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Raphael Merlin

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Photo © Julien Mignot

More than a decade ago, Raphael Merlin and myself were thrilled to join together the cello studio of Philippe Muller at the CNSM of Paris, France. Now a busy string quartet player as a member of the Quatuor Ebene, it was a pleasure to have a little chat with him as he stopped by Tanglewood for a concert at Ozawa Hall.


So...let's start simple: Why the cello?

 Mostly because my sister didn’t agree with my first choice to play the recorder! I didn’t care that much, I was only 6 years old, so I trusted her and agreed to go with the cello instead. I thought if she said “Cello is better”, then why not play the cello? A few years later I finally agreed that cello was a very expressive instrument, but I was probably 12 years old by that time. Before, my favorite instrument was the piano. When I look back on it, it seems funny to me, because if I had such a passion for playing the piano, why even look at a recorder or a cello? I spent all my childhood on the piano and I still love it.

Did you have a “cello hero”, as a kid?

 Great cellists who very much influenced me were Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier…However, I think I was mostly influenced by recordings, not by one specific cellist. When you are very young, one recording can fascinate you more than any other recording you will hear in the next 20 years, because it is the first time you get in touch with a piece, a style, and so on. For example, I love a recording of the Lalo Cello Concerto with Anne Gastinel with the Orchestre National de Lyon and Emmanuel Krivine. She is amazing in that recording but it doesn’t mean it makes her my favorite cellist ever, although I am very grateful to her for bringing that concerto in my life at that point. There is also an amazing recording of the Brahms Sonatas with Janos Starker and Abba Bogin on piano, which I listened to over and over.

Rostropovich fascinated me for a very long time, especially for his interpretation of the big concertos. But Yo-Yo Ma is perhaps the one with the biggest imprint. I fell in love with his playing right when I decided to become a cellist. I am a big fan of the freedom he finds in his playing.

I also want to say that there are many cellists I don’t like that much who put the technical achievement ahead of the artistic or emotional impact. Sometimes they are great teachers, great craftsmen, but not real artists, if I may say. I won’t give names. Actually I think some of them are French! I also like Miklos Perenyi, who is kind of a strange cellist. I think the deep way in which he keeps the purest musical line in everything he plays is fascinating. If you listen to his recording of the Beethoven Sonatas, it’s very special.

For Baroque influence, I am very grateful for Anner Bylsma, Christophe Coin, also Bruno Cocset…so my list is not so short! The quartet cellists are also important to me, like Clemens Hagen, who is a fantastic all-around cellist and musician. I would love to meet him one day.

Which musicians inspired you, outside of the cello world?

 Ah, I like this question much more! I am a big fan of so many musicians, composers, and conductors. I am a big fan of Christian Ferras, of many jazz pianists, like Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau….but it is always connected with a specific repertoire. I love Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Michel Portal who is a great artist and musician. Not as famous as he could be because he doesn’t think about career strategy. Valery Gergiev, for example, I admire how music is inside of him when he conducts. It is a very hard question because I would have many answers with people who are not famous, but maybe I should tell their names, so they become just a bit more famous. I would need 3 hours because many musicians are able to be very special at one moment in a concert. I have many great memories of concerts.

For example, Bill Evans, it’s very general, I like his whole repertoire. Brad Mehldau, I can be very specific, tell you which track, which CD, who is playing with him, or even which concert because I went to hear him live many times. Also, Ella Fitzgerald is the purest musician you could think of.

The thing is, you have musicians with whom you share great musical experiences, but there are also musicians who you can just trust, because every single note they play or sing will be of very high quality and stimulating. And it’s very different. The brightness of the musician’s influence on art and music in general is likely bigger in the 2d category.

I must tell you about a quartet, the Lindsay Quartet. They were not technically the best but they were great musicians on stage. I remember a concert in Geneva, in which they played Haydn’s Quartet in G major Opus 76. I was totally thrilled. I had a similar experience with the Quatuor Mosaiques , which I heard playing Haydn’s Seven Last Words in concert. At the end of the 4th word, there is this solo cadenza for the first violin and I don’t know what Erich Hobart did (of course the cadenza is composed by Haydn) but it was one of the greatest musical moments I ever experienced.

