Nic Fallowfield is a versatile musician with an impressive record as a conductor, violinist and teacher. He studied violin with the great Hungarian pedagogue Bela Katona at Trinity College of Music, winning all the major violin prizes. Studying under the renowned conductor and teacher George Hurst in the early 90's, Nic has conducted orchestras in Finland, Greece, Romania, Germany and Austria. Nic returns to Benslow Music this Wednesday 6th December, as the lead violin in the acclaimed Tedesca String Quartet. Ahead of this eagerly awaited event, we caught up with him to discuss his career.
Thank you for agreeing to catch up with Benslow Music. For readers unfamiliar with you and your background, what drew you to a career in the arts?
I was born and grew up on the Purwell estate, only a ten minute walk from Benslow. There wasn’t much money around at home. We had a small collection of LPs - I remember in particular Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the Grieg Piano Concerto, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (with Campoli) and Italian Symphony, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba... - which I played incessantly. When I was ten they asked at my primary school if anyone wanted to play the violin and I put my hand up. A group of six of us had weekly lessons with Hratch Gasparyan, a peripatetic teacher who I think I’m right in saying had once been a member of the Hallé Orchestra. He had a reputation for being fierce and the others were frightened of him but I liked him and he must have done well for me at least as I progressed quickly.
Our headmaster, Alan Gates, was a keen amateur musician and formed a school orchestra. He played the piano alongside an assortment of violins, recorders and assorted percussion. One day the Macnaghten Quartet who - almost unbelievably nowadays - were employed by the county, came to give a concert at my school, were given lunch, and then stayed on to hear the orchestra play. Anne Macnaghten, the first violin, noticed that I seemed to be doing well and about a year later, when I went to Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School I found myself in no time at all having lessons with her in the house on Wymondley Road. Anne - who, with the quartet, had a long association with Benslow - was a wonderful woman and she and her husband Arnold, the cellist in the quartet, became like a second set of parents to me. Music was very strong in North Herts at the time and my life revolved around my weekly lesson, chamber music on Saturday mornings and an orchestra rehearsal on Tuesday evenings. Quite early on I think I simply assumed that music would be my life. I certainly didn’t ever think seriously about doing anything else.
You studied at Trinity College of Music. Please tell us more about your time there, your early influences, and how it shaped your appreciation of music
Anne eventually took me to play to Bela Katona, a highly-respected teacher who had come to the UK after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and was teaching at Trinity College of Music in London. (One of my first contacts with him was playing in a masterclass in what is now the Dining Room at Benslow.) I began studying with him while a student at the FE college not far from my home (where I took Music ‘A’ level) and then eventually went to Trinity. Bela was a wonderful teacher - inspirational, totally committed to his students (lessons would go on for hours if he thought there was something you needed to get before leaving that day), fierce at times but always caring and warm, never unkind. We were in awe of him but, in a way, loved him also. Looking back I think he was teaching us many lessons about how to live one’s life, not just how to become a better player and a rounded musician.
You accepted a post as co-principal 1st violin with the (now Royal) Northern Sinfonia. A milestone in your career, can you recall your expectations at the time?
I’m not sure that I had a great deal in the way of expectations back then. I’d been on a course essentially mapped out for me by others - Anne and Bela principally - and hadn’t had to think much for myself. The process of independent thought came embarrassingly late! It was while I was in Newcastle that I met my future wife (also a violinist in the orchestra) and our son was born there.
Your admirable career includes co-leader of the English String Orchestra (1988-1992), co-leader of Sinfonia Viva (1988-2019) and leader of Orchestra of the Swan in its early years. You have been a guest leader of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and the Manchester Camerata amongst many others. Of your many achievements is there one you’re most proud of, and if so, why?
A difficult question. As an orchestral player I took part in a good number of excellent performances but I don’t feel pride as such in any of that. It was simply my job and I was fortunate that for much of the time I enjoyed it. But being in the world of chamber music is a far more personal experience and since the Tedesca Quartet started (in 2010, more of which below) I’ve been far more heavily invested in the music-making with my wonderful colleagues than ever before. The process of thought and of rehearsal is completely different, it’s so much more intense and yes, personal, meaningful. And if we come off stage after a performance which has gone well then one can feel, not pride I think, but at least a reasonable degree of satisfaction.
