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Interviews Photo: Lilien Trujillo

Willem Stam and the beauty of the intangible

A cello and a boy named Willem Stam arrive in Havana to participate in the 5th edition of the Habana Clásica Festival, which has once again invited people from different latitudes to join this sonorous conspiracy under the artistic direction of Marcos Madrigal and the general production of Lorenzo Suárez.

During one of those nights at Fangio Habana we were introduced. In the maelstrom of the festival, during the intermission of concerts in which it was not his turn to perform, it aroused my curiosity to see Willem with his camera on his back, capturing the beauty of some shows, and then get up with his cello to the center of the tablaoncillo and interpret, with unparalleled mastery and dedication, pieces by Dvořák or Beethoven.

Interviewing has always been an exercise in empathy for me: conversation is found, not sought. That's how we began to exchange, through English and creative concerns.

Giselle Lucia: There is no doubt that the sound makes you vibrate from deep inside, I discover skill and sensitivity in the pieces I have seen you play these days, but why the cello? Is there a musical background in the family?

Willem Stam: I think most of my ancestors were farmers in different parts of the world, but by huge coincidence or accident I got involved with music. My parents, professors of psychology, listened to classical repertoires all the time. It was completely normal for me to start playing the piano at the age of six, although I also remember that I really wanted to play ice hockey.(Smile). I preferred to go with my parents to concerts rather than stay at home with someone else. In the audience they were surprised that I remained seated, silent, attentive to the sound, until sleep overcame me and they found me slumped in my seat. My older brother became a violist, lives in Holland and is now the artistic director of the New European Ensemble, so we still play together in [about] 70 and 100 concerts a year. We have a half-sister who, interestingly enough, also studied violin and is now a teacher in London.

So, as you can see, music has been present throughout my life. On the other hand, I've always been captivated by lively performances, the ones that thrill you. The kind of experience where you walk out of the room a totally different person than the one who walked in minutes before. This is the only desire I have - as a performer - for the audience and what really matters to me when I perform live.

The cello is the instrument with the largest register and most closely related to the human voice. It continues to thrill and challenge me, inspire and destroy me on a daily basis. My life as a musician is intense. I get to play many roles, as in a play, but at each performance I have to play a different character.

The cello can be the support for the bass, guiding everyone without them knowing you are showing them the way. It can converse and add, amidst the texture, the secondary melodies and harmonic and rhythmic substance of a work; and it can sing up front as a solo voice in any register, from bass to soprano. This sense of "inhabiting" different personalities and roles, connecting with colleagues on stage, connecting with the listening audience in front of us, from dissimilar perspectives, is endlessly fascinating. It is like watching a story unfold over and over again from different vantage points.

Photo: Lilien Trujillo

GL: I have always believed that instruments have a life of their own. That cello you play seems special. On stage I've seen you embrace it. Tell me about its history. 

WS: This cello has been in my life for a relatively short time. I found it purely by chance in 2020, when I was taking my girlfriend's violin bow to a luthier in Stockholm for repairs. While the luthier I was looking at the arch, I was looking around me. I had never been there before. My eyes fell on this cello across the room.

We musicians spend so much time with instruments that we can often recognize or guess the country and even the maker who built it. At the time, although I could see that it was an interesting looking antique instrument, I really couldn't decipher what part of the world it might be from. So I asked. He told me that the cello had been built in Stockholm, in 1772, by the one and only luthier Swedish antique instrument maker who is really well known today: Johann Öhberg. I had never heard his name and, of course, was very interested in trying the instrument. I played the cello for a few minutes and went home. For days I dreamed about it (refers to the cello), I couldn't get it out of my mind and finally began to wonder if I was crazy. (Smile). I really didn't think that instrument was that special, but the connection was too strong. So I went back, tried it again, took it home and never let it go.

It is a long and rather mystical discussion this matter of stringed instruments, even if we completely ignore the bow, which in fact is more directly responsible for the sound we make and can transform the perception of the instrument completely. It is not the same with pianos, guitars or wind instruments. For decades, scientific studies have been trying to prove that there is no difference in quality between an old instrument and a new one, and it is very controversial because the price can be similar to the difference between buying a work of a new artist or a Vermeer.

What I can tell you from my perspective is that when you play a new, well-built instrument, it feels like an amplifier. I tell it something and it projects it into the space around me. When I play an old instrument it's a discussion, a negotiation. I might have an idea or a desire and the instrument might say no, refuse. I might want to go in one direction and it might tell me it's not the right one. It was more than a year before I began to feel that we knew each other in a familiar way - as if the cello had accepted me as the next part of its history on this planet - and that we could go on stage without having to argue in public. And every day it continues to be an interesting conversation, as we both warm up and try to find the vibrations that become sound and allow us to communicate something together. She is much older than me and I can't imagine what she has seen over the years. I don't know how many partners she has had, or how many concerts she has given, or what the repertoire has been. But I had to wonder when I was boarding my flight to Cuba if maybe she would be making her debut on this island with me, 251 years after her birth.

GL: What does Cuba inspire you? Do you think Cuban music has contributed or would contribute something to your work?

