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I was lucky to meet Lluis Claret as a student in 2003 when I attended the summer course he taught together with Bernard Greenhouse at the Abbey of Fontfroide, in the South of France. An excellent performer and teacher, he is also a man who knows how to share, laugh, and bring a positive attitude to everything he does. He accepted to talk with me at the beginning of a long Boston winter, as he was in town to teach for a semester at the New England Conservatory.
How did you end up playing the cello?
Well, my parents were both exiled in France after the Spanish civil war. Actually, they met in France. And it is there that my father became very good friends with Pablo Casals, because Casals was part of a group of important Catalan artists, poets and writers exiled in the South of France and my father was in that group too. When the 2nd World War ended, my parents went to live in Andorra, which was the closest place to Catalonia where they could go, because they were not allowed to enter Spain. That’s where I was born with my twin brother and my father asked Casals if he would accept to be the godfather of one of the two twins. The lucky draw fell on me. Since my early childhood, I would hear my parents talking about Casals. We had two of his 33rpm LPs that included De Falla’s Nana, the Song of the Birds and San Martin del Canigo. I remember this sound of Casals from the time I was very young. It was very special, like a voice coming from the earth and at the same time from very high up. When I was 9, a music teacher arrived in my village. Remember, at that time, there were no music schools in Andorra. The only cultural attraction was the movie theater. That teacher was mainly teaching piano and violin, but since I wanted to play cello, he got some books and taught me cello, just as he ended up teaching trumpet or flute to other kids. (laughs) So thanks to him, I could start and my brother too. I guess being the godson of Casals was not enough to get to play the cello well, I must have had some sort of talent too, but the first root of my search for my own cello voice was definitely the sound of Casals, which I heard from my very first years.
5 or 6 years later, my family moved to Barcelona in Catalonia, where I took lessons with the principal cellist of the orchestra and later with another cellist. A very important turning point for me was when I was 16 or 17. I was about to enter a competition, and my father asked Enric Casals, the brother of Pablo Casals, if he would accept to teach me. He was not a cellist. He was a violinist, composer and conductor but a very good pedagogue. And I think that was a very important beginning for me. In the meantime, I met Pablo Casals a couple of times to play for him, but those were not really lessons, more like godfather-godson meetings. I was only 10 years old the first time I played for him. The second time, I was 14 or 15 and I think my father wanted Casals’s opinion on me and my brother to see if we could go on onto musical studies. I guess he said yes! (laughs)
It must have been very special to have this connection with Pablo Casals so early in your life.
At home, I heard my parents talking about Casals often, not only as a musician, but also and mostly as a human being, as a man fighting for peace. I think it was this whole picture of Casals as a musician and as a human being that was very important for me. Not only as a cellist. I think it should go together.
How was it to grow up in such a tense political climate in Spain at that time?
Well, my teacher in Andorra was coming from the other side of the border, from the Spain of Franco. He had this music school in a small town in Spain and he came twice a week to Andorra to teach. Sometimes, my brother and I would play in a Festival he had on his side of the border. We would have to go alone because my parents couldn’t come. And I remember this teacher made an arrangement of a Catalan song, which was forbidden at the time. It was called “Emigrande” (The Emigrate). Of course, many Catalans were out of Catalonia because of Franco. This song and the Song of the Birds were sort of anthems for the Catalan people. I think we could go through the police requirements because they didn’t know about that song. We played this song in that Catalan town and I remember the people were so moved by this music. I think for some young kids like my brother and I, it really installed in our mind this relationship between music and peace. As Casals said, to be a human being is more important than to be a musician. I think it was an important background for us.
Could you tell us more about your teachers?
Enric Casals was my main teacher for many years, even when I had already started to play concerts. And he was the one who really started my career actually. He had written a cello concerto, that his daughter used to play (she was a cellist), and he wanted to edit it and work on it with me. We made a recording of it with a pianist, with one of those old cassette recorders. At that time, I was playing in the Barcelona Orchestra, which my brother and I joined when we were 18 years old. So Enric Casals called the conductor of the Barcelona Orchestra and asked him to program the piece with me as a soloist. I was playing on the last stand in the orchestra at the time, so it was quite a big step to play as a soloist! I played the concerto the following season and that was all thanks to Enric Casals.
