An Interview with Matthew Trusler


There are those who like to maximise their free time. Matthew Trusler, apparently, isn’t one of them. He is a solo violinist, who has played with orchestras ranging from the Philharmonia to the Minnesota. He is the founder of the record label Orchid Classics. In between, he devises projects for the Lenny Trusler Children’s Foundation, a charity for sick newborn babies and infants, which he also founded. So, just occasionally, something has to give. ‘I think the people that I work with are mostly understanding – that if I disappear for a few days, I’m not just being lazy.’

When we speak, he’s just performed Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, a piece that he will play three times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – in High Wycombe, London and Hull – in the spring. ‘I’ve played it for years and it just doesn’t get any easier,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Technically there are bits that I just can’t play; it’s so hard. I can get through the last movement in my living room at, like, 80% of the tempo with probably a 99% accuracy rate. But onstage, at 105% of the tempo with a bit of adrenaline going, you’re lucky if you get anywhere near that.’ Luckily, that’s all part of the fun. ‘There are pieces that I feel are not difficult in that way, where the top of the mountain doesn’t keep moving. For me, they’re now boring and I don’t want to play them anymore,’ he says.

Doing things the hard way comes naturally to Trusler. The son of musicians, he began violin lessons at the age of three, and by his own admission, was a diligent practiser. ‘I don’t know how,’ he says, ‘because when I think now about my kids, I couldn’t get them to practise even if I wanted to. In that time between getting back from school and going to bed, we struggle to have dinner, watch a bit of telly, read a story and go to bed. And God forbid if they have to have a bath.’

But from a young age, Trusler was set on being a violinist, and after graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1998, he was hailed by The Times as ‘an authentic, though British, virtuoso’. So it’s interesting that Trusler then decided to split his focus, founding Orchid Classics in 2005. ‘It happened sort of accidentally. I always liked the idea of doing something entrepreneurial, and in the evenings with the telly on, I’d be googling “how to start a record label.” That was my hobby. Now it’s half my job.’

The Lenny Trusler Foundation, however, was born out of personal tragedy. ‘We had a baby, called Lenny, that died of a kidney disease very soon after he was born,’ he explains. ‘And almost immediately, even the same day, we were sitting in the garden talking about what on earth we could do to raise money for the people who had helped us.’ Eight and a half years later, the charity is thriving. Two weeks ago, the Wimbledon International Music Festival hosted a musical project consisting of thirteen new pieces by thirteen composers, based on one of Alice in Wonderland’s chapters. Wonderland, currently making its way across the UK, is only one of several musical projects devised in the name of Trusler’s son.

‘There’s no way I could be sitting here now just playing the violin and doing nothing else,’ says Trusler. ‘That wouldn’t have worked for me at all.’ That said, he admits there are times when the pressure feels daunting. ‘I don’t go out very much. I really don’t go on holiday. That, I really don’t ever do.’ It’s important, he says, to set clear cut-off points. ‘I always made a big thing about putting my phone in the cupboard as soon as my kids got back from school.’ He laughs: ‘They rigorously enforce it now. As soon as I put my phone away they’re like, “Yeah, and your iPad? Where’s your iPad?”’

And, actually, having less time has come in useful. ‘I think it was Leonard Bernstein who claimed that what he needed to produce great work was a really good idea and not enough time,’ says Trusler. ‘I think we all respond well to that.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Matthew Trusler performs Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Wycombe Swan, Cadogan Hall, Hull City Hall and Cliffs Pavilion in spring 2016.

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Graham Bickley at Christmas


It’s going to be a cracker of a Christmas at Cadogan Hall on Saturday 19 December when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nick Davies, will be joined by two huge stars of TV and the West End stage: singers Anna-Jane Casey and Graham Bickley. They’ll be performing a festive concert of Christmas songs, duets and sing-alongs under the RPO Christmas tree as part of the Orchestra’s hugely popular Christmas Cracker concerts.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Graham says enthusiastically. “We’ll be singing a wonderful Christmas selection. Classics such as When a Child is Born and Mary’s Boy Child, moving into Winter Wonderland, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Let it Snow. I’ll be doing some fab duets with Anna-Jane, too, including Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

“The Orchestra get to play their own festive pieces, too, but the audience won’t just be sitting there – they’ll be having a good sing-along as well. It’ll be a Christmas evening to remember.”

