All posts by Cross-Eyed Pianist

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

The Cross-Eyed Newsletter #1

This is an experiment, inspired in part by the newsletter of fellow  blogger Opera Creep. Each week, I seem to pack in too much to write as many individual posts as I’d like to, so I thought I’d try this format for a change……

Reviewing

Art – William Morris at the National Portrait Gallery. A small but perfectly-formed survey of the work and enduring influence of British designer, writer and social reformer. My review here

Music – Ghosts and Mirrors. A most engaging and interesting concert experience at The Forge, a club-style venue in north London, to launch the new CD by pianist Richard Uttley. My review here

Opera – Marriage of Figaro at ENO. Another delightful evening at the Coliseum, this time for everyone’s favourite opera. Hummable tunes, beautiful singing, particularly by Susanna (Mary Bevan, who won the Critics’ Circle award) and Cherubino (Samantha Price), a revolving minimalist set and masterful directing by Fiona Shaw combined to create a fast-moving and highly enjoyable production.

Reading

Sleeping in Temples. The latest book by pianist and writer Susan Tomes is an insightful and absorbing collection of essays and musings on music and the musician’s life. Recommended

Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas: Charles Fisk’s compelling study of Schubert’s late piano music, drawing relationships between it and his song cycle Winterreise. This is my second reading of this interesting book.

Links

The networks are buzzing with that old chestnut – new ways to present classical music, largely prompted by comments from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. Some interesting contributions to the discussion here:

Live Classical music “off-putting”

10 things we should change in classical music concerts

Change the celebrity musicians, not the audience

10 things we should change at gigs

Practising

Schubert – Impromptus in F minor and A flat, D935 Nos. 1 & 2

Liszt – Paysage (Transcendental Etudes)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 26

Gershwin/Grainger – The Man I Love

Debussy – ‘Prelude’ from Suite bergamasque; ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano

Various – Variations for Judith

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge

Going out…..

27th October – Maria Joao Pires (piano), Augustin Dumay (violin) & Antonio Meneses (cello). Duos and trios by Beethoven as part of Maria Joao Pires’ Wigmore ‘artist portrait’ season. Sold out.

4th November – Alexandre Tharaud at Queen Elizabeth Hall (International Piano Series). I wasn’t totally sold on Tharaud’s playing when I heard him at the Wigmore Hall this time last year, but I am prepared to give him another go in a programme of Schubert, Mahler (Tharaud’s own transcription), Couperin and Ravel. More info here

7th November – François-Fréderic Guy at Wigmore Hall. Beethoven’s Opus 111 and Debussy Preludes Book II. Tickets still available

12th, 19th & 26th November – La Belle Epoque with cellist Corinne Morris and friends at the 1901 Arts Club. 3-concert series exploring French music from the period just before the outbreak of the First World War, including Franck’s ever-popular Sonata in A, plus music by Debussy, Saint-Saens and lesser-known composers of this period. Info here

Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano & Cello. Various dates/venues in November & December (Purcell Room, London on 1st December). A rare opportunity to hear all five of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello in a single concert, offering a wonderful mini-biography, performed by father and daughter duo James and Joy Lisney. More info here

13th November – Federico Colli at LSO St Lukes. Leeds International Piano Competition winner in 2012 plays Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 26 and Schubert’s D935 Impromptus. More info here

Staying in and istening to…..

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 26

Szymanowski – Etude No. 3

Liszt – Paysage

Amongst other things…..

Coming up…… Reviews of Grayson Perry’s new exhibition Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery and Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery.

And finally…. please support this petition to help save The Ulster Orchestra

Richard Uttley: Ghosts and Mirrors

This week I was delighted to attend a concert to launch British pianist Richard Uttley’s new CD Ghosts and Mirrors. Richard is a passionate advocate of contemporary piano music, and this CD, his third, follows his previous recordings with its focus on contemporary and 20th-century music. In addition to works by Toru Takemitsu and Luciano Berio, the disc includes the first recordings of Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy which was written especially for Uttley and was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.

Richard explains the title of his CD as “the works collected here [are] are reflection on something”, and the “ghosts” appear, in part, in memoriam to departed composers, namely Messiaen (Takemitsu/Rain Tree Sketch II and Murail/Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire). There are more metaphoric ghosts and reflections here too: Thomas Ades harks back to the Mazurkas of Chopin and Szymanowski in his Op. 27 Mazurkas, while Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy is a paraphrase on themes from Berg’s opera which charts the rise and horrific fall, ending in death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, of its eponymous heroine. In Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy, the work opens with a fragment of an “alberti bass”, an eighteenth-century musical device in which chords are broken or arpeggiated to create continuous sound.

It can be hard to present a programme entirely comprising contemporary music in concerts (witness the BBC’s anxieties about this in its Proms broadcasts this year – more on this issue here) and some performers seek new ways to present contemporary programmes which challenge and excite the eyes as well as the ears. Thus, Richard Uttley, was joined onstage by Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist, who created the artwork for the CD, and who designed and mixed live visuals as Richard played. These were not a simple “accompaniment” to the music, but rather had been designed to reflect not only the mood and characteristics of the pieces performed (a selection from the CD), but also textures, colours, dynamics and articulation. From trembling, pulsing sea anemones to a dizzying, plane’s eye view of London at night, the frenetic rhythm of a weaving machine to an unsettling tour of a ruined Gothic church, these visuals enhanced and informed the music, without detracting it from it. Perhaps the most powerful was the film which accompanied the Lulu Fantasy, suggesting the horrible fate of the protagonist through shuddering black and white images, hinting at sexual depravity and violence.

