Returning early August after some much needed R&R.
This week I returned to the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park with my friend and pianist colleague Elspeth Wyllie, to see and play a square piano which had belonged to Elgar. Elspeth has been working on and performing Elgar’s own transcription for piano of his Enigma Variations and so the visit was part curiosity (on both our parts) and part research.
The first thing which struck us on being shown the piano is its very small size, and the delicate strings and hammers. Examining this tiny piano, it was easy to imagine it in a room in the composer’s cottage in Great Malvern. The piano came into the possession of Edward Elgar’s father and uncle who together ran a piano business in Worcester, and Elgar chose it from his father’s stock. He inscribed on the soundboard the names of some of the works he composed on it, including ‘Caractacus’ and ‘Sea Pictures’. The Enigma Variations were composed in 1898-99: of course we don’t know if Elgar used this piano to work on the Variations, but in any case, the experience of playing his music on his piano was most enlightening and very touching, for both of us.
Despite its size, the piano has a remarkably colourful voice and a rich bass. In the treble there are string quartet sonorities which brought a wonderful vibrancy to the music and revealed strands of melody, sub-melody and accompaniment which are sometimes lost in the lush resonance of a modern grand piano.
Hear Elgar’s Broadwood here:
More about The Cobbe Collection
An earlier post about the ‘Chopin’ pianos at the Cobbe Collection
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
Initially it was my older sister. She started taking piano lessons and we were very competitive so anything she did I did too! Then it was really my mother who encouraged me to continue. She took me all over the country for lessons and competitions and really invested a lot of time in my early musical career.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I have been really lucky to study with the most incredible teachers and they have definitely influenced the direction of my career. My teacher at the Purcell School, Carole Presland, had a fabulous career and ever since we met, I have always strived to have a career like hers. And then my current teacher Douglas Finch really nurtured my love of contemporary music. We have been working together now for 5 years and he has really been an invaluable source of encouragement and inspiration.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
All the knock backs I have had. There were many people who told me that I wasn’t good enough so I will always be grateful to those who have had faith in me!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I am very proud of my latest performance at the 1901 Arts Club. It really took a lot of pain and suffering to get there and I feel I really gave the audience something new and special. Shortly after that I recorded some Chopin Preludes which have turned out really well so I am very proud of them!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Contemporary works are definitely my thing. I love compositions by my teacher, Douglas Finch. I have performed his work Preludes and Afterthoughts quite a lot recently and it is just the most fun! The more obscure the better!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It depends on what I have got going on further down the line. I listen a lot. I do, to some extent, go out of my way to find the weird and wonderful pieces that people don’t hear so much. I like to bring something new to the performance platform with every concert I do. I also get asked by composers to perform their works also, which is always a privilege.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The 1901 Arts Club is just phenomenal. It is the most intimate and friendly venue in London. It’s a different kind of concert there. Audience members talk to each other and as a performer you really feel like you are performing to a room full of friends, even though you maybe don’t know a soul!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
That’s a very difficult question. I like to perform all pieces. Performing is just too much fun to not enjoy performing everything! Chamber music is particularly enjoyable. I work with a violinist and we have had particular fun performing Schnittke – Violin Sonata No. 3. To listen to, always Argerich playing Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 1.
Who are your favourite musicians?
So many it is difficult to pick! I love Pierre-Laurent Aimard, he is an inspiration. Argerich as well. I cannot live without her Prokofiev
What is your most memorable concert experience?
When Charles Rosen came to perform and give a master class at the Purcell School. I will never forget that day!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To enjoy what you are doing. I think a lot of musicians forget we are not only doing this for a job but out of choice. We made that choice because we love music. You can hear when people have forgotten to love their art.
What are you working on at the moment?
Takemitsu – Litany, Scriabin Fantasy in B Minor, Schnittke – Little Piano Pieces and Prokofiev Sarcasms.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In 10 years’ time I would like to be doing something that makes me as happy as I am now.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Days off where I can practice, sit in the sun, read a good book and do everything at my leisure. Generally do all the things I never have time to do.
What is your most treasured possession?
My rabbit, Sausages. And my sanity (sometimes wavers!)
What do you enjoy doing most?
