All posts by Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, piano teacher, music and arts reviewer, blogger, writer, cook, and Burmese cat lover

Why go on a piano course?

Last weekend I attended another of my teacher’s weekend piano courses. I have been on so many of these now that I am considered an “old hand”, although I always gain a great deal from each course and I enjoy the opportunity to connect with other pianists and piano teachers and share repertoire.

Piano courses are the “in thing” right now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again. For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now in its 18th year. Inspired by Lot Music new kid on the piano course block is La Balie, also in the Lot region. Created by high-flying city exec Fiona Page, La Balie promises beautiful and tranquil surroundings, five-star accommodation and expert tuition from concert pianist James Lisney, who has had years of experience as a course leader at the Summer School for Pianists and Hindhead Music Centre, amongst others.

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The swimming pool at La Balie
So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and now La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.

Masterclass with James Lisney at the Summer School for Pianists
Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.

Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.

And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.

Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.

More on piano courses and summer schools for pianists

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band

On the centenary of the death of Alexander Scriabin, a guest post by David Gordon

Musicians who write about playing music can easily get themselves into hot water, but in this case I’m happy to bathe in the opportunity to gather my thoughts about the latest project I’ve embarked on with my jazz trio, entitled ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’.  We are of course celebrating the life of Alexander Scriabin on the centenary of his death, at the same time trying to locate his music in the context of popular music in and around 1915.

I first came across Scriabin’s music in the 1980s through a beautiful interpretation of his A minor Prelude Op. 11 no. 2 by the jazz giant Chick Corea www.allmusic.com/album/trio-music-live-in-europe-mw0000188008.  Clearly this is an area that has continued to interest him, and in a recently posted video, Corea workshops his ideas about another of Scriabin’s preludes in front of an audience.

This represents a harmonious meeting between the totally distinctive soundworlds of Scriabin and Chick Corea.  With a far less distinctive personal soundworld I’ve even tried this myself with a Scriabin-inspired composition, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ which the trio recorded on the CD ‘Angel Feet’ (Guild Records ZZCD9819).

With this current project, what started as whimsy – noticing that the ‘Prelude for Left Hand Op. 9 no. 1′ lent itself to an interpretation calling upon early tango and the jazz style of Errol Garner, and then noticing that a project that would include ragtime could bear such a fortuitous (for us) name – has become a more serious study of the connections between Scriabin’s music and popular music of the time.

The first concerns geography.  Whilst the life of the wretched five year-old Israel Berlin fleeing with his family for the USA from some far-flung burning village in Russia could hardly be more different experience from Scriabin’s rarefied aristocratic Moscow upbringing, perhaps we can ascribe something to a sense of place.  That is, if we accept that part of where music comes from is the land, the air, the birdsong, the language, then, by dint of geography, the music of Irving Berlin and Scriabin might be loosely connected by these things at least.  And it was not just Berlin but many of the other originators of the Great American Songbook who hailed from Russia or Russian immigrants.

Meanwhile the estimable anthology ‘Jazz in Print 1856-1929’ by Karl Koenig gives one example after another of how Afro-American musicians looked to the Russian people, and their folksong in particular, as a model for culture-building that inspired many of those involved the ragtime revolution.  And in a recent interview the Cuban pianist genius Chucho Valdes cites Rachmaninov’s music as one that naturally fits with, and can be seen as part of the heritage of, the vast and cosmopolitan tapestry that is Cuban music.

But now to brass tacks: let me enumerate some of the specific technical considerations that unite these two worlds.

  1. Scriabin makes use the AABA form, with each section 8 bars long, so beloved of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters. And, going back to geography, ‘I Got Rhythm’, regarded as a template for this type of song, was written by the child of then recently-arrived Russian immigrants, George Gershwin.*
  1. Altered dominant harmonies, rightly regarded as Scriabin’s pioneering achievement.  But it also prefigures a great deal of jazz harmonic theory, and Scriabin’s harmonic system reads more easily when viewed in that light.  The so-called ‘Mystic Chord’ turns out to be just a specific voicing of the 7#11 chord. Scriabin’s use of interlocking tritones, so tonality-threatening to early 20th century ears, are water off a jobbing jazz musician’s back. And the octatonic – for jazz musicians, the diminished – scale is often in the background of, and occasionally present in some of his later music.  This scale which once appeared so tonality-obscuring, is now heavily associated with dominant harmony in mainstream jazz circles – indeed, a jazz musician’s best friend.
  1. Scriabin’s use of ‘rootless’ harmonies happens to be one of the innovations credited to jazz pianists such as Bill Evans in the 1950s.  The harmonies themselves were used by composers as far back as Liszt, but hearing these chords without their bass note, as Scriabin used them, was at that time unprecedented, as far as I know. The opening of the left hand part of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, for example, could easily pass for a transcription of Evans’s playing.  Did he know Scriabin’s music? (We notice that Bill Evans was half Russiann from Ukraine; the speculations start to pile up).
  1. Some of Scriabin’s later music prefigures even more advanced jazz innovations. The ‘Dance languide, Op. 51, no. 4′ seems to recall, or predict, the uncompromising sound-world of Thelonius Monk.  And a very slight configuring of the harmony of ‘Prelude Op. 67 no. 2′ gives us the hard edged dark harmonic world of the ‘60s or even later to produce an improbably hip post-bop workout.

