All posts by Cross-Eyed Pianist

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

Proms Chamber Music 6: Jeremy Denk brings darkness and light to Cadogan Hall

Concert planners, performers and even audiences often like to find a common thread which runs through a programme, and so Jeremy Denk’s Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall could be said to have darkness and light as its main focus, opening with Scriabin’s demonic “Black Mass” piano sonata and closing with Beethoven’s otherworldly Op.111. The middle section of this philosophical musical sandwich was Bartók’s Piano Sonata which offered a contrasting respite with its wit and humour.

This was Jeremy Denk’s debut recital at the BBC Proms (he performs with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Sunday 30th August), and he is a pianist I have been curious to hear live for some time. A musical thinker, I have enjoyed his articles on music and his blog on the life of the performing pianist.

Read my full review here
(Picture credit: Michael Wilson)

Meet the Artist……Errollyn Wallen

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

There were several triggers — playing the piano, hearing Chopin in my ballet class, twiddling the knobs on the radio and discovering the range of classical music, a history teacher at school suggesting it as a possible career. My uncle told me I was a composer when I told him about the sounds in my head.

Eventually it became an inner necessity to compose.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

J S Bach is my greatest inspiration. Gemini (founded by Ian Mitchell) gave me my first commission and I am continually learning from the musicians, collaborators and institutions I work with.

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

The greatest challenge is always how to manage one’s time —and finances — in order to do the work.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge is to create a work which extends my range of musical thinking whilst also satisfying the brief of the commission.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I relish composing for specific performers — it always shapes the music. In composing Hawks and Horses I had the sound of Peterborough Sings! In my mind. I had already spent time in Peterborough so was able to get to know the personality of these special choirs and their brilliant conductor, Will Prideaux.

Every performer is unique and the challenge is to compose a work which lets the performer/s shine whilst bringing them something fresh and new.

Tell us more about your new work ‘Hawks and Horses’

What was the inspiration behind this work?

The inspiration was twofold — the sound of the range of voices (from young to old) and the way in which I came across Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91. Last year I was going through my Uncle Arthur’s house after he died and found a small book of sonnets which had an inscription in the front noting that that Sonnet 91 was about the giver and the receiver of the book. Was my dear uncle the intended recipient or was the book a second hand book? I will never know; but I was reminded of the power of words, the power of love and friendship. This is true for us at any age — which is why I decided to set Sonnet 91 for Peterborough Sings! which comprises a youth choir, a male voice choir and a women’s choir. As I was setting the poem I began to imagine the Peterborough landscape centuries ago.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Sonnet 91

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force, Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill; Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse; And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure, Wherein it finds a joy above the rest: But these particulars are not my measure; All these I better in one general best. Thy love is better than high birth to me, Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost, Of more delight than hawks or horses be; And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:    Wretched in this alone, that thou may’st take    All this away, and me most wretched make.

How has working with Peterborough Sings! influenced the way you have composed the work?

I have never composed a work for children and adults singing together and am very excited to hear how the combination will work. It was invaluable spending time with Will and the choirs beforehand as that has had a profound influence.

Which works are you most proud of?

I have composed so much music. I am fond of all my works and am constantly surprised how the circumstances in which they were composed can have no influence on the finished work. I am very proud of my opera, the Silent Twins (librettist April de Angelis) which was performed at Almeida Opera Festival in 2007.

I also favour some of my simple songs which I perform at the piano myself. What’s up Doc? is a one-off and composed in a matter of minutes. I love performing it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Ella Fitzgerald, Daniil Trifonov, J.S.Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel. So many more..!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing my works performed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, knowing that they were being broadcast simultaneously to a billion people around the world was overwhelming. The work which also provided total concert experience was the première of Carbon 12 : A Choral Symphony for Welsh National Opera at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Carbon 12 is an oratorio about the history of coal mining in South Wales. The librettist, John Binias and I felt that we had achieved something bigger than ourselves. Everyone in that concert hall was somehow part of the story we were telling onstage.

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

When you think you’re done, give it 10 per cent more.

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

In sensational health after representing Belize in the 100m at the Olympics

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being by the sea or in the sea. Preferably with family and friends.

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m not very good at treasuring possessions. I do always need a piano however and I have a very nice Steinway upright. I also love my copy of the CD, ERROLLYN, framed by NASA. It orbited the earth 186 times.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Thinking, composing, playing the piano, singing, eating. I ADORE recording too!

