The incredible string band

The cellist Richard Jenkinson brings his innovative ensemble to London's Wigmore Hall
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The Independent Culture

Seven years ago, reviewing an unknown young cellist's Wigmore Hall debut, Robert Cowan wound up with the words: "He will surely become a significant presence in our musical life." Tonight, that still-young cellist will make a different sort of Wigmore debut, at the head of the ensemble he has formed with his fellow string principals in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as Richard Jenkinson and the Innovation Chamber Ensemble.

"It's really just a big string quartet," he says of this 16-member band. He may be its artistic director, but they have no conductor. They're playing an unconventional but accessible Russian-Scandinavian programme, and the proceeds will go to the National Hospital for Neurological Diseases.

His story illustrates both how a career can be carved out in the classical music business, and how difficult it can be to hit the heights to which all budding virtuosi aspire. For Jenkinson really is a virtuoso, even if his success is due less to a miraculous gift than to single-minded slog. Born in Derby, he developed a taste for music by eavesdropping as his amateur-violinist father played quartets with friends; he started cello lessons at five, then won a county scholarship to study with a top-flight teacher.

He began commuting to London to study with the cello guru William Pleeth, under whom he continued his studies at the Guildhall. There he fought off formidable competition from pianists and fiddlers to win the biennial gold medal. Its previous winner had been Paul Lewis, the much-garlanded Schubert specialist whose Wigmore concerts now sell out long in advance. Jenkinson won more prizes (including a big one in Italy), went to study in America, made a Martinu recording, and was invited to guest with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, before becoming the last person Sir Simon Rattle hired before he left the CBSO for Berlin.

In the meantime Jenkinson was invited to play for Sir Georg Solti, who gave him some advice he's been trying to follow ever since. It sounds pathetically banal. "He told me you need a gimmick, something unique." Being good - even very good - is just not enough.

Apart from media-friendly jinks like playing for the Selena Scott Show on St Valentine's Day, Jenkinson's strategy has been to plough a lone furrow, both in terms of his music - often premiering new works - and where he plays it. He performs the complete Brahms and Beethoven sonatas in remote parts of Scotland, and was recently filmed doing the Bach solo suites in Birmingham's Ikon Gallery. "All the art was taken out, and I became the exhibit. It was a completely different experience from a normal concert. People could choose how to listen - to lie down on cushions, or walk about - and how much to listen to." His dream is to figure on the cover of a Deutsche Grammophon recording of those suites, "but that will take a lot more luck than I've had so far.'

But he has had some luck. The CD that ICE recorded at its inaugural concert in Birmingham is about to go into profit, and when it does, the ensemble will make another.

ICE is at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141) at 7.30pm tonight