Practicing… sometimes… only when it goes well! I am a keen powerlifter so I really enjoy working out. Drinking copious amounts of tea with Mili Leitner, the violinist who I work with.
What is your present state of mind?
Stressed but excited about studying with Corey Hamm at the University of British Columbia in September!
British born pianist Rosie Whiting is a musician who likes to get under the skin of contemporary performance and bring something new to the performance platform. In every concert she performs the audience can be guaranteed of hearing something new and unexpected.
Rosie started playing the piano at the age of 7 after hearing her sister practice. In 2007 she won a place to study at the prestigious Purcell School of Music, with a full scholarship. Under the tutelage of Carole Presland she explored music from all the epochs and soon realised that her passion was with the contemporary repertoire.
In 2009 Rosie began to study with Douglas Finch at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London, and under his guidance immersed herself in modern music. During her time at Trinity, Rosie was able to work with many composers including Tansy Davies, Errollyn Wallen, John White and Mark Grey to name a few. Rosie graduated in 2013.
In 2013 Rosie was awarded first prize in the John Halford Competition for contemporary piano music for her performance of Boulez Piano Sonata No. 1 and Messiaen L’Alouette Lulu. She also made her concerto debut with a performance of Mozart Piano Concerto K. 449.
This is the year of CPE Bach, the tercentenary of the birth of the fifth son of JS, and this anniversary is being marked with performances, recordings and appreciations of his music worldwide.
This is also the year of Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian harpsichordist, now resident in the UK, who has been credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet” and making this instrument, the pre-eminent symbol of the Baroque period, accessible and exciting and proving that the harpsichord has an important position in contemporary music making.
I first encountered Mahan Esfahani via Norman Lebrect’s Slipped Disc blog and, my interest piqued, heard Mahan perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2011 Proms. This was a double first – Mahan’s Proms debut and the first solo harpsichord recital in the Proms history. The performance was fresh, thrilling and insightful, revealing many of the gems of Bach’s writing not always highlighted by other performers, either on harpsichord or piano.
Since then, Mahan’s star has been ascending rapidly, evidenced by a busy international concert diary, including participation in this yaer’s Aldeburgh Festival, appearances on BBC Radio 3, and an acclaimed recording of CPE Bach’s Wurttemberg Sonatas for Hyperion. In addition, Mahan is a sharply intellectual musician who is not afraid to challenge the dogmas of the early music movement and who likes to draw his own conclusions about aspects such as interpretation and performance practice from his studies of period sources, and collaborations with modern instrument players to recreate the sonic world of earlier music.
Mahan’s witty and relaxed stage manner combine with his intelligence and musical insight, resulting in recitals with a magnetic appeal which prove that far from an instrument capable of producing “one sound”, the harpsichord is vibrant, colourfully nuanced, expressive and highly textural. From the melancholic arabesques of Couperin to the dramatic bravura and declamatory statements of the young JS Bach’s Toccata in F# minor BWV910 to the graceful soundscape of Takemitsu (an inspired inclusion), this was a concert which fizzed and sparkled.
Those of us more used to hearing piano recitals at the Wigmore need a few moments to “tune in” to the sound of the harpsichord. It speaks more quietly, inevitably, because of its size, but the special acoustic of the Wigmore Hall seems just about ideal for this instrument. Add to this an audience which, by and large, listened most attentively, creating a highly engaging and absorbing concert.
In addition to the works by Couperin, JS Bach and Takemitsu, there were two Sonatas by CPE (“Emmanuel”) Bach, written while his father was still alive. Dedicated to Emmanuel’s employer, the newly-crowned Prussian King Frederick II, these sonatas reveal a composer working within a musical landscape which was poised on the cusp of change and display the remarkable forward-pull of Emmanuel’s creative impulse in the use of texture, dissonance, rapid changes of mood, rhetoric and wit, music which looks forward to Haydn and Beethoven. For the purposes of comparison, Mahan also included in his programme a sonata by Georg Anton Benda, a Bohemian disciple of Emmanuel. More sparely scored, it lacked the immediate “shock value” of Emmanuel’s writing, yet included many distinctive facets – drama and tension, a recitative-like slow movement and a spirited finale – and was performed with great elegance and sensitivity.
