Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview

Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist, and an emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance. He was born in May 1995 in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary, and given more than a hundred concerts with pianist Katherine Austin. Cañón Valencia’s first album, ‘Solo’ [iTunes link ⤴︎], recorded works by Gaspar Cassadó, Alberto Ginastera, György Ligeti, and Zoltán Kodály on the Atoll label.

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia has two new compact disc recordings published by Atoll: one a selection of twentieth century Russian sonatas (Shostakovich, Schnittke and Prokofiev); and the other of short and virtuoso pieces for cello and piano.

He was a finalist in the 2017 Queen Elisabeth Cello Competition. There are excellent videos of the performances in this competition.

Williams: The special nature of education for elite musicians is mano a mano, so to speak. Who are your musical antecedents, and what have they given to you?

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia: I come from a family of musicians, my father is a clarinet player who works at the Bogotá Philharmonic, my sister is a violinist, and my mother used to play the cello. She was in fact my very first cello teacher and the one that got me to play the cello. Because of my family’s background, my life has always been surrounded by art. I believe being an artist in any discipline was always meant to be, though, I am sure that if I wanted to do something non-art related my family would have been just as supportive and encouraging as they have been with what I am doing now. From all of this I have learned to love, value and admire not only music but art in general and I am proud of being an artist.

Williams: Anyone who watches and listens to your performances closely will have noticed your father’s immense pride when you perform with the Bogotá Philharmonic. It’s clear he gets a buzz from it.

Cañón Valencia: Yeah, I am happy I make him and the rest of my family proud.

About my teachers… I’ve only had three throughout these almost sixteen years of playing the cello and I believe each one of them has had a huge impact and influence on the way I approach the cello and how I play it, of course.

My first teacher was Henryk Zarzycki, I studied with him for about eight years and he is like a musical grandfather to me. He was the one that basically formed me musically and technically as I started studying with him since the age of four and a half. Not only was he an amazing teacher but he also encouraged my other interests, aside from music, like painting. His teaching was truly inspiring, he always had a way of coming up with different stories for every piece I was working on. Apart from being entertaining, it really opened my mind to think of music as just another way of communication, much like a book you read or a person you listen to speak or sing.

Santiago Cañón Valencia's first album, Solo, published by Atoll.

My second teacher was James Tennant, with whom I studied for five years. This was an amazing time, not only because that is when I was introduced to the beautiful country of New Zealand, but because in those five years James developed my musical and expressive side so much. Those five years were spent mostly focused on really delving inside every piece of music I played. It did not matter whether it was a big work like a sonata, or a short concert piece, the point of it was to really give meaning to every note in every work I played and to think beyond just playing everything nicely without mistakes.

My third teacher was Andrés Díaz with whom I worked for two years. The time I got to spend with him was very interesting as he provided me with an inside look of what it was like to live the life of a touring soloist. This for me is very valuable as he not only focused on cello playing but he also focused on teaching me how to be smart in the professional music world.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for these three amazing musicians.

Williams: Musicians of your age and younger are the first ‘generation’ to learn about music, performance and technique with the additional aid of both audio recordings and YouTube. Do you think it has it made a difference?

Cañón Valencia: I think YouTube has had the biggest impact on music students as it gives all of us the opportunity to have all the great performers in front of us and watch them play whenever we want. However, for me, YouTube is also a great platform to promote myself as a musician because it gives me the opportunity to share all my performances with the world. Many people do this because it is a great way to gain a worldwide audience.

Williams: You answered a ‘dinner party’ question recently with a list of ideal guests that included Casals, Chuck Close and Arvo Pärt—but left out Rostropovich! This is your chance to explain yourself, and maybe to tell us about the kind of art and artists you like …

Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.
Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.

Cañón Valencia: In that answer I thought that for me, it would have been a more interesting dinner party if it wasn’t just centered in music. I chose a variety of artists that I really admire. For example, I always think of Dalí and Gaudí together because Gaudí’s constructions look like something that could have easily come out of a Dalí painting, or, a Dalí painting looks like something inspired by a Gaudí construction. For me, those two are some of the most interesting and innovative artists and their works just have a way of getting inside my mind without ever leaving. Another one is Arvo Pärt, who’s music I have always loved and he is one of the very few minimalist composers who always keeps me listening carefully with never-ending interest. I chose Casals as the only cellist simply because he is like the father of all modern cellists and definitely one that I admire the most, not only because of his artistic qualities but also because of his human qualities. I could have chosen so many cellists but I admire so many that if i was to list them all, there would be too many. Of course I admire Rostropovich and if he wanted to join the party I wouldn’t dare say no.

