Tones Heard in a Tuning

I am delighted to feature another guest post by writer Dr James Holden

The piano tuner is tuning the piano.

Downstairs, the piano tuner presses down the piano’s keys in order to tune the piano.

He presses down a key. He presses down a key.

Downstairs, the piano tuner is working his way down the keyboard, pressing down each key in turn, turning the tuning pins, tuning it. He works his way right down, pressing now the downmost keys. The downmost keys need tuning and the piano tuner is now tuning them. They need tuning as they are down in pitch. These downmost keys need tuning because they are now down in pitch, and when the piano tuner presses down the keys they beat out of time. They have a metallic clang. When the piano tuner presses down the downmost keys it now sounds like a hammer striking a bell, not a string.

Downstairs, a bell is ringing. Downstairs the piano tuner is ringing a bell, a solemn bell. The hammer strikes. The bell tolls. The hammer strikes. It is a funeral bell tolling. It is a funeral bell, the bell that tolls downstairs, like Berlioz’s bell. It is a bell that calls forth to witness. Downstairs, the downmost notes sound out the Dies Irae. It is now Berlioz’s bell.

He presses down a key. He presses down a key.

Upstairs, I’m listening to the piano tuner. I’m listening to the piano tuner tune the piano. I’m listening to him tune the piano back up to pitch. Upstairs, the piano is uppermost in my mind. I should be writing down my thoughts, but I’m not. Upstairs, I’m listening to the piano tuner tune the piano.

He presses down a key. He presses down a key.

Downstairs, the piano tuner is working his way up the keyboard, turning the tuning pins, tuning it. He works his way right up, pressing now the uppermost keys. The uppermost keys need tuning and the piano tuner is now tuning them. These uppermost keys need tuning because they need to be brought up to pitch, and when the piano tuner presses the keys they beat out of time. They have a metallic clang. When the piano tuner presses the uppermost keys it now sounds like a series of small bells.

Downstairs, bells are ringing out. Downstairs the piano tuner is ringing bells, joyful bells. The clappers clap. The bells ring. The clappers clap. And as the piano tuner rings out these bells, and as he checks his octaves, he plays a casual, coincidental Campanella to rapturous applause. These are bells that call forth to dance, to get up. The uppermost notes sound out the steps. This is now Paganini’s peal.

He presses down a key. He presses down a key.

The piano is now in tune.

Downstairs, the piano tuner has tuned the piano. Downstairs, he has pressed down each key in turn, turned the tuning pins, tuned it. The notes are now where they should always have been. They are neither up nor down but right there, right where they should always have been.

The piano is now in tune.

About the author: 

James Holden is a writer working across the critical-creative divide. He is a specialist in British and European culture from the birth of Chopin in 1810 to the death of Monet in 1926. His published work includes In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). He is currently working on a philosophical reading of romantic pianism. James also writes experimental prose and poetry. He is currently associated with the HOARD art project in Leeds. 

His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk 

He tweets as @CulturalWriter 

 

A short film about my piano tuner Rolf Dragstra, made by his son

 

A response to Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chair and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition and grand elder stateswoman of piano teaching, has been in the news this week as she has announced that she will be standing down from the prestigious piano competition after next year’s event.

Dame Fanny is “a living institution of British music” (source: The Guardian) and her views and opinions command much respect in the piano world and music education community in the UK and beyond. In today’s Observer, she expresses her fears for the future of pianism in the UK. I read her article with interest and have enjoyed a lively discussion in response to it with members of my own pianistic and piano teaching community on social networks. Based on these discussions, I would like to offer some points in response to Dame Fanny’s view:

Electric pianos and keyboards

I don’t like these instruments either. They are not a patch on a “real” acoustic piano, upright or grand, but they do offer an affordable alternative and for beginning students, child or adult, I would not hesitate to recommend a digital piano. There are some excellent models on the market at the moment. Many people simply do not have the income nor the space to purchase an acoustic piano for their children when starting piano lessons. (And I have seen some truly awful pianos in the homes of some of music students – out of tune and badly maintained.) One of my students has recently acquired a piano, having been studying with me for c4 years. Her parents took the decision to upgrade to a proper instrument because they could see she was committed to her piano studies and they appreciate that a real piano will enable her to develop as a young pianist.

Starting young?

Some children show aptitude for a musical instrument from a very early age, some later. And some come to music in adulthood. What is important here is encouraging and supporting an interest in music. Sure, there are kids out there who “are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four”, but delve a little deeper and I think most of these proto-Lang Langs display exceptional technical facility without any proper insight or musical understanding. This comes with maturity, time spent with the  music, understanding the context in which the music was created, and listening around the music – and much more besides….

There are no great British pianists today?

Dame Fanny, I beg to differ. They may not be well known on the international circuit (yet), but I have encountered some extraordinarily talented British pianists through my concert reviewing and interviews on this blog. What about Benjamin Grosvenor, a young British artist who already shows tremendous maturity, beyond his tender years? Other artists I would cite include Danny Driver, Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Richard Uttley, Lara Melda, Cordelia Williams, Daniel Tong. There is a terrible tendency, especially amongst more senior members of our society, to continually hark back to an earlier “golden age”. But we should look to the future and nurture and encourage the talent we have.

