Meet the Artist……Fiona Bennett, composer

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

I had my first piano lesson at just four years old, my dad would love to have played but came from a family who just couldn’t afford lessons. He played me Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I was about seven years old and I vividly remember being bowled over by the storm section. My first pop single was the Adagio from Spartacus and Phrygia which was in the charts because ‘The Onedin Line’ was a very popular TV series. I began writing songs when I was 15, mainly due to my father’s encouragement.

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

Coming from Wales and being surrounded by music in school the whole time meant it was a huge part of my life, right from the very beginning. I really enjoyed piano lessons, took my first exam when I was just six and music was always my great love. Sounds daft but significant influences are every single piece of music I’ve ever heard, all the classical greats plus Barry Manilow and Abba. I love good pop music and Abba wrote the best, most beautifully constructed songs. I don’t have a favourite composer, too many to choose from!

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

Small hands! I have always had to choose my music carefully. Rachmaninov was never going to be possible but I played Mozart, Mendelssohn well. Becoming a mum meant being permanently busy and not having the time (or inspiration) to write. I didn’t compose a note between 1998 and 2011 but when my elder son was working towards his Winchester College entrance exams and spending lots of time at his dad’s to study, I began playing again.  Within a few months, I had composed the whole ‘A Country Suite’ album, eight pieces for piano.

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

I wrote to order early in my career. Jingles, incidental music for TV drama but I’m afraid I prefer working independently and putting together music for my own enjoyment (which, thankfully appeals to a wider audience too). I am a huge fan of Debbie Wiseman (she and I studied with James Gibb at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1980s) and she is expert at composing to pictures and being able to change things quickly. I am still very much a full time mum and would find that aspect very challenging. I still write at the piano with manuscript paper and a pencil!

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

Again, this isn’t something I do much. I composed a piece for SATB choir back in 2014 and it was a huge thrill to sing in a choir actually performing a piece I had composed in the beautiful setting of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I was a prolific songwriter in my teens/20s/30s and the first song I wrote ‘Ti a Mi’ (Welsh for ‘You and Me’) was a big hit for me. It has generated a lot of royalties over the years and is still played on the radio now.  I am very proud of ‘A Country Suite': it has some lovely melodies and the piano pieces are rather more complex than they sound!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I love good music, melody, harmony and so, as well as classical music, I loved 1970s pop music, ABBA, Barry Manilow, Wizzard, Sweet, Slade, The Osmonds. In terms of classical music, I adore Puccini, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Bach.  I love a big romantic melody!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Singing ‘One Voice’ in Barry Manilow’s choir at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1982 was very exciting.  My own ‘Concert for Autism’ was very special too. I put on a free concert at St Nicolas’s Church in Newbury in September 2009. I invited along some of Newbury’s most talented musicians and we raised almost £5000 for the West Berkshire branch of the National Autistic Society. I sang, played Mozart duets and a massive ragtime medley. It was great!

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

I am not one to sweat over a piece. If it works, it tends to come quite quickly and I rarely (if ever) change things. If it works and sounds good, just do it.  I have broken many of the ‘rules’ of harmony and counterpoint, parallel fifths and octaves, parallel fourths. I’m not a fan of tritones and haven’t used those as yet but never say never! If the piece I’ve written sounds nice to the ear, is well structured, has a good intro, beginning, middle and end, then I’m happy.  If you have to keep changing it all the time, chances are it wasn’t that great to begin with.

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

Happily married and sharing my life with my new fiancé, John. He is also a trumpet player and we both practise together! Aw!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Loving someone special and knowing they love and cherish you too.

What is your most treasured possession?

I am not a big one for ‘things’ but my new engagement ring is very special to me.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Several things: attending concerts with John, playing the piano and realising a new piece is starting to form, going for pizza with my two amazing sons, walking my greyhounds in the woods.

What is your present state of mind?

As happy as I have ever been in my whole life!

Fiona Bennett’s ‘New Lady Radnor Suite’ is available now. With a nod towards Hubert Parry who composed ‘Lady Radnor’s Suite’ in 1894, Fiona has composed and dedicated her new album to her friend, Melissa (The Countess of Radnor). 

fionabennettmusic.co.uk

Teaching our students to teach themselves

Following on from my earlier post about the notion of the “self-taught pianist”, I would like to explore further how teachers can – and should – enable their students to teach themselves.

