The Telegraph - June 2008
Jean-Guihen Queyras : How to make the cello speak

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As Jean-Guihen Queyras prepares to play in Britain, he talks to Geoffrey Norris

Earlier this year, Jean-Guihen Queyras achieved one of those landmarks to which all cellists aspire when he released a CD of the six Bach solo suites, a recording that probed deep into the music's expressive core.
But his career has been anything but conventionally planned.
Now 41, though looking at least 10 years younger, he is reaping the benefits of building gradually on his natural talent. He has become a musician of exceptional versatility, equally at home in the Baroque repertoire as in the cutting-edge contemporary compositions he experienced as a member of Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. He performs both as a soloist and as a member of the outstanding Arcanto Quartet.

"I'm very happy it's gone that way," he says. "It wasn't that I found an agent early on who told me I was going to play the Dvorák concerto for the next three weeks, and I'm very glad, because I don't think I would have been satisfied."

We meet in a Paris apartment, with Queyras's three daughters watching a DVD in the next room while Papa does his interview with a winning mélange of animation and charm. Family life is just as important to him as his musical one, his "twin passions", as he puts it.

He lives in Freiburg in Germany with his wife and daughters, teaches at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, and will do all he can to ensure that he is not away from home for long. Devising his concert schedule also involves "trying to guess when the school holidays will be" and incorporating "a big break in the summer", but three dates bring him to the UK soon, with concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival on Saturday and at the end of the month, and then in July an appearance at the BBC Proms.

One topic of conversation is his name, "not hyper-common", as he acknowledges. The Queyras part comes from a region in the southern French Alps, where the family is thought to have originated. "Jean-Guihen," he suggests, "is a little bit crazy. I guess my parents were really inspired on that day", though the precedent of the 11th-century French Saint Guihen indicates that they didn't just invent it.

He was actually born in Montreal in Quebec. Quite soon, however, the family was recomposée, he explains. "My mother divorced from my father when I was five, and she remarried with my stepfather. He had a job in Algeria, so we lived there for three years, which was a wonderful experience for me. Then when I was eight years old my parents realised their dream and renovated a ruin in Provence."

This is at Forcalquier, where Queyras and his violinist brother Pierre-Olivier still stage an annual music festival, Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence, every July.

As a boy in Forcalquier, he was lucky enough to find a cello teacher who "knew how to start children in the right way". After studying at the Lyon Conservatoire, he went to Freiburg at the age of 17, "discovering the German musical world and impressed by the way music is much deeper in the social tissues than in France. Schubert, Beethoven and so on are part of life."

Then it was across to the Juilliard School in New York, where his teacher, Tim Eddy, instilled in Queyras the idea of the "speaking" cello, "a strong sense of rhetoric as opposed to cellists who are more like singers. He also gave me a bow technique that would enable me to express all the subtleties that come to mind while playing, so that the listener can really experience things with you."

This training equipped him well for the rigorous and wide-ranging demands of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, with which he played for more than a decade, producing, among other things, a classic recording of the Ligeti Cello Concerto with Boulez conducting.

"Even when I was in Lyon and Freiburg," Queyras recalls, "whenever there was a contemporary music project, I was the one they would ask. I loved it, looking at a score and having no idea what was going to come out.

"I needed my time with the Ensemble Intercontemporain really to enjoy music-making, working with composers on a daily basis to experience fully what they need from a performer. They need you to put all of yourself into an interpretation. And dead composers need what living composers need. This is what enabled me really to find my way in the repertoire."

The ensemble's exploratory philosophy also guided his own working methods. "I like to seize opportunities," he says. "That's the way my career started, and that's the way I handle it today."

• Queyras's Bach CD is out now on Harmonia Mundi. He plays Mozart, Schubert and Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival (01728 687110) on June 21 and 29; and Haydn at the BBC Proms (0845 401 5040) on July 22.