British pianists are not entering the Leeds competition

As one contributor to the discussion on Facebook said, one needs a hefty amount of wherewithal to enter international competitions. Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK, and not many people have the financial support (including parents who will fund such ventures) to consider the risk of entering a competition. It’s not because British pianists aren’t good enough; it’s because many of them simply can’t afford it!

And competitions should never been seen as the be all and end all. Sure, winning a prestigious competition can launch one on a successful international career, but it’s not a dead cert.

Students today lack “a grounding in the instrument’s complexities”

Here I agree with Dame Fanny. In my experience as a regular concert-goer and reviewer, I come across too many young artists (of all nationalities) whose sound has become “dumbed down”, if you will. They aim for  middle of the road expression and dynamics which they believe will please audiences and critics, and (some) teachers. I think part of this is due to bad teaching – the teachers themselves do not understand the complexities of the instrument – and also the fault of exceptionally high-quality recordings whose sound artists feel they should replicate in live performances.

Young pianists have too narrow a repertoire

In fact, I think many young artists have too wide a repertoire, as they feel they must have the big warhorses of the standard piano repertoire in their fingers by a certain point in their career in order to gain recognition and respect. This goes back to my earlier point about maturity. But I agree with Dame Fanny’s point that piano students today do not spend enough time studying a composer’s complete oeuvre: one cannot study one piece in isolation. I teach context from the get go, encouraging students to understand where the music they are learning comes from and suggesting “further listening” and study to offer a broader picture.

Young people lack the discipline to study the piano seriously

In addition to the discipline that is required to practise and apply oneself to musical study, students also need encouragement and support from family and teachers. Parents also need to understand that genuine musical talent comes from day-in-day-out commitment – and on this point I agree with Dame Fanny. But children should not be pushed to the extent that they lose their childhood in the process.

Music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off

With poor provision for music education and instrumental teaching in many of our state schools, sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off.  The cost of learning an instrument is a major barrier for many. Only a relatively small sector of our society can afford to put students into specialist music schools or offer the necessary funding for their study, both at school and beyond.

Initiatives such as James Rhodes’ ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ are laudable, but I think a major shift in attitude towards music and the arts in general needs to take place, from the Department of Education down, in order for music education to be respected and accepted as a necessary part of our children’s education. My own recent research into attitudes towards private piano teaching in the UK reveal an alarming viewpoint: that music is regarded as a “soft”  subject, or simply a “hobby”. This view extends into the world of professional music making, where musicians are not properly valued and receive poor or no pay, because they are perceived as doing a job they love, or that music is not regarded as “a proper job”. This is part of a wider discussion, but it is touched upon in Dame Fanny’s article.

Another related aspect is the British attitude towards “achievement” and that peculiarly British dislike of “show offs”. Achievement and excellence have become dirty words in this country, and this dumbing down begins in primary school (at least in the state sector) where, for example, sports day has become some bland running about pointlessly with teachers cheering kids on and saying anodyne things like “everyone’s a winner!”. Culture, excellence and personal achievement need to be supported, nourished and encouraged. 

Future of piano playing in UK is in peril, veteran teacher warns

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion via my Facebook thread.

I was also interviewed by LBC in response to Dame Fanny’s article. Listen here

Anne Shingler in concert

pianist Anne Shingler
pianist Anne Shingler

Prize-winning pianist Anne Shingler plays music by Bach, Kabalevsky, Schubert (arr. Liszt), Janacek, Peter Sculthorpe and Stephen Hough. Anne is a vibrant pianist who is living with terminal cancer, and her varied programme reflects her lively musical tastes and passion for piano music, and life.

“A poetic & detailed reading…”

Programme:

J S Bach – ‘Toccata’ in E minor from Partita No. 6
Dmitri Kabalevsky – Sonata No. 3, Op. 46
Schubert/Liszt – ‘Standchen’
Leos Janacek – ‘In the Mists’ Nos. 1 & 3
Peter Sculthorpe – ‘Night Pieces’
Stephen Hough – ‘Matilda’s Waltz’ & ‘Valse Enigmatique’ No. 1

Saturday 3 January 2015
2pm (doors open 1.30pm)

Schott Recital Room
Schott Music
Great Marlborough Street
London W1

Tickets £12

Buy tickets

Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Help Musicians UK (formerly the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund). Please consider making a donation via JustGiving if you are unable to attend the concert.

030-Bass-030Prize-winning pianist Anne Shingler, originally from Grimsby, Lincolnshire, has been playing the piano since the age of 8.

Following studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music in Drama, she worked as a freelance accompanist, repetiteur and piano teacher in London for 10 years before relocating to Wales in 2002. She currently runs a private teaching practice and regularly competes in competitions all over the UK, achieving multiple successes in the Open classes at the Cheltenham, Bristol, West London and Birmingham Festivals in the last 3 years. Anne was a finalist in the EPTA National Finals at Chethams, Manchester in 2013 and 2014, and has been chosen by the West London Festival as their representative in the annual prestigious Emanuel Piano Trophy competition which brings together the top nominated pianists from festivals around the UK. In March 2014, Anne gave a successful sell-out recital at the 1901 Arts Club in London as part of the South London Concert Series.