The word “teach” comes from the Old English tǣcan which means “to show, present, point out”. This for me, (and having studied Old English at university), gives a big clue to how teachers should approach their teaching. We should not be telling our students how to learn, but showing and guiding them.

My personal stated aim as a piano teacher, in addition to encouraging a love of all things piano in my students, is to enable them to become independent learners – to show them how to teach themselves. Based on my own piano studies as a teenager and as an “adult returner”, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that it is possible to explore, learn and enjoy music without constantly running back to teacher for support.

Sadly, it strikes me that due to the way children are taught in primary and secondary school in the UK, they are being robbed of the ability to think and work independently, instead relying on teachers to spoon-feed them information to enable them to pass tests and exams, and to meet targets set higher up the educational hierarchy. I have observed this unwillingness to think and act independently in a number of my students, and I try to encourage them to instead take a leap of faith and rely on their musical knowledge and experience gained during their lessons with me.

There is a lot of mystique surrounding music teachers, particularly those who teach at a high level in conservatoire and specialist music school. Students may compete to be assigned to a “top” or “famous” teacher, and there can be huge advantages, real or imagined, in studying with these teachers, for they have been taught by the great teacher-pianists of an earlier generation and can pass down “secrets” from these teachers to their own students. This heritage can be very important – I have studied with high-level teachers/concert pianists who in turn have studied with such pianistic luminaries as Peter Feuchtwanger, Maria Curcio, Guido Agosti, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova and Andras Schiff – but I think it is also important for students not to be too much in awe of these teachers, and to learn how to take from their current teacher what they need to enable them to play and progress to their best of their ability.

To quote from Leon Whitesell, a US pianist and teacher, At best, we as teachers, must become like a wonderful cafeteria, where the pupil chooses and takes, as well as applies, whatever he/ she desires. We really can’t ” teach” anything, but pupils may take from our offerings that which they choose!”

In order for our students to select from our teacherly “cafeteria”, we first need to equip them with the necessary tools to learn independently. This may include:

  • notation
  • rhythm
  • sight-reading
  • technique and an understanding of how it serves the music
  • structure
  • an understanding of keys and key relationships
  • musical terms and signs
  • historical context
  • performance practice and stagecraft

In addition, the teacher’s role is to build self-esteem to enable the student to play with poise, expression and musicality. A good teacher supports the student to find their own musical voice and personality, will guide the student to find an appropriate and tasteful interpretation of their music, and encourages the student to be a musical explorer, to discover music outside of the repertoire under study for regular lessons. A sympathetic teacher tailors lessons to suit each student individually, is adaptable and flexible, and is able to identify what the student needs at that moment. In fact, the best teacher to teach students to teach themselves is one who is also engaged in ongoing study, who remains open and receptive to new ideas, and who is also willing to learn from their own students.

In contrast, an egotistical and/or possessive teacher wants to produce students in their own image whose sound reproduces that of the teacher, and whose students feel enthralled to their teacher. This approach does little more than boost the teacher’s ego, and makes students anxious

Adult students can present different challenges for the teacher as they often self-teach before seeking regular lessons, or enjoy exploring and studying outside of their lessons and may bite off more than they can chew and then become discouraged. I find that some adults, while being voracious learners, can lack confidence when it comes to trusting the musical instinct which enables them to work independently, and much of my work with adults, both as private students and via my piano group, is building self-esteem, encouraging them to let go of negative experiences with previous teachers (as both child and adult), learning to be wary of comparing themselves to others, and understanding how to practise effectively and intelligently in order to prepare music properly.

Adults also often like to seek feedback and advice from others aside from their regular teacher, through workshops, masterclasses and piano courses. I have met adult students who have attended so many courses and masterclasses they they have become confused by the myriad suggestions and signals given by different teachers. From my own experience attending courses and masterclasses, I would stress that it is important to take from these sessions only what you feel you need at the time (that notion of the “cafeteria” again!).

