Prom 29: Rollicking Ravel and Squawking Messiaen

(photo credit: Paul Mitchell)

Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Read my full review here

Introducing…..Pianists with Kittens

There are cats and kittens all over the internet. For some people it’s what social networks like Facebook and Twitter were created for: sharing pictures and video clips of cats doing funny things, cats doing cute things, cats doing daft things….. Or pictures of our own furry friends for us to collectively coo over.

Many of my pianist friends and colleagues own cats (I know this because they post pictures of their feline companions on Facebook and Twitter) and it strikes me that cats are good companions for pianists, being self-sufficient and far less demanding or attention-seeking than dogs. (My own cat, a blue Burmese called Freddy, used to sit on the lid of the piano when I was practising, or join me on the piano bench, leaning gently against me as I played.)

Just when we thought there wasn’t room for another blog or website featuring cats and kittens, along came Pianists With Kittens, a delightfully witty Tumblr photo-blog which contains pictures of famous pianists with kittens and cats Photoshopped into the pictures. It’s a simple idea, but it works because it is executed so well. The choice and the placement of the cat or kitten is both thoughtful and humorous:  Garrick Ohlsson seemingly in conversation with a hairless cat, a wide-eyed cat peeping round Maurizio Pollini, a stripey ginger kitty hangs from the arm of Vestard Shimkus, a tabby dives over the shoulder of Nikolai Lugansky, the tail of a disappearing cat in a picture of Lang Lang madly emoting, a kitten flying through the air, as if tossed out of the piano by the extravagant gestures of Yuja Wang. There are many famous pianists featured on the site – late greats such as Richter, Ciccolini, Kempf, Hoffman, Gould, Lipatti, even Chopin and Mozart, as well as living artists, and each picture is accompanied by a YouTube clip allowing one to listen to the featured pianist. Those of us who follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter have taken to nominating pianists to be featured on the site, and I was honoured last autumn to be featured myself on the site, with my beloved cat Freddy of course. Now it is quite an accolade to be included on the Pianists With Kittens site.

I caught up with the creator of Pianists with Kittens to find out more about how this charming site came to be

Who or what inspired you to create Pianists With Kittens? 

The idea for Pianists With Kittens came first from a scholar-pianist friend, Alex Stefaniak, who learned in the course of his research that Clara Schumann was a fan of kittens—no less a source than Franz Liszt reports that she used to return to the piano with bloody hands from playing with them! So I made a (clumsy) photoshop of her with a kitten and immediately my friends requested other pianists.

clarawkitten1

By popular demand, the Tumblr came into being and then the Twitter account. (NB: Pianists will want to keep an eye out for Prof. Stefaniak’s book on the Schumanns and virtuosity. Should be out in the next year.)

What is your own musical background? Are you a pianist? 

I grew up with classical music on 24/7, so it always seemed a neccessary accompaniment to life, not something to study for a “career.” Now I’m a professional in the music world, but piano is still my hobby.

Do you own a cat/kitten? 

A cat and a kitten. The older cat sits at my side when I play piano.

What is your earliest memory of the piano? 

Classical piano music was probably on while I was in the womb, but I first became aware of the instrument as such when my parents brought one into the house. I was 6 and started lessons the next year.

Who are your favourite pianists (living and dead)? 

I think my tastes in dead pianists are not particularly controversial. Seems that posterity has done a good job with this already. Richter tops my list as I’ve previously written here. Among his contemporaries, I’ll always give a listen to Yudina and Gilels, Sofronitsky, Lipatti. Young Horowitz belongs on this list too.

Among the 19th-century babies, of course Rachmaninoff himself. I love anything Carl Friedberg plays, his Brahms and Schumann were revelatory to me. And the other “fried”– Friedman, for his Chopin. I think just about everything Myra Hess touches is gold, such warmth in her German rep – love her Op109. I like to imagine that warmth is what Clara Schumann must have conveyed in her playing.

Cortot is a favorite. There’s nothing new to be said about his amazing pianism, and I love his wrong notes as much as the right ones. His name always seemed paired with Chopin, then I heard his Schumann and liked it even more.

Notably absent from this list are some greats of the Golden Era. I find too much of that repertoire superficial (part of that impression is because of recording technology: hard to record a complete 50-minute Schubert sonata à la Richter).

Among the living, it gets more difficult. There’s a whole generation that leaves me pretty cold (the Perahia-Schiff-Uchida generation). My tastes still tend to the Eastern European, so I’d rather hear Leonskaja, Virsaladze, Pletnev, even Pogorelich than those who often grace concert halls in the West—and forget the States! And for the new century so far, Daniil Trifonov.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

When I was a small child (3 or 4) and taken to a local college symphony concert: they played the Candide Overture and I thought it was just the coolest thing.

Favourite pieces to play/listen to? 

Too hard to name favorite pieces! I play Bach and Mozart all the time and I love them; can spend hours reading through WTC. Brahms, too, as much of it I can play. As for listening, whatever requires so much pianistic finesse/technique that I can’t stumble through it satisfactorily myself: Chopin, Russian rep, the “Impressionist” pieces.