WS: This is my third time at Habana Clásica. The impressions are always diverse and take a long time to digest. I am amazed every day by the beautiful people I meet who are incredibly resourceful and passionate about what they do. There is an energy in people that I always hope they have the strength to keep going and the ability to cope and create a lesson for the world about the possibilities of life. The musicians here are not only incredibly skilled at their craft, but also possess all the creative and expressive qualities that drew me to music as a child. The ability to see all the faces and characters of life in the music they perform, while caring deeply about their craft and about others is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else. There are so many wonderful creators here, from writers and photographers, to composers and performers working in extremely diverse styles and in such a small space, that it's impossible not to feel constantly inspired and stimulated by everyone around you; it's something I'll take with me everywhere.

Willem Stam Masterclass. Photo: Lilien Trujillo

GL: How was your experience in the master classes with the young Cuban musicians?

WS: I have always felt that it is our duty as artists to share as much as we can with anyone who wishes to learn or can benefit from knowledge. This week I had the pleasure of meeting [about] fifteen incredible young cellists of different levels and backgrounds who showed me so much strength and spirit in the face of every adversity, that I can only say that they probably taught me more than I taught them. Becoming an artist is infinitely complicated, we are in the midst of political and cultural changes, and I always tell people that they should only do it if they really love it, there are easier ways to be poor and miserable. But the students I met here, with their bright eyes and beautiful energies, give me a great sense of hope, that there will be new storytellers ready to contribute no matter what the circumstances.

GL: Tell me about the New European Ensemble and your role there.

WS: I was part of the founding of the New European Ensemble when I was still a student in the Netherlands. We started as a collective of friends with a common passion: to free ourselves from the conservative constraints of music making and bring the art we love to as many people as possible. The group specializes in 20th and 21st century music. We continually work with living composers from diverse backgrounds. Art forms and musical languages have an infinite variety, but in our modern society they often overlap. I have had the great privilege of working not only with the incredible number of living voices that were born in Western classical music, but also with the wonderfully creative talent that is emerging on the compositional level in Asia and the Middle East, for example.

Sometimes they use the background and technical possibilities of classical music as tools to take elements from their own cultures and experiment with new and beautiful forms of expression. One of the things I love is that we also continually collaborate with artists from other disciplines who are also looking for ways to reach and inspire audiences and influence the course of cultural development. I have had the honor of working with wonderful actors, directors of photography, DJs, folk musicians, dancers, magicians, comedians, chefs, brewers..., to find a language of communication that we believe can reach people in an impactful way.

GL: When we met at the Basilica you told me about your second vocation: Music and photography? What do they have in common?

WS: I am always fascinated by creative fields that produce physical results. I love visiting museums and galleries, but in my spare time I am most fascinated by cooking and photography. As musicians, the tangible result of our expression disappears or perhaps is transferred elsewhere after each performance. Every day is a new struggle, a new negotiation with yourself and your instrument, with your colleagues and the various elements, not to recreate the night before, but to create the possibility of something special and unique today. Recordings exist, but they misrepresent classical music, particularly that which is not written, produced or intended for that medium, and as such, even the most incredible recordings will never surpass the experience of feeling a live concert with all the senses.

Photography in particular has a lot in common with playing an instrument. There is an endless technical side that has to serve a unique way of seeing the world around you. Just as you see it from poetry. Small insects, architectural details, faces, landscapes and big horizons, there are endless ways to capture the experience of "being" human, to show that moment when we interact with our ecosystem, to make the planet stop and give us the possibility to appreciate it. I love how the meaning of a photograph can change over time, how I can look at the same image, knowing what I saw and experienced when I pressed the shutter and yet my emotional relationship and the way it speaks to me can continually evolve as I move forward.

Photo: Lilien Trujillo

GL: Any advice for those of us who enjoy and live the music from one side of the stage or the other?

WS: Classically trained musicians go through what I can only describe as an "archaic stage" and often a rather brutal form of training. Learning to play an instrument at a high level is extremely difficult, requires time and dedication, while the world around you constantly tells you that you are not good enough. This can kill the spirit of even the most talented. My only advice to those on stage is to be the antidote to this environment. The greatest resource in music is the humans you work with. Marcos Madrigal has always been wise to gather some of the most wonderful people with the right intentions around him. For anyone who wants to perform or create, my only advice is to look for the right people, the right energy, the intention, so that despite all the forms of adversity and criticism you will inevitably face, you have something greater to hold on to. From the other side of the stage I believe the audience should support each other in the same way. Everyone has reasons for attending a concert, and this can be anything from wanting some light entertainment to a deep need to heal, and there is no reason why a concert should not welcome into its space all kinds of people, from any background or life experience where magical sounds have the ability to tell stories and transport you to other dimensions.

GL: You have spoken before about the complexity of the transcendence of music, being an intangible art. Some artists are concerned about the immortality of their work, maybe not you, but how would you like to be remembered?

WS: Your last question brings tears to my eyes and I'm not even sure why. Our business is so complicated and messy that I think most of us just seek to be seen, noticed, comforted with the feeling that now, as long as we are alive, our presence has meant something to someone somewhere, if only for a moment; that what we do on any given day has some kind of meaning or connection to the world we live in. I don't expect people to know who I am or acknowledge my presence on this planet now, and I certainly don't expect anyone to remember me, but it would give me great comfort in another dimension to know that I contributed something, if only for a tiny fraction of a moment, to this vast and complicated world in which we live.

Willem Stam Masterclass. Photo: Lilien Trujillo

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