Vantage Music | March 2023 | Hong Kong
The young Franco-Belgian cellist Camille Thomas made her Hong Kong debut in April 2023, wowing audiences with her charismatic artistry. Vantage was fortunate to be able to interview her before the concert, where Camille shared with us some interesting titbits behind her albums, as well as her thoughts on role models and interpreters.
To Camille, every album is a treasure trove of stories. Take, for example, the album Magnard: Complete Chamber Music (2014). “The album was initiated by a French CD label who wanted to record some unknown French composers that are still very good.”
Magnard fits the bill perfectly in this regard. Albéric Magnard (1865–1914) was a composer of the French Romantic tradition who became a national hero during World War I, when he was killed trying to protect his property from the Germans. “It was his 100th year anniversary in 2014, so I recorded a cello sonata and a piano trio for the album. His music is still seldom heard nowadays, but I think there are some very beautiful things in these pieces.”
Camille’s second album, Réminiscences (2016), had an equally entrancing origin. “Réminiscences started with my desire to record on the cello César Franck’s violin sonata.” Camille had always aspired to build a CD programme drawing inspiration from books, and Franck’s sonata reminded him of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). “Many people say that Franck’s sonata could be the inspiration for the Vinteuil sonata in La Recherche, and I was inspired to create a musical journey with the idea that music, similar to smells and tastes, can be an anchor, a medium that triggers involuntary memories.”
Franck had written the sonata as a wedding gift for Eugéne Ysaÿe, and so the Belgian composer’s work became a natural choice for the second centrepiece of the album. “Ysaÿe’s solo cello sonata is a really nice piece that’s quite rarely performed compared to his violin pieces, so I decided to include it in Réminiscences. In addition, Franck is French while Ysaÿe is Belgian, aptly reflecting my half-French, half-Belgian identity.”
Saint-Saëns and Offenbach
Camille signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon in April 2017 and produced her first album with an orchestra in the same year. “My previous albums were mostly chamber music, so I wanted this album to be more a musical presentation of myself, Camille the cellist.”
Camille immediately thought of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto. “It was a concerto that I had played for a long time and that is so full of life and joy, of colour and of feeling. It’s how I felt at that moment, and I wanted to share this kind of emotion to everyone.”
Rounding the album up is a cello piece by Jacques Offenbach, a composer whose life experiences Camille found to be curiously familiar. “I was born in France, but I studied in Germany for 10 years. On the other hand, Offenbach was German, but he went to France, to Paris, so we were both very influenced by both cultures.”
As the composer of the famed can-can music, Offenbach is nowadays usually associated with Parisian operettas, but what is less well-known is the fact that Offenbach was also a cellist of high calibre. “Offenbach is like the Paganini of his time, very virtuosic, and he wrote a lot of things for cello. One example is ‘Les larmes de Jacqueline’ from Harmonies des bois, which is a very deep and beautiful piece. This piece showed that Offenbach was also a serious composer as well, not only composing light-hearted operettas. I wanted to present this aspect of Offenbach, and I think this combination of Saint-Saëns and Offenbach went very well together.”
Voice of Hope
Camille’s fourth album was released in 2020, but its origins stretch back to 2014, when Camille was nominated for a “Newcomer of the Year” award at the Victoires de la Musique Classique, the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards. In the audience was also Fazil Say, and Camille quickly hit up with the Turkish composer. “Fazil told me about his sonatas and pieces on YouTube, especially his Symphony No. 1, Istanbul.” Camille was immediately moved by the symphony. “It’s so beautiful. I was in tears when I listened to it, because I felt the message of his music writing, which is full of hope.”
Camille was amazed by how Fazil composed in the veins of the classical music tradition yet at the same time successfully drew from his Turkish heritage, mixing in Turkish traditional instruments with finesse. “When the two elements connect, it created something amazing. The symphony is proof that communication could be possible between different parts of the world, that music is the way to communicate without words, despite languages, cultures, and religions.”