If you could play one piece what would it be……? 

I have small hands, so. . . if I magically were to become a great concert pianist with a great orchestra and conductor around, then maybe one of the Brahms or Rachmaninoff concerti.

Follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter at @PianistswKitten

Tumblr: http://pianistswithkittens.tumblr.com/

Meet the Artist……Andy Quin, pianist and composer

AndyQuinComposer1

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

Neither of my parents were musicians and we didn’t own a piano. Apparently I used to nip into the front room to play a piano on visits to my aunt when my parents were chatting. On the strength of what they heard they bought me a cheap piano and paid for lessons when I was four. This was a major struggle for a working class family at the time and I know they went without things in order to fund my musical efforts. I will forever be indebted to my parents for their faith in my abilities, their early support allowed me to realise my dream. Unfortunately Mum died when I was eleven and never got to hear my first TV and Radio broadcasts the following year, but she always loved to hear me play during her long illness at home and gave me so much encouragement. 

As for composing, I think this is down to two things really, laziness and poor eyesight! Reading music was always a struggle for me so I relied on my ears. It was so much easier for me to make up my own music than to read the works of others!

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

Of the many old 78’s I used to listen to as a very young child, two in particular stand out for me; Rachmaninoff himself playing his Prelude in C# minor and Sidney Torch playing the organ of the Regal Edmonton, London. I think it is no coincidence that both are composers and both are telling stories through music. These recordings had a huge influence on me. 

Up until about the age of eight or nine I was really totally immersed in classical music, I aspired to be a concert pianist. My brother (who was a few years older) had an eclectic taste and encyclopedic knowledge of rock and pop music. We lived on the East Coast and he encouraged me to listen to the Pirate radio stations such as Caroline and Radio North Sea International, my musical horizons were considerably broadened as a result! (Later when I studied with media composer Tim Souster it became apparent that this great diversity of musical influence could be a huge advantage if I wanted to write music for TV and Film) . I had never really considered composing as a career until I met Tim. He introduced me to my publisher De Wolfe Music. I studied with Roger Marsh and Peter Dickinson whilst at Keele University but one of the most significant influences was the visiting Professor, Cecil Lytle from the Juilliard, New York. It was he who introduced me to the works of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. 

I had always had a keen interest in technology (my dad was a radio engineer in the RAF during the war), and I became involved with computers in the very early days of digital back in the 70’s. The studio technician at Keele was Cliff Bradbury (who later went on to engineer many of my recordings). He was very forward looking and introduced me to the world of computers and music. It was my work with the Fairlight CMI ( the world’s first computer sampling musical instrument) that was really my key to the media music industry.

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

I suffer from perfectionism which is a huge disadvantage if you ever want to get any composition finished or recorded! However, hopefully professionalism and the practicalities of the real world take over and you have to always look forward. You have to learn from your mistakes and move on, not keep going back to revise. Total perfection in music composition/performance is not possible (except perhaps in the case of Bach!).

In practical terms, scoring was very hard for me, notation never came naturally to me. After my first few albums, my publisher asked if I would like to write and record a project for the US market with a large orchestra. When it turned out the orchestra was the RPO and I only had a few weeks to score, prepare parts etc. I was in a panic! Once again, computers came to my aid with a program, then in its infancy, called Sibelius. Many of the musicians told me it was the first time they had ever seen music printed with a dot-matrix printer! It was a steep learning curve but I am so glad I persevered. I have now worked with many of the UK’s finest recording orchestras, and it is so nice to get positive feedback from the players after a session. Rather strangely I now often like to work with a pencil and manuscript paper!

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

I have been so busy as a professional composer, and it was only with the release of my ‘ Two Toccatas for Piano’ (summer 2014) that I have had my first chance in over thirty years to work on something that wasn’t commissioned! I have been so lucky to have had such a wonderful, joy-filled life of music and to get paid for it!! I have now recorded something over 70 albums, every one a new and different challenge pushing my musical knowledge and abilities. There is always so much more to learn and music just keeps on giving!

You compose for film and tv. What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on film/tv scores?

I am not really the ideal film/TV composer as the first thing to understand is music is not the most important element in a production. It is just one part of the jigsaw of directing, script, casting, acting etc. that goes into making a great production. This goes against my nature as music is by far the most important thing from my perspective! However, building a good working relationship with a director is essential, and you learn that the music is not lessened just because it is only a part of the whole. It is there to serve a function just like say, sacred music or ballet music. The very best music both fulfils and transcends its function.

On a practical level, the hardest and yet most satisfying aspect is to listen and understand the language of a director. They often speak in visual terms; ‘Can the music be a little darker here?’ or ‘I need music to bring the vastness of the Himalayas into peoples sitting rooms on a small screen!’. Interpreting exactly what they mean and having empathy and sensitivity for their vision is paramount. When an artistic collaboration works well the sense of an emotional and intellectual bond is wonderful.

Which works are you most proud of? 

I am both proud and embarrassed by all my work! Nothing is ever quite good enough, and yet I can honestly say I am proud that I have always done the best I can do at the time. My score for the short film ‘Dollar Night’ by Marco Antonio Martinez is a recent highlight. it is such a lovely, simple short story, I hope the music does it justice.

