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Celloist Chris Humphrys:
Stringing Life Along

He's been on tour with this century's most famous un-virginal pop icon. But ultimately he finds the classical music he has built his Athens-based career on far more tantalising.



Chris Humphrys






Cellist with the Megaron Mousikis' Camerata Orchestra


Studied at the Royal College of Music in London , then did a one-year specialisation degree.


Black suit with tails, white shirt, white bow-tie, black shoes. "Very very rarely, in a summer performance, when it's very hot, we're permitted to remove our jacket."

a typical day:

Humphrys wakes up at around 9am , gets ready and goes to the Megaron Mousikis (Athens Concert Hall). There he grabs a quick breakfast and prepares for rehearsal. Orchestra members have to be present at least 15 minutes before - "no way can we ever be late!" Rehearsals usually carry on until around 2.30pm , after which Humphrys has a leisurely lunch at the "fantastic" Artist's Bar at the Megaron, then nips home for a siesta, to check his e-mail etc. After that he returns to the Megaron (where he stores his cello in a special room with a set temperature that keeps the expensive instruments in top condition), to practise for around two to three hours. Following this, Humphrys returns home for 25 minutes of transcendental meditation and is fast asleep by 9pm . Well, not really. Instead, this classical musician meets with friends and enjoys the Athens night-life scene.

Humphrys, who started playing the cello at the "late" age of nine ("most cello-players start between five and six years of age"), has lived in Greece since the early 1990s when he joined the Camerata only one year after it was formed. Although he had a good idea of what Greece was like from having lived with and among Greeks at university and from his summer vacations here, he had no idea he would still be in the country almost a decade after being offered the job, for which he auditioned in London. "I hadn't foreseen that I'd be here so long," he says. "I mean, the first year I didn't even bother learning Greek! At first I was in denial but now there's no way I'd live anywhere else in the world."

When I ask Humphrys (who by now speaks fluent Greek) why he decided to stay here rather than try working in an orchestra in England , he is adamant that musicians have a far better deal here. "The reality for me is, now I'm working in an orchestra where we're not working day in-day out, with 10 concerts a week, like crazy, which is what happens in London . There, the orchestras have to give at least seven or eight concerts a week just to keep open," he says.

"In the London Orchestra, from the day you start you'd better forget about practising ever again in your life, which is really sad. So you may be learning the orchestral repertoire, but you're not really getting any better. Plus, I would be getting the same money working in London that I do working here which, when you compare the cost of living in England , the money's worth a quarter of what it counts for here. They are badly paid in Britain .

"Orchestras with hundreds of years of history behind them are closing on a regular basis because they don't have any money. They're all bankrupt. London is supposed to be... the great cultural capital of the world, and it's not going to be for very much longer. All my colleagues and friends with orchestras there struggle to survive, even with an orchestral job - and they're always afraid that they're going to wake up and not have a job. If you have five kids and a mortgage, that's no joke. And half of them are in that situation."

The musician is a serious fan of the place where he most regularly performs. "It's a fantastic concert hall - it's one of the best in the world. It's so nice to be in a place where there's money for the performing arts - that's so unusual these days. It doesn't happen in Britain any more, and it doesn't happen in America ; most places on the Continent are struggling and here we are in a country where everything is improving all the time."

Growing up chiefly in South Africa and the United States meant Humphrys travelled around a great deal and changed school numerous times. He didn't actually move to England until the age of 14. He says his youth made him "more capable of adapting" and more thick-skinned than other people his age. But when I ask him whether living in a more emotionally-expressive country such as Greece for so long has affected him as far as the classical British "stiff upper lip" trait is concerned, he says: "I find it hard to show pain. Maybe it's something that's in my genes - or maybe because I've grown up in foreign countries also. I've turned out to be very self-reliant - as the majority of Britons are."

Travel was among the most powerful attractions promised by a musical career, and Humphrys is constantly fulfilling his desire to experience the world. Through concerts with the orchestra as well as performing with quartets or chamber-music ensembles, he claims to have seen "more of Greece than what Greeks themselves see," and reveals that an added bonus is the way in which the musicians are wined-and-dined by local host communities in return for their musical favour. He has also toured a great deal of Europe .


I have to note that orchestra musicians never seem as trendy, exciting or awesomely glamorous as rock musicians. You can't exactly imagine a cellist trashing his hotel suite after a wild sex 'n' drugs night with the world's top models. But Humphrys, who has been on tour with Madonna, reassures me that not only is classical music more exciting than pop or rock, but also that there's a great deal of mutual respect and solidarity between musicians of all genres. "I would go crazy if I had to play five chords for the rest of my life, which is what happens in rock bands. Also, with orchestras you're working with a lot of people. If I imagine working intensely with only two or three other people for 30 years, I'd go insane. At least with an orchestra you're not with four people but with 40."