These are to some extent naïve, not researched, connections, but they enable us to dream when approaching his music from a jazz standpoint.  The fact that this or that signature in the music reminds us of something – the ‘Album leaf Op. 45 No. 1′ works well as an early funk or Motown groove, because of its descending chromatic figure in the bass – in itself may not be good enough reason to play it thus.  On the other hand it might!  But interpreting some of his pieces as choro, jazz-samba or north European style modal jazz, etc. allows them to speak to us in a different way and, when we record and perform it in this way, should give his music a new public (albeit a small one, given the size of the jazz audience!)  And I very much look forward to putting some popular music from 1915 alongside this music: we will attempt ragtime, of course, but also, tango, choro, danzón, perhaps – if we can find a way – even the Original Jelly Roll Blues, published in that same year.

Would Scriabin have liked jazz, which his early death deprived him of hearing, by a whisker?  Perhaps the earliest jazz of his time would not have appealed, and it’s hard to see the blues doing much for him. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to think that the unstoppable, transcendent flow that the best modern jazz achieves, the ecstasy and transformative power it strives for – the fire and air elements that characterize e.g. Keith Jarrett’s playing – yes, it’s possible.  And if his music helped in some way to shape that language, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

Finally, I have just put the finishing touches to our signature song, Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band, which is a light-hearted summary of the whole project, and finds the trio in full-throated song.  I am very excited by this new project, which is unlike anything I’ve tried before, and which I hope will be as entertaining for the listener as it has been instructive for me.

Work in progress video:

*For those of us who like to take things as far as they will go, doesn’t the Rêverie Op. 49 No. 3 bear a resemblance to Gershwin’s ‘Nice Work if you can Get it’? Or am I just imagining things?

www.davidmusicgordon.com

On Messiaen – and more: Meet the Artist……Cordelia Williams, pianist


British pianist Cordelia Williams is undertaking a special project in 2015 exploring Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant- Jésus’, arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th-century. In this interview she discusses the project and the particular attraction of the music.

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

I never really made a specific ‘decision’ to be a pianist – it has just always been what I am. Deciding not to pursue a career in music would be as ridiculous as deciding not to age! Having heard my mother teaching piano and harpsichord since I was born, I was impatient to start learning as soon as I could sit on the piano stool, and since then studying and playing music has always seemed completely natural to me.

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

Definitely my mother: she taught me for the first six years (age 3 – 9) and I’m sure my approach to music was set during that time. However, I’d also say the seven years I spent boarding at Chetham’s School of Music, because I started to learn then how to take charge of my own musical development. Finally, I think during the last couple of years the contentment I’ve felt in my life – growing older, an incredibly happy relationship and an adorable cat – has allowed me to really learn who I am as a musician and to find a greater honesty and confidence in my playing.

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

I suspect for me it has been finding the self-belief to deal with the knock-backs and disappointments of any performing career. My friends gently point out that I can (sometimes) be an overly emotional person, and chasing opportunities and career advancement does not come naturally to me. I have a constant battle between what needs to be done for my career and what I want to do as a person.

Musically, I would say recording my second CD (Schumann for SOMM, out in September 2015). It is such emotional challenging and complex music – I really had to struggle for a long time to feel that I knew what I wanted to say. And organising my ‘Messiaen 2015’ series has been an enormous learning curve; quite apart from learning the marathon Vingt Regards in the first place, there have been so many aspects to coordinate that I wasn’t expecting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the RPO at the Barbican in December 2014: it was a really special performance and something magical happened between the orchestra, the conductor and myself. Getting a standing ovation for Rachmaninov 3: it’s such a scary and enormous work to perform that I was quite overwhelmed with the reaction (may have cried a bit). And my recording of Schubert’s Impromptus for SOMM (2013): it was a big thing for me to release my first CD and, thank goodness, I still like it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’ve always had an affinity with Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th concertos. Schubert’s C minor Sonata (D958) has been a special work for me, as has Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17. And perhaps also Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat – someone once remarked that my performance reminded him of Dinu Lipatti, which for me is the highest compliment.

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

There’s always something that I’m desperate to learn, so I usually plan programmes around that, gradually introducing new repertoire so that I always have some new works and some more familiar. I try to make every concert a holistic listening experience for the audience: interesting, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding and complete.

Tell us more about your ‘Messiaen 2015’ project.  What was your motivation for organising this series of concerts and events focussing on Olivier Messiaen?

It was the music itself – the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is such a fascinating work that I wanted the chance to explore it further, make new discoveries and look at it in different lights. And I wanted to share all that with anyone who was interested. So the commissions, collaborations and events were developed in a very organic way.

What is the particular appeal of this composer’s music for you? 

I think he must have been a wonderfully interesting man, because his music is! He combines so many different musical layers, symbolism, theology, literary inspirations, images from paintings and ideas from all walks of life, to create music which is worked out in minute and precise detail but which sounds natural, passionate, reverent and overwhelming. All of existence and all of non-existence is within Messiaen’s music.