Probably my favourite album is ‘Childrens’ Magical World’ DWCD 0375. My youngest son was just a few years old when I wrote and recorded this double album of orchestral fantasy themes and was the inspiration for much of the music. This was a massive project involving orchestras, child choirs and many, many hours of hard work as I orchestrated it all. The dedication on the sleeve reads;

“This album is dedicated to my family. My wife Anne for her patience an support over the years, Laura for her inspiring beauty and elegance, James for his sheer enthusiasm, and little Jonathan who at 4 years old lets me join in and play, so that I can be a child again”.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

It is always so difficult to single out and I couldn’t just list a few. I admire and have had the great privilege to work with many of the world’s finest musicians. As for composers I guess it always comes back to Bach, although Debussy, Rachmaninov and Liszt are up there. My favourite band is Earth Wind and Fire!

How does your performing inform your composing, and vice versa?

Improvisation has always been central to my musical life both in composition and performance. I love the thrill of real-time composing and performing live, it is almost the antithesis of the studied and lengthy, lonely process of written composition and studio recording. The engagement with a live audience is a wonderful feeling and music is too much a living, evolving thing to be tied to closely to dots on a page or a fixed recording. These can represent the essence, or capture a moment in time, but can never replace the immediacy of real music making that happens at the moment of a live performance.

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

As I get older, and I don’t want to sound sentimental, it has become apparent to me that the great Bacharach and David song is right, what the world needs now is love! Love of the material world, love of life and people, and for a musician, love of your art and skill. Of course I am aware much great art and music is born out of suffering, however suffering is largely due to our love of things that can be taken or lost, our fear of the passing or loss of things we need, or hold to be dear and beautiful or desirable. The ephemeral, transient nature of music as art, bound up in its very essence with the passage of time, is inextricably linked to human life and love. Music can be a great intellectual exercise, one of the best in fact, but should never be approached with a cold heart!

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

I don’t really mind where I am as long as I have my wife and family, my health and music and books.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

There are so many kinds of happiness I’m not sure if any are perfect.

What is your most treasured possession?

In terms of material things, my Estonia concert grand piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Living, laughing, walking, thinking, reading and talking. Making and listening to music. Just being with family and friends, people are wonderful!

I am a keen badminton player, I have an interest in physics and astronomy and I love flying.

What is your present state of mind?

My wife would say, “what mind?!”

I am celebrating 50 years of playing the piano this year and so am probably in a slightly reflective state at the moment.

Andy Quin on SoundCloud

Born in London, Andy started playing the piano at the age of four and aspired to be a concert pianist. He had given his first radio and TV broadcasts by the age of eleven, however in his early teens, an interest in composition and recording sparked a change of direction and he started to develop his skills in rock, jazz and popular music. Having turned down a scholarship to the RCM, he studied at Keele University graduating with a degree in Music and Electronics. Andy studied composition and studio techniques with Tim Souster, Peter Dickinson and Roger Marsh. He also continued his classical piano studies with the acclaimed concert pianist Peter Seivewright whilst pursuing his interest in jazz with Professor Cecil Lytle from the Juilliard School of music. After graduating, Andy started writing for the De Wolfe Production Music Library. His first album ‘Mirage’ brought worldwide acclaim and he was soon sought after as a composer for TV and advertising. During the Eighties Andy composed music for many TV series and some of the UK’s best known advertising campaigns including the Oxo Family with Linda Bellingham, Websters Bitter with Cleo Rocos, Birds Eye Menu Masters, and the classic After Eight ad where Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe are entertained by Liberace. He worked with leading directors and producers such as Mike Figgis and Terence Donovan, on projects for clients including BA, Slazenger, Wimbledon LTA, Lynx, Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, CIS and many others. Central Television made a short documentary film about Andy’s work at this time. After great success in the American TV and film market during the early Nineties Andy moved to the countryside and concentrated on production music at his purpose built private studio. However an interest in World Music saw him writing and producing a number of tracks for the international best selling album ‘One World’ which achieved No.3 in the UK charts. He has produced a great diversity of compositions such as Native American music for the Imax natural history Film Wolves, period music on the Academy Award nominated documentary feature My Architect, early jazz on Boardwalk Empire, the Mambo title music to the ITV comic outtake series It Shouldn’t Happen To A…., and a song on a top 20 album in Sweden. Recent commercials include; Scholl, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Fairy cleaner, Britannia, Pedigree Chum and Setanta. Recent compositions include jazz on the Todd Solondz Film Dark Horse and the track Awakening, a finalist in the 2014 MAS awards for it’s use on the trailer to Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. Currently working on his 70th album for De Wolfe Music, and with thousands of broadcasts every year in all continents, Andy is probably one of the most successful production music composers in the world. Andy is a virtuoso concert performer and still gives occasional recitals when time permits.

 

A journey through the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin

On 4th September 2015, British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith embarks on year-long survey of the complete piano music of Fryderyk Chopin through a series of 11 concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London.

