Category Archives: General

CD Review: ‘The Transcendentalist’ – Ivan Ilic

The word “transcendental”, at least when applied to piano music, usually suggests rampant virtuosity and piano pyrotechnics, and the first pieces which come to mind are Lizst’s Études d’exécution transcendante. Liszt himself chose the word to allude to the extreme difficulty of the pieces, the implication being that the musician who masters these works will be able to “transcend” their technique, musicianship and the expressive capabilities of the instrument.

In Ivan Ilic’s hands, the word “transcendental” has a different meaning. His new disc, ‘The Transcendentalist’, draws inspiration from  Transcendentalism, America’s first indigenous intellectual community, which included literary luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s manifesto Nature (1836) laid out the philosophy of the movement, which was founded as a reaction to and against rationalism and materialism. The music included on Ilic’s new disc is by  Scriabin, John Cage and Morton Feldman, together with a new work by Scott Wollschleger, ‘Music Without Metaphor’. The composers have connections to the tenets of the Transcendentalist movement: Scriabin’s mysticism, Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Feldman’s intuitive approach to composing and Wollschleger’s synaesthesia, and the works on this disc display virtuosity in their originality and thoughtfulness, contemplation and introspection, rather than showy technical prowess

The works by Cage, Feldman and Wollschleger demonstrate the influence of Scriabin on American avant-garde composers, while Wollschleger’s deeply haunting  ‘Music Without Metaphor’ subtly reflects on and refracts the other music on the disc. Scriabin’s miniatures reveal hints of Chopin in the early Preludes while the later works are exotic and ambiguous, rich in pre-Shoenbergian atonality and unusual and arresting harmonies.

Ilic’s touch is assured, sensitive and as thoughtful as the music, his sound rounded, the pedal used tastefully to create halos of blurred sound, particularly affecting in Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’. The entire disc is contemplative, dreamy and genuinely spiritual. Play this at the end of a busy day, with the lights turned low, and surrender to the music and Ilic’s subtle delivery.

Recommended

‘The Transcendentalist’ is available on the Heresy label and as a download from iTunes and Amazon.

Ivan Ilic will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

Maturity

Recently, I have started making my own wine (from a kit, I hasten to add). In theory, the wine is ready to drink from the day it is decanted into bottles, but in reality its quality develops over time, so that by the time the wine is about a month old, its flavour has matured and it is then very drinkable indeed.

In preparing for a couple of concerts I am giving over the next few months, I went to play some of the repertoire to a colleague who is a concert pianist and also a highly-skilled teacher. The last time he heard me play was nearly two years ago when I was preparing for my Licentiate Diploma recital – and several months before I acquired my beautiful Bechstein. In a follow up email, he commented that the piano and “maturity” were having a very positive effect on my playing. I replied that I have a theory that we should spend c25 years living with our music, studying it, absorbing it, and then only perform it when we are in our 50s or 60s; unfortunately, this is not an ideal scenario in which to forge a career as a performer, and few professional musicians would ever have the luxury of being able to work in this way, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

Music – like wine – needs to mature. We need to spend time with it, understand it, allow its flavour, depth, and narrative to develop. We need to live with the music to find out what makes it special, study its style and contextual background which provide invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted, listen around the work, endlessly strive to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

To do this, we should never study and learn music solely in the isolation of the practise room. The 8-hour practise regime I know some musicians pursue is harmful in so many ways, beyond the merely physical. And note-bashing (which is what practise becomes beyond a certain time-frame), is no substitute for life experience: fall in love, fall out of love, embrace art, literature, theatre, film, go to concerts, meet friends, eat, drink – all these things feed into the artistic imagination and help shape one’s response to music. Because, fundamentally, composers are just like us – sentient, thinking, emotional human beings who drew on their own life experience to create their music.