I encourage all my students to be questioning, to challenge me, and to set off on a path of musical self-discovery. I regard my teaching style as flexible, open-minded and sympathetic, and I tend to teach by asking questions of my students, or making suggestions, rather than saying “this is how to do it!” or “do it my way”. My own study currently involves two teachers/mentors who hold me to account for what I am attempting and who set the bar for my technical preparation through detailed study and knowledge of the score (Schubert Sonata D959). They do not impose their interpretation but allow the music-making to be my business, thus encouraging me to develop my own musical voice and to take ownership of the music.

One of the best aspects of my job is when a student arrives having resolved an issue which was proving problematic in an earlier lesson. Or the student who has selected a piece to learn on their own initiative and who simply needs some guidance from me to enable them to progress. Hearing my students perform in their end of term concert, as I did last weekend, was a wonderful indication of how much they are developing as young musicians, each with their own individual sound and style.

Angelo Villani’s Inferno

Pianist Angelo Villani is not exactly a household name, though he was identified as a musical prodigy as a child growing up in his native Australia, and was selected to take part in the 1990 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He never got to play: a trapped nerve in his right arm, the result of a sports injury, forced him to withdraw. The loss of sensation in his hand caused by the injury prevented him from performing, except only sporadically, while he sought a cure for his condition.

A quarter of a century on and Angelo is reigniting his performing career and planning his debut CD. Entitled Dante’s Inferno, the album will celebrate the 750th Anniversary of Italian poet Dante Alighieri with piano works by Liszt, Purcell and Wagner, all inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The music selected recreates the world of Dante’s Inferno, depicting the burning desires, love and pain suffered by those condemned to inhabit the Underworld.

Tracklist

Dante Sonata by Franz Liszt

Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell (arr. by Villani)

Tristan & Isolde by Richard Wagner (concert etude paraphrase by Liszt/von Bülow/Villani)

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum by Franz Liszt

Dante’s Sonnet by Hans von Bülow (arr. by Liszt/Villani)

Angelo has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his recording and the launch of the CD will be accompanied by a concert tour in Italy, tracing the footsteps of Dante Alighieri and the great composers Liszt and Wagner, playing in venues they once performed or were inspired by.

He has just three days left to achieve his target amount to enable the CD to go ahead. Please consider supporting Angelo Villani’s Kickstarter campaign

The Pianist who came in from the cold

Meet the Artist……Angelo Villani

Meet the Artist……Tania Stavreva, pianist

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

I started to play the piano at a very early age (I was 4 years old). I can’t remember exact details but my parents were telling me that every time I saw a piano, I always wanted to play on it. It was even hard to pull me out of it once I started playing. Then they decided to buy me a real piano at home. My father was a professional musician, a teacher and a child prodigy. His name was Georgi Stavrev. He played the violin, the guitar and his big dream later was to be a symphony conductor but he got very sick. I remember listening to classical music at home all the time (especially Brahms, Beethoven, Bach) and always playing the piano. Sometimes my dad would play The Beatles, Queen, Aretha Franklin and jazz but it was mostly classical music that I was surrounded by at home and at school. Music was just a part of my life and I was born at the right musical family where I was lucky to have my parents support to pursue music as a career from early age. There was music at home, music at school, I was going all the time to the school’s concerts, the festivals concerts and the local Symphony concerts. I was in an intensive professional music program for children since the age of 4. When my parents moved to Plovdiv two years later, I started working with the renowned pedagogue Mrs. Rositsa Ivancheva at the National Music School “Dobrin Petkov”. She is a major influence and she was my piano teacher for 13 years. During my last 3-4 years of music school, I started lessons also with Prof. Krassimir Gatev at the National Conservatory in Sofia (while studying in Plovdiv with Mrs. Ivancheva). I miss both of these incredible teachers because they left the world just few years ago…

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

Important influences from the past: growing up I was very inspired to listen to the interpretations of Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Pogorelich, Van Cliburn, and Rubinstein. They all have influenced my musical life for years and here is an example how: after hearing Scriabin’s 3rd Sonata (performed by Horowitz) I immediately got inspired to learn it. I had big success with it at concerts and competitions. Later Horowitz inspired me to learn also Vers la Flamme and the Barber Sonata (my recordings of these works are all on YouTube).