Williams:  Rostropovich would have brought the vodka; I’m not sure about Casals. I agree wholeheartedly about Casals, though.

I mention Rostropovich because he used his status and relationships with composers to create new music; and I wanted to ask you: Where do you think new music (for the cello) is going to come from now? We are living in a difficult period for composers, aren’t we? —More difficult for composers than performers?

Cañón Valencia: I think that as long as there are great musicians, there will always be a big open door for great new music to come. I also think that the popularity that the cello has gained over the years is constantly inspiring more and more young composers to explore the instrument and its vast tonal range. Like you say, Rostropovich, more than any other cellist, brought so much great music to the cello repertoire from great composers like Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ginastera, Dutilleux (just to name a few). I think that in the present there many great cellists still promoting new music and I hope I can also become a part of that.

‘Nightwind’ (for two cellos, composed 2011) is from the album Toru (ACD143, Atoll), a collection of chamber works by Martin Lodge. In this recording Santiago Cañón Valencia and Edward King are the cellists. The producer was Wayne Laird.

Williams: It is a fairly common view among musicologists—and competition judges—that “recording has directed performance style into a search for greater precision and perfection, with a consequent loss of spontaneity and warmth”. Trying to negotiate an audience’s desire for both perfection and spontaneity becomes a high-wire act for solo performers. Lucas Debargue’s performances in Moscow show how interesting—and divisive—this act can be.

What is your opinion about this, and do you have a strategy for coping with it yourself as you prepare for performances or recordings?

Cañón Valencia: This is an interesting question. I’ve always been in a search for balance between both, musical spontaneity and technical precision. I believe that both are important when presenting yourself to an audience in any concert hall.

CD recordings for me should be the same, they need to have the excitement and spontaneity that comes with the adrenaline of performing live. I think listening to mere technical perfection would eventually get a little boring.

When it comes to competitions it is really difficult to know what the judges want exactly. I say this because I’ve had personal experiences in international competitions where personal expression and spontaneity is actually looked down upon. Some judges are very literal with the score and a ‘perfect’ performance for them might just mean playing exactly what’s written. Whereas some others encourage individuality and may think that there is more to the music than what is printed on the page.

In my personal opinion, I like to take both points of view into account and address pieces with my own individual approach but still find a way to keep true to the work. I believe in being true to the style of every piece too. If it’s a work by Bach I would not play it like I would play Dvořák, and I would not play Dvořák the way I would play Shostakovich. Apart from the individual musical language from every composer, I think it is also important to take into account the musical style of the period in which they lived in.

Williams: If you were a writer I would ask you what you were reading. But you’re a musician, so you should tell me what you are listening to …

Cañón Valencia: I’m listening to quite a lot now. For study: Il Progetto Vivaldi: Sol Gabetta and Sonatori de la Gioiosa MarcaSix Suites for Violoncello Solo: Pieter Wispelwey (this recording is his 1998 version of the suites, I believe). Truls Mørk’s recording of the sonata for solo cello by George Crumb. And the Ginastera Cello Concertos: Mark Kosower, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Lothar Zagrosek.

As far as music that I listen to in my free time, there are too many albums to list but mainly I like to listen to post rock, ambient, shoegaze, noise rock and a bit of prog metal.

In 2019, Santiago won second place in the cello section of the Tchaikovsky Competition.

This interview, conducted in writing between 3 October and 21 October 2015, is copyright © Santiago Cañón Valencia and Stephen J. Williams and may not be reproduced without permission of the authors.

Related links on other sites

Music and videos related to this interview

Ginastera: Cello Concerto # 2, Op 50, Santiago Cañón Valencia

Lucas Debargue performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Six Pieces, Op. 51 No. 6 in F Minor, ‘Valse Sentimentale’.

Cañón Valencia performs Niccolò Paganini caprice number 24

Cañón Valencia at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition


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