Chopin’s life and music was a phenomenon. Unlike most composers, his music has never been out of fashion and this series is a rare opportunity to explore the reasons for his enduring popularity. The concerts focus on various aspects of Chopin’s output, including the Waltzes, the Preludes, the heroic Polonaise, the Ballades and the Scherzi.

Here Warren to explains what makes the piano music of Chopin so special and describes how he planned and prepared for this pianistic marathon.

What do you love about Chopin?  

Chopin is one of those composers whose music is equally rewarding to play, as it is to listen to. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it isn’t necessarily always the case. Some composers can create the most heavenly music to listen to, for example Beethoven or Rachmaninov, but it doesn’t necessarily ‘fall under the fingers’ or ‘lie in the hand’ in the same way that Chopin does.

Why is Chopin’s music so amazing to play?

His music is written in a way that allows the hand to follow a very natural movement over the keys, but is so much more than that. There is something very sensual and beautiful about the whole experience of PLAYing Chopin which is present in almost every one of his pieces. They are so driven by this ever-­present, persistent  cantabile line, which really gives you, as a performer, a feeling of singing through the piano.

Chopin also has the most amazing way of building up the most deeply felt and exhilarating climaxes in his music so that it can becomes the most overwhelming feeling when you are actually  performing  it.

Tell us more about your feelings on Chopin’s music  

For me there has always been something very exciting and gratifying about the way Chopin uses harmony to surprise and enthrall – for example, in the 2nd subject of the Barcarolle, or the transitional passage in the G-flat-major Impromptu. And in equal measure the way that he uses it to say something profound – as in the opening bar of the Polonaise Fantasy -­ and magical, for example, in the middle section of the Scherzo No. 3. But above  all, it’s the way that Chopin uses his harmonic progressions to build up to the most overwhelming climaxes,  for example in the last full statement of the theme in the 4th Ballade.

What is it like to play some of Chopin’s hardest music?

The short answer is exhilarating. Chopin rarely writes difficult music ‘for the sake  of  it’ – and there’s always an underlying musical idea, phrase or shape that  is involved. So, even when your fingers are flying around at 60 notes a second, your brain is able to focus on the bigger picture which makes it easier to make the passage sound convincing. But of course the complex passages (of which there are many!) require hours of slow, careful, repetitive practice in order to train the fingers, almost (but not quite) into ‘auto pilot’ which allows you to take your focus away from each individual note and concentrate more on the bigger shapes in the music – and of  course certain key turning points!

Concept of the programmes  

When you have an almost infinite number of possible combinations of pieces to build 11 programmes, it becomes necessary to have a structure behind it.  So I decided each programme had to:

  1. feature an important work, or group of works that stands out from his output as being exceptional or ground­‐breaking in some way.
  2. contrast well-known Chopin with lesser-known Chopin
  3. contrast early Chopin with late Chopin
  4. follow a chronological thread, through the Mazurkas.
  5. offer a sufficient contrast of moods, emotions and colour for the audience
  6. be well timed, with good key relationships

It’s actually been a lot of fun designing them over the past 3 years – and, as you can imagine, there has been a lot of tweaking, and juggling over that time.

Journey of the series  

Each individual programme is designed to stand alone as a compelling presentation of the composer’s genius. However, the series as a whole is designed to take you on a bold journey from his Op 1 in the first concert through to one of his last masterpieces, the breath-­taking Sonata No. 3.  By experiencing EVERYTHING, we can gain a fuller understanding of both the music and the man.

What is so special about Chopin  

As a man, Chopin was highly refined and reserved in manner, moving as he did in the upper echelons of society. But his music belies a highly-charged emotional and sensual depth – to the extent that, I believe he was using his music to express what he felt unable to say in words -­ or indeed actions.  It is surely the underlying emotional depth in every note he wrote that accounts for the enduring popularity of his music. 200 years on and his music is arguably more popular today than it has ever been, bearing in mind that his music has never really been out of fashion!

What does this series mean to you?

This is a truly amazing opportunity for a performer to go on such a journey with an audience.  Although it will be an uplifting experience for me to pass my hands through Chopin’s entire works, I believe it will also be a great experience to offer audiences an opportunity to get to know the music of this great genius of the piano a little better and hopefully discover some  new favourites whilst reacquainting themselves with old ones!  This is something I have wanted to do for nearly 10 years and so for me it is the realization of a great ambition.

Why take on the whole piano works of Chopin?  

When you learn a piece of music by a composer, you obviously learn a little about their style, their feelings and the composer themselves. When you learn a second piece -­ you often discover something further, something contradictory or complimentary. The more works you learn, the more you learn about how to interpret any given piece by that composer and you start to build a very comprehensive picture of both the music and the man. I’ve obviously been playing Chopin for many years – and  after a while you start to fill in the gap your repertoire and before you know it, it’s not quite such a mammoth task as it might first appear.

This also happens at a very relevant time in my life. I will be the same age when I start the series as Chopin was when he died. It is quite a humbling feeling to have absorbed so many masterpieces, written by the same person in so few years

Why do this in London? 

