Listen Alison Young interviews cellist Julie Albers
Listen Haydn, Concerto No. 2 in D for Cello and Orchestra; Julie Albers, cello
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra announced this week the hiring of Julie Albers as its new principal cellist.
Albers is no stranger to the SPCO; last May, Albers was a last-minute substitute after Thomas Zehetmair had to withdraw over medical concerns. Albers performed the Haydn Concerto No. 2 in D for Cello and Orchestra to acclaim; you can listen to that performance by clicking on the second audio file at right.
Not long after arriving on a flight from Atlanta, Albers visited with Classical MPR's Alison Young, who got to know Albers and hear her thoughts about her new job. Here's their conversation:
Alison Young: First of all, congratulations on your new position!
Julie Albers: Thank you very much!
AY: It is so great to have you here. I think the question I'm most curious about is: What makes playing in a chamber orchestra different or enticing? Something more challenging in some ways than a symphony orchestra?
JA: You know, it is different in a lot of respects. What I love about it is the intimacy. I feel that you really truly can achieve that chamber music feel with a group of this size. I mean, in a regular symphony, everybody always has that as the goal, that it's always chamber music … but it's just easier when you're sitting close to one another, when you can hear every voice. And I think that's part of the challenge, but to me, what's so enticing about the chamber orchestra.
AY: Do you ever speak up in rehearsals? Is that part of it, too?
JA: That is definitely part of it especially with this group, since they do so much unconducted that it really is up to every musician, that you have a voice and you're the one shaping it.
AY: What is the role of a principal cellist?
JA: That's a good question … that's what I'm going to be figuring out! I mean, I think my role is to be a liaison between the other sections and my section, to try to guide where I feel that the other sections are doing, because just physically being closer to, say, the violas, or closer to Steve who's leading from the concertmaster chair … it's a little bit easier to see what the intention is, and so I think that my job is to be the in-between person for that.
AY: Now, you started performing professionally at 17?
JA: I did. That was when I had my professional debut.
AY: You started playing at 4. Had you always known that cello was going to be your vocation, you career?
JA: No, actually, I didn't. I come from a musical family my mother is a Suzuki violin teacher and my father was a pianist and also a choral director. So I had music from in the womb. My older sister already played, and I started purely because I would harass my older sister so much when she practiced (this was when I was one-and-a-half) that my mom gave me a violin and said, "Here. Take your attention off of her." So that's why I started. It didn't occur to me until much later that everybody didn't play an instrument, because that was very much my world.
So, in high school, I still had no idea if I was going to be a professional cellist or not. I hadn't given it so much thought up to that point … and I was very lucky to come across my teacher, Richard Aaron at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I had studied with him a couple summers and had known him since I was about 10. He suggested I come to what they call The Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, which is a program designed for high school students to get a head start on conservatory life. So you do half high school and half conservatory. So I decided my junior year that I would do that with high school, and if I loved it, I'd stay and go into music … and if I didn't, I'd go back to Colorado and finish my senior year of high school and do something else.
AY: Wow, an eye-opener for sure.
JA: Oh yes! It was pretty incredible to suddenly be around so many people my age that were so inspired by music and loved it so much, I think that it wasn't really even a choice. I was amazed after I got there, and it seemed like the right place for me.
AY: Just a couple weeks ago, I guess about a month ago now, I had Mark Summer [cellist with the Turtle Island String Quartet] here. He was teaching at St. Olaf they have a kind of cello seminar there and one of the things he said was that, cellists are so cool; I'm sure you're going to agree with that! But that you're helpful with each other, that you're not competitive musicians, that you kind of try to help each other out. Is that true?
JA: It's a very supportive instrument. I don't know why that is … but, I mean, we like to play in cello choirs together, and cello quartets together …
AY: Sounds angelic …
JA: It kind of is! I have never met a cellist that didn't have some of that in their spirit. Just the supportive, we're a group, we're one. I think that's something really neat and unique about cellists.
AY: Maybe it's something to do with the size of the instruments … I hear these stories about people trying to get on airplanes. Lynn Harrell had this whole drama. Have you ever had a drama story …?
JA: Oh, that's happened to all of us. What happened to Lynn Harrell has happened to every cellist that flies Delta.
AY: Not to pick on anyone …
JA: Wellllllll … they are wonderful in some respects, but they went through and found every cellist and got rid of all of our frequent flier miles for the cello. And Lynn just happened to decide that he wanted his back, and so he made another account and I think that was what all the publicity was about. But we have a lot of trouble as cellists with the airlines, which is ridiculous because we pay full fare for them. It really shouldn't be problematic. But … it is.
AY: And your cello case looks a little bit like there's a person in there.
JA: Yes, I get that comment frequently.
AY: So, moving back to your career. I love this New York Times quote that's on the website at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra: "Julie Albers is a fantastically eloquent player, with an elegant sound that is full of emotion but without exaggeration or overstatement." And of course all of us including radio hosts want to be "fantastically eloquent," but what about the next part? What does that mean to you, to be emotional, but not overstating. Is that part of your ethos?
JA: You know, I think that actually does describe me well. That is what I feel about my playing. For me, the sound quality is the absolute most important part of what I do. For a musician, whatever their sound is, that's their voice. And I think going for an elegant sound is something that I strive for. And personally, I would say that I'm not one of these incredibly dramatic people, and I think that that does come into my playing as well. So I think that the quote is accurate in my opinion. The last part of it, yes.
AY: Way to go, New York Times! Well, here you are starting a tenure with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. What are your goals? What are your hopes, are there any particular new angles in your career you want to follow? Or skills like maybe conducting from the cello chair?
JA: Well, this is all very new for me. I've played with the SPCO on several occasions over the last few years. But I have done as much orchestral playing as I've done, you know, concertos with orchestras, or chamber. So it's all new and exciting. I'm really looking forward to the repertoire that this group does. It seems like they do a really fantastic mix of, like Haydn symphonies and then newer, commissioned works. It just seems like you're on your toes, and every week is something completely different and challenging, and wonderful. And leading from the cello chair is something that we have discussed. It might be in my future. We'll see, we'll see.
AY: Well, when you're speaking about the wide range … this week is so different: two Beethoven symphonies, and this brand-new piece [Nicola Campogrande's Urban Gardens for Piano and Orchestra]. Maestro Abbado just told us it's very hard.
JA: It is! But that, I think, is what's so great about SPCO, is that they're able to program that way, and then listeners, audience members can come and have variety. And maybe you won't love everything that's done, but hopefully you'll be interested at least in everything, and it'll be something new.
AY: So you've got to describe the moment that you were asked to sub for Zehetmair. Were you nervous? Was it a shock?
JA: You know, I was thrilled, because that's kind of like a dream come true. For me to be able to play Haydn D Major, which is my absolute favorite piece written for cello, with a group as phenomenal as SPCO, and to do it un-conducted was just extra-exciting for me, because then you really have 100 percent interaction with the musicians. There's no interpreter to go through. So, I would say that I was more thrilled than anything. I knew that my sister was going to be playing in the concert, and I'm good friends with people here, so it was a really neat experience. I was happy to have been able to do that. (Editor's note: You can hear Albers' performance of the Haydn cello concerto by clicking the second audio file at upper right.)
AY: And you rocked and rolled, too. We're going listen to it right now.
JA: Aw, thank you.
AY: Thanks so much for talking with me.
JA: Thank you it's been a pleasure.