One or two years before that, I met Maurice Gendron in a concert in London. I was there with the first violinist of my quartet, who was playing an important concert there. And sitting a few rows in front of us was Maurice Gendron. I told my father that Gendron was there and of course my father stood up and went to talk to him, talking about Casals and so on. Gendron accepted to listen to me and then gave me private lessons for one year. And that was very important for me, because he showed me that I didn’t know anything. At that time, the level in Spain was not very high. I thought I was very good and he showed me that I was not! He could be very tough but I think it was the right moment for me to meet him. I left him after one year because I would have had to move to Germany to keep studying with him and my parents didn’t quite agree with that idea. Then the first time I met Radu Aldulescu was when he played the Haydn Cello Concerto in Barcelona, which must have been the first performance of the piece in Spain since it was discovered in 1961 or 1962 and that concert was in 1969 or 1970.
While I was still with Casals, I did some masterclasses with Aldulescu and also made some trips to study with him privately in Rome, staying for a couple of weeks at a time. I remember once we went through all the Beethoven sonatas within 2 weeks. He was very different from Enric Casals and sometimes it was hard if we worked on a piece that I had studied with Casals before, I had to be a bit diplomatic. But I think it’s good that teachers bring us different possibilities of interpretation that we can experiment with, and then it’s up to the student to decide how to mix the ingredients and make their own cocktail, as you know! (laughs) I think it’s good to go through different approaches. For some students, it is difficult, but I think at the end it was good for me.
Since we are talking about teachers, I also met Eva Janzer, who was a Hungarian cellist and the wife of Georges Janzer, the violist of the Vegh Quartet. I met her in a summer course in Switzerland at the end of the 70s, together with Giorgy Sebok. I was living in Paris with a French pianist at the time and I had met Giorgy Sebok when he taught some chamber music masterclasses at the Paris Conservatoire. I was absolutely overwhelmed by his teaching and my girlfriend and I decided to go to this course with him in Switzerland. I ended up going there for 25 years, first as a student and then as performer in the Festival that Sebok was directing. And it is during my very first year there that I met Eva Janzer. I liked her teaching very much, which was of the same school as Janos Starker. So the following year, my girlfriend and I went to study for 4 months in Bloomington, Indiana. It was short but very important. She studied with Sebok and I studied with Eva Janzer, who was very warm and very musical. Sadly she was already very sick and she passed away just a few months after I left.
Then, much later, when I was 35 or 36, I met Bernard Greenhouse at a Cello Congress in Maryland in 1988. I invited him the following year to teach some classes in Barcelona and when I saw how quickly he could improve the sound of a young player, just talking about their left hand, and how naturally he approached the cello, I immediately adopted his ideas. Even though I technically never played for him, I saw him teaching often and we later taught a masterclasse together in the South of France, first in Saint-Michel de Cuxa, then in Fontfroide, and that lasted for about 15 years. I am still teaching that course today and it has been 22 years now.
So those are my big influences. Some cellists, and some not cellists like Enric Casals and Giorgy Sebok.
You also played with a fantastic singer, Victoria de Los Angeles, at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Can you tell us about this experience?
Well, we had met before, because she lived in Barcelona. We were both on the jury for an audition for Music for Life. Yehudi Menuhin founded that organization in England and they had an antenna in Barcelona. The winners got to perform outreach concerts in prisons, retirement homes, etc…When the Olympic Games came to Barcelona and they asked me to perform with her, it was like a dream. She was already over 70 years old but she still had a very special voice. It was also the very first time I played over a recording, because we recorded the piece in January and the ceremony was in July! Afterwards, we performed the same piece together several times, including a fundraising concert to help with the reconstruction of the Liceo Theater in Barcelona, which had burned down.
In the 70s, you won two of the biggest International Cello Competitions, the Casals competition and the Rostropovich competition. How important were those victories at the start of your career?
Well, at the time, the Casals competition was a small competition organized in Barcelona for the anniversary of Casals. Before that, I had won another competition in Bologna, Italy. But the really big competition for me was Rostropovich, which got me to play with the National Symphony Orchestra with Rostropovich conducting. In those days, the big competitions were not like now, when all the medias jump on you as soon as you win. I didn’t see a sudden jump in my number of concerts. It was more gradual. Of course, in 1985, with the Bach anniversary, I did end up playing about 30 Bach recitals. But that was unusual. The Rostropovich competition definitely opened doors for me in other countries, but I can’t say it was an explosion of phone calls either.
