Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Ruth Palmer is part of a new phenomenon. Every year, Londonâs four conservatories turn out 90-100 outstandingly accomplished string players who face an uphill struggle to find a vacant orchestral seat. No change on that front.
The more devastating challenge is the one that faces the elite half-dozen among them who have been groomed to be the soloists of the future. These college stars find after the graduation concert that they are too old, at 25, to get a record audition, an agent or a big date. In our cultural fixation with extreme youth and sex appeal, only teenaged competition winners get taken on; the rest have to rummage for crumbs.
Itâs a cruel awakening for artists who have spent their entire youth cultivating an original sound only to be told that genuine personality is now worth less than a set of airbrushed studio shots. Many give up and seek work in a bank.
Ruth Palmer is one of those who refused to let grim reality get her down. After stints at both the Royal Academy (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM), separated by a gap year of one-on-one tuition in Vienna, she was out on the street, fiddle in hand and nothing in the diary. ÎIt has become the normal thing,â she relates sadly. ÎWe look at each other on the steps of the college and say, shall I give up now? I decided to continue. I took every opportunity to perform, in churches, rooms, no matter how small. And that gave me the confidence. I knew I had something to say. All I had to do was get it out.â
The way for an artist to get heard is on record. The sensible thing would have been for her to book a studio and pianist for a small recital, but Ruth required full orchestra. She had developed an intimate relationship with the first concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich. ÎAt one point in my life, I was 21, was very unhappy and this piece of music seemed to express my feelings,â she says. ÎI canât say anything more, itâs deeply private, but that music introduced me to myself as an artist. It taught me how to get the balance between what the composer wrote and what you as a performer need to express. I felt it was my piece.â
The obstacle was cost. She got estimates from the Philharmonia Orchestra and a DIY record label called Quartz, which organises production. The budget came to £30,000. Ruth had no resources. Her father, Geoff Palmer, is a composer; her mother teaches at the Yehudi Menuhin School. Thirty grand is rather more than graduates expect to earn in their entire first year of work. Where was she to lay hands on that kind of loot in one go?
Music biz insiders told her to go to Prague where she could book three orchestral sessions for £5,000. Ruth, however, was not open to compromise. ÎIt had to be a British band,â she says. ÎIâm a British artist. I needed to be seen and heard and liked by the players I want to be working with for the rest of my life.â
Finding a conductor was less of a problem. She had been at college with some fast-rising batons and the first person she asked, Benjamin Wallfisch, leaped at the chance to direct a world-class ensemble in a meaningful work.
That left Ruth with the small matter of raising the money. She wrote lots of letters, Îbut I didnât receive any replies from anyone I wrote to cold.â She approached the Royal College chairman, Sir Anthony Cleaver, former head of IBM and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. He gave her introductions to people in the city; Barclays Capital and a hedge fund, the Sthree Group, chipped in lead funding; most of the rest came in cheques for £1,000 from a variety of individuals who believed in her talent.
The recording sessions took place at Henry Wood Hall in March 2006. ÎThe players were so helpful. Maya (Iwabuchi), the leader, was so supportive and friendly.â Ruthâs account of the concerto took 40 minutes, six above average. She filled the rest of the disc with the Shostakovich violin sonata, played with an RAM fellow-student, Alexei Grynyuk. Ruthâs boyfriend, the young film-maker Tim Meara, tracked her progress in a DVD documentary that accompanies the CD. Everything else ö design, sleeve notes, photography ö Ruth organised herself.
Last autumn was not the best moment for a newcomer to make her statement in Shostakovich. It was the composerâs centenary and there were seven new releases of the concerto in the shops. Ruthâs somehow, got the most press attention and the best reviews. At fifth hearing, months later, it unfolds further layers of expressive depth. Her pacing is compelling from the opening phrase and each stylistic option, every whisper and flutter, has the kind of logic that makes you wonder how the piece could ever be played otherwise. It is both gravely authoritative and unmistakably personal.
Which is not to say it was an overnight best-seller. Such things donât happen much in the serious reaches of classical music. The best estimate is that it cleared around 600 copies in the UK and is still selling, as they say, nicely. For Ruth, though, it did the business. The Philharmonia, alert to her abilities, booked her for a London concerto date and a Far East tour in 2009. She has a wesbite, www.ruthpalmer.com , a Wigmore Hall recital in May and her name is on the lips not only of fiddle cognoscenti but of all who admire enterprise and gumption in a young musician. At 28, Ruth Palmer has proved herself in a way that musicians never had to before but are now adopting in growing numbers.
Matthew Trusler, for instance, 30 years old and a regular with UK orchestras, has set up his own record label, www.orchidclassics.com , to issue Îthe kind of music me and my friends like to share.â His recent classical blues disc with pianist Wayne Marshall sold its first thousand CDs and is back for a reprint. ÎThe record label,â enthuses Trusler, Îadds an extra dimension. Weâre trained to play an instrument really well ands get on with being musicians. Producing records is exciting and fun and really different. Itâs the most creative thing I have done, apart from playing the violin.â
Jack Liebeck, 27, and Jamie Walton, 32, have organised their own records on Quartz. The saxophonist Christian Forshaw, who lost a four-album deal when Sony Classics shut down, has launched his own label, Integra, releasing in April. ÎThese albums,â he notes, Îcame about as I experimented with the soundworlds I had known as a child, the world of church music· My own label will enable me to create music in my own time and space.â
It is self-evidently the way to go. With labels focussed on celebrity and the concert business on survival, new talent must fend for itself and some of it is doing so remarkably well. For Ruth Palmer, there is no follow-up record in sight and the route to an international career is still a long way ahead. But making her own record from scratch has given her, as it did Trusler, an extra dimension as an artist. When she steps on stage she is no longer an ethereal artist, detached from the world, but someone who has engaged hands-on, like most in her audience, with the post-industrial revolution and has come out enriched by the experience. ÎIâm just doing,â she smiles at me over a non-internet caf table, Îwhat is normal, what is necessary, what is now.â
CD of the week
Rachmaninov 2nd symphony Cincinnati SO/Paavo Järvi (Telarc) ***
Once a box-office cert, the E-minor symphony was written around the same time as the third (D minor) piano concerto and shares some affinities of mood. Which is not to say it is all gloom and doom. The big tune of the expansive adagio may be as cheerful as the last leaf in autumn, but the surrounding movements are dynamic, propulsive, romantic and occasionally playful. More than most composers, Rachmaninov knew the worth of a good tune and squeezed it to the last variation. The symphony is presently off menu but Paavo Jrvi pushes all the buttons and makes a persuasive case for restoration. The Cincinnati orchestra, with strong German traditions, plays with precision and power, adding dances from the early opera Aleko and Rachmaninovâs very first orchestral piece by way of bonus.
To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]