On first glance, Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu may seem an odd choice in a programme dedicated to Baroque and early classical music, but the piece worked well, providing an interesting contrast and a pause for reflection. There were echoes of Emmanuel’s unexpected dissonances and Couperin’s poetry within Takemitsu’s writing , yet the work is also highly lyrical in its explorations of tonality.
This was a concert of bravura playing, combined with wit and intelligence to create a thoroughly engaging concert, which challenged pre-conceived notions about the harpsichord and the music of the Baroque and Rococo periods. Mahan’s entertaining and informative introduction (given after the Couperin) and his interesting and quirky programme notes (in which he described Frederick II as an eighteenth-century “hipster”) undoubtedly contributed to a most enjoyable and imaginative evening of music making. Highly recommended.
(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)
The first Birmingham City University International Piano Academy (IPA) will run 14 July to 2 August 2014. This exciting three-week course is part of the Birmingham City University International Summer School. The IPA is designed to help pianists from across the world develop their interpretative, technical and platform skills.
There are concerts, masterclasses and lectures with leading international artists and renowned teachers, including Peter Donohoe and Julian Lloyd Webber, together with special interest events such as an exploration of playing Mozart’s music on different pianos, including the fortepiano and modern grand piano, allowing participants to discover the differences in phrasing, fingering and interpretation at different periods in history. Peter Donohoe will also give a lunchtime recital of works by Schumann, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. All events are free for those under 18 years of age.
In addition to this unique series of concerts, talks and other activities, the IPA offers a full programme of one-to-one tuition, group lessons and developmental activities.
The IPA is directed by Di Xiao, an international pianist, educator, writer and cultural ambassador.
Further details of the IPA here
Like a great many other composers, the initial impetus or inspiration to write came from a deep-seated desire to emulate (and often imitate!) the music I had encountered in childhood and adolescence, through performing and learning music – in my case, through brass bands, orchestras and youth opera (I was blessed by the fact that Leeds County Council has an amazing music service with many inspirational teachers). Over time, I discovered the great power of music to express ideas about the world and about oneself, and this awoke in me the desire to make composition my vocation.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your composing and your musical career to date?
My initial passions were fired by the English pastoral school, perhaps best represented by Vaughan-Williams and Holst. After this, I went through a Steve Reich phase (pun intended!), which had a very substantial impact upon my development, since it led me to realise that tonality could still be used in original and meaningful ways. Subsequently, I underwent a somewhat obsessive infatuation with Wagner, whose protean use of a wide variety of musical influences to create dramatic works of enormous philosophical depth planted in me the ambition to write opera. At this point, I re-discovered Benjamin Britten, who I came to see as a composer who had achieved equal dramatic mastery and psychological understanding, but in a more English and down-to-earth manner.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Undoubtedly my first two operas. Through these, I have learnt how to synthesise all my musical influences and gradually, from naïve beginnings, to write music and libretti which not only work poetically and musically but which also function well dramatically on the stage. Organising the performances and staging productions was just as much a challenge as the actual composition. For my first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose (after Oscar Wilde), written while I was still an undergraduate, I combined an orchestra of RCM students with the hundred-strong Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir and professional opera singers. My children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark (after Jill Tomlinson), then involved co-ordinating sixty primary-school children from around Cambridgeshire with professional musicians, as well as singers from Cambridge University, which was an even more formidable logistical challenge, since it meant one had to deal not only with some fairly mischievous young spirits, but also with their anxious parents!
What are the particular pleasures/challenges of working with individual artists, ensembles or orchestras?
I always enjoy working with musicians and artists to bring a project into being. I would consider myself the entrepreneurial type, and tend to gather together a team of creative people to build a project around a dramatic conception. Collaboration involves a balance between allowing plenty of creative freedom to the individuals that you are working with, whilst striving to direct everybody’s energies towards a mutual goal. Maintaining this balance without creating too many frictions and tensions is always a challenge; the trick is to find people who share your ideals.
Please tell us more about your new opera Pincher Martin.
Pincher Martin is an operatic adaptation of William Golding’s novel and poetic masterpiece. Recreating on the stage the existential plight of a marooned naval officer who struggles to survive first in the ocean, then on a lonely rocky islet in the middle of the Atlantic, has stretched my imagination to the limit, and has required the use of devices and technology which were previously unfamiliar to me. Throughout the course of the drama, we will be using a silver-screen movie-style cinematic backdrop, both to aid us in realising difficult scenarios such as a man drowning in the Atlantic, and to evoke the drama’s World War II setting.
