From symphony orchestra to chamber ensembles to prison outreach, cellist Henry Shapard finds meaning as a musician

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When Shapard performs with Vetta Chamber Music for the first time, he will be playing two pieces with Jane Hayes on piano and Vetta artistic director Joan Blackman on violin: Trio No. 2 in E minor, Opus 67 by Dmitri Shostakovich and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio. He will also perform Benjamin Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello, Opus 72. The solo format is a marked departure for him.

“It’s very unusual to hear me play just on my own,” Shapard says. “I’ve played concertos with orchestras, where of course the cello has the solo line, and tons of chamber music, but there’s only one other occasion I can think of where it has been just me sitting on a stage. And that was during my first year at university.

“I actively avoid it most of the time,” he says. “For me, orchestra playing is the peak of what I get to do, and that might be a slightly unusual answer, because I think that when people learn instruments, especially string instruments, there’s an amazing solo repertoire. But for me, and I think I have my teachers to thank for this, the idea was always you prepare so that you can be a better colleague for the people who play around you and with you. I think often when I play solo pieces I actually feel kind of lonely, really, and I prefer to have my sound with others. I’m also young enough that I feel I should still be challenging myself to do things that I’m uncomfortable with.”

And what a wonderfully mighty challenge Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello, Opus 72 is. Written in late 1964, it’s one of three suites for solo cello that Britten composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the greatest cellists of all time, who premiered the work at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year. With an intense range of emotions, the work is formidably technical.

“Learning this piece, you feel that you are staring up at the greats in a way,” Shapard says. “The whole experience of being around Britten and Rostropovich, it can make you feel full of admiration. You learn so much from it. I picked Britten to learn, because he is not a composer that I naturally gravitate towards. He’s somebody who tends to be a slow burn for a lot of people, because his tonal language is, I think, in layman’s terms, kind of odd. There are things about it that may sound sort of vaguely unnerving. Britten had a very active mind. He was also a mid-20th century composer, and he witnessed so much and his music is so distinct.

“It’s not atonal music; it just has a way of making you feel a little unsettled,” he adds. “It’s not harsh. It’s not grating. It’s extremely beautiful, but it can feel slightly off in the same way that a nightmare where nothing happens feels.”

As he has probed the musical depths of Britten’s imagination, Shapard has found himself loving the task at hand, if daunting.

“He gets amazing sound out of the cello, and of course he held the advantage of writing it for  Rostropovich, who could do anything,” Shapard says. “The colour that is available to the musician… It’s astounding. The cello will sound like it’s whistling at times and singing, then it’s clicking. It’s like an extremely complex, abstract work of art. It would be a massive painting on the wall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where you would stand and just enjoy it, looking at all of the colour and texture and constantly be seeing new things….The more I look at it, the more I see.”

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