Violinist Phoebe Tsang is the concertmaster of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra. On April 6, 2019, she will feature in the PSO’s performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending at Oh, To Be In England!, a concert sponsored by Scotiabank and presented at Showplace Performance Centre. Recently, Susan Oliver had the opportunity to interview Phoebe on behalf of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra. Below is a transcription of her interview.
On the work…
Susan Oliver: In this symphonic poem (or tone poem) Vaughan Williams takes the extra step of supplementing the title’s image of a bird ascending skyward by writing on the fly-leaf of the score excerpts from the George Meredith poem that served as his inspiration. As he felt the importance of doing this, what kind of considerations do you give the excerpts when performing the piece?
Phoebe Tsang: The beauty and lyricism of the music resonates so wonderfully with the poetry. It’s impossible not to be inspired by the relationship between words and music here. One need look no further than the music itself to appreciate its meaning – in the words of the composer himself: “Of course music has a meaning, but I think that can only be expressed in terms of music.”
SO: How do you as an artist evoke the song and flight of the skylark in the playing?
PT: The song and flight of the skylark is one of many ingredients in this work, just as the solo violin line is one thread in the whole orchestral tapestry. My goal is to make the violin sound the best I can, while respecting and trusting in the composition itself.
SO: Although labelled pastoral, in a live performance, what might this piece evoke in the audience member beyond the assumptions of bucolic English landscapes?
PT: I hope that every audience member will feel free to hear and feel whatever is pleasant or meaningful to them. Music has a magical ability to be “all things to all men.”
SO: This piece has alternately been described as “notoriously difficult to play” (Classic FM, UK) and as “a relatively simple piece.” (AllMusic) How do you perceive the piece?
PT: Every piece has its challenges and joys. My guess is that the “notoriously difficult” and “relatively simple” statements are two sides of the same coin. Simplicity and purity of expression require a great deal of transparency and finesse.
SO: While I have read your blog and many other bios of you (you are a violinist, poet, cartomancy, and director, as well as having a degree in architecture), please tell me anything you would like the reader/audience to know about you: professionally, personally, in relation to the PSO and/or your role in The Lark Ascending.
PT: Playing this piece takes me back to memories of growing up in England. Walking on Leith Hill last summer, near Vaughan Williams’ childhood home, I came upon a wooden bench in the woods, into which a phrase from The Lark Ascending had been carved. It was a beautiful confluence of music, art, nature, and the enduring legacy of this well-loved composer.
On classical music…
SO: What would you like to convey to the symphony audience, or those who have not been to the symphony (yet) but are reading this article?
PT: On May 10, 2019, I’ll be releasing a solo album of original songs. As a poet and a violinist, bringing these two practices together was a natural step. Clearly, the relationship between poetry and music is a fertile one.