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VC INTERVIEW | Cellist Maxime Quennesson — Winner of the 2020 Barbash J. S. Bach Competition

Applications are now open for the 2021 Lillian and Maurice Barbash J.S. Bach String Competition — to be held at Stony Brook University, in Long Island, New York, on December 1


The 2021 finals will be streamed LIVE here on The Violin Channel.

Open to international string players 16 to 30 years of age, the competition is focused entirely on the unaccompanied string Partitas, Sonatas, and Suites of J.S. Bach. You can apply, here.

The Violin Channel recently sat down with cellist Maxime Quennesson, winner of the 2020 competition, to talk about his experience.


Last year was 100% online due to the pandemic. How did you handle the technical challenges posed by a competition being virtual?

I must admit that it was special. It happened while the confinements and sanitary restrictions in the world were still heavy. 

As a student in Belgium, at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, I was lucky enough to make the best possible recording for the competition. I had a room at my disposal, microphones, a camera, etc... 

It was, however, quite stressful to be alone in front of microphones and a camera for a contest. I remember trying to imagine myself playing for a real audience in order to capture the atmosphere of a live performance. 


Do you know of any other competition of this kind — focused solely on the works of JS Bach for unaccompanied string instruments?

I don't know of any such competition focused exclusively on the music of J.S Bach. There are other competitions that are very focused on the music of Bach and his peers, but they always include other baroque/classical composers. 


What attracted you to enter?

I saw this competition as an incredible opportunity to devote myself fully to the music I love so much, without any other "constraints" of repertoire. The Bach Suites are the only repertoire we have for solo cello by this composer. 

The fact that I had a very clear objective, a deadline, and a precise program, at a time when the whole world was uncertain about the future, also motivated me to participate in this competition. 


How important was it for you to have the opportunity to compete and perform during the pandemic?

Having made a few recordings during the pandemic, being in a competition situation was very stimulating for me, despite the specificities of the online format. It did me a lot of good to prepare for this competition and was a great source of motivation. 

Beyond the competitive aspect, it is true that the life of a musician without a concert, without anyone to share music with, does not really make sense. It is in this sense that I found the opportunity to have been able to bring together (even virtually) so many young musicians sharing the same passion, the same love for the music of Bach, to be wonderful.


Can you tell us about your unique approach to solo Bach playing? What are your personal philosophies?

As a cellist, I have a very special relationship with Bach's music. His Suites for solo cello occupy a fundamental place in the cello repertoire. They have been with me since I was a child. I grew up with them, and have matured and evolved with them. They are a source of a lot of reflection and never-ending work in perpetual evolution.

It is also very time consuming because the possibilities are so immense. It is very stimulating, but it also generates a bit of frustration. There is a risk of getting lost in wanting to do "too much." But that's part of the necessary process of experimentation, of going overboard, of seeing how far you can go, and then going back if necessary.

I think the important thing is to be deeply convinced of your ideas and to defend them with all your heart, all your soul. 


What kind of feedback did you receive on your performances from last year's jurors?

All the comments received were extremely interesting and constructive. Judging Bach in a competition is so difficult, as everyone's feelings can be so different. It is very personal. I must admit that all the jurors were really kind. Beyond the critical aspect of my performance, it was very enriching to have everyone's point of view on this particular music. An excerpt from a comment that resonated in me from Tanya Tomkins:

"I encourage you to try ever more drastic experimentation with your phrase lengths and use your ear to settle upon what feels right. And then it could change the very next day!"


What advice do you have for this year's applicants and candidates?

Preparation is obviously key, and it's probably the most important thing in a competition. To do it with conviction, without worrying about the result. As soon as you know that you have prepared well, the result is no longer up to you.

You have to trust yourself. Even if these experiences can be extremely stressful, it is necessary to keep in mind that it is the love of music that unites us, candidates and jurors, in such circumstances.  


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