Is your current musical life and career what you had imagined?

 Not at all. There were many things I wanted to do. I couldn’t focus on one thing, and it’s funny because being a string quartet player is probably the most unlikely thing that could have happened to me. This is how life is! They asked me to join their string quartet and I thought it would be stupid to say no. Sayings yes, doors were still open for me. And I was well advised by my friends and family. But I couldn’t imagine reaching such a high point in my musical career. And let’s be honest, it is also very difficult to be in a string quartet, for many reasons. But you can have a few moments where you feel you reached pure beauty in Schubert, Beethoven or Schumann, so just for those it is worth it.

Actually when I was 10 years old, I thought I would be a soccer player. When I was 15, I thought I would be a cello soloist. When I was 20, I thought I wanted to be a conductor. And now I am 30 and I am a string quartet player!

As a busy chamber musician, how do you use your practice time? Is it mostly devoted to the string quartet repertoire or do you also work on etudes, scales or solo repertoire?

 I am pretty sure when you play in a string quartet you have to adjust many facets of your playing to the specific sound of the group. And it can be difficult, sometimes frustrating. I feel that I had to reduce the bow speed a lot, for example. If you think of the string quartet as a tree, you have to be the trunk. You can’t be the leaves of the tree, you have to be the trunk. And of course, feeling confident on the instrument is important, so I will play a scale once in a while when I feel like I need it, but I think the two major phases for me are looking at the score alone and then playing together with the group.

Of course after 10 years playing together, I need less time figuring out how I will need to play for each piece. I am not so devoted to solo practicing, although I know it’s good for me to play outside of the quartet. Actually, when I was asked to join the quartet, I asked our cello teacher Philippe Muller for some advice. And he told me two very simple things…but so important. He said: “If you enjoy playing together, its’ good.” (laughs) and he also said “You will surely need to find ways to play outside of the quartet”. And he was absolutely right, because it’s very hard to find occasions to play outside of your group. Aside of chamber music groups in festivals, I think in 10 years I played 2 or 3 concertos and 2 recitals. I just played Bach’s 6th Suite six weeks ago, practicing it for over six months and it was very important for me to do it. After that, you come back to the quartet feeling refreshed and maybe a better musician. Playing in a string quartet can be paralyzing in a way. It’s a different matter for the 1st violinist, but cellists have to be careful.

You studied harmony, analysis, composition, piano, conducting…how important do you feel those elements are to your musical life today?

 Fundamental. It opened my ears in different ways, I think. I am a very analytical guy. Actually what I enjoy the most these days is to play the piano and I especially enjoy accompanying my wife, who is a singer. I love sight-reading an Aria by Mozart or a Melodie by Faure on the piano. Not only with her! That makes me think I could also be very happy as an opera conductor. The voice is so expressive and as an accompanist, you have to organize everything around it to help shaping everything well. And if I didn’t study harmony or conducting, I would probably miss that pleasure. I am not a great pianist, but at least I can sight-read and that is very important to me. Even when we play a piano quintet, I like to look at the piano part. A piano quintet by Faure, for example, will have so much nuances and colors in the harmonies of the piano part. It’s very fascinating. But I don’t mean in any way that it is a mandatory condition for a good performance! I know many musicians who prefer to keep some distance with the score and prefer to give something with their instrument that has more density and more expression. Actually, I mentioned Christian Ferras earlier, he probably is a good example of that kind of playing. The sound, the phrasing, the freedom are more important than analysis. I doubt he was the kind of guy opening the score to inspect every corner of it. I don’t know, maybe he was, but I doubt it.

Do you have any pet peeves as a cello teacher?