As a Londoner, I began my performing career here in London nearly 20 years ago, at the same venue. I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to give these concerts at St John’s as it is a wonderful feeling to return to the same stage, with so many experiences of performing now behind me. I can honestly say that I am now a very different artist as a result of the many concerts I’ve given since m  student days and the many thousands of hours of practice that I’ve undertaken since then!

Have you got any plans to take the series to Poland? 

I certainly have plans to take these pieces with me everywhere I go from now on!

How long does it take to learn the whole cycle?  

I’ve spent 4 years planning these concerts. But that certainly hasn’t been 4 years of uninterrupted practice. Other concerts and demands have often taken priority for large chunks of time.  But I could not have prepared it any sooner, as the many big, complex works simply take a long time to ‘settle  in’ and you can’t force that number of notes into your fingers all in one go!

Are you doing it all from memory?

That is most certainly my intention. Simply because I believe one can perform to one’s best without the music there, because it removes a constraint between me and the audience.  Most of all I want the audience to feel that the focus of my attention  isn’t on the pages in front of me, but that my whole attention is focused on communicating what is in my fingers, to them. That is the goal!

How many hours a day do you practice?  

It really varies so much from day to day. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many hours practicing  I  do – 2  or 12 – I  always end up wanting to do a bit more.

Why do so many pianists love playing Chopin?  

I am sure that every pianist has had a slightly different reason for playing Chopin.  But the bottom line is that people love listening to his music and to watch a pianist performing his music live takes that experience to a new, more personal and heightened level. But for pianists themselves, I think that Chopin consistently takes the performer on a satisfying journey  – whether it’s a short hop, or an epic voyage, you nearly always feel better for having played it when you reach the last bar!

What will make these Chopin recitals different from the many others before them?

Any one combination of pieces paints a slightly different picture.  I think the 11 pictures, or programmes which I’ve painted, will portray striking contrasts of the man and his music. A number of pre-concert events are also designed to paint a truly comprehensive picture of his music and influences.  There will be talks, dancing, chamber music and workshops to complement the concerts.

How do you prepare for such a marathon as this?        

A lot of careful planning, advice, preparatory performances, honest self-assessment and a good deal of ruthless goal setting! It’s quite a lot of repertoire to learn over a sustained period of time, which makes it essential that one’s love for the music you are practicing is unquestioned. Therefore, it never really feels like work, but more like an extended indulgence in your favourite chocolates.

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D is for….

“D” is for Duet, a piece for two players. In the case of piano duets the players share the instrument and enjoy closer physical proximity than was generally allowed between bourgeoisie young ladies and horny composers. Mozart and Schubert delighted in the possibilities of the form, but the next generation seriously dropped the ball – Chopin and Schumann were undoubtedly too gauche, and Liszt simply wanted the whole piano to himself. Subsequently, the duet was particularly popular with French composers, with Bizet, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen all contributing to its survival.

There are many great composers with names starting with the letter “D”, not least Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), a Czeck composer who made the mistake of not settling in Vienna at the height of the Classical Era. Instead his career ranged freely across Europe from London to St Petersburg, but subsequently his music largely dropped off the radar. He wrote 34 Piano Sonatas, which vary in style from easy-going melodic writing through to crazy experimentation. Worthy of rediscovery…

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) was hailed early on in his career as Hungary’s best hope since Liszt. His works include the ridiculously gorgeous Piano Quintet in C minor Op.1, two criminally neglected Piano Concertos, about four hours worth of brilliant solo piano music and a couple of Symphonies. However, he is best remembered for the rather more facile “Variations on a Nursery Song Op.25” for piano and orchestra, and (with less affection) for his “Essential Finger Exercises”. Between composing and touring as a virtuoso pianist and conductor, Dohnanyi became perhaps the most successful piano teacher in history, with students including György Cziffra, Annie Fischer, Andor Földes, Géza Anda, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor and Joseph Weingarten (my own teacher).

“D” is also for Dampers, the little felt things inside a piano that stop a string vibrating when you release the key. The Damper Pedal lifts these across the full range of the piano so that the strings continue to sound until they fade or the pedal is released. Strings not struck are also free to vibrate “sympathetically”. With care, artistry and sophistication, use of the damper pedal can transform the instrument into an infinite magical sonic colour machine.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the French composer and notorious bounder, knew a thing of two about sonic magic, and although he supposedly hated the term “impressionism” it appears to have stuck to his music like superglue. Several of his pieces have established themselves in the hearts of music lovers all over the world, in spite of a temporary setback when the Japanese synthesizer freak Isao Tomita released his electronic renditions on the hit LP “Snowflakes are Dancing”, which soiled several of Debussy’s most popular works.

On the subject of French keyboard composers, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629-1691), whose music nicely bridges the transition between Chambonnières and Rameau, deserves an honorable mention. Judging from contemporary portraits, had he lived a few more years he might have become the original “Cross-eyed pianist”.