What are the challenges and pleasures of studying and performing his piano music?

It’s unbelievably complicated to memorise! It really took me ages to learn the Vingt Regards. But I’ve found that, because it’s so pattern-based, once it’s learnt it stays in quite well. On the other hand, I love how thought-provoking his titles and commentaries are: he has allowed me to contemplate new concepts and look at familiar scenes (e.g. the Nativity, the Annunciation) in a totally new way.

What have been the special pleasures and challenges of working with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker on this project? 

I can’t think of any challenges! But it has been a real pleasure to discuss the music with them and to see their own individual responses take shape. I couldn’t even have imagined what they’d come up with – it has been a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I think either performing the Vingt Regards in 2013 in King’s Chapel, Cambridge, which was wonderfully atmospheric, or my debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011. I was stupidly nervous! But in the end, the performance I gave was a huge achievement for me, and lots of my family and friends turned out to support me. We all got drunk at Las Iguanas afterwards.

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

Goodness – I don’t feel qualified to answer this yet! Ask me again in 30 years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having a lazy Sunday morning at home together with newspapers and coffee (perhaps, in the future, surrounded by children), a walk in the countryside and then cooking a big roast lunch for friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My friends and family and my health. And my engagement ring, not for what it’s worth, but for what it symbolises.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

Cordelia Williams’ ‘Messiaen 2015′ project, an exploration of the ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ in music, words and art, continues at various venues in London and beyond. The next event in the series is a Study Day at King’s College, London on Tuesday 28th April. The event is free, but registration is required to attend. This in-depth exploration of the Vingt Regards and their origins includes sessions on Messiaen’s historical and musical context, compositional style and theology. The day includes sessions with poet Michael Symons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker, an exhibition, poetry reading and a lunchtime concert by Cordelia Williams. Full details here http://www.messiaen2015.com/event/kings-college-london/

For further information about other events, please visit the dedicated Messiaen 2015 website

The ‘Messiaen 2015′ project was made possible by the generous support of the City Music Foundation.

Hearing her mother teach piano, Cordelia wanted to learn to play too, and began lessons at home as soon as she could climb onto the piano stool. She gave her first public piano recital to celebrate her eighth birthday. She spent seven years at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, studying with Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan. She went on to work with Hamish Milne in London, Joan Havill and Richard Goode, and is grateful to have received support from the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Stanley Picker Trust, the City of London Corporation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the City Music Foundation.

Cordelia Williams’ full biography

Meet the Artist……Kenneth Woods, conductor

(photo: Chris Stock)

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

There were a number of “wow” moments that inspired me as a kid. I still remember the first time I heard an orchestra live (it was my local youth orchestra playing Shostakovich 5). I was only three, but that moment stuck with me and I started going to grown-up concerts very young, maybe five or six years old (worth noting given recent controversies about kids at concerts). There were other pieces, like the Shostakovich, that had a huge impact on me when I first encountered them- symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven and Bruckner for example.

My parents bought us a wonderful series of LPs called “The Stories of the Great Composers Told Through Their Music.” I must have played the Mozart, Bach and Beethoven records hundreds of times.

I was not a very motivated young pianist (it’s a pity nobody told the seven-year-old Ken about the link between keyboard proficiency and conducting), but I loved the cello, and when I started playing real repertoire in good orchestras, that was a major turning point. I still remember playing Schumann 2 for the first time in my high school orchestra, and when James Smith took over my youth orchestra that was an eye opener. I’d never played under a great conductor before. That was the first time I understood what an orchestra can be when everyone is giving their best.

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

My teachers, chamber music coaches and mentors. My main cello teachers, Parry Karp (Pro Arte Quartet), Lee Fiser (LaSalle Quartet) and Fritz Magg (Berkshire Quartet) had a huge impact on me. Their teaching went way beyond cello playing, and taught me a lot about score study and chamber music. Henry Meyer (LaSalle Quartet) and Peter Oundjian (Tokyo Quartet) were very important chamber music mentors- my whole approach to conducting was shaped in significant ways by studying and performing the string quartet literature. Gerhard Samuel was incredibly generous with me when I was his conducting student in Cincinnati. Take one more step beyond the scope of the teachers I saw every week as a student, and the list of important mentors gets absurdly long, but they’re all important and inspiring.

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

The hardest thing about being a conductor is that your time with the orchestra is always finite. I’m glad I can pick up a cello and play Bach without having to raise money, go to committee meetings, or set a rehearsal schedule. There’s so much great repertoire that one wants to learn (more than you could do justice to in three lifetimes), and so much that one could do in rehearsal, and yet the clock is always ticking. I’d love to be able to work with really great orchestral colleagues in the kind of detail we do in my string trio, but nobody wants to pay an orchestra to rehearse so it’s always a balancing act.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ll always remember conducting my first complete Mahler symphony (the Second) with the Oregon East Symphony. That was a huge undertaking for everyone involved- so many people worked very hard and the concert felt like a real spiritual coming together. The final concert with Orchestra of the Swan in our Gál/Schumann cycle was memorable and moving- the end of a fantastic journey through that repertoire, and they played out of their skins.