And you think it is different now?
Well, I feel like there is so much media attention now around the biggest competitions that if you win, it can go really fast.
You now sit often as a jury member in major International Cello Competitions. What would be your advice for the young cellists who aspire to compete?
My feeling is that there are people who are born for competitions and some who are not. So first you have to feel that you are really made for it, because it’s really tough. And it’s getting harder and harder as more and more talented cellists come along. When I won the Rostropovich competition, I think we were only about 22 cellists entering. Also, the program for that competition was mainly 20th century music and Xenakis wrote this piece, Kottos, which was terribly difficult. I actually won the Xenakis Prize at the Competition and got to perform it many times afterwards, and actually liked it. So if you are made for competitions, you can practice very hard and go, but you also have many competition winners who just disappear off the map afterwards. Sometimes you have 2nd or 3rd Prize winners who end up becoming much better musicians over time than the 1st Prize winners and go on to have better careers. I am not saying it’s always like that of course, it’s not that simple. I also know many excellent musicians who can’t deal with the high stress of the big competitions. But I think you probably need them today if you want to be known.
In a way, competition is a bit contradictory with the musical feeling. (laughs) So my advice would be that you should still think in musical terms when you are preparing for a competition. As far as I know from my experience as a jury member, all my colleagues and I are looking for artists. When you sit all day long listening to cellists, what catches your attention is somebody who is special, not just someone who plays the notes very well, even though it’s important, of course! Because today there are many young cellists who can play the notes very well, but what you really want is to find someone interesting enough that you would like to listen to them again for each round and in the Final. Sometimes, it can feel that the voting was not right, but many times it is just very subjective. You cannot measure how someone might like a piece played a certain way and someone else would prefer it a different way.
You have a true cello family, with both your wife Anna and your son Daniel playing the cello as well. Is the cello a constant topic of discussion at home?
No, not at all! I mostly like to watch soccer games with my son (Lluis is a hardcore Barca Supporter). And my daughter is not a cellist, although she likes music and plays the piano. We have many topics of discussion at home, although I can’t deny that not only cello, but music in general, is an important part of our life.
Speaking of family, you also played for 13 years in the Trio de Barcelona with your twin brother, violinist Gerard Claret. How special was this partnership for you?
Well, with a twin brother, it is special in many ways. You share a special inner communication, but you also share the competing aspect, which can be difficult, especially if your parents always told you when you were growing up that anything you have, your brother will have, and vice-versa. But I think we managed well! We had to stop the trio simply because we were all becoming busy with different things. I was playing more, my brother started his chamber orchestra and our pianist was teaching more. That made it harder to find time to rehearse as much as we did before. I do have a piano quartet now with my brother but we just play 8 to 10 times a year.
Did you ever try coming on stage with the wrong instrument and see if anyone noticed?
After a concert once, we came back to bow and I was holding the violin and him the cello but nobody noticed, except our mom of course, who was in the audience. When we were 18 or 19, we played together in a contemporary music group in Barcelona called Diabolus in Musica, conducted by ####. We premiered many new pieces by Spanish composers and also played classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky. So when we started to perform in Barcelona, nobody knew about the twin brothers. We had this concert where my brother first went out to play Bartok’s Contrastes for clarinet, violin and piano and then I went out to play a modern Spanish piece for flute and cello. And the audience thought: “Wow, this guy can play both the violin and the cello!” Then we played a piece together on the second half and we heard a big “Aaaaaah!” from the audience who finally understood what was happening. That was really funny! (laughs)
Lluis Claret and his twin brother Gerard playing for Pablo Casals.
Since we are talking about new music, you worked with many of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th Century. How important is it for you to be involved in this kind of repertoire?
