Best known in Christendom for his instrumental praise albums cellist Robin Thompson-Clarke now has a new string to his bow with the KAMMERSPIEL TRIO. John Irvine reports.
Robin Thompson-Clarke is a London-based professional cellist with a varied background in both the classical and worship music fields. Cross Rhythms readers may remember him from the 'Praise Him On The Cello' CDs, the second of which was recently released on Kingsway. Lately, Robin has been playing in the Kammerspiel Trio which have begun recording an album of music by Ian Wilson (one of our featured composers in the Living Composer Society series back in CR20). I went to meet Robin in his East London home to find out more.
Robin began his professional life at the age of 11 when he won a scholarship to Northampton Music School subsequently entering the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1981, where he became a Christian. Having put his career in God's hands he found himself, in addition to classical engagements, in the studio along with Christian performers such as Graham Kendrick, John Pantry and Rob And Gilly Bennett, eventually making CDs of praise and worship music in a classical style both as a solo artist and with the Carnelian Quartet. However, the Kammerspiel Trio is a bit of a departure for Robin: "This is not being looked upon as a Christian project. I think all music can be used for the glory of God. There are Christian musicians out there playing music c4 the highest quality and what better to find a Christian composer whom you can choose as a composer on merit alone who is writing a piece called The Seven Last Words' for a group of Christians who have already received critical acclaim in the press. I'd sum it up as the Dream Team..."
Robin met Steven Morris (violin) through the All Soul's Langham Place Orchestra (of Prom Praise fame) and later the Carnelian Quartet. Steven was also playing in a group called Theatre Music London as was Paul Bateman (piano).
"Their regular cellist couldn't make it so I was invited to come out to Hamburg for three weeks. Very nice, staying in five star hotels! But Hamburg is an expensive place to stay and there wasn't much to do during the day so we raided the local music shop for Piano Trio music, bought what we could afford and played them just for fun. On the last evening we did an impromptu concert in the bar of the Kammerspiel and people said, 'Why don't you do this seriously?' Back in London we put on a charity concert in Paul's local church, three of the pieces we'd enjoyed playing most and the concert went really well. At the concert were two people who were setting up a record company and they decided we were just the sort of thing to start it up with. Someone in the church said, 'I've got some money I want to invest and I'd like to invest it in you.' Hence we had a record company and money to back it all on the basis of one concert which we had really done for fun! Some said it was meant to be... Anyway, from then on we were stuck together professionally and we had to become more serious at that point, we had to start rehearsing more often. The first recording happened within a year, maybe six months, of us getting together, which is phenomenally quick for a chamber music group."
The recording was a reasonable success commercially - but more importantly it received good reviews and exposure in the classical music press. The record company were eager to record a follow up. "We had to decide what to do next and we were very, very keen to look at good contemporary music. So we started off by thinking that we could record a piece by Michael Nyman (of The Piano fame), a piece by Arvo Part and one work by Ian Wilson which we'd already given a performance of and were very pleased with. We weren't allowed permission to record the Part piece, and the Nyman piece wasn't really something that we would want to play at every concert. We knew lan's work as good and so we commissioned another work, the major work of the album - 'The Seven Last Words' - which Ian wrote very quickly: he started in October and it was finished in time for rehearsals in December!" Kammerspiel gave the world concert premiere of this piece at the 'Conway Hall in London in April of this year."
At this stage Kammerspiel had two works by Ian Wilson which they were ready to record which left them with a choice of either recording the Wilson pieces plus a short piece or recording "The Seven Last Words" with one other major work. After wading through a pile of music scores at least three feet high they came to the conclusion that of all the contemporary scores available for piano trio, much of the music was the same as a lot of other contemporary music and there was no particular reason for Kammerspiel to record those pieces. Some big names were rejected in favour of yet another new work commissioned from Ian Wilson.
"We felt his writing as a composer was very, very good, very accomplished technically, well written for the instruments. Also, it was accessible, it was the type of music that we felt we could play to an audience who don't listen to contemporary music and they would come out saying, 'I liked that but I didn't think I was going to.' We've played his first trio twice now and given the world premiere of the second; people have come up to us and said, 'We liked the Wilson piece better than anything.' lan's writing is like no one else's, it has a mystical quality, a meditational quality, it has elements of sheer beauty, it has drama, it's exciting...it challenges the musician in the way they play certain things, to look for different ways of playing it. He is a composer that we think is going to be really well known. He merits attention."
