Brit to Brit: An Interview with International Violinist Ruth Palmer

Called “the most distinctive violinist of her generation” by Britain’s The Independent, Ruth Palmer will perform with the Lexington Symphony on Feb. 16

Described as “the most distinctive violinist of her generation” by Britain’s The Independent, Ruth Palmer won a Classical BRIT award, classical music’s high honor in the UK, for her debut recording and has performed across Europe, Asia, and Australia with renowned orchestras and conductors, including the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which she led from her violin. Here, Lexington Symphony’s concertmaster Elizabeth Whitfield (whose trim British accent gives her own roots away) visits with Palmer about her upcoming performance with Lexington Symphony.

Liz: Hi Ruth, looking forward to next week and our time together with Lexington Symphony. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions… Starting right off with the upcoming concert on Feb. 16, why did you choose to play the Korngold Violin Concerto?

Ruth: It was suggested to me several years ago, and it is now quite often performed here in the UK. It’s a fascinating piece – at once florid, complex and simple; European and American. The implications that Korngold’s different influences may have on my idea of sound were also very attractive to me, and it is made more complex because I think that our hindsight turns it into something different from what it was when it was written. Now I try not to think of it as Viennese or Hollywood-ese, neither operatic nor Rat-Pack-tic, and just let the music on the page speak to me.

Liz: People say that the string sound of a UK orchestra is quite different to the string sound of a US orchestra – have you noticed that?

Ruth: Within the UK there are different string sounds and different orchestras; from the lushness of the London Symphony Orchestra (an orchestra I think takes years to change musical direction after a change of principal conductor), to the lively phrasing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Liz: On a recent trip to the UK, I was astounded by two things while listening to Classical radio: the amount of “new music” performed and the number of live performances. This tells me that classical music is still “alive and well” in Britain.Would you agree?

Ruth: Yes. I think there is a dichotomy between different approaches to classical music in the UK; the commercial sales-driven programming and the public-funded education- driven programming. They each each try to reach out to each other, but it doesn’t always work.  Finances in public funding and in household budgets are under pressure; in the end we may just be left with the artists!

Liz: The violin can be rather a temperamental instrument. England, I know from experience, is mostly damp so stringed instruments don’t change too much, but how does your instrument handle changing climates?

Ruth: My instrument has been fine so far, it just occurred to me that the driest place is probably in the plane!

Liz: I understand you did a collaboration with a dancer both in London and Sydney – did this involve any “dance moves”?

Ruth: No – I’m not a dancer, even though I love it. I was asked to collaborate by Rafael Bonachela, a choreographer, after he saw me perform. He said he could see my movement and stage presence fitting well with his muse, dancer Amy Hollingsworth.

Liz: Like you, I attended Wells Cathedral School – many years ago when it was just beginning its “specialist music program.” Can you tell me a couple of your favorite haunts (or memories) around the school?

Ruth: I lived in Wells, and it’s a beautiful city. The 14th Century Vicars’ Close is beautiful; it is the oldest residential street in Europe.

Liz: I remember it well! I see that you have performed in a variety of different venues and different countries. Is there a venue that stands out to you?

Ruth: When I played in the Limonaia in Villa La Pietra in Florence, the acoustic, the building felt warm. It was a beautiful Tuscan summer day, so they had put the lemons outside which meant that there was room for me to play and the audience to listen! I was playing the Bach E Major Partita which I also perceive as being about light, and as being warm. The acoustic was unexpectedly good. The Limonaia roof sloped down from one side, and was not baroque or ornate; it was long and thin, but the sound was full and earthy.

Ruth Palmer joins Lexington Symphony and conductor Jonathan McPhee in a performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto on Saturday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m., at Cary Hall, 1605 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington Center.

Conductor’s Talk with Jonathan McPhee and composer Michael Gandolfi at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online at http://www.lexingtonsymphony.org or by phone at 781 523-9009.

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