OK, but don't you ever want to stick out? Don't you grow tired of being one of 40? "We've got enough of a chance to do that," Humphrys, who is performing his first solo at the ancient Herod Atticus (Irodion) theatre this July, underlines. "The Camerata has a string ensemble - there are 25 musicians, with only four cellos. There are times when we need only two of the cellos, to play baroque music for example, and there's plenty of opportunities to do a solo. Every section has a principle cello. Renato Ripo is a superb soloist. And sure I'd like to be a principle cello sometime in the future, as Renato is, but he is better than me.

"One of the things I really appreciate about my job, is that ultimately there's no BS in music between musicians, because what happens is, when you get up on stage and do a live concert, and you play your instrument, you're totally exposing yourself. There's no hiding how well or how badly you play," he says.

Apart from his work with the Sinolo Skalkotas, with which he's done two chamber music performances, Humphrys has worked with Aris Mytaras (son of acclaimed Greek painter Dimitris Mytaras) on an album, and will be performing at the Irodion with the Chromata Orchestra in what promises to be a grand event.

I find Humphrys' account of being part of the first orchestra in over 1,000 years to perform at the "incredibly atmospheric," little theatre of Epidavros exciting to say the least, as is news of his up-coming performance there with popular Greek singer, Alkisti Protopsalti. But what I'm really yearning to know about is his experience with Madonna. Did he get into bed with her? Is she really the bitch she's reputed to be?

After being contacted by COOL Music (Chamber Orchestra Of London), Humphrys was chosen to go on the veteran singer's European Tour promoting her MTV-award-winning Ray Of Light album. "Madonna is the queen of all of them," he says, referring to the pop-music universe. "When we were at the MTV awards in Milan (where Humphrys accompanied the megastar in the "frightening" opening performance before a live audience of 40,000 and a further estimated billion via television), Celine Dion went to Madonna's dressing room and said, 'Hello, I'm Celine Dion, you don't know me, but I think you're wonderful and I'm a big, big fan. ' And Madonna went 'Thank you' and closed the door! Her bodyguard told me that!"

So she's stuck up - quite understandably. But is she a nasty cow? "No, absolutely not. But she's not somebody to be crossed. The thing is, you don't survive 25 years without being very, very professional. If somebody's a little bit stupid, then she will come down on them like a ton of bricks. But she gave us a hell of a lot of respect, and she was fun as well. In television there's an awful lot of 'hurry up and wait' as they call it. You wait for hours until those five minutes of live performance. So we'd all be getting bored and started playing stupid things and she'd join in and sing stupid songs and we were just having fun. I mean, she's quite human although she leads a very inhuman life."

Playing on Britain 's 30-odd-year-old Top Of The Pops youth music programme was one long-held dream this cellist was able to realise while touring with Madonna. So was it worth the wait? "Well, it was rather disappointing actually! It's a really crap little studio! BBC don't have much money to spend on it. It was very exciting though, because it was something I'd always wanted to do. The thing is, because my dad (top British journalist John Humphrys) had been on TV all my life, it's never been a big thing in our family for someone to be on television. But I still wanted to prove that I could do it too!"

Realised childhood fantasies aside, if he had to choose between Moby and Mendelssohn, Humphrys says he would choose the latter. He loves the fact that music today is incorporating classical harmonies and tones, but finds the real McCoy far more suitable to his tastes.

free time

A long-time love affair with the Cycladic island of Naxos offers Humphrys the idyllic breaks away from the city he craves (but not long enough to ever make his cello feel neglected). Billiards is also a favourite pastime ("a lot of musicians happen to be very good at it").

But has being the son of BBC's Radio 4 legend ever tempted Humphrys to follow the path of journalism? "Very briefly, but then I thought, no, I wouldn't want to do the same thing as he did. Not that I don't enjoy journalism - and I do write a bit myself - but I didn't want to always be in his shadow, which would inevitably have happened. I'm glad I didn't go into it. I feel sorry for people when I see them - in music as well - following in their parents' footsteps and people saying, 'oh well, he's only made it because of his father' - it's that old thing. And in a thing like journalism, which is so bitchy, that's always going to happen, and that's a horrible thing to have to live with. If I do a little bit of journalism now that's fine because I've established my own career, so it would be something on the side."


Humphrys wouldn't say. "But it's a full-time salary."

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