Meet the Artist……Heather Bird, double bassist

540269_10151757153485543_1115385846_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

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

Which particular works do you think you play best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

All time favourite really has to be Mahler 2.

Who are your favourite musicians?

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

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

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

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

Tell us more about Classical Evolution

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

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

What is your most treasured possession?

Boris (my bass)

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being a mother.

What is your present state of mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heather Bird
Director – Classical Evolution and Evolution Arts Centre
07456 528 166
 
For orchestral bookings please contact Morgensterns on 020 8681 0555 or visit www.morgensternsdiaryservice.com

‘La Fanciulla del West’ at ENO

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

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

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

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

Courses and Summer Schools for Pianists in 2015

Is your practising getting you down? Do you need inspiration and encouragement? Would you like to meet other pianists and learn from the professionals? Then why not try a piano course or summer school this coming year…..

There are courses and summer schools for pianists of all levels, from single days and “taster” courses to piano weekends and whole weeks of piano goodness in the company of some of the finest pianists and teachers from around the world. Courses are a great way to connect with other pianists and like-minded people and are brilliant for improving skills such as technique and performance, and inspiring productive practising. Here is my round up of some of the best courses in the UK and beyond:

Jackdaws Music Trust. Courses throughout the year for pianists, singers and other instrumentalists. Piano tutors for 2014/15 include Graham Fitch, Penelope Roskell, Margaret Fingerhut, Philip Fowke, Elena Riu, Julian Jacobson and Mark Tanner. Courses to suit intermediate to advanced students, plus courses on Jazz and duets. Full details here

Chethams Summer School for Pianists. Known affectionately as “Chets”, this is probably the most famous summer school and boasts a fantastic faculty of international artists and teachers. Masterclasses, concerts, ensembles and more.  Course dates: 14 – 20 and 20-26 August 2015. Faculty still all to be confirmed but new for next year include Dimitri Alexeev, Matthias Kirschnereit, Catherine Vickers, Fali Pavri, John Byrne and Alicja Fiderkiewicz. Further details here

Piano Week Run by pianist Samantha Ward and now in its third year, Piano Week offers classes for adults and children of all abilities, combined with an international piano festival, all based at Bangor University, North Wales. Course dates: 31 July – 5 August 2015. Full details here

Penelope Roskell’s Advanced London Piano Courses. An inspiring and supportive weekend course (3 full days) focussing on repertoire, technique, and yoga for pianists. Ideal for pianists preparing for concerts, competitions, diplomas or auditions, or for anyone suffering from technical problems, physical tension, injuries or nerves. The course is run as a series of masterclasses with plenty of opportunities for discussion and exchange of ideas, and ends with a concert on the Sunday afternoon. Ability level: post-Grade 8 to post-diploma. Course dates: April 24th to 26th and October 16th to 18th 2015, 22nd to 24th April 2016.  Fee £195 (EPTA and ISM members £185); students £120. One scholarship available on application. Full details here.

Penelope also runs one-day performance and teaching workshops (next teaching workshop 8th May 2016, fee £70, EPTA and ISM members £65).

Lot Piano.  Now in its eighteenth year Lot Music is a summer course for pianists which takes place in the very picturesque Lot Valley. It is aimed at those who would like to join a group with a common musical interest in a convivial relaxed atmosphere in South West France with all it has to offer. More information here

London Piano Meetup Group. Not strictly a course, the LMPG, run by myself and Lorraine Liyanage, offers monthly performance platforms, informal concerts, and masterclasses with visiting tutors for pianists of all levels in a friendly and supportive environment. Full details of all our events here

Walsall Summer School for Pianists. Formerly located in Hereford, this popular and long-standing summer school offers courses for pianists taught in mixed ability groups. Friendly atmosphere, tutor recitals, and opportunities for accompanying and duet playing. More information here

Pro Corda.  Adult courses designed to serve both the keen amateur musician who has little time in a hectic lifestyle to further skills and indulge their musical passion and excitement, along with those who have never had the chance to develop musical skills but have always longed to do so. The unique setting of Leiston Abbey is the perfect place to enjoy music along with great food and wine, while getting to know other like minded people in a warm and sociable environment. Details here

