Cellist Clancy Newman, first prize winner of the prestigious Naumburg International Competition and recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, has had the unusual career of a performer/composer.
He received his first significant public recognition at the age of twelve, when he won a Gold Medal at the Dandenong Youth Festival in Australia, competing against people twice his age. Since then, he has performed as soloist throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Australia. He can often be heard on NPR’s “Performance Today” and has been featured on A&E and PBS.
A sought after chamber musician, he is a member of the Clarosa piano quartet and a former member of Chamber Music Society Two of Lincoln Center and Musicians from Marlboro.
As a composer, he has expanded cello technique in ways heretofore thought unimaginable, particularly in his “Pop-Unpopped” project, which has gained over eighty thousand views on youtube. He has also written numerous chamber works, and has been a featured composer on series by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Chicago Chamber Musicians. In March 2019, his piano quintet, commissioned by the Ryuji Ueno Foundation, was premiered at the opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC.
Mr. Newman is a graduate of the five-year exchange program between Juilliard and Columbia University, receiving a M.M. from Juilliard and a B.A. in English from Columbia.
Q & A with Clancy Newman
You have been living in the US for many years now but return to Australia each February. Why is that?
When I was a young child growing up in America, I had an Australian accent (my year one teacher called me ‘Vegemite’) because both of my parents were Australian. As I grew older, alas, I lost most of that accent. However, I have always felt very strongly attached to this spectacular country, and many of my happiest childhood memories are from when my family came to visit. Now, as an adult, I am extremely fortunate to have a career that allows me the flexibility to spend two months a year here. Although it’s difficult to set aside such a large chunk of time, it’s worth it – I can escape the hectic life of New York City and focus on my composing. Also, the novelty of cold and snowy winters wore off long ago… much rather be where it’s sunny!
Is there anything you particularly enjoy about Australia? Or that you are looking forward to when you visit?
I come to Australia every year. It’s my favorite place on Earth. Of course, it could be that I over-romanticize it because, in some way, it has come to represent “vacation”, “relaxation”, “the beach”, etc. But I think my love for this country is more than just that. I love the smell of the eucalyptus in the air, and the sound of the magpies warbling; I love the fact that you’re never far from being in the middle of no where, or from animals that will either kill you or make you laugh; I love the ancientness of the geology, but the newness of the nation. It’s a spectacular place… and whenever I come here, I often marvel over how nonchalant everyone seems to be as they go about their daily lives: they are so lucky to live here!
How did you come to play the cello?
My parents and I somewhat differ in our memories of how I came to choose the cello when I was 6. They claim that they asked me what instrument I wanted to play, and without hesitation I said “The cello” My memory is that I said “The drums” and they responded by gently prodding me in a different direction.
Who or what inspired you to pursue music?
After I agreed to play the cello, my parents set about finding me a teacher. They asked the conductor of the local youth orchestra, David Gibson, who was a cellist, if he would teach me. He hesitated, saying that he only taught adults, but finally agreed to try it as an experiment. He turned out to be the greatest, most inspiring teacher a child could possibly have. He instilled in me a love of music. My parents never had to force me to practice. By the time I was 9, if not earlier, I knew that I was going to be a musician when I grew up. Mr. Gibson continued to teach me until I went to Juilliard pre-college when I was 17.
What is your favourite piece of music to perform?
Hmmm… a tough question… there are so many pieces I love to play! There are those that are deep and emotional, like Beethoven’s Opus 132 string quartet or the Shostakovich trio ‚- they are tremendously satisfying to perform. But then there are also pieces that are lighter and put you in a good mood, like the Mendelssohn Octet or Schoenfield’s Cafe Music‚ – they’re satisfying in a different way. But ultimately, I think my favourite piece to play, which has elements of both the above, is the Schubert double cello quintet.
What is your favourite piece to listen to?
As a musician, it’s very difficult for me to turn the “musician” part of my brain off and just enjoy music as it should be enjoyed. I can’t help analysing every detail of the music as it unfolds. That being said, I think the piece I enjoy listening to the most is the Faure Requiem. It’s from such a different genre than the music I typically play; I think that allows me to sit back and just let the beauty of the music wash over me without my brain interfering. It’s such a sublime piece.
What is your favourite type of ensemble to perform in?
I’ve always believed that chamber music is the highest form of art. It allows for the possibility of individual expression as well as the larger expression of a group, while at the same time expressing the ideals of one person: the composer. As a composer, I love writing for string quartet; that combination of instruments provides me with the broadest‚ yet most personal palette. However, as a cellist, I love playing in piano trios because I can play with the freedom of a soloist while still interacting with and being inspired by my colleagues on stage with me.