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent teaching practice Keyquest Music www.keyquestmusic.com. An active social networker, Andrew founded and ran “The Piano Cloud” (2011-15), the Piano Network UK Facebook group (2014- ) and his latest project Pianodao www.pianodao.com

D IS FOR DEVIL

There’s flaming strings and smoke

From a dance at a village inn

Mephistopheles made an appearance

Grasping Faust amidst the din

There’s Prokofiev’s suggestion

And there’s Dante’s dark crevasse

There are witches, whims, and fancies

At a candle-lit Black Mass

There’s a shooting for a soul

Which Weber bravely traversed

There’s a sabbath and a bonfire

That’s Idée Fixe immersed

There’s a night atop a mountain

Where a Russian mist grows thick

“There’s Totentanz and Danse Macabre”

Chime in Saint Saens and Liszt

There’s a horseride that ends horribly

The face of death stares back

There’s destruction from an ancient bird

Who leaves an amber track

 

There’s walking to the gallows

As bells ring death and sin

There’s an eater of young children

You’ve mistakenly let in

So, before you sit and listen

With your headphones blasting sound

Lock your doors and bolt your windows

You’re going under ground

To a place that’s dark and evil

Where the devil tempts your soul

Where tritones, dims, and augs reside

Where music pays your toll

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson is an Australian pianist, composer and writer. Find out more at danieljohnsonpianist.com

 

Piano Dao: the way of piano

Pianist and teacher Andrew Eales introduces his new blog:

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Pianodao is my new blog site launching Saturday 1st August 2015.

Built around the metaphor of piano playing as a lifetime journey, the site will focus on our musical and creative development as well as on our personal well-being: mind, body and spirit.

Pianists usually find that self-evaluation is crucial to their progress and musical development. When I started teaching piano I quickly also realised that one of the best ways I can improve is to continuously reflect on my teaching practice and student response. Pianodao takes this basic principle and places that process of reflection and evaluation within a much broader context – our journey through life.

When teaching I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs.

We all have a life outside of our piano playing, and it is clearly worthwhile considering the connections between our experience of life and our ongoing musical development. But where do we start? When it comes to considering those connections, I believe that the wisdom teachings of Dao (or “Taoism”) can offer a uniquely powerful and insightful approach.

Pianodao will have five main sections:

The Pianist’s Path focuses on specifics of how we learn, play, teach and help others develop as pianists. I hope to explore what it means to be a pianist in today’s world. There will also be articles about developing our creativity and performing with confidence and enjoyment.

The Pianist’s Well-being takes a broader look at our lives – our inner beliefs, physical health, and general lifestyle. This section will consider powerful quotes from great musicians past and present, as well as the teachings of wise thinkers ancient and modern.

Piano Qigong will offer suggestions for applying qigong practice to the needs of piano players, developing into a free resource offering simple breathing and stretching movements and exercises suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. This part of the site will go live sometime before Christmas this year.

Interviews with pianists about their journey as players will focus on the obstacles they have faced and overcome in order to move forward on their path.

Music & Reviews complete the site, providing a space to share news and comment about resources that will hopefully be of interest to readers.

Pianodao is ultimately a record of my own journey, but I hope that in sharing I will encourage others. Making connections between my experiences as a pianist and teacher, my practice of qigong and interest in the wisdom of Dao, I hope to offer insights which will bring clarity to your own “Way of Piano”.

Please take a moment to visit www.pianodao.com and “follow” the blog. Thanks!

Meet the Artist…….Martin James Bartlett

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

At a very young age I was drawn to the music room where my mother would be teaching the piano some evenings. When I was six she started teaching me and a few years later took me to audition at the Royal College of Music. During my ten years at the Junior Department I studied with Emily Jeffrey, who cultivated my love of music and inspired me to pursue the career of a concert pianist.

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

The most influential years of my musical and personal development were when I studied with Emily Jeffrey. Over the many years she always challenged me to be more disciplined and strive for greater heights. Apart from the wealth of knowledge she imparted upon me I can remember the many laughs and fun we had together. Her unerring passion and all-consuming dedication to music were a constant source of inspiration for me.

I am also immensely grateful for the constant support and guidance that my parents have given me, and their unequivocal belief in me.

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

At a young age I was always a little agitated and anxious before a performance. I disliked the tense moments before walking onto the platform, however once I started to play those feelings dissipated and the enjoyment took over.

After a few successful concerts my confidence began to grow and it gradually became less challenging

Which performance are you most proud of? 

I am proud of my performances throughout BBC Young Musician, at the ‘BBC Proms in the Park’ in Belfast and also my recent debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I greatly enjoy performing and listening to so many works from totally different periods. Personally I feel a natural affinity to the works of Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff, however I also love the works of Schumann and Prokofiev.

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

I hope to offer fresh interpretation and convey the emotions from the repertoire that I perform, so I keep this in mind when I select certain pieces.

I also spend many hours deciding on programme length, balancing the stylistic aspects and contrasts.

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

I wouldn’t say I have a favourite hall, because there are many different aspects from every hall that I enjoy. I love the intimate atmosphere and acoustic of halls such as Cadogan Hall and Wigmore, however I also appreciate the immense space and grandeur of halls such as Usher Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I greatly enjoy listening to operas such as ‘Tosca’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and all the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. My current favourite pieces to perform are Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Prokofiev Sonata no. 7 and Mozart Concerto in D minor K466.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I hugely admire Leonard Bernstein, for his immense talent as a musician but also his dedication to musical education and inspiring younger generations. Maria Callas is another idol of mine, due to her unwavering, serious dedication to Opera.