Benslow Music offers residential and day music courses, and a series of chamber concerts at its beautiful purpose-built campus in Hitchin, Herts. Courses with a special focus on aspects such as sight-reading and song accompanying, plus a special session on harpsichord tuning. Tutors include Timothy Barratt and Heli Ignatius-Fleet. Full details here

This blog post is regularly updated and reposted around my networks – please feel free to contact me if you would like me to include details of your courses

Read my Summer Schools & Piano Courses article for Pianist magazine’s e-newsletter

IMG_2106
Students with Penelope Roskell (centre) at her October 2013 piano course

Meet the Artist……Penelope Thwaites

 

(photo credit: Rory Isserow)
(photo credit: Rory Isserow)

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

I don’t remember not playing the piano! But as a career – the London-based Swiss pianist, Albert Ferber, with whom I was studying, encouraged me to make my debut at Wigmore Hall in 1974.

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

All my teachers in different ways; musical members of the family; friends and colleagues who believed in me. The composer William L Reed was a marvellous mentor and facilitator. Perhaps most important of all, a passion for the music I had found and a powerful desire to communicate it.

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

To focus on priorities.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

The ones where there has been that special communication with listeners – whether in the concert hall or in feed-back from far-flung corners of the world. I do not wish to be solely defined by the many Grainger ones, but they have presented much repertoire that is new, fresh, entrancing, life-enhancing – hard work, but what a joy!

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

The particular ones for which I feel a gut instinct, whether by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninov …. the list goes on.

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

That is dictated by the projects I am undertaking.

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

I have enjoyed different venues for different reasons – the Melbourne Recital Centre is lovely, but so too is London’s Kings Place for its vibrant sense of enterprise (and very fine hall), and St John’s, Smith Square for its beauty. I have often relished the pin-point acoustics of Wigmore Hall, and the warm atmosphere of the Purcell Room. It was a thrill to play on the stage at Covent Garden for a gala Australia Day concert and at the Royal Festival Hall in Grainger’s ‘The Warriors’. By contrast, a good piano in a large music room can be perfect for a recital where one introduces the music.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Most recently Bach transcriptions and originals for a Bach CD on LIR Classics. And see above……

Who are your favourite musicians? 

To hear: I so loved the Pollini Beethoven cycle, and in different sonatas, Brendel (the last three) and, unexpectedly, Barenboim in some of the early ones. Of course, that force of nature, Argerich!  On disc – Dinu Lipatti, Solomon and Richter.

For many years I played two piano programmes with my friend and colleague, John Lavender. We gradually developed a way of creating one texture from two pianos. We recorded much new Grainger repertoire on three discs and John also made some splendid two piano versions of such works as Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture as part of an all-Russian programme.

I have been lucky to work with so many fine artists – in earlier days, the mezzo Muriel Smith, more recently, certain outstanding singers – Stephen Varcoe, Martyn Hill, James Gilchrist and Della Jones, in the Chandos Grainger recordings and in concert. Wayne Marshall was a memorable colleague both as pianist and conductor. It has been a great pleasure to work with the cellist, Rohan de Saram, who has recently returned to the standard repertoire along with his extraordinary abilities and achievements in the field of contemporary music. Earlier women pianists who inspired me in concert included

Lili Kraus, Alicia de Larrocha and Rosalind Tureck. Also Hephizibah Menuhin, whom I knew and admired as a friend.

These are but a few names amongst many others…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Too many memorable experiences to choose one – but playing in 1980 in the Beijing Conservatoire and to a radio audience they told me averaged 50 million – was certainly the largest audience ever!

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

Be yourself. Find your unique path. Work hard. Know that beyond failure there is always the next step. Cherish your friends and the wonderful opportunities we have to share our music.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A concert at King’s Place, London, to mark 40 years since my London debut.

It will be a programme filled with melody and shared with some good friends, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and a group of gifted young professionals, as we shall be premiering a piano concerto movement written by Grainger when he was just 13 years old.