I know my own musical maturity has come from physical maturity and life experience, and from spending a great deal of time “in music”, by which I mean attending concerts, in my capacity as a concert reviewer and for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of live music (which I adore); interacting with other musicians, primarily through the Meet the Artist interview series on this blog, and encounters with musicians at concerts and other events; teaching and interacting with students and other teachers; reading and listening. In addition,  I continue to study with master teachers, whose own studies with some of the great pianist-teachers of the twentieth-century (including Nina Svetlanova, Andras Schiff, Vlado Perlemuter, Phyllis Sellick, Guido Agosti and Maria Curcio) offer unique insights and act as connectors to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly, to the music.

In more practical terms, I believe that our music matures through detailed and careful learning, a deep understanding of the piece, and a solid grounding in the technical and stylistic aspects of piano playing, together with an awareness of cultural and historical contexts. Learning a work and then putting it aside for a few months can also be hugely beneficial, for on returning to that work, one often discovers new things about it, while also deepening one’s understanding of and response to the music. Lately, I have revisited several pieces I learnt in 2010 and 2011 as part of my first diploma programme: greater experience, insight and knowledge, as well as superior technical security and physical coordination have undoubtedly improved these pieces. Performing regularly helps shape our response to our music and allows interesting new ideas to develop which can be reviewed and pursued after a performance. The work is never static: it is always evolving, developing, and on this basis one can never truly say a work is “finished”.

Observing young professional artists in concerts, it strikes me that many young people, and even some more established or senior artists, feel they must learn a lot of repertoire very quickly. They are under pressure to have the big warhorse concertos – a Rach, a Tchaik, a Beethoven – in the fingers, together with other “holy grails” of mainstream concert repertoire, such as Chopin’s Études, Ballades, Sonatas and Scherzi, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Beethoven’s most well-known and well-loved Piano Sonatas. Young artists are under tremendous pressure in this competitive world of classical music to demonstrate that they can handle these great works (competitions and superior-quality recordings don’t help this situation either), but sometimes their performances seem to lack depth: technically assured but not always as insightful or thoughtful as one might like, their sound becomes a bland synthesis, as if they are striving for that perfect sound of a top-quality recording, instead of allowing emotion and life experience and the excitement and risk of the one-off live performance to enter their music. One hopes that such artists will give their music time to develop and mature.

The late great Glenn Gould was obviously aware of the differences in one’s playing and response to the music which develop over time when he re-recorded the Golberg Variations in 1981. Compare this with his youthful recording, and one hears more breathing space and thoughtfulness in the music. It is perhaps this insight and profundity that one seeks in going to hear performers such as John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires and Radu Lupu, all now “senior” musicians who have spent a lifetime in music. But of course now and then one comes across a young performer whose playing leaves one utterly awestruck and keen for more: one such performer is Daniil Trifonov, who at only 23 already displays an extraordinarily mature approach, combined with superb technique and musical understanding. One can only hope that these fine aspects of his pianistic persona go on developing as he matures.

Daniil Trifonov (photo: Dario Acosta)

Meet the Artist…… Ernest So, pianist

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

The late Jacob Lateiner (1928 to 2010) who was my teacher at Juilliard. He was an inspiration in more ways than one: as a pianist, a scholar, a collector, a gourmet, a connoisseur, and one smooth talker who could melt the heart of any woman (or so I imagine). Sometimes I wish everyone I know could have the chance of meeting Lateiner, who exerted such a big influence in my life and encouraged me to go down this rabbit-hole. Even now I still feel his presence; I step where he points.

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

Finding my own voice. Not so much about public speaking, though I do tend to speak during concerts, but in the sense of crafting a repertoire that best expresses my personal expressive character. Appreciation is very different from performing; I may appreciate many different composers but performing them convincingly is a whole other matter.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a deep affinity with the late romantics (the generations after Chopin/Schumann/Brahms) whose particular and eloquent way of writing for the piano transcends all language. They used the piano to express an endless spectrum of feelings, from unabashed romanticism to Parnassian intellectual probity, from Panglossian pessimism to spiritual elation.

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

I take inspirations from every corner of daily life. I tend to string together works that create a coherent idea for a programme, from single-composer to country-themed selections; more often I try to balance public tastes with serious historical or cultural elements. Planning a successful programme is one of the hardest parts of the job, as it requires creativity and immense knowledge. A good programme sells like a basket of fat olives, while a poorly constructed programme feels like a tangled tale.