New influences: 1) working with new composers (Mason Bates, Gil Shohat, Vasil Kazandjiev, Carl Vine, Penka Kouneva, Nikolai Kapustin etc.) – what is amazing about this, is that there are not that many recordings of these composers’ works. Often, there are even no recordings at all – which means that I have to learn the work on my own (can’t listen to another pianist to get inspired). This is a direction I would like to continue – to create from my inner self rather than get inspired by somebody else’s interpretation. 2) Contemporary pianists: I’ve had the pleasure to work with and share musical ideas with pianists such as Daniel Pollack and Frederick Chiu, whose unique program “Deeper Performance Studies” is a major influence on my musical life and career.

Acting: It might sound strange but acting had an important influence on me too. During my time in Bulgaria I also had 5 years of private acting training. I couldn’t do both – theater school and music school so I was taking acting lessons only privately and secretly (my parents didn’t allow me to study acting but I decided to do it anyway lol). Acting opened a special door in me as an artist and it helped me even further with music – being able to perform with imagination, to “speak”/connect to the audience, to transform into a different character depending on which composer/piece I am working on. These are classes musicians don’t learn at music conservatories and they help very much with interpretation and stage presence. In Bulgaria I was trained by the Stanislavski’s system and I am a similar performer when it comes to my piano works – I get very emotionally involved in the content. I feel that all the arts are connected within each other. They are like different languages we would like to learn or explore but only one is our mother language and in my case it is music.

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

Finances. When I first moved to the USA it was very difficult learning how to support myself, to rely on myself, to take care of myself all by myself. I was only 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved to Boston, I wasn’t used to the language too. I had $20 cash in my pocket, two suitcases, a full scholarship and lots of dreams. The full scholarship covered my tuition and school fees but I had to work the max hours possible in order to pay by myself for rent/dorm, living expenses, etc. There was a law that freshman must live on campus during the 1st year. I wasn’t informed about it while in Bulgaria. I found out about it when I arrived. International students on a student visa F-1 were allowed to work only on campus, no more than 20h per week for only $8h. Imagine if this is really enough to pay $1500 per month for dorm required by the school (basically 3 girls in one room) without living expenses and if that would allow the needed time to focus on practice, studies, go to classes, etc. The stress was incredible! To keep long story short – my college years were some of the most difficult times ever in my life where I faced some serious challenges.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Recordings: My upcoming debut album titled “Rhythmic Movement” to be released this coming fall, depending on finances. It features music by Bulgarian composers Pancho and Alexander Vladigerov, Mason Bates, Ginastera, Kapustin and I composed 2 works as well. A lot of the pieces on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club are also on the album.

Performances: it’s hard to point just one. I would say probably my Carnegie Hall/Weil debut. Harris Goldsmith was one of the critics reviewing the concert and this debut basically was the start of a real career. Another performance I will never forget was a multimedia at a modern space in NYC featuring music, live body painting and photography. I like to experiment with the idea of synesthesia and connect my art to other artists work.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The ones that I practice the most! Also the ones that I’m spiritually connected to and the ones I have something meaningful and something special to say. I also believe that music (art in general) is a reflection on personal life and that’s one of the reasons my programs are very unique. The program on July 25th features works that are very close to my hearth. Each piece is very special and very meaningful to me.

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

My repertoire ranges from Baroque to Contemporary. Sometimes concert presenters would ask me to play anything I would like to put on a program but sometimes they would specify if they have any specific preferences. For example when I performed at the French Cultural Center, the entire program had to focus on featuring French and French influenced composers. When I performed at the Bulgarian Center in New England, I performed works by all Bulgarian classical composers. New music concert series require all contemporary composers programs and other presenters prefer more traditional (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) type of programs and more well-known composers.

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

In New York: I just recently performed at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York – a beautiful and intimate concert venue and a gallery in West Village. I love the area (West Village in Manhattan), I also love art (the fact that it is a gallery) and that the setting is intimate (it allows a closer connection with the audience). There is a very good energy about the space and location and I just feel excited and comfortable performing there.

