and piece stay together!

Locally I’ve given numbers of recitals with keyboard player Richard Barnes; I also play with the Parnassian Ensemble (consisting of two recorders, baroque cello and harpsichord) and the Consort of Twelve (a period instrument orchestra). As well as being continuo cellist for the Consort, I’m an active member of the committee, the orchestral librarian, and also book the players who will direct each of the concerts.

It’s a particular pleasure for me to ask old friends/colleagues such as Kati Debretzeni, Cat Mackintosh, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Julia Bishop to come down and direct. It’s also hugely satisfying to help organise and put on a concert. When we get to the concert night all the hard work is forgotten, we look out at familiar faces in the audience and it becomes a hugely enjoyable experience.

Which works/performances are you most proud of?

Like many professional musicians, although I can enjoy the act of performance and sometimes feel that it has gone well, I’m also intensely self-critical: so I tend to remember the things that I’d like to have gone better. Anyway, it’s always better to look forward.

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

If I’m playing “modern” cello I really enjoy playing the romantic repertoire, perhaps in particular the Brahms and Rachmaninov sonatas. On period instruments it’s been amazing to play Mahler symphonies with Roger Norrington, and again on period instruments it was marvellous to do Verdi and Berlioz with John Eliot Gardiner. On baroque instruments I love the complexities and rhythmic drive of Bach, but I think that Handel’s bass lines are wonderful. They manage to give the harmonic structure but can also seem so melodious.

Which works do you think you perform best?

Perhaps you should ask other people’s opinion of that, but I really enjoy playing continuo, whether it’s accompanying a singer or other instrumentalists.

What is your most memorable concert experience as a performer?

Every concert is memorable for so many reasons, but two quite dramatic experiences immediately come to mind. My C string broke once during the first act of an opera at Glyndebourne. I had to keep playing (although I obviously couldn’t play on that string) and the unravelled pieces kept clattering and buzzing against the body of the cello through what remained of the act, also resonating with the strings of the other cellists. I got a round of applause and lots of fascinated questions from the front row of the audience as I stood up for the dinner interval.

Another incident has stayed in my mind, especially because of the repertoire that we were performing. I took part in a number of the concerts in John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. On one occasion we arrived in St George’s Church, Eisenach, and a large wooden platform had been constructed for us. I had to play with my feet against a large font. Afterwards I discovered that it was the font in which Bach had been baptised.

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

Try to find a teacher you have a rapport with and who will be really honest with you. Be prepared to spend lots of time on your own, practising – if you’re a bit of a perfectionist you won’t notice the time passing. You probably won’t earn much money, but if you really love music it is a wonderful career.

How would you define success as a musician?

Every time I was about to give a performance, my first cello teacher, Julia Pringle, would always say to me, “If you enjoy yourself the audience will enjoy themselves”. When I play I feel I’ve succeeded if I’ve put the music across as well as I can, if I’ve managed to create a sense of communication between myself and the audience, and if they’ve enjoyed themselves.

How are you keeping yourself usefully occupied and sane under lockdown?

a. Along with the other concerts that have had to be cancelled, I would have been giving a recital of Bach Cello Suites on the Isle of Wight in June. I’m practising the Suites anyway: they’re amazing music and endlessly challenging.

b. A few years ago I did a PhD at Birkbeck (about music in C19 London), and I joined a C19 literature book group made up of fellow students. I would have been presenting Anthony Trollope’s “Barchester Towers” in June, so I thought I’d read the whole cycle of six Barchester Chronicles.

c. I’m teaching our 4-year-old granddaughter to read via Zoom.

d. My husband and I have been repairing the ravaged garden left by a recent building project; I mostly try to stop him mowing/chopping everything else down!

Come to a concert

The three planned Consort of Twelve concerts for 2020 have, of course, had to be cancelled. Luckily we’ve managed to reschedule these for 2021 and we will also be doing a fourth concert, which will be during the Festival of Chichester. For those who’d like to get an idea of the work of the directors of the rescheduled orchestral concerts (Simon Standage and Julia Bishop) there are numerous online examples.

13 March 2021: St Matthew Passion with the Portsmouth Choral Union, conducted by David Gostick. At 6.30pm (to be confirmed), St Mary’s Church, Portsea, PO1 5PA.
23 May 2021: Concert directed by violinist Simon Standage, entitled Two Composer Priests – Vivaldi and Bonporti. At 6.00pm, Holy Trinity Church, Bosham, PO18 8HX.
11 July 2021: In the Festival of Chichester. Israel in Egypt with the Portsmouth Baroque Choir, conducted by Malcolm Keeler. At 6.00pm, St Paul’s Church, Churchside, Chichester, PO19 6FT.
19 September 2021: Concert directed by violinist Julia Bishop, entitled Beyond the Seasons. At 6.00pm, St John’s Chapel, St John’s Street, Chichester, PO19 1UR.

Author: Simon O'Hea with Lynden Cranham

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