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

I love a more intimate setting. I love the stage, and I am very comfortable on stage, big or small, but when I am physically close to my listeners I tend to be more emotionally spontaneous.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The most memorable experiences are always the best concerts and the worst venues. The best performances were those when I was completely “in the zone”. I was performing in France the poetic and impressionistic music of Louis Aubert, the pianist-composer contemporary of Ravel, when not even the most enticing French women audience (of which there were many) could have drugged me out of the “zone”. On the other hand I have had numerous concerts in less-than-desirable settings that I’ll always remember. Once I was performing in China on a piano with a rickety leg, and throughout the entire concert I was picturing different threatening scenarios and news headlines … “Pianist died during concert under a piano, literally”.

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

At the student level, learn as wide a repertoire as possible, from William Byrd to the latest sounds, from the Balkans to Buenos Aires. The next step is to find a unique voice and performing style, and specialize in it. Whenever possible, travel.

What are you working on at the moment?

Identifying the composition of grapes in different vintages of Spanish cava and from different producers. Also trying to work out my latest commission of a double-breasted suit with a Parisian tailor.

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

Alive, but not obsolete.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being interviewed.

What is your most treasured possession?

The lust for life and for beauty.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Meeting a patiently analysed situation with all the resources of thought.

What is your present state of mind?

Aching streaks of melancholy.

Ernest So performs works by Rachmaninoff and Gliere at the 1901 Arts Club on Friday 12th December as part of the South London Concert Series. Further details and tickets here

Critics have hailed Ernest So as a performer who exerts a “phenomenon presence on stage” and who “evokes the romanticism and technical brilliance of a 19th century pianist”.  Mr. So’s early manifestation as concert pianist brought prizes such as the Bes​t Performer A​ward in Singapore and later the Beethoven Trophy.  His years at the Juilliard School were spent under the artistic influence and instruction of renowned Beethoven scholar Jacob Lateiner (1928 – 2010); other teachers include Solomon Mikowsky, the late Constance Keene, and Jonathan Feldman.

Ernest So’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.ernestso.com

 

Launch of ‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′

This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards

Meet the Artist……Simon Callaghan, pianist

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

There was always a piano in the house, which we inherited from my great grandmother.  It was by no means a good instrument (quite a tired old upright) but I took to it immediately, apparently playing with both hands and picking out tunes before I began lessons as the age of 8.  I never practiced as such (at least not until I went to Chetham’s at 16), but just loved playing right from day one!

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

Bernard Roberts (my teacher at Chetham’s) lived and breathed music and was a constant source of inspiration.  He was a kind, warm person and never strict in the lessons – he really made me want to improve, but in a relaxed way and always with the pure love of music in mind.  Yonty Solomon at the RCM was also invaluable in my development.  He never talked about technique but the magic and colour in his playing is something I will never forget.

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

I found my first solo recording one of the greatest challenges so far.  I felt so uncomfortable when the red light went on, that it was such a stressful experience!  It taught me a lot about relaxation in performance and about the importance of focusing on the music, not just on accuracy!  Now having a few recordings under my belt, I feel much more relaxed in the studio and actually quite enjoy it.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

It’s always difficult to listen to one’s own recordings, but I am particularly satisfied with the two-volume set (on SOMM) I did with Hiro Takenouchi.  There are several world premieres of Delius works in arrangements for two pianos, recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  I thoroughly enjoyed discovering these wonderful works and the two piano arrangements (while not coming close to replicating the orchestral sonorities) provide a special clarity and transparency.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing works by composer-pianists of the twentieth century, especially Rachmaninoff.  I’ve performed the Third Piano Concerto a number of times and despite the infamous technical challenges I feel at home in this repertoire and while I strive with every performance to find something better, Rachmaninoff’s world is one in which I always feel welcome.  At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early chamber works (especially the cello sonata and trios) provide such excitement and inspiration that they are always a joy to perform.