What is your present state of mind?

Juggling the present with the past and the future.

This August will see the premiere of Hawks and Horses, a new work by internationally acclaimed composer Errollyn Wallen, the “renaissance woman of contemporary British music” (The Observer), best known for her works Principia and Spirit in Motion which featured in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Commissioned by music education charity Peterborough Sings!, the work was written for the city’s award-winning choirs Peterborough Male Voice Choir, Peterborough Voices and Peterborough Youth Choir, who will perform it for the first time with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square in London on Sunday 30th August, with a regional premiere to follow at Peterborough’s Broadway Theatre on Sunday 6th September.

www.errollynwallen.com

Prom 52: A thrilling journey of improvisation

Prom 52 offered a fascinating musical journey with French organist Thierry Escaich, who juxtaposed the organ music of J.S. Bach with responses to it by Mendelssohn and Brahms, as well his own improvisations on themes by Bach.

Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien

(Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien)

Escaich is part of the grand French tradition of organ improvisation which dates back to the 19th century, and he succeeded another great French composer and organist at St Etienne du Mont, Maurice Duruflé. Escaich calls the art of improvisation “composition in real time” and in an interview for BBC Radio 3 explained that he can often improvise for 20 minutes during a Catholic mass “in Bach style, in Romantic style”. In discussing Mendelssohn, whose Organ Sonata in A major featured in this programme, Escaich described this music as Bach “with a little more romanticism”, and explained that in his own improvisations he adds his own personality to the music of Bach, while honouring Bach’s themes, textures and idioms. The end result is music which shines a new light on Bach’s original, while demonstrating the exciting range of possibilities offered by this genre.

Read my full review here

E is for……

No pianist’s alphabet would be complete without an entry on the Étude or “study” – the short piece, often considerably difficult, designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique.

The practice of writing études developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano études has continued into the modern era with composers such as Ligeti, Cage, Kapustin and Glass.

The opening of Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op 10, No. 3

Many people swear by études and studies as part of their daily practise regimen and some sets of études enjoy near-legendary or infamous status such as those by Czerny, Hanon and Brahms. Easier études by Heller and Burgmüller, which suit the intermediate pianist, offer technical challenges within an interesting and enjoyable piece. Debussy pokes fun at Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum but he also wrote a series of études which present different technical challenges within each piece, thereby following in Chopin’s footsteps.

Exercises should never be practised mindlessly. Try to play even the most dry exercises musically and appreciate how such exercises relate to actual repertoire. Having submitted to exercises by Cramer and Czerny as a young pianist, I now eschew such studies and prefer to create exercises out of the music I’m working on, though I have found Brahms’ studies useful.

Chopin’s études are incredibly satisfying to play because of the composer’s deep appreciation of the mechanics of the pianist’s hand and the desire to play beautiful music.

Frances Wilson

Exams

To do them, or not to do them? As a piano teacher, I’m amazed how the word can cause a pupil to shiver, even before they know what it’s like to take a music exam! It seems that human instinct often hones in on the negative feelings before the positive ones, and in the case of music exams, this is clearly not helpful.

The bizarre thing about music exams is that they are treated as a permanent record, but they are only measuring one performance at one moment in time. One of the things I’ve learnt as a professional performer is that every performance will be different and that some will be ‘better’ than others, no matter how hard you try to make all of them your best yet.

Exams also invite direct comparison between people, which can be awkward. I’ve had pupils who work hard and play extremely musically and convincingly, yet their fear or lack of enjoyment in performing affects their willingness to perform in public, or their marks if they take an exam. You can tell them ‘til the cows come home that there is as much value in their playing as that of their friend who regularly gets distinctions in exams, but they will struggle to believe you.

On the other hand, some of the best work my pupils have done is when they’ve had the deadline and motivation of an exam. They seem to prefer taking an exam to giving an informal performance amongst friends and peers, precisely because they’ll get a certificate at the end of it! Teachers often tell stories in disbelief of parents who have provided the books for the next grade straight after an exam has been sat. But it was much more memorable when a reluctant performing pupil of mine sat her Grade 1 and straight away asked when she could start on work on her Grade 2.

In amongst studying other repertoire and taking up other opportunities to perform, exams are a great learning tool. As well as motivation, exams encourage disciplined preparation – a valuable skill for life, never mind learning an instrument. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs when a pupil and I have been working in great detail, or at a great pace, because we’re inspired to achieve our best together.

