There can be few more prestigious engagements for a British cellist than performing Elgar's Cello Concerto at the First Night of the Proms. It says something for Paul Watkins' standing, then, that that's exactly what he did in 2007, in a widely-praised performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohlávek. He will already have been known to music lovers for his long stint as Principal Cellist of that orchestra – an appointment made when he was just twenty years old – and as cellist with the Nash Ensemble since 1997.
Opening the Proms means that Watkins the cellist is better known than ever before. However, he has fast been developing an enviable parallel career as a conductor. After winning the first prize and audience prize at the 2002 Leeds Conducting Competition, audiences have had a chance to hear him on the podium with increasing regularity, both in the UK and further afield. He can boast engagements with the London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, City of Birmingham Symphony, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Brabants Orkest, Padova Chamber Orchestra, Queensland Orchestra, Helsingborg Symphony and the Aalborg Symphony. Official recognition of his ever-growing profile as a conductor has come in the form of his recent appointment as Associate Conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra; his first London concert with the orchestra in his new post takes place at the Cadogan Hall on 29 January.
When I speak to him, I first ask about his conducting and why he felt the need to add to his already significant career as a cellist. 'My desire to conduct came from playing the piano. I was a pretty good pianist when I was young and learnt the piano before the cello. However, at around the age of fourteen I realised I wasn't going to be the next Radu Lupu, and it was at this stage that it was becoming clear I was going to become a cellist. I still played the piano, though, and used to do a lot of duet work with other cellists and violinists, a lot of which was playing piano reductions of concertos. Several of the teachers I played in front of said that I played the piano parts like a conductor. That is a big part of it: only really as a pianist or as a conductor can you have control over an interpretation.
'When I got the job as Principal Cellist in the BBCSO aged twenty, I obviously had to concentrate on that. I naturally saw a lot of conductors and although I'd had to give up the little bits of conducting I'd been doing, I started looking at those conductors with a more critical eye, watching more closely how they worked. Of course, being in the front desk of the cellos, I was in a very privileged position. It's always been a great way to get to know pieces too; you get a wonderful perspective of one of the parts when you're in an orchestra. Two conductors I greatly admired and always really enjoyed playing under were Andrew Davies and Vernon Handley. It was these two - and Handley in particular - who helped me start taking my conducting seriously again. I spoke to them about it and received advice and help. This is what led to the conducting competition.'
I ask him about other conductors he's worked under and he singles out two for particular praise. He speaks warmly of Bernard Haitink, who he worked under several times as a principal cellist: 'He's just such an amazingly nice man, as well as a fabulous musician.' He also counts himself lucky to have had chances to work with Claudio Abbado, most formatively as a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra.
He speaks with enthusiasm about his concert at the end of the month with the English Chamber Orchestra, his first appearance in London as their Associate Conductor. I ask him what makes the ECO special. 'I find it really exciting to work with them since although they've never been an 'authentic' orchestra as such, they understand the music so well and they just play like a large chamber ensemble - they often play without a conductor themselves.'
Watkins is very aware of the label 'semi-conductor' that the press sometimes give to instrumentalists who decide to pick up the conductor's baton. I point out that the English Chamber Orchestra has set a precedent through their relationship with Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Watkins adds that their current Principal Conductor, Ralf Góthoni, is a pianist/conductor along the same lines. 'I think this shows the orchestra has a lack of snobbery against those who aren't exclusively conductors', he says, while conceding that life is a lot easier with an orchestra that can, and often does, play without a conductor. 'Yes, it's wonderful because the last thing you want to be doing as a conductor is having to bring people in or worry about technical matters. There was a performance, for example, of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings recently where we had only half an hour or so of rehearsal, barely enough time even to play through the piece. But the performance was fantastic. There was a lot of spontaneity and since as a conductor I was not going to be able to impose an interpretation, it just ended up being fun, as we all reacted to one another on the spur of the moment.'
We touch on the fact that it seems more often than not to be pianists that move into conducting, and when I mention Casals and Rostropovich he jumps in straight away, with a laugh, 'let's say I'd be hugely flattered to be compared with either of those two.' He goes on to point out the differences between them, though. 'Most of Casals' conducting was of festival orchestras, where he achieved performances of amazing profundity mainly with his disciples and acolytes. He conducted more as a chamber musician or teacher. Rostropovich on the other hand had a superhuman energy for anything he did, becoming principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington - a big commitment.' I ask him if he ever got to know the great man. 'I never got to know him as closely as say Ian Brown, the pianist in the Nash Ensemble, who worked with him a lot. I did do a recording with the LSO under him once when I was playing guest principal, which was an amazing experience. At one stage he just grabbed my cello to demonstrate something to the whole orchestra. I haven't washed it since!'
Among Watkins' recent successes on the podium was his conducting of La Voix humaine at Opera North in the 2006-07 season. I ask whether he's got any more specific plans in the opera house. He answers in rather general terms at first that he would be keen to tackle twentieth-century operas by Britten, Tippett and Stravinsky, along with Mozart. When I ask if this is down to the fact that he worked for a long time with the BBCSO, rather than an opera house orchestra, this reminds him of playing in a concert performance of Lulu under Andrew Davis. 'That made an enormous impression and if there's one work I'd love to conduct sooner or later it would be that. Or Wozzeck', he adds, 'I would kill to do those'.
And as for the future, does he ever see the conducting taking over? 'No! I'm never going to give up the cello; I still feel the excitement of a fresh challenge every time I get it out of its case. That's never going to go away.' As regards his conducting, the ambition is 'to become principal conductor of a great symphony orchestra.' However, he's not tempted by the jet-setting lifestyle of some of today's super-maestros. 'I don't have the energy to be promiscuous. I like working with people I know and respect and am enjoying creating a proper relationship with the ECO. That is also why I enjoy playing with the Nash Ensemble so much; we all know each other very well and get on, which is important for chamber music.' He pauses for a second. 'It's maybe a bit unusual for a musician to be doing so much chamber music, solo work and conducting but I wouldn't want to give any of it up.'
By Hugo Shirley
Paul Watkins plays at Cadogan Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra on 29 January 2008.