It was evident throughout the performance that Richard really enjoys the challenges, both musical and technical, of playing this kind of repertoire. His total immersion in and understanding of this music produced a performance that was entirely convincing, and, more importantly, extremely absorbing.  A pristine sound, clean articulation and broad dynamic range combined to create one of the most exciting concerts of contemporary music I have attended. I was pleased to find even more to delight and intrigue in the CD, which is also elegantly designed with copious and intelligent liner notes by Richard, with contributions from the composer’s themselves.

Recommended.

‘Ghosts and Mirrors’ is available on the ARC label

www.richarduttley.com

Meet the Artist……Inesa Sinkevych, pianist

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

When I was 4, my parents bought a piano from a friend.  No one in my family plays an instrument, so it happened by chance.  Soon after, my musical abilities were discovered – I had perfect pitch and good musical memory, and I started taking piano lessons and other musical classes at the music school in my hometown, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.  Another turning point was when I was accepted at the age of 13 to study at the Special Music School for gifted students in Kharkov, Ukraine.  Somehow, I never questioned my desire and intended to become a musician after that.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

My piano teachers – Victor Makarov in Ukraine, probably one of “the most wanted” teachers in the country at that time, whose knowledge, musicianship and energy still inspires me; Alexander Volkov in Israel, who taught me to better hear and convey beauty of music; and Solomon Mikowsky, who helped me to refind my musicianship and find my own voice.

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

To find the true meaning of every piece I work on, and to match my inner image to what comes out my fingers.  Also, to find fresh view on the pieces I’ve performed many times.

Which recordings are you most proud of? 

My all-Schubert CD

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona; Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Favourite pieces to perform? Anything by Schubert; Schumann Humoreske

Listen to?  Mozart Symphonies, anything by Bach.  Also, recently – music for Soviet cartoons (I discovered that those are masterpieces! Listening together with my now 11 month old daughter)

Who are your favourite pianists? 

Sviatoslav Richter, Emile Gilels, Vladimir Horovitz, Arthur Rubinstein

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Performing in a two-piano encemble with a blind pianist, Carlos Ibay in a concert dedicated to 60th birthday of Israel in Jerusalem in 2008.

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

Stay true to yourself.  Do not try to copy anyone, or “please” anybody.  Try to find your own, unique calling in music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To be busy working on many interesting projects alone or with inspiring musicians (this may happen!), and to have an adequate time to spend on those projects, family, and rest (this may never happen!)

Inesa Sinkevych is a Ukrainian born Israeli concert pianist, currently living in New York. Her recent CD, ‘Schubert Piano Works’ was released in 2012. She has performed as a soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic, Minnesota Symphony, Gulbenkian Symphony, Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as solo recitals in such venues as the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona, and Merkin Hall in New York. She was awarded top and special prizes at the Arthur Rubinstein International Master Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, Piano-e-Competition in Minneapolis, Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition in Portugal, among others. She received her DMA from the Manhattan School of Music.

inesasinkevych.wordpress.com

Fidelity

Over the past weeks and months I have been working, amongst other things, on pieces by two great composers of music for the piano – Beethoven and Schubert (the Piano Sonata in A flat, Opus 26, and the Impromptu in F minor, D935/1 respectively). For both pieces, I have been working from the Henle urtext edition of the score.

A good urtext score is the result of careful scholarly research and editing, offering a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful indication of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

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But before we start exploring interpretative possibilities the music offers,  it is important that we study the score carefully, taking note of the composer’s directions and markings. As I say to my students, the score is our “map”, with “signposts” to guide us in tempo, mood, expression, articulation, dynamics. At a simplistic level, these markings tell us “how to play the notes”, and we ignore them at our peril.  These markings are also the composer’s personal “signs”, indicating to us how he/she imagined the music and illuminating for us, at a distance of often several hundred years, how he/she expected it to sound. Some composers write very little in their scores, but what they do write is precious and important; others offer very clear instructions and even some very quirky ones (Olivier Messiaen, for example, even added his annotations about the “colours” of notes and chords as he perceived them as a synaesthete, and Satie’s Gnossiennes are liberally annotated with curious quotes). Composers knew what they were doing and many were experienced performers themselves (Beethoven, for example, before his deafness forced him to retire from public performances), with clear indications of how to bring their music to life, and, in piano music, how to create different textures and suggest different instruments, from a woodwind solo to a full orchestral tutti.

Last year, I worked with one of my students on the Rondo from Beethoven’s Sonatina in F Anh. 5 as part of his Grade 4 exam programme. This (and the other Sonatinas) is a wonderful introduction to Beethoven’s piano music, in particular the piano sonatas, and offered my student (and me as teacher) an important lesson in showing fidelity to the score. I think my student grew quite bored of me saying “Read the score! Look at the details!” at every lesson, to impress upon him the importance of following Beethoven’s directions. This score is not so heavily annotated with directions as the Opus 26 Sonata on which I am currently working, but it has enough in it to demonstrate Beethoven’s clear intentions, in particular suggesting different instruments (staccato in the opening measures suggests woodwind – bassoons and oboes), textures (the forte at bar 4 suggests the full orchestra and demands a rich, orchestral sound), and expression (note that the D minor section is largely played legato, adding to the more sombre, lyrical mood of this section). By accurately observing the markings as written in the score, my student was able to create a colourful and faithful reading of this work, largely based on what he had in front of him on the page.

By the same token, the markings in the Sonata Opus 26 offer clear instructions as to how the piece should be played. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven suggests string-quartet textures and string articulation in both the organisation of the main melodic line, interior harmonies and melodies, and accompaniments, and also through detailed articulation, indicated by staccato, drop slurs and sforzandi. In addition, his very specific dynamic markings lend drama and colour to the music. I find the opening movement, a theme and five variations, most intriguing because of Beethoven’s interest in exploring rhythm, articulation and texture as a means of creating variants on the opening theme: the melody is always there, but in each subsequent variation it is cleverly embedded. In the final variation, all the string quartet textures are given glorious full rein in music of great lyricism and wit.  (It is worth listening to the second movement of the Opus 47 Sonata for Piano and Violin, the ‘Kreutzer’, also a theme and variations, with reference to the opening movement of the Opus 26.)