Controversially, I believe the marked results are not the thing. Of course, we all like to know what someone else thinks of our performance, and it’s extremely useful for teachers, pupils and parents to have an independent view on our musical performance. But for me, the best result is the personal and musical development of each pupil, and their awareness of that. I’ve been more proud of a pupil scraping a pass at Grade 5 than others achieving distinctions – because I understand the amount of effort and work that each pupil has put in. You can’t beat the beaming smile of a pupil who realises they’ve worked really hard and it was worth it. If an exam can bring wide grins, then let’s remember that and talk about it instead of shivering and creating anxiety.

Elspeth Wyllie, pianist, accompanist and coach, teacher

elspethwyllie.co.uk

Loving your mistakes

A guest post by Nora Krohn

One night after a concert I was having a drink with a colleague who told me a bizarre story about a graduate school audition he’d taken. While entering the subway en route to the audition, weighed down by his violin case and a large suitcase, he walked through the service gate behind someone else rather than swiping his card at the turnstile. Since he had an unlimited monthly pass, he had essentially pre-paid his fare and assumed there was nothing unlawful about walking through the gate. So he was stunned when a police officer stopped him, arrested him for fare evasion, and took him to jail.

With his violin case sitting on the other side of the bars enclosing his cell, he called the audition committee to explain the situation, and then waited anxiously, not knowing when he would be released. A few hours later, the officer finally let him go with a summons to appear in court a few weeks later. He grabbed his violin, rushed to the hall, made it there 20 minutes before his audition, played beautifully, and was accepted.

When he got to the end of his story, I was astounded. “How could you possibly stay focused with so much stress and distraction? Weren’t you furious?” I asked. “ I would have been a mess.”

“I wasn’t nervous or angry, I was totally relaxed actually,” he replied with a smile. “You see, the situation was so over the top I’d already let go of the outcome. Whatever happened I knew it wouldn’t be my fault.”

My colleague could relax and allow his great talent and preparation to shine through in spite of these acutely stressful events because he knew whatever flaws that resulted from them were clearly not his responsibility. The absurdity of the whole thing disarmed him, and he let go.

For many of us it’s not so easy to hold the things that go wrong with lightness—to regard them as vicissitudes of fortune rather than as tactical errors, character flaws, or divine punishment. But as I pondered my friend’s story, I began to see that letting go of the impulse to assign blame for our past and future mistakes—whether to others or to ourselves—is crucial for our growth. Instead of defining ourselves by our missteps, we can learn to see them as vital steps toward greater wisdom.

Here is an example from my own experience.

Trying to Be Right

This past spring I arranged a play-through of my recital program for a colleague in preparation for an upcoming concert. In starting to collaborate more with piano, I’d discovered that my knee-jerk habit, honed from years of orchestral playing, is to blend with and defer to what’s going on around me, instead of taking charge. After that realization I’d worked hard to learn what it meant to fully occupy, or request, if necessary, the musical space I needed to play with the command that performing as a soloist requires.

As the pianist and I played through our program for my colleague, I started to feel that the music was tumbling by too quickly and I that didn’t have space to execute things the way I wanted to. In my frustration, I tried to slow down, but the pianist and I weren’t aligning, and my frustration persisted through the end of the play-through.

After we finished, my colleague offered us warm praise, and then gently suggested that in my efforts to play everything as exquisitely as I’d set out to, I was blocking the flow of the music. I countered that I had been trying to slow things down to give myself space and strength. But she replied that while my intention was good, it couldn’t work in performance, when the music of the moment required me to join up with a gesture or tempo that was already in motion. Her words and voice were kind, but I felt chastened and confused. I’d been trying so hard to be “right.” Now I felt I was back to being “wrong.”

But as I thought about it, I saw the wisdom in my colleague’s advice. In rehearsal, it was important to lead by communicating how I thought the music should flow. But in the moment of performance, I had to let go of all of that effort and be flexible in working with the particular demands of the situation instead of fighting them, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they might feel.

“Just Relax”

A few weeks ago I encountered another situation where my desire to be “right on” was inhibiting I was playing with a pianist in a master class at Madeline Bruser’s Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and we were trying to get the ensemble of a particular cadence just right. From my previous experiences, of first trying to follow the pianist, and then trying too hard to lead, I instinctively knew that for us to be together, the main thing I needed was to be solidly connected to myself—that if I could stand clearly in my own feelings and convictions, I could naturally connect with the pianist and she would know exactly where to place her notes. But I also knew that making a big effort to connect to myself would tie me up in knots. It had to just happen, but I didn’t know how.