Pianistically I am inspired by so many different artists, but Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich are amongst my favourites.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The final of BBC Young Musician is a performance I will never forget. The BBC team were so supportive and encouraging and on stage I was totally immersed in the atmosphere and the music.

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

Firstly, to embark on a musical career, one must absolutely love and enjoy music. Of course there is a huge amount of dedication and work to be done to succeed, but the most important aspect is to passionately devote yourself to it. Stay true to yourself, the composer and the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Watching the sunset with a glass of red wine, an excellent book and a recording of Dinu Lipatti performing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a collection of complete recordings from Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas and Shura Cherkassky that I could not live without!

What is your present state of mind?

Introspective, a little anxious and excited for the future.

Martin James Bartlett performs Gerhswin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in Prom 32 with Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Further details and tickets here

In May  2014, at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett was awarded the title of BBC Young Musician. His winning performance of Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, with conductor Kirill Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, received overwhelming acclaim from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall audience and from those tuning into the live recording broadcast on BBC4 and BBC Radio 3.

Martin began his piano studies with Emily Jeffrey at the Royal College of Music Junior Department when he was 8 years of age, and then at the Purcell School also some 5 years later. Last autumn, he commenced his undergraduate studies with Vanessa Latarche at the Royal College of Music, notably as a coveted Foundation Scholar. Martin also previously studied the bassoon and the recorder, achieving Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments by the age of 12.

Throughout these formative years, Martin enjoyed considerable success in numerous competitions and festivals. During his time at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, Martin won the Gordon Turner Competition, the Teresa Carreño Competition, the Angela Bull Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Prize. He was several years running a top prize winner also in the Jaques Samuel Junior Department Piano Festival. In 2012, Martin was granted a Tsukanov Scholarship, which generously supported his final years of study at the RCMJD. During his time at the Purcell School, Martin won the Middle School Concerto Competition, the Freddy Morgan Competition, the Wigmore Competition (both solo and chamber) and the Senior School Concerto Competition. At the end of his studies at both RCMJD and Purcell, Martin was honoured to be awarded the prestigious Leaver’s Prize for Outstanding Musical Contribution, the Esther Coleman Prize and the Rosemary Rapaport Prize.

Following his success in such competitions, Martin has given solo recital performances in the Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, Bolivar Hall and Novi Sad Town Hall, as well as the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, Steinway Hall and Moscow’s Multi-Media Arts Hall. He has also participated in masterclasses with Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Mikhail Petukhov, Kathryn Stott, Aaron Shorr and Alberto Portugheis. In addition, Martin has organised and performed in numerous charity concerts too, to date raising over thirty thousand pounds for a wide range of deserving causes.

In September 2014, Martin made his debut at the BBC Proms, performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Ulster Orchestra at the “Last Night” celebrations, which were broadcast live from Belfast on the internet as well as BBC Radio Ulster. Martin has also performed with the BSO in Bournemouth Pavilion as soloist in the opening concert of their 2014/15 Season.

Martin was one of 27 international artists, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Nicola Benedetti and Alison Balsom, to be chosen by the BBC to record a cover of the Beach Boys classic ‘God only Knows‘. The song was first aired on the 8th October 2014 on all BBC TV and Radio channels and later was released as the BBC Children in Need single with the first ever collaboration between Warner, Sony and Universal music.

www.martinjamesbartlett.com

Renowned pianist comments on the current state of music education

Acclaimed pianist and teacher Andrei Gavrilov has made the following statements about the current state of music education, as he perceives it. You may not agree with everything he says, but I feel he makes some valid points, which is why I am publishing his comments in full here:

Time has come to summarize my impressions about state of music education after four years of master classes all over the world. I had a great time with the international family of young musicians. We were progressing fast and productive when we were working together. Everywhere in the world I was working with talented guys, I had met the same (more or less) obstacles for their artistic development. What are those major mistakes?? What or who is producing the greatest damage to young souls? I will point it very briefly below:

  • Fake authorities, false “examples to follow”, established by music business (which only cares about money) – they are totally misleading, devastating for the young talents
  • No clear idea about the proper tasks of music making
  • No perception about goals and esthetics of Art in general, great lack of general knowledge
  • False view on the musician as a human being “cut off from the rest of the real world”
  • View on music as a separate world – perception of cheap amateurs and mediocre petite bourgeois
  • Lack of courage to take any risk
  • No knowledge and understanding of the total loneliness in serving the art, of the real artist’s path
  • No understanding that performer’s task is not a self-expression but transmission of other spirits
  • No knowledge about Christianity which is the basis of European-Russian culture, music in particular
  • No understanding of the need to study precisely all cultures and folks involved in creation of so called European music
  • No idea about the world of philosophy
  • No idea about different styles, characters of the compositions, national characters of composers, their consciousness, philosophical goals and ideas, religious consciousness and personalities
  • No knowledge about different epochs and the differences between them
  • No understanding in the need for actor-like ability to transform
  • Failure to understand the need for in-depth knowledge of related arts (painting, sculpture, theater, film, literature) etc.
  • Almost zero theoretical knowledge of the composer’s tools
  • No ability of theoretic analysis of any composition
  • No ability to analyze even a simple musical form of compositions – as a result nobody who could be able to touch a single serious composition without destroying it in all senses.