Meet the Artist…… Natalie Bleicher, pianist and composer

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and composing, and pursue a career in music?

I grew up in a musical household as my mother was a piano teacher. She taught me piano and I also played viola and violin, and for as long as I can remember I knew wanted a career in music. I think I first started composing because improvising new melodies and harmonies made practising my scales more interesting!

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Many and varied. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent musical education with many good teachers, starting with my mother. My secondary school, Dame Alice Owen’s, had a very strong music department and I attended Trinity College of Music, Junior Department on Saturdays. I also played the viola in Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra. I then went on to study music at Oxford and composition at King’s College, London.

More recently, I joined CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) in 2005, playing the piano in CoMA London Ensemble which is a contemporary music group open to all instruments and all abilities. Initially I thought that CoMA would be a good way to provide composing opportunities, but I enjoyed playing the piano in the ensemble so much that I started to realise that I had more of a passion for playing than composing, particularly the excitement of playing contemporary music. CoMA has taught me more about contemporary music than my master’s degree in composition and I have discovered many wonderful composers and explored their solo piano music, including Paul Burnell, Joanna Lee and Dave Smith whose works appear on my latest CD.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge for me has been working out how to find my niche as a musician in the first place. I always knew I wanted a career in music and after graduating I worked for several years in music organisations alongside some composing and teaching. However I always felt that I wanted to spend more time making music myself. When I had the opportunity to switch to part time hours in my administrative work I was able to think seriously about what career I really wanted and how to get there, and that’s when I realised that I wanted to focus on piano.

While I had always taken piano seriously I knew that converting this into a full-time career would require a concentrated period of study and that’s when I got in touch with my teacher Thalia Myers. Under her guidance I threw myself into getting my playing up to a standard where I could forge a career as a pianist.

Embarking on a career as a professional pianist in ones thirties rather than twenties has its challenges, but I believe that a richness of musical and life experiences informs my playing, providing me with something a little different to offer audiences.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

My first CD, Dream Rotation, which I recorded in November 2013 and which has recently come out. Dream Rotation is a collection of six contemporary works by composers I know. Four of the works were in fact written for me to play, two of which are dedicated to me. Five are premiere recordings.

I had at the back of my mind that I would like to record some of the repertoire I had been working on. I decided to go for it in 2013 when I discovered I was expecting a baby in early 2014 and I knew that my practising time would be reduced afterwards. I recorded the six works in one day in November 2013 at the Jacqueline du Pré music building in Oxford with the excellent recording engineer Adaq Khan. In the run-up to the day I had to put a lot of work into learning the works to a standard I was happy with and I had three other concerts during that two-week period. All while being seven months pregnant! The recording day itself was enormous fun and went more smoothly than I could have hoped for, then all the editing and admin that goes into bringing a CD out was done during 2014 in bits of time snatched in between looking after my little boy.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As I am always learning new things and developing as a player it tends to be whatever I’ve performed most recently. I love playing contemporary music and I actually find standard repertoire quite daunting because there are so many interpretations already out there. I also love playing in ensembles and orchestras and regard this aspect of my playing as just as important as my solo playing.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

In a variety of ways. Depending on what concerts are coming up I may look for a piece for a particular occasion or others might make a specific request. In addition, composers often send me their works, which I welcome although I also warn them that their pieces will go on to a large pile on my piano and there’s no guarantee of a performance! I have discovered that male composers are much less shy about sending pieces to performers than female composers. Women take note!

As a composer, who are the major influences on your work?

A tough question! Every piece is different and I have sometimes noticed that each piece has something of whatever I’ve been listening to and playing at the time. In recent years this means CoMA repertoire, particularly the use of aleotoric notation such as indefinite pitches and rhythms and generally thinking outside the box. Composers such as Howard Cheesman, Joanna Lee, Stephen Montague and Dave Smith all think creatively about what the performers are required to do and how to express that in a notation which will be understood.

Do you find your composing informs your performing and vice versa?

Absolutely! In terms of playing it is useful to think about what kind of sound the composer was aiming for in any particular texture and to imagine each passage as if it were written for voice, and as if it were written for orchestra, as well as how it is actually written for piano. Understanding the structure of a piece and how the material develops is essential in planning a performance.

It is imperative for composers to understand their music from the point of view of a performer because it is only the performer who can actually bring the music to life. Since I have been playing contemporary music I have thought much more carefully about writing music for the instruments playing it and notating from the performer’s point of view. I think the music I have written as a result of this has greater clarity and I have been much more careful about how things are notated.

You have a special interest in contemporary repertoire and new music. What are the special pleasures and challenges of working with this repertoire?

Bringing a piece to life for the very first time is a wonderful experience. I love the feeling of discovering a piece I didn’t know before and with a brand new piece there is the added feeling of being the first to discover it. Think of your favourite piece of music and imagine being the first person to hear it!