Schubert, like Beethoven, had clear ideas of how he intended his music to be played. There are certain pianists who choose to ignore Schubert’s directions, perhaps the most cavalier sin of omission being the exposition repeat in the final piano sonata. British pianist Stephen Hough describes this movement as “Schubert’s miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism” – and I feel this sentiment also applies to the repeats in the Impromptu D935/1. The sections in question (bars 69-83 and 84-109) are the first time we hear a beautiful and tender “trio” of duetting fragments in treble and bass, with a undulating semiquaver accompaniment which provides the harmonic structure, a structure which is, in itself miraculous. To hear these sections a second time seems to highlight the delicate poignancy in the music, and lends greater contrast and drama to the sections which precede it and the reprise of the opening motif at bar 115.

Often, the composer’s markings can also tell us a great deal about the kind of instrument with which the composer was working. For example, Chopin’s pedal markings tell us as much about the kind of piano he was used to working on as his musical ideas. Sometimes, coming at these markings with modern sensibilities and a big resonant modern instrument, we might feel his instructions are “wrong”, but it is possible to make small adjustments (a half-pedal mid-bar to avoid a muddy sound or dissonance) and remain true to the spirit of Chopin’s intentions. I was fortunate enough to experience a “Chopin piano” when I played the Pleyel (c1846) at the Cobbe Collection in Surrey. The piano offered many insights into Chopin’s markings and an important reminder that Chopin’s soundworld was more softly-spoken and delicate than some recreations of his sound on a modern concert instrument.

Another prime example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. At the start, Beethoven gives the direction “sempre pp e senza sordini“. “Senza sordini” translates as “without mutes”, i.e. with the dampers lifted away from the strings by depressing the right pedal. If one were to follow this direction literally on a modern piano, the sound would be very muddy, especially on a large, resonant concert instrument, and the wondrous harmonic changes would be obscured. In Beethoven’s day the piano was considerably more “feeble”, smaller and far less resonant than a modern instrument, and the sound of the undamped strings would not last through the slow changes of harmony. To recreate something like the sound Beethoven probably intended, the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old.

So, sometimes we have to make considered judgements in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by the modern instrument. As Charles Rosen says in his ‘Piano Notes’, “historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right” and an effective performance is usually one which “respects the composer’s directions with absolutely fidelity and yet with imagination”. The performer has a responsibility to adhere to the composer’s directions, but this can lead to difficulties too. If we religiously follow the directions, we can of course produce a very faithful rendering of the music, but it may not be the most interesting version.

This leads us to “interpretation”, which can be defined as an ability to bring one’s imagination and personality to the music. This has its own difficulties – too much of the performer’s own imagination and personality can obscure the music, too little may result in a dull and colourless performance. The best and most memorable interpretations and performances are usually those where the performer fully convinces the audience that he or she has taken “ownership” of the music and made it their own, the result of the artist creating a version of the music that is meaningful and convincing to them personally. At this point, the musician has gone “beyond the notes” and the markings to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

This freedom of interpretation is not an easy state to achieve and is something which develops over a long time – time spent living with the music, studying it (away from the piano as well as at the piano), absorbing all the details and nuances, getting to the heart of the music to discover its “meaning” and narrative, “listening around” the music to gain insights into the composer’s style and soundworld, and to set the music in context, an understanding of performance practice, historical contexts and musical taste.

An interesting, simple question of interpretation came up in a recent lesson with a student who is working on Wiegenlied (Lullaby) by Zilcher, a Grade 3 piece. The piece opens in warm F major, with a cantabile figure in the right hand redolent of the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite (I suggested my student listen to this piece for reference). The dynamic range of the music is small, mostly p and mp, retaining the gentle, drowsy mood. The first section ends with a piano marking, before the music moves into D minor and the mood changes. But the dynamic marking is still piano. I suggested to my student that she might consider a more intense sound here, to signal the change of mood. “But how can that p [at the end of the F major section] be different to that one? [start of D minor section] and how do you know that?” asked my student. I explained that not all piano markings are equal (likewise forte, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano et al!) and that it is down to us, as performers, to interpret the markings and make a considered judgement – based on what we see in the score and our knowledge of the music and the context of the music in general.

Back to the D935 Impromptu, and there are similar considerations of interpretation of dynamics. For example, bar 44 is marked pianissimo – and so is bar 45. But bar 44 is a bridging bar from the descending octave passage which precedes it and an introduction to the new material which follows. I feel it is important to differentiate the pianissimo markings here to signpost what is happening in narrative of the music. Later, at bar 90, the decrescendo suggests not only a diminution in sound but also a relaxation in the tempo (“rubato”). Schubert could have indicated this more clearly, with a rallentando or ritardando marking, but he didn’t, and so one is left to one’s musical instincts, knowledge of Schubert’s writing, his distinctive soundworld to decide how to treat bars or passages like this. Likewise, a crescendo may suggest stringendo (“pressing forward”) to create a greater intensity.

There is of course much to be gained in listening to recordings to gain insight into other performers’ myriad interpretations, and to offer inspiration, but never to imitate, for the following reason:

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, ‘Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance’ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197.

(with thanks to Graham Fitch’s excellent blog Practising the Piano).

 

Corinne Morris

La Belle Epoque: l’Invitation au Voyage with Corinne Morris

This autumn seems to be about journeys with cellos, surveying some of the best music written for the instrument and performed by some of the finest musicians.