In Bulgaria: I was born in Sofia but my hometown is Plovdiv. There is a very unique amphitheater from Roman times in the center of the city that in the summer features film nights, concerts, dance performances, operas, etc. This would be a very magical place to perform – under the starts! The view from there is amazing too. I’ve never seen a piano on that stage but maybe one day soon… I started dreaming already

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To perform: Right now I’m really into Schumann, I’m working on the piano concerto. Last month I was into Vladigerov. My current favorite pieces are the ones on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club but I assure you that I’m going to have more new favorites soon since I keep searching for new inspirations all the time :)

To listen to: I love “Gaspard de la nuit” (performed by Pogorelich), Scriabin’s 5th sonata (performed by Horiwitz), Beethoven – “Appasionata” (performed by Richter), Brahms – the 1st Piano Concerto (performed by Claudio Arrau), Prokofiev – the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, works by Bach (especially when Glenn Gould performs them), Sonata for Violin and Piano (by composer Milcho Leviev). I love listening to orchestral music too: Daphne’s Cloe, Stravinsky – Firebird, Mason Bates – Alrernative energy. I also enjoy listening to jazz (Bill Evans, Miles Davis), some rock (a lot of British bands)

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Deceased favorite musicians: Bach, Richter, Horowitz, Gilels, Claudio Abbado, Evgeny Mravinsky, Rubinstein, Ginastera, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Anton Dikov, Krassimir Gatev, Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury,

Living/contemporary favorite musicians: Joshua Bell, Keith Lockhart, Ricardo Mutti, Mason Bates, Vasil Kazandjiev, Yo-Yo Ma, Frederic Chiu, Daniel Pollack, Evgeny Kissin, Martha Argerich, Penka Kuneva, Will Calhoun, Matthew Bellamy,

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Concert Hall: the Grammy Museum Auditorium (Clive Davis Theater) – I was a part of a great mix of artists and musical genres. I loved the red curtains at the back and the lightning.

Rock club: probably when I opened for Amanda Palmer at the Webster Hall in NYC. This is memorable since I got to play Ginastra in a rock club introducing the composer and a movement from his 1st sonata to several hundred fans of Amanda’s that never knew that classical music could sound like that. :D A lot of my friends from school were telling me that I was crazy and that this could affect my good reputation. It was fun. It’s a different type of energy on such stage. I like making classical music more accessible to untraditional audiences as well. Did you know that the British band ELP arranged the “Toccata” from the piano concerto by Ginastera and played it for Ginastera? He loved it and he said that this is how his music should be played

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

To be present in life and also when they perform on stage, to be very strong, not to be afraid to take risks and experiment with new ideas, to take a good care of themselves (eat well, sleep well, exercise, meditate, stay healthy), to know what they want and from there to know what they give and why, to perform live as much as possible, to stay always inspired and motivated, to never give up, even when they face difficulties.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

To travel the world while living in the present moment

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being present. You can tell that I am into meditation. Often the things we want are not the things that make us happy, even when we get what we want. There is something called “the wanting mind” that will never stop wanting no matter what we get. I feel happy the most when I do something to make somebody feel happy. I get happiness when I give happiness. Actually, when I give, sometimes I get even more than I expected.

What is your most treasured possession?

We don’t owe anything forever. We temporarily have things and people. We are even temporarily in our bodies. Greatest values in my life are my dearest friends, being surrounded by people who care about me and love me and people who made a difference in my life. But I don’t owe them, I’m just lucky to have them in my life…

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being on stage, collaborating with amazing artists, musicians, creating and sharing

Tania Stavreva performs in London at the 1901 Arts Club, 7 Exton Street, London SE1, on Saturday 25th July. The concert includes the UK premiere of her ‘Rhythmic Movement in 7/8′ as well as premieres of works by other composers. Further details and tickets here

More information about Tania here

Meet the Artist……Dai Fujikura, composer

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

I have never pursued a career in music, it ended up like this. Ok, let me tell you backwards. All I wanted in my life was to compose my own music, whatever it may be to other people. The end result of my compositions are often categorised as “contemporary classical music” (which was also not my choice; I thought of my music is as easy listening top of the chart pop music, but I guess a lot of people don’t feel that way, sadly), and I always want to compose.

Like a lot of people, one needs to earn money to live, as I am from normal working class family; in other words, if I breathe, I need to earn (like everyone else, I guess), and I don’t want to spend time doing things other than composing. So naturally I had to think how can I compose music so that I can also eat. Then it became profession.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would be doing the same thing, composing-wise. My life hasn’t really changed since I was an 8 year old composing every day. I guess I don’t have to go to school as I am 37, so I can spend more time composing, not just after school hours and weekends.

