Life,” as John Lennon once said, “is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Julian Lloyd Webber knows this all too well, having recently found himself with an injury that has ended his long and highly successful international career as a cellist. You might imagine that he would be wounded by the news from his doctors that he couldn’t play his beloved musical instrument anymore, but actually he comes across as rather upbeat. Sipping a beer in Mosimann’s prestigious private dining club in London, we look back over his career and he tells me that, “I loved every minute of it.”
Tall, strong and with piercing eyes, Julian is nevertheless softly spoken and comes over as with typical English reserve. But get him to talk about something he’s passionate about, and he soon opens up. “I love playing music to people, that’s what it’s really all about. That’s what I’m missing after only a few months more than anything else; just going out on a stage and communicating music to the audience. Most frustrating is that I had at least five years left, possibly more. That’s some kind of cruel fate, but on the other hand you could take the view that there is something else for me to do. And I have been told very strongly that I should do it now!”
Ever since he was a boy, Elgar has been one of Julian’s favourite composers. “I always loved his music as a student, I think he is underrated as symphonist. For example the first symphony is an extraordinary piece of work, brilliant. But England was a little late to the party, you know! Until Elgar we didn’t have composers of the stature of Beethoven and Brahms. I do think music was undervalued here, and it says a lot that Elgar was basically completely self-taught. This makes him all more remarkable, because he had such technical skill and did such assured writing for strings. You then had this extraordinary flowering of British composers, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, Vaughn Williams. The reason British music wasn’t taken seriously is because it was such a long time coming, but the composers we then produced are up there with the best.”
Julian comes from a famous musical dynasty; his father was a gifted composer, and his brother Andrew is known the world over for his tremendously successful musicals. But surprisingly, Julian didn’t go to special music school, he took his normal examinations like everyone else, and only went professional aged sixteen. He had been playing the cello since the age of four, but really fell in love around eleven when he started making cello recordings from BBC radio. Then he heard Russian virtuoso cellist Rostropovich in London aged thirteen. “It made a huge impact on me. I went to hear him whenever I could. I wanted to be a soloist, I didn’t want to be an orchestra player. It wasn’t any particular ego thing, it’s just how I heard and thought of the instrument. So I started working hard.”
His final cello recording has just been released on CD – Vivaldi: Concertos For Two Cellos [NAXOS 8.573374]. It’s a duet with his Chinese wife Jiaxin, a highly talented cellist in her own right. Julian says China is heaven for classical music, and Jiaxin agrees. “More young people learn an instrument there. Maybe because we think it’s a very good and trendy thing to do”, she says. She first met Julian in New Zealand when he was a soloist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has moved to London and settled down. “I do like England,” she says, “it has a lot of character. Incredible culture, food, anything you want you can find. The worst thing about it is that a lot of things take so long to get done!” She tells me that she enjoys “good English pub food”, but adores eating Italian and Thai food in London too.
Julian is equally effusive about China, calling it “buzzy and alive” and praising its entrepreneurial spirit. “Chinese people are more practical,” he adds, “English can tend to be dreamers”. Together they seem to make a great team. Jiaxin says, “we have our own different styles and it’s fun to blend them together.” She’s talking about their cello playing, but it nicely sums up their life in general. At which point, their three-year-old daughter Jasmine Orienta announces her presence in no uncertain terms…
Why such an exotic name, I asked Julian? “Jasmine is part oriental and my football team is Leyton Orient. Double Whammy”, he exclaims! Indeed, along with classical music and his family, ‘the Orient’ plays a huge part in his life. “Back in my youth my parents had a very good friend who lived in Leyton, and we used to go there on Saturday afternoon. It was around eleven o’clock and I got bored with the adults, so I went down the road to see what all the noise was about. It was my first football match and I loved the atmosphere there. Once you become involved with a team, it’s there for life.” His passion has infected Jiaxin too. “I love them because they are so unpredictable. They can lose at home to a bad team who are only playing with ten men, then they win away against a good team!”