While father and daughter duo James and Joy Lisney take the five Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello on an exhilarating grand tour of Europe and the UK, British/French cellist Corinne Morris curates a three-concert series at the beautiful and intimate 1901 Arts Club focusing on music of la Belle Epoque. Discover the music of the Belle Époque era on a journey through famous works and composers such as Debussy and Saint-Saëns to the hidden gems of songwriters Hahn, Chaminade, Duparc and many more…..

“Divan Japonais” (1893), Henri de Toulouse-Laurec

THE BELLE ÉPOQUE…
…..meaning the ‘Beautiful Era‘ was a period in French and Belgian history that began in the late 19th century and ended when World War 1 began in 1914.  It was characterised by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries and intense artistic activity.  France was a cultural centre of global influence and the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, became the symbol of Paris to its inhabitants and to visitors from around the world.

Besides Impressionism, the visual arts saw various movements flourish including the Nabis, the Symbolist movement, Fauvism, and early Modernism, followed by Expressionism and the beginnings of Cubism and Abstraction, whilst the decorative style known as Art Nouveau became prominent throughout much of Europe.

At the same time, European literature underwent a major transformation during the Belle Époque.  Realism and naturalism achieved new heights with Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola.  Fiction writers of that time included four Nobel Prize winners: AndréGide, Anatole France, Roger Martin du Gard and Romain Rolland.

Salon Music was all the rage and popular composers such as Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc and Cecile Chaminade produced a large repertory of songs, while instrumental music was represented by famous composers such as Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Ravel and by lesser-known ones like Ernest Chausson and Benjamin Godard.  The Parisian musical scene also attracted foreign composers such as Igor Stravinsky whose Rite of Spring was premiered in the Theatre des Chaps Elysées on the eve of World War 1.

This series of three concerts is curated by the British/French cellist Corinne Morris. Corinne is joined by other musicians and each concert has a special theme. The first, ‘Masterworks for Cello and Piano’ introduces familiar and not so familiar French repertoire from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Debussy famous cello sonata, completed a hundred years ago. Corinne is joined by pianist Kathron Sturrock for this programme.

In the second concert Corinne is joined by the Melicus Duo (soprano Marie Vassiliou and pianist Nico de Villiers). Many of the great songs and salon music from the Belle Epoque were based on famous poems of the time and this concert will explore the link between composers and contemporary poets.

And in the final concert, two large-scale works of the Belle Epoque will be performed: Cesar Franck’s Cello Sonata and Ernest Chausson’s  Piano Trio, fine examples of the large-scale works also typical of the Belle Epoque. Corinne is joined by violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Viv McLean.

Kathron Sturrock, Melicus Duo, Fenella Humphreys, Viv McLean
Kathron Sturrock, Melicus Duo, Fenella Humphreys, Viv McLean

The unique atmosphere of the 1901 Arts Club, which recreates the ethos and ambiance of the 19th century European cultural salon, provides the perfect setting for what promises to be a lively, varied and beautifully-presented voyage of musical discovery.

Book tickets

The Salon at the 1901 Arts Club

Described as ‘a triumphant assertion’ by Classical Music Magazine, Corinne Morris‘s relaunch album Macedonian Sessions recorded with the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra, marks the British/French cellist’s return to the platform after a debilitating shoulder injury brought her career to a halt for over 5 years. 

Corinne has performed throughout Europe and beyond. She was chosen by Rostropovich to perform at his festival in Evian, and subsequently invited to the Verbier Academy in Switzerland.  She has made several recordings for the BBC, France Musique, Bayerischer Rundfunk and ORF.  Corinne, a student of Raphael Sommer, obtained an ARCM with honours (Royal College of Music, London) before continuing at the prestigious Conservatoire in Paris where she graduated in both cello and chamber-music.

Corinne’s story has inspired many in the music industry and beyond.  She has given several interviews for publications including International Arts Manager, Classical Music Magazine, Gramophone and Australia’s Limelight Magazine.  Most recently Corinne has been featured on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme and she gave a highly successful recital at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

A Beethoven Grand Tour

A rare opportunity to hear all five of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello in a single concert, performed by father and daughter duo James and Joy Lisney, the Beethoven Grand Tour takes this wonderful programme to venues across the UK and Europe the autumn.

At the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 19th October, the Lisney duo will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the legendary recital given at the Edinburgh International Festival by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter. There will be further concerts at intimate and unusual venues in the Netherlands, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, St George’s, Bristol, and the Purcell Room at London’s Southbank Centre.

The five sonatas for piano and ‘cello provide a mini-biography of the Beethoven’s creative life, stretching from the innovative virtuosity of the opus 5 sonatas, through the perfect balance of the magisterial opus 69 sonata and onto the breakthrough of the late period with the remarkable sonatas opus 102. To hear all five sonatas in a single concert offers remarkable insights into Beethoven’s compositional life and the development of the duo sonata form, and provides an exhilarating and highly satisfying programme.

The Sonatas

Sonata in F major, Op 5 No 1
Sonata in G minor, Op 5 No 2
Sonata in A major, Op 69
Sonata in C major, Op 102 No 1
Sonata in D major, Op 102 No 2

The performers

Meet the Artist……Joy Lisney

Meet the Artist……James Lisney

The concerts

19th October – The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, UK

4th November – Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, UK (includes a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 27, the ‘Moonlight’)

8th & 9th November – Rosario, Bever, Belgium. Fine concerts in a unique and restful setting

15th November – Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mendelssohn-Saal

21st November – Muziekpodium Enschede, Netherlands

1st December – Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

7th December – St George’s, Bristol, UK

Snapshot of a life: Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

A Royal Introduction – Joy Lisney on Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello, Opus 5, no. 1

Follow the Beethoven Grand Tour on Facebook

A glimpse of that legendary concert by Richter and Rostropovich in 1964:

Improving the image of the independent piano teacher

As a follow up to my article An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?, in which I revealed the somewhat alarming results of my survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, I would now like to explore ways in which independent piano teachers can improve the overall image of the profession. This will also tie in with a presentation I am giving at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of the month at which we will be exploring ideas of “professionalism” within the field of piano teaching.

