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Grace & Grandeur, pleasure and pain


One of the most challenging things about being a professional violinist is keeping the pleasure and pain in balance, says rising star Grace Clifford, who is back in Adelaide this week for an ASO concert which promises moments of both joy and drama.

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Clifford, who was appointed this year as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s emerging artist in association, has won numerous awards and is considered one of Australia’s finest young violinists.

Below, she talks about the work she will be performing at the ASO’s Master Series 3 Grace & Grandeur concert, the challenges and rewards of her career, and her music role models – which range from Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan to classical music stars Glenn Gould and Gidon Kremer.

You will be performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which is his last large orchestral work. It is one of the most popular violin concertos in history – what makes it so special?

I think it is one of the most difficult to play well, not least because it’s so well-known and everyone is familiar with legendary performances and recordings.

Part of what I love about the work is how innovative it is – and was at the time. Things like the soloist entering almost immediately and presenting all of the main themes, rather than, say, in the Beethoven where the orchestra presents the themes before the soloist enters.

I think the challenge with a work that audiences know and love so well is to try and hear it as it might have been heard at the time, to appreciate it for its simplicity and beauty but also for its novelty and drama.

It’s very rewarding to work on trying to bring these things to life.

You last entranced Adelaide audiences with the Sibelius Concerto in 2016, performing with the ASO. What are you looking forward to most about returning?

All my experiences with the ASO have been special. Working with them during the ABC Young Performers’ Awards was the first time that I had played with a professional orchestra, and with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I remember being overwhelmed by how supportive the musicians were.

On stage there was a feeling of spontaneity and that every musician was listening and reacting. I will never forget it as being the biggest lesson in listening and communicating; it really had the feeling of small scale chamber music.

I had the same experience when I returned to work with them on the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

You’ve accomplished a lot for someone so young. What do you consider to be the most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

It would be my first experience playing with a professional orchestra, which was the ASO. It is a very vivid memory.

Often I have found that the experiences that leave the deepest imprint on your learning or on the way you think about music or your development as a violinist are not necessarily things that fit into the category of a significant accomplishment. They might be very hard experiences that feel like the very opposite of accomplishment at the time, or might just be experiences that inform you or help you to realise one small thing that makes a big difference.

Who is your role model, and why?

All of my teachers have been my role models – each in a different way – and my family.

Within music specifically and life more generally, there are so many people I look up to. I greatly admire the artists I grew up listening to at home: musicians like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, with their incredible artistic individuality and poetic commentary, and classical musicians like Glenn Gould and Gidon Kremer.

What piece of music has left a lasting impression on you and why?

There are many pieces of music that have left lasting impressions on me and that I have at different times listened to almost obsessively. Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg variations, Janacek’s second string quartet “Intimate Letters”, the Cavatina of Beethoven Op. 130 played by the Guarneri Quartet, Schubert “Rosamunde” quartet, Silvestrov’s “Silent Songs”…

Do you have a favourite non-classical artist?

I love Leonard Cohen, who I grew up listening to through my parents. His voice and his songs and his poetry are very emotional ties to my family and childhood.

What is most challenging about being a professional violinist?

For me, it is the complicated balancing – disciplined hard work without overworking, keeping self-doubt and self-criticism within constructive boundaries, being aware of how many more possibilities there are and how much there is still to learn but being accepting of the process.

Keeping the pleasure/pain in balance and always keeping close every day the reason you play music; remembering that performance is about sharing the music with the audience.

It can be daunting to make a profession out of something that you love because the pressure upon yourself comes from every part of you — it can also be wonderful.

What do you enjoy most about performing?

Communication, and freedom from the pressure of preparation –  acceptance of the moment and letting go.

I love being a part of the rarity of the bringing together so many people to experience silence and music.

For younger people who have never attended a classical concert, what would you say to them to encourage them to attend Master Series 3 Grace and Grandeur?

The shared experience of listening to an orchestra playing in a concert hall is visceral… the Mendelssohn Concerto has moments of such simple joy and youthful spirit but also of drama and yearning, and the Bruckner symphony will transport you into another sound world.

Grace Clifford will perform  Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Master Series 3 ‘Grace & Grandeur’ concert this Friday and Saturday at the  Adelaide Town Hall.

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