Interview with Clive Greensmith, Part 2

Interview with Tokyo String Quartet Cellist Clive Greensmith
Part 2 of 2

Cellist Clive Greensmith has been a member of the Tokyo Quartet since 1999. A graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music and the Musikhochschule in Cologne, his principal teachers were Donald McCall and Boris Pergamenschikow. He has held the position of principal cellist of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As a soloist, he has appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Mostly Mozart Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic, and the RAI Orchestra of Rome. He has collaborated with distinguished musicians such as András Schiff, Midori, Claude Frank and Steven Isserlis, and has won several prizes including second place in the inaugural “Premio Stradivari” held in Cremona, Italy. His recording of Brahms Sonatas with Boris Berman was released on the Biddulph label. Mr. Greensmith has served on the faculties of the Royal Northern College of Music, Yehudi Menuhin School, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music and is currently on the faculty of the Colburn School in Los Angeles. 


The Montrose Trio

Recently, Dr. Nick Curry interviewed Clive Greensmith of the recently retired, internationally known and renowned Tokyo String Quartet. Part 1 of the interview, during which Clive and Mike discuss Clive’s musical background and experiences with the Tokyo String Quartet, as well as his orchestral work, can be found here. In Part 2 of this interview, Clive shares information for young musicians hoping to start individual or quartet careers. 

Ovation Press: What would be your advice to a young group that’s planning repertory together?

Clive Greensmith: Well, I think you have to know two things—what you play well and what you need to embrace, to seek the most profound kind of development as a group. I’d say, looking back at my 14 years with the group, one of the most contentious issues was the choice or repertoire. You have to balance out what you know the group plays well, and nobody plays everything equally well, with all of the other considerations and requests from promoters, in addition to potential recording work. There are always things that become clear after a while—we play Haydn better than we play Mozart, or we play Bartók better than we play Brahms. You have to balance what plays to the group’s strengths but what also the group needs to evolve and to grow and develop, and I can’t think of any quartet that I respect that sounds good, with a few notable exceptions, that didn’t grow out of the core repertoire. I don’t think it’s possible to put a Bartók quartet together well without seeing that line from Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, mid-19th century. It’s that much harder, the 20th century, if you bypass all of those composers and they’re not in the core repertoire–if they’re not in the repertoire of the group. Let’s say a promoter calls you up and says, “We’d like you to do the Beethoven cycle,” and you’re not quite ready—the experience of my own group was that there were many times where we weren’t ready and we just had to go for it, and you work extra hard. A good example: once we were asked to play Elliot Carter’s first quartet. The work sapped all of our rehearsal time for Beethoven op 127. Now, most of the audience wouldn’t notice if something went off course in the Carter, but during the same period we were on stage playing Beethoven op 127 and it wasn’t the level it should have been. The Carter had been so time-consuming that there was inadequate rehearsal time for the Beethoven. We were punished for that, and I felt bad about it. So there’s a real-life example. Having said that, a voracious appetite for all kinds of music is, in my opinion, an important attribute of a group that has determination and vision. If you want to succeed as a group, you will inevitably need to work every hour that God sends. Learn how to work with great efficiency and always think creatively about your programming. Hunt around for lesser-known composers and remember that you are their advocate. You must have a vision and a sense of missionary zeal.

Ovation Press: Do you have any advice for younger players that are trying to go about finding other players to form some type of a chamber group?