For me, one of the joys of playing in a chamber group is revisiting pieces over and over until we feel like we really own them. When Ensemble Epomeo play the Schnittke String Trio, it’s always an event for us, and it felt much the same whenever my string quartet used to play Bartók no. 2. When you’ve invested years in a piece with your colleagues, you know you have to savour every performance together.

As far as recordings– the Gál/Schumann discs have been special. Gál was a recent discovery I felt lucky be entrusted with, but I’d wanted to do the Schumann symphonies since I was a teenager. The recent Nimbus recording of Philip Sawyers’s Second Symphony, Cello Concerto and Concertante was also a labour of love. Introducing unknown music to a wider public is surely the most important thing a recording can do, and Philip’s music is wonderful and very important.

Which particular works do you think you play/conduct best?

I find a huge range of music both rewarding and challenging. I don’t believe in specialities, because everything not on the list of things you do particularly well then suffers. I’m an intense guy, and I suppose I’m most at home in music that uses that intensity constructively.

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

It’s a balance of what I want to do (some works stay on my wish list for 15 years before I get a chance to programme them), what my colleagues and employers want me to do, and what we have to do to stay in business.

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

My friends from home will laugh because it’s not a great venue, but Mills Concert Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s where I first heard an orchestra when I was tiny. I’ve given recitals, played in all kinds of cello sections, played concert concertos, chamber music, heard amazing performances by friends and teachers, conducted and taught. It’s where music was born for me as a kid.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

As a listener, I tend to cycle through obsessions. I might listen voraciously to late Shostakovich, Schumann piano works, Debussy and Ravel, or early Beethoven string quartets, for two or three weeks, then not touch it again for a couple of years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I like musicians who combine a certain amount of serious mojo with craftsmanship and honesty. My favourite performers are the ones who can put across a distinctive point of view about the music they play. My favourite composers engage heart, head and guts.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok with the Dubinsky’s and Fritz Magg with soprano Gloria Davey at Indiana University when I was 18. I still don’t think I’ve recovered.

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

Cultivate a love of music that will sustain your efforts as an instrumentalist- too many young musicians are more interested in playing their instrument than in the music they play.

Rhythm is the foundation of music. Playing in time is hard, but you can only play with true freedom if you’re in total command of tempo, pulse, meter and time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Camping with Suzanne and the kids (while knowing that I’ve got something nice in the diary when we get home)

Kenneth Woods conducts the English Symphony Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square on 24th April in a concert of music by Handel and W F Bach which explores the origins of Mozart’s Requiem. Further information and tickets here

Hailed by Gramophone as a “symphonic conductor of stature,” conductor, cellist, composer and author Kenneth Woods has worked with the National Symphony Orchestra (USA), Royal Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia and English Chamber Orchestra. He has also appeared on the stages of some of the world’s leading music festivals such as Aspen, Scotia and Lucerne. In 2013, he took up a new position as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Vernon Handley.

Kenneth Woods’ full biography

A View from the Podium – Kenneth Woods’ blog

Introducing……Musical Orbit

A portal into the classical music profession, Musical Orbit allows you to learn from the very best musicians in the business through personal lessons, masterclasses and webinars online. From anywhere in the world, you can connect with leading musicians from the finest orchestras across the globe to receive artistic appraisal and tailored, professional analysis of your playing. Also an online hub for the classical music world, Musical Orbit keeps you in the loop with news stories, tips from the top professionals and ticket offers for concerts.

Founder Nicole Wilson says:

“I had such fantastic opportunities when I was growing up as well as throughout and beyond my studies at Royal Academy of Music. With programmes like the Philharmonia String Scheme, I was able to get my foot in the door of the music profession and to build relationships with those who would be my future colleagues in orchestras. I was able to get some really great advice and learn about the business.

There are such limited places on these schemes and they really do enable people to get ahead in the industry. I have been approached by countless violinists asking me to hear them play, to give them advice on playing their audition/exam programmes and to desperately try to get a foot in that firmly shut door. It is a ‘catch 22’ situation for many of them as they leave music college. They have a tiny CV so they aren’t considered for job auditions, so they cannot grow their CV. I feel for them. This is why I created Musical Orbit.”

Nicole adds:

“……we are in talks with schools in the Middle East, Far East and Africa about setting up regular lessons and masterclasses and also talking with summer music Festivals in Miami and Reykjavik about masterclasses there as well”

Already Musical Orbit is enjoying a global reach, enabling people to connect and study with some of the top musicians in the world.

Sign up to Musical Orbit is completely free, and once you’re a member you can access free webinars and masterclasses, and also book a lesson with the best musicians in the business.

www.musicalorbit.com

Musical Orbit was founded by principal violinist Nicole Wilson. After a career spanning 20 years in London, as a first violinist of the London Symphony Orchestra, a principal violinist of English National Opera, a film/tv session orchestra fixer and CD producer, Nicole has enjoyed working with nearly all the major UK orchestras and has built friendships with many principal players across the nation and throughout the world. 

Having come across many music students who needed help preparing for auditions, concerts and exams, she realised the difficult situation many of those people were in. Unable to speak to and learn from the right people, build up their CVs and ultimately get to play for the jobs they were interested in, these students were in a no-mans land. 