Performers who concentrate on mainstream repertoire rely on a filtering process by which the best works survived and the less successful ones didn’t, whereas performing contemporary music involves being part of this filtering process. I find this exciting and rewarding but it does require patience because one has to engage with the less successful pieces as well as the gems. Patience is also required when working on a piece for the first time because there are invariably teething problems requiring a dialogue with the composer. Again, I enjoy this but it does require patience.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have given several recitals at the Schott recital room in central London. I like the intimacy of this venue which enables the performer to engage with the audience. So many concerts are in churches and other large venues where the audience can hide at the back. Having said that, I am very much looking forward to performing at St. Cuthbert’s Church NW6 on 27 September. It is a modern building with a wooden interior and is beautifully proportioned inside. The concert is to celebrate the arrival of a new piano and launch of their concert series and I think it is going to turn out to be a popular chamber music venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a few pieces which I come back to regularly because they work so well in performance. Gabriel Jackson Angelorum is one I have performed many times as it is so satisfying to communicate to the audience, whether they are regular listeners of contemporary music or completely new to it. The pieces on my CD, particularly Joanna Lee Atta and Hopper and Paul Burnell 3 Plain Pieces fall in to the same category. Another piece I loved performing and hope to perform again is Patrick Nunn Music of the Spheres which includes electronic sounds taken from data from Voyager spacecraft as it flew past the planets. Great fun!

To listen to, I have several favourite composers including Bartok, Messiaen, Ravel and Schumann but really I love all classical music from Bach to Birtwistle.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Goodness, how long have we got? I think I’m just going to pick out a few musicians who have inspired me somehow for various reasons.

The pianist Mary Dullea is quite special. I have heard her and taken masterclasses with her at CoMA summer schools and her playing displays a really sensitive and intelligent musicianship as well as formidable technique. I am also a fan of the pianist Nicholas Hodges whose mastery of counterpoint makes sense of the most complex of Birtwistle’s piano works.

There are a number of living composers who I count amongst my favourites. Aside from the composers I have previously mentioned, I love the music of Phil Cashian. He has written a number of pieces for CoMA which work really well and he always uses fresh textures and has a wonderful ear for harmony. Julian Anderson and George Benjamin are also favourite composers of mine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My first recital at the Schott recital room in September 2011 was very special as it was my first recital after I started studying piano seriously again. I played a set of twelve waltzes by Schubert, a short piece by Phil Cashian called Slow Air, Gabriel Jackson’s Angelorum and Schumann Kinderszenen. Unfortunately the event was tinged with sadness because, having taught me to play the piano in the first place and provided so much support over the years, my mother was not there to hear it as she had died earlier that year.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

General musicianship is so important. Develop a good sense of rhythm, pitch and harmony and everything else will be much easier. Taking part in a variety of musical activities, particular singing in a choir but also playing in an orchestra, accompanying, composing, arranging and improvising all helps to build a rounded musician.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be able to play a scale in thirds with one hand and for it to sound beautifully smooth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The things around me here at home: my lovely piano, wonderful husband, brilliant son and Maestro the cat. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your most treasured possession?

It would have to be the piano. What else? It is my first real piano. Until five years ago I only had a digital piano which is no replacement for the real thing. When I got married my in-laws gave us a proper piano as a wedding present. It was the best possible thing anyone could have given me. We chose a Boston upright UP132. When it arrived I realised that all I wanted to do was play the piano and I followed the course which has led me to where I am today.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing the piano, spending time with the people I love, eating and sleeping. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your present state of mind?

My mind is in many places at once nowadays as I try to get so much done in so little free time.

 

CD Review: ‘The Transcendentalist’ – Ivan Ilic

The word “transcendental”, at least when applied to piano music, usually suggests rampant virtuosity and piano pyrotechnics, and the first pieces which come to mind are Lizst’s Études d’exécution transcendante. Liszt himself chose the word to allude to the extreme difficulty of the pieces, the implication being that the musician who masters these works will be able to “transcend” their technique, musicianship and the expressive capabilities of the instrument.

In Ivan Ilic’s hands, the word “transcendental” has a different meaning. His new disc, ‘The Transcendentalist’, draws inspiration from  Transcendentalism, America’s first indigenous intellectual community, which included literary luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s manifesto Nature (1836) laid out the philosophy of the movement, which was founded as a reaction to and against rationalism and materialism. The music included on Ilic’s new disc is by  Scriabin, John Cage and Morton Feldman, together with a new work by Scott Wollschleger, ‘Music Without Metaphor’. The composers have connections to the tenets of the Transcendentalist movement: Scriabin’s mysticism, Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Feldman’s intuitive approach to composing and Wollschleger’s synaesthesia, and the works on this disc display virtuosity in their originality and thoughtfulness, contemplation and introspection, rather than showy technical prowess

The works by Cage, Feldman and Wollschleger demonstrate the influence of Scriabin on American avant-garde composers, while Wollschleger’s deeply haunting  ‘Music Without Metaphor’ subtly reflects on and refracts the other music on the disc. Scriabin’s miniatures reveal hints of Chopin in the early Preludes while the later works are exotic and ambiguous, rich in pre-Shoenbergian atonality and unusual and arresting harmonies.

Ilic’s touch is assured, sensitive and as thoughtful as the music, his sound rounded, the pedal used tastefully to create halos of blurred sound, particularly affecting in Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’. The entire disc is contemplative, dreamy and genuinely spiritual. Play this at the end of a busy day, with the lights turned low, and surrender to the music and Ilic’s subtle delivery.

