Moving on From a Lifetime of Bach

Paxton Music Festival 2008


Almost 40 years of playing Bach has led to cellist David Watkin performing nothing but Bach this year.  He is to perform the composer’s work at the  annual Chamber music festival held at Paxton House between the 19-28th of July. The festival is set to host a number of successful musicians. Watkin who is also working on an album, is principle cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Edinburgh-based Watkin, 42, studied music at Cambridge before going on to become principal in many leading ensembles all over the world. He is due to perform three of the six suites for Unnacomapanied Cello on the 24th of July at 7.30pm. The Beautiful setting and grandeur of Paxton House, in the borders, should provide and appropriate backdrop. He explains his musical journey, the importance of music in communication, his affinity with Bach, and why he is moving on from playing.

Speaking on the phone from the local pool, whilst with his two children and  accompanied by their shrieking, Watkin said he is “excited” about playing the festival.  He is also looking forward to meeting new people at the event for which he was first approached two years ago. He said:- “I’m recording all six of the Bach suites this year […] they will be released early next year. I’ve been on a journey with these pieces for 38 years. It’s a life’s journey to record them; it feels like a summation of all that work.”

Watkin is drawn to Bach for many reasons: “I definitely feel a connection with him” he says. He admires Bach’s vast output of composition and quotes from the master: “anybody can do what I did with hard work and the grace of God”. This has been inspirational during his work as a musician. However Watkin feels he is far removed from Bach in terms of belief and lifestyle, for Bach was a Lutheran Christian chamber musician, dedicated to the church, and not well travelled, although he said: “his dedication to communicating with people is something I would aspire to”.

Ultimately, his  aim with regards to the Bach performances is communication, and because the experience of playing solo Bach he said:- “can be very lonely; you’ve won if you can draw the audience in”.

Music, he feels communicates through narrative, one which tells a different story to each listener. He view is, he said:- “you have to persuade the listener, you have to engage in it, you’re telling the story, you can stop and pause for dramatic effect.” He presents the example of playing  a piece at his son’s primary school . Here all the children rushed to point out what it meant to them as a narrative, and that onechild’s idea of a waterfall “was perfect for that piece”. The audience he said:- “is drawn into the world you’re creating” because “there’s a powerful communication going on.” He equates music with the traditional Shakespearean recitals, and how these communicate ideas and character.

He explains that life experiences are important to tap into during musical performance, the same technique that actors use, in order to create meaningful representation. An experience that has stayed with him whenever he plays one of the suites, are the emotions felt while playing the piece at his grandmother’s funeral. In this respect, he said:- “the birth of a child can also be very touching, and in terms of music, it becomes very powerful because of it.”

As Baroque revivalist Watkin believes it is important to rediscover what music meant to people and how it was played. This is fundamental he suggests, as traditions change, which have led to the current  period of Modernism. For instance he explains that WWI had an important impact on culture due to its cavalry and killings.

Watkin’s announcement that he would be playing nothing but Bach this year demonstrates his passion for the composer, and the project was, he says, met with a gratifyingly favourable response. He said:- ”I announced I was playing only Bach this year and I found lots of opportunities.”

Among these are conducting  a Bach concert at Guildhall, London as well as playing and talking about the composer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

As for the future, Watkin having decided he needs to move on from the lifetime of playing, and from which he needs a break, has moved into conducting. “It’s a natural development for me”.


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