RPO Principal Cello Richard Harwood talks to John Griff about his life playing with the RPO, the quirks of travelling with an instrument and how he started out as a cellist. He performs Brahms’ Double Concerto with the Orchestra in February at Cadogan Hall, Croydon's Fairfield Halls and Reading’s The Hexagon.
How do you reconcile being a soloist as well as being part of the rank and file musicians in a chamber group or orchestra? Don’t you have to rein yourself in?
Yes – and no. Whenever we make music it’s really like chamber music all the time. So if you’re playing an Elgar Concerto as a cello soloist you’re making music with everyone else behind you as an orchestra. When we play string quartets or piano quintets or even playing as part of the RPO, we’re all listening to each other, making music and interacting with each other. I think that in a way they seem very distinct and different roles, but at the core of it, it’s the same principles which apply.
Were you always destined to pursue a career in musical performance?
I guess so, yes. I started like most kids do, very young. I started with the piano. I have an older brother and he started the piano - being the younger brother, I wanted to do exactly what he was doing. I think we heard the violin somewhere and then both wanted to learn the violin. My mum phoned up the violin teacher but he was fully booked up for a long time – he had no spaces. As she put the phone down though, she heard this noise coming from it, so she picked it up again. It was the violin teacher saying “Wait – my sister teaches the cello – would your kids like to learn the cello instead?” The deal maker was that she also had a cello for my brother to borrow – so that’s how I started to play the cello. If the violin teacher hadn’t said what he did, we would probably have gone and found another violin teacher - and I’d have ended up playing the violin!
Tell me about your instrument!
Yes, it’s a Francesco Ruggieri from Cremona, made in the same town as Stradivarius – and at around the same time too. They would probably both have known each other and been drinking partners! It was made in 1692, and I’ve been playing for quite a long time – since I was 14 years old. I’m very fortunate because certain people came forward and bought the instrument as a consortium, as an investment, but continued to allow me to use it. It’s passed through the hands of a couple of different owners since then, but I’m still very lucky to be holding onto it and to be playing it, for now.
In looking after it, do you have to buy extra seats on aircraft so that it can travel with you?
Yes. On the plane it always has its own seat – for safety it always takes the window seat – so it gets the best view but no free meal anymore! It’s a bit like travelling with a really, really elderly relation who doesn’t like things too cold, too hot, too humid, too dry, too bumpy, not too many vibrations – and you get used to travelling with it on the tube, on the bus or wherever.
You’re quite fond of breaking new music - is there enough music for cello soloists?
There’s plenty of music for cellists to play I think, thanks to the icons of cello music like Rostropovich and others who have been so instrumental in commissioning new works – there are countless examples. For me personally, yes, I have had the chance to get to know and be friends and colleagues with certain composers who I have commissioned to write works - that’s always fun to do. It’s nice to bring something new into the repertoire and to be able to do the commissioning.
There’s a big milestone for the RPO coming – its 75th anniversary. As a cello soloist are you hoping that the cello will feature in the commissioning of new works by the RPO as part of that?
I think it would be great if the cello was to be featured perhaps as much as the violin. Generally, the cello tends to be featured less than the violin or the piano, but the RPO does a lot to feature the instrument. I’ve been fortunate in my short time as principal cello here to play concertos with the orchestra – I performed the Schumann concerto last season. We will have a new artist in residence coming shortly – Kian Soltani. He’ll be playing a number of concertos throughout the current season, and then with our Concertmaster Duncan Riddell I’ll be playing the Brahms Double Concerto in February next year.
Do you see playing with the RPO as a tick box on the curriculum vitae from which you’ll ultimately move on one day?
I don’t see it like at all. I’ve been really fortunate to have an exciting career as a soloist and also a chamber musician – it’s a fantastic experience to also be able to play in orchestras. So far I’ve only discovered benefits to adding working with orchestras to my musical life, so I very much hope that that continues. As for the RPO I’m very proud to be a part of it. It’s an orchestra that I’ve always looked up to and respected – it’s full of really fantastic musicians and personalities. A lot of people who come into the RPO come in as guests who have experience in other orchestras and then speak about the special kind of social element within it and that it’s a wonderful place to be. I don’t see the RPO as a stepping stone or anything like that. I’m very happy where I am and happy to take each day as it comes and see what happens.