Clive Greensmith: I think the best, though not exclusive scenario is to find like-minded people at school or at a festival. Just go with your instincts, and if you feel you’ve found a colleague–and it’s mutual–that you can work well with, there’s no time like the present. And if you really feel a sense of vocation for the chamber music literature, specifically for quartet, which is a huge challenge on its own—it’s a huge commitment—then go for it. My personal sadness is that I didn’t have that. I was very fortunate; I joined a group that already had a name brand and that had laid the foundation stones way before I joined, and it’s some sadness to me knowing that I wasn’t part of it at the beginning, because you have the idealism and a sense of vision and a sense of optimism and of building something from the ground up. So, there can be nothing better than that. And I would say if you feel that sense of vocation, go for it. A few caveats: you may not necessarily play well with your best friend, or your girlfriend, or it might work really well. But make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. One thing I do feel strongly about is that you shouldn’t join a quartet because you didn’t make it as a soloist–you shouldn’t join a quartet because there’s nothing better on the horizon. I think you should be in a quartet because you love the repertoire and because you believe that it speaks to you and you believe that you have something to contribute. In an ideal world, people shouldn’t go to any job for the wrong reasons. Quartet playing, it’s tough enough anyway. But you shouldn’t be doing it because nothing better came along. Also, remember that as quartet players, you work for yourselves, for the group. You are all entrepreneurs working together in a very competitive field. Passion, creativity and commitment are as important as technical skill and intellectual rigor. When the chips are down, you will always be better off with colleagues that passionately love what they are doing and who wish to make a difference to the world through the gift of music.

Ovation Press: Staying with advice to younger players, what would be your advice to a young quartet that had just started about traveling together?

Clive Greensmith: I think you should be aware of the fact that when you’re young and perhaps less depends on the quartet—when you’re not married with children—there seems to be a lot less pressure, and that sense of responsibility to the group is not as great as it might be when you’re older and you have financial and personal responsibilities. Don’t be surprised if, as the quartet becomes busier or you grow into a more mature ensemble, you find yourself needing space, and understand that the time that you think you should be socializing actually might get cut down. It should be something that protects you from potential difficulties further along. I think if you make the mistake of being best friends with everybody in the group or just one person in the group, then that is potentially going to give you problems later on. You have to accept the fact that when you are working so closely together, you’re going to have conflict within the group. There’s no avoiding that. Far better to have that realization early on, and so when that inevitable honeymoon period is over, or when you have your first big bust-up with your old friend, that you’re able to move on from that, and it’s not catastrophic and you can still be friends and have a professional relationship without meeting for coffee or beer or shooting pool, relaxing together, going out for a meal–whatever it might be–that the relationship will continue and you retain that mutual respect.

Ovation Press: Those personal relationships are vital to chamber music. How do you maintain them while still giving and receiving critiques in a group?

Clive Greensmith: It’s very important to be able to be as direct as you need to be without being abusive. I do think, however, that there have to be boundaries that are agreed on and clearly understood. That’s very important, because a string quartet can so easily become a breeding ground for petty rivalries, paranoia and mistrust. Wow – it all sounds so alluring! Joking aside, there has to be a sense of what is permissible. You can tell anybody a variety of different things about their playing, but once you cross the boundary and it becomes either malicious or undermines confidence or [results in] behaving poorly onstage because something goes awry, you are in dangerous waters. For me, the stage is sacred, and once you’re onstage and you’re playing, you have to all be committed to playing together, no matter what lingers in your mind from the dress rehearsal. If you don’t have that discipline, you are asking for trouble.

But having said that, I think you should be able to be brutally honest with each other. And that can be tough, and to hear somebody tell you “You’re out of tune,” or “I don’t like your sound color,” or “You’re rushing”—it should be possible for you to be able to hear that and say, “Well, maybe he has a point?!.” And that’s how we get better. You go to the rehearsal every morning; there are three other people that can’t wait to tell you how to play your part. There should be no taboos in rehearsal. You should be able to say to the cellist, “I don’t like the support that you’re giving us here,” and you should be able to say to the first violinist, “You know, I’m just accompanying you, but I don’t like the way you’re playing your melody.” I think those things are all permissible. But how you say them is also very important and you must always think clearly and provide strong reasoning to back up your point of view. Good rehearsal technique will only be achieved by patiently working together. I think the important thing is try to avoid stirring things up. You know that something is going to rile your colleague and you know when that might get to them, then obviously hold back if you can. To err is human, and I freely admit my own guilt where this point is concerned.

Ovation Press: Those personal interactions are so important to quartet life. Do you have some humorous experiences to share with the readers that you had during the years that you performed with the Tokyo Quartet?