Please feel free to join this debate by leaving your comments below

YOUNG PIANIST KICKSTARTS CUTTING-EDGE RECORD LABEL

Another example of musicians doing it for themselves……

PRESS RELEASE 

A brilliant young pianist is turning the recording industry on its head by setting up a classical label with a difference 

Christina McMaster is on a mission: the bold, vivacious pianist is creating her own record label to release her debut album ‘Pinks and Blues’ this autumn. MC|MASTER Records, a groundbreaking fusion of music, art and fashion, is the result of more than 12 months’ work, from practising, recording and mastering to planning and promotion – a testament to this remarkable musician’s vision, energy and drive.

Christina, who has previously collaborated with London Fashion Week at venues including the Royal Opera House, is now joining forces with graduates of Central Saint Martins, such as the photographer/filmmaker Barney McCann and the jewellery designer Dennis Song (both currently have work on display in the V&A’s major Alexander McQueen exhibition).

The debut album, ‘Pinks and Blues’, is a compelling mix of contemporary classical, jazz and blues. Music by leading 20th-century composers Ligeti and Rzewski is deftly placed alongside Gershwin, Nina Simone and Bill Evans, and the pianist has also commissioned new works from exciting young British composers.

Christina’s eclectic taste belies a serious musician with impeccable credentials – she studied at the Royal Academy of Music with her mentor Joanna MacGregor, gaining an MMus with distinction in 2013 – but this pianist is also a canny businesswoman who knows what it takes to stand out in today’s ultracompetitive musical climate.

Starting her own label gives Christina the creative freedom to realise her pioneering vision. Future musicians will follow in her footsteps, but Christina is the artist blazing this trail.

To read about Christina’s Kickstarter initiative, and to support MC|MASTER Records visit http://kck.st/1JaMlJU 

The deadline is 1 August, so share the link today 

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster

CD review: ‘Flowing Waters’ by Luke Whitlock

Flowing Waters – Luke Whitlock
Suite Antique (piano solo)
Flowing Waters (piano solo)
Evening Prayer (piano solo)
The Faust and Mephisto Waltz (piano solo)
Three Pieces for Wind Trio
Flute Sonata

It’s always nice when someone contacts me to tell me about a new CD which they think I will like, and Luke Whitlock’s debut recording Flowing Waters is no exception. It was recommended to me by librettist Ben Kaye, and I have enjoyed exploring it over the course of several days.

This is the first album devoted to Luke Whitlock’s work (in addition to composing, he is also a producer for Radio 3 and 4) and it reveals a composer whose music is firmly rooted in melody, tonality, lyricism and expression. There are hints of folksong in the Suite Antique, as well as a very obvious hommage to the Baroque tradition of composing dance suites in the titles of the individual movements. It is also redolent of works by Debussy and Ravel which also looked back to Baroque antecedents, with quirky nods to Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the ‘Gigue’. The music is lyrical, elegant and witty, at times mininalist and at others more richly textured in the manner of Chopin or Liszt (‘Minuet’, a sensuous Chopinesque waltz), all sensitively executed by acclaimed pianist Duncan Honeybourne.

The title track ‘Flowing Waters’ was a commission from the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Government, and is a musical portrait of the River Teign in Devon. The piece opens with simple chords before moving into a flowing passage which owes much to Philip Glass in its spare textures and unexpected harmonic shifts, but also to Beethoven in the repeated LH quaver figure (the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata springs immediately to mind here) and also Liszt’s second ‘Petrarch Sonnet’ from the Années de Pelerinage. There are some Lisztian harmonies in the middle section of the work too, and the music plots a course through different tonal, melodic and harmonic landscapes, reflecting the winding and varied course of the river which inspired it. I was particularly taken with this track because it echoes a number of piano pieces (including several of Philip Glass’s ‘Etudes’) which I am currently working on.

The ‘Three Pieces for Wind’ trio are haunting and reflective pieces which depict certain landscapes and the listener’s interaction and response to them. There is a pleasing balance and sense of conversation and humour between the instruments (flute, clarinet and bassoon). The ‘Flute Sonata’, composed for flautist Anna Stokes (accompanied here by pianist Wai-Yin Lee), is the major work on the disc and reveals hints of Chopin and Poulenc in its melodies and scope. Meanwhile, ‘Evening Prayer’, which comes between the works for wind, is a tender meditation, redolent of some of Satie’s piano music.

The disc closes with ‘The Faust and Mephisto Waltz’, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Liszt whose music is taken from a score for a silent film. It is jokey and enjoyable in its pastiche, while presenting some technical challenges for the pianist (Duncan Honeybourne), and does indeed have a very filmic quality.

The music contained on this album is very accessible and will certainly appeal to those listeners who may initially shy away from “new music”. Recommended.

Flowing Waters is available on the Divine Art label. Further information here

Composer Luke Whitlock will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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