 Not really. Maybe Musical Analysis? For example, when the Quatuor Ebene teaches at the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles, the four of us give very much to the students what we give to each other inside our quartet. I also work with many cellists there because I love to coach solo cello, more as an Analysis teacher. I like to show them that there are many things important to the music that are already in the score. It’s probably a problem that we have less than violinists because we are often playing the bass so we have a big part of our brain still available to listen to the others. Still, we sometimes need to take more distance, look at the piano score, and Analysis can be a really fun thing if taken with enthusiasm. I think we are very lucky in France to have one of the best systems for Solfege. Most French musicians have a great Solfege education and don’t need to spend hours to read a modern piece with lots of strange rhythms, and that’s a great advantage in the modern music world.

When you started your path building the Quatuor Ebene, I felt that Chamber Music was not the priority of the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, who was mostly interested in shaping the next big soloists of tomorrow. Did you feel that and how convinced were you that this was your destiny?

 Well there were a couple of string quartets starting to shape up at the same time as us. But it’s a shame that this institution, like many others, was trying to produce the next…the next “what” actually? It doesn’t make sense. I think Chamber Music is a great foundation for anything in a musical life. But to do it, you have to play with the same people for a long time, which means you need money. And for us, we were lucky, because we were still students, and we didn’t need much money and could spend hours and hours rehearsing together. My choice was pretty quick and I didn’t really have to decide where we were going. When I joined the quartet, they already knew that they wanted to do something very serious and professional. They didn’t know if they could do it but they wanted to try. I thought this was great because we didn’t have to discuss it. We just gave our best all the time to make it happen. And we were always encouraged by the good results that we got, were they people coming backstage after a concert to say that we should stick together, or later winning competitions, then playing in the big halls, managers, extra-seats in the plane, etc… (laughs) We all agree that there are plenty of good things to learn in Chamber Music, even if you want to be a soloist, and we would like to develop that approach more in music schools.

What would be the most played tracks on your iPod? What do you listen to the most?

 That would be Brad Mehldau for sure. There would be some Mahler Symphonies with Abbado, never mind which one it is. The funny thing is that what I love the most I don’t listen to very much because I know them by heart already, like the Brahms Piano Trios with Suk, Katchen and Starker. I think my iPod list should be what I actually want to listen to now. Like the Mozart Symphonies with Harnoncourt. You know what, it’s a stupid question actually! (laughs) We should just look at my iPod and you will have your answer! But I have to say, I love the shuffle mode, I love to be surprised. But I have to refresh my library a bit, because now I skip very often the tracks that the shuffle mode gives me until I find one I really want to hear. It could be just the Third movement of a Mozart String Quintet, for example.

So again you are very selective, like when you said your favorite recordings were very specific ones, and not a general genre or artist.

 Yes. Like, two days ago, the Shuffle Mode wanted me to listen to a piece by Berio for String Quartet. I should have listened to it, but I didn’t! By the way, I totally forgot, the Dutilleux String Quartet is surely one of my favorite pieces.

You also play the guitar, and I remember one of our teachers at CNSM mentioning to me that you had a great pizzicato technique because of this. I always feel that we are under-trained for the art of pizzicato. Is this something you had to work on or it was just natural for you to translate it to the cello?

 You are totally right, people never care about pizzicato. It was very natural for me to translate it to the cello. I did lots of guitar between 10 and 15 because at this time I was a good Christian and I loved to play the guitar to make others sing. I tried to introduce the idea in my family for Christmas, which was not a huge success, but anyway… (laughs) I loved to play the Rolling Stones, the songs by Georges Brassens, so I really can play the guitar! And I had to work on the independency of the fingers of the right hand, which is hardly ever practiced as a cellist. But I think I use that technique the most now as a jazz cellist, which is a role I take regularly with the Quatuor Ebene. I am very much inspired by the double-bass pizzicato playing…I also tried to play the double-bass, but only in private. I used to go to my violin maker when I was a kid and ask “Please, can I play the double-bass?”. So he would let me play on it and it was very hard because the strings are so much bigger and you need to apply much more pressure than on a cello! But at the end it was great because when I got back on the cello everything seemed so easy.

