Profile: Nic Pendlebury, viola player, teacher and conductor

On Saturday 10 June, The Bernardi Music Group will be opening this year’s Festival of Chichester in the Cathedral with a cosmic musical journey that will take the audience Beyond Our World. It will be joined by electric violist and conductor Nic Pendlebury and Trinity Laban ensemble.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at this concert?

Our concert on the 10th of June Beyond Our World is a fascinating concert featuring three truly exciting pieces of music. At it’s centre is George Morton’s wonderful arrangement of Holst’s iconic work The Planets for Chamber Ensemble/Orchestra and four female voices. It’s an extraordinary transcription and as a listener one quickly gets used to the reduced forces, so clever and thoughtful is the rescoring of the parts. Our cosmic programme also features a new work, The Lost Planet for electric viola, ensemble and voices by Columbian composer Eliana Echeverry. The work imagines the sounds and atmosphere of our once ninth planet Pluto which sadly lost its status as a fully-fledged planet only a few years ago in 2006. Now a dwarf planet Echeverry cleverly uses the rich sound pallet of the electric viola in combination with the ensemble to take the audience on a journey into the unknown but with some familiar echoes of our earthly existence on the way. The programme begins with my arrangement of Terry Riley’s Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector scored for solo electric viola and sonic delay.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?

Both my parents were musicians, my mother a piano teacher and my father a very gifted amateur violinist so as child I was completely surrounded by music. The oldest of four children I started playing the violin when I was 5 and by the age of 8 was studying at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, and from then onwards my pathway into a career in music was pretty set.

My teachers were of course a huge influence to me but so too were my peers, surrounded as I was by many amazing young musicians. Whilst at school I was a cathedral chorister which played a huge part in my musical training, learning invaluable skills such as pitching, sightreading, intonation and ensemble. Almost unknowingly as a chorister you also learn vital professional skills for later on in life such as the importance of punctuality, stage deportment and performance stamina.

After studying at the RNCM for five years and then in Germany for a further two with my amazing viola teacher Hariolf Schlichtig I formed the Smith Quartet with whom I went on to have an international career working with and commissioning from a plethora of artists and composers many of whom have had a huge lasting impact on my musical pathway. Of course, the very nature of being in a string quartet means you are always learning and being inspired by each other, not only musically but emotionally and sometimes even politically, working with the same people year upon year is a great privilege but can also at times be quite testing and group politics becomes central to good working relationships.

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

The Smith Quartet specialised in the performance of contemporary music, not always everyone’s cup of tea so many of the challenges were about convincing people that they would actually enjoy an evening of contemporary classical music. The number of people who used to come up to us after the concert and say……“if I’d have known it was going to be like that I’d have been coming for years!”………Some of the music we played was incredibly challenging and demanded a lot of practice and rehearsal time. Some times when you commission, composers like to try out new ideas and often ask whether certain passages are possible to play. Obviously, it’s impossible sometimes to give an informed answer without putting in the time  to learn the said passage so hours of work need to go in just to give an answer of yes or no!

I have always been creative as a musician often searching for interesting ways to collaborate and experiment. As such I often found myself doing something for the first time whether that was working on a new work for string quartet and electronics or on one occasion playing a rarely performed 5hr (none stop) work by Morten Feldman. Obviously if a work has never or rarely been played before the whole process of learning can be challenging, the whole process of learning very different to the learning of a known classic with often new techniques to learn, such as in George Crumbs Black Angels where the players have to learn to play their instruments upside-down, play tuned crystal glasses and count out loud  in several different languages.

My new venture of creating repertoire for the electric viola has also been challenging as not much if anything has been written for the instrument. As well as commissioning new works for the instrument I have also transcribed works which I thought would lend themselves well to being arranged for the electric viola. My first transcription was Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint originally written for multiple electric guitars for American guitarist Pat Metheny. I thought the lyrical nature of the work would work well on a string instrument so set about transcribing and subsequently recording it for my first album Multiple. It took over a year to do and was quite a feat but Electric Counterpoint turned out to be just the beginning of a three-year project recording and transcribing several other existing works including Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds and Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium. I remember the first day of recording looking at the score I had just transcribed and thinking ..this is going to take a long time…like the Reich it took over a year even though it’s only about 9 minutes long! I also commissioned two new works for the album one from the late great John Ashton Tomas his witty Variations on the Fourth Tune and El Kendal’s Bloom again, all for multiple violas.