If I single out one achievement I do feel some pride in then it’s not as a player but as a conductor. In December 2022 I had the privilege of conducting for a recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto with my dear friend the violinist Tom Bowes. It took place at Abbey Road Studios in London with an orchestra of session musicians, some of the finest musicians you could wish to come across. The two days were among the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of my professional life and I’m happy to say that I can at last listen to it objectively and dispassionately and, whatever anyone else might think or say about it, Tom and I managed to achieve a great deal of what we’d set out to do.
Please tell us more about your professional training, particularly your time collaborating with the renowned conductor George Hurst , and the impact and direction this had on your career.
George was, a huge influence on me, just as Bela was. My first course with him (in those days still at Canford Summer School) was a shot in the arm that I desperately needed. I think I’d been treading water a bit, musically: playing in orchestras can do that to you, dull one’s reflexes and capacity for independent thought. Suddenly, after just a couple of sessions with George, everything seemed so much more vivid and vital again. He was truly inspirational, as a teacher and as a conductor. I did five summers of courses with him and also used to go to see him privately. He was incredibly generous and would spend all day discussing a particular score if necessary - and would never accept anything by way of payment.
Looking back at your esteemed career as an artist, has there been a particularly difficult or challenging moment, and if so, how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
My hardest moments were in the summer of 2010 when I became seriously ill and had to have major surgery, in the August of that year. I didn’t work again until I conducted a Viennese concert the following January. After some weeks of convalescence it was extremely difficult picking up the violin again and I played literally for two minutes each day to begin with, until I gradually became stronger, increased the time I could practise and eventually found my way back. What did I learn? Only perhaps, if one needed reminding, to realise exactly how important everything is to you, how much it means, personally, to be able to carry on doing what it is we do.
As a musician and teacher, dedicated to your artistry, you understand the required level of commitment and drive to excel in what you do. What character traits define you?
Another difficult question, one I’m not sure I can answer. I’d like to be able to say a capacity for hard work, but actually I’m essentially quite lazy (although my wife insists I’m a workaholic). If I’m working on a new quartet part I suppose I can work fairly tirelessly, experimenting, trying new bowings and new fingerings over and over until I find something I think might work - for the next concert at least. And studying new scores to conduct I find endlessly fascinating. I think there must be some sort of obsessional streak in most professional musicians. But character traits - you might get a more accurate answer from my colleagues!
What advice can you give to budding musicians, both young and old?
For young musicians, do work hard but above all else enjoy it. Making music with other people is one of the most wonderful and rewarding experiences life has to offer. But don’t even think about becoming a professional musician unless you absolutely must, unless it physically hurts to consider doing something else. The profession is extremely tough, very competitive and poorly paid for the vast majority.
For older players, simply to enjoy it. Revel in the wealth of wonderful music on offer and delight in making music with friends. And don’t be too hard on yourself.
Benslow Music looks forward to hosting the Tedesca Quartet next week. Please share the origins of the quartet and what audiences can expect this Wednesday evening.
I first met Jenny Curtis, our cellist, when she came to play a Haydn cello concerto with an orchestra I was conducting. We got on well and she asked if I would be interested in playing some chamber music. I was, but at the time there wasn’t a viola-player who sprang to mind as a likely candidate so the idea wasn’t pursued. Some time later I called in at Tamworth services on the M42 and met Jenny, who’d also called in for a coffee. I asked her if she was still interested as Richard Muncey (our viola player) an old friend of mine since our days together in the Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra had come to live in Birmingham. And so the quartet was born, although after just one rehearsal it had to be put on the back burner as I had my hospital stay. We had a different second violin originally but Clare Bhabra joined us after about a year and the quartet has been far away the most enjoyable and rewarding playing it’s ever been my privilege to experience.
The first half of the concert on Wednesday features the Idylls by Frank Bridge - three delightful character pieces - and Dvorak’s ever-popular ‘American’ quartet. In the second half is one of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op.130 in B flat, culminating in the Grosse Fugue, one of the most extraordinary and wonderful pieces ever written, a colossal tour de force. To hear it live is, as always, a totally different experience to listening to a recording in the comfort of one’s own home. Don’t miss it!
What other projects are you currently working on?
The quartet has new repertoire to learn for concerts next year, as well as pieces to revisit, so there will be individual practice and of course rehearsals with the four of us together. Personally I like to spend some of the Christmas break putting finishing touches to concert programmes I’ll conduct in the 24/25 season as well as giving some thought to what I’ll be saying to audiences in the traditional Viennese concerts in January.
Where can our readers find out more about you?
The quartet website - tedesca.co.uk