Suffolk violinist Kerenza Peacock’s career takes flight after life changing year

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock by Tower Bridge on London's Southbank

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock by Tower Bridge on London's Southbank - Credit: Archant

Suffolk violinist Kerenza Peacock has undergone both a professional and personal clear-out and is proving that a change is as good as a rest. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about a life-changing year.

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock making music in New York

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock making music in New York - Credit: Archant

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock admits that just lately she has become a little bit schizophrenic – in a good way, she laughs.

On the one hand, the former leader of The Pavao String Quartet has just recorded a CD of new classical work by talented young composer Oliver Davis while at the same time joining a Bluegrass Band called The Coal Porters – she is currently helping to write and record their debut album.

She says that many classical musicians find themselves trapped within the confines of a traditional musical world and after years of playing the recognised classical repertoire she discovered that she was inhibited when accompanying pop stars in the studio.

“I enjoy the work very much and I have played with people as diverse as Robbie Williams, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Kanye West but I have never felt totally comfortable with improvising – just making things up – listening to the music and just creating something out of thin air.

Suffolk violinist Kerenza Peacock

Suffolk violinist Kerenza Peacock - Credit: Archant

“I wanted to work as a proper, all-around musician. I love to sit in a session or orchestra, but also get up and play the concerto.

“I love playing behind a rock star, or in the pit of Les Miserables one night, and then in a classical concert the next day. I thrive on variety. Every day is different. One day I taped “The X- Factor” in the afternoon then went straight to St. Martin in the Fields to perform a Mendelssohn concerto. I am curious to explore all styles of music, and I find it helps me develop as a musician.

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“For example, playing with a jazz group totally changed the way I looked at Beethoven.

“He was an astounding improviser, so I started looking at his works from that point of view. I found after playing in a jazz setting I approached Beethoven in a much more creative manner.

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock is now a member of the alternative bluegrass band The Coal Po

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock is now a member of the alternative bluegrass band The Coal Porters - Credit: Archant

“I’m so grateful for the many different genres of music that I’ve gotten to play and that I’ve been able to have as varied a career as I have.”

An example of her new way of working can be found on her website where she announces a gig with The Coal Porters at The Sevenoaks Festival in Kent on June 25 and then on the following day she is performing Mozart and Bach Concertos in St Martin in the Fields.

One result of this need to experiment is that she has disbanded The Pavao String Quartet, the group she founded while at The Royal Academy of Music. “A year ago I had a big life overhaul. I got rid of my flat in London, threw out most of my belongings and ever since then I have been living out of a suitcase, travelling round the world, house-sitting and cat-sitting, so I haven’t paid rent in a year-and-a-half.

“I also wanted to spend some time in LA and feed off the creativity there.

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock enjoys working in both the pop and classical worlds

Suffolk-born violinist Kerenza Peacock enjoys working in both the pop and classical worlds

“There were also some musicians and songwriters I wanted to work with. From there I went to Nashville to learn about folk and bluegrass styles.

“This all happened because I didn’t feel very free as a musician. I felt I was too concerned about following the dots on the paper.

“We’ve got into a very strange place in classical music where you find yourself on a concert platform playing Mozart and you feel under tremendous pressure to play it the same way as it’s always been played, in a particular stylistic manner, which is ridiculous because Mozart himself improvised and if he was still around then he would be jumping at the chance to re-work his compositions and collaborate with a new generation of musicians. So it all grew out of that.”

I ask Kerenza whether the fact that her mother fell seriously ill at this point and later died played a major role in this honest re-evaluation of her life.

She pauses for a moment before answering. “That’s interesting. I started this change before she died but I knew Mum was ill and I know she thought I was completely insane. She told me it was like running away to join the circus – leaving a string quartet to join a bluegrass band, but I did feel that you only have one life and you have to live it.

“I got to point where I was thinking, ‘Is this going to be my life? Is the rest of my life going to be like this?’ So I decided to do something about it.

“I wanted to be a musician rather than just a violinist.

“Anyway I was glad that Mum lived long enough to hear me play with the London Symphony Orchestra.”

So how did Flight, come about?

“Oliver Davis’ dad was Howard Davis who was my violin professor at The Royal Academy and I first really heard his work, some piano pieces, at a concert I was playing at. I really liked them and I asked him if he had any string music, any violin music, and he ended up writing me a piece called Flight which is a five movement piece and we performed it in St Martins In The Fields and it got such a fantastic reception that we decided to record it and he ended up writing me a whole album of new work.

“I feel really honoured that he wrote an entire album of new work just for me and we have The London Symphony Orchestra playing with us. I’m still pinching myself.”

She said that two thirds of the album – The Flight Concerto, Skyward, The Voyager Concerto and Air Waltz – were recorded with the LSO in just one day.

“We recorded in Air Studios, which were founded by George Martin, and it used to be a church and it has just an amazing acoustic and it is so light and airy, that it was just a joy to work in because I spend so much of my life trapped in windowless recording studios, so it was fabulous just to sit down with the LSO and just play.”

Talking to Kerenza you get a real sense of her love and excitement for the new album and the thrill of not only adding a new piece to the violin canon but being able to play alongside people she admires.

“Also I had been loaned a sensational Stradivarius for the occasion, so that made the day extra special.”

They recorded the final piece Airborne Dances, a 12 minute chamber work, a few days later because it needed as much time and care spent on it as had gone into the previous 40 minutes.

“We had to set up the studio very carefully because I was playing all the parts myself,” she says with a laugh. “I was sitting in a different chair, playing a different violin for each part and just overdubbing and overdubbing, so I sound like an entire string section.

“It was my crazy version of musical chairs. I had to put labels on all the seats so I would know which violin I should be playing. I love experimenting with the recording process and I thought it would be fun to layer up all the parts myself.”

She was loaned five different vintage violins by various different instrument makers in order to achieve a totally unique sound.

“The result was great because I do sound like a real string section – lots of different people playing together.

“The sound has got a real authentic texture to it, the sort of thing you get when you have different people, different instruments playing together.”

She said that the most nerve-wracking aspect of the whole recording process was walking down the road with millions of pounds worth of vintage violins in a travelling case.

“I have played on 15 different Stradivari violins over the years. It’s not the playing that makes me nervous – they are lovely instruments – it’s the transportation. I am always happier when I return them.”

Flight, by Oliver Davis, performed by Kerenza Peacock and the London Symphony Orchestra is now out on CD and download.

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