Music teaching in the UK has had a very bad press in recent years, with the disturbing revelations about child abuse, physical and emotional, in some of the top music schools and conservatoires. But even before the activities of certain teachers were brought to public attention, private instrumental teachers have suffered from negative stereotypes (“little old lady down the road”, “eccentric person with cats and cardigans”, and worse). The interesting thing about my survey was that the majority of respondents were independent piano teachers and it was they themselves who revealed these negative perceptions of the profession.  And yet many of the piano teachers I know are normal people, who run their teaching practices in an efficient and professional manner. As is usual in all walks of life, it is the minority of poor teachers who give the whole profession a bad name.

Rather than me write a long article in which I outline ways in which I think the profession can improve its image, I would very much welcome contributions from readers. Please feel free to leave comments below, or if you would prefer to respond privately, use the Contact page to get in touch with me. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence.

Thank you in advance for your help.

Meet the Artist……Heather Bird, double bassist

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

I played the flute since I was about 6 and had no intention of playing the bass! When I was 13 or so, I had passed grade 8 flute and there wasn’t much else to do in Cumbria with the flute, so I was looking for a second instrument. There was an old bass in the corner of the music school at school so asked my school music teacher if I could borrow it. I got some lessons from Cumbria music service and that was it: I was completely hooked. I joined Cumbria Youth Orchestra, then Northern Junior Philharmonic playing incredible repertoire like Tchaik 4, Mahler 7 and realised that I’d fallen in love with the bass. I then was taken to hear a concert by Gary Karr in a church in Penrith when I was 14. I had never heard anything like it. I went backstage to meet him after the gig and he asked me to play him something on his Amati. That’s when I knew without a doubt I wanted to be a bass player.

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

Everything I do influences my musical life. Climbing mountains, meditation, reading a great book, cooking for friends, seeing an incredible piece of art – it’s impossible to separate out that from playing really.

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

Juggling parenting and playing is incredibly tough, particularly as a single parent. I taught as a peripatetic musical teacher full time for a few years and absolutely loved it. Now that my daughter Eden is older, it’s a joy to throw myself into full time playing again but I think it’s very hard for many musicians to balance their career and parenthood.

I found the elitism difficult when I first left Cumbria as we just saw the composers as normal people who had the ability to put what couldn’t be expressed in words into sound. So the posh thing was a bit tricky to deal with. But I’m working on that with my Classical Evolution gigs.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Usually my last one – which was with Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family at this year’s Wildnerness Festival. So much fun – playing with the genre, improvising, working with such fantastic musicians. I really enjoyed recording a piece by Ailis Ni Riain for the Delia Derbyshire tour last year called The Consequences of Falling for double bass and trumpet. It was inspired by a piece by Delia, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and wrote the ‘Doctor Who’ theme. Really fantastic music, very challenging and I loved working on it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love being in a big section playing the big stuff – Mahler, Shostakovich, Nielsen…… but over the last few years I’ve discovered an absolute passion for chamber music. Playing underplayed repertoire by people such as the woman composer Louise Farrenc – fellow bassist Leon Bosch introduced me to her beautiful quintets.

I also love working with composers on new works for the bass and have been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing composers such as James Stevenson, AIlis Ni Riain and am going to be working with Paul Abbott from September on some new pieces for bass, voice, extended vocal techniques. New music is incredibly important to me. I run Classical Evolution which brings chamber and orchestral music to atypical locations in a completely informal way, and I’ve commissioned 3 new works in that capacity too. The bass is fantastic for this as it allows such versatility.

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

The people that book me for orchestral gigs tend to do that! With my classical evolution gigs, I’m running 2 concert series in Manchester that are rather contrasting – one at a live music venue, Night and Day cafe where we’ll have improv nights where classical musicians who would like the chance to improvise can do it in the relative safety of the forms of tango, flamenco, baroque, and with a lovely friendly audience. More traditional repertoire that whatever me and my ensemble think will fit, and a new work each month. The other series is in the beautiful Portico Library in Manchester where I want to perform a more traditional repertoire but with some surprises thrown in every now and again but to work with authors to contextualise music in the frame of the great works that were written at the time.

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

Oh so many. From Matt and Phreds jazz club in Manchester to the Royal Albert Hall to a forest outside Liverpool where I commissioned and played in a piece for a children’s festival, to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen…

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

All time favourite really has to be Mahler 2.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’m lucky to have one of my best friends as one of my favourite musicians, and that’s the pianist Daniel Grimwood. Lots of other friends are just incredible and it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures to talk deeply about music and other facets of life with friends who’s musical talent you deeply admire.

I was brought up listening to Jaqueline du Pre, Pierre Fournier, Miles Davies, Carl Santana, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones (I had a big thing for Duran Duran when I was about 7). I love The Smiths, the Stone Roses. LTJ Bukem is a bit of a genius as is Bill Orbital. Recently living in Andalucia i discovered Paco de Lucia, Carlos Benavent, Javier Colina, Jorge Pardo…… far too many to mention and it changes pretty much daily!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That is so difficult! Can I have a couple? The first time I really believed I could make a career was playing Nielsen 5 in Tivoli Gardens with Ole Schmidt. Truly extraordinary music and I loved every second.

Playing Schubert’s Trout at Classical Revolution’s first birthday concert in the Royal Exchange in Manchester with Martin Roscoe and Benedict Holland was pretty special too! 

