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Minnesota Orchestra Tour #2: Tea with the Isserli

Cello soloist Steven Isserlis has played with the Minnesota Orchestra a number of times, most recently in November at the St. Paul Cathedral performing John Tavener’s “The Protecting Veil.” Steven’s two sisters, Rachel and Annette, are also accomplished musicians and performed with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra January concert at the Ordway.

The various Isserli invited my husband and me to a proper English tea with them at the London home of their 91-year-old father, George, a self-described “amateur violinist.” Amateur he may be, but his knowledge of symphonic artists and the repertoire is broad and deep, and the cross-table commentary between him and his three professional musician children on soloists and conductors was witty and affectionate.

George was dapper in a velvet blazer and has impeccably courtly manners. Annette served tea in a large, china pot with an unusual lid that looked like a sailboat floundering in high seas. “Storm in a teapot,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. Once the egg salad and salmon sandwiches were served, we moved on to the stories and the scones (split, buttered, jam-slathered, and then dolloped with what Rachel called “semi-clotted” cream). George was born in Russia “under a lucky star,” he said, and told a tale or two to prove his point. In 1922, Lenin sent Russian musicians to perform in other countries to demonstrate that Russia was a cultured and sophisticated country. “Of course, many of those artists never returned,” said George, “my father among them.” The family escaped Lenin to settle in Vienna; to escape Hitler, they moved to London, narrowly avoiding the concentration camp fates of many of their friends. Once in London, his family didn’t like going to the cold, damp bomb shelters, said George, so they stayed in their beds while bombs fell on neighboring buildings. A lucky star indeed.

After the ginger-rhubarb cake, Steven arrived. “You look tired,” said his father. “That’s because I am tired,” said Steven, fresh from a concert in Cossington and on his way to one in Poole. One of his pet projects is an annual series of master classes and chamber music performances held in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. The violinist Joshua Bell often performs in Prussia Cove, as well, and is a friend of Steven’s.

The Isserli depart, each to his or her own concert, rehearsal, teaching, or practice. Tomorrow night, Bell is soloist in the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican here in London. Steven will be performing his own concert earlier that day, so he’ll likely be late and miss Bell altogether, but nonetheless is coming to hear Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra open its fourth European tour.

Filed for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from London on Monday, Feb 23, 2009.

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