Lawrence as Leader: An interview with the new Artistic Director of ECO Charitable Trust

Our Community Manager, Jonny Venvell, met with international viola star Lawrence Power to chat about his recent appointment as the Artistic Director of the English Chamber Orchestra Charitable Trust and his exciting plans for the future of the ensemble.

I meet Lawrence during a brief period of relative calm amid the busy storm of his musical life. He’s on his way to a make preparations for a tour to Brazil, performing Bartok’s Viola Concerto with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, but sporting cargo shorts and a welcoming smile it’s easy to forget that you’re in the presence of one of the world’s great viola players.

Lawrence performing in Brazil

Last time we spoke, Power was preparing for his fourth West Wycombe Music Festival, a series of chamber concerts in the Chiltern Hills. Now almost a year has passed and he’s about to embark upon a bigger challenge, the Artistic Directorship of the ECO Charitable Trust. I wondered how he first encountered the ECO?

I’m lucky enough to have played with the ECO from the very beginning of my career - on and off for about 18 years. They’re one of the first orchestras to give me a proper opportunity to play, so I’m always very grateful for that. I was called in after a last minute cancellation, and had 24 hours to learn the pieces! I’m very excited to return to them now in a different capacity.

Taking the reins of an orchestra with which you have such a personal connection must be special. How did the appointment come about?

I was very touched that Quintin Ballardie, the founder of ECO and a fine viola player himself, offered me the opportunity, and after some thinking I decided to take it. For me it’s a brilliant opportunity to be creative and try new things!

ECO co-founder and principal viola Quintin Ballardie talks with HRH Prince Charles at a Mansion House dinner in 1979.

Last time we spoke, we discussed the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival which you founded in 2011. Is there a connection between your work in Wycombe and your incoming role at ECO?

Yes, in a way it feels like a continuation. It’s an opportunity to do something like WWCMF on a larger scale and deal with music outside of the chamber repertory - though I’m keen for chamber music to remain a key part of ECO’s concerts. The programmes for our King’s Place residency, for example, focus on chamber music.

Will you be directing from the ensemble as you have done at WWCMF?

The prospect of play-directing is very exciting to me, whether I’m on violin or viola. But I hope that what I can bring to the orchestra is more fluid than that, particularly as the ECO has a wonderful leader-director in Stephanie Gonley.

You mentioned the residency at King’s Place. Is this the first time ECO has been connected with the venue?

ECO has had various homes in London, including the Barbican and Cadogan Hall, but this is the group’s first series at Kings Place. I think it’s a great venue - they have so many different things going, they’re more flexible with their ideas, and they’re not so traditional.

The pine-panelled interior of King's Place's Hall One

Do you think that there’s potential for collaboration between ECO and artists from different disciplines at King’s Place?

The idea of bringing together creative people is something which really excites me. I think it’s too narrow minded to think you’re a good violinist or a good viola player - you have to embrace everything. Whether that's embracing playing in an orchestra, playing a concert, or embracing wonderful writers around the context of the pieces you’re playing. For example, one thing I’d love to do is a words and music-focused event.

How did you plan your 2016/17 series?

Coming into this opportunity it was clear to me that the orchestra has a rich heritage of working with great musicians and composers. The ECO has worked with genuinely some of the most important musicians of our time - Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida, Benjamin Britten, Maxim Vengerov, Pinchas Zukerman, often providing valuable exposure at the beginning of their careers.

I feel it is my responsibility as artistic director to carry that tradition on. The musicians which will be performing in the upcoming series are all very special in their different ways: Vilde Frang, Mark Padmore, Nicolas Altstaedt, Alison Balsom, and in particular Christian Zacharias - one of the most important musicians I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

The series also includes a concert celebrating the life of Peter Maxwell Davies which features some of the top composers working today: James MacMillan, Oliver Knussen, Sally Beamish, and Thomas Larcher.

Those are the elements I want to continue into the future: working with great musicians and composers and embracing chamber music.

ECO has also recently formed a partnership with the Royal Academy of Music. How will this work?

The opportunity to collaborate with one of London’s top music colleges is very exciting. Like many musicians I didn’t fit into music education very well - I just wanted to play. I finished college early, through circumstance more than anything, and went at my own pace.

So I don’t want to be too prescriptive in the way we work with RAM, everyone is different. Having students sitting in side-by-side projects with the orchestra will work well and I’ll also going into the Academy every term to rehearse and talk to the students there.

Where do you see ECO going in the next five years?

2020 is the 60th anniversary of the orchestra, so that’s a goal which I’d love to project towards. I’d like to have arrived at that point having embraced ECO’s fabulous heritage but also including emerging young talent and having developed an identity for the orchestra which is clear to everyone.

Essentially, making ECO an exciting place to make music - that’s what you want to do with any orchestra.

Could you recommend an ECO recording?

Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 The Four Seasons was a recording which truly caught people’s imagination and ended up becoming the best-selling classical album of all time. Well worth a listen!


Catch Lawrence and the ECO at their opening Kings Place concert this October. Tickets and programme details here.


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