Saturday 24 February 2018

A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood

Thomas Gould (Photo Aga Tomaszek)
Thomas Gould (Photo Aga Tomaszek)
The violinist Thomas Gould has a varied career, establishing himself in a remarkable number of different strands, he is co-leader of the Britten Sinfonia, regularly performs with a wide variety of musicians in chamber music and in programmes which have a strong contemporary emphasis, has a jazz series at Kings Place, yet he also performs as a soloist and is noted for his performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto having recorded the work live with Sinfonietta Riga. I recently met up with him to find out more, and found him surprisingly thoughtful about violin playing and the whole idea of a solo career.

Thomas feels that we are living in a golden time for classical performance, the standard is high and there are so many people who can do it; if you go to a lunchtime concert at any of the colleges you will hear staggeringly good playing.

So why do it?

Thomas Gould (Photo Aga Tomaszek)
Thomas Gould (Photo Aga Tomaszek)
This is a question which Thomas has struggled with himself, and is the reason why he has his present career with its balance of a variety of different strands. Ten years ago, when he was starting out after music college he was a more conventional soloist. And he hit on this problem, why do it when you know so many people are doing it better, the world does not need so many concerto soloists! All the big arts organisations use the big names, and Thomas felt that he was never going to be that exalted; to play at such a god-like level you are either born with it or have achieved it by the age of 10!

So Thomas felt a little like an imposter and his career doing the solo repertoire had reached something of a plateau. There were certain pieces with which he felt comfortable, where he felt he had a lot to offer such as RVW's Lark Ascending, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,  along with new music. So he found his repertoire and decided to focus his solo playing on that, but to do a bit of everything else, orchestral leading and directing, chamber music, jazz and other non-classical forms.

I was curious how Thomas managed to balance all the competing strands and he explained that he has found a system which works well for him. It can be maddening to be asked to do a lot of things which clash, but he says yes to the first thing that he is asked to do and sticks to it. On only a handful of occasions has he pulled out of something. Having this general rule of saying yes and sticking to it takes the heartache out of it. Whatever the gig, Thomas does the very best he can, and tries to be loyal and reliable.

He worked very hard for a period in his 20s, and probably did too much and packed too much into his diary with very few days off. Now he consciously does less, leaving time between concerts, time to play tennis or to chill out in the garden.

Performing contemporary music

When playing violin for an ensemble Thomas has to make the best case for the pieces he is playing. Even if it is not music he believes in personally, it musn't show. For the solo violin repertoire, where he gets more choice, as far as Thomas is concerned the music of Thomas Ades is as good as it gets. Thomas was lucky to perform Ades' Violin Concerto, a work he calls phenomenally difficult, quite a number of times at Sadler's Wells Theatre and in New York for a dance piece choreographed by Wayne McGregor with Ades himself conducting. Another composer whose work he enjoys is that of Hans Abrahamsen, whose work he describes as very original and Thomas finds Abrahamsen's Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings incredible.

Whilst he admits that his taste in contemporary music can be 'quite conventional', Thomas enjoys the challenge performing of nearly all contemporary music, such as the stamina and concentration needed to play 60 minutes of Steve Reich,  or the pitching virtuosity neded for music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Music by young composers can make interesting technical demands, and Thomas is currently enjoying working on music with electronics and tape, with music by Mark Bowden, Michel van der Aa and Gabriel Prokofiev.

Thomas finds the challenge addictive

Thomas Gould leads Britten Sinfonia in concert at the Barbican (photo Thomas Skosvende)
Thomas Gould leads Britten Sinfonia in concert at the Barbican (photo Thomas Skosvende)
Thomas is co-leader of the Britten Sinfonia (an ensemble which often works conductorless), as well as directing other groups from the violin. He comments that it is directing from the violin which is the killer, making the biggest demands. It uses every fibre of you, both as a violinist and as a communicator. Thomas finds the challenge addictive, more than anything because of the super-human demands, and you end up having little head-space left for thinking about violin playing, this has to happen on automatic pilot. So much of your brain power goes on cueing others, remembering things which need to be fixed next time the rehearsal stops, and having a good psychological plan. This latter is different in every band, your approach changes if it is a young ensemble or if it is an older one, you need to find the right interpretation. You have to be able to take input from the others, and harness it in the right direction, whilst still being able to play the notes.