I’ll start with mighty Bach arr. Liszt and progress through Grieg (lovely Grieg) by way of Grainger to the Dvorak Piano Quintet Op 81 – what an utterly gorgeous work.  

What is your present state of mind? 

Expectant.

 

Penelope Thwaites’ 40th Anniversary Concert takes place at London’s King’s Place Hall One on Wednesday 8th October. She is joined by the Fitzwilliam Quartet and outstanding young professional artists in a programme of music by Bach arr. Liszt, Grieg, Grainger and Dvorak. Further details here

 

London-based pianist and composer Penelope Thwaites has performed and broadcast in over thirty countries on five continents. Since her Wigmore Hall debut in 1974, she has appeared regularly as recitalist in major concert halls, and in a wide repertoire she has built a reputation as an intensely communicative artist. As concerto soloist she has appeared with the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of London Sinfonia and the BBC Concert Orchestra, and with leading orchestras in Australia, Europe and America.

Meet the Artist……Gavin Bryars

(photo: Gautier Deblonde)

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

I started as a jazz bass player having become very interested in jazz as a teenager. I had studied classical piano from the age of 5, but took up the bass when I was 18.  I only started to compose in my early twenties and for this move it was the work of John Cage that was the key inspiration.

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

Initially it was Cage.

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

There have been many, but perhaps writing my first opera, a setting of Euripides’ Medea in Ancient Greek was the most challenging as it was the first thing I’d ever written for orchestra, for the stage, for the human voice and I’d only ever seen one opera live. In addition I was my own publisher and I had only 8 months to write it while teaching full time…

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

The main challenge, which is in fact a pleasure, is to get to work with many very different artists  – both with performers, choreographers, opera directors etc.

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

It is, again, the encounter with artists of real quality and I have to find what works best for them; that is to say, I always take account of their characters both musical and otherwise.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I’m not really proud of any of them! There are works that I think are of greater significance but I never proud of my own achievements though I take pride in the successes of others – my children for example.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

My favourite musicians are the members of my own ensemble, who are the finest singers and chamber music players I know, and with whom I have chosen to work. There are many composers whose works I enjoy and admire but none would be “favourites”!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are many, but I would single out two. One was a concert performance of my first opera by BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra 11 years after the opera performances. The other was touring an old piece of mine, The Sinking of the Titanic, during the centenary year of the sinking, when I included my four children in my ensemble (my three daughters on viola, two cello; my son on double bass)

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

There are two:

Always keep and open mind and a spirit of enquiry (so as not to develop predictable routines) and make sure that you have a secure musical craftsmanship ( so that you are able to express your ideas without difficulty of technique).

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

I would like to be still alive and well, and in our home with my entire family on the Pacific coast of Canada (where we live for part of the year)

What is your present state of mind? 

Alert and as serene as possible

Gavin Bryars presents ‘The Bass in My Life’ with Daniele Roccato, double bass, who performs works by  Stefano Scodanibbio, Giacinto Scelsi, Ivan Fedele, Franco Donatoni, Daniele Roccato and Gavin Bryars at the Italian Cultural Institute London tonight.  The event is part of the Suona Italiano residency to promote Italian music. Further information here

“… The music of Gavin Bryars falls under no category. It is mongrel, full of sensuality and wit and is deeply moving. He is one of the few composers who can put slapstick and primal emotion alongside each other. He allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle. With a third ear maybe. . .” –Michael Ondaatje

Gavin Bryars’ full biography

www.gavinbryars.com

Music Notes – Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes

A guest post by Daniel Harding

Hearing Unsuk Chin’s concerto for sheng, Šu broadcast from the BBC Proms recently has sent me back to my listening library, and to her Six Piano Etudes, composed between 1993-2003.

Chin’s set of studies lifts the veil on her evocative and magical vision in a series of shimmering soundscapes, captured in the opening gesture of the very first piece, which is followed by nervous, skittish upper-register writing over sustained pedal notes. The registral layout is typical of Chin’s handling of the piano – skeletal, spidery upper-register, sonorous lower range pedal-points – and is both clear and effective.