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

I guess this largely depends on who I am collaborating with (I play a lot of chamber music) and the requirements of concert promoters.  I have been part of a number of ‘composer immersion’ projects in recent seasons, such as a complete cycle of Brahms chamber music, all the Beethoven trios etc – a wonderful way to get inside the musical ‘journey’ of these great composers.  I also try to always include an element of lesser-known repertoire in all my performances so new ideas and discoveries feature high on my list of priorities when planning future concerts.

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

I have played in a number of wonderful halls (particularly the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall), but probably my favourite so far is Symphony Hall in Birmingham.  Despite being such a large venue, the feeling on stage is an intimate one and not at all intimidating, and the acoustic is the most satisfying of any of the larger halls I’ve played in.  St John’s Smith Square comes in a close second, with one of the finest Steinways ever!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I listen to quite a variety of music (not only classical but even – dare I say it – some musical theatre!) However as I spend most of my waking hours involved in music performance or teaching, I do appreciate silence when I am relaxing!  I love listening to the great orchestral repertoire (especially Mahler Symphonies) and opera also provides wonderful inspiration.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I have always admired Martha Argerich – I once commented to one of my teachers that watching her performances had taught me more about technique and musicality than any of my teachers – I don’t think this went down so well!  I’ve been to quite a number of her live performances and am always struck by the way she communicates raw emotion and energy, and by the fact that she is so humble in person.  For me, she epitomizes the musician as communicator.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There have been so many!  That said, I particularly enjoyed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto a few years ago with a wonderful amateur orchestra in London, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra.  I love performing – especially in chamber music and concertos – and the performances with amateur groups have often been the most satisfying.  I’ve played with some wonderful amateur orchestras and the fact that the musicians are there out of choice rather than to earn money means that they are constantly striving for higher standards and love every moment – something that is quite infectious!

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

Having recently returned from three weeks teaching on a course for 14-18 year olds, one thought that is very much on my mind right now is that aspiring musicians must learn how to listen to their own playing.  We spend a good deal of time playing and of course we hear the sounds, but how often do we actually listen and analyse the sounds we are producing?  I often encourage my students to record their performances and they are frequently shocked by what they hear!

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am working on some interesting repertoire for a new solo album – further details to be announced soon!  I am also learning some new piano quartets (Walton, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré, Mozart) and revising the Franck Quintet for a performance with the Edinburgh Quartet later this year.  Next year is Scriabin’s anniversary year and as such I will be playing his concerto in several performances, so this is also on my long practice list!

You have been Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts since 2008.  Tell us more about this.
As I had no experience whatsoever at the outset, it was a steep learning curve and was so grateful to be given the opportunity to see the music business from the other side!  The concert series has gone from strength to strength and we now programme around 27 concerts per season by some of the finest chamber music groups around.  We also have generous support from several distinguished patrons including Timothy West and Prunella Scales and pianist, Stephen Hough.  Working at Conway Hall is hugely challenging as well as rewarding, but I greatly value this variety in my career.

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

Doing exactly what I’m doing now, but at an even higher level and performing even more often.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A life in which I can enjoy what I love most – making music – and with plenty of time for relaxing and spending time with people close to me, and my beloved dachshund, Fergus!

What is your most treasured possession? 

Probably my Steinway Model D.  It’s a great instrument and constantly maturing, so makes practicing a pleasure!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

When not performing, I enjoy eating!  I love discovering new cuisines, and spend rather too much money on eating out at exquisite restaurants.

What is your present state of mind? 

Excited.  I’m discovering lots of new repertoire at the moment – it’s always great to have this freshness.

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts

Recognised as an exciting performer of the new generation, Steinway Artist Simon Callaghan’s recent schedule has included Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. His engagements have taken him all over the UK, throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. He has also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, ITV and BBC Television. In September 2013 he took up the Anthony Saltmarsh Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

Following his highly successful release of English piano music on the Belgian De Rode Pomp label (featuring several world premières), Simon Callaghan’s collaboration with SOMM Recordings began in 2012 with two volumes of Delius Orchestral Music in arrangements for two pianos, with Hiroaki Takenouchi. Receiving great critical acclaim, the BBC Music Magazine commented that “Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi… play with such love, panache and exact synchronisation.” Simon’s burgeoning relationship with SOMM has led to two further volumes of Brahms chamber music with award-winning cellist James Barralet, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and violist Hannah Strijbos (including the first recording of all the Hungarian Dances in Barralet’s arrangement for ‘cello and piano). He also recorded a highly-acclaimed disc of violin sonatas with Midori Komachi and will release a further solo album in spring 2015.