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

If I can speak about inspiration (before I get to the influence), I think I would say everyday life. I really think the inspirations are everywhere. Most significantly, by watching my wife being pregnant, going through each day until the birth, then my daughter growing and changing every day (she is now 3). The one and only good thing about being a composer is that you get to stay home and work, so you will not miss any of these magical times. I have written many works inspired by the specific parts of these situations, from early pregnancy to 2-day-old baby, movement of 2 week old cheeks, learning to walk, etc etc. All separate works.

Now, speaking of influences, I will mention these 4 people: Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian.

I am incredibly lucky, not just to know these people, or just shake hands once, but to actually work with these people, whom I grew up listening to when I was early teens. Sakamoto and Sylvian were my everyday play list, and Boulez and Eötvös were my everyday play list from when I was at music college student to today.

To be honest, I feel I’ve met everyone (my heroes) I wanted to meet in my life; everyone else, however many “famous” people are standing there in front of me now, I wouldn’t feel star struck.

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

Hmmmm, maybe writing my first opera SOLARIS.

It’s 90min, music for 5 singers, ensemble and live-processing electronics (I worked for months in IRCAM in Paris).

I must say I was a little worried before I started working on this opera, how would I feel about writing an opera. But from bar 1, until the final bar, I felt great. I have never had such a wonderful experience writing it, making drama, telling the story, controlling the pace, mood, atmosphere of the drama. At no point did I feel “I didn’t know what to do next” while composing SOLARIS.

I was sorry after 1.5 year I reached the final bar of SOLARIS, that I had to leave this world in which I lived for a year and a half composing.

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

Not every commission, but some commissions come with some “request”. I quite like this.

From when I was small, I always love studying. I loved school, I always studied (not because I wanted good grades, but I just wanted to know more things) something in my life, including unnecessary things!

For instance, I wrote a piece for Lucerne Festival, which was for anniversary of the oldest and biggest insurance company, Swiss RE. They requested me to write music about “risk management”, a term which I had not even heard of until then. Soon I found out one of my close friend’s partner whom I knew for years, is a professional Risk Manager! I knew that he wears a suit every day to go to work, unlike floating around everyday like a jobless person like me. So it was fascinating for me to study this totally unknown area.

Another was the anniversary for Kierkegaard. I knew the name, but never really knew about him. It was a great excuse to study and research him.

So it is not a challenge, it is an excuse for me to know more, a good reason to do research.

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

I wouldn’t say “challenges”, but I always think about the musicians who will perform (for the first time) the work I am writing. It may be hard to believe for some, but I really do. If it is an orchestra then I think about the conductor (especially if I know the conductor very well); if it is a solo or concerto works, I would have lengthy face to face or skype sessions with the musicians I am writing for. It is so important that I have these musicians in mind when I am composing.

But it is strange, quite often I compose music like that, then they premiere the work, they say nice things, but they never play the work again. A few years later, someone totally different from whom I imagined when I was writing the piece contacts me and then plays the work obsessively many times, as if the work was written especially for him/her.

I can never really control this, it’s a chemistry, I think. But it is nice, for me to try to seek the “reason of the work’s birth”. Once he/she is born, they walk their own life….

Which works are you most proud of?

Can’t answer that….though my old works, I feel are quite distant, a bit like someone else’s compositions with lots of bits I feel comfortable with, or like or am familiar with. I feel more possessive about recent works.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

“Daphnis and Chloe” BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was amazing to me that I literary could hear every single note which was played, and the pacing of it. The piece started, and finished as if in one breath. Really clean, like the most smooth single malt whisky.

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

Why do you play these particular works in this exact time and for whom, and why those instruments. When I feel this clearly as an audience, I will most likely to like the concert.

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

I would like to be writing larger scale works only, like operas. Hmmm….. maybe some little pieces in between for people I like.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing – and when my daughter is lying on me on the sofa, watching tv or reading books (preferably the latter).

Although Dai Fujikura was born in Osaka, Japan, he has now spent more than 20 years in the UK where he studied composition with Edwin Roxburgh, Daryl Runswick and George Benjamin. During the last decade he has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Huddersfield Festival Young Composers Award and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in UK, Internationaler Wiener Composition Prize, the Paul Hindemith Prize in Austria and Germany respectively and both the OTAKA and Akutagawa awards in 2009.


