I’ve always had an interest in contemporary music. When I was younger and in the National Youth Orchestra, I remember we played a piece of Birtwistle in one of the proms, Gawain’s Journey, and most of my friends were like ‘this awful piece! It doesn’t make sense, it sounds horrible!’. But there was something about the visceral energy of it. Even though I didn’t understand it – and lots of music I play I still don’t understand! – there was something about the energy of it, the challenge of it, that I really enjoyed.

Then I went to university, to Cambridge. There’s been a great canon of amazing professors in composition, and also people who have gone through the university system there – people like Thomas Ades, though he was quite a bit before my time. I met people like Hugh Wood and Alexander Goehr who were there then. And there was a lot of ability to give concerts and put interesting things on without any pressure. That’s one of the things I would say actually – take every opportunity to try things out. Even if it doesn’t work the first time, or it’s not necessarily successful, exposure to stuff, trying it out, learning what works in what situation and what doesn’t - it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work out, you’ve tried it.  We did loads of stuff at Cambridge. I remember doing Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon with Huw Watkin, who really wanted to do it. We did it in a number of venues, some more successful than others. In some we got horribly lost and didn’t know what we were doing! But I loved doing it, I loved the challenge of it. I performed a lot of my contemporaries’ pieces. So, when Huw wrote a violin piece, he would often bring it to me and I would try it and we would work on it together, and then I’d often perform it.

By the time I got to Royal College I was really quite interested in contemporary music – and I was surprised how others at the college weren’t, though I’m sure it’s changed now, as this was 20 years ago or so. There was a sort of laisse-faire attitude towards contemporary music back then, partly because there was no one else that was interested in it. I found myself playing in almost all the contemporary groups, because I was keen, and I loved it. I was playing in Contemporary Music Ensemble, and then we formed a small group called Contemporary Consort, and I did that as well. I also took part in the Park Lane Group performances where we would play new music, and I was able to commission work by some of the college composers. So, partly because I was one of the only ones who was so keen to play new music, it gave me lots of access to these opportunities. I’m glad now, because I wonder if things had been different, if I’d have done so much.

Because of that I sort of got a name for doing it well. Whether or not that was true I’m not sure, but I loved doing it. I think the things that attracted me to playing contemporary music were the challenges of it and also the excitement. I loved the idea of commissioning someone to write something for you, and that you could work with them on creating this piece of art afresh. That just really excited me, and I wanted to more and more of it. Or, conversely, learning a piece that a composer had written and then them coming along and listening to it. It was like instant feedback – even if it was bad, it didn’t matter, it was a stamp of approval, or not, and then you could make it better along with them. I loved that process. I did a lot of this with groups starting up, and that’s where I cut my teeth on new repertoire. We tried lots of things - some of them weren’t necessarily successful, but I don’t think that it mattered because I was getting a lot of exposure to lots of different sorts of composers and pieces. You sort of learn a method that works for you in how you approach, for instance, a new score. How you go about deciphering it if its particularly complex. How you go about the muscle memory of it if it is very virtuosic. Or the understanding behind it. And I think you learn how you need to work in order to get the best end result.

I was playing lots of contemporary music both as a soloist and in small groups. When I was asked to do my first ever BCMG gig – I think someone was ill? – it was certainly by chance. And I remember the call and thinking, ‘I don’t know, whether I’d be able to do that, I’m not sure if I’m good enough.’ But I said yes. Since then someone gave me a really good piece of advice: if there’s a part of you inside that’s going ‘oh I’m not sure’, then you should always say yes. And it’s true – I try to follow that now. It’s good to be a little bit scared about doing something. To have that little bit of fear in there means that it’s a challenge that you should take on.

“It’s good to be a little bit scared about doing something. To have that little bit of fear in there means that it’s a challenge that you should take on.”

For my first BCMG concert I prepared inside out, back to front, to really, really make sure I knew what I was doing. On my first rehearsal I was blown away by the other players, they were so inspiring: Uli Heinen on cello, Chris Yates on viola. Even in those first three hours I think I learnt a million things – which sounds corny but it’s true! You do learn from your fellow musicians as much as you learn from teachers and from conductors.

Luckily it went well. I was asked back, and I did more and more with BCMG – and the more I did with them the more I learnt, mainly from the players. Just talking to someone like Uli – who helped found the group and has so much experience – was very inspiring and it urged me on to investigate different sorts of contemporary music more. It’s something I’ve taken into all parts of what I do now. With City of London Sinfonia, the model used to be a lot of chamber orchestra type stuff. For various reasons gradually we’ve moved away from that, but also there’s a limit to how many Mozart 40s one wants to hear – unless you’ve got someone really incredible conducting or interpreting it. Do we need another one? We’ve looked at other ways of using our instrumentalists and have gone a bit smaller. It’s interesting how our programming has changed over the years, and we’re now doing a lot more 15-piece stuff.

I work a lot with Aurora Orchestra as well, who have done a lot of contemporary repertoire, particularly when they started. They’re going the other way now and doing more memorized projects and bigger symphonies! But when they started it was very much with pieces like Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, Maxwell Davies, that sort of sound world.

Contemporary Music is a thread throughout my life and is something that helped me become established and get work with London Sinfonietta. Through that I met amazing musicians – not only players, but also conductors and composers. That feeds into what you become and how you improve, and filters into everything that you do as a musician.

Q: You’ve talked about Aurora and performing from memory. What is your experience of playing an entire symphony from memory?

