The Blog

String Theory: Julian Lloyd Webber

You might imagine he would be crestfallen - being told by his doctors to stop playing would have come as a blow - but he actually seems rather upbeat. Sipping a beer and looking back over his career, he tells me that, "I basically loved every minute of it."

"Life," as John Lennon once said, "is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Julian Lloyd Webber knows this all too well, having recently found himself with an injury that has ended his long and successful solo career. You might imagine he would be crestfallen - being told by his doctors to stop playing would have come as a blow - but he actually seems rather upbeat. Sipping a beer and looking back over his career, he tells me that, "I basically loved every minute of it."

We're in Mosimann's in London's Belgravia. Julian's wife Jiaxin and three-year-old daughter Jasmine Orienta have gone off for some retail therapy nearby, as we relax in the plush surroundings of the bar area. Tall and sinewy, Julian is softly spoken and comes over as surprisingly down-to-earth. You'd never call him the most talkative of types, but ask him about something for which he has a passion, and he's off...

"I love playing music to people, that's what it's really all about. That's what I'm missing after only a few months more than anything else; just going out on a stage and communicating music to the audience. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do. I would always miss that, even if this is just a comma, and I go on to do something else which I certainly intend to do, I will always miss that."

Julian feels he was doing really good work when he was injured off the pitch, so to speak. "I think I was at peak," he tells me, "but still not quite the finished article. Never ever. I didn't think that. If you start thinking that, then that's the beginning of the end. What I found most frustrating about what is happening to me now is that I think I have at least five years left, possibly more. That's some kind of cruel fate there, but on the other hand you could take the view that there is something else for me to do. And I have been told very strongly that I should do it now. If I had stopped playing five years from now, I would have been considered too old for a lot of jobs..."

If he had kept on playing until his late sixties, it would certainly have been harder to reinvent himself. Yet he is inspired by one of his musical heroes, Sir Neville Marriner, who hung up his conductor's baton at the ripe old age of ninety. "That would actually give me, goodness, twenty seven years, that's a whole new career! He was a huge friend of mine actually, and I made two of my favourite recordings with him, English Idylls - which was a collection of quite short English pieces for cello and orchestra, and then the big Britten cello symphony, of course written for Rostropovich which Neville was playing in the first performance, principal second violin I think in the English Chamber Orchestra. If I had to pick one recording out, the best I have made would be the Britten and Walton."

Julian is lucky enough to have worked with some of the finest musicians the world has ever known, but remains unfazed. His passion is for the music itself, and specifically his instrument. For this reason, Elgar plays a large part in his world. "I always loved his music as a student, not just the cello concerto, but of course for British cellists the Elgar concerto is the work, isn't it? I think actually he is underrated as symphonist; for example the first symphony is an extraordinary piece of work, brilliant."

Unmistakably English, he comes over with a calm reserve, but this doesn't diminish the pride he feels in this country and its musical tradition. "We were a little late to the party, you know", he laughs. "Until Elgar we didn't have composers of the stature of Beethoven and Brahms. I do think music was undervalued here, and it says a lot that Elgar was basically completely self-taught. This makes him all more remarkable, because he had such technical skill and did such assured writing for strings. If Elgar had been born in Germany instead of the Malvern Hills, would he have written the same kind of music? I think the answer is probably no. You then had this extraordinary flowering of British composers, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, Vaughn Williams. The reason British music wasn't taken seriously is because it was such a long time coming, but the composers we then produced are up there with the best."

It's not all about Elgar though. Julian has worked with some of the very best Russian conductors such as Evgeny Svetlanov, Shoskovitch's son Maxim and Yuri Temirkanov (conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic). He tells me that he loved working with them because they're so good technically, and so purposeful too. "There is a spiritual link. You know what it's all about, you know who these people are, they're so intense."

