Arts / For the CSO, it’s Smiles all round

Cellist Julian Smiles… “I feel that living in Canberra is a much more manageable size and I still feel happy coming here.” Photo by Keith Saunders

HE’S the quintessential Canberra-boy-made-good so there’ll be smiles all round at the news cellist Julian Smiles has been chosen as Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Artist in Focus.

That means we’ll see him playing his 1827 Lorenzo Ventapane cello, first as part of the Llewellyn Series performing with pianist Piers Lane and violinist Dimity Hall in the fearsome “Triple Concerto for Cello, Violin and Piano” by Beethoven. CSO chief conductor Nick Milton describes the piece being like “a combination of chamber music and orchestral music together”.

After that, Smiles will play with Hall in the CSO’s intimate Recital Series at Wesley, and with another former Canberra pianist Bernadette Harvey in its Australian Series at the National Portrait Gallery.

Smiles took time out from his packed schedule as a soloist, a member of the Goldner String Quartet and the Australia Ensemble@UNSW and as cello lecturer for Sydney Conservatorium to chat to “CityNews.”

He’s tickled pink to be returning to his hometown, where, although his parents are no longer living, he has a brother and extended family.

“I feel that living in Canberra is a much more manageable size and I still feel happy coming here,” he says.

“I was at Canberra School of Music for a long time. I studied there with Nelson Cooke from the age of seven when I was in primary school, then did my degree there around 1987 and 1988, then I left in 1989.”

He hasn’t looked back. After a stint with teacher Janos Starker at Indiana University, at age 19, he was appointed principal cellist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, performed for Musica Viva, Selby and Friends and as guest principal cellist with the Sydney, Canberra and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras and with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

Luckily, his partner in life and music is his violinist wife, Dimity Hall, who’ll be appearing with him in both the Llewellyn and the Recital programs.

“We met in the Australian Chamber Orchestra and from my part, it was love at first sight, though I had to talk her into it,” he explains. “We work together all the time and in the Piano Trio we all function together.”

Of the fearsome “Piano Trio Concerto”, he observes that Beethoven wrote it for well-known solo cello virtuoso Anton Kraft, “so it’s very challenging and goes very high, although it’s still very well written, like all Beethoven.”

Although the cello was well-established, he says “we don’t have a Beethoven cello concerto, which is ridiculous.” Legend has it that Beethoven approached admired cellist Bernhard Romberg and said: “I’d like to write a concerto for you,” but the reply was, “No, thank you, I compose all my own pieces”. Bad answer.

So, no cello concerto but as Smiles says: “I’m very happy to have the ‘Triple Concerto’, it gives you a sense of how it might have been”. And anyway, there’s plenty of other repertoire for cellists.

His role as inaugural Artist in Focus means “a larger-than-usual profile for a performer.”

After playing the “Triple Concerto” on the Wednesday and Thursday, he and Dimity will perform cello and violin pieces on the Sunday at Wesley in a program of “firsts”, including Bach’s “Suite for Solo Cello No. 1” in G major, a new work by Matthew Hindson and Ross Edwards’ “Ecstatic Dance” for violin and cello, the first he ever did in the “maninya” style.

In the Australian Series curated by Hindson, Smiles will face another challenge, but one he’s up for.

“I do play new music but not exclusively,” he says.

Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”, the CSO at Llewellyn Hall, July 18-19. Recital Series, Wesley Music Centre, 3pm, Sunday, July 15. Australian Series, National Portrait Gallery, 6pm, August 30. Bookings for all to or 6262 6772.

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