Just one example of how this will work in practice is a scene in a moving motorcar, where the protagonist terrifies a woman with his dangerous and aggressive driving in a terrible attempt to make her acquiesce to his desires (yes, this is in the book…!). Musically, I have accompanied this scene with continuous unpitched and then pitched fluttertongues in four solo brass instruments, to evoke the sound of a car engine, first stationary and then in faster and faster motion. In terms of staging, this coordinates with the film, in that what is displayed on the screen is the view seen from the back seat of a car, first shaking very slightly as the car is parked in a layby with its engine idling, and then changing as the car moves off down the road. This is combined on-stage with the set, which in this case consists of a car bonnet behind which the protagonists will sit, with the backseat view behind them on the film. The bonnet itself is half-car, half-rock-like in substance, so that we can move expeditiously from a scene taking place on the rocky islet to this memory scene in the car, whilst also suggesting to the audience that the rock is actually an imaginary environment created by Pincher’s subconscious, and that we are dealing with scenes from his past life, which he is recalling during his purgatorial existence on the island.
Using this synthesis of music, film and staging to bring William Golding’s story to life has been an incredibly difficult challenge, but one which I am very glad to be undertaking, as it has expanded my creative world substantially.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?
To be yourself whilst learning from others.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To build a life where I can continue to realise my musical and dramatic ideas, whilst also starting a family with my wonderful and brilliant wife Helen (whose ambitions equal mine in her own field of scholarship), balancing both of these enormous challenges in harmony.
Oliver Rudland’s opera Pincher Martin is at the Royal College of Music from 24-26 July. Tickets available here
View the trailer
Oliver Rudland was born in West Yorkshire in 1983. He studied composition with Huw Watkins and Joseph Horovitz and piano with Niel Immelman at the Royal College of Music as a Foundation Scholar, and then studied at Cambridge University with Robin Holloway, where he also taught harmony and counterpoint for five years.
His orchestral music has been played in masterclasses directed by James MacMillan, Colin Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage, and he has had chamber works performed at the Cheltenham International Music Festival, the Southbank Centre, and the DiMenna Center (NYC), as well as at other venues across the U.S. and Europe. Oliver’s works have been performed by, among others, Matthew Gee (principal trombonist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), the Britten Sinfonia, the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir, and Gonville and Caius College Chapel Choir.
Oliver’s first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose, received its première at the Royal College of Music, London, and was then staged at the Carriageworks Theatre for four nights in 2008 by Leeds Youth Opera. ‘Exceptional talent…Oliver is going to be a big name in the future.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post)
In 2011, he staged a production of his children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark, based on the classic story by Jill Tomlinson, which received very positive reviews from audiences and critics alike. ‘This was children’s opera at its best; it was fun and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds,’ (GSM News). Further productions of this opera are planned for Leeds (2015) and Freiburg imBreisgau, Germany.
Future projects include a commission for a new choral work for Leeds Grammar School’s nine lessons and carols service, and a commercial recording of his choral music directed by Michael Waldron. For more information please visit: www.oliverrudland.co.uk
On 8 July I gave a joint concert with my pianist friend José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán for my local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington. It was Jose’s idea to present a joint concert and the result was a varied programme which reflected our personal and quite wide-ranging musical tastes. We closed the recital with the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite.
The complete programme:
Mozart – Fantasia in C minor K475 (Frances)
Shostakovich – Prelude & Fugue in C, Op 87 (José)
Part – Für Alina (Frances)
Haydn – Andante with variations in F minor, Hob XVII/6 (Frances)
Villa-Lobos – Cirandinhas W.210 nos. 6, 8, 12 & 11 (José)
Ginastera – Danza de la moza donosa (José)
Fauré – Berceuse from ‘Dolly Suite’ (duet)
Listen to the entire programme here
This week I had the pleasure of performing for my local music society in a joint concert with my pianist friend José Luis. We presented a mixed programme of music by Mozart, Shostakovich, Pärt, Haydn, Villa-Lobos, Ginastera and Fauré. The idea to present a joint programme was José’s, and it was a good one because it relieved both of us of the pressure of preparing a 60-minute programme – and gave the audience the opportunity to experience two performers playing music which had a special meaning for each of them.