Julian has also experimented with things well away from his classical background, such as Variations, the collaboration with brother Andrew back in the late nineteen seventies. "It had people like Gary Moore, Barbara Thompson and Rod Argent on it; great players, lovely musicians. We didn't think it was going to do as well as it did. It got to Number 2 in the charts, and then of course was used as a theme for the South Bank Show, which kept it in peoples' minds for a long time. We weren't expecting that. It was brilliant, I was about twenty-six at the time and all my work as a musician to that point had been so very classical, there was not much freedom. But I got on with all those musicians so well. After that I went on to work with people like Cleo Lane and Stephane Grapelli, who were fantastic. I learnt a lot from working with them; it definitely helps your classical playing, it brings freedom and knowledge of other styles. As a musician you have to be aware of other kinds of music."

Fascinatingly, this touches something inside Julian, for he is not quite the stickler for formality that his genre of music demands. "There is a problem with dress at a lot of classical concerts," he exclaims. "The most important thing is the music, and I think the penguin suit idea is so dated. I despair of it; it alienates people. There has to be some kind of uniform within the orchestra, otherwise you're distracted all the time seeing what people are wearing, but the whole penguin suit thing is anachronistic."

Indeed, he's something of a rebel. He grew up with The Beatles, but confesses that he prefers the rock'n'roll that immediately preceded it - such as the rawness of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. "I loved the feeling that this was something really fresh and new. There was massive sense of humour to it; they weren't taking themselves that seriously. As pop music progressed into the late sixties and seventies, getting so serious and angry, it got a bit too much up its own arse..."

Unlike most musicians of his level, Julian did have a normal childhood. Instead of going to a special music school, he took his O Levels like everyone else, and only really went professional aged sixteen. He had been playing the cello since he was four, but confesses to have been fascinated by the repertoire around the age of eleven or twelve when he started collecting recordings. "I taped everything off the radio, reel-to-reel tapes, anything with solo cello in it, and I have to say that's how I always heard the instrument. I never thought of it particularly in any other way, it was the voice of cello I loved, and I still do."

He became increasingly absorbed by the instrument, and then heard Russian virtuoso cellist Rostropovich for the first time in London when he was thirteen. "It made a huge impact on me. I went to hear him whenever I could. I changed to a wonderful teacher called Douglas Cameron, I felt inspired by him, and the whole thing came together to the point where I decided this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a soloist, I didn't want to be an orchestra player. It wasn't any particular ego thing, it's just how I heard and thought of the instrument. So I started working really hard."

"I made that choice for myself," he confides. "When I went to music college it was the swinging sixties. It was 1968 when I first went there, so that was absolutely at its peak - flower power and all the rest of it - but I deliberately didn't party so hard, because I wanted to be able to wake up fresh in the morning. So instead of going to sleep at 3am with a massive hangover, I went to bed at 10pm with a massive hangover!"

Unlike many budding rock musicians of his generation, Julian didn't feel the need to lie in London parks, dropping acid tabs and listening to The Beatles, because he was always so passionate about what he was doing. "Had I not been, who knows?", he adds. He wasn't driven by his parents; rather he was well aware that if he was going to succeed, then there was no alternative but to work very hard indeed. "It had to be the central focus of everything I was doing."

When the young Lloyd Webber wasn't dutifully practising cello, he would sneak off to see his beloved Leyton Orient Football Club play. "Back in my youth my parents had a very good friend who lived in Leyton, and we used to go there on Saturday afternoon. It was around ten or eleven and I got bored with the adults, so I went down the road to see what all the noise was about. It was my first football match and I loved the atmosphere there. Once you become involved with a team, it's there for life..."

Classical music is there too, so don't expect him to bow out gracefully. Although Julian won't be playing professionally anymore, there is no way he won't continue his career - conducting maybe, teaching and/or charities quite possibly. Meanwhile, his final cello recording, a duet with his wife, has just come out on CD - Vivaldi: Concertos For Two Cellos [NAXOS 8.573374]. Jiaxin is back with the baby, who announces her presence in no uncertain terms. Dad raises his glass and toasts the future.