Nicole has used her extensive connections in the classical music business to bring together these students and the movers and shakers in the classical music world, regardless of work schedules and distance so that anyone can learn from these world class musicians. 

Nicole will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Serendipitous Bach at Sutton House

I was expecting to hear a friend of mine, Charles Tebbs, perform Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ at the delightful Sutton House Music Society on Sunday evening, but sadly Charles was unwell. A frantic call for a replacement went out on Facebook, which I happened to see and respond to. I am not suggesting for one moment that I “saved” the concert, but serendipitously, Daniel Grimwood whom I suggested as a replacement, was available and stood in at very short notice to perform an all-Bach programme. It is a mark of Daniel’s professionalism that he betrayed not an ounce of unpreparedness. He introduced the programme engagingly, highlighting various aspects of the music and describing the first half of the programme (Bach’s Italian Concerto and the fifth French Suite in G) as being “the jolly music”.

The Italian Concerto was indeed jolly, with precise yet sprightly passagework, crisp articulation and nuanced voicing. Daniel also plays the harpsichord and this is evident in his sensitive touch and terraced dynamics. The middle movement had a sombre grandeur, with an elegantly-turned improvisatory melodic line floating atop the bass. The closing movement poured forth like an exuberant mountain stream, rich in orchestral textures and vibrant contrasts.

More of the same in the Fifth French Suite, whose Sarabande shares the same soundworld as the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and which Daniel played with grace and delicacy. Other notable features were the most charming and spontaneous ornaments in the repeated sections of the movements. The closing Gigue had the necessary forward propulsion, a dancing column of energy running through the entire movement.

After the interval, the Sixth Partita in sombre E minor. This, as Daniel explained, is Bach’s nearest equivalent for the keyboard to the St John Passion or the B-minor Mass, and is a work of great seriousness, mystery and profound musical thought. The opening Toccata begins with a dramatic “rocket” figure, a rising arpeggio flourish which colours the first section before the music moves into a darkly dramatic four-part fugue. All the movements display vocal textures, particularly the closing Gigue, whose rhythmic anomalies Daniel demonstrated in his introduction. This was an authoritative, thoughtful and vibrant performance, providing a wonderful contrast to the more positive music of the first half.

Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House in Hackney, east London, which is owned by the National Trust. Built in 1535, the house holds a fascinating juxtaposition of oak-panelled Tudor rooms, Jacobean wall paintings and Georgian and Victorian interiors, and audience members can enjoy a tour of the houseahead of a concert. The music society attracts both established and up-and-coming artists, performing a wide variety of repertoire, and the 2014/15 season concludes with a concert by the Roskell Piano Trio in music by Mozart, Shostakovich and Schumann. Concerts take place in Wenlock Barn, an early 20th-century addition which was built specially for events such as concerts.

Further information about the concert and the Society here

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Brave New World

A guest post by Bernard Kerres, founder/CEO of HelloStage

 

The world has changed significantly over the last twenty years. The development of the internet and its almost virus-like spread into all corners of the world as well as our lives has an impact on society not yet fully understood. Who will need a musician in tomorrow’s world when you can chose between the holograms of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould or Friedrich Gulda playing for you in your home “live” – or at any concert stage for that matter? Why waste time on music education when a robot can play flawlessly and adapt to the style of your preferred pianist?

 

We are not quite there yet. But we can be sure that the scenarios described above are technically entirely possible in the not-too-distant future. The only thing that will take longer is for a robot to develop its own interpretation. I doubt that it will ever be possible for robots develop emotions – at least not in the near or medium term future.

 

Nevertheless, the scenarios mean that the reproduction of music, including classical music, will enter completely new realms never even thought of. This is actually good news. This means that more music will be consumed and music will become an even bigger part of every day life. 

 

But what happens to live music? My view is that the more people who are listening to music anywhere the more will also listen to live music. There a lots of examples in human behaviour where individuals get more into a subject the more they are in contact with the subject matter.

 

Often classical music makes it very difficult for new audiences to attend. There is a whole unwritten code about behaviour in a concert – from how to dress to when to clap. This is a huge entry barrier for new music lovers. Many people have developed a taste for classical music, have listened to it on the radio or in recordings, but they still shy away from going to the opera or to a concert.

 

So technology gives us these amazing opportunities but we, the classical music community, build up barriers against really utilizing these opportunities.

 

Nevertheless, technology also allows us in the classical music community to communicate and collaborate with each other in completely new ways. The author and readers of this blog have developed a great interest in news and thoughts around the piano. We at HELLO STAGE are providing tools for those in the classical community to engage with each other.

 

From experience I know that people in the music world are generally very self-focused. They have to be. They have to really believe  in their music, in their concerts and in their performances. But if we all change just a tiny little bit, using some of the technology available to us, to write, speak, blog, tweet etc. about classical music in general, we could create an amazing network effect.

