Category Archives: General

Concert for Nepal Earthquake Victims

A group of solo and chamber classical musicians have got together to present a fundraising concert to help the victims of the Nepal earthquake.

Under the initiative of pianist Alicja Fiderkiewicz and cellist Corinne Morris, a fundraising concert will take place in London on 29th May 2015 with the following artists: Murray McLachlan, Artur Pizarro, Viv Mclean, Carlo Grante, Corinne Morris and Alicja Fiderkiewicz. The concert includes the world premiere of a piece by composer Keith Burstein. The concert takes place at St Barnabas Church, Ealing, London W5 1QG.

The entire proceeds of this fundraising concert will go to the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Nepal Earthquake Appeal
Nepal needs 2 things: manpower to help get things up and running and money to access this help, to start rebuilding their lives

With this fundraising concert, we hope to provide the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) with a contribution of £10,000.
If you can support our project, either by attending the concert, or making a donation and sharing this with all your friends, then together we will make an impact and via the aid agencies already in Nepal, offer some much needed support and comfort.

To pledge your support and secure a ticket for the concert, please go to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/classical-music-gala-concert-for-nepal-disaster. Click “select a perk” to choose how much you would like to donate.

Thank you for your support.

Corinne & Alicja

St Barnabas Church

Sunday Feature: Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?

Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)

I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.

I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am involved in a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.

The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).

So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:

Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.

A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.

The Complete Piano Etudes – Philip Glass. I’ve just discovered these works by the master of American minimalism. Technically and musically challenging and very satisfying to play

Unicorn in Rainbows – Alison Wrenn. A beautiful short work infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms.

Please feel free to join this discussion by adding your comments below. Suggestions for repertoire are also very welcome.

“Stolen Time”

‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!’
Arthur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Tempo Rubato is rhythmic flexibility within a phrase or measure, or a relaxation of strict time. Literally ‘stolen time’, rubato is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of shape within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato allows more space and room to ‘breathe’, giving the music greater expression.

Other instruments, and particularly the human voice, are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expression. When listening to music, the audience want to be ‘surprised’ or ‘satisfied’, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical ‘surprises’ within the score (unusual harmonies, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of ‘satisfaction’ or ‘gratification’ (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or a sense of delayed gratification. Done badly, rubato can sound contrived and self-indulgent; but done well, it can bring subtle shape and expression to a piece.

The opening of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from ‘Images’

Rubato is not always written into the score and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line of our music as if it is a line of song. We can make subtle changes in the rhythm, lingering over one phrase, imbuing another with urgency, to communicate the feelings that the music awakens within us. Sometimes simply delaying our arrival at a certain note can increase the sense of an accent or sforzando rather than laying extra emphasis or force on these notes through finger or hand weight alone. It is the placing of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

A crescendo marking can be used to set the music free and let it take flight. Often, our natural inclination when we encounter a crescendo marking is to increase the tempo slightly – just as we might slacken in with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes, for example. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural: it is the subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced. It is also very personal and something that develops through spending a lot of time with the music, and making a detailed study of the score (at the piano and away from it) to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own ‘personal sound’. Gradually, rubato becomes intuitive as we achieve a greater understanding of the music’s shape and its natural ebb and flow.

This article first appeared on the Pianist magazine website and in the April 2015 Pianist magazine e-newsletter

Meet the Artist……Shai Wosner, pianist

(Photograph by Marco Borggreve)

 

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

My family owned a piano but no one was playing it. I was somehow intrigued by it and began to pick out all kinds of cheesy radio tunes and later tried to harmonize them. The piano is a very friendly instrument if you are 5 years old and eager to make a sound, much more so than the violin which makes you practically languish for months until anything more than a scratch is heard. But more than that, I particularly remember how gloriously rewarding it felt to be able to add my own crude chords to those tunes and to literally touch the magic that is melody and accompaniment.                                                                                                                          

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

I was very lucky to have a rich musical education from a very early age and the opportunity to study not only piano but also composition and improvisation since I was about 9 had a big influence, I feel, on the way music seemed to me. I would like to think that it enabled me to look at music also through the eyes of the composer and not only from the angle of the performer.

But I was also emotionally affected a lot by the life stories of the great composers, particularly Mozart (Amadeus had just come out as a movie and I went to see it 3 times! At the part where they sing the finale of The Abduction from the Seraglio I completely forgot I was at the movies and started applauding vigorously – I can still remember all those heads turning back at me…) and Beethoven (a dog-eared copy of a book on the lives of composers included a heart-wrenching account of the miseries of his childhood which left me devastated).

Later on, it was mostly recordings that I listened to endlessly as well as a few unforgettable concerts I was lucky enough to be taken to, that made me feel that music was an inseparable part of who I am.

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

The greatest challenge for any performer is to reach the feeling that he or she was able to bring across exactly what they see and feel in the piece and that the audience has been there with them in it throughout. The second greatest challenge is to persist in this quest without being distracted or discouraged by the more mundane aspects of the music business, which are inescapable in their own way.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

The performances that make me feel most satisfied are the ones where I felt as if (and I repeat, as if!) I was creating the piece as it goes along. Doesn’t happen too often, unfortunately but that’s the goal. As for recordings, I don’t really listen to my own recordings after they are finished because one’s views of pieces naturally changes with time and, of course, once a recording is done, it’s done…

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I try to avoid seeing works I play this way, because the ones I feel closest to also tend to be ones you spend a lifetime with and never cease to study. But in recent years, I have gravitated towards Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to a certain extent.

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

I try to start with a main piece that I feel an uncontrollable urge to learn and then see what could go with it in a way that would either illuminate it in an interesting way or that would provide an intriguing contrast to it. I also try to keep a healthy mix of new and less new pieces, as much as possible.

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

There isn’t a single one, but of course there are some that immediately come to mind, with very special acoustics and atmosphere, such as Wigmore Hall in London, to pick a famous example. But also places like Sala di Notari in Perugia, Italy – which is not a full-time concert hall but is absolutely ravishing.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I don’t get to listen to music nearly as much as I would like, but when I do I am always in the mood for one of the Mozart da Ponte operas, for example. But there are many others.

Who are your favourite musicians?

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a child growing up in Israel, one of the concerts that really left a mark was a recital by Radu Lupu which felt like a transformative experience in real time. Another was the first time I heard the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. I actually don’t remember the circumstances at all, but I vividly recall the terrifying bang of the timpani and horns in the very beginning and the overall impression that the opening tutti made on me, as if I was being let into the darker realms of music for the very first time.

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

That what we think we are doing is often perceived very differently to outside listeners and that learning how to listen that way to yourself while you are playing is single most important thing any musician can ever strive to accomplish.

What are you working on at the moment?

More Schubert, as well as Haydn (one of the pieces is subtitled “It takes Eight to sterilize a Sow”…), some Mozart, some Ligeti…

www.shaiwosner.com

Why go on a piano course?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on piano courses and summer schools for pianists

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in progress video:

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

www.davidmusicgordon.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

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

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

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

What is your most treasured possession? 

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

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

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

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

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

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

Cordelia Williams’ full biography

Meet the Artist……Kenneth Woods, conductor

(photo: Chris Stock)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

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

Who are your favourite musicians?

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

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

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

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

Kenneth Woods’ full biography

A View from the Podium – Kenneth Woods’ blog

Introducing……Musical Orbit

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

Founder Nicole Wilson says:

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

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

Nicole adds:

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

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

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

www.musicalorbit.com

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

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

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

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

Serendipitous Bach at Sutton House

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

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

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

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

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

Further information about the concert and the Society here

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood