Russell Abraham

In by Alison Stewart

Member of Council and Member of Players’ Committee
Percussion

When and why did you start playing orchestral percussion?

I was a noisy and bothersome child at St John’s school and the headmistress, Mrs Davenport, arranged for me to start percussion lessons with Jayne Newton through the Jersey Instrumental Service. I had already been learning piano for a year or so, and that is common amongst percussionists as the keyboard skills translate directly to tuned percussion instruments.

Describe your journey with that instrument.

With the JIS I was taught by Jayne Newton and then Charlotte Boucault, progressing through the ABRSM Grades and winning the Jersey Young Musician of the Year in 2002 (the first year that a percussion category was added to the competition). I then went on to study at the Birmingham Conservatoire from 2004-2010 completing a BMus(Hons) and then an MMus. I was fortunate whilst in Birmingham to play with the CBSO on a number of occassions, including a concert conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird at the BBC Proms in 2009. During my time in Birmingham I became more interested in pursuing conducting work, and I was the musical director of the Redditch Orchestra from 2006-2013 and the Wyre Forest Symphony Orchestra from 2011-2013.

How long have you been playing with the JSO?

My first concert was in the of Summer 2001 and since then I have only missed one concert, so coming up for 40 concerts with the orchestra, mainly on timps but with the occasional adventure into the percussion section when there has been something really interesting to do there!

What has been your favourite JSO concert that you have performed in?

I remember, in one of my early concerts, playing the Alpine Symphony by Strauss. I played 2nd timps and I can remember being totally overwhelmed by the scope of the piece and the size of the orchestra. That was definitely a moment when I knew that being a musician was going to be central to the rest of my life.

Do you play any other instruments or belong to any other musical groups on the island?

I was a stalwart member of Jersey Premier Brass as I grew up on the island, and when I was around 17 I took up cornet so that I could ‘boost’ the sound of the 3rd cornet section. My conducting and teaching work have enabled me to learn the basics of most instruments, and I am now quite adept at tuning small violins for children (although they should be doing it themselves!)

Is music your main profession?

Since 2013 I have moved back to Jersey full time for something of a career change, becoming a full time secondary school teacher, teaching music and maths at JCG. Although it involves different day to day work, being a musician is absolutely at the heart of being a music teacher, and I still feel that music is central to what I do (there are also very strong links between music and maths which I won’t go into here).

Who is your favourite composer and why?

I go through phases but I have always been a huge fan of Beethoven’s orchestral music. There is a visceral power and rawness of emotional expression which always speaks to me. As a timpanist I love playing loud music by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, but I feel that Brahms and Elgar were two of the best composers for the instrument. I feel with all composers that the more understanding you have of their work the more you will enjoy it, so I try not to have composers I like/dislike.

What is your favourite piece of classical music and why?

To listen to – Mahler Symphony 2

To play on the timps – Nielsen Symphony No 4

To conduct – Any symphony by Beethoven or Brahms

What music do you listen to?

Mainly orchestral, but I am making more effort to diversify!

What do you love about Jersey?

It’s home for me so that gives it significance, and I enjoy walking on the cliff paths.

What one thing would you change about Jersey?

I’d build a proper concert hall!

What other passions do you have in life apart from music?

I am a big sports fan, supporting the mighty Burnley Football Club, and I’m always fascinated by the challenge of individual sports like tennis, golf, and snooker.

What do orchestras need to do to attract larger audiences?

I think it’s fair to say that all the professional orchestras are giving a much more diverse range of concerts, and building community links through education and outreach programmes. For amateur orchestras I think it’s a lot more difficult, and we mustn’t try to become too much of a commercialised product. In other words, I’m not sure that larger audiences should be the primary objective for all orchestras.

How best do we encourage young people to become interested in classical music?

Based on my own experience, I would say by giving them opportunities to join in! I believe in offering opportunities through our education programme which engage young musicians with the people who are in orchestras and the sounds they can experience, rather than by trying to persuade them that there is some extra ‘value’ that is possessed by classical music.

If you could visit any musical period or see/meet/hear or play with any artist, what would you choose?

I would love to have been around at the start of the twentieth century when music was being taken in all sorts of different and interesting directions by such a range of fantastic composers. Being at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would have been quite an experience!