Cohen to illuminate festival

Illuminating Salisbury Festival's main theme
by Tony Pinkham for Gig magazine

12 Angry Cellos

Robert Cohen is illuminating the Salisbury Festival’s main theme in typically imaginative fashion

‘It’s the old joke,isn’t it?’says Robert Cohen, fresh from an award-winning, sell-out performance of 12 Angry Cellosat this year’s Sydney Festival. ‘What’s worse than one cello…? Admittedly, the idea of suddenly having 12 cellos could be overwhelmingly awful! But as it turns out, it is something rather wonderful. ‘The resonance and emotive qualities of our instruments combined creates a buzz which I have to say is truly thrilling,’he adds. ‘Our Australian performance was one of the most exciting events of my career.’

Now Cohen is bringing his quirky production from Oz to the UK’s Salisbury International Arts Festival (Siaf) – run,as it happens,by Australian Jo Metcalf.

‘12 Angry Cellos takes its name from the festival’s central work Twelve Angry Menby one of Australia’s most exciting composers, Brett Dean,’Cohen explains.

‘The work is based upon Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed film starring Henry Fonda. It’s a provocative work that examines the deep- seated personal prejudices, perceptual biases,weaknesses,personalities and cultur- al differences of its 12 characters – each of whom must come to a unanimous decision on whether to convict a teenage Puerto Rican accused of murdering his father.’

Such moods and emotions are reflected in the voices of the 12 Angry Cellos. Each instrument is representative of an individual juror/character (with lead cellist Cohen as the dissenting voice of Fonda).

‘The cello has such a connection to the human voice,making it perfectly suited to a work of this nature,’Cohen explains. ‘As far as I know,no other piece of music has such a close connection with a story and in this case a film story. Naturally we have sound- tracks and musical scores that accompany a film yet when you come across a piece of music that tells an entire story literally character for character… It’s exceptional from that perspective.’

Serendipitously, the ensemble’s appearance in Salisbury coincides with the film’s 50th anniversary. Concertgoers will also be offered a programme featuring music from Estonia, Brazil, Australia and Europe, including the world premiere of Symphonia by Argentine cellist-composer Jorge Bosso. As Gig went to press the piece remained unfinished however.

‘There’s nothing to worry about, I can assure you,’ Cohen teases.‘ I’m sure we’ll have it soon enough. The important thing is that Jorge has very strong beliefs on how to communicate music – as do I. That’s why I approached him with a commission.

‘Music doesn’t have to be explained verbally before you hear it, I feel,’ Cohen adds.‘ His end product will no doubt be something that is highly communicative and easily understood by the ensemble and our audience.’

Cohen’s passionate and articulate views on the art of learning, performing and communicating music have been honed over a professional lifetime. The son of former Royal Philharmonic Orchestra leader Raymond Cohen, he grew up in an environment where musical discourse was second nature and made his Royal Festival Hall debut at the age of 12. The creative give-and-take of the concert hall remains Cohen junior’s first love but he has earned a worldwide reputation also as an artistic director (he founded the Charleston Manor Festival in East Sussex) and teacher. Since 1999 he has also been a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as professor of advanced cello at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano.

‘I like to show people that the message of music is the main point in terms of a performance,’he explains.

‘Musicians can often feel trapped by musical technicalities and whether they are perfecting an accepted or official interpretation of their repertoire.

‘They forget that the thing that really communicates music best is the way in which they show an audience how much they genuinely love what they’re doing,’ Cohen points out. ‘That’s my philosophy anyway – and one that I trust will be conveyed in our upcoming concert.’

12 Angry Cellos is performed on 27 May as part of Siaf in Wiltshire, UK. The multi-arts celebration runs from 25 May to 10 June 

interviewRobert Cohen