I don’t perform that frequently – maybe three or four times a year (excluding informal performances at home and to my piano group) – but I understand the “process” of performing and the necessary and special preparation which goes into a public performance, not only the learning and refining of all those notes, but also learning how to manage performance anxiety and hone stagecraft.
Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. For a long time performance anxiety or stage fright has been the “dirty secret” of performers, but recently a number of articles and books on the subject have revealed that it is common amongst even top international artists, which has, I think, made it easier for performers to speak openly about anxiety and nerves, and to offer coping strategies. The physical symptoms of anxiety are the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Fighting the symptoms of anxiety can simply make it worse, and I have found it easier to manage my nerves by simply accepting them as part of the performance experience (something which pianist Steven Osborne discusses in this article).
The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the classic musical example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.
The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of a performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. Now you’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. The day after the concert everyday life can seem exceedingly inferior to the excitement of the performance. In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of practice and preparation.
“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)
Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough
Performance Anxiety Anonymous – strategies for coping with performance anxiety
Who or what inspired you to take up the guitar and make a career in music?
I had collected music since a very young child, but my life changing moment was hearing the rock guitarist Randy Rhoads. He was Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist for his first two solo albums before his untimely death – Randy’s playing inspired me to go out and buy a guitar; he fused classical music with other styles such as blues and jazz into a unique heavy rock style. So I taught myself for a while and then began taking classical guitar and piano lessons before going to study guitar at the Guildhall School of Music. I became obsessed with classical music, I collected first everything I could find of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and then more modern classical music. I taught myself improvising and composition whilst I studied the guitar. I didn’t receive any formal orchestration and composition training until I became a private student of Baz Elmes and then when I studied under Dr Stephen Goss as a post-graduate at the University of Surrey,
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?
As a composer J.S. Bach, John Barry, Leo Brouwer, Benjamin Britten have all been very influential on my writing style. However, in my thinking and approach to playing, there are people from various non-musical disciplines that have given me great inspiration. A lot of people are surprised to find out what a fan I am of people like the cyclist Victoria Pendleton and the footballer Jermain Defoe. Their outlook, their determination, and battles, on and off the track/football pitch, have inspired me greatly.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
As a mainly classical recitalist, the challenge is one many of us soloists face – and to put it bluntly it is attendance and generating a buzz about classical music. The music I perform is mainly contemporary with occasional programming of Bach or maybe Dowland. I use social networking and the internet to publicise things. I think for classical music to survive it really does have to move with the internet age.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my America Suite for classical guitar. It has brought a lot of good fortune and also cemented my friendship with the talented guitarist Jonathan Prag who performed the piece at the Edinburgh festival earlier this year.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Now that is a difficult one, because I have a very strict rule to only work with people I really trust and also to only perform somewhere that is exciting and has a warmth, so everywhere I tend to perform, I am very fond of. Having said that and if pushed I would say it is The Frax Foundation art gallery in Albir, Spain. The acoustics are great, the art work is fantastic – and the audience always are made of people that enjoy live classical music.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I do enjoy opening a concert with Manuel de Falla’s Dance Of The Miller. That first chord really kicks people up the backside. The Bach Lute Suites are immensely difficult, but I do love them very much, especially BWV 997. To listen to, I never ever tire of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording is my favourite.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I love a lot of what I think of as the musical mavericks, people like Glenn Gould, gypsy jazz guitarist Jimmy Rosenberg, and as mentioned previously, Randy Rhoads. All those guys broke out of what was the done thing and innovated and delivered something fresh and exciting to people who expected something different. They all had incredible technical facility but never once let that come before the music, that is so special and rare in a musician of any style.