A quick glance at his list of commissions and performances reveals he is fast becoming a truly international composer. His music is not only performed in the country of his birth or his adopted home, but is now performed in venues as geographically diverse as Caracas and Oslo, Venice and Schleswig-Holstein, Lucerne and Paris.

Full biography here

www.daifujikura.com

C is for…..

As we continue through the pianist’s alphabet, next we land on C – which is actually a starting point for most beginner pianists.

C is for our first piano lesson: Middle C! The arbitrator of the two basic hand positions, the place we always return to, the sun our earthly hands rotate around.

C is also for cadence, those satisfying progressions that lead us to a harmonious end, and are so richly voiced on the piano’s many keys.

C is for Cat’s Fugue, Scarlatti’s Sonata for harpsichord that is often played on the piano. Which reminds me: C also stands for cats, who are so often part of a pianist’s practice time as they curl around us on the bench, paw the keys, and otherwise distract and complement our practice time!

C represents counterpoint, which brings me to Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ (which is a word worthy in itself, as it draws our attention to all of the piano-related instruments in the keyboard family). Bach’s fugues present the essence of counterpoint as the dancing lines of the different voices intersect across the keyboard.

C is for ‘Clair de Lune’, that most limpid and watercoloured  movement of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque.  

Lastly, C is for cantabile and colour, two of the most beautiful qualities of the piano. With our hands and our souls, we can produce that singing quality and an array of tonal color at the piano. The capacity for expression is infinite.

Written by Nadia Banna, piano teacher with TakeLessons (http://takelessons.com)  

 

Cantabile – there is no sound more wonderful nor more musical than that of a piano singing. Cantabile, playing in a smooth, singing style which imitates the human voice, is something all pianists strive for (or should strive for), and the ability to play cantabile well takes practise and a high level of artistry. Extreme tonal control is required to achieve a smooth singing and each pianist needs to develop a keen awareness of their own sound and the ability to listen to themselves and imagine the sound before they play. The fingertips provide clarity and focus, the equivalent to a singer’s articulation, and cling to the keys like suction pads or the feet of a gecko (to use an image favoured by the pianist Lang Lang). The firm finger-end is an integral part of playing because it supports the freely suspended weight of the arm. Guiding the whole process is, of course, the ear.

Opera singer Pauline Viardot, whom Chopin taught

The special cantabile sound which Chopin requires was modeled on Bel Canto, a style of singing popular at the time when Chopin was writing. In fact, the sound of this kind of cantabile is created by illusion: imagining the sound in your head before you play and then allowing fingers, arm and ear to guide you. More on tone control and cantabile playing here

Frances Wilson

 

CD review: Ronald Stevenson Piano Music Volume 1 – a Celtic Album

The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH. Pianist Christopher Guild’s first volume of Stevenson’s piano music was released on the Toccata Classics label in early March 2015, though I suspect Guild did not realise at the time that his recording would become a kind of memorial for Stevenson. The CD celebrates Stevenson’s shorter works for piano with a special focus on one of his major preoccupations: his love of Scottish and Celtic culture. The album contains three suites of pieces based on Scottish folk songs or songs for children, together with the more substantial A Scottish Triptych, three pieces each written some time apart, and A Rosary of Variations on Sean O’Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980).

The piano is the ideal instrument for miniatures, and Christopher Guild brings warmth, intimacy and wistfulness to the pieces based on Scottish folk tunes with his assured lightness of touch, sensitive voicing, clean articulation, rhythmic vitality and a keen sense of the fleeting moods and characters of each piece, and Stevenson’s penchant for complex harmonies and unexpectedly vivid dissonances. Meanwhile, A Scottish Triptych explores more plangent piano sonorities in its opening movement, and even utilises the piano’s interior (strummed and plucked strings) to produce unexpected colours and resonances in the final movement.

Christopher Guild is an enthusiastic advocate of Stevenson’s music, and the CD provides a poignant memorial to the composer. I look forward to Volume 2 with interest.

Recommended.

