Local Heroes: A bit of a fairy story for Charlotte

Charlotte McAuliffe
Charlotte McAuliffe

Charlotte McAuliffe was the automatic choice for this month’s Local Heroes interview, writes Joe Conway. Born and bred in Peterborough the 23-year-old cellist is one of the most sought-after classical musicians in the city.

I last bumped into Charlotte at the Peterborough Cathedral Christmas Concert, when she’d been invited to play the beautiful solo part in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. The following night at the Christmas Magic concert at the Broadway Theatre there was Charlotte again, this time on the first cello desk of the excellent professional orchestra.

These prestigious engagements say everything about how Charlotte McAuliffe is viewed by top local conductors like Steven Grahl and William Prideaux, and there is even better news to come. But, before moving on to Charlotte’s next public appearance, I put an obvious question to her when we met up in town last week. ‘When did you first take up the cello?’ I asked.

Charlotte explained that her mother is Anni McAuliffe, well-known local violinist and teacher.

“I used to follow mum round as a child and was captivated by the sounds I heard,” she recalled.

“But, for some reason it was the cello that attracted me most.”

Like many small cellists, Charlotte began playing by using a violin standing upright on the floor. However, when she was six she was given her very first real cello, a quarter-size.

“At the age of 12 I moved onto my first full-sized instrument. Since then a cello has always been there, almost like an extension of my body,” she said.

Charlotte soon made excellent progress, studying at The King’s School, and gaining the Peterborough Young Musician of the Year award in 2007. In 2012 she enrolled as a student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

At her interview the Head of Strings Chris Hoyle was so impressed that he consulted her about which technical areas she needed to improve.

“I told him my bowing action needed attention and he offered to work on it with me. He was the right teacher for me at the time,” Charlotte explained,”and unlocked a new level of cello playing in me.”

Three years later she was back at The King’s School in Peterborough, this time as a member of staff.

“I work there two days a week and teaching the cello is my passion,” Charlotte confirmed. “I love helping my students to create a beautiful, rich sound.”

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Charlotte herself continues to have high-powered lessons with Jenny Scurr in Northampton.

At this point I couldn’t resist changing the subject slightly. So far, the picture had emerged of a highly talented, hard-working girl. But it’s at this point that the narrative turns into a bit of a fairy story, for on Sunday afternoon Charlotte McAuliffe will be playing the solo part in the Elgar Cello Concerto, with the City of Peterborough Symphony Orchestra at the Queen Katharine Academy.

“When did you first hear the news?” I asked.

Charlotte told me that Deirdre Culloty, Chairman of the CPSO, had phoned her before Christmas with the offer. Charlotte described her initial reaction as “Shall I? Shan’t I?” And when I asked her how she was finding it she replied “I’m finding it a struggle but a wonderful struggle.”

Perhaps I should explain at this point just how incredibly special the Elgar Cello Concerto is. To lovers of English music, to lovers of Elgar’s music, and to lovers of music for cello the world over. For ‘The Elgar’ has travelled better than most pieces of English music and is universally accepted as one of the half-dozen greatest cello concertos ever written. It has been championed by cellists like Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Pierre Fournier, Lynn Harrell, Yo Yo Ma, and even Mstislav Rostropovich.

But, the concerto has also been a favourite with women cellists. For instance when Elgar recorded the piece in 1928 the soloist was Beatrice Harrison. And to this day the best-known recording of the work is probably the one made in 1965 by the 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pre.

We talked about the challenges of performing this wonderful piece.

Charlotte mentioning the ‘huge opening statement’ and the emotionally-charged first and third movements. She contrasted these with the more technically demanding second and fourth movements. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” she said.

“My aim is to make the performance personal to me but to stay faithful to the score.”

When I asked Charlotte if she had a final message for people reading this interview she replied sweetly “Yes. Make sure you’re there on Sunday!”