Fazil was equally impressed with Camille’s musicianship, and shortly afterwards he composed a cello concerto, Never Give Up, for the young cellist. “Fazil started writing the concerto right after the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris, so he conceived of the piece as a big shout after this monstrosity that nobody could understand. At the start of the music, we experience again the trauma of the attack, but where there is darkness there is also catharsis, and, as the concerto progresses, Fazil reminds us that there is still hope and beauty in humankind, and ends with a message that we should never give up.”
Camille premiered Fazil’s Cello Concerto with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris in 2018, and the enthusiastic reactions persuaded her to base her next album, Voice of Hope, on the piece. “The album was originally supposed to be called Hope, after the title of Never Give Up’s third movement. It only became the Voice of Hope after I included some opera arias into the album, because I wanted to pair the concerto with music that makes you feel bigger and feel more inspired.”
Voice of Hope was released in 2020 amidst the height of Covid and featured popular operatic and cinematic tunes interspersed between more serious prayers like Maurice Ravel’s Kaddisch, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Arvo Part’s Vater Unser. “Voice of Hope is my response to the pandemic, that art is the answer to suffering. We need our art and beauty more than ever when there is this big difficult moment of crisis.” In a generous act of charity, Camille even set up a partnership with UNICEF to donate a portion of the proceeds for every album sold, helping those in need both spiritually and tangibly.
The Chopin Project
In 2023, Camille released The Chopin Project, a set of three albums with works from the Polish composer transcribed and played on cello. “The story behind this project is that I was very lucky to play on the ‘Feuermann’ Stradivarius, a cello on loan by the Nippon Music Foundation. One day, I looked up the history of the Stradivarius, and realised that this cello was once played by Auguste Franchomme, one of Frederic Chopin’s closest friends.”
Chopin was predominantly a composer for the solo piano, but he sometimes composed for various chamber settings as well, including a cello sonata and the Grand Duo Concertante, written for Franchomme. Legend even has it that, on his deathbed, Chopin asked for Franchomme to play the third movement of the cello sonata to him, making it the last piece of music that Chopin would hear before dying. “And to think that I am probably playing on the same cello that accompanied Chopin to his utmost moment!”
Camille was fascinated by this history with Chopin, and upon further research, she discovered a horde of unpublished manuscripts from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. “I discovered that Franchomme transcribed many of Chopin’s piano pieces for cello and piano, with some even for a quartet of four cellos. They had never been performed, and I was quite surprised to find it because I thought that if it’s from Franchomme, it meant that Chopin agreed with it because they knew each other.” After searching through the archives, Camille came across a letter where Chopin says that he was okay with transcriptions of his work as long as it was made with taste. It was the go sign for Camille, who immediately went ahead with The Chopin Project.
The Chopin Project was an ambitious undertaking – divided into three albums, the first, titled The Franchomme Legacy, featured some of Franchomme’s own works as well as his arrangements of Chopin’s music for four cellos. A particular highlight is the Marche Funebre, where the rich and lyrical sonorities of four cellos playing in tandem accentuated both the sombre and ethereal sides of the piece. The second album comprised Chopin’s complete chamber music, a collection that is scant in numbers yet whose musicality rivals the best of Chopin’s solo piano works, while the third album contained a selection of transcriptions of Chopin’s music for cello and piano, arranged not only by Franchomme but also from Alexander Glazunov, Mischa Maisky and even Camille herself.
Music, in particular cello music, has always been an inseparable part of Camille’s life. “I started playing the cello when I was four, so I had no memory without the cello.” Camille’s mother had been a pianist before she moved on to painting due to an ear disease, but threads of music still lingered in the household. “We listened to records at home, and I remember this moment where I heard the cello and I said, oh, this is what I want to do.”
The young Camille was resolute on her aspirations. “I have absolutely no memories of asking myself ‘what do I want to do in my life?’ because it had always been clear that I am connected to music. Music is my way to just live and be, and, in addition, I always felt this burning desire to share music since I was young.”
And what better place to share music than in a public performance? “My first public performance was in Paris, and I remembered I chose to play the Chopin Sonata. I always feel that there is something magical happening at a public performance, when I am under the spotlight in front of an audience, because then my purpose will be completely different – I know I am there to give and share music. There is this electricity in the air that I feel when I perform with an audience. It makes me feel like a lion, and I can suddenly play so much better.”