It is difficult because there are things I like in almost everyone’s playing that I will go away and think, ‘well I wouldn’t have done that bit that way, but I did like the way they approached that section.’ There is ALWAYS something positive in every performance.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably The New Music Series for young composers’ concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. I performed a recital of original pieces and it was first recital in St Martin’s. It was at the time the biggest thing I had done and I was so pleased, I thought if nothing ever happens again even, I have performed here, nothing can take that away.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think to stay single minded and remember if you ever meet someone who says something cannot be done, that it is their opinion and it most likely can be done. People, have a habit of, if they can’t do something themselves, to discourage others. So my advice, even at 38 years of age (when I should be starting to become older and cynical), is to follow your heart, have fun and do your own thing.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing new music for the German soprano Susanna Risch and the English guitarist Jonathan Prag. At the time of writing I am in the final mixing stage of my latest classical guitar album ‘Made In England’ an album of music by Dowland, Britten and also for the first time on a recording, my America Suite.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
This is an easy one – being in my home with my wife. We have thousands of DVDS, a lot of sheet music and my music room is my sanctuary, recording for hours and hours on my own is bliss. Add pizza breaks and then the promise of red wine and some alien documentaries at the end and I am a happy man!
Matthew Sear (b.1975) is a London-born guitarist, pianist and composer. He began teaching himself the guitar and piano aged thirteen (while also composing his first pieces), before commencing private instruction in both instruments.
At 1993, aged eighteen, Matthew was awarded an unconditional place to study classical guitar at the Guildhall School Of Music and Drama in London, where he stayed until 1996, leaving the conservatoire to write for the psychedelic rock band ‘Collusion’.
Through the 1990‘s he worked as a street musician and cafe guitarist, while studying composition under Baz Elmes and guitar with Martin Vishnick. The study culminated in Licentiates from the Royal Schools of Music and RGT, and a place on the University of Surrey’s Master’s Degree programme, in classical performance.
Matthew gave his classical guitar debut in 2006, performing on Valentines Day at St Paul’s church, Covent Garden, London. In addition to the warm reception from St Paul’s, his performance also received a glowing endorsement from Grammy nominee Antonio Forcione and also BBC Radio’s Jonathan Witchell – who later enthused on his show…
“…Vibrance, energy and the ability to really communicate through the guitar. Fantastic live music: A performer in complete command…”
Since then, Matthew has performed as a classical soloist in some of Britain’s most famous concert venues; including St James’ Piccadilly, St Martin In The Fields and St John’s Smith Square.
In addition to performances in his native country, he has given recitals throughout North America and Europe; performing across France, Sweden and Spain – and in 2010, under the mentorship of Carlos Bonell, was awarded a Fellowship from the London College Of Music, the college’s highest award.
His expressive playing style continues to receive praise from audiences and the media alike. The ‘Costa Blanca News’ (Spain) remarking after a 2012 recital…
“…A young virtuoso, whose playing was like a colourful waterfall..”
“America by Matthew Sear, created an an atmosphere containing both the bustling New York Metropolis and hints of Southern Bluegrass. The result was very characterful.”
Melinda Hughes, The 2013 Edinburgh Festival – Broadwaybaby.Com
Matthew’s work as a composer includes music for solo instruments and ensembles – and his pieces have been performed on a variety of indie and mainstream stations: including BBC and SW1 Radio. In addition to radio airplay, his pieces have been performed at St Martin-in-the-Fields ‘New Music Series’ for young composers, and most recently the Edinburgh Festival. Currently Matthew is honouring commissions from award-winning soprano Susanna Risch, guitarist Jonathan Prag and screen writer Edward Kelly.
Matthew lives happily with his wife Suzanne in south-east London, a musician in her own right. In addition to classical and world music, they share a passion for English football, cinema, String Theory and autism. They also perform (and record) with their friend, the string player Alison Jones in the Gypsy Jazz Trio ‘String Theory’.
Matthew Sear’s website
Music samples (iTunes)
Some thirty-five or so years ago now, during my student days in Glasgow, I was walking quite late one evening from the university back to my digs. And I had the Act 2 trio from Don Giovanni circling obsessively around my head. I had recently seen a broadcast from Glyndebourne of the opera (it was on ITV, as I remember: haven’t things changed!), and, even more recently, had seen a Scottish Opera production conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and featuring Robert Lloyd and Willard White as Don Giovanni and Leporello; and what would I not have given then to have been able to hear that music that very evening, at that very moment? I knew then that I needed to listen to that music again, and listen to it often, and, given that this was back in the Dark Ages before YouTube or Spotify, I had no choice but to buy myself a recording. Even if it meant living on beans on toast for the rest of the term (which I was doing anyway – so no great sacrifice there), I had to have this music with me.