The second revels in a Debussy-esque exploration of the instrument’s lower register, with constant chiming building a repetitive upper voice, becoming progressively stormier. Parallel octaves leap beneath a fizzing, sparking right-hand (again, Debussy’s Feu d’artifice springs to mind) before the piece gradually subsides.

The third movement, Scherzo ad libitum, comprises fragmented gestures, exploring contrary and similar motion across several octaves, supported by dabbed piano chords.  The music eventually walks carefully away in tentative steps towards the ends of the instrument’s range. Similarly, the fourth piece darts and scurries up and down the keyboard in shifting, fleeting gestures. The fifth scintillates, with a turning figure hovering between whole-tonality and a dominant seventh (the latter sonority also a feature of the opening of Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland);  a slow-stepping melody unfurls in the lower voice beneath.  As so often in this set as a whole, the textures gradually expand across the keyboard; spiky staccato chords punctuate the constantly turning figure, creating (as elsewhere) the miraculous aural effect of more than one piano playing. A fierce rumble endeavours to effect change, but eventually trickles out, exhausted, in contrary motion and evaporates at extreme ranges of the instrument.

As if in response to this, there is a hesitant opening to the final movement, Grains. The piece is anchored by a repeated Ab; even as the work becomes more fragmentary, the Ab persists sporadically . The piece cannot escape from its relentless pull; it tries to do so as shapes tremble and pop around the stubborn Ab, but is ultimately unsuccessful.

Chin’s set of studies belongs firmly in the tradition begun by Chopin, continued  Debussy and Ligeti, lifting what would otherwise be a technical exercise into another realm. Others have remarked on the ghost of Conlon Nancarrow’s dizzying works for player-piano hovering over them. For me, the set also stands as something of a modernist updating of Rachmaninov’s studies, turning explorations of technique into dazzling virtuosic displays which leave no aspect of the instrument uncharted. The six pieces are unified both by their registral and textural explorations, as well as by their lack of anything approaching a regular metre; the pieces revel in their liberation from a constant time-signature.

The set demands a fearsome technical accomplishment and pianistic virtuosity from the player. I heard it performed live by the remarkable Clare Hammond at the Total Immersion concert devoted to Chin’s work which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2011; the set has since been recorded by Malaysian pianist,  Mei Yi Foo (who also performs them at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) with the composer’s approval, on a disc together with Gubaidulina’s wonderful Musical Toys. But that’s for another blogpost…

Here’s Mei Foo in the scintillating fifth study.

 

A former Music Scholar at Lancing College, Daniel Harding read Music at York University, specialising in French piano repertoire. He was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in Conducting, after conducting Britten’s first operetta, Paul Bunyan, working with Donald Mitchell, and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, as well as works by Mahler and Dvorak, as an undergraduate.

During his post-graduate studies, he went on to conduct the University Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, the University Choir and Chamber Choir, as well as various New Music ensembles. He also founded the Early Classical Orchestra, focusing on historically-informed performances from the period. He also conducted Steve Reich’sTehillim on the Contemporary Music Studies course at Bretton Hall College, Wakefield. Other roles have included Director of the Senior and Junior Choirs at York Minster Songschool, and a Lecturer in Music for ten years in Further Education.

Daniel is an experienced accompanist and repetiteur. He is also a keen jazz pianist, and has performed at various venues including the Water Rats, King’s Cross, Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge and at the Poco Loco club in Sardinia as part of the Jazz Festival. Since arriving at Kent, he instigated the Watch This Space series on the foyer-stage of the Colyer-Fergusson Building. Daniel conducts the University Chamber Choir, and founded the University Cecilian Choir, the Sirocco Ensemble and the String Sinfonia, and accompanies the University Music Scholars in lunchtime concerts in the Canterbury Festival. Recent compositions include a choral piece for the inaugural concert of the opening of the University’s new Colyer-Fergusson music building, which was performed in December, and a work for choir and percussion performed in 2013.

He also writes and edits the department blog, Music Matters and blogs about choral music at the University on Cantus Firmus.

Away from the University, Daniel is an advisor on the Artistic Board for the Sounds New Festival of Contemporary Music and a member of the Advisory Board for the Wise Words Festival.

