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Julian in tune with cellist wife

Three-times divorced Julian Lloyd Webber is now married to a fellow musician, 23 years his junior. The renowned soloist tells Julia Molony why this union strikes the right chord

IT'S by no means lavish, but travelling up in the open-cage lift to Julian Lloyd Webber's top-floor, mansion-block apartment in South Kensington, one can't help but have the feeling of ascending in the world.

There he is at the door, greeting me warmly, with a Dumbledore air of gentle lassitude, the sort of un-pushy authority possessed by those who have reached the very zenith of professional achievement. His new wife, Chinese cellist Jiaxin, is there too but having produced tea and coffee, makes herself scarce.

The flat he has inhabited since his college days is elegantly decorated with tasteful artefacts and loads of books. It's the house of a cultured man.

This is not surprising, given his standing as a pre-eminent classical musician of his generation. Though it's Andrew, his musical-theatre conquering brother with the Midas touch who is the household name, Julian is no less celebrated in classical circles.

This year looks set to be Julian's busiest yet. There's his 60th birthday to be marked, naturally, with a tour (which is coming to Ireland) and a CD release, not to mention more bookings than ever. And now, to add to all of that, a baby.

For, just a couple of weeks after I met him, I opened the paper to see that he and Jiaxin, who is 35, had announced that they are going to be parents. Which as Julian already knows very well is rather time-consuming.

At the age of 13, Julian decided quite resolutely that performing was going to be his number-one devotion. And so it has remained. Through four marriages, three divorces, (more of which later) parenthood and, over almost five decades, it's always been his lodestar. Excellence, and the commitment required to achieve it, has remained the one immovable factor in his life.

"I'm definitely a very severe critic of myself," he says. "Possibly too much. Sometimes I come off [stage] after a concert and I'm really down, what -ever the audience reaction has been. My wife, being another cellist, she thinks I'm too critical of myself. It's a bit late for me to learn.... It's me, it's how I've done what I've done. She thinks I kind of torture myself, but that's how I did it. You can't change your personality really."

My assumption is that for Julian and Andrew to have reached such giddy heights of accomplishment they must have been subjected to some kind of genius-incubating childhood -- formidable, slave-driving parents sternly supervising a punishing daily schedule of practice -- but this turns out to be not at all true.

Pushy parents, Julian says, only ever get you so far.

"I've seen many, many people in college, who were pushed into it by their parents. They get a certain way and then they can't take it any further because it's just not there. They don't really want it for themselves. You've got to want to do if for yourself."

Instead, his childhood was rather free, happy and bohemian. Although he admits that it's probably of some significance that he and Andrew were surrounded by extreme talent -- the famous pianist John Lill was their lodger, the lyricist Tim Rice was always around, and their father was a composer, who according to Julian, had been a child prodigy on the organ.

"There was this unspoken thing that everything you did had to be very good. So although in one sense it was completely undisciplined, in another it wasn't. If I was going to do something it had to be good. God, if I ever played something through to my father and it wasn't good, I would know about it."

He swats away any suggestion, admittedly now rather hackneyed, that he and Andrew provided competitive spurs for one another, driving each other to greater heights of achievement.

You didn't feel in any way motivated by a desire to define yourself against him?

"Not at all, no," he says, with studied patience. "Because I grew up with him, he's three years older than me and he was already playing tunes and stuff on the piano. That's kind of my earliest memories really. But he never wanted to be a performer at all. He only wanted to play well enough to play his own music. And I never wanted to write music.

"There was one point, when Andrew wasn't going to do music, he wasn't going to do the theatre. He was fascinated by buildings -- still is actually, churches -- and there was some plan that he was going to go into that area. Well, that wouldn't have stopped me playing the cello."

If anything, he says of growing up in the Lloyd Webber household, "I don't think Andrew thinks it was as much fun as I did. Because the majority of people wandering in and out were very classical. Students of my father and mother. And we were living with John Lill, who was four years older than Andrew, and I think that was difficult for him."

Having been married four times, Julian has learnt the hard way that the mindset which promotes professional excellence does not also necessarily smooth the way to domestic harmony.