Ian Wilson was the featured contemporary Christian composer in Cross Rhythms 20 (April/May 1994) and much has happened to him since then with recordings of "Winter's Edge" and "I Sleep At Waking" now available on CD. Ian is in regular demand for new compositions for classical musicians. The Kammerspiel CD, however, will be the first album devoted to his music. "Mais Quand Elle Sourit" began as a musical portrait of his wife. The third piece, "Catalan Tales", was inspired by a series of paintings by Joan Miro and seeks to musically express life with all its joy and pain, to illuminate the sense of human experience suggested by each painting. "The Seven Last Words" is the major work of the disc being a single movement work of 11 sections based on the last words of Jesus on the cross as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. Ian says in the CD inlay notes that he intended the piece "to be experienced as a journey, emotional and spiritual, with or without the texts being borne in mind; taken as a whole, the journey of suffering from beginning to end of the Crucifixion is what is echoed in the piece, so that the individuality of each text used becomes less important than the overall direction from first to last."
Robin commented on "The Seven Last Words": "Not everyone is going to like this, it's a piece that they are going to have to listen to two or three times and being half an hour in length it's going to challenge people emotionally and musically. They aren't going to be able to turn it on and listen to a section and turn it off; you're not going to be able to listen to it as you're doing the ironing. Ian doesn't demand anything outlandish of the musicians, you don't have to hit the instrument or anything odd, but the piece does challenge listeners with an amazing range of sounds and an amazing range of emotions. It's a piece that you can't help being drawn into emotionally, so much so that the person who came to page turn for us during our rehearsal for the Conway Hall concert was in tears. She'd never heard it before and she was sitting there turning the pages crying her eyes out. She wasn't a Christian so far as I know but she was so moved by the music that she was in tears - it has that effect on people. The bonus is that lan's a Christian, but his feeling obviously comes through so well in his music, in his way of writing, that people's hearts are touched."
While the success or failure of the new CD may very well depend on how well it is marketed - witness the success of the Gorecki Symphony in 1992 and the Canto Gregoriano discs in 1994 - Robin is optimistic that the disc will be favourable received due to the quality of Ian Wilson's compositions. "People will find things in Ian Wilson that they perhaps haven't found in any other contemporary composer. It's not the easy listening perhaps that Tavener can be, or Nyman can be. It's not music that will wash over you, but it's music that you are drawn into. We've looked at other composers like Nyman and Part and we think he's equally good and in some instances better in that they haven't written a trio that we like better. The music should stand on its own merits, which is why we chose Ian Wilson and not a big name like Nyman. If we'd done Nyman we'd have sold loads more records, but it's not what we wanted to do, not why we started playing together. We started playing for fun, for enjoyment, and what we want to play is music that we feel has real value where we can say something through the music and where the music has got something to say. We're not playing piano trios to make money."
Despite the time, energy and enthusiasm that Robin, Stephen and Paul have dedicated to Kammerspiel, they still have time for other projects. Stephen is very busy as a session man and is also Principal Second Violinist with the Scottish Ensemble, which occupies him for at least three months a year; Paul has a flourishing career as a conductor and arranger, working with the likes of Lesley Garrett and Sarah Brightman; Robin still does session work for Christian artists, playing with All Souls and other orchestras, and of course his solo career. "My solo work is something of a bonus. I like playing solo and I love the opportunity to do solo recordings, but given the choice I'd be happier playing with other people. I still have time for other things; we don't rehearse every day, we couldn't - we've got to make a living, we've got families to support. One has to be realistic and one has to pay bills, and until the Trio has been out there for longer and made more of a name for itself then it will have to have its place within everything else. If we've got a concert or a recording then we'll fit the rehearsals in every conceivable space."
Robin is particularly pleased that he has the opportunity as a Christian to play in an ensemble which will be respected within the classical music work on the grounds of musicianship alone. "I'm very excited by the Trio, I think it's one of those opportunities that presents itself...not very often! It's a group that works well in every respect. We have our faith in common, we have musical ideas in common, we work together well, we play for fun - there was no pressure to be a professional group, the opportunities presented themselves without us having to beg! That's not to say that we haven't had to work hard. But we've been able to concentrate on the music and enjoy that." When the new Kammerspiel disc is released, I think that many listeners will appreciate both the Trio's dedication to the music itself - the works of Ian Wilson - and the superb ability of the musicians. I, for one, look forward with great anticipation to the new album in the autumn. You'll be hearing more from the Kammerspiel Trio. I think that you'll like what you'll hear.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.