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians and or artists?

Throughout my career I have collaborated with a wide range of musicians and artists including musicians from the world of jazz and popular music as well as choreographers, dancers, composers, theatre directors and visual artists. I find it fascinating working with artists from other disciplines as their own experience and practice often informs and compliments much of what I am trying to achieve in mine. A good example of this was the collaboration I did a couple of years ago with theatre director Anna Morrisey. As well as my viola playing I am also Head of Strings at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and I wanted to create a performance with my students on the subject of climate change. I was already in the process of commissioning a piece for the project from composer Hollie Harding. The new work was  about ocean pollution and the melting icecaps. It turned out to be an extraordinary work written for electric viola, string ensemble, pre – recorded material and bone conduction headphones which the audience wear whilst walking through and around the orchestra. The work was essentially about what will happen if we continue to do nothing about earth’s biggest problem. I wanted to juxtapose Hollie’s piece with something that depicted the world as it should be and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons seemed like the obvious choice. However, I didn’t want to just simply play it and decided to stage it and commissioned Anna to work with me on it.  It was an extraordinary collaboration, the orchestra learning much of the material from memory and acting out their characters through the music Vivaldi wrote and the physical movement Anna created. It was fascinating to witness the transformation of the music when performed through the lens of a theatre production and how the physical direction enhanced the quality of the actual playing.

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

As I’m sure it is now clear my whole career has revolved around the performance and creation of new music. I have personally been responsible for the creation of over 300 new works, most of them for string quartet. It has given me enormous pleasure to do that and through the process of commissioning and performing have met and worked with some extraordinary artists. I think its virtually impossible to single out names, and lists are a little boring, but in my thirty years of being in the Smith Quartet I got to meet and work with likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Adams. Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Steve Martland, Graham Fitkin, Stephen Montague, Kevin Volans, Django Bates, Andy Sheppard, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp to name but a few. What was incredible exciting about working with all of them is that they are all musical pioneers and in their own ways have moved the musical landscape into new realms, worlds that before couldn’t have been imagined, creating new musical languages and genres.

Which works do you think you are able to perform best, and why? 

I have a particular affinity to performing the music of living composers. It’s incredibly exciting to be able to sit down with a composer and work on their piece together. Quite often little adjustments are made to the score as a result of discussion and trying things out together and it’s very gratifying to be part of the creative process and feel that you have in a small way made a contribution to the development of a piece.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I was very proud of my performance of my own arrangement of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint when I got the chance to perform it to him in front of a packed audience in London. I was obviously somewhat nervous to play it to him, what if he hated what I had done to his iconic work, but he was visibly moved by my performance and the transcription and told me afterwards that he had been moved to tears (in a good way). He also invited me to publish the work to be part of his collection of works published by Boosey and Hawkes so I guess he must have liked it!

Steve Reich has been a pretty constant collaborator through my career. The first time we worked together was with the Siobhan Davies Dance Company in 1990 when she choreographed to his seminal work Different Trains. The work compares his life as a Jewish child during the war, taking train journeys between Chicago and New York to visit his separated parents, with the train journeys he may have taken had he  been a child growing up in Europe during the atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s an incredibly poignant and moving work and in 2005 he and the BBC invited the Smith Quartet to be part of a documentary film commemorating 60 years of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau. It was the first time since the war that music had been played in the camp and it was an incredibly humbling and moving experience. Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz went on to win a Grammy and a BAFTA.