Graham’s name may be familiar to you from Bread, the smash-hit TV comedy series in which he played Joey Boswell. However, opera lovers may also recognise his surname as being shared by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

“She’s my sister,” the singer tells me proudly, between rehearsals for five different concerts he’ll be giving over the festive period. “Singing’s the family business!”

Graham got the singing bug from his father, the Deputy Head of a primary school, who was also a passionate member of the local am-dram group, and leader of the church choir.

Even before his teens, Graham knew he wanted to be on the stage and, fortunately for us, his parents encouraged it. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Liverpool Theatre School. “It was a fantastic place,” he says. “I never finished the course, though; I was working in the theatre almost from the day I joined.”

Graham learned his trade doing the summer seasons and pantos before moving to London in 1981 and getting more work in the West End. In 1989, he got his big break in Carla Lane’s hit TV comedy, Bread. “It was a fantastic series and great fun to make,” he says.

Graham made a triumphant return to the West End stage in 1992, and has been busy ever since in productions ranging from Les Misérables to Guys and Dolls and On the Town. He’s performed with some of the world’s biggest orchestras and starred in gala concerts dedicated to musical greats as diverse as Nelson Riddle and Stephen Sondheim. In 2010, he even found time to tour the UK with Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag in the hit show Steppin’ Out.

Reflecting on those years, his proudest moment was, he says, being nominated for an Olivier for his role in Ragtime in 2003.

Today, Graham is busier than ever, and just like previous years, Christmas promises to be his busiest time. “Between Boxing Day and New Year, I’ll be doing musical theatre,” he says. “From when I was young and in my father’s choir to being a professional, Christmas has always been busy – but I love it.”

However, on one day only, his stage outfit will be hanging in the wardrobe. “Christmas Day is family day,” he says. “Everyone will be around: my sister’s family and my mother.”

Perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas, they’ll be in the audience, too, at Cadogan Hall as Graham and Anna-Jane welcome in Christmas with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Written by John Evans

Graham Bickley performs in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christmas Cracker concerts on Saturday 19 December 2015 (3.00pm and 7.30pm) at Cadogan Hall, London.

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STROKEstra at Hull City Hall


Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Since May 2014, RPO resound has been teaming up with Hull Integrated Community Stroke Service (HICSS) on a pioneering programme using group creative music-making to provide stroke rehabilitation for patients and carers in Hull. Over five months, six RPO musicians and Creative Leader Tim Steiner have been working with patients, carers and HICSS clinical staff to form the RPO STROKEstra, a musical ensemble created by, and for, stroke survivors.

The STROKEstra recently performed two original pieces ahead of the RPO’s season opening concert at Hull City Hall on Thursday 1 October 2015. Stroke survivor Tracy Jacobs shares a few thoughts about the programme:

“I have thoroughly enjoyed it all; it has been fantastic from start to finish. It gave me respite from my problems and I don’t ever want to forget this part of my stroke journey. It brought me a little bit of myself back. It was the first time I had done something on my own since my stroke.


“It has cleared my mind and now that it is over, I am ready to start afresh – out with the old and in with the new, and I’ll start by getting my hair cut on Saturday into a new style!

“I liked that I wasn’t pushed into doing it. It was always my choice to come. I really felt that the group grew into a little family, and it felt like I was going to see my family every day.

“My sister, who joined me at the last session and at the concert, said it was fantastic and she has never done anything as good as that before; she wished she had come from the beginning. For those couple of hours she was there, all her stresses went away.

“It was amazing.”

If you would like to see more of this project’s amazing work and view some videos of the performance, shared by members of the audience, please visit Tracy’s Facebook page, Life After Stroke.

This pilot programme was funded by the Hull Health & Wellbeing Board.

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Brian Wright on ‘the King Kong of requiems’


Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

There is no more thrilling place to be, says conductor Brian Wright, than standing in the middle of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. So he’s in luck: on Monday 30 November, he and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the piece at the Royal Albert Hall – a good place for it, according to Wright.

That’s because Grande Messe des Morts, written in 1837, is the King Kong of requiems. Berlioz, who intended it to memorialise the victims of the French revolution in July 1830, was never stingy with decibel levels. But in this work, he excelled himself, including, in addition to his enormous orchestra and gargantuan choir, four brass bands. Positioned around the other performers, these take turns to bludgeon the audience into submission; no wonder it’s rather a trial to put this piece on. ‘Trying to get all that lot together, as conductor, you’ve got to be very clear in what you’re doing and just keep the most enormously cool head.’ Then, of course, there’s the expense: ’I remember once doing it in the Albert Hall, when amazingly, we managed to get an audience of 3,000 in. I think we made £100 profit in the end.’

So why do performers keep coming back to it? Exactly because of its eccentricity. ‘In the middle of the piece especially, Berlioz lets his imagination go absolutely wild in a totally theatrical way,’ says Wright. ‘In one place there is this unbelievably bare sound of three flutes, right at the top of the flute range, with no harmony underneath, but then you suddenly have the sound of four bass trombones coming in from the brass. It’s haunting.’

As he points out, this is the sort of contemporary effect you’d associate with a mid twentieth-century composer rather than someone at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it’s certainly not what you’d call reverential church music. But for all its originality, this piece didn’t spring from nowhere: ‘During the revolution, there were great open air celebrations with brass bands in four corners of a square, who would go out into the population and teach thousands of people the latest revolutionary tunes.’ What Berlioz essentially did, Wright explains, was to take this practice and put it in a religious context. ‘It’s a bit like somebody today taking the latest ideas from pop music and putting them into a classical context,’ Wright explains.

To deafening effect, some might say. But on this, Wright has his own opinion: ‘The interesting thing about this piece is that it’s not just about those enormous moments which almost have the feeling of growing out of the French Revolution. There are also these incredible moments of intimacy, for example in the Sanctus where the solo tenor comes in with this very ethereal line.’

But the diabolical shrieks also have their place, not least of all in the Lacrimosa: ‘It’s frankly a dance of death. The basic speed is a waltz, but it’s a manic waltz over the edge into the abyss. It’s the beckoning of death, Hell and all the rest of it,’ Wright says with relish. ‘And Berlioz really knew how to conjure that up.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall.

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José Serebrier and the Golden Age


© Columbia Artists Management Inc.

Hollywood comes to the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 4 November when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs some of the greatest film scores from the Golden Age of the movies, under the inspired direction of legendary conductor José Serebrier.

It promises to be a match made in tinseltown: the RPO, an orchestra with recording credits including The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Red Shoes, and Serebrier who, in addition to being an acclaimed, multi-Grammy Award-winning conductor famed for his interpretations of Glazunov, has composed for film as well as for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He is, therefore, just the man to create more than a little movie magic on this special night.

“My first film score was for The Star-Wagon starring Dustin Hoffman,” he tells me from his home in New York. “We were neighbours and it was just wonderful writing for this young man who, soon after, would become such a big star in his first major film, The Graduate.”

So, solid-gold Hollywood credentials established, what is it about film music that attracts this energetic (he seems far younger than his 76 years) but, otherwise, serious and hugely respected classical conductor?

“The power of the music, pure and simple,” says Serebrier. “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the power of music to bring a film alive. The best film music has this fantastic ability to create moods and enhance the visual experience.”

It’s a quality that wasn’t lost on some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, including one of Serebrier’s heroes: Dmitri Shostakovich. Remarkably, he composed almost 40 scores, more than most established film composers manage in a lifetime. Needless to say, Serebrier has recorded many of them.

However, much as he loves the film music of Shostakovich, it is that other Russian composer, Prokofiev, whose film music intrigues him – and one score above all.

“It’s his music for the film Alexander Nevsky,” he says. “The film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Unlike today, when composers are given a couple of weeks to compose the score after the film has been shot and edited, Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked on the movie and the music simultaneously – frame by frame, bar by bar. It was unique, and the care and craftsmanship shows. It’s what I mean when I say music brings a film alive.”

Fortunately, audiences will experience exactly that when the conductor directs the RPO in their concert dedicated to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ben-Hur, Taxi Driver, North by Northwest, Gone With The Wind, Psycho… Movie titles etched in our collective memory – but what do we remember next? The music, of course.

“The mark of a good film score is one that can stand on its own, without the film,” says Serebrier. “The music to these great films absolutely does.”

Among the roll call of great movie composers whose music he and the RPO will be performing is Erich Korngold. According to the conductor, Korngold’s work is proof that great film music, far from being some sort of poor relation of classical music, is a genre in its own right, deserving of equal respect.

“Film music is not a cousin of classical music,” he says. “It is unrelated and, yes, it is functional, there to enhance the film. But, as the music we will perform in the Royal Albert Hall will show, the best scores can stand on their own and stir the emotions as only the greatest music can.”

Written by John Evans

José Serebrier conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in The Golden Age of Hollywood on Wednesday 4 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

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