When I explained this predicament to Madeline she said, “It sounds like you just need to let your mind relax.” Luckily we had been meditating for two hours a day for the previous five days, so after closing my eyes for a few moments I was able to let go and merge my mind with the sounds I was hearing and with the feeling in my body. We played the passage again, and the cadence flowed effortlessly. Buoyed with confidence, we tried the same idea at another cadence and were again completely in sync. But at the last second the pianist was so relaxed she played a glaring wrong note, and everyone in the room burst out laughing. It was a really great mistake, because it loosened us up, and brought everyone closer together for a moment.

When “Wrong” is Just Right

While I was at the summer program, another friend told me he was in the process of writing a piece for a student orchestra. The previous day he’d gone on a walk and felt very inspired, and sat down to write several minutes of music. But he went on to confess that after listening to it the next day he found it mawkishly sentimental and embarrassing. He dubbed it “The Happy Bunny Farm,” and played it for me, and we laughed about it. But the day after we talked he felt fresh and full of good ideas, and ended up finding the thread that became the piece he did write. He just had to get the Happy Bunny Farm out of his system first. One songwriter I know recently told me he asks his students to do what he calls the “Bad Songs Challenge.” They write one complete “bad” song per day for a week, and in the process they accumulate valuable insights about what works, what doesn’t, and why. And presumably they share a few good laughs.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to get more comfortable with the idea of screwing up, but the truth is it’s still hard to deal with. I’d always heard the phrases “mistakes are inevitable,” or “you learn from your mistakes,” but it’s taken a long time to start acquainting myself with the palpable meaning of those words. In reflecting on the missteps I’ve made as a performer, I’ve begun to see them not as pitfalls I could have avoided by being better or smarter, but as necessary steps on the path toward true confidence, a confidence based not on protecting myself from being wrong, but on becoming big and bold enough to welcome any experience that comes my way, wrong or right.

The word “forgive” comes from the Old English forgiefan. Another translation of that word is “to give up.” In my case, forgiving myself for my mistakes means giving up feeling any certainty about whether I’m on the right track. I often feel lost, uncertain whether my next step will take me closer to or further from what I desire, which is to communicate truth and beauty. But the alternative is to remain paralyzed by the fear of being wrong, which makes it impossible to take even one step forward into the vast and beautiful wilderness that is ours to know. Getting lost is not only inevitable, but vitally important. When we can hold our missteps with gentleness and humor, we are exactly where we need to be. The path is in the walking of it.

A versatile performer and recording artist in the New York area, Nora Krohn has performed on three continents in a diverse range of venues and styles. She is the Assistant Principal violist of the Ridgefield Symphony, section violist in the Binghamton Philharmonic, and she performs frequently with a dozen other orchestral ensembles throughout the Northeast. Her numerous recording credits include collaborations with Phil Dizack and Declan O’Rourke, and commercial projects for Budweiser and Tiffany and Co. She can also be seen in several episodes of Amazon’s web series “Mozart in the Jungle.”  

Founding member of pioneering viola duo Folie à Deux, Nora is also an avid chamber musician. As a recitalist, she has performed on the St. John’s Noontime Concert Series in Williamstown, MA, on the Turtle Bay Music School Artist Series, the Project 142 Series at The Concert Space at Beethoven Pianos, and for the inaugural Art of Practicing Institute fundraising concert. In October 2011 she was featured as a soloist in Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik with the Chelsea Symphony. 

Nora graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University, where she earned a BA in Music and Spanish Literature and was the recipient of the Buxtehude and Muriel Hassenfeld Mann Premiums in Music. She received her MM in Viola Performance from SUNY Purchase College, where she studied with Ira Weller.

www.norakrohn.com

Survey on piano courses

If you are an adult amateur pianist who has attended a piano course this year (1-day course or workshop, weekend course, or longer residential course in the UK or abroad) please consider taking part in my survey which explores the reasons why people attend piano courses and what they hope to gain from them. I will collate the responses and include them in my round up of piano courses for 2016. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence. Thank you in advance for your help.

