Her star has been rising for many years. Cellist Camille Thomas has become a soloist, concert performer, chamber musician, lauded on the international scene as much for her virtuosity as for the expressivity of her playing. This interview has been delayed multiple times by lockdowns, quarantine, chaotic airline timetables and many changes due to health restrictions. Finally, by telephone, she was able to share with us her passions, projects and feverish activity.

Camille Thomas
© Sonia Sieff

Jean Landras: I'm delighted to meet you in spite of the difficulties of our time. Tell us what it's like to live as an artist deprived of audience...

Camille Thomas: Since my temperament is broadly hyperactive, it's been very difficult to live through the sudden halt to activity. It's caused a kind of paralysis, since it's my audience that gives meaning to everything I do. Still, other means of sharing my art have come into play, initially thanks to a contact with Olivier Gabet, director of the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris. Filmed by director Martin Mirabel in the naked nave of the museum, I took the first step towards a project which was in harmony with the situation, entitled Voice of hope in museums. It's a series of videos in which I can make my cello heard in the great places of our culture, which are deprived of their public in the same way that I am. That brings me close to something dear to my heart: the essential dialogue between arts which does so much for their development. The exceptional architecture of the monuments which form the setting for the project, their activities, the works of literature which inspire them become at one with the ideal of harmony that I seek in music. These artistic treasures, brought together and carried by video, invite themselves into the hearth of a locked down home.

How did you passion for the arts start, particularly for music and the cello?

As a very young child, I loved listening to Jacqueline du Pré and Rostropovitch. Thanks to my mother, who clearly understood the organic link between the cello and the human voice, I joined the Radio France choir school. After two years, I left to devote myself 100% to studying cello. So cello and voice are my twin passions, alongside reading, film and opera. I love forms of expression which give the sense of a story, carrying us beyond the everyday. Besides, I'm always attracted by the magic that's specific to a place. We used to live in an apartment high above Paris: ever since then, I have loved staring at the city from high places, especially rooftops! I'm profoundly inspired by depositing myself on a roof with my cello. But a beautiful concert hall has its own magic. In a different field altogether, I've been involved in charity work since I was young, which is the start point for my current work with UNICEF.

Tell us about your training...

First of all, I have to thank my mother for knowing how to awaken in me a deep sensitivity. Then, early on, I had lessons from Marcel Bardon at the Conservatoire de Région de Paris. He initiated me into the virtuosity of the French cello school, with a consummate art of pushing his pupils to always give more, to know how to overcome moments of stage fright. His favourite expression was "you have to feel the urge!"

Camille Thomas
© Uwe Arens

I was attracted by Russian music and went to study at the Hochschule Hanns Eisler in what was East Berlin. That was a huge stroke of fortune: Frans Helmerson, one of the greatest masters, taught me there. I compare him to a personal trainer: his goal was that the student should become their own master, that each should become themselves. I also studied for four years with Wolfgang-Emanuel Schmidt at Weimar. He enabled me to discover great self-confidence, which is absolutely necessary to become a true professional. I also have an indelible memory of the Seiji Ozawa Academy, where I went two years running and worked in quartet day and night for two solid weeks! The level of purity that one could achieve under his teaching was unthinkable. Still, I didn't want to throw myself completely into chamber, since I was attracted by a solo career.

It's a career which has taken you around the world, even if that's currently hampered by health regulations.

I love travel and I love playing in very different places, from the great concert halls to the "Violin in the sand" festival, for example, where I found freshness, an incredible closeness to the audience of the Grande-Conche beach at Royan. Each encounter, each concert is a migration: novelty and the unforeseen are a stimulus and a challenge. It's such good fortune! I'm entirely focused on each performance, it becomes both a danger and a chance to overtake. I need the audience in all its diversity. My playing changes as soon as the audience is in the hall: I take inspiration from its presence. It may sound like a paradox, but it actually helps me to overcome stage fright when I am aware that the audience is there and expecting something of me. But you can't generalise: every concert is a powerful and different experience.

