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Interview: Michael Christian Durrant, classical guitarist

29 July 2016

‘I just love performing in spaces of such grandeur and architectural magnificence’

I was very young when I started to play. I felt an instant connection with the instrument and its beautiful, emotive sound. This soon became a big part of my life and something that would go on to shape my future. From the beginning, the classical guitar just felt right.


I’m lucky to have found what I feel to be my calling early in life, and I feel indebted to so many people for their on-going encouragement. My most important studies were with Carlos Bonell, at the Royal College of Music. I’ve started to find my voice as a player with him.


Support comes in so many forms, and I have always been encouraged to follow my passion by my close friends and family. It would have been impossible to achieve all I have without the unwavering love and support of my friends and family.


We have a responsibility to share knowledge with each other, I believe. And it’s incredibly enriching to see people develop and work with them from the inception, or at a very advanced level, watching them when they get that moment of recognition or achievement.


I was at Leeds College of Music for a while, and set up a classical guitar society there to bring people together. I taught at the conservatoire in Venice for two summers when I was 22 and 23, which was very formative and encouraging. For now, though, I only do master classes, because it’s difficult to balance teaching with a performing career.


I’ve got some exciting new projects on the burner now, playing with other people. One is with a flamenco guitar player, exploring the history of the guitar in Spain through the music of Albéniz, Granados, de Falla, and flamenco.


It’s very solitary being a musician; so I love playing with other people — violinists, flautists; no matter how weird the coupling, we’ll find a repertoire and have a go. I’m developing a duet with a harp player at the moment. It’s social, a lot of fun.


Travelling is something that you get used to. It’s fun, part of the enjoyment of it, too, though the logistics take a bit of time to work out. Last month, I played at Barnard Castle on Sunday, and flew out to Norway at 6 a.m. on Monday. But the more you travel, the less you notice the miles. It’s just a flight: you just prepare yourself for it, and, because you’re a human being, you have to rest the next day. You have to look after yourself as a person as well as a musician, otherwise you burn yourself out. But I love engaging with people and different cultures.


I think the USA’s a wonderful place to be. It’s such a varied country. I particularly love New York. I attended a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall where a friend was playing a concerto. It’s a real aim for me to perform there myself. San Francisco: loved it there. It’s sunny all the time, and I’m very much into good food; so I loved the fresh fruits in the market. More than 15 types of oranges!


I enjoyed seeing Madame Butterfly in Sydney Opera House last year, and being in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City, with a million mopeds moving around chaotically. But you do realise how beautiful England is when you come back. How lucky we are to live here! I went walking in the Yorkshire Dales with a friend, after three weeks in Australia, and thought how privileged we are to have abbeys which are more than a thousand years old, all the wonderful churches, history, depth of culture.


I grew up in rural England, and that’s given me a romantic perspective on so many things in life. I’m sure that this filters into my music on both a conscious and subconscious level. I’m proud to be English. I grew up near Worcester; so Elgar for me was always important. But also Purcell, and Vaughan Williams, Tallis, Byrd — wonderful choral music. Julian Bream spent a great part of his career getting English composers to create a repertoire for him: Walton, Britten, Malcolm Arnold.


When Bream started playing, there was only Segovia on an international level. The idea of a young Englishman becoming a classical guitarist would have been silly. When he studied cello and piano at the Royal College, he once took his guitar in to practise and was told by the Principal he was never to bring it in again. He became the first teacher to run a guitar department in England, a remarkable thing to consider.


I enjoy performing music that an audience can engage with, and balancing this popular repertoire alongside lesser-known works. One of my favourite pieces to perform at present is a modern work by the Japanese composer Yuquijiro Yocoh: Sakura: Theme and variations. It’s a beautiful, evocative piece of music that draws its inspiration from the Japanese folk song Sakura, which means “cherry blossom”. It’s a piece that audiences often tell me is their favourite on a programme; so I think it shows that it’s valuable to introduce people to contemporary and unfamiliar music.


Preparing thoroughly for any performance is key, and I always make an effort to be in control of variables, such as the chair I’ll be using during a concert, being sure to stay hydrated in the hours approaching a performance, and ensuring that I’m properly warmed up before going out on stage. Like anything, one develops a more refined approach to the above through experience, but it’s a good idea to be aware of your pre-concert routine right from the outset.


The connection between an audience and a performer is incredibly important, and is one of the most enjoyable aspects of any concert for me. I take great pleasure in the feelings of intimacy and understanding that can be experienced from both sides when sharing in the beauty and sensation of music.


For a classical guitarist, it really is important to consider the acoustic environment of a venue, and whether amplification might be necessary to ensure that the audience will be able to hear the music properly.


Gloucester Cathedral is a special place for me, and the atmosphere and ambience of the cathedral certainly inspires my performances when playing there. I just love performing in spaces of such grandeur and architectural magnificence. It’s one of the joys of being a professional musician to be able to do that. Our programme exploring Spanish music is going to be launched in Ely Cathedral in October.


I’m so often in awe of how one’s life can synchronise with people and situations when we need it to — and the possibilities of what life can bring to us if we are willing to invest our energy positively and receive gifts thankfully. The uplifting, comforting presence of God is all around, if people are willing to welcome it into their lives.


The transcendent quality in music can be found in the most inconsequential places, and I believe that this emerges through the performance and the player’s ability to communicate in equal measure to the pieces of music themselves. Playing Bach’s music is one of the great privileges of being able to play an instrument to a professional level. Bach had an incredible ability to take music to a place that one could not have previously imagined, but once you have been taken there, it is the only place the music could possibly have gone. It’s quite incredible to experience. One transcendental moment that comes to mind is the ethereal ending to the “Adagio” from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez — there’s something about this moment in the music that has always presented the image of transcendental light to me.


You ask if music can be prayer. Hans Christian Andersen said that “Where words fail, music speaks.” I feel that music can communicate emotions and feelings that words simply cannot voice.


My favourite sound, obviously, is the dulcet tone of the classical guitar. What is the most reassuring sound for me? The sound of soothing rain falling on the skylight at night when I’m sleeping, and the sound of an open fire burning on a winter’s evening.


One of the books that continues to inspire me is On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In San Francisco I made a point of dropping into the famous City Lights Bookstore, where I was able to buy a copy of the original scroll of On the Road, a fascinating depiction of searching for one’s purpose in life as a young man in post-war America.


I’m a very relaxed person, but breaking a nail on my right hand can be pretty annoying: a nightmare for any classical guitarist.


I’m happiest when I’m sharing a freshly prepared meal with family and friends.


Artistically, my hero has always been Julian Bream. On a wider level, I try to learn something from everybody, whether it’s how to live or how not to live one’s life. With that in mind, I continue to take influence from all that I come into contact with.


I pray for people to stop fighting each other.


If I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose to be with Itzhak Perlman — and he’d have to bring his violin, obviously. He’s my favourite musician of all time.


Michael Christian Durrant was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. He will be performing in Ely Cathedral on 29 October.


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