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Violinist Paul Robertson: Music Saved My Life
Ann Chadwick, Features Writer
The founder of the Medici Quartet, the violinist Paul Robertson, is performing a deeply personal concert in Harrogate in honour of his friend, the great composer Sir John Tavener. He tells his remarkable story of how music saved his life:

Violinist Paul Robertson and the great composer, Sir John Tavener, were both lying in comas in intensive care.

Paul had known him on and off over his life, but it wasn't until 2007 that they became close friends.

"I was asked to interview him in 2007 at a conference. We discovered we had a lot in common musically in ideas and in near death experiences, where you clinically die and recover. John was introduced to the stage and announced he wanted to write a piece for a string quartet on near death experiences. I explained I didn't have a quartet at that time. He insisted quietly as his way."

The piece got commissioned and the pair set to work.

"John was excited and went to Greece where he wrote, 'Towards Silence' an extraordinary piece. He finished the piece, gave a concert, and collapsed with a heart attack, and ended up in intensive care. I was busy arranging schedules then got an Aortic dissection, a very serious heart condition with little chance of success. So for many months we were both in intensive care and in comas at the same time."

Paul was in a coma for six weeks, after a critical operation that left him paralysed

"When we both got back to our respective homes, we called each other surprised to be still alive. During the coma, my family played my music to me, as coma patients can still respond, but all I heard was a woman singing Indian Ragas."

Tavener then sent his new composition to Paul, "The music arrived and low and behold it was the sound of Indian Ragas. We were naturally close from then on."

After the strokes that left Paul unable to move his left side, he began his recovery.

"Since John sent this piece of music, I decided to spend the next nine months learning that one piece of work. That was my therapy- just to get the violin up to my shoulder was a day's work."

Although he has less energy, he completely recovered. "To get movement back at all is a miracle. In that sense I owe him my life."

The two met at Winchester Cathedral for the first performance of 'Towards Silence'.

"I was very feeble and John was not well at all. He had Marfan syndrome - a connective tissue illness which risks heart attack and early death. He suffered a lot of pain, and I'd call him every week. The hope was to encourage him back to composing because it was there he was always at his best. If felt if I can support him he might get relief from the pain. We discussed Beethoven who he hadn't particularly enjoyed. I persuaded him he was the bee's knees; he just required a certain kind of listening. So quite possibly he composed this final piece inspired by Beethoven, 'Scatter Roses Over My Tears', which is a quote from a Rumi poem, which we'll be playing at Harrogate."

Despite formally retiring at the Harrogate International Festival in 2007, the Medici Quartet will be reuniting for this very special concert.

Tavener died in November 2013 and this was thought to be possibly his final work. It will the first performance of the piece in the UK.

"It's a rare opportunity for people," Paul said. "I found recordings of conversations John and I had about the piece, so there'll be a pre-concert introduction, speaking about my relationship with John. A friend at the BBC recorded that and other very intimate conversations about music, and Beethoven, so it's very special, there's a lot of personal history I can share with the audience."

Paul is in awe of John's legacy.

"His music is transcendent, it goes beyond sound. It's the sort of thing that touches us all. If you believe in God, it's spiritual, if you don't it connects you with the best part of ourselves, where you celebrate life and nature. It's bigger than any of us as individuals."

"It's spectacular without rhetoric, if you know what I mean. It creates such strength, the correct word is 'numinous', it belongs to that force that created the world in the first place, it's immensely powerful."

The Quartet will be an intimate affair. "It's a more personal journey that's everything to do with how we transcend pain. The poor man suffered a lot of pain; Beethoven also suffered terribly at the end of his life, and out of that wrote immortal, beautiful music with a greatness and nobility."

As such, the music, Paul says, is life affirming.

"It takes you into a place you didn't know was there, but you know it when you get there, emotionally. It's outside ordinary music. John had a great spiritual faith and was very open and courageous about that as it's not easy to be so in our current world, and the place he could believe best was when he was composing."

"It literally was as if something bigger was composing through him, bigger than himself. That was the feeling when I met him, people like that are very rare and special. The concert in Harrogate will end with a slow movement, a brief piece by Beethoven, which belongs in the same emotional world - it's homage to John."

Medici Quartet play Tavener 'Scatter Roses Over My Tears', Mozart and Beethoven for Harrogate International Festivals on Thursday 24 July, Royal Hall, 8pm.
Violinist Paul Robertson: Music Saved My Life, 13th June 2014, 14:42 PM