Click the link below to take the survey:

Why go on a piano course survey

Students at La Balie. France
Students at La Balie. France

‘There Will Be Blood’ film screening with live score

What makes a great film? A powerful narrative, engaging acting, imaginative direction and cinematography. All of the above – but also a compelling score. The popular of film music is reiterated by stations such as ClassicFM which regularly broadcast excerpts from the soundtracks of, for example, Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore), The Mission (Ennio Morricone), The Hours (Philip Glass) and more, and certain composers of film scores enjoy near-legendary status in the world of film and music: in addition to those mentioned above, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Horner, John Barry, Alexandre Desplat, Yann Tiersen.

Good music can really make a film (and bad music can really harm a film) and is a very powerful tool. Music can be used to set the mood and move on, or delay, and inform the action. Some film scores enjoy iconic status: Brief Encounter uses Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and the rich romanticism and pathos of this music truly enhances the narrative. Last year, I went to a screening of Brief Encounter with a live performance of the score with pianist Leon McCawley. In addition to reminding me what a great classic film this is, to hear (and see) the music live added something really special to the narrative and highlighted aspects of the film which I had previously overlooked when viewing at home on a winter’s afternoon (usually in that post-Christmas slump time).

This month, as part of the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre (this year curated by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame), another film received the live score treatment. And it was a complete contrast to the small-town restrained English romance of Brief Encounter. There Will Be Blood is the powerful and disturbing story of the rise of unscrupulous oil man Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis at his most intense and brooding. The score was performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt, with Jonny Greenwood on the ondes Martenot.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007).

The film score was created from music composed by Greenwood, who is perhaps best known for being a member of the rock group Radiohead. He is also an acclaimed composer of film scores (and has also been outspoken on the formal presentation of classical music – read more here), including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and The Master (2012). But his score for There Will Be Blood really defines Greenwood’s film music. In fact, the director Paul Thomas Anderson was initially inspired after hearing Greenwood’s piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, written as part of his fruitful residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the film opens to this music, a full 12 minutes of nothing but music and action.

Greenwood’s music glides, shimmers and pulsates. It is sparse and sinewy, strings tremble and stutter urgently, there are unsettling glissandi (which Greenwood calls “smears”) and strange orchestral “white noise”. The music expresses both the vast landscape of California, the setting for the action of the film, and also the inner turmoil and psychosis of the protagonist Daniel Plainview. There are distinct echoes of Messiaen in Greenwood’s writing, in particular in his harmonies (also found in the opening of Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’), and Arvo Pärt too, and the film soundtrack includes Part’s Fratres for piano and cello (performed on this occasion by Katherine Tinker and Oliver Coates respectively). The live score offered new nuances on the film, at times heightening and magnifying the action, in particular when the orchestra produced a wall of sound that loomed up to bookend short and intense periods of action that take place in the otherwise desolate landscape. Taken as a whole, it was an incredibly powerful and absorbing evening’s viewing and listening, very enthusiastically received by the audience, who also sat in appreciative silence as the orchestra played out the film’s credits to the final movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto (with Galya Bisengalieva as soloist). As “immersive experiences” go, I’d say this was right up there.

Meet the Artist……Robin Browning, conductor

(photo credit: Luiz Ciafrino)

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

When I was at school, in rural North Yorkshire, I had a very charismatic head of music, who seemed to conduct absolutely everything. As an impressionable 11 or 12 year old, I wanted to be like him. Soon I was pinching Mum’s knitting needles and carving the air in front of my bedroom mirror, accompanied by the Beethoven Violin Concerto. That’s where it started – it was downhill from there, really…

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

Of the ones I’ve known well: Benjamin Zander figures highly – he was a profound influence, blessed with such an open-minded, enlightening approach to freedom in music. I learned so much from him about the possibilities within one phrase, or within an entire Mahler symphony. Amongst my more formal conducting teachers, three crucial, inspirational and utterly amazing maestri stand out above all others: Paavo Järvi, who I was lucky enough to study with in Estonia, and who I still see often in London and on the continent; Sian Edwards, now the new head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music; and the legendary Ilya Musin, with whom I spent an unforgettable summer studying at Accademia Chigiana in Siena.

Of those I (alas) never met: Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. I wore out tapes hearing and watching them as a student. Luckily I’ve replaced most of it now on CD or DVD.

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

Trying to remember that the music is more important than the multitude of irritations which follow performing musicians around: a stage that’s too dimly lit, or a silly row with a technician about trivia can always make us forget why we’re there at all

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I remember a Shostakovich 7th Symphony some years ago where almost everyone was in floods of tears at the end. Nobody could speak or clap for what felt like an age, and I kind of lost touch with myself. It was a remarkable evening. I guess, as performers, we all try to (re)capture that essence every single time.

