New Beginnings - a short history of the International Cello Centre by John Gwilt

Under Maurice Eisenberg and Milly Stanfield, the Cello Centre year centred around Maurice's twice-yearly visits from the USA. These visits included concerts and master-classes, to which many other cello teachers brought their students; Leslie Sutton, Antonia Butler and Julia Pringle, to name just a few. In between times, Milly was actively involved with teaching, writing, reviewing concerts for The Strad, etc. When Jane and I took over the running of the ICC, there were just a handful of students, and so we started with a clean slate. One of the first things we started was a weekly cello club for all comers, with everyone joining in from beginners to us. Christopher Cowan and David Gwilt, as well as Jane and I set to arranging music for this ensemble. We also started Saturday morning Chamber Music and Saturday afternoon playing classes. Through word of mouth the number of students increased, and at this stage we still lived in Winchester, commuting to London for three days a week. Gradually, as the Cello Centre expanded, we moved full time to London. When Christopher inherited Edrom House, we were able to start residential Easter courses for children there, and when we finally moved up to Scotland the ICC took on a new direction as we now taught full-time students for three eight-week terms in the year. Jane and I alternated fortnightly visits to London for a time to continue our connection there.

Trying to pin down what it was that made the ICC so special is very difficult. We were teaching a style of string playing that had gone out of fashion, with deep roots in classical tradition. We were dedicated to technique at the service of music, which led to economy of movement, a certain ease of playing, and natural gestures. With organum practice we experienced the calming quality of absolutely pure intonation of perfect intervals, producing a wholeness and richness of sound that isn't often heard today. The shaping of a phrase was something very special at the Cello Centre. What came across as a very intuitive, natural line was in fact based on an understanding of agogic accents, propellant figures, speech rhythms and so on. Perhaps this natural phrasing was encouraged by the choir singing we had on all full-time courses, learning to breathe together and blend our voices. When approaching a piece of music, we started with the most basic question - what is the music trying to communicate? What is the message, the story, the character? All of these strands contributed to our listening more deeply, and by clearing away whatever was extraneous, we drew closer to the essence of the music. When we were successful, the result was simple and natural; music that spoke to the heart.

During those early stages, something magical was beginning to evolve. There was an atmosphere, a quality we all experienced, which is almost impossible to describe, but was very tangible to anyone taking part. We can put this down to Jane's huge charisma, which is true to a large extent. But I think it goes even further than one person's inspiration. The ICC at its best transcended personality, and united us all in something far greater. As each of us joined in and played our part, we were elevated both individually and collectively. We were all engaged in serving the music, and each person knew that they had something vital to contribute. When it came to my choosing whether to pursue my performing career or devote my time and energy to teaching and running the ICC, the choice was easy. I believed in what we were passing on, and playing my part in the history of the ICC was a privilege. It is heartening to hear that this spirit lives on at the Edrom Casals Centre.

Austrian Courses

At Ladbroke Grove we gave and hosted recitals and lectures, and as word spread, many interesting people came. One of these was Baroness Maria von Roretz, who lived in London during the winter months and then moved to her 15th. century castle in Austria, Schloss Breiteneich for the summer. (A sensible arrangement, as the castle had no central heating!) She invited us to come over there for a summer course, and we were happy to take up the offer. At first we started in the castle with just a few students, but we rapidly outgrew the accommodation, and the monks of the nearby Benedictine Monastery at Altenburg offered us the use of their wonderful buildings. The monastery had a magnificent library in which we gave concerts, and also a huge crypt in which we put on a Purcell Masque one year. These courses took place in mid-August, and coincided with the Festival of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and by way of giving thanks to the monks we provided music during their celebration Mass. The Austrian courses became one of the highlights of the ICC year, and went on for some years. Gradually these courses expanded to include more and more people on the Austrian side, and it was proposed that what had started as a course for our students was now to become a festival of orchestral concerts at Altenburg, subsidised by the Austrian government. Having our students involved in long rehearsals for a series of public fee-paying concerts was a very different emphasis, and we didn't want to lose touch with our original goals of simple music-making for the joy of the collective experience, freely shared with the community. I offered to fly out to Vienna to discuss our position, but my offer was rejected. Sadly, we took the decision to end our Austrian connection, rather than compromise our ideals for the sake of expansion and profit.

The problem with master-classes

During those early days of our running the ICC, it was suggested that Bernard Michelin would come to London for a three day concours, giving classes and culminating with the awarding of a scholarship to the student of his choice to study with him for a year at the Paris Conservatoire. Michelin was keen to increase his English connections, and we thought this would be a good experience for our students. In order to increase the number of participants, we asked Douglas Cameron of the Royal Academy if he would like to send anyone along. He sent Emma Ferrand, after it was agreed that she would come purely for the experience, as she was midway through her course with him at the Academy. Michelin was duly told about this special arrangement. On the final day, the students and listeners were all waiting with bated breath to hear the result. I was with Michelin in the green room when he told me he was going to award the scholarship to Emma Ferrand. I was horrified and reminded him of the arrangement, told him this absolutely wouldn't work. Firstly she wouldn't accept, and secondly this would damage our good relations with Douglas Cameron and the London establishment. But Michelin wouldn't listen to a word of it. He was sure that the lure of Paris would be too much to resist, and he went ahead and awarded the prize to Emma. So much for entente cordiale!

This was not the only rift caused by our staging of this master-class. When Maurice Eisenberg and Milly Stanfield left the ICC, they asked us never to use the words 'master-class' in our publicity, as they felt that Maurice was the master. We agreed with this special request; after all, what's in a word? But when we produced the leaflet announcing this concours, in spite of our vigilant proofreading, the forbidden word somehow cropped up in the small print. No one noticed it except, of course, Milly and Maurice.

A dog with good taste?

At Ladbroke Grove we had a west highland terrier which used to sleep in its basket during lessons. One day Donald McDonald was studying the Dvorak Concerto with me, and as he got to the chromatic scale in octaves, the dog became violently sick - very unfortunate. The next day I was teaching Steven Isserlis the same work, and at the same point the identical thing happened. I wonder if this is a recognised phenomenon. Does every dog breed have equal sensitivity? A whole new field of study awaits investigation!