Interview with Aditya Chander

As part of our referral scheme, Aditya Chander, a tremendous violinist and formidable composer, earned himself an interview and a professional photo shoot after referring over fifty people to join Encore! None of this comes as a surprise when you consider the wide reach of this young man's network, and so it was a privilege to sit down with him to discuss his musical journey so far.

So you've been performing from a very early age - do you remember how it all started?

When I was about three years old, a family friend of mine bought us a CD of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and I listened to it and instantly fell in love with it. My parents didn't know that I knew what a violin was, but I managed to pick out its sound, and so from the age of about three or four I was begging them for an instrument.

It wasn't until I was almost nine that I actually started, because they were trying to hold it off for as long as they could, probably because they were worried I would just give it up quickly. I was playing the piano a bit and did in fact give that up quite soon after I started, at about the age of six, so perhaps this added to their concern! But I was still interested in violin, so I picked it up just before my ninth birthday, and also took up the piano again. So it all sprung from there, and continued through school, where I additionally pursued viola, recorder and voice to roughly equivalent levels.

Of course since then you've been playing in lots of different orchestras and ensembles. Tell me about your experience as a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra.

That was a fantastic year. I'd actually, again, held off auditioning for quite a long time, and I thought, in my final year of school: I'm never going to have the chance to audition ever again, so I might as well give it a shot. I was actually quite surprised that I got in because from what I could tell they tend to like taking people from a young age and seeing them develop as they go through the orchestra. So it was really nice to be offered the chance to play with them.

What I think is really astounding about the National Youth Orchestra is the level of professionalism. In each rehearsal, the discipline is like nothing I'd ever experienced before, compared to school , which was a good orchestra though the level of discipline lacked somewhat. Being thrown into this professional environment was really engaging, and having the chance to work with professional conductors such as John Wilson and Vasily Petrenko on really exciting repertoire that I wouldn't be able to explore in a different context was possibly the most rewarding thing.

Any particular concerts that stand out?

The highlight was probably playing Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the Proms. It was great to be able to collaborate with the National Youth Choir and lots of Irish choirs. At first I was surprised that this plan was going to go ahead, because Beethoven 9 excludes several of the instruments in NYO. However, it all came together with the rest of the programme, which was a new commission by Mark Anthony Turnage called Frieze, and Toward the Unknown Region by Vaughan Williams, which brought everyone back as a larger ensemble. It was an absolutely fantastic experience; I was bawling at the end of it!

Apart from being a performer you're also a composer. What kind of music have you written?

I've tried to approach many different genres. I actually started out composing when I was five because of my first piano teacher. He encouraged me to write a short piece each week and I think were it not for him, I wouldn't have got into composing in as big a way as I have. At the moment my focus is mainly on choral music, but I have experimented with other genres like string orchestras and even full orchestras. I'm a bit scared of writing for full orchestra, because there are just so many different possibilities and so many composers of the past have set trends of their own that I'm still trying to find my own way of approaching a full orchestra, but hopefully I’ll find it more accessible in the future!

Last year I wrote a choral piece which was shortlisted for the finals of the National Centre for Early Music competition, and it's being performed in London next month as part of Holy Week at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel. Recently I was also commissioned to write a piece for the Form Consort, which is a new London based one-to-a-part choir. It was a five part piece, SSATB and solo violin, which was quite a challenge as I had to think about how I could use the role of the violin to interact with the choir. It was performed at St. Anne’s Church in Kew on 22nd February.

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Photography by Lorcan Odufuwa-Bolger

On that note, do you find that your experience as a performer ties in with your composing?

Definitely. I think being familiar with the violin, having sung nearly every day at school, and having worked closely alongside professional players of other instruments on composition courses such as the Sound and Music Summer School helps me to know how to write for instruments and voices. There are still interesting possibilities and extended techniques I'm trying to include in my work, because I feel as though, being a violinist, I'm actually more conservative in the way I write for the violin as I know what is done most easily. Brahms, for instance, didn't play the violin, and although he received a lot of help on his violin concerto from Joachim, it's still really difficult to play and lots of it is not very violinistic and doesn’t fit as well under the fingers as, say, the Sibelius concerto. So I'm trying to stretch the boundaries as much as I can, but it's going along with how my technique improves as well.

Do you play your own pieces?

I do sometimes, but actually I prefer not playing them, because I like to see how other people interpret them. Otherwise, I feel as though my own views about the piece get too much in the way of it becoming a successful performance. I do, however, like to listen to rehearsals, and offer some general guidance where I can. I’ve never heard a performance of my work I have objectively disliked, so maybe this approach is a bonus!

You made a big career choice when you switched from Maths to Music at Cambridge University. Why did you decide on that?

It was a very, very tough decision. For me it was always going to be one or the other, but I'd actually tried to shut out the academic music door as early as I could because I chose all science subjects for A level; I only did AS Music. But actually, when I came to Cambridge, even though the abstract nature of maths drew me to it in the first place, I found that I was missing something because the course was so abstract. Even on the applied side of the course, I couldn't draw many obvious parallels with the real world.

