James Cuddeford enjoys his role as concertmaster of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.Photo: Hong Kong Sinfonietta Limited

Composing his own music comes naturally to James Cuddeford

Hong Kong Sinfonietta violinist and concertmaster James Cuddeford finds inspiration from within,writesOliver Chou


In classical music tradition, orchestra leaders - also known as concertmasters - are masters of the violin. Their experience in directing an ensemble may lead some to conducting, but few take up the lonely task of composing: James Cuddeford, therefore, is a rare example.

"I started composing almost immediately when I started playing," the Hong Kong Sinfonietta concertmaster recalls. "I didn't understand why I had to be playing funny old pieces, so I started making up my own pieces on the piano. Even now, I don't see any separation between [performing and composing]."

The Brisbane-born violinist recalls his first work, titled , which he composed on the piano when he was eight. "I thought it was quite inventive. It has two endings: one has the cat actually kill the mouse in the C minor key, and the other one, through some happy scales rushing to the top of the keyboard, shows how the mouse got away," he says, laughing.

By a rare coincidence, Cuddeford's two hats will be showcased this week. On Wednesday, his latest opus for double bass and percussion will receive its world premiere. Two days later, he will perform the Alban Berg Violin Concerto. Both works have stories behind them: the first from the distant past, the second from the more recent past.

"I played the Berg concerto when I was a student at the [Yehudi] Menuhin School in England. I was very young then, and I did it with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Shell Competition, which is a workshop programme for young musicians," he recalls.

The choice of a non-mainstream concerto, even though it's a major work of the 20th century, is very much in line with his musical temperament for novelty.

"Since I was young I have been playing strange, unusual stuff. Not that the Berg concerto is incredibly unusual, but it's definitely not Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. I used to dig up new works and composers from the library. I also played the early music by Heinrich Biber and Arcangel Corelli, for instance," he says.

"I was never interested in just 100 or 200 years of music. I suppose that is one reason I find it extremely easy to play something like the Berg."

A couple of lessons with American violinist and conductor Menuhin, he recalls, opened his eyes to "a real humane and organic view" of the Berg concerto. "I remember some specific things I learned, like how at the end of the concerto, the Bach theme ["It is enough, Lord"] comes to the text, and how to articulate it. There were also specific violinistic things, such as how to bring out the spirituality of the Bach shining through at the end of this great work," he says.

Cuddeford was one of the last students to study with Menuhin, who died in 1999. After playing Bach in an audition before the maestro in a hotel room in Australia, the then 12-year-old received a full scholarship to study at Menuhin's school.

At 15, Cuddeford became the youngest finalist in the BBC Young Composer of the Year awards. A year later, his first professional commissioned piece for violin and orchestra was premiered by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with him as soloist.

On the performing side, Cuddeford and the Artemis Quartet won the first prize at the 1996 Charles Hennen International Competition in the Netherlands. This success led to a career in chamber music as a member of the Australian String Quartet and then the Grainger String Quartet. The latter took him to Hong Kong as an artist associate with the Sinfonietta in the 2007-2008 season. In 2009, he started to lead the mid-size orchestra as guest concertmaster, including during a tour to Italy.

It was during his frequent visits to Hong Kong that he met and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, Masami Nagai, the Sinfonietta's double bass principal. "You could say that meeting Masami in Hong Kong was my destiny," he says.

The couple's son, Sean Aki, was born last September at Queen Mary Hospital, and this has strengthened their bond with the city. "We love Hong Kong. Everything is so convenient here with kids, and for us as professional musicians. We can get home from rehearsal within minutes - something that's quite difficult in London or Sydney."

Meanwhile, Cuddeford's latest work for double bass and percussion, to be premiered this week at the Sinfonietta's chamber series in ArtisTree, is a product of this recent past.

"I wrote as a gift for Masami. The double bass is the member of the string family that's closest to the percussion, with its strong rhythmic line. In this piece I put the percussion next to it like a shadow, which is what the title suggests," he says.

"Sean prefers the double bass to the violin, but he's hitting the big box like a percussive instrument. So, yes, it would be an excellent idea for him to play the piece with his mum some time in the future."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: An internal flame