Joy Lisney talks to Robert Beattie

Joy Lisney (c) Krisztian Siphos

I first came across Joy Lisney at a concert in London’s Purcell Room where she performed all five Beethoven Cello Sonatas with her father, James (review click here).  I was struck by the extraordinarily high level of her technical accomplishment and musicianship, and her willingness to take on such demanding repertoire at a relatively young age.

Joy’s credentials as a concert cellist have never been in doubt since her auspicious debut with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2011-12.  Since that time, she has shown that her talents are not limited to performing as a concert soloist.  Joy has increasingly come to prominence as a composer.  She was composer in Residence at Cambridge University in 2016-17 and she is currently in the third year of her PhD in music composition at Cambridge.  She has won a number of prizes for her compositions, including the Ralph Vaughn Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss prizes and her works have been premiered by the Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Recherche.

Joy is also the co-founder and conductor of Seraphin which has at its heart a dedication to music education through artistic excellence. The Seraphin Project exists to foster collaborations between musicians across generations and to cultivate these new connections in performances ranging from chamber recitals up to full scale orchestral concerts.  Earlier this year the Seraphin project enabled a group of young players to join forces with top professionals from the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Vienna Philharmonic, Hallé and BBCSO to give a well-received performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

I spoke to Joy about the people who have influenced her development as a musician, her compositions and influences on her compositional style, and musical projects which she is currently working on.

Robert Beattie:  You have begun to forge a career for yourself as a concert soloist, conductor and composer.  Can you tell us who were the major influences on your development as a musician?

Joy Lisney:  I come from a very musical family.  My father James is a concert pianist and my mother is an accomplished violinist.  My sister Emma is also a violinist.  Distinguished musicians regularly visited our house when I was growing up. For example, Emma Kirkby was a regular visitor as she used to rehearse with my father.  I watched Alexander Baillie perform the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with my father and he influenced the way I approached these and other major works.

RB:  You launched your career at the Concertgebouw in 2011.  What did you play at that concert?

JL:  I played the Chopin Cello Sonata, Lutoslawski’s Grave and I premiered a new piece by the Dutch composer Jan Vriend called JOY which I then performed on my debut CD the following year.  I have worked with Jan over the last ten years and he has been a major influence on my development as a composer.

RB:  You describe yourself as a champion of new music – how do you define new music?

JL:  Music which has been written in, say, the last 20 years.  I also think of some music written in the 20th Century as new music and I like to perform these works in concert.  One of the new works which I performed recently and most admire is Jan Vriend’s Symphonic Dances.  In spite of the name, the work is for solo cello and it uses the solo cello works by Bach and Britten as a model.  I performed this piece earlier this year in Amsterdam.

RB:  Which composers have most influenced your own music?

JL:  Jan Vriend is a major influence.  Among the more mainstream composers, the music of Debussy, Britten and Beethoven have influenced my own compositions.  I particularly like the discourse, energy and motivic development that one finds in Beethoven’s music.  I admire composers such as George Benjamin and Thomas Adès where one finds intriguing harmonies and interesting rhythmic ideas.

RB:  I always regard Beethoven as being in some ways a highly experimental, modernist composer.  For example, the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata is a highly experimental work and the Grosse Fuge and some of the movements from the late quartets sound like nothing which has been composed before or since.

JL:  Composers such as Bach and Brahms who were regarded as anachronistic in their own time could also be modernisers.  Bach’s D Minor Chaconne is a highly original work and Brahms’s Requiem is very innovative and ground- breaking.  While at university we were asked to compose works in the style of composers like Brahms and to innovate from that standpoint.  It was useful in demonstrating how innovative the great composers were for their time.

RB:  There have been some important premieres of your work, including the piece Apparitions by the Arditti Quartet.  Can you tell us about some of the characteristics of your works and about your most recent compositions?

JL:  I like to develop single motivic ideas and that is why Beethoven is such an important influence.  I sometimes use indistinct colours and I like to change pace in my compositions.  I sometimes juxtapose momentum with the absence of momentum.  I recently composed a piece called The Summoner for the Cambridge Union New Music Ensemble.  The music depicts Tadzio’s final moments in Death in Venice.  I also wrote a piece for the Ensemble Recherche called Spiralen which was performed in Freiburg earlier this year.  Ensemble Recherche specialise in performing contemporary works.  The work gave me an opportunity to explore different types of percussion, including playing inside a piano with timpani mallets and using different types of gongs.  I also used natural harmonics and wrote extended woodwind lines which the performers played using circular breathing.

RB:  You were instrumental in setting up the Seraphin Orchestra in Cambridge.  Can you tell us about some of the orchestra’s activities?

JL:  I set up the orchestra with my sister, Emma, and it originally started off as a string orchestra.  I conduct the orchestra and Emma is the leader.  The orchestra is made up of Cambridge students and young professionals from the south of England.  The orchestra has expanded from strings into a full orchestra over the last few years and we recently performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  Our work on that was part of a Mahler education project and we were lucky enough to be able to co-opt leading orchestral professionals from around Europe for the performance.  They shared desks with less experienced players and it provided a useful forum for younger players to learn from older more experienced professionals.  We will be performing the Busoni Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances at St John’s Smith Square on 30 November.

RB:  You will shortly be performing a varied programme at the Purcell Room with your father James and the Brahms Double Concerto with your sister Emma at St John’s Smith Square.  I was intrigued to see that you are tackling your own arrangement of Bach’s D Minor Chaconne at the Purcell Room.  I imagine this is a challenging piece to play on solo cello.

JL:  Yes it is – together with Jan Vriend’s Anatomy of Passion it is the most challenging work I have ever played.  There have been various arrangements of the piece before for solo cello but I wanted to play it in the original key of D Minor.  This makes it more difficult as there are big stretches involved and one has to play big chords across several strings.

RB:  You will also be playing the Chopin Cello Sonata at that concert.  What are the challenges associated with playing that particular piece?

JL:  It is one of only nine works by Chopin which were written for instruments other than the piano.  The first movement is long and it almost makes up half the piece.  The work is thematically very dense – Chopin uses material from the opening song of Schubert’s Winterreise.  The challenges are musical and interpretative rather than technical.  It is important to be familiar with Chopin’s piano music as a whole in order to fully understand how to play the piece.

RB:  We have already talked about some of your forthcoming concerts – are there any others you would like to make us aware of?

JL:  In addition to the concerts at the Purcell Room and St John Smith’s Square, my father, sister and I will be performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with the clarinettist, Michael Whight in London and Cambridge.

RB:  Joy, many thanks for talking to us.                

For more about Joy Lisney click here  

Leave a Comment