An interview with Richard May

At a recent concert, we had the privilege of performing the Elgar cello concerto with one of the UK’s foremost cellists, Richard May. He kindly took some time to tell us a little bit more about himself and his musical career to date.

How old were you when you started playing the cello and what made you choose the instrument?

I started playing the cello when I was 7, having been inspired by seeing the great French cellist Paul Tortelier in his televised masterclasses for the BBC. I loved his playing and his “larger than life” personality, and was privileged to study with him in Switzerland many years later.

What would you say is the hardest thing about playing the cello and was there ever a time when you were tempted to give up?

I am happy to say I have never been tempted to give up! There are so many aspects of playing a string instrument that require patience and dedication, in particular intonation. You must never stop taking care!

What have been the highlights of your career as a musician so far?

Winning the String Section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition gave me many opportunities to perform concerts at an early age and opened doors even many years later. More recently, I am very proud of the international summer school I founded together with my wife, now in its sixth year.

For this concert, you are playing the Elgar cello concerto. Can you tell us a little bit about your interpretation of the piece?

I try to explore the wide range of emotions in this work. There are anguish, nobility, intimacy, and humour to be found. One can really understand Elgar as a person through this music

Obviously, when playing live, there is always the danger of things going wrong. Are there any memorable concerts where things didn’t quite work out the way they were intended to?

I try to prepare as much as I can for every concert, but sometimes you can’t control accidents that can happen in live performances; you just have to learn to manage them and not get too bothered by them, which is a skill in itself I think. I always think that if people want a “perfect” performance then they are best listening to an edited CD at home. Of course, I have had my fair share of adventures on stage: cello endpin slipping, string breaking, dog roaming on stage, audience member eating a bag of crisps!

Apart from playing yourself, you also do a lot of teaching. What is it that you enjoy about this and is there a particular piece of “wisdom” that you tend to pass on to your students?

I love to share the knowledge that I have learnt from my teachers and pass this on to the younger generation of cellists. I always ask my pupils to have fun in their practice, so it does not become too routine.

If you could perform with any orchestra/ conductor/ musician, who would it be – and what piece?

I would love to play all the Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; don’t mind who conducts!

Do you have any musical “heroes” who have had a significant impact on your career?

All my teachers/chamber music teachers have been my heroes, including Florence Hooton, William Pleeth, Aldo Parisot, Thomas Demenga and Andras Schiff.

And a few quick-fire questions:

My favourite composer is…Impossible to answer, but here are a few: Brahms, Dvořák, Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Schubert, and Elgar of course!

An instrument I thoroughly dislike…can’t think of one!

The person I’d most like to meet (dead or alive)…Pablo Casals

My favourite performance venue is…The Holywell Room, Oxford (the oldest custom built concert hall in Europe).

In my spare time, I like to…travel/be at home with my family, cook.