Simon Callaghan’s busy performing schedule has included two residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), rare performances of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and the Third Concerto of Nikolay Medtner (the first in the UK since 1946). He has also collaborated with Prunella Scales, Ilona Domnich, Timothy West, Jack Liebeck, Thomas Gould, Raphael Wallfisch and the Maggini, Sacconi, Carducci and Coull Quartets in a broad range of repertoire. Simon is a founder member of the Werther Ensemble, brought together at the inaugural Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2013. Recent and forthcoming projects for this ensemble include recitals throughout the UK, a complete cycle of the chamber music of Brahms, a return to the Whittington Festival playing works by Mendelssohn and a three-concert series at St John’s, Smith Square, exploring the jewels of the piano quartet repertoire. Together with pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Simon is also part of the Parnassius Piano Duo, which has a particular interest in championing lesser-known English works, particularly those of Parry and Sterndale Bennett.

As a teacher, Simon is Head of Piano of the Ingenium Music Academy (Winchester), a member of the faculty at Harrow School, and has given masterclasses around the world, most recently in Malaysia and Thailand. He is also Artistic Director of the renowned Conway Hall Sunday Concerts (London), the longest-running chamber music series in Europe. Alongside this work he is co-producer of MusicUpClose, a highly successful series in collaboration with sound collective, introducing non-musicians to the world of classical music. Following his studies at Chetham’s School of Music with Bernard Roberts, Simon was awarded a full scholarship to study with Yonty Solomon at the Royal College of Music, from where he graduated with first class honours and won numerous prizes.

simoncallaghan.com

The Erard Project – Piano Rescue! Save this historic piano

British concert pianist Daniel Grimwood is fundraising to save this historic piano, an 1850s Erard, similar to the type and make of piano Chopin, Liszt, Clara Schumann and others would have known and performed on.

Here Daniel explains why this piano is important in the study, understanding and performance of mid-nineteenth century piano music:

These instruments offer an unclouded sonority, separation of register and clarity which enliven music of the 19th Century in a magical way. Hearing music performed on the instruments for which it was written is always illuminating; it opens up aspects of a score which can often seem nonsensical on modern pianos.

See Daniel talk about and perform Liszt on a similar instrument:

Daniel is fundraising via Kickstarter. You can read all about the project, watch a video presentation and make a pledge by visiting his Kickstarter page.

Please consider supporting this interesting and worthwhile project. Historic pianos like this Erard can teach us a great deal about how music was composed and performed. They are also beautiful pieces of furniture in their own right.

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Book review: ‘Sleeping in Temples’ by Susan Tomes

Acclaimed pianist and chamber musician Susan Tomes is also an engaging writer. I have enjoyed her previous books and her blog, which offer interesting and revealing insights into the daily life of a classical musician and her personal thoughts on the many facets of music making. Her latest book, Sleeping in Temples, continues this, focusing on subjects such as the exigencies of finding the right concert clothes to coughing and other noises made by audiences, the physical and mental strains placed on musicians in their working life, and the pleasure people gain from attending concerts.

The title comes from an Ancient Greek habit of sleeping in temples in the hope that the powerful atmosphere would “incubate dreams”. In her final chapter, Susan explains that throughout her musical life her own version of “sleeping in temples” has been the privilege of spending time with the “sacred texts” of the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al, the challenges of living and working with this music, and her great love of it, and its ability to take us on powerful emotional journeys and through varied and contrasting landscapes.