Recommended

‘The Transcendentalist’ is available on the Heresy label and as a download from iTunes and Amazon.

Ivan Ilic will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

Maturity

Recently, I have started making my own wine (from a kit, I hasten to add). In theory, the wine is ready to drink from the day it is decanted into bottles, but in reality its quality develops over time, so that by the time the wine is about a month old, its flavour has matured and it is then very drinkable indeed.

In preparing for a couple of concerts I am giving over the next few months, I went to play some of the repertoire to a colleague who is a concert pianist and also a highly-skilled teacher. The last time he heard me play was nearly two years ago when I was preparing for my Licentiate Diploma recital – and several months before I acquired my beautiful Bechstein. In a follow up email, he commented that the piano and “maturity” were having a very positive effect on my playing. I replied that I have a theory that we should spend c25 years living with our music, studying it, absorbing it, and then only perform it when we are in our 50s or 60s; unfortunately, this is not an ideal scenario in which to forge a career as a performer, and few professional musicians would ever have the luxury of being able to work in this way, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

Music – like wine – needs to mature. We need to spend time with it, understand it, allow its flavour, depth, and narrative to develop. We need to live with the music to find out what makes it special, study its style and contextual background which provide invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted, listen around the work, endlessly strive to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

To do this, we should never study and learn music solely in the isolation of the practise room. The 8-hour practise regime I know some musicians pursue is harmful in so many ways, beyond the merely physical. And note-bashing (which is what practise becomes beyond a certain time-frame), is no substitute for life experience: fall in love, fall out of love, embrace art, literature, theatre, film, go to concerts, meet friends, eat, drink – all these things feed into the artistic imagination and help shape one’s response to music. Because, fundamentally, composers are just like us – sentient, thinking, emotional human beings who drew on their own life experience to create their music.

I know my own musical maturity has come from physical maturity and life experience, and from spending a great deal of time “in music”, by which I mean attending concerts, in my capacity as a concert reviewer and for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of live music (which I adore); interacting with other musicians, primarily through the Meet the Artist interview series on this blog, and encounters with musicians at concerts and other events; teaching and interacting with students and other teachers; reading and listening. In addition,  I continue to study with master teachers, whose own studies with some of the great pianist-teachers of the twentieth-century (including Nina Svetlanova, Andras Schiff, Vlado Perlemuter, Phyllis Sellick, Guido Agosti and Maria Curcio) offer unique insights and act as connectors to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly, to the music.

In more practical terms, I believe that our music matures through detailed and careful learning, a deep understanding of the piece, and a solid grounding in the technical and stylistic aspects of piano playing, together with an awareness of cultural and historical contexts. Learning a work and then putting it aside for a few months can also be hugely beneficial, for on returning to that work, one often discovers new things about it, while also deepening one’s understanding of and response to the music. Lately, I have revisited several pieces I learnt in 2010 and 2011 as part of my first diploma programme: greater experience, insight and knowledge, as well as superior technical security and physical coordination have undoubtedly improved these pieces. Performing regularly helps shape our response to our music and allows interesting new ideas to develop which can be reviewed and pursued after a performance. The work is never static: it is always evolving, developing, and on this basis one can never truly say a work is “finished”.

Observing young professional artists in concerts, it strikes me that many young people, and even some more established or senior artists, feel they must learn a lot of repertoire very quickly. They are under pressure to have the big warhorse concertos – a Rach, a Tchaik, a Beethoven – in the fingers, together with other “holy grails” of mainstream concert repertoire, such as Chopin’s Études, Ballades, Sonatas and Scherzi, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Beethoven’s most well-known and well-loved Piano Sonatas. Young artists are under tremendous pressure in this competitive world of classical music to demonstrate that they can handle these great works (competitions and superior-quality recordings don’t help this situation either), but sometimes their performances seem to lack depth: technically assured but not always as insightful or thoughtful as one might like, their sound becomes a bland synthesis, as if they are striving for that perfect sound of a top-quality recording, instead of allowing emotion and life experience and the excitement and risk of the one-off live performance to enter their music. One hopes that such artists will give their music time to develop and mature.

The late great Glenn Gould was obviously aware of the differences in one’s playing and response to the music which develop over time when he re-recorded the Golberg Variations in 1981. Compare this with his youthful recording, and one hears more breathing space and thoughtfulness in the music. It is perhaps this insight and profundity that one seeks in going to hear performers such as John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires and Radu Lupu, all now “senior” musicians who have spent a lifetime in music. But of course now and then one comes across a young performer whose playing leaves one utterly awestruck and keen for more: one such performer is Daniil Trifonov, who at only 23 already displays an extraordinarily mature approach, combined with superb technique and musical understanding. One can only hope that these fine aspects of his pianistic persona go on developing as he matures.