 

At the Piano with Alice Pinto

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano is hearing it rather than seeing it or playing it. Until I was about five years old my family lived two doors down from my first piano teacher, Fiona Matthison, and I used to hear her piano being played every time I passed her house. I also remember my father playing it for birthday party games in our living room! I can’t remember starting to play myself.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In all honesty, I needed the money. A fellow student asked if I was interested in teaching a friend of hers, who was a local academic in her thirties returning to the piano having learnt as a child. I was nervous at first but we got on well and I learnt as much if not more from her than she did from me. I gradually realised how much I enjoyed explaining practising methods, working as a team to overcome technical issues and create an interpretation, and how much this conscious and thoughtful process was helping my own playing and learning processes too by making me analyse what I was trying to achieve. I’m a rational and business-minded type of person so I started to actively acquire more students, and pursue teaching as a part of my career.

I’ve always been socially and politically aware, so teaching and sharing my expertise is a way for me to help classical music blossom in quality and quantity in the UK. I really want to do my bit to ensure that the professional musicians of the future have a chance to receive a great musical education, and equally importantly that the music-lovers and audiences of the future do too! I think it’s very important to nurture music from an early stage in education.

I continue to teach not just because I genuinely adore it, but also from a practical perspective as a musician; teaching for three or four days a week gives me the financial freedom to be able to pursue performance projects that I may not realistically be able to afford to do otherwise, and allows me to be able to turn down gigs that I feel won’t enhance my career or fulfil me creatively. It’s a tricky balancing act but I’d personally rather be teaching a Chopin Ballade or coaching a Beethoven Piano Trio than accompanying another Grade 1 exam or a ballet class.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I’ve had wonderful teachers. My first teacher Fiona Matthison set me up in a way for which I am forever grateful. At the Junior RCM I had the honour of studying with John Barstow who was the first person (besides my mother) who unreservedly supported my dream of becoming a professional musician and set into motion serious and pragmatic approaches to making that happen. He was also someone who blew open my musical world, by taking me to concerts and persuading me to be brave in my repertoire choices. At the same time I was a real thorn in the side of the composer Julian Grant who was my A-level teacher at school. I have a lot of sympathy for him, as at the age of sixteen I was a good pianist but very stubborn, and with no knowledge or interest in any music after 1915! I am now very grateful he carted me kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and forced me to consider my theoretical understanding. Without his help I wouldn’t have survived my degrees and I’d be a completely unbearable and ignorant person.

As an undergraduate I was beyond fortunate to have Hilary Coates, who remains one of my best friends and is one of the first people I turn to for advice on any topic! She taught me the art of true preparation- how to inject music with style and substance. Hilary’s energy is unrivalled, and her students all know how much she believes in them. After a further two years with Carole Presland, as a postgraduate at RAM, I felt I was finally able to take my passion for the piano and craft any score into exactly the way I wanted it to sound. Carole showed me the physical tools to tackle just about anything and be comfortable with it, and critically, how to do it quickly.

If I tried to name the numerous musicians who have taught and inspired me over the years it would fill a whole book. I had many wonderful experiences as a teenager in chamber groups, youth orchestras, and as a violinist and violist too, and was so lucky to have the support of many professionals helping me along then and during my degrees. They all taught me a lot about music but also about how important it is to have mentors who are good people and care about the whole person.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

It sounds clichéd, but the most important influences are definitely my students themselves, and how they react, both short-term and long-term. It’s crucial they’re happy and comfortable with what we are doing at the piano. They must be progressing too, or something isn’t right! Sometimes it takes patience to see results, or to realise that something isn’t working. I’m constantly shaping and rethinking my teaching to adapt to how my students are reacting, and I keep up my own professional development as a teacher by attending courses and searching out articles and books about classical music, child psychology and different learning theories. I also try to keep developing as a musician and pianist myself; learning new repertoire, reading up on performance practice, attending concerts and listening to recordings.