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

Work hard and love what you do. Never stop learning, and be completely open to who you can learn from. It’s the best job in the world.

Tell us more about Classical Evolution

I got back from living in Spain and was appalled by the music cuts in education so did a little thing called Guerilla Orchestra, where we played Mission Impossible in a few cities at the same time – one of which was conducted by the lovely Peter Donohoe. This guy emailed me from the states telling me about Classical Revolution over there, where people were playing chamber music informally in coffee shops. So we decided to play Dvorak quintet in our jeans in Matt and Phreds. Luckily Ben Holland agreed to play, and it went from strength to strength. We ended up with 2 monthly slots, one fantastic Sunday afternoon monthly gig where we would have lots of kids running around, we were playing bigger works like Souvenir de Florence, Britten’s Les Illiuminations, then I commissioned some works and thought that the name Classical Evolution summed what we were doing much more succinctly. Since then I’ve been running courses with some of the best musicians in the industry with that same informal feel, home-cooked bread and soup, and we’re carrying on from there. I’ve now set it up as a Community Interest Company and we have collaborations with visual, written and theatre artists coming up, expanding into education projects for children as well as the usual gigs in our jeans in ridiculous places. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have this project supported as patrons by Martin Roscoe, Ben Holland, Alison Moncrieff-Kelly and Jamie Walton. I played with Elizabeth Ball who runs the fabulous Classical Kicks at Ronnie Scotts, so we have a few things up our sleeves too. It’s not taking music out of the concert hall, in fact quite the opposite. People who come to our gigs or see us playing have often never been to a concert but having seen us play in those informal settings are keen to know more and are then led to the concert hall. The idea and philosophy is basically in no way to dumb down, just to play this music, particularly chamber music, in the way it was originally intended with people having a bite to eat, glass of wine, and see it in the raw.

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

Doing exactly what I’m doing now – playing the bass and running Classical Evolution.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my fantastic daughter up a mountain or in some ridiculous country somewhere. Or cooking at home for loads of friends. She’s a far better cook than I am!

What is your most treasured possession?

Boris (my bass)

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being a mother.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about great projects in the pipeline, both playing and organising collaborations with sculptors, composers, musicians.. I’m a very lucky girl! 

Heather was born in Cumbria, and started playing the Flute aged 6, and the Double Bass aged 14. She played with the Cumbria Youth Orchestra and the Northern Junior Phil, before going on to the Royal Northern College of Music, studying the Double Bass with Duncan McTier.

Whilst at the RNCM, she played with the Symphony, String, Baorque, Chamber and Film Orchestras, Akanthos (the contemporary music ensemble), and kept a busy jazz schedule outside college.

After leaving the RNCM, Heather lived in Angola doing aid work, before moving to Cádiz, Spain for 3 years playing jazz, tango and teaching. She returned to the UK in 2010 to pursue an orchestral career.

As a Double Bassist she has worked with the RLPO, Sinfonia Verdi and the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and well as numerous one-off dates.

Heather also runs Classical Evolution which was set up in 2011 to bring chamber and orchestral music to atypical locations with an informal feel to bring the music to new audiences. She has performed at the Spellbound Forest festival, for which she commissioned a new piece for children by James Stephenson. She also commissioned a new piece for the Just So Festival and organised a series of concerts for the Manchester Peace festival where she commissioned a further piece by the head of composition at Manchester University Richard Whalley and premiered it along with other new music in the live music venue Night and Day café.


Heather Bird
Director – Classical Evolution and Evolution Arts Centre
07456 528 166
 
For orchestral bookings please contact Morgensterns on 020 8681 0555 or visit www.morgensternsdiaryservice.com
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An image crisis in independent piano teaching?

I recently ran a survey, Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, as part of some research for a paper I am writing to present at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of this month. Originally intended to offer some insight into whether private and independent piano teachers regard themselves as “professionals”, the survey revealed some interesting and unsettling thoughts on how independent piano teachers perceive themselves generally, and how people outside the profession view them. The majority of respondents were independent/private piano teachers and it was their response to the question When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?  which gave me significant pause for thought. See more on this below….

One of my ongoing issues is people not regarding what I do as a “professional” role, despite the fact that I adhere to many of the perceived definitions of the word “professional”: I am paid for my work, I hold professional qualifications, and I belong to several professional bodies. I also run my studio in an efficient and businesslike manner with clear terms and conditions regarding payment of fees etc, I market my studio effectively (website and social media), I participate in regular ongoing professional development, and know how to communicate and interact with my “clients” (my students and their parents). Discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession indicate I am not alone in this, and indeed this is one of the main aspects about which music teachers and musicians in general feel so denigrated: because we enjoy our work and (often) work from home, it is not perceived as “a proper job”, and as such, we are often undervalued, expected to work for low or no pay, and our job is regarded as some kind of eccentric hobby. Nevermind that many of us have undergone a long and specialist training, or have years of experience and an impressive track record of success.

One of the major problems of private piano teaching is that it is unregulated. This means anyone can set up as a piano teacher and recruit a few students. Other professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants for instance – have their own professional/regulatory bodies, with professional exams, code of ethics, and so forth, which lends proper accreditation and gravitas to their role. Piano teachers can opt to join professional organisations such as the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), but membership is not compulsory and these bodies do not “regulate” nor inspect; they offer support, legal advice, continuing professional development, public liability insurance, busaries etc.

I would like to share the results of my survey, in the hope that this may encourage all independent piano teachers to consider how the profession is regarded and to support me in raising the profile of the private piano teacher.

Qualifications
What has the average piano teacher studied to teach in an independent studio?

