Tamsin Waley-Cohen reflects on her international career

Tamsin Waley Cohen. Picture: Patrick Allen

Tamsin Waley Cohen. Picture: Patrick Allen - Credit: Archant

The talented violinist is touring Europe with the folk-music inspired Reflection that was specially written for her by eminent composer Oliver Knussen

If there’s one British violinist whose career has moved into the fast lane over the past year it’s Tamsin Waley-Cohen: a NWLondon talent to the extent that she lives by Queens Park, runs a concert series at the Kilburn Tricycle and graces the Hampstead Arts Festival, but with a working life that’s suddenly turned international.

Her most recent CD, of American violin concertos by John Adams and Roy Harris, has made waves. But she’s also in the middle of a long-term project that’s been sweeping her through concert halls the length and breadth of Europe, and arrives in London next month.

Its a concert tour, but with a difference in that it’s based round a specially commissioned work, written for her by the eminent British composer Oliver Knussen. The whole tour is a sort of prize, bestowed by ECHO: the European Concert Halls Organisation.

As she explains, “They have a scheme for which performers are nominated by one of the concert halls in the ECHO group. I was nominated by Birmingham Symphony Hall. And that gave me the chance to go to any composer I wanted and commission something I’d then travel with.”

That she went to Knussen was an interesting choice. Notorious as a composer who writes slowly, with a small output and tendency to miss deadlines, Knussen hasn’t produced a new work in years. But for all his struggles to produce, he remains one of pre-eminent musical minds of our time. Hugely respected, keenly followed.

The piece he’s written for Waley-Cohen is called “Reflection”, and it emerged out of conversations the two shared about folk music and story-telling. “There’s no exact storyline that it follows,” she explains, “but there is a definite narrative sense, with references to folk idiom.”

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Packaged with a chamber-music programme that, in London, includes Poulenc and Mozart, “Reflection” gets taken by Waley-Cohen to Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Hungary and all points between. This month it gets a Paris premiere. And should there be any danger of growing tired of the piece as she plays it over and over again, Knussen’s compositional grappling will come to the rescue.

As she tells me, he’s making changes to the piece as the tour progresses, making it longer; it’s anyone’s guess what the exact duration will be by the time it hits London next month.

But as Waley-Cohen says, “live performance is in any case never the same from one concert to the next; and that’s what I love about it. So many things will affect how the performance comes out: the venue, how you feel, what’s happened to you on the day. And of course, the audience. Connecting with the audience is all-important.”

To that end, she likes smaller halls with some degree of intimacy and a stage that isn’t too high. But something else she’s keen about is that a concert shouldn’t run too long. “It’s hard,” she says, “for audiences to give their full attention to the music when there’s piece after piece. I think the ideal would be for concerts to be no more that an hour, with everybody absolutely focused on what’s going on.

“At the Tricycle Theatre – where we’re not running concerts at the moment because of the refurbishment, though they’re scheduled to resume later in 2017 – the timing is usually an hour and twenty minutes straight through, without interval. We’ve found that works very well.”

The ECHO concerts are more standard. So if you go to her London date next month, you’ll just have to stay alert through a full evening programme. But Waley-Cohen has proved herself to be an elegant and compelling player. I doubt if she has much trouble with sleeping audiences.

Reflection gets its London premiere with accompanist James Baillieu, at Milton Court (the new Guildhall School concert hall, across the road from the Barbican),

Tues Feb 21, 7pm. Booking: Barbican.org.uk