I also spent many nights improvising on the cello with a guitarist friend of mine, so when the cello had the melody, of course the guitar could play arpeggios, but when the guitar was improvising, it was much easier for me to use pizzicato to accompany him instead of the bow.

 What do you think makes the cello or the cellists special?

 I think what is special about the cello is that it is probably the only instrument that can play the top voice just as well as the bottom one. It is kind of a schizophrenic instrument. There aren’t many similarities, if any, between the cello part of a Haydn String Quartet and the solo part of the Dutilleux Cello Concerto.

As for the cellists themselves, I find it is a population where there is lots of solidarity, more than between violinists. It’s funny. It’s the same for singers. Baritones and Altos are friendlier than Sopranos just for one reason: there is less competition.

Well, I hope it will stay that way for a long time and that cellists will stay friendly!

 You really do? As for myself, I really hope that everyone stops and let me play the cello alone! Then I will be able to premiere the next concerto by John Adams…

You would be the best cellist in the world!

 Yes! I would love that! (laughs)

Do you have any experience playing in cello ensembles?

 Yes. Actually I was involved in a few concerts with Francois Salque, who used to lead this Cello Ensemble at the CNSM…actually I think we played in a few of those together, you and I, if I remember correctly. I was very impressed by his playing and observed him carefully and then I would go home totally depressed thinking “Ok, I am not good enough”. But it was fun, we played the Paganini “Variations on one string” and so on. And before, when I was very young, in a summer festival, we did the Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-lobos and the Hymnus by Klengel, which is a beautiful piece. I had great emotions playing in those ensembles, maybe also because there is something almost religious about it. The sound is very warm, very strong, almost like an organ.

You know what I did this morning in Saratoga? They have this beautiful organ, maybe the oldest ever in America, built in the 1840s. Unbelievable. Every pipe is wooden. It’s gigantic and it sounds so amazing. Everything I know from Bach I played on it and then I played some Ray Charles tunes! But it really reminded me of the sound of a cello ensemble.

Do you have any hobbies? Things you like to do when you are not playing the cello?

 I like to play soccer. I like to play with my son, who is just one year old. I like reading more and more. And I also like running and swimming, which I didn’t like before. I listen to radio a lot. I keep up with the news. Aside of the cello, I enjoy playing the piano, composing, accompanying singers, teaching…You know what I really like to do now is to take care of my garden. It’s very small and of course I am never there so the flowers die way too often but it’s fun! I like cooking barbecue in the garden. In the quartet, we play cards a lot, we started last year. So you see, I am a very busy man!

Well, busy is good! Last question: do you know what you would be doing if you were not a cellist? Or even, not a musician?

 I think I would be a teacher for young kids, maybe in Primary School. I think it would make me very happy to teach them how to speak, to show them what the world is, what the humanity is. It is probably a very hard job. If I was not a teacher, I could see myself as a soccer coach but for kids too, not for high level competition! You know, thanks to your questions, I realize I really like sports now, which I didn’t know. I think almost every two answers I gave you included a reference to sport!

Is there anything else you would like to say?

 I think even though I am not a big fan of America for several reasons, I always feel there is more energy and more freedom to create new projects here, which is very refreshing and makes me think that maybe in Europe we don’t just miss potential, but also imagination. But I would really recommend that all Americans spend one year in Europe and the opposite, all Europeans should spend one year in America.

Yes, I agree. I think it happens more and more now.

 Yes, but unfortunately it costs a lot in kerosene! We should organize some big boats to cross the Atlantic Ocean or a tunnel…you know they had a project like that, right? Paris-NYC under the sea. They are crazy!

Well, we will see if that ever happens. Thanks for taking the time to answer my not-so-smart questions!

 You are most welcome, I am glad I did, it made me practice my English!

 

Note from the editor: Yes, although both interlocutors are French, the interview was done entirely in English. My apologies for any mistakes!