The London-based Australian violinist talks about playing with the Sydney Youth Orchestra again after her time abroad.

What first drew you to the violin?

It was my mum that got me on to the violin when I was four. She has always loved the sound, but in Japan it was easier to find a piano teacher so I played the piano. Then we moved to Sydney and obviously couldn’t bring the piano with us, so that’s when I started the violin. I guess I was never drawn to it at that age, but it definitely feels like the right instrument for me now. It almost becomes are part of you! We are very lucky to have an almost inexhaustible repertoire so there is always more music to learn and something to keep you challenged!

Naoko Keatley.

How do you feel playing once again with the Sydney Youth Orchestra?

I am ridiculously excited! I can honestly say that without SYO, I may not be playing the violin right now! I joined the little orchestra (called String orchestra then, I think) when I was eight years old, and Henryk Pisarek, who was the artistic director then, gave me lots of solo opportunities, which really shaped my musical career. Over the years I made my way up through the orchestras, and even after I left, I came back the following year to premiere the Matthew Hindson violin concerto. So all in all I had a 10-year-long association with SYO, which has had a massive impact on my life. The last time I played with them was on a Scandinavian tour playing the Hindson in 2001, so it’s been 16 years!

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt since then?

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I would say the first would be that believing in yourself is really important. It is so easy to say, and so difficult to do! There is a massive difference between challenging yourself with even a tiny bit of doubt in your mind, and going for something while completely whole-heartedly believing in your ability to do whatever it is you are going for.

Second, I have learnt the importance of balance. It’s quite a challenge to achieve a good balance of all the different aspects of life – work, family, friends, keeping fit, eating well, relaxing, going on holidays and generally letting yourself have a good time!

What distinguishes Sydney Youth Orchestra from other youth orchestras?

I actually don’t have any experience of other youth orchestras as I was very loyal to SYO when I was at school, and then when I moved to London, I wasn’t allowed to join the European Union Youth Orchestra as I wasn’t European! But from what I’ve heard, most youth orchestras seem to meet for a concentrated period of time once or twice a year. The beauty of SYO was that we rehearsed every Saturday, without fail, during the school term. I think that kind of dedication sets it aside from other youth orchestras.

Also there is such a large age range, with the age limit being 24 (it was when I was in it anyway!). As an eight-year-old I was so inspired by the older kids, and then when I was 12 and I joined the senior orchestra, I was completely bowled over by the Con students and how amazing they all were! I think the combination of dedication and inspiration makes SYO really special.

What are the delights of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto?

The Tchaikovsky has everything in it – technical brilliance, lyrical tunes, a gorgeous slow movement and just sheer excitement. It’s so well written for the violin and brings out the best of the instrument. Plus it uses the orchestra fully – I love the big orchestral sound and this concerto makes full use of that.

You’ve performed in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with Australian conductor Simone Young. What is it like performing with her?

I first worked with Simone Young in the first ever Australian World Orchestra concert in Sydney. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to work with her! What struck me about her was that she was just so full of knowledge about everything; we were playing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that time, and she really educated us. I’m really lucky to be able to work with so many distinguished conductors in London – they really inspire us and it’s so interesting to observe the changes of sound that happen in the same orchestra under different conductors.

What has your time with the London Symphony Orchestra been like?

The LSO was one of the first orchestras I worked with professionally. I did the String Scheme with them when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, and then I freelanced for a while with different orchestras including the LSO before joining the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I was always in awe of LSO so when I actually got a job there it took me quite a while to believe it! It’s been a fantastic three years so far, with lots of exciting tours and projects, and my husband has just joined as third trumpet (we spent several years together in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra too) so we are both looking forward to the new era with Sir Simon Rattle ahead. Every concert with the LSO is really exciting and full of so much amazing playing; it never ceases to move me!

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Without a doubt my Wigmore Hall recital in 2008. I grew up hearing about that place, and when I moved to London it was just down the road from the Royal Academy of Music where I was studying, so I went there a lot to watch so many famous musicians. So to be up there in such fine company was such an honour! Also recording the Matthew Hindson concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has to be a highlight too. Having premiered it (with SYO!) and worked with Matthew in making changes to it, I really felt like I had a real connection with the piece.

What advice would you give aspiring violinists?

Be adventurous! What struck me the most when I first visited London (on the Big Brother scholarship straight after I finished school) was the diversity of music. As a kid in Sydney, I’d been lucky enough to see Stéphane Grappelli play at the Opera House and Nigel Kennedy play at the State Theatre, but apart from classical and jazz, I didn’t know much about other types of music that involve the violin. Now I have friends who play in musicals, that do recording sessions, play opera, play in chamber orchestras, specialise in modern music, do chamber music, play in bands, mime on TV, play at festivals… the list goes on and on.

And then there is all the education and outreach work that exists as well. I do a lot of work with the Discovery department of the LSO, and through this I’ve done creative sessions with children (where they actually create motifs and melodies themselves that then get put into a larger piece of music involving often hundreds of kids), I’ve worked with children in hospitals, with Alzheimer patients, with adults and children with disabilities, and with teenagers with learning disabilities who have really benefited from having a musical focus for even just a few weeks. It is amazing to see the effect you can have on people of all ages and I love doing that hands-on work that makes me feel like I am being really useful. So my advice to aspiring violinists would be to find their niche. There are so many ways of being a violinist and not all of them are easy to spot!


Naoko Keatley plays Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Sydney Youth Orchestra at Sydney Town Hall on August 5.

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