 

I personally have the great advantage of seeing one of the most amazing network effects at work. I have relocated to Silicon Valley in California at least for four months, if not longer. Within days of arriving, I saw an amazing network driven by the belief in technology and a passion for entrepreneurship. Everyone here speaks about the latest app they have seen, a cool start-up they came across, or an inspiring team. Only after several questions, they might actually also speak about their own start-up or investments. 

 

At HELLO STAGE we initiated the hashtag #classicalbuzz. The idea behind it is simple. As a first step each one of us shares one comment about a performance we have just heard or a recording which has inspired us with the hashtag #classicalbuzz. Second, we all share at least one post with #classicalbuzz. Can you imagine the fast spread of #classicalbuzz and therefore classical music in the world? It is an easy step that we all can easily join in with. It can be the beginning of a classical music revolution. 

 

Let us create a #classicalbuzz together, perhaps also a #pianobuzz driven by our love for classical music. I am looking forward to sharing your posts and tweets with these hashtags. I am greatly looking forward to reading more and more ideas about how people around the world lower the barriers of entry into our concert halls and opera houses and make them welcoming for so many new music lovers out there. Thanks for being part of that.

Bernhard Kerres is the founder and CEO of HELLO STAGE – an innovative independent online platform for the classical music community, connecting musicians, ensembles, managers, and promoters in the classical music world.

Bernhard started his career as an opera singer, before graduating with an MBA from London Business School. After five years in strategy consulting for Booz & Co. in the high technology, internet and telecom sectors, he subsequently became CEO, CFO, and COO of various technology companies in Europe. From 2007 to 2013, he was the CEO and Artistic Director of the Wiener Konzerthaus, one of the most active concert houses in the world, with over 800 events and over half a million visitors per season.

Read more about Bernard here

Meet the Artist……Robin Green, pianist

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

It was a combination of different influences.  At around the age of 13 I was introduced to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg variations (the 1955 recording). I was fixated with it, and for many months I listened to nothing but Bach! I suppose my passion and energy for music arose from then.

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

There are too many to count! Tom Waits, The ‘Heiliger Dankegesang’ movement from Beethoven String quartet op 132, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Oscar Peterson, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Schubert songs. The list is always growing….

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

Performing Stockhausen’s ‘Mantra’ with my piano duo (the Francoise-Green duo) was especially memorable. It was 70mins of extremely difficult piano music, as well as playing crotales, a wood block, ring modulators and a radio! But generally, I don’t look back, I am always looking forward to the next challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I am proud of my latest CD ‘Dialog mit Mozart’, with the Austrian violinist Daniel Auner. We recorded 3 Mozart violin sonatas on the Gramola label. We approached the project by studying the original manuscripts, and discussing in detail how Mozart should be played naturally and instinctively.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I have always insisted on performing lots of different repertoire. There is so much great music, that it is a crime not to try it all in a life time. This month I have performed works by Strauss, Schubert, Mozart, Stravinsky, Saints-Saens and Steve Reich, so my musical life is always extremely varied. I have a huge passion for chamber music from the Classical era and try to perform this as often as possible. I am very happy that I will be performing the Beethoven Cello Sonatas this season with my good friend Christian Elliott, the cellist of the Zehetmair quartet.

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

This very much depends on which concerts/festivals I am invited to, and who I will collaborate with. This coming season, I will perform a number of concertos for the first time, including the Mendelssohn Double concerto in Japan.

You are performing Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Please tell us more about this piece, its challenges and the appeal of learning and performing it.

‘The People United Will Never be Defeated!’ is a phenomenal work that rarely gets performed.

The theme is a Chilean revolution song from the 70’s. Within the 36 variations that follow, one hears music in the style of Beethoven, Chopin, George Crumb, Phillip Glass and Boulez. The listener also hears extreme virtuosic piano writing, whistling, free improvisation, slamming the piano lid, blues and beautiful romanticism.

Apart from the extraordinary compositional technique, what really interests me about the piece is its relationship with its audience. Rzewski was focused writing music ‘for the people’. For this work, I believe he wanted to break down the barriers that can exist within the classical music medium and at the same time keep the integrity of the art form. He successfully created a 55 minute piano work that is complex yet popular and holds the attention to the public.

After the 36 variation marathon, Rzewski gives the performer the freedom to improvise a cadenza! I have performed improvisation in concerts, but never within such a huge work. I find myself excited to see how the improvisation will develop, I am currently thinking it should all be played inside the piano!

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

Performing at Wigmore Hall is very special. It has an astonishing Steinway piano, and a magical acoustic. I was also very excited to play in Berlin recently at the Piano Salon Christophori. There is a concert series in a working piano factory, where the owner has over 120 pianos! It is a magical atmosphere and a very attentive audience. There were over 250 people, and half the audience was under 40. A good sign for 2015.

Favourite pieces to perform?

Whichever piece I am about to play.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whoever I am about to play with.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I once played at the BBC Proms with the European Union Youth Orchestra on the organ! We played ‘Tarus Bulba’ by Janacek, which includes very exposed solos. That was my first time playing an organ, so it was quite an overwhelming experience! Perhaps I can officially retire as an organist now I have played at the Royal Albert Hall.

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

Never stop learning, never stop working and never stop dreaming. When the cellist Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

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

Doing exactly what I am doing now.