Clive Greensmith: There were so many lighthearted moments. Our violist, Kazu, told me once that he was playing Brahms’ Opus 67–big viola solo in the third movement—and he played it with appropriate emotional commitment and sincerity. After the movement the audience applauded, and the first violinist at that point turned to Kazu and said, “You should think about taking a bow.” So Kazu nodded, acknowledging the audience, and then they went on to finish the piece. Kazu felt so touched that the audience thought it was so good that they spontaneously applauded at the end of the third movement. And then afterwards the first violinist came up to him with a huge grin and said, “Oh, look at the program.” They’d only printed three movements! Poor Kazu was crushed. [Another time,] we were in the middle of Bartók 5 and we finished that hugely climactic moment on the penultimate page of the last movement—we were in Lucerne in a very beautiful hall—and the audience spontaneously clapped. We continue with a sort of barrel organ folk song, and then the movement begins again–it really finishes about a page later, but people actually laughed onstage at that point. It was great because it reminded me that during a live performance, it’s is important for people to enter into the experience in the right way—perhaps naïvely so, but with real enthusiasm–and that one should feel free to applaud at the wrong moment if the music moves you to do so. Haydn and Mozart’s music is so full of humor that it begs a reaction from the audience. The more spontaneous, the better! Finally, after a performance of the complete set of Haydn Quartets op 76 in Milan, we opened the door to our dressing room and were confronted by Alfred Brendel, holding the music in his hands and beaming! Now, that was truly memorable.

Ovation Press: Do you have recommendations for the quartets you coach about specific editions that you like for them to use?

Clive Greensmith: I think it’s way better to have an Urtext score. Having said that, there are often multiple Urtext scores and two versions of the same work often differ quite radically. So it’s no good you saying, “Get the Henle edition,” because for example, there’s now a really fine edition of the Beethoven quartets by Bärenreiter. Both Henle and Barenreiter have published the Schubert E flat Trio, but the latter is the one to go for if you wish to play the fourth movement with the famous cut restored. Recently, a student brought the Brahms E minor Sonata to a lesson using the Leonard Rose edition. It’s full of some wonderful ideas, but for a teenager, you’re partly looking at somebody else’s take on the piece. I like to cultivate in younger people, right from the beginning, critical thinking of their own. So it’s wonderful to look at the Rose editions or the Starker/Tortelier. But know that this is a different kind of study from looking at an Urtext score. It’s very important to think on your own two feet. However, staring at a blank page can also be a rather redundant way of learning a piece. Just because there are almost no markings in a Mozart score doesn’t mean that one is not allowed to trust one’s intuition and to indulge in a wide variety of meaningful, tasteful nuances of sound and timing. Students often confuse phrase markings with bowings and though I work hard to encourage a fine legato, we simply have to understand how to project our sound in a larger space, and that will inevitably require compromises and oftentimes, radical changes to the standard bowings. Sanitized playing that is devoid of expression is unbearable. Incidentally, there’s a marvelous DVD lecture by Malcolm Bilson entitled ‘Knowing The Score’ which is a fascinating, provocative and enlightening study on how to forge an interpretation using all the available sources.

Ovation Press: Touching on your previous life as an orchestral player, what type of tips can you give to people that are taking orchestra auditions?

Clive Greensmith: I think it depends where. I do see differences in England, in the UK, and Northern America. I don’t have too much experience in Europe, in orchestras in Germany and France, or Holland, but I would say these days the competition is so fierce you have to be meticulous. I mean, it’s almost like … I wouldn’t compare it to sports, but there has to be a sense of discipline and routine and structure, and you can’t just leave things to instinct. You’ve got to be meticulous in your preparation. I might suggest a lot of metronome practice; all the things that we work for in our solo playing come into play in the excerpts. They’re like little vignettes demonstrating one’s knowledge of a wide variety of styles. I think you should have a sense of your own individuality and that’s important, but when you’re going for an orchestra audition, you’ve got to set personal feelings aside a lot of the time and it’s got to be… I wouldn’t say neutral, but there has to be a strong sense of objective study. Your preparation has to be rigorous, recording yourself, trying mock auditions. Accept the fact that you will give many auditions and that you may not get anywhere at the beginning, but you should continue, be patient, and stick to your routines, and also go and work with people that are in orchestras, that have been through that process themselves, or teachers that are known for cultivating the right kind of work ethos. I have a large CD collection of orchestral music which expanded alarmingly fast during my trial period with the RPO. I even played along with the recordings!