Thomas's jazz experience has helped him and he has learned that if something goes wrong, don't let it get in the way of the bigger picture. He feels that in classical music we tend to worry to much abut mistakes.

The violinists whose careers Thomas admires are those who direct ensemble from the violin and he cites Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

He has thought about conducting once or twice, putting the violin down and directing the orchestra. There have been occasions where this has been a necessity, when playing a new piece which arrives late and is obviously not viable without a conductor. But he divides conducting into two types. The first, enabling or simply beating time is something that he has done when necessary, the second, real conducting, he regards as a different craft and this is not something which has ever appealed. Also, he enjoys the simple pleasure of generating a sound from hair on string, and for Thomas this is still the first thrill of making music

In his teenage years he was really into jazz, playing a lot of piano and drums

Gould Standard: John Turville & Thomas Gould at Kings Place, Dec. 2017 (Photo ©2017 David Forman)
Gould Standard: John Turville & Thomas Gould at Kings Place, Dec. 2017 (Photo ©2017 David Forman)
Thomas has always played the violin, but when I ask whether he always wanted to be a violinist he says that this is a question for his Mum! His older sister is violinst Clio Gould and admiration of her created his pathway to violin playing as a career and from the age of 16 hs was committed to violin playing.

But in his teenage years he was really into jazz, playing a lot of piano and drums. He forgot about jazz for a time, about around six years ago with the encouragement of Gwilym Simcock and Tim Garland, Thomas 'sort of got back into it'. It was a lot easier than might have been, the hours he spent playing jazz as a teenager on piano and drums seemed to have transferred to the violin. And he now has a series at Kings Place, Gould Standard, exploring this repertoire.

But he has got a lot from jazz, and he feels that his classical violin playing has benefitted. All the time spent playing jazz drums has taught him not to rush! A drummer's need to be metronomic is not something that violinist think about, rhythm is important but not top of the agenda.

Amazing, but not for purists

Regarding a Desert Island work, there are a few works which he keeps coming back to. The first is
Glen Gould's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Another performer he enjoys is Gidon Kremer, an artist he listens to a lot and if he had to choose one it would be Kremerata Baltica's performance of Schubert's G major quartet which he thinks is amazing, but not for purists. Thomas comments that he has often been landed with the reputation that he likes quirky, weird music but deep down he is really quite traditional.

Regarding music that he would like play, but has never done so, he comments on the concertos of Bartok, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, works that he has somehow managed to miss out on. A hole that should have been filled.

Thomas Gould is performing with Rakhi Singh (violin), Max Baillie (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) at Kings Place on 28 February 2018 in a programme called Time Line, music for strings, electronics and tape by Michel van der Aa, Nico Muhly, Michael Gordon and Mark Bowden, in which past and present are brought into riveting focus, culminating in Steve Reich'sDifferent Trains.

Then on 3 April 2018, Thomas continues his jazz series at Kings Place, Gould Standard, with a concert From The New World with Kristjan Randalu (piano) and Stephan Braun (cello) which includes music from Kristjan Randalu’s album Desde Manhattan and Stephan Brauns’s album The Raid, and classical arrangements including the Largo from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, which Thomas assures me works very well.

The finale of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with the Thomas Gould and pianist Julien Quentin, live on German television in 2015

Thomas Gould on disc
  • Live in Riga - Beethoven Violin Concerto, RVW The Lark Ascending: Thomas Gould, Sinfonietta Riga. Available from Amazon
  • Bach to Parker - Bach, Aziza Sadikova, Nimrod Borenstein, Anna Meredith, Nico Muhly, Ewan Campbell, John Hawkins, Charlie Parker: Thomas Gould. Available from Amazon
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (****)
  • Notable recital debut disc from French Horn player Ben Golscheider - Cd review (****)
  • 18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking receives its first UK performance - Opera review (3.5 *)
  • Gerstein plays Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F - CD review (****)
  • Satyagraha: Philip Glass's opera at ENO - Opera review (****)
  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (****)
  • Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall - Concert review (****)
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Home

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