Interview: Violinist Madeleine Mitchell ahead of her tour of Scotland

MADELEINE Mitchell is described as ‘one of Britain’s liveliest musical forces’ and in the next two weeks she will perform all over Scotland, demonstrating her extraordinary range

MADELEINE Mitchell is described as ‘one of Britain’s liveliest musical forces’ and in the next two weeks she will perform all over Scotland, demonstrating her extraordinary range

Among virtuoso violinists, Madeleine Mitchell is a pioneer. While others may be more content with the familiar territory of the standard violin repertoire – anything from Bach and Beethoven sonatas to showy 19th-century lollipops – Mitchell’s career has been far more of a musical adventure, much of it into the unknown.

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That’s hardly surprising, in that she first came to prominence as a member of the anarchic Fires of London ensemble, mostly famous as the primary vehicle for Peter Maxwell Davies’ uncompromising line in music theatre projects of the 1970s and 80s.

“It was a baptism of fire,” Mitchell recalls. “But I met some really interesting composers through our activity there, which awoke my earliest interests – as a kid I liked to compose – in new music”.

When the Fires burned out and disbanded in 1987, Mitchell’s career path led her to a short stint with the Michael Nyman Band – “it was like being in a rock band” – and to creating the Red Violin Festival in 1994, which was a deliberate attempt to position the violin as a springboard for radical collaborations across the arts, involving painters, poets, period instrument specialists and folk musicians.

All that, and a worldwide solo career that has taken her to over 40 countries, has helped establish Mitchell as a complete individual in her field, possessing a creative energy that led one critic to dub her “one of Britain’s liveliest musical forces”. As such, she gives eclecticism a good name. On the one hand, you will find plenty of instances of her performing Elgar, Bruch, even Prokofiev in her current concert calendar, and she saved the day at a recent Bath Festival when she stepped in at the last moment to perform the Bruch concerto, when the published soloist was unable to appear. But equally, you’ll find her performing works that have been specially written for her – concertos by the likes of Piers Hellawell and Jonathan Harvey, or violin and piano works by The Snowman composer Howard Blake, which she recorded with Blake himself. And, as we’re about to witness in a series of appearances in Scotland over the next ten days, she has a tendency to juxtapose the familiar with the not-so-familiar.

“I like mixing things up,” she says in advance of a Central Belt collaboration tonight and tomorrow with the vocal ensemble Cappella Nova, followed by her featured presence next week as part of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival, with solo recitals in Inverurie, Newton Dee and Aberdeen itself.

“These programmes are representative of my work. They cover Bach, the Romantics and modern repertoire. I like to think of a programme being as wholly satisfying as a good meal, with a few surprises thrown in, particularly music by living composers. That way I can freshen up my own approach to the music of composers who are no longer with us.”

Add to that a penchant for collaborative projects, unorthodox ones that position the violinist in a more challenging context. In this week’s Cappella Nova programme, for instance – a coupling of sacred music by John Tavener and James MacMillan – Mitchell’s role is effectively subliminal, verging on the spiritually theatrical. For not only will she play the obligato violin part in MacMillan’s motet Domine non secundum peccata nostra (which the same artists, under Cappella Nova director Alan Tavener, will record in November for Linn Records), but she will also punctuate a performance of the same composer’s Missa Dunelmi, with movements from Bach’s solo violin Partitas – effectively creating a series of instrumental meditations between the sung movements of this otherwise a cappella mass setting.

“I like that kind of juxtaposition,” says Mitchell, whose association with MacMillan goes back to 1994 when she commissioned the recital piece Kiss on Wood, performing it as recently as a few weeks ago in Rome. “Alan Tavener heard me play it in Glasgow, which led to us working together this week.”

Choosing the right Bach movements to weave through the MacMillan mass took careful consideration. “With John Tavener’s music in the programme, which is slow and fairly serious, I’ve opted for the Adagio from the G minor Partita and the Sarabande from the D minor Partita.”

Mitchell’s Aberdeenshire performances, with pianist Nigel Clayton, follow an outwardly traditional recital format, but the musical cocktail is nowhere close to the ordinary, and typically it includes a new work – David Matthews’ Romanza – which she will premiere in its version for violin and piano.

“When I last appeared at Sound, I played works by MacMillan and Nigel Osborne. I wanted something new for this occasion, and I knew that David Matthews, who is 70 in March, was keen to write a piece for me. I asked him for something for violin and piano, but he came up with two versions of the piece, one for violin and strings. I premiered that version in Suffolk earlier this year, but Sound audiences will be the first to hear it in its originally intended violin and piano version.”

Mitchell describes it as “a 12-minute piece in three sections with a central waltz”. It will feature in programmes that straddle 200 years of violin repertoire – including sonatas by Beethoven and Debussy, the sinewy lyrical world of Delius’s Légende, the softer side of John Cage in his exquisite Nocturne, and Enduspagla by Inverurie-based composer John Hearne, a work written as a 40th wedding anniversary present for Icelandic friends.

Mitchell’s involvement with Sound – which extends to educational workshops at the Aberdeen Music School – is completely in tune with the festival’s adventurous spirit and its well-established ambitions to break down the barriers of new music, which this year even extends to a four-day programme (1-4 November) of brand-new operas performed in a stable, someone’s flat, and in a pub.

Her return to Scotland over the coming weeks – previous visits have included projects with Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust (ECAT) – is highly anticipated. The one thing it can never be is predictable – a word that simply doesn’t exist in Mitchell’s vocabulary.

• Madeleine Mitchell appears with Cappella Nova in St Aloysius Church, Glasgow, tonight and at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, tomorrow, www.cappella-nova.com. She then performs as part of the Sound Festival in Aberdeen on 1 November, at Newton Dee Village on 2 November, and at Inverurie 3 November, www.sound-scotland.co.uk