Meet the Artist……Christopher Guild

Toccata Classics

B is for……

In 1901 a new concert hall opened in the West End, just north of Oxford Street. Small and intimate, it boasted superb acoustics, unprecedented comfort, and scheduled two hundred concerts a year, as London’s concert-going populace, benefitting from a revolution in entertainment and leisure, flocked to see Frank Merrick and Leopold Godowsky, Artur Schnabel, Chopin specialist Vladimir de Pachmann, and ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, the Venezuelan lady pianist Teresa Careno.

This was Bechstein Hall, owned by the C Bechstein piano manufacturer whose London showroom and retail outlet was next door on Wigmore Street.

The C. Bechstein piano factory was founded on 1 October 1853 by Carl Bechstein who had studied and worked in France and England as a piano craftsman, before he became an independent piano maker. He set out to build a piano able to withstand the demands place upon the instrument by the virtuosi of the time, such as Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s son-in-law, Hans von Bulow, gave the first public performance on a Bechstein grand piano in 1857. Along with Steinway & Sons and Bluthner, Bechstein became one of the world’s pre-eminent piano makers. Bechstein pianos were praised for their colourful tonal palette, warm sound and delicate nuances. Pianists and composers who favoured Bechstein’s pianos include Liszt, Brahms, Scriabin and Debussy.

In 1916 Bechstein Hall closed, its German owners unable to sustain the business during the First War, and in 1917 the hall reopened with its current name – Wigmore Hall. Since its opening, the hall, in both its incarnations, has enjoyed a reputation for world class chamber music and it attracts the finest international pianists.

When I first “met” and played my 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano, in the north London workshop of my piano tuner in March 2013, I knew I had to own this instrument. Not only for its smooth touch, warm, mellow tone, rich bass, sweet singing treble, and beautiful rosewood case, but also for its association with my favourite London concert venue – Wigmore Hall. It was, and remains, a serendipitous meeting, and it is quite possible that my piano was sold from the Wigmore Street showroom.

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Frances Wilson

 

Bellies, Bass-lines and Bottoms

While thinking of something to write for the Pianist’s Alphabet series, I considered various parts of the piano that I would like to describe and was particularly taken with the belly. It’s not often that I hear pianists talk of the instrument’s belly, but it’s sound-board. The sound-board is arguably the most important part of the instrument, spanning the surface area of the casing (well, the majority of it) and being responsible for the instrument’s personal tonal quality and capability. Steinway & Sons have even created the ‘Diaphragmatic Soundboard’ which they liken to a diaphragm by tapering the thickness of the wood to maximise the soundboard’s efficiency. Here’s a link: http://www.steinway.com/news/articles/the-diaphragmatic-soundboard-the-heart-of-the-steinway-tone-color-and-richness/

But, I prefer the word ‘belly’! Belly = guts, where all the important stuff happens. If the belly of the piano is in perfect working order and designed sympathetically, then the resulting sound is vital, vibrant, and capable of huge tonal and dynamic range. Isn’t it the same with people?!

As for bass-lines, I’m a sucker for bass-lines, and it’s these that we feel most through our bellies. One of the most satisfying things to play and listen to is a descending bass-line, often with an ascending melody, when the tension is building and passions fly, often causing both players and listeners to feel a knot in the stomach and great excitement before the final arrival or release in the music. Ecstasy!! (This happens so many times in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, or more gradually in the big climax in ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.)

The bass-line underpins everything; it supports the melody and provides the foundation upon which harmony can develop, grounding both player and listener alike. To neglect a bass-line is tantamount to creating a pizza with sumptuous toppings, but paying no attention to the dough! (Apologies for the food analogy but it’s the first thing I think of when searching for parallels.)

Now, bottoms. I’ve already mentioned guts and foundations, but how can any of this happen without being firmly planted? With so much energy being propelled forward towards the instrument, a rooted bum is essential. Great Kung-Fu masters have always spoken of opposing forces increasing power and strength. (Yin and Yang.) If we are to apply this to piano playing, then in order to play to maximum power with minimum effort, as much attention needs to go down through the stool and in to the floor as it does through the thorax, arms, fingers and, ultimately, belly.

So to summarise, pay attention to the bass-line, feel firmly planted and when the music requires it, release both down into the floor and out through the piano, feeling it in your very core. When the piano responds accordingly and its belly rumbles, the music will come alive and everyone will be fulfilled.

Nadine André

http://nadineandre.com

http://www.trifarious.com

 

 

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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