You are also a composer – how did this passion become part of your life and when?
When I was 7 years old, my dad printed me some “staff paper” – really just a page consisting of five rows of dashes, made to look like staves, and I wrote my first piece, for solo cello (clearly influenced by Suzuki Book I). I distinctly remember the joy I felt at having written the melody; it was a joy that seemed to touch a part of my soul deeper than any joy I had felt before. As I grew older, even on into adulthood, that joy remained one of the great constants of my life.
Do you have a preference for certain composers, styles or eras?
There are two equally strong sides to my taste in music: on the one hand, I am drawn to unrestrained passion, soulfulness, and craziness; on the other, I love mathematics and order. I’m not sure that these two sides are exclusively the possession of one style or era. My favourite composer is Bach. He always gets credit for his mathematical mind, but not enough for the profound emotional impact of his music.
Is there any particular cellist whom you admire?
That’s an easy one: Harvey Shapiro. He was one of my teachers at Juilliard. When he demonstrated how to play something during my lessons, it was as if time would stop and all the air would leave the room. The sound was beyond anything I can possibly put into words. It was like the whole world shook. And somewhere, from deep down, his ancient soul would emerge as a force of nature impossible to resist. He was about 90 years old and had a full life’s worth of love, pain, joy and sorrow… and he could express it all in a single note!
In response to questions about the new work to be premiered in March 2014…
Why did you choose those three particular instruments?
Over the years, I’ve written many pieces for strings and piano, but I’ve never written for winds. I thought this would be a good opportunity to finally give it a try. I’ve always loved the clarinet, particularly the beautiful pieces by Beethoven and Brahms for clarinet trio, and I thought that this combination of instruments would be perfect for the concept behind Collision Course.
What was the inspiration for the piece? (When I met you last year you had some great thoughts about plane flight.)
I had the idea for Collision Course somewhere high over the Pacific, flying from Sydney to LA. I wouldn’t have thought that being cooped up in economy class for 14 hours would be conducive to inspiration, but it was. The idea involved traveling across the ocean, albeit not by plane but by boat: the three musicians are on three different ships that are on a collision course; at first, they’re all playing independently of each other (the cello a sort of spanish guitar, the clarinet a russian folk melody, and the piano ragtime), but as the ships approach, they begin to hear and respond to each other, until at last, as the ships narrowly avoid a collision, the musicians play in synchrony, and all the passengers come on deck to dance. A short poem will be read before each performance detailing this scene.
You’ll be performing it six times – during its premiere season – do you expect to make changes as you go? If so, what sort of changes could they be?
As a composer, I’ve learned over the years that there’s no shame in revising a piece after its premiere. However, as a musician, I’ve learned that there is shame in asking musicians to make major changes right before a performance. So any changes I want during the tour will be extremely minor, if any. If I want to make any more substantial revisions, I’ll wait until after the tour is over… but hopefully that won’t be necessary!
Do you have any plans to play it again after its premiere season?
Yes. I will be performing it again in America in June at the Delaware Chamber Music Festival.
You’ve been coming out quite regularly to play with Selby & Friends – what is it about Kathy’s ensemble that keeps you coming?
Each experience I’ve had playing with Selby and Friends has been uniquely rewarding. Having the opportunity to play a program six times allows for greater freedom and spontaneity; you can take risks you might not have taken if you only had one shot. By the end, you develop a real chemistry with the other musicians, both on and off stage, and I think it shows in concert. The music making is always on a high level, and it’s always sad when it’s over.
“Newman…seems to be in a class of his own…”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Newman was exceptional…playing with bristling intensity…. a tour de force.”
Chicago Classical Review
“The youthful Newman once again proved that he is an exceptional cellist”
“Newman played it with an exhilarating energy and a clear sense of its contours.” [Ligeti Sonata for Solo Cello]
The New York Times
“It was exhilarating to watch….Newman had no difficulty projecting his aggressive, hard-edged sound.” [Barber Cello concerto]
“Newman quickly won listeners’ hearts, exhibiting both a sensitivity and intensity…”
“Newman’s technical mastery proved entirely dazzling.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Newman reminds me a bit of Joshua Bell. He is a throwback to those golden days when string players were not afraid to express themselves with generous amounts of vibrato.”
New York Sun
“Hooray for Clancy Newman. This upstate New York native is one of the most acclaimed young cellists out there”
Philadelphia City Paper
“His technique is brilliant but not showy and so natural that one forgets about it; playing with impeccable intonation and great speed and facility, he projects a sense of absolute security. His tone is dark, warm, and intense, with remarkable carrying power even in a floating pianissimo.”
New York Concert Review
“The program opened with [Yael] Weiss and Newman in a charm-exuding performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 73.”