Interview with AAM co-principal cellist Sarah McMahon

Interview with AAM co-principal cellist Sarah McMahon

AAM co-principal cellist Sarah McMahon explains why she thrives on the risks of playing continuo and what makes the orchestra so special.

What were your first encounters with AAM?

I first became aware of historical performance as a teenager growing up in Dublin. There were no professional early music ensembles in Ireland at the time so my main access to that world was through recordings, and AAM recordings became part my life. As a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, I went to many of their concerts and I started with them as a freelancer shortly after I graduated in the early 2000s. I became a member in 2013, which was a dream come true.

I was touched by how supportive and encouraging Christopher Hogwood was to me as a youngster coming in, green around the gills. He made me feel welcome and comfortable right away. The players have all grown together as a family and it’s easy to slot into a situation where everyone is so comfortable and happy making music together. I already knew many of them, but I was surprised by how different it felt to become part of it, formally. I felt an immediate sense of belonging.

My first tour was in America with Chris and Robert Levin, performing Mozart piano concertos. It was wonderful to work on that repertoire with them. I had never come across as free a spirit as Bob, and Chris had a wonderful rapport with him, giving him the space to do what he does so well, while steering the orchestra calmly. I learned so much from that tour.

It’s tremendously exciting playing Mozart with Bob Levin. He has such a wonderful sense of humour and sense of invention in playing Mozart, which ignites us in performance and brings the score alive. He makes the keyboard works feel like opera – there is so much character in his performances and so much lively dialogue with the orchestra. The music always feels fresh and he invents new cadenzas on the spot. It’s a revelation to be around a performer who takes so many risks and makes the music feel so new, and I adore working with him.

What makes the orchestra special?

There’s a sense of curiosity in the group that keeps the music-making alive. We’re often playing music we’ve all played many times before, so it’s important to come at it fresh every time and have more questions to ask. We all go back to the drawing board constantly, reading and researching individually, and then coming together to share and discuss our discoveries. We’re all committed to that. It’s not something that is prescribed in any way – it’s our passion. There’s so much space for all of us to question the music, and each other, to find fresh perspectives every time we play together. This means that our interpretations are always evolving – that’s a particularly strong and vital aspect of music-making in the ensemble.

What are the challenges of playing continuo cello?

Playing continuo cello is full of challenges and that’s why I love it! It’s musically demanding because your role is so subtle and complex. You’re steering the harmony from the bass line, but it also requires flexibility and sensitivity. When you’re accompanying singers or instrumentalists in recitatives or solo passagework, you have to be in the right place, no matter what. That involves anticipation, being there almost before they know they are there.

In Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for example, there are passages that are meant to be wildly free, as if you’re inventing them. You can’t really plan them and sometimes in a situation like that, you can feel like you’re shooting a moving target. You have to be as flexible as possible, with your ears and eyes on stalks, and feel what they’re going to do, before they do it. It’s not following – if you try to follow them, you end up being late.

It’s a risky business, but I thrive on that. Playing continuo cello makes me feel alive. You can’t take anything for granted, and I love the element of not knowing. You can’t plan what’s going to happen – all you can do is inform yourself, know the score and be ready for anything. You’re all in the moment and it’s exciting to perform like that. I’m not impervious to the fear, but it’s a collaboration so I don’t feel alone.

There’s no time to linger over something that hasn’t quite aligned, though, so I’ve learned to let go of things that haven’t quite worked. You move on to the next idea. That’s healthy – to stay in the moment and not worry too much. You have to stay open and take risks. Confidence comes with time and experience, and playing with many different people and singers, keeping your ears open all the time.

What actually happens in rehearsals?

There are always the nuts and bolts of the music to be discussed in rehearsals. If you were a fly on the wall, you’d find us discussing the merits of a certain bowing and whether it reflects the phrasing we want. There are healthy conversations about that among the string players, or between two different sections.

The director steers us through that because in the end, phrasing is a decision we all make together. If something in the music is not coming out the way they want it to, we figure out why – what’s getting in the way? If it is something practical, like bowing or breathing, we iron those things out. We also discuss tempos and the rhythmic feel of certain sections, especially dances. Rehearsals are also for trying new things out and realising what does and doesn’t work. Then it’s up to the director to make that call. A good director, such as Laurence, comes in with strong ideas and a strong interpretation of how they want things, but also an openness to discussion.

What is it like working with Laurence Cummings?

I’ve always loved playing with Laurence, going back to my days as a student at the Academy, where he was Head of Historical Performance when I first started learning Baroque cello. I have him to thank for everything because he got me started on my journey. We’ve played together a lot over the years and it’s always a joy, so I’m thrilled that he’s our new Music Director.

I first cut my continuo teeth with him, too. He was so helpful in those college years, when I was trying to get to grips with what it all meant and how to do it. He was very patient with all of us, coaxing us into the sound world and showing us what it could be, getting us to listen to each other more sensitively. It’s all music with Laurence. It just pours out of him and you get swept along – he has such sensitivity.

He is a collaborator – he doesn’t impose things with an iron will. He has strong ideas and interpretations, but gives everybody space to do what they’re doing, and he has the utmost respect for everyone. With that comes individual responsibility, as well as corporate responsibility, and you have to listen, otherwise it doesn’t work.

When directors give you space, you have no choice but to listen to each other. The trouble with modern orchestral training – at least at the point where I got to with it – is that so much of it was about watching the beat. You were encouraged to always fix your eyes on the conductor. That is very important of course, but if you’re relying on your eyes all the time, sometimes your ears can get lazy, and focusing on watching often doesn’t make you play together as well as listening does.