Robin Green is Artist in Residence at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Full details of the festival and Robin’s concerts here. He will perform Frederick Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ on Saturday 23rd May. Full details here

He is also performing with violinist Sara Trickey and

‘A light touch and an engaging tone’ (The Strad magazine), Robin Green enjoys a busy career as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor and ensemble pianist.

Robin’s first CD, ‘Dialog mit Mozart’ with the Austrian violinist Daniel Auner, released on the Gramola label, was ‘Editors choice’ in the December 2014 issue of the Strad Magazine.

Robin has performed recitals in many of the world’s most important concert venues including the Wigmore Hall and the Vienna Musikverein. His festival appearances have included the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the ‘Interlaken Classics Festival’, Davos Young Artists Festival, the International Musicians Seminar ‘Open Chamber’ Festival at Prussia Cove, the Pharos Trust, Festival de Radio France et Montpellier and Le Jardin Musicaux Festival.

As a concerto soloist, Robin directed a performance of Poulenc´s ‘Aubade’ from the piano with the European Union Youth Orchestra. Other concerto highlights include the Martinu Double Concerto with Sinfonia Cymru and Camerata Nordica at the Small Nations Big Sounds festival.

Together with the pianist Antoine Françoise, Robin is part of the Françoise-Green piano duo. The duo are the first prize winners of the Royal Overseas League Chamber music competition, and the Concours Nicati in Switzerland. In 2015, the duo were finalists of the YCAT competition at Wigmore Hall.

A passionate chamber musician, Robin has collaborated with Gordan Nikolitch, Michael Collins, Thomas Carroll, Rolf Hind, the Cavalieri String Quartet, members of the Zehetmair quartet, Llyr Williams, the Rambert Dance Company and the Mercury Quartet, where he is a guest conductor.

Former recipient of the Leverhulme Chamber music fellowship at the Royal College of Music, Robin is now a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music Junior department. Supporting his studies at the Royal College of Music and the Mozarteum, Salzburg, Robin has participated in masterclasses with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Menahem Pressler, Ivry Gitlis, Ferenc Rados, Stephen Kovacevich, Dénes Várjon, Imre Rohmann, Peter Lang and Rainer Schmidt.

Robin is the former pianist of the European Union Youth Orchestra, having won the Chairman’s award. As an ensemble pianist, Robin has performed with Orchestre National de Radio France, Aurora Orchestra and Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain.

Classical Musicians and Social Media


This is an article I wrote for HelloStage, a social media platform which allows musicians, promoters, agents and other music professionals to connect.

social media

noun
noun: social media; plural noun: social medias 

1. websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. 

If you are reading this article, I can almost guarantee that you found it via a social media platform – a blog, a blog embedded in a website, a link shared on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+, or via a “discovery engine” such as Stumbleupon or Reddit. Or indeed via any of the other myriad platforms that allow people to create and share content across the internet.

Social media offers musicians quick and easy ways to build and enhance one’s profile, and connect with one another, promoters and agents, venues and audiences, radio stations and recording companies across the web. It has created international stars and opened up the world of classical music to a broader audience and fan base. The barriers to entry are low, and costs minimal or non-existent, and a robust online presence will make you more attractive to presenters, managers and record companies who will look at the size of your fan base, the number of views, and how actively you engage with your fans.

Before social media, there was the personal website, the musician’s “shop-window” containing one’s biography, concert schedule, discography, media such as photographs and video clips, and perhaps some links to other people’s sites. Now, in addition to the website, most tech-savvy musicians will have a Facebook fan page (separate from one’s personal profile page), a YouTube channel, and a Twitter account – and that’s just for starters. Taken all together, these are powerful tools to create international connections and allow others to discover you and your music.

In a recent survey I conducted to explore how classical musicians use social media, the most popular and frequently-used platform was Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube following close behind. In terms of purpose, 87% of respondents said they use social media to connect with others in the profession, with 72% using it for self-promotion, and 66% for advertising concerts, CD launches and other events. The majority of respondents (77%) felt it was important to have a presence on social media as a musician in the 21st century, though, interestingly, only 41% felt social media had been “very useful” in their professional life.

In addition to networking, self-promotion and advertising, respondents to my survey also cited a number of other important uses for social media including: 

• Building community with like-minded professionals and developing a targeted client base 

• Speaking engagements, e-book promotion, increased blog traffic 

• Ticket sales, awareness of opportunities for training, meeting and contacting other musicians 

• Higher profile; creating relationships with journalists; creating relationships with other musicians 

• Greater recognition. Helps to establish an international presence. Helps to ignite/sustain/rekindle current relationships with fellow musicians & colleagues 

• Reconnecting with long lost colleagues to create new working relationships 

• Broader audience for concerts, connecting and sharing ideas with other musicians 

With these obvious benefits of using social media, it always surprises me when I come across active performing musicians who hardly use social media or claim not to know how to use it. If you’ve got a computer, it’s easy. If you have a smart phone, it’s even easier. 

Here are two examples of musicians making effective use of social media, from either end of the UK classical music spectrum. 