Alex: I was quite cynical about it when we started, because I was worried it was a gimmick, and maybe highlighting the wrong things in the music somehow. And a lot of musicians play things from memory all the time, so it wasn’t even that amazing a trick! What is incredible is when you rehearse. When we first started, we did Mozart 40 and had a week of rehearsals. It was very intense. When we turned up for the first rehearsal quite a lot of people didn’t really know that symphony that well. And we worked on it together and by the end everyone could play it. Because we’ve now played that symphony so many times, the expectation is that you arrive at the first rehearsal and start by playing the entire thing from memory and then work on it. What is incredible is the level at which that first run through is already so much higher. If you are memorizing, you really have to understand the structure and the harmonic sequences. I feel it gave an insight into how Mozart, for example composed. It’s almost like analysis. You learn where the sequences are, where he uses something structurally. Even between his symphonies, having done a few of them now. It’s incredibly interesting and I think it makes everyone play on another level because of it. If you could get that, it doesn’t bother me whether it’s with or without the music.

From a more commercial aspect it has been invaluable to Aurora. We have had a lot of European tours in big concert halls in the Netherlands, Germany and France, where it can be difficult for English chamber orchestra to get into. This was the key that sort of unlocked that. 

Q: How do you feel about memorising a solo contemporary piece? Often if people are hearing that piece for the first time they need some way to get really into it and not feel that they are just watching someone reading the notes off the page, so actually performing without the music stand could be a way to help people engage better with music that they might not understand so well?

Alex: In an ideal world that’s something we should all aim towards. They way that you present yourself when you perform, particularly contemporary music, is extremely important. You can play with music and still be engaging, don’t get me wrong, but if there is a piece that you feel confident with and can play better from memory, I think it helps.

A lot of groups now are thinking about movement and the physicality when you play. Not just how you move your instrument, but actually moving on the stage or platform, or playing from somewhere else within the concert hall. And playing from memory really enables you to do these things. You don’t need to think about the trappings of ‘where’s my music?!’ etc. If you’ve ensured that the performance and the playing is going to be better because of it, I think it can really impact.

That’s one of the things BCMG has been really good at over the years with the family concerts. I remember one of them was in a living room type setting in the CBSO centre. I was in a bed, literally got up, played some Gerald Barry. His music is deceptively simple on the page, but it catches you out rhythmically. I stood up and played this piece and the visual impact of that was enough to create and sustain concentration within the children in the audience, and for them to question what was happening. We then had some Messiaen around a breakfast table! This idea of staging things in an unusual way I think needn’t be left for just family or children’s concerts. We need a bit of that in everything that we do in the music sector. We have so much competition and so much readily available content online that we’ve got to have even more reason to persuade people to come into a concert hall or theatre and hear something live. We have to really entice them. We need to work hard so that what we present has integrity and is performed to the best of our ability, but also that it is presented in an engaging and thought-provoking way.

Q:  How did you start freelancing after you finished studying? Do you have any advice on how to build up work, or music, or in ensembles, and do you have any advice for emerging freelance musicians given the current situation?

Alex: This situation is unprecedented and who knows… I’m hoping that the internet will help us find different ways of reaching each other with live music. Let’s see what happens with that.

In terms of building a career, my main advice would be not to be too fussy about what you do to start with. Obviously have your goals and ambitions and ideas. But say yes, even if something doesn’t seem your cup of team, or isn’t the music you want to be doing. Say yes! Meeting lots of people is important; as a string player you never know who you might end up sitting next to! I was thinking about how I first worked with BCMG. I think I did some very random date with a small chamber orchestra in the middle of Wales miles from my home.  But I happened to sit next to someone who was in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the time, and we knew each other from before then and we got chatting again and kept in touch. And it was through meeting her again on this random date in the middle of Wales that I got asked to work with BCMG for the first time, because someone was ill, and they knew I played a lot of contemporary music, so they asked me. It’s always these sort of chance encounters that could end up with you finding the one thing that you love doing the most. But even when I started with BCMG I wasn’t particularly fussy – for example about whether I played first or second. I didn’t mind and still generally don’t. It’s about exposure, being willing and enthusiastic. People will pick up on that. People love if someone comes into a group and bringing positivity and energy, though obviously you need to be able to play and be well prepared too! But if you bring a good energy to the room, you’re more likely to be asked again. That’s my main advice. To not be worried about taking risks. Maybe go and audition for something even if you think it’s impossible that you’ll get it – you’ll learn something from the experience. And you might surprise yourself. Or meet someone, even at the audition process. Take all the opportunities you can.

And create your own opportunities too. Think outside of the box. Whilst you might be doing lots and lots of dates with orchestra that don’t particularly excite your musical passions, you can at the same time have a concert that you are aiming towards – perhaps a solo concert or chamber concert which really does do that for you. Put it on yourself. Find the funding. Make an event of it. Do it for charity. Try to have little nuggets of things that do fulfil those passions and dreams, whilst you are increasing your exposure and doing as much as you can.

And work on all facets of your playing. For example, if you want to play in a group such as BCMG one day, there’s all sort of things. It’s not just about playing in the group. There’s the working in schools, or with composers. And the teaching elements. The theatrical elements. All these different sides of what you do as a musician, whether it’s teaching, working in the community, or doing things like improvising are really important in what you do. And variety will mean that you can use your musical abilities in lots of different situations, and that will also help. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, but it happened – and now looking back I know that it happened like that. Good luck!