This feeling made Camille pursue a career as a solo cellist early on. “I admire so much the orchestra players, and I think that playing a symphony is to become one with 80 players, and the resultant feeling of community is extremely impressive and beautiful. But I’m not a person that is feeling so well in community. I am very lonely and independent, and I always wanted to speak out.”
Studying in Berlin
Camille spent her childhood years studying at the Conservatoire national de région de Paris under Marcel Bardon, but at the age of 17 she decided to go abroad for further studies. “I was born in Paris, and I felt I already had the French heritage naturally, so I wanted to go for something out of my comfort zone, something that would push me to discover more.”
After much consideration, Camille resolved to go to Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in East Berlin. “I was always fascinated by Russian artists and players, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union there were still a lot of Russian influences in the place. Of course, there is also the amazing Berlin Philharmonic in Germany – I have played in the Philharmonic since then, but not with them. That would be my ultimate goal. It would be amazing.”
In total, Camille spent 10 years in Germany, first studying under Stephan Forck and then Frans Helmerson at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik, and subsequently under Wolfgang-Emmanuel Schmidt at the Franz Liszt Hochschule für Musik in Weimar.
Camille shared with us some fond memories of her teachers. “Frans Helmerson is a very, very important person for me. I studied six years in Germany with him, and what I learned from him is that you have to become your own master. He said that your education is finished when you can be your own teacher, when you can listen to yourself and know exactly how to correct yourself to achieve what you want to hear. I think that’s a very wise way to teach, to help the student to become independent but not to create copies of the teacher himself. A good teacher should give his/her students the freedom to fly with their own wings and to find their own personality, and I’m very thankful that Helmerson did exactly just that.”
Camille also had high praise for Wolfgang-Emmanuel Schmidt. “I did a concert exam with him in Germany, and he helped me through my first steps as a performer with the orchestra, and also when I was preparing for competition. I owe him so much because the very precise advices he gave me was invaluable to my first step into the professional world.”
Camille has since left music college, but that was not the end of the story. “In The Chopin Project, some of Franchomme’s arrangements are for four cellos, so I invited Jaemin Han, a very talented young cellist from Korea, to play and record the pieces with me. I also thought it would be beautiful to have four generations of cellists, so I invited Wolfgang-Emmanuel Schmidt and Frans Helmerson as well.” Both musicians agreed, and soon the student and her teachers reunited at the recording studio, this time not in a pedagogical relationship but as equal artists. “They are so supportive, and I felt so lucky to have this chance to play alongside my two ‘cello daddies’, you know? It was a very moving experience for me.”
We asked Camille about her role models. “As a cellist, two cellists I always listened and admired the most are Jacqueline du Pré and Mstislav Rostropovich. As a musician, I’m a very big fan of Janine Jansen. I love her playing so much because she is so powerful and passionate, and it’s always taking you very strongly. And I think she is very inspiring as a woman as well.”
Recently, Fazil Say has also risen to become one of Camille’s favourites. “Fazil has been a big support for me since my early career, and I could say now that we are really close friends. I admire him not only as a composer but also in the way he plays, which is a very big inspiration for me. In fact, one of my next CDs will be a duo with Fazil Say, where we will record Bach’s music.”
Becoming One with the Music
As the interview came to a close, we asked Camille what she thought about the artist’s role as an interpreter of music. “I think it’s all already described in the word ‘interpreter’. It means that you have to receive the music, to try to understand as much as possible not only the notes of the composer but also the emotion, what he wanted to express and say. Sometimes, contexts can help analyses, but I am a very instinctive player, so I mostly just have to feel it.
“The second thing as an interpreter is that you have to make it your own, playing it like it is your own words. For me, this is a little bit like the Stanislavski method in theatre acting, which is based on asking the actors to become what they play, to make one with the character. When I perform, I also try to make one with the music. I’m not myself, I’m also not the composer, but just the music itself.” ′
Interviewed by Vantage Music and written by Chester Leung.