Of recordings, my CD of works by Raymond Warren (all premieres) are undoubtedly a highlight – I was very lucky to work with such a great singer and players:

With which particular works do you have a special affinity or connection?

One composer springs instantly to mind: Sibelius. And he’s topical, with 2015 being his anniversary year. Something about his language, harmony, use of rhythm as a structural device, that distinctive timbral-colour: all those things do it for me. I also feel deeply at home with Mahler, Bruckner, Elgar, and Tchaikovsky. I wish I did so for Brahms and Beethoven, but alas not – I love their symphonies passionately, yet every time I conduct them I feel they’ve beaten me, and it’s back to the drawing board

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

Programming for orchestras hinges on so many variables. Balancing the personnel required, soloists, requests for premieres, or commissions, venue-size, and of course cost plays a big part. Currently it feels as if, certainly with orchestras, one is under greater pressure than ever to appeal to audiences. In some cases, I admit, I’ve felt under pressure to water-down programming – which breaks my heart – but I suppose we’ve got to build our audiences before we can take greater risks with our programming and repertoire. I have a long wish-list of works I’d love to perform, but it gets longer each year, not shorter!

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

Probably Snape Maltings, Suffolk. I’ve many fond memories of being on that stage. It’s a beautiful sounding hall, for a start, with (as I recall) so much wood, brick, and orange light. Plus the view over the marshes and  reed-beds over the Henry Moore sculptures is unearthly and intoxicating. Performing Britten there has been one of the highlights of my career to date. I long to return.

Dvorak Hall in Prague’s Rudolfinum is also right up there. Such a fantastic hall, just the right degree of space in the acoustics, yet intimate too: somehow you feel like you can reach out and touch the very back row. However, not quite the same calming, tranquil vibe backstage as Snape…

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

Sometimes I’m unable to cope with listening to music (yes, an odd thing for a musician to admit to, but at times it all gets a bit too much: silence or speech are the maximum I can handle). Despite that, I love plunging into… late Beethoven quartets (played by the Italian Quartet)… Richard Strauss with Schwartzkopf, and Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier… Beethoven Concerti with Wilhelm Kempff (that colour – where does it come from?!)… and Sibelius in those old, mono but incredible Anthony Collins / LSO recordings. Or Jeff Buckley – that works too, most days.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Apart from the Shostakovich Leningrad mentioned above, it must be a concert of concerti in a large church in Prague, at the start of my career, when I was assistant conductor. Mid-Weber, a VERY aged, Yoda-like monk (hooded cowl, the lot) barged his way through the orchestra, sending music and stands flying, to reach the vestry. How the soloist and I stayed together I’ve no idea. Most of the violinists were either playing from memory, or in tears of laughter – probably both.

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

To maintain the music, the composer’s deepest intentions, at all costs. Everything else is secondary, or should be. Technique is crucial, not only as an instrumentalist or singer, but as a conductor too. So is repertoire, style, stamina, and a deeply-centred awareness. Humility goes a long way too. Yes, nowadays a good website plus skill at self-promotion is necessary alongside all this. But music must always remain as the beacon, despite the weariness of travelling, unsatisfactory dressing-rooms, and the mountain of admin. We get to spend every single day with genius, after all, if we choose it

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mahler! I’ve performances of the 5th and 6th Symphonies coming up soon, and am making a short film about them too. Plus I’m busy programming with many of my orchestras for the coming seasons, including more Family Concerts with my great friend and collaborator James Mayhew

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

Doing just the same, only more of it, and in more countries than I am now. Working my way through that repertoire wish-list…

What is your most treasured possession? 

It would have to be the two cats, even though they’re not possessions at all really, are they? Besides they possess me rather than vice-versa. They’re called Schmoogle & Ratty (don’t ask!)

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Standing on top of a Lakeland fell, in total silence except the wind, having tortured myself to climb up it. And probably enjoying a pint afterwards.

British conductor Robin Browning is increasingly in demand with orchestras both in the UK and abroad. Robin made his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London, in a concert which was broadcast on Classic FM. He has conducted the Hallé, English Northern Philharmonia, Northern Sinfonia, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain, St Petersburg Festival Orchestra, and Estonian National Youth Orchestra. 2011 marked Robin’s US debut, conducting three subscription-series concerts with the Boise Philharmonic, and in 2013 he made his debut with Milton Keynes City Orchestra. 