Daniil Trifonov (photo: Dario Acosta)

Meet the Artist…… Ernest So, pianist

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The late Jacob Lateiner (1928 to 2010) who was my teacher at Juilliard. He was an inspiration in more ways than one: as a pianist, a scholar, a collector, a gourmet, a connoisseur, and one smooth talker who could melt the heart of any woman (or so I imagine). Sometimes I wish everyone I know could have the chance of meeting Lateiner, who exerted such a big influence in my life and encouraged me to go down this rabbit-hole. Even now I still feel his presence; I step where he points.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Finding my own voice. Not so much about public speaking, though I do tend to speak during concerts, but in the sense of crafting a repertoire that best expresses my personal expressive character. Appreciation is very different from performing; I may appreciate many different composers but performing them convincingly is a whole other matter.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a deep affinity with the late romantics (the generations after Chopin/Schumann/Brahms) whose particular and eloquent way of writing for the piano transcends all language. They used the piano to express an endless spectrum of feelings, from unabashed romanticism to Parnassian intellectual probity, from Panglossian pessimism to spiritual elation.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I take inspirations from every corner of daily life. I tend to string together works that create a coherent idea for a programme, from single-composer to country-themed selections; more often I try to balance public tastes with serious historical or cultural elements. Planning a successful programme is one of the hardest parts of the job, as it requires creativity and immense knowledge. A good programme sells like a basket of fat olives, while a poorly constructed programme feels like a tangled tale.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love a more intimate setting. I love the stage, and I am very comfortable on stage, big or small, but when I am physically close to my listeners I tend to be more emotionally spontaneous.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The most memorable experiences are always the best concerts and the worst venues. The best performances were those when I was completely “in the zone”. I was performing in France the poetic and impressionistic music of Louis Aubert, the pianist-composer contemporary of Ravel, when not even the most enticing French women audience (of which there were many) could have drugged me out of the “zone”. On the other hand I have had numerous concerts in less-than-desirable settings that I’ll always remember. Once I was performing in China on a piano with a rickety leg, and throughout the entire concert I was picturing different threatening scenarios and news headlines … “Pianist died during concert under a piano, literally”.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

At the student level, learn as wide a repertoire as possible, from William Byrd to the latest sounds, from the Balkans to Buenos Aires. The next step is to find a unique voice and performing style, and specialize in it. Whenever possible, travel.

What are you working on at the moment?

Identifying the composition of grapes in different vintages of Spanish cava and from different producers. Also trying to work out my latest commission of a double-breasted suit with a Parisian tailor.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive, but not obsolete.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being interviewed.

What is your most treasured possession?

The lust for life and for beauty.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Meeting a patiently analysed situation with all the resources of thought.

What is your present state of mind?

Aching streaks of melancholy.

Ernest So performs works by Rachmaninoff and Gliere at the 1901 Arts Club on Friday 12th December as part of the South London Concert Series. Further details and tickets here

Critics have hailed Ernest So as a performer who exerts a “phenomenon presence on stage” and who “evokes the romanticism and technical brilliance of a 19th century pianist”.  Mr. So’s early manifestation as concert pianist brought prizes such as the Bes​t Performer A​ward in Singapore and later the Beethoven Trophy.  His years at the Juilliard School were spent under the artistic influence and instruction of renowned Beethoven scholar Jacob Lateiner (1928 – 2010); other teachers include Solomon Mikowsky, the late Constance Keene, and Jonathan Feldman.

Ernest So’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.ernestso.com

 

“Driving across Canada” – Schubert’s late piano music

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing the legendary Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu. The concert took place in Reading, the place of my birth, and it felt strange to be returning, for the first time, to the city I left in 1969.

Radu Lupu (© Photo: Ivan Maly)

Because the train journey took over an hour, and I was meeting some friends at the concert venue, I decided to attend the pre-concert talk which was given by Chris de Souza, broadcaster, composer, music director and opera producer. Mr de Souza introduced Radu Lupu’s programme, which included Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata D894, the piece which would occupy the entire second half of the concert. Mr de Souza talked about the scale of the first movement (sometimes made, seemingly, more epic and expansive by the choice of tempo – Sviatoslav Richter’s being perhaps the most extreme, almost hypnotically slow) and how Schubert seemed to be exploring ideas about to present the piano sonata in a new way, perhaps in an attempt to free himself from the strong influence of composers such as Mozart and Haydn, and especially Beethoven. In a way, this Sonata, in particular its long opening movement, became the blueprint for the three final Sonatas (D958, 959 and 960) – and by the time Schubert came to write them he had come to a compositional conclusion about how to organise his material to create a long and compelling narrative which runs through all four movements of each Sonata and indeed connects all three Sonatas. The scale of these sonatas is extraordinary: the first movement of the D960 can take 20-25 minutes to play, around the length of an entire Beethoven sonata, and each work displays a huge variety of music and emotion.

In discussing the late Sonatas, Chris de Souza also mentioned the Impromptus, and described playing them as being akin to “driving across Canada”. This metaphor really resonated with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more while I listened to Radu Lupu’s exquisitely beautiful playing. In Lupu’s hands, with the opening movement of the D894 taken at a leisurely but never plodding moderato, one had the sense of traversing a vast landscape, but the journey was never tedious nor flat.

(Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian)

I have been working on the F minor Impromptu, the first of the D935 for some months now, in preparation for several concerts I am giving. Returning to practise the piece the day after the concert, the idea that this music was like “driving through Canada” kept returning and as I played I thought more and more about the journeys on which Schubert takes us in his music. The most obvious example, of course, is Winterreise, his turbulent song cycle completed just before he wrote the Impromptus and the late Sonatas. But in the Impromptus too there is a sense of a journey, from the chilly, bare G at the opening of the first of the D899 to the consoling warmth of the closing cadence of the A-flat Impromptu. In the D935, the sense of a narrative which runs through all four is even stronger –  Schumann suggested that Schubert had a sonata in mind when he wrote this set. The musical landscapes are highly varied, sometimes difficult to scale, with rapid shifts of mood and colour, sometimes within the space of a bar or two. As a performer, one has to be extra alert to these shifting landscapes, with an ability to carry the narrative flow from the opening bars to the final closing cadence. The word “impromptu” suggests a short, improvisatory salon piece, yet Schubert’s pieces are anything but. Tightly constructed and lengthy (the big F minor Impromptu lasts over 10 minutes), these are complex works which encompass the broad sweep of human emotion and experience. They are certainly not drawing room sweetmeats. It is worth noting that by the time Schubert wrote these works, and the final piano sonatas, he would have known he was dying, from syphilis, compounded by mercury poisoning (ironically, as the consequence of the “cure”). In early nineteenth-century Vienna, this illness would have made Schubert a social pariah. This sense of isolation and social taboo is very apparent in the music: without wishing to sound fanciful, it is as if Schubert is pouring every ounce of his personal angst, tinged with moments of pure joy and tender poignancy, into his music.

I have recently started work on the penultimate piano sonata, the D959 in A major. Here, the sense of traversing an epic landscape is even stronger than in the Impromptus, and Schubert uses motivic and structural signposts throughout the four movements to enhance this sense of a journey (for example, the opening measures of the first movement are reprised in the closing bars of the finale). In the Andantino (second movement) we return to the fremdling of Winterreise, the lonely traveler groping his way through a strange and confusing landscape, a sense of confusion which becomes even more apparent in the middle section, a psychotic fantasy which tells us a great deal about Schubert’s mental and physical health at the time of writing this extraordinary music. In the opening movement there are passages of great consolation, Schubert the songsmith coming to the fore, but these are offset by moments of almost schizophrenic hysteria. One’s duty as performer/interpreter is to find connections, within the individual movements, and the work as a whole, in order to lead the listener on a unique journey deep into Schubert’s musical landscape. It is some of the hardest music to interpret and play convincingly – yet also some of the most beautiful and rewarding.

Richter plays Schubert G Major Sonata, D894

Launch of ‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′

This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards

Meet the Artist……Simon Callaghan, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

There was always a piano in the house, which we inherited from my great grandmother.  It was by no means a good instrument (quite a tired old upright) but I took to it immediately, apparently playing with both hands and picking out tunes before I began lessons as the age of 8.  I never practiced as such (at least not until I went to Chetham’s at 16), but just loved playing right from day one!

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

Bernard Roberts (my teacher at Chetham’s) lived and breathed music and was a constant source of inspiration.  He was a kind, warm person and never strict in the lessons – he really made me want to improve, but in a relaxed way and always with the pure love of music in mind.  Yonty Solomon at the RCM was also invaluable in my development.  He never talked about technique but the magic and colour in his playing is something I will never forget.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I found my first solo recording one of the greatest challenges so far.  I felt so uncomfortable when the red light went on, that it was such a stressful experience!  It taught me a lot about relaxation in performance and about the importance of focusing on the music, not just on accuracy!  Now having a few recordings under my belt, I feel much more relaxed in the studio and actually quite enjoy it.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

It’s always difficult to listen to one’s own recordings, but I am particularly satisfied with the two-volume set (on SOMM) I did with Hiro Takenouchi.  There are several world premieres of Delius works in arrangements for two pianos, recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  I thoroughly enjoyed discovering these wonderful works and the two piano arrangements (while not coming close to replicating the orchestral sonorities) provide a special clarity and transparency.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing works by composer-pianists of the twentieth century, especially Rachmaninoff.  I’ve performed the Third Piano Concerto a number of times and despite the infamous technical challenges I feel at home in this repertoire and while I strive with every performance to find something better, Rachmaninoff’s world is one in which I always feel welcome.  At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early chamber works (especially the cello sonata and trios) provide such excitement and inspiration that they are always a joy to perform.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I guess this largely depends on who I am collaborating with (I play a lot of chamber music) and the requirements of concert promoters.  I have been part of a number of ‘composer immersion’ projects in recent seasons, such as a complete cycle of Brahms chamber music, all the Beethoven trios etc – a wonderful way to get inside the musical ‘journey’ of these great composers.  I also try to always include an element of lesser-known repertoire in all my performances so new ideas and discoveries feature high on my list of priorities when planning future concerts.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I have played in a number of wonderful halls (particularly the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall), but probably my favourite so far is Symphony Hall in Birmingham.  Despite being such a large venue, the feeling on stage is an intimate one and not at all intimidating, and the acoustic is the most satisfying of any of the larger halls I’ve played in.  St John’s Smith Square comes in a close second, with one of the finest Steinways ever!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I listen to quite a variety of music (not only classical but even – dare I say it – some musical theatre!) However as I spend most of my waking hours involved in music performance or teaching, I do appreciate silence when I am relaxing!  I love listening to the great orchestral repertoire (especially Mahler Symphonies) and opera also provides wonderful inspiration.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I have always admired Martha Argerich – I once commented to one of my teachers that watching her performances had taught me more about technique and musicality than any of my teachers – I don’t think this went down so well!  I’ve been to quite a number of her live performances and am always struck by the way she communicates raw emotion and energy, and by the fact that she is so humble in person.  For me, she epitomizes the musician as communicator.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There have been so many!  That said, I particularly enjoyed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto a few years ago with a wonderful amateur orchestra in London, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra.  I love performing – especially in chamber music and concertos – and the performances with amateur groups have often been the most satisfying.  I’ve played with some wonderful amateur orchestras and the fact that the musicians are there out of choice rather than to earn money means that they are constantly striving for higher standards and love every moment – something that is quite infectious!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Having recently returned from three weeks teaching on a course for 14-18 year olds, one thought that is very much on my mind right now is that aspiring musicians must learn how to listen to their own playing.  We spend a good deal of time playing and of course we hear the sounds, but how often do we actually listen and analyse the sounds we are producing?  I often encourage my students to record their performances and they are frequently shocked by what they hear!