"It must be very difficult to live with a musician," he admits. "My first wife was very, very understanding, very supportive of what I was doing. I think my second wife found it more difficult. She did try. She really did try to support me. But I think it was the amount of preoccupation I had with the music. I think she found that difficult to take."

Can it be lonely? "Oh yeah. On both sides ... When you are on that platform, you're alone.

"And especially when I go off doing foreign tours. Lonely is the wrong word," he says, looking reflective. "I think solitary is a better word. It's a solitary existence. And much more so than even if you were in a quartet or an orchestra. Who do you meet on the tour? You meet a conductor who you never met before. And maybe you spend some time with them, maybe you don't. It's very transitory."

The rub, however, is that because it's solitary and transitory, a steady home life becomes an indispensable support.

"You want to know after all that hard work that there is something to come back to. Otherwise it's a pretty punishing lifestyle. You don't want to come back to an empty place. You want to feel also when you are away... I do like to share and I find it easier, if I know I'm working for some kind of family background too. It's not just me."

But preserving that background while focused on music is a challenge. Nevertheless, with three marriages behind him, he prefers not to see past relationships as failures.

"If someone had said to me, 'you're going to get married four times, I would have said 'that's ridiculous'," Julian says now. "Nobody goes into marriage thinking it's not going to work. I met my first wife when I was 18, we got married at 23, so we knew each other for five years. I thought that would be for good.

"We were together for a long time. I was married to my wife for 14 years and had known her for five. So that's a big chunk of your life.

"With hindsight you could say, I got married too young, or both of us got married too young, because we were the same age. But I wouldn't like to say that because I had a very good relationship with her ... a very productive relationship. Nobody likes the idea of a failed marriage, but I don't look at that and say that was a failed marriage, because we had a really good, productive relationship where we did a lot together, and achieved a lot together."

He's still in touch too, with his second wife, who is the mother of his now grown-up son, who is studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"We had some very good times. And I'm still pretty friendly with her. And we can still laugh together, which is nice."

Of his renewed enthusiasm for matrimony with Jiaxin, he quips, "there's quite an age gap between us. Nearly 24 years. I'm very immature and she's very mature so it works".

"We have a very good relationship actually, we don't argue much at all," he says in a sort of British, unsentimental way that is nonetheless rather touching. She's the first of his partners who is a musician, so perhaps that makes a difference, and he agrees that performing together, which they did for the first time recently, represents a different level of communication, a shared burden of responsibility on stage that provides a welcome sort of support.

That said, playing together is also "fraught with difficulty. When it came to the music we did start arguing. But you get over that. We both want to get it right. And you get critical of each other, so it's a recipe for disaster."

Is there any competitiveness there?

"No none at all. I've never even had a girlfriend who was a musician. So it's the first time I've been in any kind of relationship with a musician. And the cello too. I think I'm probably ready for that now coming up to 60, I can cope with it, but I certainly couldn't have done earlier. It's too intense. But Jiaxin isn't hugely ambitious and doesn't want to do masses of solo concerts so we're not really in any kind of competition at all."

The new baby will doubtless bring an extra dimension and new pressures. He hints that he might travel less.

"It wasn't easy," he says of the conflict between his work and becoming a parent to his son David," because when he was born it was very difficult for him to travel -- almost impossible. I mean we tried it and it didn't work. But it is difficult with very young children. The relationship therefore has to be strong enough to survive some periods away."

Did he ever feel torn?

"I couldn't. I know what my job is. Somebody could say well that's a very selfish lifestyle. And I suppose that it is. But what is the alternative? There isn't one. Unless you don't do the job as well as you can do it. And that's going to lead to all kinds of other problems. Especially if you know that you haven't done it as well as you could because of that."

Travels with my Cello: An Evening with Julian Lloyd Webber, February 18 to 23: Friday, February 18, 7.30pm, Grand Opera House, Belfast; Saturday, February 19, 8pm, Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire; Sunday, February 20, 8pm University Concert Hall, Limerick; Tuesday, February 22, 8pm, Tralee, Siamsa Tire Theatre; Wednesday, February 23, 8pm; Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork; Thursday, February 24, 8pm, Opera House, Wexford

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