Robin recently assisted Sakari Oramo for the UK Premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. He has also been assistant conductor to Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and assisted Mark Elder with both the LPO and OAE. Since taking second prize in the NAYO Conducting Competition, and winning the inaugural Boosey & Hawkes Award at the Edinburgh Festival, Robin is now firmly established as music director of five British orchestras, including the highly-regarded de Havilland Philharmonic. He has performed in some of the world’s most famous concert halls, including Snape Maltings, London’s Cadogan Hall, the Rudolfinum in Prague, and the Banff Centre in Canada. In 2008, Robin gave a concert at the Olympic Stadium, Nanjing, conducting live on Chinese television before an audience of 70 million. He has worked with a wide array of soloists, including Guy Johnston, Aled Jones, Craig Ogden, Jack Liebeck, John Lill and Raphael Wallfisch. 

Robin studied at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena, with Myung-Whun Chung and the legendary Ilya Musin. He furthered his training in the USA with Joseph Gifford, and was invited to Estonia for masterclasses with Neeme and Paavo Järvi at the Oistrakh Festival. Robin also studied with Sir Charles Mackerras, Sian Edwards and Benjamin Zander, and participated in the first ever Conductor Development Programme with Milton Keynes City Orchestra in 2012. 

Passionately committed to the training of younger musicians, Robin has guest-conducted orchestras at both Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music, and works regularly with young conductors at the University of Southampton. In 2008 he was involved in the Barbican Young Orchestra project, preparing the inaugural orchestra for Sir Colin Davis. Robin is also dedicated to contemporary music and recordings: since making his first first professional studio-recording in 2008, he has released three more – all are available from iTunes and Amazon. 

www.robinbrowning.com

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw

I recently attended an interesting and inspiring workshop with acclaimed pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw.

Using the metaphor of The Hero’s Journeya pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development, Christine showed how this template can help us understand the challenges of the musician’s life.

In the workshop we first explored our initial “call”, the overwhelming desire to become a musician, and discussed how this dream and aspiration gives us energy and direction. Of course we may not achieve our dream in the form in which we originally imagined it, but pushing at boundaries forces us to develop and discover resources to help us, including guides and mentors, to overcome our demons and cross thresholds, and, on the way, learn to transform failure into a valuable resource.

Though we may face “demons” such as:-

  • injury
  • illness
  • dismotivation
  • negative feedback and criticism
  • lack of support from family and friends
  • mental & emotional issues
  • financial issues

– we should always be aware that there are people out there to help us. Sometimes these “mentors” are people already known to us – teachers, colleagues, friends, family – and sometimes they are “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we tune into their qualities and draw those qualities into ourselves so that we can utilise them.

We then engaged in an exercise (“Mentor and Resonance Pattern”) in pairs in which we named three mentors, arranged them metaphorically around us and identified the special qualities which we felt each mentor could offer us. We then offered these qualities from each mentor to our own selves. At first I found this exercise slightly daft, but the more I thought about and engaged in it, the more I found myself carefully considering what qualities I wanted to take from these mentors (one of whom is the pianist Maria Joao Pires, who I much admire not only for her exquisite playing but also her mentorship and support of young and emerging musicians).

Just as the Hero’s Journey is fraught with difficulties and dangers, so is the musician’s, and sometimes along the way we may get “stuck”. Often this is because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable, able to react to anything that happens without losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and more open to possibilities. A good example of this is the pianist who because he/she has done the right kind of preparation does not allow mistakes or a memory slip to throw him/her off course during a performance. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are more able to connect with self, music and audience.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

James Joyce

Failure may come from external factors such as poor exam results or a bad concert or review. This can be tough, but any failure can be turned into a resource from which we can learn and move on. Trial and error, exploration and experimentation allows us to gain feedback and adjust our approach if necessary, before trying again and progressing.

The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new

Einstein

Much of Christine Croshaw’s approach is drawn from Neuro Linguistic Programming, a way of identifying how people are able to excel in various fields (business, sports, therapy, the arts and many others), and which, put simply, teaches one to “accentuate the positive” by understanding how we create and influence our own experience and behaviour. The techniques of NLP may seem obvious, but putting them into practice can be more tricky, especially if one is prone to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The practice of NLP sits well with mindfulness: taken together, the two practices can give us powerful tools to progress in our musical lives with flair and success.

