Yeoman of the Month September 2016 – Julia Loucks

The first time I held a violin in my hands was as a six-year-old child having my family photo taken. The violin was a prop supplied by the photographer. I’m fairly certain the strings weren’t tuned and it’s highly likely the bridge was either very crooked or missing but I’ll never forget how thrilled I was to be holding such a mysterious and enthralling item. I remember quietly plucking each string as the photographer set up for the shot. Shortly afterwards, I started taking fiddle lessons in Canada, learning all the music by ear.

Although I don’t play fiddle any longer, I’m still so grateful for the skills I learned at such a young age. Playing by ear and learning to really love the violin without ever experiencing any stress or pressure from my parents was crucial to my success as a musician today. As I look back now on the various paths I took to get where I am today, there are precious moments that glow in my mind. My first string quartet experience came when I was around 15 years old. We worked for six solid months on the first movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 No.2 “the Fifths”! I was thrilled – it was so exciting to be playing with a small team of others, and our teachers were very encouraging, asking us to make our own musical decisions and set our own rehearsal times. My second most memorable experience came when I played in a symphonic orchestra for the first time, aged 17. We played Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. I had never experienced such a floating sensation while playing before, and seeing the winds, brass and glorious strings shimmering, all working together made me realise that I wanted to be a musician.

I began my studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and was quickly immersed in fantastic chamber music opportunities. My experience playing string quartet grew with every semester, culminating with one of the most fantastic experiences of my life – working with a group of young people to collectively perform the complete Beethoven String Quartet cycle over two days at Domaine Forget, Québec. To hear all of the quartets played (performing two of them myself in one concert!) in such a short space of time was intense, emotional, exhausting, and absolutely life changing.

I moved to London to study with Itzhak Rashkovsky after studying with him at the Bowdoin Music Festival in Maine. I was very fortunate to also have regular lessons with Laura Samuel, and upon graduating I joined the Southbank Sinfonia. This chamber orchestral training programme was a crucial step for building my confidence (performing Piazzolla’s Seasons played a major role in this!) and gave me even more experience playing chamber music, especially with mixed ensembles. I frequently performed with the Berkeley Ensemble, recording an album of works by Lennox Berkeley including his Sextet Op. 47 and world premiere of Alfred Schnittke’s Canon in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, for string quartet and memorably performing Thomas Adès’ Piano Quintet at The Forge in Camden.

In 2014 I joined the first violins of the WNO Orchestra, and in 2015 I became second violin of the Jubilee String Quartet. The quartet has completely changed the way I listen to music and the way I approach playing the violin. Each member is so unique and musically strong and our rehearsals constantly challenge me to be more convincing in my interpretation and to always aim for the best standard of music making. We have been very fortunate to have studied with the best quartet musicians of our time, including members of the Belcea Quartet and Rainer Schmidt of the Hagen Quartet. The work I do with the quartet filters into the rest of my life. I have become a better teacher, a stronger musician, and I enjoy playing and performing infinitely more! The Jubilee Quartet will be competing at the Geneva Competition in November 2016, and appear at Conway Hall and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge this autumn. We are very much looking forward to our performance of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2 in March 2017 in Basel, Switzerland.

I often feel overwhelmed when I think of the choices I unknowingly made which led me to this moment in my career. How does everything seem so interwoven, so connected? I am grateful to all of my teachers, whose knowledge and wisdom is constantly circling around my head. I also fervently believe that my colleagues from music college and orchestras including the Southbank Sinfonia and chamber music fellows have shaped who I am and how I play. Finally, I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to the Stradivari Trust for providing me with the opportunity to play the incredible 1685 Grancino violin, the intricacies and mysteries of which I am constantly discovering and exploring through performance.

You can find out more about Julia and the Jubilee String Quartet at jubileequartet.co.uk.