Berkhamsted cellist creates meaningful and inspiring concert series for her local community

Clare wants to create inspiring and uplifting experiences for performers and the audience

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 12:11 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th October 2021, 12:14 pm

A cellist from Berkhamsted has founded and curated a series of meaningful and inspiring original concerts for her local community.

Clare O'Connell has been playing the cello all her life and when she moved to Berkhamsted with her children she was doing a lot of interesting work with my chamber ensemble at the time, CHROMA, and she decided to start creating something that they, and the local community, could enjoy.

In the performances for the concert series - called Behind The Mirror - she presents music in an imaginative, unexpected way; commissioning new music, making her own arrangements for unusual groups of instruments and using storytelling to add another dimension to the listening experience.

Clare (C) Yvonne Catterson

She said: "I moved to Berkhamsted about 15 years ago, I had two young children and I was looking for ways to express myself creatively whilst balancing being a mum and a musician.

"I decided to do a concert series because I wanted to share the professional work I did with my local community and I wanted something that children, and the whole community, could enjoy. I also visited local schools and played and talked to the children.

"I have been doing this for ten years and it has grown into a really local thing and a creative part of my professional life. ​It feels like a service to my local community as well as enriching my creative life.

"It's called Behind The Mirror, it's normally about eight to 10 concerts every year and I have built a really loyal following of people who like what I do and turn up repeatedly. For this reason I try to make the performances as varied and different as possible.

Clare (C) Elizabeth Dalziel

"I founded the series because I wanted to create a new opportunity for myself and my colleagues to present and perform a wide range of classical chamber music locally in a creative and meaningful way.

"I wanted to create inspiring and uplifting experiences for us and our audience. To build a community around the love of music and to learn and develop as a musician and artist in the process."

Originally they the concerts were performed at The Greene Room at The Kings Arms in Berkhamsted.

Clare added: "We were massively supported by Peter Borg Neal who wanted the Kings Arms to be at the centre of the local community too and was prepared to support local events in order to do that.

"It was a great space - a perfect wooden room with a wonderful acoustic and it had a bar as well which I felt was important - the concerts became a social event as well as one in which people enjoyed the music.

"It is important to me to have a good interaction between the musician and the audience and we often tell stories about the performance to engage with the audience.

"I want to break down old elitist traditions usually associated with classical music, and to present it in a way that is unintimidating and more of a sharing inclusive experience."

Inspiration behind the performances

Clare gets her inspiration from a variety of things, including books and her own experience.

She said: "Inspiration for the concerts and my music comes from all over the place.

"First of all, I wanted to have something for my children to come and watch and then I looked at my own career and some of the things I have done, and used parts of that in the concerts.

"I can read a book and something from that might inspire me, I once made a winter concert based on Tove Jansson’s book Moominland Midwinter, one of mu most successful concerts - I arranged a lot of classical and Folk music from Scandinavia for cello, clarinet and accordion, and my next door neighbour at the time (bafta winning actor) Mark Bonnar read the story.

"He was absolutely brilliant, and our audience was so happy afterwards!

"People’s enjoyment in itself is inspiring. The feeling you have when you share something and they really enjoy it and go home feeling happy.

"What I love the most is being in a warm inclusive environment with people and sharing music and ideas I love with people who want to listen.

"It is a real joy to share beautiful music and art with other people, that is what is most inspiring for me."

Performing during the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic musicians have been getting creative in the way they perform and interact with their audiences.

With restrictions closing concert halls, bars, pubs and music venues for many months, Clare gave a few performances on her front doorstep in the first lockdown and put on two outdoor concerts when the restrictions began to ease.

The doorstep performances led to her creating a body of completely new work for solo cello which she then self recorded at home and released as The Isolated Cellist on Stone records - a deeply personal collection of ancient and modern music for solo and layered cello including a new commission from Alex Mills.

She said: "Covid was devastating for the music industry.

"Fortunately, I managed to put on quite a few outdoor concerts, I did outside concerts because I was desperate to play and my colleagues were desperate to play and our audience wanted to see us play.

"I sat on my front doorstep and played to my street at the start of the first lockdown, that was really special.

"I’m aware that not everyone loves classical music so I mixed it up a bit and included other types of music like folk It is good to adapt and try new things.

"In the Autumn, I organised three socially distanced concerts at St Peter's Church. which were really well supported, although the third had to be cancelled for covid reasons in the end! I am grateful for St Peter's for letting us use their space.

"They were really supportive and wanted to help local musicians by keeping their space available to us and reducing their hire charges. It enabled me to provide properly paid employment for my amazing colleagues.

"I think the pandemic has shown how important these concerts are for local people. They do not have to travel into London to hear really world class music, because it is here on their doorstep.

"I am happy to have been able to continue performing throughout this time."

Upcoming performances

Clare has two concerts planned for November and December, both will be at St Peter’s, Berkhamsted.

She said: “The last concert in Berkhamsted was really well supported and we are hoping the next ones will be too.

"I’m always looking to welcome new people to my concerts, and I'm grateful for any opportunity to get the word out to my local community."

With regards to social distancing and covid, she said: "I am constantly assessing what the best way of organising the room so that everyone feels safe, but are also able to be as close to the performers as they would like to be. It’s a difficult juggling act.

"I’m looking at other venues like the Wigmore Hall to see how they manage it, and consulting with members of my regular audience to try to get it right.

"The next two concerts are really ambitious, incorporating a mix of classical and contemporary music presented in a thoughtful and inspiring way.

"Tickets are available for the other shows, and I'm looking forward to performing with some amazing musicians in both."

The Tempest is on Wednesday, November 10, at 7.30pm.

An evening of fantasy inspired music written for the beautiful combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano performed by clarinettist Jack McNeill and the Le Page Trio.

Bach Reimagined, is on Wednesday, December 15, at 7.30pm.

This is a celebration of the music of Bach featuring his incredible Harpsichord concerto in D minor played on the piano by Viv McLean, and Included in this performance will be new work for string quartet called Jalinen by the Malaysian composer Adeline Wong, a piece inspired by the voice of Azan (call to prayer).