Related articles

The Piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

Christine Croshaw’s website

What are concerts for?

Concert

noun

1. a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate.

2. a public performance, usually by an individual singer, instrumentalist, or the like; recital:

As regular readers of this blog, and friends and colleagues will know, I go to a lot of concerts, at least one a week, and sometimes two or three. I also occasionally give my own concerts or perform in recitals organised by others.

Earlier this year, I took part in a concert for a medical charity. It was held at the intimate and convivial 1901 Arts Club close to London’s Waterloo station. I’ve performed there are couple of times, and it is also where the South London Concert Series events usually take place. On this occasion, the audience was almost entirely comprised of medics. Plied with champagne before the concert, when people came down to the music salon for the concert, one had the sense of them relaxing into their seats, happy to enjoy whatever we presented to them. The programme was varied with performances by a soprano, a violinist, piano solo and piano 4-hands, and included works by Debussy, Gershwin, Saint-Saens, Rachmaninov, Grainger and Ravel. During the interval and after the concert, members of the audience expressed their delight at the music making and congratulated us on our performances. Throughout the evening, there was a very palpable sense of a shared experience and that the audience had really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment.

Which set me thinking……. Are concerts purely for “entertainment” or do they serve another more serious or different purpose or purposes?

Of course, “entertainment” needn’t be something amusing or funny (though the word is more commonly associated with humour). Entertainment is a form of diversion, an agreeable occupation for the mind, or something affording pleasure. People (including me) gain enormous pleasure from live concerts, and for many concerts offer a wonderful escape from the humdrum, the every day and the mundane. Take this a step further, and for some a concert offers something more transcendent, a near-religious experience (even for the non-religious). A concert can take the listener on a journey outside themselves, it can uplift and even heal.

Since time immemorial, people have got together to make and share music. That sense of community, of belonging, of a shared experience remains very important today. There’s a feeling of collaboration between performer, music and audience which is infectious and absorbing: witness people at the Proms – you can see the sense of engagement and absorption in their faces as they listen to the music (and of course without an audience, a “concert” would cease to be).

Live music can be really really exciting: a live concert is a “one-off”, and that excitement, spontaneity and sense of risk is what makes concerts so compelling – and something one can never truly get from a recording. I love the sense of the music being created “in the moment” (of course, I understand that the performer has in fact spent many careful hours preparing the music). The composer Helmut Lachenmann says of concerts: “Some people go bungee-jumping or climb a mountain to have an existential experience – an adventure. People should have this same experience in the concert hall.” How performers create this sense of “adventure” is discussed later in this article.

Nor do I do believe there is such a thing as a truly “bad concert”, for we each take from the performance something personal and unique, and while I may not have enjoyed a certain performance, others have and who I am to tell them they are wrong? The meaning of music is different for each individual listener, and whether it merely “entertains” or offers something deeper, it is the way music “speaks” and communicates that makes it so magical. This sense of magic is heightened when one hears live music.

For musicians, concerts are in integral part of their raison d’etre and an opportunity for them to share their musical vision with the audience. (One pianist friend of mine describes giving concerts as “a compulsion and a rather beautiful narcotic”.) Music was written to be shared and the audience share their appreciation of what is coming from the performer, thus making a concert a collaborative experience. Performing should have less to do with ego and more the musician’s desire to share the music with others.

Bringing spontaneity to one’s performance can be tricky, especially if one is playing the same programme over a series of concerts. As the British pianist Stephen Hough put it in a programme about practising for the BBC, one needs to be a “perfectionist” in the practise room to allow one to be “bohemian” on stage. By which he means if one is very well-prepared, one has the confidence to “let go” when one performs. Often the best and most memorable performances are from performers who understand the balance between being perfectionist and bohemian. At other times, it is the sense of intense concentration and profound understanding and affinity with the music which can create a moving and memorable performance. I have occasionally been moved to tears on such occasions, crying quite spontaneously at the end of the piece (notably in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a complete performance of the Vingt Regards. On both occasions, the pianist was Steven Osborne.)

On a more prosaic/commercial level, concerts can be used to promote a new CD or related material, or launch of a recording label or similar. And for composers, concerts provide a means of getting their music out there, heard, appreciated and reviewed.

Finally, the late great Claudio Arrau on the subject of concerts:

“I don’t know what will happen, but I trust it will be wonderful”