First, Emmanuel (Manny) Vass, a young concert pianist from Yorkshire whose active and engaged online presence has succeeded in quickly raising his profile. Manny comes across as down-to-earth, genuine and committed, and it is no surprise that his latest Kickstarter campaign, to fund his second CD (his first CD was also self-funded) has already exceeded its target. Manny uses no agent, promoter nor PR company to market himself. 

Secondly, Stephen Hough. Internationally-renowned pianist and musical polymath, Stephen’s Twitter feed is busy and varied, reflecting his many interests, including religion, food and hats, and offering insightful snapshots into the life of the busy touring musician. 

What both Manny and Stephen share in their online presence is a lack of ego: they don’t “big” themselves up – they come across as genuine and “normal”, and this is a crucial aspect of using social media. 

Some thoughts on using social media successfully. 

Twitter: Do interact with others. Observe good “Twitterquette” by thanking people if they say nice things about you, or post a favourable review. Don’t big yourself up too much in posts (because no one likes a boaster, do they?), but equally don’t sound too desperate (“Please please please come to my concert next Friday!”). Avoid capital letters – this is the Twitter equivalent of shouting – or too many exclamation marks (which just looks over-excited). Offer snapshots of your professional life – your audience are interested. Don’t get into arguments with people online, and don’t use Twitter to slag off colleagues, conductors, critics or others, or moan about the exigencies of your life. Twitter is a very powerful tool – use it intelligently and skillfully and it will reap rewards. 

Facebook: Facebook is a funny beast. At one time, it was the social platform of choice for young people, but now seems to have been taken over by their parents as youngsters move to other platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. Use Facebook wisely and think carefully about how much information about yourself you want to reveal to the public at large. (Remember, the privacy settings of all posts can customized.) Many musicians have an “artist page” which is separate from a personal profile and is the place to post reviews, information about upcoming concerts and other events, and share links which are relevant to one’s professional profile or career. Facebook also allows you to create events which can be useful in attracting people to a concert or CD launch. Again, the privacy settings can be customized. 

You Tube: It’s impossible to ignore the “Valentina effect” – how the pianist Valentina Lisitsa built a massive online following through her videos of her practise sessions and concerts. YouTube is useful for sharing samples of your work – but only if the recording is good quality. 

SoundCloud: This music-sharing platform has eclipsed YouTube in recent years, and now many artists (from all genres) use it as a place to share tracks and samples of their work. Your personal profile can be embedded on your website or blog, and tracks can be shared across other networks, or kept private and shared only via an emailable link. 

Blogging: This is more niche and requires much more commitment than the platforms above. I meet plenty of people who tell me they are going to start a blog: they get set up with an attractive template, write a handful of articles and then lose interest. A successful blog takes time and effort (see my earlier article on blogging for more detailed advice on how to get started). 

The exigencies of life as a musician in the 21st century mean that most people have to do their own promotion and PR. Very few musicians can afford the luxury of a PR company or powerful publicity machine, and you should not rely on venues to publicise your concerts – unless you are very famous. Social networking gives you powerful, and importantly, free tools to self-promote, and the more active you are online, the more your profile grows. The key to success with any social media platform is to build a distinct and compelling online profile. 

Piano heaven at Finchcocks

Finchcocks is a fine Georgian manor house set in the tranquil Kent countryside near Goudhurst. Originally the home of Bathurst family, the house became a centre for historical keyboard instruments in 1971 when Katrina and Richard Burnett bought the house as a place for Richard’s growing collection of historic pianos, harpsichords, organs, clavichords and more. The house and collection first opened to the public in 1976 and since has become a hub for the keyboard-inclined and a place where students, conservators and scholars can gain valuable insights into the working practices of composers and how the instruments of their day influenced how they created their music. In addition to open days, where anyone can go along and play the instruments (some 40 are in playable condition), the house also hosts concerts, jazz nights and education events.

For a bunch of piano addicts what better way to spend an early April day than to be offered free range of the Finchcocks collection as part of a private visit. After an initial introduction to the collection by visiting tutor and Finchcocks regular Gary Branch, we were let loose on the collection, with Gary on hand to offer advice about the best instrument for our repertoire to be performed in an afternoon concert. The collection includes some fine harpsichords and clavichords, square pianos (including one which belonged to Queen Victoria, made by John Broadwood & Sons), fortepianos, and grand pianos by Clementi, Pleyel, Erard and Broadwood.

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When dealing with historic instruments, I think one has to be careful not to invest too much in the idea that these instruments somehow “channel” the great composers to us. We can never accurately recreate their soundworld, because there are other social and historical factors about which we can only surmise, but by playing Bach on a harpsichord or Schubert on an early nineteenth-century fortepiano, for example, we can gain valuable insights into aspects such as dynamics and articulation, and we can experience the same instrumental colours and timbres the composers themselves expected to hear. These instruments, which were handmade right down to the tiniest parts, have very distinct and individual characters, something that has been lost in modern piano production: today it is down to the pianist to create a unique and personal soundworld.

We had a fascinating day exploring these beautiful old instruments, with a concert to wrap up the afternoon which reflected our personal discoveries and musical passions. Hear excerpts from the performances here

For more information about Finchcocks, please visit

www.finchcocks.co.uk