Esther Abrami is following in the tradition of Vanessa Mae and Nigel Kennedy, which is to say that she doesn’t play by the ‘rules’ of the traditional classical music industry.
Abrami wants to democratise the arena of classical music, which can be regarded as stuffy and inaccessible. Her aim is to share her passion for the genre with audiences who might not have thought of listening to it or even to attend its concerts.
The 27-year-old, who was born in Marseille, in southern France and now lives in Manchester, shares videos and clips of herself playing and practising, with some of the uploads very much tongue in cheek. She has built up a strong following on social media, with 418,000 followers on TikTok, 312,000 on YouTube, 326,000 on Instagram and 152,000 on Facebook.
Abrami has recently released her new album, Cinéma, and, as the title suggests, its concept is film soundtracks.
“I thought the theme of cinema was a great way to create a bridge to people who might be closed to the idea of listening purely to classical music. I’ve chosen soundtracks from very different types of movies, some old, some more recent, some big Hollywood hits, some much less famous and from producers from very different parts of the world,” she explains.
“There are also French movies and ones around my family heritage, so there’s a real mix – there’s something for everyone, I’m sure.”
The album also includes two world premiere recordings by Oscar-winning composers; Anne Dudley wrote a new work for Abrami and Rachel Portman has reworked her music for The Little Prince.
The family heritage to which Abrami refers are her Jewish roots – her mother is Ashkenazi and her father is Sephardi – and her family’s experiences of the Holocaust.
The musician’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother ran away from the Nazis in les Vosges, northern France, and hid during the war. Abrami’s great-grandfather survived being beaten nearly to death by the French police. They had left everything they had in their home and when they came back, the only two items left there was her grandmother’s little violin and their turtle. Abrami’s paternal great-grandfather, however, was deported to and died in Auschwitz.
“I’m lucky to have had my grandparents telling me my family’s story – it was something I was very touched by and that’s why I included these two movies [on the album] – The Diary of Anne Frank and Life is Beautiful. At school, I was passionate about the history of the Second World War and I watched a lot of movies and read a lot.”
Abrami’s grandmother had played violin professionally prior to getting married and Abrami still has her violin. Indeed, it was her grandmother who inspired Abrami to pick up the instrument aged around nine.
“I had my first violin lesson and I fell in love with the instrument, although I was probably not making a great sound,” she laughs. “From that first lesson I decided that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
“[Classical music] got to me emotionally. And that’s why I think it’s so important that people experience it, because it can really make you feel such deep emotions.”
Her focus never wavered and she would wake at 5am to practice before lessons at London’s Royal College of Music; she completed her master’s degree at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
In 2021, she was featured in Classic FM’s 30 Under 30 to Watch (selected by Julian Lloyd Webber) and was signed to Sony Classical. In 2022, she made her Royal Albert Hall debut. Unsurprisingly, she is the first classical musician ever to win the Global Awards’ Social Media Superstar category.
Her branching out into social media stemmed from the feeling of being a “stranger” in the classical music world when she was studying in London, practicing for hours and hours locked in a practice room for one exam.
“I started losing my love of music then, because I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not playing to anyone,’ when I had made the decision to be a musician because I love connecting with and playing to people,” she recalls.
She was further discouraged after exploring the possibility of talking concert audiences through the pieces, being told that was “not the way to do it”, advice she has since rejected.
“Classical music, like any art, has its own traditions and we should never lose that, but I don’t think we can present it like we did 200 years ago because it’s not relevant to younger people,” she affirms.
“If we refuse to make it relevant, people are going to stop listening to it. Because I love classical music so deeply, I don’t want only five people to be listening to it; I don’t want it to be classified as music for snobs or older people.
“I started sharing some videos of exam practice and there was a big response; it was like someone opened a door for me. But you get locked into this narrative as a classical musician – and that’s why I got criticised for sharing – that until you’re perfect you shouldn’t play in public and I think it’s so wrong. And who decides if you’re perfect? We should share music whatever level we’re at.”
She champions female composers, lamenting the fact that they are not always recognised for their own talents or remembered in the same way as are their male counterparts. She cites Clara Schumann, saying: “Now she is well-known but a lot of the time was portrayed as this ‘plus one’ when actually she was more famous than him when they were alive.
“I can change this perception for the next generation and that’s what I try to do,” she explains and has set up a podcast, Woman in Classical, where she interviews female classical musicians and composers.
One of Abrami’s influences is the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whom she describes as having experimented with different musical styles. She is also happy to traverse genres, having played electronic music, jazz, pop and rap.
“By bringing new ways, doing new collaborations of classical music mixed with different styles, you’re presenting it to a new audience and making it more relevant to them. They will then come to you, but you’ve got to make that first move.”
Cinéma by Esther Abrami is available now (Sony Classical). estherabrami.com
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