In a series of essays and musings, Susan reveals the joys and challenges of her career as well as discussing some perennial issues surrounding classical music and the musician’s day-to-day life, including what ‘interpretation’ really means, the effects of daily practise on one’s character, the benefits and burdens of memorisation, the influence of significant teachers, and the links between music and health. In one chapter she explores the fascinating dynamics that exist within a chamber ensemble and debunks the myth that the members of a string quartet, for example, are the greatest of friends outside the rehearsal room and concert hall. Another chapter ponders the (misguided) attitude that classical music “is not for everyone” (an attitude I encounter regularly and have done since an early age, having always been interested and engaged in classical music), and the pleasure and relief of connecting with like-minded people at university. The light-heartedly titled chapter ‘Fashion Parade’ explores the performer’s attire and the importance of finding the right shoes (for pedalling) and dress. The chapter has a more serious intent, however, as “appropriate” concert attire and the way solo musicians and orchestras dress is the subject of continued debate and has an impact on the way the music and the musicians are perceived by the audience: it shouldn’t matter – after all, the music is the most important thing – but somehow it does. In ‘Bullfrogs’, Susan examines that perennial irritant – coughing at concerts – and the performer’s own anxieties if struck down with a cold or cough and how adrenaline can miraculously “cure” a cold for the duration of a concert (another experience I can identify with, having played my diploma recital last April with a dreadful chest infection). The book also describes some of the challenges facing classical musicians today, including the effect of high quality recordings on live performance.

Sensitively and articulately written, this absorbing and insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music lovers, and indeed anyone with an interest in classical music. Highly recommended – put it on your Christmas list.

Sleeping in Temples – Susan Tomes. £19.99. Published October 2014. ISBN 9781843839750. Full details here

Susan Tomes’ website and blog

The Musician’s Body – take care!

Let’s face it, playing a musical instrument is bad for your health.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar led by Drusilla Redman, a physiotherapist who works with BAPAM and is also Student Health Adviser and Physiotherapist for Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When Drusilla asked the participants to raise their hands if they were “in pain at the moment”, everyone put their hand up. The attendees were all musicians and music teachers – a guitarist, a violinist, several pianists, a flautist and a clarinettist.

Sadly, being in pain is a common condition for many musicians: a number of my pianist friends suffer from recurrent back problems, chronic tendonitis and other RSI-type conditions. Being hunched over a piano is not good for the body – nor is holding a violin or a flute, or humping a cello – or worse, a double bass – around.

Many of us suffer from “T-shaped pain” across the base of the neck, shoulders and down the back. In my case, this is almost certainly the result of too much time spent at both computer and piano, and not enough time spent stretching between practise sessions and when I leave my desk. Muscles don’t like being kept still, but sitting playing an instrument makes us still. For those who play instruments which need to be supported or held – for example, the French horn, trombone, cello, bassoon, violin, flute – the body can suffer from being in an awkward posture or out of alignment for periods of time.

There are many other factors which contribute significantly to pain, including:

  • bad technique
  • lack of proper warm up
  • unresolved or existing traumas/injuries
  • untreated or ignored chronic conditions such as RSI and tendonitis/tenosynovitis
  • too much repetition in practising
  • bad seating
  • tension and anxiety
  • a punishing practising and/or working schedule
  • over-practising or intense practising before a performance
  • poor choice of repertoire (the pianist with tiny hands is going to really suffer in Liszt or Rachmaninoff)
  • lack of sleep
  • poor diet

Until relatively recently, musicians were expected to simply get on with it, without complaining, and without help from specialists such as Alexander Technique, Yoga and Pilates practitioners, physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors, as well as mainstream medics. Little was really understood, or wished to be understood, about the strain playing an instrument can put on the body and students in conservatoire were given no support or advice on how to look after themselves. When I was studying the piano as a teenager in the 1980s, for example, my then teacher gave me no advice on hand health, avoiding injury, tension or RSI conditions, nor any help on managing nerves and performance anxiety. Today, music students and musicians in general can seek the support, advice and care of professionals to ensure that they keep themselves fit to play. But admitting one has an injury is still stigmatised: in a world where most of us our freelance, admitting we are unable to play can result in no work and therefore no money and musicians often play through pain – because they have to.

Compare this scenario to that of top sports players: no sportsman or woman would tolerate the kind of bodily travails the musician undergoes. Sportspeople, and their trainers, understand about the need to exercise and rest the muscles properly, to engage in a proper warm up regime, eat well, sleep well, and never, ever exercise – or indeed play – through pain.

