Natalie Clein: ‘You rarely find a selfish cellist, we’re so sociable’

Natalie Clein. Picture: Sussie Ahlburg

Natalie Clein. Picture: Sussie Ahlburg - Credit: Archant

Ahead of Kings Place’s festival Natalie Clein explains how cellists bond around the ‘shared trauma’ of travelling with an instrument almost as big as yourself

Question: what happens when you round up 43 cellists in 49 concerts, masterclasses and related events over twelve months, somewhere north of Kings Cross? Answer: the phenomenon that’s being billed as “Cello Unwrapped” at the Kings Place concert halls.

Since it first opened, Kings Place has been known for programming that other venues wouldn’t dare, with entire years devoted to a specific theme. As 2016 was baroque, so 2017 will be cellos. Coming out of every nook and cranny, in every context that the Place can handle.

It’s too small for big concertos like the Elgar. But it’s fine for the more modest ones by Haydn. And it’s perfect for the copious quantities of chamber music written for the cello. Especially the solo, unaccompanied repertertoire.

According to Peter Millican, the property developer who built Kings Place and now runs it hands-on, the first music he ever heard in the completed main hall was one of the unaccompanied Bach cello suites. And, he says, “I can still hear it in my head. It seemed then, and still seems now, that Hall One was designed for solo cello: if you close your eyes, it’s almost as if you’re listening from inside the instrument”.

So “Cello Unwrapped” was a project waiting to happen. It starts on January 7 with an opening concert that effectively samples what the rest of the year has in store – sweeping through the chronology of cello writing from Vivaldi to Tchaikovsky and on to Britten.

Surveying the history of the cello and its emergence from the shadows, as an instrument that once spent its time supporting others with a bass line before graduating to full solo status, is central to the year. But woven into the programme are other, more exploratory themes - like the role of the cello in folk music, in the avant-garde, and in partnership with the human voice.

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A leading player who features prominently is Crouch Hill-based Natalie Clein, who told me recently “it’s a cliché that the cello is the closest any man-made instrument comes to the human voice, but true. The range of notes is much the same. And whenever I work with singers – as I will during the “Unwrapped” season – I always feel that my bowing arm is related to the way the singer breathes.

“Of course I’m biased, but I think this human quality is the reason why composers are often inspired to write their most heartfelt music for us. For virtuosity they go to the violin, but for sincerity it’s the cello”.

If she’s right, it may explain why cellists seem to be more sociable than other instrumentalists. You don’t find pianists, flautists, violinists gathering together, other than in competitions. But there are a lot of massed events where cellists congregate, in festivals and concert series. And for Clein, “Cello Unwrapped” reinforces the idea that “we truly are social creatures - partly, I think, because we’re collaborative by nature. We’re used to playing bass lines, which means we’re conscious of structure and how we fit into it. You rarely find a selfish cellist: we’re a good thing, on the whole”.

Ideals aside, though, there’s another explanation she advances for the clubbability of cellists: the “shared trauma”, as she calls it, of travelling with an instrument almost as big as yourself.

“Everyone knows the stories, but I can’t tell you how stressful it is, endlessly turning up at airports and being faced with problems - even when you’ve booked a second ticket in the name of Mr Cello and think it’s sorted out.

“My cello once ended up in the cockpit with the pilot, because the plane was overbooked. Appealing to the pilot is often the only way to get yourself and the instrument on board. I’ve been through it all, time and again. And only another cellist really understands what it’s like. No wonder we stick together”.

“Cello Unwrapped” opens at Kings Place, Jan 7 at 7.30pm, followed by a late-night performance of Kodaly’s monumental solo sonata at 9.45pm. Series continues 11, 13, 14 Jan, and into the year.

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