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Classical: `I'm on earth to play the cello'

At a distance from the frenetic hype of modern music marketing, Sandy Baillie's playing and teaching carries conviction through its quiet passion. By Sue Fox
INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED as one of the finest cellists of his generation, Alexander (Sandy) Baillie, is hardly a household name in the UK. Why? "I haven't been packaged by a major recording company, which isn't to say my schedule isn't packed, because it is. It's just slower. I've never taken a carefully planned career path."

In this age of the much-hyped wunderkind, Alexander Baillie was a late starter. At 12 he could "just about play the piano". One evening he came home to find his parents slumped in front of the television. The programme which had sent them to sleep had a profoundly life-changing effect on their son: Christopher Nupen's legendary film of Jacqueline du Pre.

"I watched, spellbound and just wanted to play the cello. Nothing else was as important to me." He obviously had bags of talent. When he came back from Vienna, after studying with Andre Navarra, friends said he should play for Jackie, who loved meeting people. Their friendship is something he treasures, but Baillie is essentially a very private person not given to trading his name on the back of the famous.

One can only feel the deepest admiration and respect for a man who is quietly reticent about others, but who says, without the slightest hint of arrogance or vanity that, just as Schubert said he was put on this earth for the sole purpose of composing, "I feel that I'm here only to play the cello. It's what God sent me to do.

"I do many different things, because I believe passionately that musicians have to be available with a capital `A'. We have a great role to play in the next century because we represent something affordable, accessible and full of the feel-good factor. Listening to music is a great way of spending the limited amount of free time people have today, but I think we have to be much more inventive."

If Baillie had the money he would open a kind of 24-hour classical music version of Ronnie Scott's, which he believes is something London needs. "And I'd love to be able to schedule concerts to start later so that people could spend time relaxing and eating before, rather than, as happens now in London, most of the audience arrives exhausted and hungry after battling with tubes, traffic and parking. Why not two shorter performances - say at 7pm and 9pm? Why not have big screens so that the audience can see close ups of the musicians faces?"

Playing big cello concertos with major orchestras is only part of what Baillie does. Now 43, and seriously unglitzy, he pleads for the media to cherish all musicians - not just the ones who grab headlines and make mega bucks. A deeply committed and visionary teacher, he is Visiting Guest Professor at London's Royal College of Music, Professor of Cello at the Bremen Hochschule and co-founder of a part-time cello school, The Gathering of the Clans. This summer, he helped launch another summer music festival in France - one which he plans to make an annual event. It's the Festival au cote des Isles in Carteret on the Normandy coast. There is also Baillie's Berlin-based music group Alia Musica and his many recordings. He has made six Prom appearances and appeared with many of our finest orchestras.

Over the years, Baillie has made an extraordinary contribution to contemporary music. He premiered Colin Matthews' Cello Concerto in 1984 and next year performs three new works written especially for him. "I've never felt ghettoed by playing first performances, but there was a time when I started to feel that I was being typecast. I certainly would never play a piece I didn't love."

A couple of years ago in Boston, Baillie, the conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic performed the Dutilleux Cello Concerto. Dutilleux told Zander it was the finest performance of his work that he had ever heard.

On 6 December, Baillie, again conducted by Zander, will play Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Barbican. All this music-making is to do with his Baillie's fundamental belief in fulfilling his role as a musician and as a teacher. "It's beyond entertainment. It's much more to do with sharing and crossing boundaries."

In a true spirit of community, Straight after playing the Elgar, Baillie will join the orchestra as a member of the cello section, for a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No 3, "Eroica". "In London, probably everybody in the audience will know the Elgar, which is an added bonus. In Germany, where I've played the Concerto on tour, audiences find the closing pages self pitying, but, in my experience, the effect of Elgar on an English audience is something very different. The ending melts even the most hardened listener.

"Without being gushy, Ben and I will be performing it in a very moving way. There's something disarmingly simple in the Concerto which Ben has captured. He was a cellist so he knows the piece incredibly well. In a way, I feel this concerto, unlike any other, is like the film Eyes Wide Shut. What Kubrick sought to do there was what Elgar did with this music - offer the chance for people to come right up close to the innermost part of themselves. To bring whatever they wanted of themselves to the performance."

As it happens, Baillie met Kubrick and, on occasion, he played for him. But he'd never tell you that. Just as he's reticent about the fact that he will be playing the Elgar Cello Concerto using Du Pre's bow. "I'd much rather you didn't mention it," he says quietly. Unlike many people in the business, you know he means it.

Alexander Baillie plays the Elgar Cello Concerto on 6 Dec, Barbican (0171-638 8891) with Zander and the Philharmonia