Piano to grade 8 – 78%

Music theory to grade 8 – 37%

A-level music (or equivalent) – 45%

Music degree – 50%

Teaching diplomas – 46%

Performance diplomas – 43%

Piano pedagogy – 30%

These results interest me because I frequently come across the view that the private piano teacher should have attended music college or taken a degree in music, as a minimum qualification to teach. While I accept that a BMus or MMus (or equivalent international qualification) would be desirable, it is worth pointing out that not all conservatoire or university music courses offer a separate and/or specialist course in piano pedagogy; the main focus tends to be on performance, and music theory and history. Now, you might be the most talented, internationally-renowned pianist, but if you can’t communicate in both words and actions how to do it, you are not going to cut it as a teacher. Many professional musicians teach because they have to; but they are not necessarily the best teachers just because they have undergone a conservatoire training.

As an unregulated profession, there is no minimum standard qualification for independent piano teachers. Personally, I would like to see Grade 8 piano set as a minimum standard together with some other accreditation required and recognised by a body such as the ISM or EPTA.

Here is a teaching colleague of mine on the thorny issue of qualifications:

There is huge range of qualifications on offer, some of which test different things to others. I think in my experience, the usual thing, ‘qualifications do not necessarily a good teacher make’ stands true. All the qualifications I’ve done, I’ve done because they enhance and enrich my teaching rather than that they somehow make me look a better teacher. I’ve never once, in 13 years been asked about them anyway, and I find this quite common. Having worked with quite a few teaching diploma candidates, for example, it is clear which of them are using the qualification as a means to reflect on and evaluate their teaching skills, and those who want the piece of paper (and for the latter, the act of doing the qualification will have had little or no impact upon their actual teaching ability).

What are the main duties and responsibilities of an independent piano teacher?

100% of respondents stated that “teaching piano” is the main duty/responsibility of the independent piano teacher.

Preparing lessons – 87%

Collecting fees – 59%

Scheduling lessons – 73%

Preparing students for exams – 80%

Writing student reports/appraisals – 34%

Marketing the studio – 41%

Administration and recording keeping – 61%

Encouraging students – 91%

Keeping up with one’s professional development – 81%

I was interested to note that “collecting fees” did not receive a higher response, since conversations with colleagues, and my own experience, suggest that this is one of the more time-consuming (and irritating) aspects of the private piano teacher’s role, along with other general admin. Additional comments in response to this question included: dealing with parental expectations, keeping abreast of the current writing/thinking in piano teaching and pedagogy, taking lessons and playing/performing oneself, learning the music that students choose to play, informing students of interesting/relevant concerts and encouraging them to listen to music.

What non-musical skills do you think an independent piano teacher should have in order to teach successfully in a home studio?

Administration and organisational skills – 87%

Computer skills – 53%

Business skills – 57%

Knowledge of learning styles and how to accommodate them – 86%

People skills – 95%

An ability to challenge and motivate students – 96%

Patience – 96%

A sense of humour – 84%

Communication and writing skills – 71%

The responses to these three questions above suggest that independent piano teachers have a clear idea of what the job entails, and what skills are necessary in order to fulfil the role.

In response to the question Do you consider private piano teaching to be a “profession”?  91% agreed with this statement, while 7% did not. 2% responded “Don’t know”. When asked to qualify their responses, the following comments were made:

It’s a hobby, even if a full-time living, and never feels like a ‘real’ job. It’s up to the teacher to be self-motivated and conscientious if he/she wants to do a good job of it, though, but it’s increasingly a peripheral and quaint thing to do in life.

No [it's not a "profession"], in that there are no recognised entry qualifications, no regulation and no career progression.

It doesn’t command any respect, people think it’s a hobby, not a vocation.

Depends on qualifications

What attributes and/or qualifications do you think define a private piano teacher as a “professional”?

Qualifications (e.g. music degree, education degree, performance or teaching diplomas) – 95%

Experience – 80%

A career as a professional performing musician – 25%

Ongoing professional development – 71%

Self-motivation – 50%

Good business skills – 36%

Additional comments in response to this question:

Success in motivating, teaching and helping students grow – not just musically, but personally, as well

I am constantly baffled as to why some piano teachers are not part of a union or professional body

Understanding of child development and basic psychology (we teach adults too)

A ‘professional’ attitude to practicalities such as studio policy, having insurance. Planning lessons

An ability and willingness to perform up to something resembling professional levels, but not necessarily having a professional performance career.

When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?

It is the largely negative responses to this question which have given me most pause for thought. Remember, the majority of respondents are independent piano teachers – these comments are their view of how our profession is perceived by others:

Probably an older, rather eccentric female

Someone who is probably not properly qualified

Old lady next door, cardigan, cats, musical erasers

Someone who is not really up to the job- who isn’t fully trained or a professional musician and has realised they can make a quick buck teaching piano. Someone who is kind and nice to the children and parents but ultimately unaware that they are teaching bad technique often and not aware of the rigours of quality music-making

Not a profession but a religion!

Someone who is keen to develop people in their creativity and understanding of music. They love what they do, and teach it because they themselves love to play and be creative.

A mum who used to play…..has kids and needs a bit of extra money

I divide it into two types: Those that live and breathe the piano, and those for which it is a “nice little hobby”.

Someone who has Grade 8 or Diploma in performance. Teaches pupils for the exam they are working on, leaving ear training and background knowledge until the week before the exam. May be a great performer.

It used to be a woman in her 40s or 50s sitting, slightly seriously, beside a wide-eyed child at an upright piano. Things have moved on now and I know teachers across a wide demographic.

Interestingly, when I asked two professional pianists who also teach (one privately, one in a university music department) how they are perceived by their students and parents of their students, I received the following replies:

I find that my students and parents treat me as ‘highly professional’ due to the calibre of my performing engagements. This is completely unrelated, however, to any ability I might or might not possess as a teacher. The latter comes from studying and working in the field for over thirty years, from discussions with psychologists and other instrumental teachers – and trial and error.