The process for recording a CD is different...

Absolutely. In a concert performance in a hall, you play a single work. An album is far more like a recital. A CD is a completely original creation. Nothing is sealed in advance, its design is like writing a book. The artist is the organiser of a journey to which the listener is invited, a journey which transforms us because it has a direction. In the CD Réminiscences, the Franck Sonata for cello and piano creates a magnificent arch around which the discovery of other pieces can be deployed. In my latest record, Voice of hope, the assembly of works becomes a mirror image of the central one, Fazıl Say's cello concerto Never Give Up. The first movement concerns itself with human conflict. The second creates terror through a series of outbursts, not by aesthetic indulgence of violence but in order to trace the path of a catharsis, a resilience. The third movement is a song of hope: to express it, the cello takes on something of the voice of a troubadour. Each of these allusions can be found in the other works on the album.

The world première of that concerto at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had been a success! Take us through how it went...

Once the score was finished, I played it for the first time with Fazıl playing the orchestral part on piano and myself at the cello. It was wonderful to be present in this way at the birth of work! Then, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Fazıl attended the rehearsals with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris and was guiding the musicians in their work. He was also there at the concert, attentive, anxious to see how the concerto would be received. As you say, it was a success! I am happy to be able to tell you that our collaboration will be continuing, next taking the shape of a Chopin recital for piano and cello duo.

Tell us about a certain "Feuermann"...

"Feuermann" and "De Munck" are the names of the cello I'm playing at the moment, lent to me by the Nippon Music Foundation in Tokyo. De Munck played it in the 19th century, as well as Emanuel Feuermann, a titan of the cello in the 20th. It's one of the most beautiful Stradivari, dating from 1730. The cellos on which I played before were instruments that belonged to me, whereas this one is my partner: I'm the one who accompanies it onto the stage. I take care of it, constantly terrified that it might be damaged or stolen – I even dream about this! Playing on this cello isn't just good fortune, it's an honour: I feel that I am inheriting the mantle of De Munck, of Feuermann, of Steven Isserlis. It has changed the way I play: I don't need to dominate the instrument, I put myself at its service to allow it to give everything that it can, the radiance, the richness. Its musical palette is boundless and the sound has inexhaustible resources of beauty, nuances and depth.

Generally speaking, what kind of interpreter are you?

Generally, I'd say that my interpretations are inspired by Stanislavski's theatre methods: to become what one is playing. My choice of what to play comes from a desire to show the audience works that I love deeply, which speak to me directly and which I am utterly absorbed in. I am the works' ambassador.

For example, in the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, I am trying to put across the anguish of a composer convinced of the rightness and force of his work while conscious that it's a work that may result in deportation to Siberia. The first four notes, on the cello, can be made to sound as four blows on the door which announce the much-feared arrival of KGB agents. The second movement, with the plaintive song of the cello, portrays the lead weight that bears down on one of the knowledge that one can't trust anyone. It's very dark, yet Shostakovich also traces the path to a liberated form of expression. This is complex music. Understanding the era from Vasily Aksyonov's novel Generations of Winter helped me to make sense of my interpretation.

Playing cello, one takes on many shapes, many characters: its bass is the roots of a tree, its singing is a human voice and when played solo, it can sound like a violin or a piano. Cellists are often a bit on the defensive, but they play an important role, always listening, much deserving of sympathy!

Camille Thomas
© Sonia Sieff

Beyond the current time which is so full of uncertainty, what plans do you have?

The first thing is a true lifetime's work for me: interpreting the six Bach solo suites. I have never played them as a whole: I'm giving myself several years before I can aspire to that lofty peak. It's Jacob's ladder rising to the sky, the holy grail! I would also like to add Peteris Vasks' Concerto no.2 "Presence", which I was supposed to play in a concert that was cancelled. I would also like to add the Kabalevsky Concerto no. 2 and Shostakovich's second. And I always take absolute joy in chamber pieces – Brahms, Dvořák...

Translated from French by David Karlin