In the city: Chamber mates

Australian cellist Chris Howlett speaks to City Times ahead of a free performance tonight with Italian pianist Mario Montore

By Adam Zacharias

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Published: Tue 18 Aug 2009, 2:47 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 PM

Two of the hottest new names in classical music will play a selection of the genre’s most loved pieces in Dubai tonight for free.

Chris Howlett, 24, is a student at the International Academy of Music in Melbourne, although he is currently in Vienna under the tutelage of world-renowned cellist Professor Howard Penny.

In his career so far, Chris has twice won the Youth of Excellence Award, performed with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, won an array of scholarships and played solo and group concerts around the world. Perhaps his most noted chamber group to date is The Yarra Trio, which is fast becoming one of the most talked about up-and-coming classical acts in Australia.

His duet partner for the evening, 23-year-old Mario Montore, graduated with distinction from both the Cosenza Conservatory and the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. He has won roughly 40 national and international prizes.

Together, they will perform Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Mendelssohns’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor and Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry.

City Times called Chris in Vienna to chat about practising for 10 hours a day and relaxing with cheesy pop music.

Have you performed in concert with Mario Montore before?

Mario and I haven’t actually performed together, but in May we both competed with our respective chamber groups at an international chamber music competition, and both our groups made it through to the final. In an international competition you don’t even look at the other competitors in the first round. In the second round you might say hi, and so on until the final. But after the concert we went for dinner and discussed the concept of playing together. Now we’re playing in Dubai this week and in London at the end of the year. It’s a strange way to form a duo, but that’s how it worked. We’ve been practising together in Vienna.

What do you hope to achieve in your career as a cellist?

Chamber music is my absolute love and desire, and in the last 18 months The Yarra Trio has won prizes at two major international competitions. Trios and duos are what I love to play, and at the moment it’s all looking very good. That’s my goal in life – to continue to play chamber music and build up a duo or trio in Australia to perform around the world.

What level of commitment does it take to become a successful chamber music performer?

Huge – I practise the cello for four hours a day, and leading up to a competition I have to rehearse with the other members for six hours a day on top of that. International music competitions are no different to international swimming or athletic events. You’re competing against the world’s best so you have to put in the extra effort.

How competitive are you?

Competitions are great, but it’s not the way to play music. You play music to build up a following, to have a good rapport with the audience and have an enjoyable time on stage. Competitions are a great way to create a name, but they’re six people trying to find out what’s wrong, rather than 400 people enjoying what’s right.

Which composers or compositions are your personal favourites?

We’re actually playing two of them on Tuesday night – the Brahms piece is an absolute crowd favourite, and Mario and I both love playing Brahms. And for something more fun and lively, Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major is an absolute joy to play. He must have been having one of his good days!

What have you been up to in Europe recently?

I’m studying with Professor Penny, who’s also Australian but plays with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I’ve been in Vienna for three weeks, and before that I was in London for a couple of weeks as part of a mentorship with the Florestan Trio. They’re probably the world’s best at the moment. It’s great to be able to work with them and get insight into everything from the music to choosing repertoires.

Who first introduced you to classical music?

My parents aren’t particularly musical, it was actually my grandfather, who was very big on the Melbourne jazz scene. He played drums – I wanted to play them like him, but I was told at the age of seven that I wasn’t tall enough. It’s kind of ironic now because I’m 6’4”! Then I was told my hands were too big to play violin, so the teacher sent me across the corridor to a Russian lady who was looking for cello students. From there, it’s always been a passion and a means to an end with scholarships through school and universities. It’s a major part of my life.

Are you interested in the pop world as well, or are you purely into classical?

Absolutely – if you play classical cello for six or seven hours a day, you get in the car to drive home and want to listen to something absolutely rubbish. So you turn on the Top 40!

So you occasionally like to numb your mind with a few cheesy tunes?

All music that you don’t have to analyse or think about. With classical music, I’m always trying to find something out or understand what’s happening. Everyone needs time to tune out, and for me that’s TV or bad music when I’m driving.

Is classical music less stuffy than a lot of people imagine? Does it overlap with rock and roll at all, for instance?

Yeah absolutely – it’s something particularly with my chamber music we’re trying to work on. It’s very important to break down the barrier; I really like to talk to the audience and tell them stories. It’s not that hard to make it much more personalised and it doesn’t have to be such a formal situation. It’s important to build a rapport and make the audience feel part of the group.


What: Chris Howlett & Mario Montore

Where: The Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC), Mall of the Emirates

When: Tuesday 18th August (tonight), from 8pm

Entry is free. Call 04 341 4777 or visit for more information.

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