When not working, you’ll find Sophie Funston hunting for second-hand fabric for her clothing label, or trying to learn Hokkien. Sophie is an up-and-coming baroque cellist and freelance writer, based in Sydney. She attributes her love for writing to her passion for showing how music is relevant to everyone, which she does by writing program notes for various Sydney-based ensembles.
Her specialisation in 18th Century bowholds is the centre of a venn diagram for her three work loves: performance, writing, and education. Her performance career began by accident, when, as a student, she was mistakenly contacted to play in a concert instead of another baroque cellist. Sophie’s playing and professionalism so impressed the ensemble that she has had freelance work ever since.
Q: What made you decide that you wanted a life in music? Was there a particular moment (an epiphany, if you like) that led you to this decision, or was the process more gradual?
A: I started learning cello before I started school, so it made sense to continue cello studies at university. It wasn’t until I was at the Conservatorium that I discovered the Baroque Cello. A lot of Baroque music was intended to be background music, but it shouldn’t ever be boring to listen to. Once I started learning about how a couple of notes are important and need to be accentuated, and the rest can be thrown away, I immediately knew I had to play basso continuo for the rest of my life. There’s something very special to me about being so integral to the ensemble, without being in the spotlight. I also sing with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, which has helped me realise that you can make music professionally and have fun at the same time – I needed to learn that.
Q: What sort of working life in the profession are you aiming for? Do you have a picture of what you’d like to be doing in the short term? And beyond that? Has the pandemic affected the decisions you’ve made?
A: I love the flexibility of freelance work, but like everyone in the industry, I am currently having my concerns. I enjoy teaching. When we transitioned to online lessons, I started writing more emails, more lesson scheduling, progress reports, homework… and I found that as rewarding as the teaching. This has made me start thinking seriously about taking on HR/arts admin roles.
Q: Can you tell me about one of your favourite classical pieces, in your capacities as performer and/or listener? Can you tell me why you love this music so much? (You’re allowed to choose more than one piece!)
I can’t go past the Allemande of Bach’s First Cello Suite. It is deceptively simple, often overlooked, and it forces you to not overthink the dots. I have been warming up my gut strings in winter with the first movement of Debussy’s beautiful cello sonata (This is nothing crazy, gut strings were pretty common until the late-20th Century!). If I’m up late at night, and in a darker mood, I turn to Dall’Abaco’s first Caprice. On a different scale, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies make for a dramatic shower soundtrack. They’re nostalgic: I played in performances of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth just as I was transitioning to Baroque Cello.
Q: What kind of role do you think the virtual space will play in the world of professional music-making in the next few years?
A: I saw a social media post at the start of 2020: ‘Get ready for a tonne of at-home solo Bach recordings!’ It is wonderful that social media can be a space for progress and practice videos, and also for reaching audiences who may not be reachable in an in-person context.
The Western classical professional scene has much to learn from all the other exciting professional and amateur performance disciplines in Australia. While they cannot replace the feeling of collaborating live in person, a fascinating phenomenon of virtual spaces is how they may encourage cross-cultural and cross-discipline music-making.
I’m certain that virtual platforms will become a natural part of classical concert design, with larger organisations (at least) presenting mixed-delivery professional concerts. It has been wonderful to see how concerts filmed for virtual presentation have been able to utilise more intimate venues in Australia, ones in which we wouldn’t normally expect classical concerts. I think this might encourage greater flexibility in how future concerts are structured and programmed.
Sophie Funston is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.