We are so happy to welcome our new Principal Cello to the LSO family! David Cohen hails from Belgium, and alongside a very busy solo career has held the position of Principal Cello of the Philharmonia, Artistic Director of the Melchoir Ensemble and the founder and Artistic Director of the chamber music festival, “Les Sons Intensifs”, not to mention Professor at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Mons in Belgium and Trinity Laban in London.
We spoke to David to find out more about this very busy person!
At what age did you start playing? Where did you study? What made you choose the cello? Were there any memorable early experiences that made you realise you wanted to do this as a career? If you didn’t play the cello, what other instrument would you choose?
Ahhh! that is a long story, I will try and shorten it as much as possible. Perhaps this might even be the beginning of a funny book for later on in my life.
I come from a family of musicians where everyone played an instrument. My mum was a piano teacher, my dad played the Jazz trombone (as did my grandfather), my sister played the violin (she still does), my grandmother was a singer and she had 17 brothers and sisters, all of them, professional musicians collectively playing the piano, flute, violin, cello, clarinet and singers – it was the Cohen Orchestra!
When I was born my parents thought it would be nice to carry on the tradition without thinking necessarily of a career and firstly they introduced me to the piano, but it’s tough to have a mother as a piano teacher. I tried the violin next and discovered that I was talented at it. However, my teacher was stern and being 5 years old at the time all I wanted to do was have fun rather than practising scales day and night. So, one day, I got so tired of it all that I threw the bow at his face during one lesson.
Then followed the percussion which I loved, but after too many complaints from the neighbours and one too many visits from the local police, we decided to stop that. Next came the flute, but I kept hyperventilating and fainting, then the saxophone (which I did more for my father) and eventually my parents decided to give up and let me be a regular child.
But as my grandmother (the singer) always wanted to play the cello, so she had other plans and she bought me a cello for my seventh Christmas. Imagine the scene; there is a massive wrapped up present with my name on it and I was sure it was the bike I had been begging for, for so many months and imagine my disappointment when I realised it was just another piece of wood without wheels or a seat. I felt cheated, I was still very much a child.
I was so disappointed, I did not even want to try what looked to be an instrument of torture, but a month later my mother organised my first cello lesson. Being fairly small and having to carry the big case around to the teacher’s house, I could not help but feel people were looking at me as if I were a wounded gazelle limping around.
The cello teacher was great, she made the whole experience fun and little by little I discovered a trusting friend in this instrument, and it has stayed like this ever since.
Now I could not imagine my life without playing the cello. I am the first musician in my family to be a soloist and I thank my grandmother every time I am on stage. It’s the only place where I have always felt completely at home.
Do you have any cello and/or other instrumental heroes?
Naturally, all the colleagues that I usually play with are and have always been a source of inspiration. In addition, and during my career I have learnt a great deal from all my teachers including Wiliam Pleeth, Melissa Phelps, Lynn Harrell, Daniil Shafran, Natalia Gutman, Gary Hoffman, Bernard Greenhouse, Steven Isserlis, Boris Pergamenschikow, Lord Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich and Oleg Kogan. I would have loved to have met Gregor Piatigorsky.
What are you looking forward to the most in the LSO's forthcoming season? Any conductors or soloists who catch your eye? Or repertoire that's special or meaningful to you?
Far too many to mention, which is also one of the aspects of the LSO that attracted me the most. Just to give you an example, I look forward to Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony (with its big cello solo) in February 2022 (6 & 13 February).
Any thoughts on the last 18 months and how COVID has affected musicians?
I don’t know of any artists that have not been affected (mostly negatively) by the pandemic. I have also seen my colleagues adapting and being even more creative.
Personally, the last 18 months have been particularly difficult for my young daughter and me. Corinne (my spouse) was battling with a very aggressive form of cancer right at the beginning of the first lockdown. I was so grateful that all my solo concerts were cancelled and that I could care for her during that time and until the end.
What advice would you give to young people who are hoping to pursue a career as an orchestral musician?
I am passionate about teaching music and encouraging development in young talent.
This is a big and important question that needs careful attention because not everyone is the same, and not everyone requires the same kind of advice or encouragement. I guess the universal advice is to be true to yourself and do what you enjoy most doing, this is what will make you the happiest in your professional life and thus in all other aspects of your life.
Any other interesting things about you we should know?
There is nothing I like more than a challenge.
I enjoy pushing myself and often do this by commissioning cello works by up and coming young British composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gavin Higgins, Gordon Cross, Ian Wilson etc…
I am also a keen conductor and enjoy challenging my skills.
You can see David on stage on 8 December 2021 (Half Six Fix Mahler Symphony No 4) although officially he doesn't join until next summer. Give him a wave if you see him!