Through a better understanding of the musician’s body and lifestyle, and the many parallels to be drawn from sport, the musician’s body is now treated in a similar way to the sportsperson’s: we should regard ourselves as “elite musical athletes”, and caring for our bodies in the way a sportsperson would can ensure we avoid injury and enjoy pain-free playing.

The following may seem obvious, but how many of us really, truly adopt these measures on a daily basis?

  • do a proper warm up and stretching session, preferably away from the instrument, if you are a pianist or keyboard player
  • practise in sensible increments (say, 20-30 mins per session) and take regular breaks
  • incorporate mental practise, away from your instrument
  • stretch between practise sessions
  • consider your posture (sit with knees lower than hips)
  • take regular exercise
  • take care when lifting
  • eat sensibly
  • drink plenty of water
  • don’t smoke
  • sleep well
  • enjoy a social life and do activities which are not music-related
  • think positively
  • if in pain, stop right away and seek help
  • By looking after our bodies properly, our practising and music making will be more productive and enjoyable.

Further resources:

BAPAM – specialist help support to performing artists http://www.bapam.org.uk/

Yoga for pianists – warm up exercises devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell

Meet the Artist……Gwilym Bowen, tenor

(photo credit: Ruairi Bowen)

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

In common with a lot of singers, I’ve been singing for most of my life – first as a chorister for my dad at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, then at St Paul’s Cathedral. The latter part has come much more recently and still takes me a bit by surprise: for my whole teenage years I was working towards a career as a jazz pianist, but singing took over during my undergraduate degree.

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

An insultingly short list would have to include my parents and extended family; my singing teachers to date – Ulla Blom, Susanne Carlström, Philip Doghan and Ryland Davies; Ralph Allwood, Nick Goetzee and Jim Wortley at school; at Cambridge, Stephen Layton, the director of music at Trinity College, Paul Wingfield, my director of studies, Maggie Faultless, who took over performance at the music faculty, and Alice Goodman, chaplain at Trinity; hosts of generous teachers, colleagues and friends.

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

As I’m still a student, I’m hoping sure the biggest challenges are still to come, but a fair answer for now might be the two roles at Cambridge which were my operatic baptisms of fire, Pelléas and Tom Rakewell.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

When often working on the maxim that “you’re only as good as your last gig”, I’m going to go with the positive version: each project or concert, whether it’s months or hours long, is something worth taking pride in, and I wouldn’t particularly like to pick between them.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

My musical first love is Bach, and I’m lucky to have a voice which fits some of his occasionally specific challenges – all human life is there, I think, even if filtered through potentially arcane theology which is a fascinating area in itself. I need a new music fix quite frequently, and have been lucky to work with some brilliant friends in that regard – new operas by Kate Whitley and songs by Joel Rust & Jude Carlton are some recent things which have stayed with me.

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

Within vocal reason (sadly I see little Wagner in my imminent future), I’ll jump at anything which leaps off the page, makes light work of all the defences daily life throws up, and goes for the guts: recently that’s been Ives and Messiaen in the 20th century, Rameau and Handel in the early 18th, Mozart Mozart Mozart. The rhythm of the year gives a natural shape with regard to concert work – the Passions in Lent, the Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios in December, and summer throws up interesting operatic projects.

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

Not particularly: currently I’m enjoying the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, where I’m studying, which affords a mixture of grandeur and intimacy. But every venue has its ups and downs – I can’t recall any real shockers, however, which is perhaps tempting fate.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

A tricky one – I’ve mentioned the Passions, which are inexhaustibly wonderful masterpieces, but very often it’s whatever I’m involved in at the moment. Listen to is a very different matter – the last concert I went to was the LSO’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, which is up there for its extravagance, visceral thrills and blinding virtuosity, but day-to-day between me, the tube and my iPod, it’s mostly jazz, funk, soul.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