And so started my record buying, which, after a few years, became CD buying. Those of us unable to make music for ourselves must be content listening to those who can. Which is fair enough, I suppose: I’m not complaining.
I didn’t grow up with Western classical music, neither at school nor at home. My parents were Indian (Bengali, to be more precise: they were from the part of Bengal that stayed within India after Partition); I myself was born in Bengal, arriving in Britain as a five-year-old nearly 50 years ago now. The music I heard at home as I was growing up was Bengali music, and, inevitably, that meant Rabindrasangeet – the songs of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. It is a bit difficult to describe Tagore’s stature in the Bengali speaking world, as there is no equivalent in the West, but it isn’t going too far to say that he virtually defines the nation’s culture all by himself: for more than 60 years, he wrote a vast body of poems that are of the highest quality – an extraordinary variety, never repeating himself, forever renewing his art; he wrote also novels, plays, short stories, essays; he exhibited paintings; and he was, on top of all this, a gifted musician, composing both the music and the lyrics of literally thousands of songs. These songs, Rabindrasangeet, form, effectively, Bengal’s national music, and I know of no Bengali who would not be able to recognize at least a dozen or so of them. Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know any of these songs: these are most likely the first music I ever heard.
As a teenager rebelling against parental values, I turned away from all this; now, in my mid-50s, I can’t believe how unutterably stupid I had been to have turned my back on such riches. As an illustration, here is one of my favourites, sung by two renowned practitioners of Rabindrasangeet, KanikaBandopadhyay and SuchitraMitra:The lyrics, rendered into English, go something like this: Who is it who travels on the path? Who calls to me as he passes, calls me from home? The music that drifts on breezes on the path echoes within my breast with pain and longing. In full moon night, the tide floods in from the sea, and tugs at my soul. Eyes, unbidden, open wide. Why should I now remain at home? What thoughts keep me here?
(Please do not pass judgement on the poetic qualities of the original merely from this: I have made no attempt to reproduce Rabindranath’s poetry – that would be well beyond me. This translation is merely to give some indication of what the song is about.)
As for Western classical music, I knew nothing about it: it wasn’t, frankly, high on the list of priorities in the comprehensive school I’d attended in Glasgow. It was only in my late teens that I found myself, purely out of curiosity, trying to discover what this “classical music” lark was all about. I had heard of a few big names, of course – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – and I remember on my eighteenth birthday, using the gift vouchers I had received, buying LPs of Beethoven’s symphonies without having the faintest idea what to expect. The recordings featured the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. I now know that these are rather good recordings, but in those days, I didn’t even know that interpretations of music could vary significantly: I know absolutely nothing. And what I heard changed me. Till then, music was merely something to listen to in the background while I tapped my feet or hummed along or did something else: I had no idea that mere music, mere arrangements of sounds, could have so powerful an effect: that seemed then, and seems still, a miracle. I could not believe what I was experiencing.
Soon, as a student in Glasgow (my parents had moved down to England by then), I found myself attending concerts at the City Hall: The Scottish National Orchestra had in those days Sir Alexander Gibson as Principal Conductor, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had as Principal Conductor the splendidly named Karl Anton Rickenbacker. I remember particularly a tremendously fiery Beethoven’s 7th symphony performed by Gibson and the SNO; and a superb Mahler’s 1st Symphony from BBCSSO conducted by Rickenbacker. I was, in short, hooked. I even found myself getting the Student Discount seats at Scottish Opera: to my surprise, these seats were no more expensive, and were often cheaper, than tickets for rock concerts, and, despite all that I read nowadays about the elitism of the classical music world, there was no-one standing at the door telling me “Sorry sir, you can’t come in, this event is for an elite only”. Strange, that.
I was fascinated. I regretted deeply my lack of a music education, and I took to taking out books from public libraries – which were well stocked in those days with rather good books – to find out something about the music that was fascinating me so; and I took also to checking out classical records from the well-stocked record library. Unlike today, when an interested neophyte would most likely be fobbed off with some patronising “easy-to-access” guff, everything was all around me then: I had merely to pick it up.