I find that generally (with a few exceptions) teaching within an establishment [a British university] one does get the appropriate respect and indeed, as instrumental teachers, most of the students treat us as being on a par with the other academic staff. The only private teaching that I do (at the moment) is on a consultation basis, so people (generally parents of talented late teenagers or sometimes young professionals themselves) approach me because of what I’ve done or because they’ve actually heard me in concert. I guess that generally means that one has already overcome the hurdle of being respected and the people involved do therefore treat one as ‘professional’. But this is less about qualifications/prizes won….

Do you have any memorable anecdotes about the perception your students, their parents, or someone outside the profession has had about the independent piano teacher or the job of teaching from a private home studio?

Parents of new students think often of piano teaching as a simple, stress free and lucrative job. Parents of older students realize it’s a profession, that requires knowledge, competence and constant learning on the part of the teacher.

Thinking I’m a part-timer. – Believing I deserve less professional respect. For instance: paying me late, assuming I want to babysit their kids, wanting to switch times when a plumber/electrician wouldn’t put up with their crap. This might be a bit controversial, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that as a profession, there are very little “benchmarks” or “guidelines” to guide absolutely everybody in a uniform fashion, even within unions and professional bodies. For instance, there are some piano teachers who may put up with late payment because they feel they don’t have a choice, or other teachers who allow pupils to switch times and cancel at the very last minute. This makes others believe all piano teachers are the same. I think this freedom and flexibility to operate is a positive, but if you compare to say, the GMC (General Medical Council) or BMA (British Medical Association), they are a lot more stringent and dogmatic about what their members should and should not do as professionals.

“What do you do for a living?” (Parent couldn’t believe this was my job)

Once a mother pulled her son out of lessons because I was getting too skilled and teaching too much and she just wanted him to read notes. I told her I was allowed to grow too

As organizer of a local piano competition and representative of a teaching union, I sat down to check a piano was in tune and the stool was at the right height at the start of the competition day, only for a parent to ask “so you actually play the piano then? Like properly!” Made me smile for hours.

One piano parent asked me and my colleague Claire “So what do you want to be when you are older?” whilst she was sat in my private piano teaching practice which I rent and run as a business.

I am troubled by these largely negative comments and the recurrence of the word “hobby” in relation to piano teaching. The perception, expressed by teachers themselves, that the role is not valued nor regarded as a proper professional job is very evident in these responses. While the stereotypical view of the private piano teacher as a little old lady down the road is fading, there is a still a strong perception that the private piano teacher is doing the job for “pin money”, or because they can’t get a “better” job. I find this view deeply depressing: I take my job very seriously and adopt a professional attitude to every aspect of my work (the fact that I also enjoy it a great deal is an added bonus). How do we change this attitude into a positive perception of piano teachers as highly skilled and professional people? I believe that the impetus must come from within the profession, from piano teachers themselves, and from professional bodies such as EPTA and ISM, who should be actively promoting private piano teaching as a recognised and respected profession.

I would like to thank everyone who took part in my survey and also those pianist and piano teaching friends and colleagues who responded to more specific enquiries from me.

In a later post, I will explore professionalism in private piano teaching in more detail.

Please feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly via the Contact page of this site.

‘La Fanciulla del West’ at ENO

Opera ingenu Nicholas Marlowe (my co-reviewer for CultureVulture.net) went to see ENO’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.

Often laughed off as the first Spaghetti Western,  La Fanciulla del West remains the least known of Puccini’s major works. Set during the California gold rush of 1849-50, it was first performed to universal acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910 (a far cry from the disastrous opening of Madame Butterfly at La Scala six years earlier). And yet Richard Jones’s new production is the first at the ENO for fifty years.

La Fanciulla tends to appeal to serious aficionados of Puccini’s score rather than the ordinary opera-goer, and it’s not hard to see why. The paucity of stand-alone arias – never mind a ‘Nessun Dorma’ – is a major stumbling block, the only real crowd-pleaser being ‘Quello che tacete’ in Act I, strongly reminiscent (I wonder why?) of ‘Song of the Night’ in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. It also has one of the most preposterous plots in all opera, and characterisation that veers dangerously close to cardboard: saloon-owner-with-a-heart-of-gold Minnie, miraculously-reformed bandit Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson and sleazy Sheriff Jack Rance. You might think that singing it in English would have smoothed things a little, but I rather missed the cries of “Howdy, ragazzi!” and “Whiskey per tutti!”

Peter Auty and Susan Bullock in The Girl of the Golden West. (Photograph: John Snelling/Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the entire ensemble did well in what was largely a production of firsts. Highly-regarded British soprano Susan Bullock ruled the roost in a feisty stage debut as Minnie (she previously sang the role in concert at the Edinburgh festival in 2010). It was tenor Peter Auty’s debut as Dick, and American bass baritone Craig Colclough’s as Rance. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, meanwhile, made her UK operatic debut in the pit. Sterling support came from an ENO chorus that shifted convincingly from bible class to lynch mob.
 
The opening act in the Polka saloon I thought suffered from a lack of clear definition in the male roles, although some were still very good indeed; I particularly liked Graham Clark as Nick the bartender. Act II, set in Minnie’s cabin, was somewhat knockabout, provoking a certain amount of tittering in the Colisseum audience, and at this stage I began to wonder if Jones and co were playing the whole thing for laughs. All came good in the final act, however, particularly in Auty’s poignant rendition of Dick’s final despairing aria, well matched by Bullock’s gutsy performance as she pulled out all the stops to save her fella from the noose. 
La Fanciulla del West continues at ENO at the Coliseum.