Scottish violinist Elaine Clark is currently Co-Leader of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Having studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Clark went on to pursue studies at the HKU Utrechts Conservatorium in the Netherlands. She is constantly in demand as a chamber musician, and is a member of the innovative ensemble, Concorde. Clark chats to Final Note in the glorious surrounds of Ardgillan Castle, about her journey to the orchestra, dealing with performance nerves, and her passion for performing contemporary music.
How did you end up studying with David Takeno at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London?
I grew up in Aberdeen, and at the age of 13 went to St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh to board. I spent a wonderful 5 years there (there were less than 40 pupils in the secondary school), before moving on to London. David Takeno is one of the top teachers in Britain. I went for a consultation lesson and he agreed to teach me. He had incredible energy to his teaching and in many ways, he taught me to be my own teacher, by exploring sound, colours etc.... One of my best memories from that time is spending a New Year period at his converted windmill in Wimbledon, playing Beethoven's late String Quartets with David on viola (he was a former member of the Tokyo String Quartet).
Tell us about your time at the HKU Utrechts Conservatorium in the Netherlands.
After I finished my degree at Guildhall, I went to study with Viktor Libermann at the Utrechts Conservatorium. This was a completely different style of teaching...I realised quite early on that this would be great if I wanted to spend the next few years travelling around, and entering competitions. As the class was full of high flyers, I felt we were all being taught to win competitions, but I didn't feel that I was able to express myself fully. I would practice and feel that it was how I wanted it to go, only to be told that it wasn't the right fingering, or the right bowing.
How has the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra changed since you joined in 1996?
When I first joined, the NSO was larger for a start — 16 1sts, 14 2nds, etc...we now play with 14 1sts, 12 2nds, etc...and that makes a difference to the orchestral sound — especially to the tone in the softer sections, funnily enough. We were also touring more. My first trip was 10 days in Hong Kong, but due to the recession, and the huge cost of touring an orchestra, we are very much more Ireland-based.
Is there much competition between the NSO and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra?
I don't see much of the Concert Orchestra to be honest...but when we do cross paths it's always good fun.
What do you enjoy most about performing, and how do you prepare for a concert?
I love bringing amazing music to the people who have bothered to come out and pay for a ticket! The look on somebody's face when you transport them somewhere amazing, and help them to forget their worries is very special! Ideally, I like to prepare for a concert by taking time to rest...go over the notes slowly, and quietly — spending time to prepare myself mentally. But, with family life, I'm more likely to be doing the drop-offs to hockey practice and play dates! However, I always make sure that I'm at the concert venue early so that I can collect myself, and focus!
Do you suffer from performance nerves, and if so how do you deal with them?
I did go through a very stressful time a few years ago when I was affected by performance nerves — it was horrible and I empathise with anyone who is affected by it. I almost stopped playing, and took a few months out. After trying a few things, I came across meditation, which has served me hugely in dealing with it. I think we can get very much caught up in thinking what we do is who we are, but I have (slowly) come to realise that what I do does not make me who I am! If I start to feel a bit apprehensive, I sense the floor under my feet, concentrate on my breathing, and focus on staying in the present moment...nerves are never that far away, and a little can add an edge to a performance...but, learning how to manage them is important and this is where mindfulness has helped.
Describe the ethos behind the ensemble, Concorde?
Concorde are going to celebrating 40 years next year. They have been at the forefront of encouraging and playing Irish contemporary music during this time...down to the sheer strength, determination and vision of founder and Artistic Director, Jane O'Leary. I truly believe that without Concorde Irish contemporary music would not be as it is today.
Your commitment to contemporary music has led to collaborations with a variety of composers — how important is the synergy between performer/musician and composer within the composition process?
It's a very interesting process to see a new work take shape. Some composers bring a fully finished piece, and others want to explore different sound worlds with the performer. It's always a big moment for a composer to hear their piece for the first time, so I try to put them at ease so they feel free to ask for what they would like.
Did you enjoy your role as guest-leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2007?
I spent a month out in Melbourne in 2007. It's very interesting working with different orchestras...seeing what works and what doesn't...and realising that we're not that different!
As a violinist, how difficult is it to get a ‘permanent’ job with an orchestra, and what do you do to give yourself the competitive edge?
It's difficult to get a job as a violinist. Positions don't come up that often, and there is a lot of competition for them. Having sat on numerous auditions panels, I would urge candidates to prepare the orchestral excerpts as well as, if not better than, their concerti! After audition, usually a handful of players are chosen to 'trial' with the orchestra, and this is when you see how the player will fit in and contribute to the section. Preparation and awareness can get you a long way here!...Oh, and not practising your concerto full volume on stage!
What performances stand out for you in your career so far?
I've played a number of concerti with the RTÉ NSO, and I think the most enjoyable one was a lunchtime concert directed in 2010. The programme was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, coupled with Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires [The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas]. I love playing the music of Piazzolla, and it was both a challenge and an amazing experience to put it together. I'm looking forward to playing with the NSO again on 7th July at 1.05pm at the National Concert Hall in Ravel's Tzigane, and Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. It's always a pleasure, as they're so supportive.
As a soloist, is there any particular repertoire that you would like to tackle in the near future?
I've been looking through Lutoslawski's Partita for Violin and Orchestra recently, so hopefully I'll get the opportunity to perform that in the near future.
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