An endless list, but the letter J is a good start: JS Bach, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, John Zorn, an expensive vocal quartet of Jessye Norman, Joyce Di Donato, Jonas Kaufmann and John Tomlinson.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Turangalîla again, actually, at the Proms in 2008 with the BPO and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I’d queued my way to right in front of Aimard, and could see every single intention between score, eyes, hands and whatever else. Then in the outrageous piano cadenza in the fifth movement I fully lost track of time – that 12-second shower of notes seemed an ecstatic eternity, which was something. Seeing Dave Brubeck when I was eleven was pretty influential for the next decade, and I was lucky to see Ravi Shankar at the Proms in 2005 – I’d just started playing the sitar, and to see the global master incredibly close was wonderful. As a treble, a run of concerts with Oliver Knussen on Louis Andriessen and Elliott Carter made a lasting impression, both in terms of loving new music and having the nerve to get out on a big stage and deliver – much harder to start from scratch as an adult, I’m sure.

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

I’m still very much an aspiring musician, but hard work, keeping a childish enthusiasm, and a streak of punk aesthetic seems a good mix.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve been working on two different productions of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, in a tour with Ryedale Festival Opera and on the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme in Aldeburgh – a work which could take a lifetime to unpick, let alone a summer. In between those,  plenty of work preparing for my first year in the Academy’s opera school, with Gianni Schicchi, The Rake’s Progress and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.

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

Hopefully doing more or less what I’m doing now, at as high a level as who’ll have me, and 10 years into my project of writing about every song written by Schubert in chronological order, 200 years after the fact – 1824’s a fairly quiet year, actually, but doing any kind of justice to Die schöne Müllerin the year before might take a bit of work.

Born in Hereford, Gwilym Bowen is a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, having graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2011 with a double First class degree in Music. He studies with Ryland Davies and Jonathan Papp, and is due to take up a place at Royal Academy Opera from September.

Gwilym’s full biography

Interview date: 19th July 2014

 

http://www.gwilymbowen.com/

Meet the Artist……Florian Uhlig

 

(photo: Marc Borggreve)

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

When I was young there was always music at home: my father was an amateur pianist and my parents used to play old records with all sorts of classical music: opera, lied, symphonic repertoire and piano music.

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

Studying with truly wonderful piano teachers: Peter Feuchtwanger, Bernard Roberts at the Royal College of Music and Hamish Milne at the Royal Academy of Music. But also the legendary German baritone Hermann Prey with whom I was fortunate to work in my early twenties.

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

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I guess.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’d rather leave this for the critics to decide! But I am quite happy with my latest recording, Ravel’s complete works for piano solo.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have developed a very soft spot for Schumann since I started recording his entire piano oeuvre four years ago.

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

Generally, the concerto repertoire is decided by the orchestras and conductors. The choice of chamber music pieces, in turn, is a result of a dialogue with the chamber partners I love working with. For my solo recital repertoire I am almost 100% in the driving seat in terms of making the decisions. Often I try to programme pieces I am about to record during or just after a given season.

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

The Wigmore Hall in London and the Musikverein in Vienna – wonderful acoustics and atmosphere!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Beethoven’s Piano Concertos

Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich, Leonard Bernstein, Chick Corea, Jacqueline du Pré – at least one for each letter of the alphabet…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

2007 in Caracas: performing Penderecki’s Piano Concerto under the baton of the composer with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

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

True passion for what you do, hard work, patience, perseverance and a good sense of humour

Your new disc is the complete solo piano music of Maurice Ravel. What is the particular attraction of this composer’s music for you? And what are the special challenges of his piano music?

Ever since my childhood I have been in love with Ravel’s music: the colours, the atmosphere, the exotic beauty and inner lucidity of his writing. The special challenges: an enormously nuanced virtuosity, subtlety of hearing and colouring.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my family.

What is your present state of mind?

Onwards and upwards!

 

Florian Uhlig’s new Ravel: Complete Solo Piano Works is available now on the Hänssler Classic label.

Born in Dusseldorf, pianist Florian Uhlig gave his first solo recital at the age of 12. He studied with Peter Feuchtwanger and continued his studies at the Royal College of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he now lives, as well as in Berlin.

Full biography on Florian’s website:

florian-uhlig.com