What are your most memorable experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

Apart from the above it’s probably the first time the Smith Quartet performed Morton Feldman’s 2nd String Quartet. It’s five hours long without a break. Performing a quartet none stop for five hours is quite an ordeal, there’s nowhere to hide, and as well as the musical preparation, it required considerable mental and physical preparation and of course stamina. I remember talking to David Harrington of the American Kronos Quartet to get some tips about playing none stop for five hours as his quartet had performed it a couple of times previously. I remember him saying that we would discover muscles we didn’t realise we had and that we would go through an almost out of body hypnotic state. He also reminded me not to eat or drink too near to the start of the performance as there is no stopping!

Rehearsing for the performance was interesting as there are pages and pages of duck eggs (white long notes) which really don’t require any pre-rehearsal but every now and again Feldman writes passages of the most complicated music, often requiring each musician to play in a different system of time signatures to the others, the patterns coinciding every 13 bars. He leaves the most complicated set of systems for about 4.5 hours in! These passages required a lot of rehearsing but we decided to leave the sight-readable sections to the concert.

David was right, it was an incredible experience, some of the pages we hadn’t looked at were astonishingly beautiful and felt rather akin to going on an unfamiliar hike, climbing a mountain to reveal the most beautiful view on the other side or in our case on the next page. He was also right about the pain and I did discover at least three muscle I wasn’t aware of as well as emotional feelings for the other members of the quartet I hadn’t quite banked on! I remember the last page being turned at about 02.50 the next morning (the concert had started at 22.00) and the sense of euphoria we all experienced must have been similar to that of a marathon runner on the final straight home. It is also an incredible experience for the audience, many of whom did last from start to finish, although there were some who apparently went for a meal in between!

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

To make sure it is something that you absolutely love to do because it’s a tough profession, full of challenges and at times disappointments and you are more than like not going to make a lot of money from it.

Of course, if you do choose a career in music it can be incredibly rewarding particularly when it is something that you love doing and you have a real passion for it. I have met and worked with some incredible people and had the privilege of performing around the world in leading music festival and famous concert halls. To have a career that can touch so many people and often change lives for the better is an amazing gift and one that I am incredibly thankful for.

How would you define success as a musician?

Just to be able to make the world we live in a better place and bring creativity and art into peoples lives on a daily basis.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

More of the same with maybe a little more composing and creating new work which gives me enormous satisfaction.


Nic is Head of the String Department at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where he leads one of the most vibrant string departments in Europe. Embracing a student cohort from around the world his staff includes many of the countries leading musicians. As well as his educational and managerial responsibilities he conducts several of the conservatoire orchestras and ensembles including Trinity Laban’s String Ensemble. With them, he has given performances both nationally and internationally including the Ljubliana Festival, Italy’s Emilia Romana FestivalConciertos de las Velas in Peraza Spain and at the Dartington International Summer School. The group has also participated in collaborative projects with Chetham’s School of Music, Wells Cathedral School, and the Yehudi Menuhin School. They have performed with many renown soloists including oboist Nick Daniel, clarinetists Dimitri Ashkenazy and Darko Brlek, pianists William Howard and Helen Reed, violist Rivka Golani, organist David Titterington and jazz saxophonist Julian Arguelles with whom they recorded the critically acclaimed album As Above So Below.

Nic is also the founder and violist of the internationally acclaimed Smith Quartet renowned for their performance of new music and prize winners of the Prudential Award for the Arts. Now into their third decade, they have collaborated with many of the worlds leading musicians including John Adams, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, David Tannenbaum, Andy Sheppard, Django Bates the rock group Pulp and dance companies Siobhan Davies and Shobana Jeyasingh. They regularly perform in many of the worlds most prestigious festivals and leading concert halls. The Smith Quartet record for Signum Classics their first three albums receiving worldwide acclaim. As a violist and a conductor, he has worked with many of London’s leading orchestras including London Mozart Players, English Chamber Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, English Sinfonia, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The more observant viewer may also have seen Nic playing the part of a ghost in Anthony Minghella’s film Truly, Madly, Deeply.

* Conferred with the title of Professor in January 2017

Event Search