Ovation Press: Now that we’ve covered all aspects of your career up to this point, what kind of plans do you have for your performing career now that the quartet is done?

Clive Greensmith: Well, Martin Beaver, Jon Kimura Parker and I have formed a new group – the Montrose Trio!  Whilst recognizing that we don’t have the ambition to play the same kind of volume of concerts that we did in the quartet together, we feel that the idea of exploring a different kind of repertoire will be really stimulating, and this will be a serious endeavor. I think we still feel a little bit bereft, you know. As quartet players, we enjoyed this wonderful repertoire, and suddenly those pieces are not part of our daily lives any longer. The routines aren’t the same and there is a palpable sense of loss–no kidding. I mean, that’s impossible to replace. But I’ve really surprised myself with how much I’m enjoying working on the solo repertoire again. I never felt a strong sense of missionary zeal as a soloist, although I had my moments. I did some competitions when I was younger and had some success and played solo concerts here and there. I will be giving some recitals next season including my debut at the National Concert Hall in Taipei. There are two recording projects scheduled – a CD of chamber music and solo works by the wonderful British composer Gerard Schurmann and the Brahms and Beethoven clarinet trios with my friends Jon Nakamatsu and Jon Manasse. I love new music and am interested in learning a portion of the solo repertoire that I never had time to study. Talking of which, for the Taipei recital, I will be joined by my student Grace Ho, a wonderful player, in a performance of Jan Muller Wieland’s sonata for two celli. I understand that for me to keep growing, I need to keep playing, and I would love to play the Bach suites again and I’d like to keep playing concertos. It’s important for me to still keep my fingers in all kinds of repertoire to maintain my level as a cellist. It’s not quite over yet!

Ovation Press: Thank you for all of your insight!

Clive Greensmith: Thank you—I really enjoyed it!


About Dr. Nick Curry

 Dr. Nick Curry is the Associate Professor of Cello at the University of North Florida. He is a founding member of Trio Florida with violinist Simon Shiao and pianist Gary Smart, featuring new compositions as well as timeless classics. From 2004-2007, he served as the professor of cello and the cellist in the Rawlins Piano Trio at the University of South Dakota.
Nick received his Bachelor of Music from Vanderbilt, where he studied with Grace Mihi Bahng. While at Vanderbilt, he served as Professor Bahng’s teaching assistant and was the recipient of the Jean Keller Heard Award for Excellence in string performance. Nick then served as Hans Jorgen Jensen’s teaching assistant for five years at Northwestern University, where he earned his Master of Music and Doctoral degrees. He also was the teaching assistant to Professor Jensen at the Meadowmount School of Music for four summers.

Nick has played in master classes for Lynn Harrell, Ralph Kirschbaum, Paul Katz, David Geber, the Emerson String Quartet, the Pacifica String Quartet, and the Blair String Quartet. Private studies have also included lessons with Harvey Shapiro, David Finckel, and John Kochanowski. He has presented in national conferences for both ASTA and CMS as well as regional and state conferences and is a sought after clinician, adjudicator and plans special projects for the state chapter of the American String Teachers Association. In 2012, he was awarded the Collegiate Leadership Award by Florida ASTA.

In the summers of 2012 and 2013 Dr. Curry was visiting faculty at the Meadowmount School of Music and was full-time faculty at the Tennessee Valley Music Festival. In February 2014, he will be on faculty at the Tennessee Cello Workshop. 

3 Responses to Interview with Clive Greensmith, Part 2

  1. loretta February 11, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    I like what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and reporting!

    Keep up the great works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my own blogroll.

  2. June 27, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

    ¿Quién escribió esto? Por amor a dios, liberen la red para aquellos
    que son al menos una pizca buenos en algo.

  3. star stable star coins free May 8, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    I can’t say that I completely agree, but then once more I’ve never really thought of it quite like that before. Thanks for giving me something to think about when I’m supposed to have an empty mind although trying to fall asleep tonight lol..

Leave a Reply