It is strange how first loves tend so often to be the strongest. The range of music I listen to now is, naturally, far wider than it was then, but the music I got to know in those early heady days of discovery remains dear to me still. I remember, for instance, having LPs of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which I had bought mainly because I liked the tunes. I love Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores still – kaleidoscopic orchestral colours, endless melodic invention, an ideal marriage of grace and of passion … what’s not to like? And the day I tire of Mozart operas or of Beethoven symphonies is the day I think I should give on music altogether.
Of course, it wasn’t just recordings: I continued attending concerts also. But, unless one lives in London (which I didn’t till much later) and is a very regular concert-goer, it is difficult, for someone like me at least, to get to know works without recordings. With any work of art that has any depth to it, first acquaintance is merely a tourist visit: one gets but a superficial impression at best, and at worst, sometimes, a misleading impression. To know a country well, tourist visits aren’t enough:one has to live there. I have never been able to form reliable judgements on types of music, or of composers, or, indeed, of individual works, without repeated listenings over a long period. And for that, live concerts, though indispensable, aren’t, on their own, enough: I need recordings.
Over many years of CD listening, many recordings have, naturally, become favourites. I don’t mean to list them all: this post is long enough as it is. But, leaving aside all those tiresome debates on “Is Maestro X’s recording better than Maestro Y’s?”, it would be remiss of me not to mention, at the very least, those wonderful recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos with Robert Casadesus at the keyboard, and Georg Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; or Schubert’s Winterreise performed by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten; Klemperer’s monumental studio recording of Beethoven’s MissaSolemnis; Bartók’s string quartets performed by the Juilliard Quartet; and a live performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik, with Janet Baker quite incandescent in that heartbreaking final song. There are many, many more I could pick, of course,but these five give, I think, a fair indication of the range of my tastes.
And opera: ever since I became hooked on opera in my student days, I’ve never tired of it. Shortly before the birth of our first child, my wife and I decided to have one “Last Big Night Out”, as it were: we bought tickets to see Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden. (It’s a very favourite opera of ours: the first present I ever gave my wife, back in the days before we were married, was a recording of this very same piece.) On that night, Jeffrey Tate conducted; Thomas Allen and Carol Vaness were Count and Countess; Marie McLaughlin and Lucio Gallo were Susanna and Figaro.That whole evening was about as close to perfection as can be imagined. Many years later, we returned to Covent Garden to see the same opera, now conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; and this time, we returned with our two children in tow, bothby now teenagers. I love all three Mozart-da Ponte operas, but, not surprisingly, Figaro has, over the years, acquired for me considerable personal significance. When I think of my favourite operas, it’s the three Fs – Figaro, Fidelio and Falstaff – that come most readily to mind. Throw in Boris Godunov, and maybe one of the products of Janáček’s extraordinary late flowering (The Cunning Little Vixen, say),and that would be a fair representation of my operatic taste.
My parents never really got my love of Western classical music: their ears – my late father’s ears, certainly – were too closely tuned to Indian idioms. As I was exploring Western classical music, it seemed to me that I was moving very far from my parents’ musical values; but my rediscovery later in life of Rabindrasangeet possibly indicates that the apple never does fall too far from the tree. However, fine as my tree is, I’m grateful that I have had the opportunity to explore far beyond its immediate environs, and to claim as my own whatever I may find.
One final memory of a concert: in 2006, at the Edinburgh Festival, I attended, with my son (then aged 14), a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. I must confess to not being a fully paid-up Wagnerian: my feelings towards his music remain deeply ambivalent. But that evening, I had no reservation at all: it was a splendid performance, and I remember coming out of it floating, as it were, on a cloud of joy. Most notable was the tenor singing Walther: I had not heard of him then. His name was Jonas Kaufmann. I had heard good singing before, but this really was special.Our lad, that evening, came out of Usher Hall a fully fledged Wagnerian, and his enthusiasm remains to this day undimmed. I didn’t go quite so far, but even I knew it was the kind of evening that could change lives. And that is no hyperbole.
Himadri Chatterjee is an operational research analyst. He lives near London with his wife and two teenage children, and what little spare time he has is taken up with reading, listening to music, and, lately, indulging his logorrhoea and love of literature and music on his blog The Argumentative Old Git