It was a shame, and maybe if I'd carried on a bit longer I would have seen how application started to tie in a bit more. But I felt that because it was always going to be one or the other anyway, music just won out a bit earlier than I expected. I feel like it was the right decision, and the music course here suits me a lot better. It's also fabulous to be able to engage really passionately with reading and finding out about the historical side of music, which I hadn't really done so much before.

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Photography by Lorcan Odufuwa-Bolger

Did you ever consider going to a conservatoire?

Not so much. While I enjoy performing, I don't think I dedicated enough time solely to performing to take it on to a higher level at the age of 18. However I am thinking about possibly doing a post-grad performance degree at conservatoire, and trying to continue performance after I leave university.

How are you finding being a musician in Cambridge? What sort of things have you got involved in?

Being a musician in Cambridge is so gratifying, mainly because loads of students are really enthusiastic about putting on their own concerts so I've tried to get involved in as many music societies and university societies as I can. When I was in Cambridge for maths I led CUMS (Cambridge University Musical Society) Symphony Orchestra, and this year I'm principal second violin in CUCO (Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra). It’s a fantastic experience as, just as is the case with NYO, we get to work with professional conductors, and the discipline in the rehearsals is also parallel with the NYO and similar organisations.

The biggest concert we played was in King’s College Chapel in January, where we did Brahms Requiem and Dvorak's 8th Symphony, and that was amazing because we got to work with Howard Shelley and had a choir formed of four different college choirs. The standard was extremely high, and to be able to play such amazing repertoire in an iconic venue was really special.

Also, I've been participating in a number of college music societies, so I've played at Kings, Clare, Trinity and Gonville and Caius. On top of this, I try and keep up my chamber music as much as I can. Last year I was an instrumental award holder, so I had my own quartet. This year I chose not to audition for it, so I've been trying to form groups on an ad hoc basis. But I'm involved fairly regularly with the Aula ensemble, which is a pool of players, like the Nash Ensemble, from which you can pull together smaller groups.

I've played the Ravel quartet with three other people from the Aula Ensemble, and I've also recently played Saint-Saëns' La Muse et le Poète, which is a concerto for cello and violin, but we did it in a piano trio arrangement in Jesus Chapel a few weeks ago. Soon, I’ll be playing the viola part in Martinů’s Three Madrigals for violin and viola in King’s Chapel with another violinist from Aula. Working with great players in a smaller setting than an orchestra is highly rewarding.

Finally, I’ve also been experimenting with baroque violin. I play in the Cambridge University Collegium Musicum, directed by Maggie Faultless. It’s an opportunity to get involved in high level period instrument playing, though gut strings take some time to get used to. They respond differently to modern synthetic and steel core strings, but an awareness of this leads to highly rewarding results when you optimise your point of contact with the bow, and the amount of pressure you use. I find I can get all sorts of interesting tone colours which I haven’t been able to achieve on my standard violin.

If you could put on the concert of your dreams, where would it be and what would you play?

I'm not sure where it would be. Somehow there's such a pull to Cambridge; I find it hard to dissociate my music making from the university. I also love many of the chapels in Cambridge, but lots of them are very difficult acoustically. I've performed a lot in Kings Chapel and I love the venue, but your sound shoots right to the back of the building, which causes problems for ensemble. However, it seems appropriate for the piece that I'd most love to put on, which is the St Matthew Passion. I've always had an affinity for it, and from the age of about 16 or 17 I really got into Bach's music. The St Matthew Passion is obviously a massive scale work, but there are so many intricacies and so much passion within the musical content that I find I really have an emotional attachment to that work.

Do you think that might happen while you're at Cambridge?

Possibly. It's a massive undertaking, and I've thought about perhaps putting on a smaller scale work of Bach, in preparation for that later. I'm not sure whether the St Matthew Passion will happen in Cambridge because it is such a mammoth work to put together. You need two choirs and two orchestras, and given the length of the work itself, it's very tiring for all the performers involved. (It's about two and a half hours long.) I would certainly have to do a lot of planning. Several college choirs also do it themselves, so it would perhaps be a difficult venture to put it on alongside all these college choirs, but we'll see, maybe it could happen.

What do you see yourself doing in the future? You talked about continuing to perform?

I'm still really not sure. I'm trying to keep my options open. There is the performing path that I talked about, but I'm also trying to keep up my composition as much as I can. It is difficult in Cambridge, because this year I opted to do a recital instead of a composition portfolio, and I haven't really been as involved on the composing scene so far as I'd like, but maybe that will open up more in the future. Also, staying in academia as long as I can is an appealing option, because it hides me from the real world a bit(!), but also because the course is so interesting , and there are lots of areas of study that I find very engaging, particularly in the Classical and Romantic History course.

Aside from that, I find it hard to envisage a career outside music, but I have tried to branch out a bit. I did some work experience in finance, and that field seems quite an interesting and rewarding one to me, especially if I can maintain music on the side. It would be nice to have a more stable career and then go into music in the future, though I am probably romanticising a bit, because it is so difficult to get into the finance world, and keeping up music to the same kind of level at that stage of a career is a completely different matter to when you're immersed in it here at university. But I'll have to see how things go!