I first met Simon and Pamela Majaro in 2010. Bachtrack was just beginning to publish its first articles, a process that would take us from a pure database site to an extensive resource of new material. Simon and Pamela were throwing the full weight of their considerable efforts into Cavatina, the charity that they started in 1998, dedicated to bringing young people to live chamber music. From my first tentative efforts, they encouraged me to write with the same irresistible optimism and enthusiasm that they brought to Cavatina, and I can honestly say that without their encouragement to Alison and me, Bachtrack would not be the site it is today.

Following Pamela’s death in February 2016, Simon cast about for a fitting memorial, which would of course be a musical one. The idea of a Requiem doesn’t fit naturally into either the Jewish or the chamber music traditions, but that wasn’t going to stop Simon, who has morphed the Requiem idea into a concert to be held at the Wigmore Hall in September: the Wihan Quartet will perform Kol Nidrei: Elegy for Pamela, music specially composed by six composers, book-ended by Beethoven’s Cavatina (what else) and William Zinn’s setting of the Kol Nidrei memorial.

Over tea at his Hampstead apartment, Simon and I talked about Pamela, about chamber music, about their friendship with the Wihan Quartet and about the concert to come.

 

DK: I’ve read that your first date with Pamela was definitely not a chamber music gig. When did chamber music become this huge part of your lives?

SM: We were passionate orchestral music lovers, and that’s where our communication started. Our favourite composer was Sibelius: we found his symphonies beautiful and dramatic, we would go for long walks on Hampstead Heath singing his Symphony no. 2! I always loved chamber music without realising it because I come from a home where my father played the violin to a very high standard and my mother was a professional pianist, a graduate of Lausanne Conservatoire, and they used to play three times a week – I used to sing the Spring Sonata in the shower, so to me, chamber music was fairly natural.

It was woken in the early 90s. Pamela was appointed to the board of the International String Quartet Competition. The competition had been moved from Portsmouth to London by its founder, the Mayor of Portsmouth Richard Sotnick, and Pamela’s job was to raise an audience for the competition – I provided a donation for the transport of the jury members, the most prominent being Yehudi Menuhin. In that 1991 competition, I attended every single concert, and there were 24 entries. It’s amazing: when you start hearing the same music again and again, you pick up the pitfalls!

So that was a watershed for me. We started going to Wigmore Hall, and I fell in love with chamber music afresh. The Wigmore Hall became our club: we met the same people and we were all getting older together, and I thought “Where are the young people? Why don’t they come? If we don’t get young people, my age group will eventually die, and chamber music will die.

I had long discussions with the management of the Wigmore Hall. The prevailing opinion at the time was that people develop an interest in chamber music late in life and there was little one could do to change it, but I disagreed: I was in love with chamber music as a child - the seed was there. And if we could put the seed into youngsters, I was sure they would come to chamber music before they're 80, so we started our first scheme for free tickets for young people. Our initial scheme did not go well, but more recently, with the support of some enthusiastic Wigmore Hall management, changes were made and that ticket scheme is now working like a charm – it has become a real success story.

Don’t forget that Pamela played the piano very well and she played quite a bit of chamber music with colleagues and friends; later on, I did the same. To me, playing in a string quartet is the most beautiful thing ever, although playing with Pamela has its difficulties as she did complain (rightly, about my ability to keep time). Chamber music pervaded our life for the last 25 years of our 61 year marriage.

At some point in this process, you came across Leoš and the Wihan Quartet…

Yes during that same competition in 1991. The set piece was written by Andrzej Panufnik, the father of Roxanna, who is a good friend of ours, a patron of Cavatina and one of the contributors to the Elegy. I listened to every one of the entrants, and as soon as I heard the Wihan play, I thought “that’s the winners”. And indeed: when Menuhin announced the first prize: “The Wihan”. Next envelope: “Audience Prize, the Wihan”. They were Czechs who had never been abroad to the West: they had scruffy shoes, old trousers, they looked like they came from an impoverished country, and Pamela took to them. Part of the prize was to play some concerts around the country, and Pamela chauffeured them around and looked after them. They stayed with us and they gave us a lot of joy: they became like members of the family.

