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In Conversation with Music in the Round Performer Sophie Rowell

"I think it is important to give everyone the opportunity to hear live classical music. It is so refreshing to hear the excitement and wonder of young children in our education concerts, and I’d like to think they take that memory with them for a long time."

From London’s Royal Albert Hall, to Germany’s Beethoven Haus, Sophie Rowell has performed in preeminent concert halls and festivals around the world.

Winning awards and sharing her outstanding talent with diverse audiences along the way, we chat to Sophie about why performing at the Convent’s Music in the Round excites her, what audiences can expect and what’s up next in her role as Associate Concertmaster with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra!

When did your love of classical music begin and how?

My love of classical music began at home from a very young age because my older brothers were playing instruments before I was born. They played almost every instrument under the sun. When I was four the younger of the two was playing viola; I thought it was a violin and asked to play too. Mum made me wait a bit though because she thought I was too young, so I started school and the violin in the same week a year later.

You’ve toured and recorded all over the globe, and have participated in chamber music festivals worldwide, winning many competitions along the way. What was your greatest experience working abroad, and what ultimately brought you back home?

So many of my memories centre around playing incredible concerts in amazing places that it is almost impossible to pick just one.

If you’ll allow me a few, though, I’d have to say that playing with the Tankstream Quartet in the prize-winners concert in the beautiful Opera House in Reggio Emilia was very special, as was playing in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn as part of the Beethoven Festival once we had become the Australian String Quartet.

Participating in the Cartagena Music Festival in Colombia with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was something I’ll never forget, as was the electric atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall when the Melbourne Symphony played our Prom there in 2014.

Ultimately, I came home to Australia to be closer to my family who are in Adelaide, but in Melbourne I found a city and colleagues with whom I instantly felt comfortable – I knew I could immediately call Melbourne home.

The Convent’s Music in the Round program celebrates emerging performers alongside some of Australia’s most acclaimed musicians. As a teacher at the Australian National Academy of Music, are you inspired by the talent which you are seeing in the next generation of performers?

Absolutely! It is exciting to see just how talented and dedicated the next generation of Australian performers are. I also think that music in Australia isn’t bound by the traditions of many generations of music-making, and that gives us more creative freedom. I have the feeling that we are in the process of creating our ‘Australian tradition’ and I am so looking forward to seeing how that develops in future generations of musicians.

What is the greatest piece of advice that you share with your students, and what makes teaching special for you?

I think that’s a question best reserved for my students because I probably carry on quite a bit in the lessons… (Actually, there should be no ‘probably’ in that previous sentence…) If I can help a student discover their own distinct musical voice through the instrument, though, I feel like I’m helping them along the path to defining who they are as a musician. And the best piece of (musical) advice my mother gave me, and I pass on to them all, ‘always concentrate past the last note!’.

You were recently appointed as Associate Concertmaster with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What’s the best thing about this position, and what’s your vision for this role?

Honestly the best thing is being a part of the Melbourne Symphony. I get to go to work and play fabulous music with amazing friends who happen to also be colleagues.

As far as my role in the orchestra goes, it is quite an all-encompassing one and I love the variety. One week finds me playing next to the Concertmaster for a Strauss Tone Poem, and the next I’ll be leading one of the great symphonies or hamming up a fabulous jazz solo.

Because neither of the Concertmasters live in Melbourne, I am the constant presence in the front desk of the Orchestra, which means I take on more leadership responsibilities than would otherwise be expected from that position. Having led a string quartet for 12 years, though, means that I feel comfortable in that role, even if I am dealing with 25 times more people.

The Abbotsford Convent’s Music in the Round program is much loved by classical music aficionados, but also provides an opportunity for audiences who might not ordinarily see classical music to connect with this genre. In your mind, why is it important for diverse audiences to experience classical music?

I am a huge believer in experiences of all types for everyone. While I draw the limit at sky-jumping, there isn’t much else I’m not willing to try because I think it is important to be open to everything.

To that end I would hope that it is possible for everyone to experience live classical music in their lives. I think it is important to give everyone the opportunity to hear live classical music. It is so refreshing to hear the excitement and wonder of young children in our education concerts, and I’d like to think they take that memory with them for a long time.

Tell us about the compositions which you have chosen for your Music in the Round performance. Why did you choose these pieces, and what would you like the audience to take away from this?

I discovered Julian Yu’s ‘Passacaglia after Biber’ a number of years ago when I was asked to play a similar solo recital for the Adelaide Festival. I’ve always loved the original ‘Biber Passacaglia’, because it is like an island of calm in this crazy world (well, my world is pretty crazy anyway), and then to pair it with this extraordinary work which takes the four notes on which the original Passacaglia is based and extemporises on them for over 10 minutes in a ridiculously wonderful and virtuosic way. I hope the audience will love this piece like I do and take away how lucky we are to have such a clever composer like Julian living in Melbourne.

What are you most looking forward to about performing at the Convent? 

Solo violin recitals are not exactly in high demand… Except if you’re promoting a CD of the Bach Solo Partitas and Sonatas… So, to be honest I am selfishly looking forward to the chance of playing all by myself for once. I know that sounds terribly indulgent, and I should emphasise that one of the main reasons I play music is to enjoy sharing the playing experiences with other people, but just occasionally it’s special to be able to create something all on my own.

I’m also looking forward to being part of an incredible day of music and I love that the tradition of Music in the Round is being continued – it’s a fabulous event!

What projects are you working on next?

As I write this, I am about to lead the MSO accompanying the film of ‘Amadeus’, one of my favourite childhood movies. Then next week I’m off to Stradbroke Island to play in the Chamber Music Festival there (I promise we do work hard even if we are in the middle of paradise!). I’ll have one night at home before I head off with the MSO to play concerts with Indonesian students in front of the beautiful temple in Yogjakarta. I really am lucky with the amazing opportunities the violin has afforded and still affords me!

One project in October this year that I am particularly excited about is the premiere of Charles Horsley’s Violin Concerto with the Monash University Orchestra. Originally from England, Horsley lived in Melbourne in the 1860s. This work was written while he was being mentored in Leipzig by Mendelssohn in the 1840s, and this influence is distinct throughout the work. Unfortunately, the original manuscript was lost, but the work was resurrected from a set of performing parts copied by a young Australian composer in the 1870s that are now in the collection of the National Library of Australia. I feel very honoured to be part of bringing this forgotten work to life.

See Sophie perform along with other acclaimed musicians at Music in the Round 2017, 11am – 5.45pm, Sunday 24 September at Abbotsford Convent.