Very important. We are now musicians of the 21st century so we have to bring to the audience the music of our time! I don’t mean everything though. If we judge a piece is not good, we are not obliged to play it! The composers need the performers to help with the creation of new music. It’s often hard because the audience for new music is much smaller, unless it’s for big composers like Boulez or Dutilleux. I think it was the group Diabolus in Musica that ignited my sympathetic approach to modern music. It was also a great opportunity to learn new techniques, since very often you are asked to do things that you were not taught at the Conservatory. When the Rostropovich competition came around, I had to learn the Lutoslawski cello concerto and the Xenakis and I am sure it helped that I already had some experience in playing modern music. And the jury at the competition was Dutilleux, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and Berio plus three or four other cellists. So later on when I played the Dutilleux cello concerto Tout un monde lointain in Brussels, I made a trip to Paris to work on it with him. He had just finished writing his first Strophe and we worked on that as well. I also worked with Boulez on his piece Messagesquisse, which is quite a funny story. I was involved with a recording of the piece and I was the first cello out of the 6 accompanying cellos and Alain Meunier was the soloist. As we were about to start the rehearsals on the day before the recording, Alain Meunier cancelled. He was sick. So I was asked to play the solo part, which I had never played and is incredibly difficult. And I didn’t have the music. The conductor Paul Mefano got it to me by the evening and I practiced all night until 6am. I asked for 2 extra days to be able to really do it well and we recorded it! I played the piece several times afterwards with Boulez conducting.
I try to premier a couple of new pieces every year. It’s a hard job because very often the composers write very difficult things, but I like to go through it and discover new composers. I also have a pile of music that I never played! (laughs)
What do you think are your top priorities as a teacher?
I think I was very much influenced by Giorgy Sebok in how I teach, and later from Bernard Greenhouse. I try to get from the student the most natural approach to the instrument. And there are no strict rules since it depends on the body of the cellist! Most cellos have very similar measurements but cellists have bodies of all types. Once the approach to the instrument is natural, then we can focus on the music and the instrument disappears. When you listen to cellists like Fournier or Casals, you don’t hear cellists. You hear a voice, especially Casals. And that’s what we have to thrive for, I think. Down-bow or up-bow, who cares?
What I got from my teachers is also this attitude that you don’t bring any unwanted fireworks or special effects to the music, except if it asks for it. Some pieces are fireworks, but you don’t need fireworks when you play the Bach Suites! (laughs) It goes much deeper and much higher. Same thing when we play the Beethoven Sonatas. Of course, many audiences today love fireworks. But I try to keep my way. I think in a way music is like poetry. You don’t try to sell poetry to millions of people because it is something very special that needs a special approach, a special way of listening and that’s what we have to work for, not just to impress the audience.
What do you think makes the cello or the cellists special?
Well, I could tell you like everyone that the cello is the instrument the closest to human voice, and it is true! But I am not sure if the cello is special by itself, it depends who plays on it, right? It is also true that you find more friendship among cellists than you do among violinists or singers. Violists probably get along too. The cello has a big range so that opens many possibilities that maybe some other instruments don’t have. I also think our repertoire is very special: the Schumann concerto, the Bach Suites, the Beethoven Sonatas, they are all incredible pieces. It’s not a big repertoire but all those pieces are very special. We don’t know if it’s special because of the cello or because of the piece itself, maybe it goes together.
I know you are an advocate of cello ensemble playing. Several of your CDs even feature some large cello ensembles, formed with friends, students, and family. Why is it important for you?
I see it as a good way to gather with friends, family and students and a chance to play together before moving on to food and drinks! Playing after drinks would not work as well! (laughs) I always liked it. I had a big ensemble a while ago with a dozen of my students and my wife now has two cello ensembles with students of different levels. It is a big pleasure to work with those groups. It is just like chamber music. And with the range of the cello, you can hear violas, violins, basses…it is always a big pleasure. There is a big repertoire for cello ensemble too, which must not be random. As you know, we always perform as a cello ensemble at the end of my masterclasse in Fontfroide and I know it is a big moment for everybody.
What do you like to do when you are not playing the cello?
Soccer! Not playing, watching! And I like to spend time with family and friends. Without close family and close friends, we are nothing. We would just be lonely cellists playing all day alone on an island for nobody. And often I think of my family before I play a concert, because without them I am nothing. So I like to spend time with them, just being together. I don’t need big crowds. Just close friends, someone you can call at 3am to ask for a favor. I travel a lot for my profession and we travel twice a year with my family to nice locations in nice hotels and that’s nice for us. But I also like to be home. I like to walk. When I go to beautiful cities like Paris or Boston, I like to just walk around the city, visit some museums. I just saw the Sargent Exhibiton at the MFA in Boston. That was really something special.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions today!
It was my pleasure. You prepared quite well! (laughs)