Wihan Quartet © Lukas Novotny
Wihan Quartet
© Lukas Novotny

You say that Pamela was very critical and could tell a first class quartet very quickly. What, for her, made a first class quartet?

Number one: she was looking for balance. It’s amazing how lack of balance can affect a result, and that means four instrumentalists who look at each other and say “just a moment. Our dynamics seem to be on a different wavelength – stop being the most sonorous of the four”. Number two: they play in tune. And that isn’t easy: you need a good ear, which Pamela had; I could watch her and see her wince if it was out of tune. And the third one: understanding the music and where it comes from and its background. To give you an example: we were in Giverny, the home of Claude Monet. And of all people, it was a French quartet playing and they missed the point. They were playing Ravel and Debussy, the quintessence of impressionism in quartets. And I was sitting there and looking at the nymphéas; they were playing together, they were playing in tune, but they missed the point: I expected to “hear” the shimmering water around the lilies. Where does the music come from: Pamela was very passionate about that. Do you know what influenced the finale of Dvořák’s American Quartet? He was a trainspotter. He lived in a small village where the train passed outside his house and he used to sit there for hours taking numbers. And that last movement – next time you listen to the American, it sounds like a train.

Talk to me about commissioning works – something that you and Pamela were doing through her lifetime. How did you decide who to commission, and what to ask for?

We wanted to have Cavatina music that we could take to a school and play it once, twice or even more. I used to say to composers that I want the kind of music that the children can go home and sing it to themselves. If you listen to Thomas Adès: I never go home after listening to any of his work and think “I’ve got a tune in my ears”. So it had to be tuneful. And we chose people whose music we knew as being straightforward and not too avant-garde: there is no point in being too avant-garde, certainly with little children. So we were introduced to Cecilia Macdowall, and she wrote a lovely trio for clarinet, violin and cello. We played it at Channing School and the kids loved it. It was a very clever piece of music – in fact, a variation of it will be in the Elegy.

Roxanna wrote a lot of pieces for us: again, we told her “you can be modern, but in moderation; it’s very difficult to remember a non-tuneful piece of music”, and she never let us down.

Mika Haasler
Mika Haasler
So we always got to know the composers well, and we wanted to have younger composers, since Pamela’s life was about bringing music to young people and encouraging young musicians.

[Of the other composers for the Elegy] I spoke to Cheryl Frances-Hoad a lot after Pamela passed away. Freya Waley-Cohen, I like because she is young and the people in Aldeburgh told me that she is very very good, as did John Gilhooly. The youngest one, who is really special, is Mika Haasler. There is a sixth form college called Woodhouse College, and one day, the head of music there – we knew all the schools, Pamela used to go to all the school concerts, she would video them and after the concerts, she would give the musicians the Star Chamber treatment – said “I gave my kids a project to write a string quartet, but they’ve never heard it played”. Pamela said “right, are you free tomorrow?” So we got the Wihan and they played Mika’s quartet, and we all liked it, especially the fugue. It needed a bit of polishing, so we put her in touch with Cecilia Macdowall, who gave her sort of mentoring and she put it into a very good shape.

Whenever I chose someone, I was having a sort of virtual conversation with Pamela - the only one I don’t know anything about is David Knotts, he was recommended to me by George Vass, who is helping me.

So when the concert is finished, and the spirit of Pamela is looking down on you from above the stage in the Wigmore Hall and she speaks to you to give her reactions, what will she say?

Well, if it’s my Pamela, she’ll say “Oh boy - have you put yourself to a lot of trouble”. But I think she will be chuffed, (a) that the Wihan are doing it, though I know it’s not all her original children, (b) she will be delighted at the musicians I picked up, and (c) she will think that I’ve done a good job. And she will be very impressed that there was a concert, and immediately after the concert, there are CDs for sale!


Kol Nidrei: Elegy for Pamela will be performed by the Wihan Quartet at the Wigmore Hall, on Wednesday 27th September at 1:00pm.