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am working on some interesting repertoire for a new solo album – further details to be announced soon!  I am also learning some new piano quartets (Walton, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré, Mozart) and revising the Franck Quintet for a performance with the Edinburgh Quartet later this year.  Next year is Scriabin’s anniversary year and as such I will be playing his concerto in several performances, so this is also on my long practice list!

You have been Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts since 2008.  Tell us more about this.
As I had no experience whatsoever at the outset, it was a steep learning curve and was so grateful to be given the opportunity to see the music business from the other side!  The concert series has gone from strength to strength and we now programme around 27 concerts per season by some of the finest chamber music groups around.  We also have generous support from several distinguished patrons including Timothy West and Prunella Scales and pianist, Stephen Hough.  Working at Conway Hall is hugely challenging as well as rewarding, but I greatly value this variety in my career.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Doing exactly what I’m doing now, but at an even higher level and performing even more often.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A life in which I can enjoy what I love most – making music – and with plenty of time for relaxing and spending time with people close to me, and my beloved dachshund, Fergus!

What is your most treasured possession? 

Probably my Steinway Model D.  It’s a great instrument and constantly maturing, so makes practicing a pleasure!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

When not performing, I enjoy eating!  I love discovering new cuisines, and spend rather too much money on eating out at exquisite restaurants.

What is your present state of mind? 

Excited.  I’m discovering lots of new repertoire at the moment – it’s always great to have this freshness.

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts

Recognised as an exciting performer of the new generation, Steinway Artist Simon Callaghan’s recent schedule has included Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. His engagements have taken him all over the UK, throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. He has also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, ITV and BBC Television. In September 2013 he took up the Anthony Saltmarsh Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

Following his highly successful release of English piano music on the Belgian De Rode Pomp label (featuring several world premières), Simon Callaghan’s collaboration with SOMM Recordings began in 2012 with two volumes of Delius Orchestral Music in arrangements for two pianos, with Hiroaki Takenouchi. Receiving great critical acclaim, the BBC Music Magazine commented that “Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi… play with such love, panache and exact synchronisation.” Simon’s burgeoning relationship with SOMM has led to two further volumes of Brahms chamber music with award-winning cellist James Barralet, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and violist Hannah Strijbos (including the first recording of all the Hungarian Dances in Barralet’s arrangement for ‘cello and piano). He also recorded a highly-acclaimed disc of violin sonatas with Midori Komachi and will release a further solo album in spring 2015.

Simon Callaghan’s busy performing schedule has included two residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), rare performances of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and the Third Concerto of Nikolay Medtner (the first in the UK since 1946). He has also collaborated with Prunella Scales, Ilona Domnich, Timothy West, Jack Liebeck, Thomas Gould, Raphael Wallfisch and the Maggini, Sacconi, Carducci and Coull Quartets in a broad range of repertoire. Simon is a founder member of the Werther Ensemble, brought together at the inaugural Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2013. Recent and forthcoming projects for this ensemble include recitals throughout the UK, a complete cycle of the chamber music of Brahms, a return to the Whittington Festival playing works by Mendelssohn and a three-concert series at St John’s, Smith Square, exploring the jewels of the piano quartet repertoire. Together with pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Simon is also part of the Parnassius Piano Duo, which has a particular interest in championing lesser-known English works, particularly those of Parry and Sterndale Bennett.

As a teacher, Simon is Head of Piano of the Ingenium Music Academy (Winchester), a member of the faculty at Harrow School, and has given masterclasses around the world, most recently in Malaysia and Thailand. He is also Artistic Director of the renowned Conway Hall Sunday Concerts (London), the longest-running chamber music series in Europe. Alongside this work he is co-producer of MusicUpClose, a highly successful series in collaboration with sound collective, introducing non-musicians to the world of classical music. Following his studies at Chetham’s School of Music with Bernard Roberts, Simon was awarded a full scholarship to study with Yonty Solomon at the Royal College of Music, from where he graduated with first class honours and won numerous prizes.

simoncallaghan.com

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