My own teachers of course influenced my teaching, mainly those I have mentioned above. There are of course teachers who will remain nameless who gave me a very good idea of how I didn’t want to teach!- I have come across people who I think are too complacent, or lazy, or even abusive in their treatment of students. To my mind it is so important always to nurture, as what a student is offering, at any level, is such a precious part of themselves, and a direct dismissal of their music-making can be very hurtful. I find the writings of teachers from generations past interesting, particularly the advice of people like Dr Suzuki, Kodaly and Joan Last and their ideas on developing the talent, voice, and instrumental capacity of small children. I also feel when reading Susan Tomes’s books and blog that someone has put into words absolutely everything I exactly felt about all issues, musical and otherwise!

The colleagues I work with now constantly inspire and influence my teaching, particularly on Pro Corda courses where the staff are so committed and such fun. I’ve been surrounded by experts in Dalcroze, improvisation and conducting, and I try to observe their lessons and approaches, and learn from what they do. Likewise, seeing the music staff in the wonderful departments I teach in being so committed to their students, the students repaying the commitment, and both parties reaping the reward is just brilliant. It’s great to have time to share ideas with a whole range of specialist instrumental and music teachers and I’m very lucky to have that opportunity most days of my year; it’s one of the big reasons I chose to work in schools and departments rather than teach privately.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

I always love hearing my students perform, as it gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate how far they have come, and enjoy the music! It’s also nice when students gain music places at good schools, achieve a good mark in an exam, or win a festival prize. Achievements like that make me feel as though I’m on the right track with how and what I’m teaching. I’ll never forget getting the phone call offering me my first teaching job in a school, nor the subsequent similar phone calls, especially the one for my job at Junior Guildhall as I’d always dreamt of teaching at a junior conservatoire and never imagined it would happen when I was only twenty-five years old.

During the actual teaching process, I love seeing the ‘eureka’ moment happen with a student, when something just ‘clicks’ technically for them. Whether that’s the first time they get their fingers to coordinate in a piece or scale, or finally understanding how a theoretical concept such as key signatures works, or overcoming a nasty bit in the cadenza of the Grieg Concerto and realising they will be able to play it after all… all of those are great and they happen many times a day, so I’m very privileged. I sometimes suspect I enjoy teaching primary age children so much because these moments come so often. They’re almost addictive!

There have been some lovely musical moments too. On the Pro Corda Adult Piano Course a gentleman in his mid-eighties introduced me (a teacher on the course) to the music of York Bowen, and we performed one of his rollicking duets in a concert. The same gentleman went on to perform a French Suite by Bach so touchingly and with such wisdom it was extraordinary. He wrote afterwards to tell me that my enthusiasm was infectious and my playing really lovely and I returned the sentiments. On the opposite end of the scale, three of my girls who had only been learning the piano one year performed two tiny six-hand pieces flawlessly last June and had such fun even though one of the six arms was in a sling; the student in question was determined not to let anyone down or miss the concert. I’ve recently returned from Pro Corda North where the standard of playing was exceptional, and I coached three seventeen/eighteen-year-old boys on the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio which they performed with incredible maturity… nothing beats experiences like these, and tellingly they often occur in chamber music.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

I enjoy that they very often have quite a well-formed idea of their own musical self. I encourage adults and older teenagers to lead their own repertoire choices, and enjoy discussing advanced technical and musical issues at an adult and artistic level.

Older students (in my experience from about the age of twelve upwards) often come with the challenge of managing expectations (to put it bluntly!) and balancing the speed at which students think with the speed (fast) at which they can physically complete tasks (not so fast). I tend to find that adults expect a lot from themselves at the piano, especially when they fully understand (from a theoretical perspective) what they are being asked to do, and can become frustrated when results are instantaneous. They can also experience nerves more than children, and tend to compare themselves against other musicians or their own expectations, meaning they don’t congratulate themselves enough on their achievements enough and instead live in a perpetual state of struggle and disappointment, which can be very harmful to the delicate psyche after long periods.

What do you expect from your students?

Firstly, that they are doing their best. It is so easy to tell when this isn’t the case; I don’t think some students realise how transparent this is! I personally expect my students to practise every day, at whatever age or level. I expect them to prepare well, which to me means that they come well-equipped to a lesson with not just all their materials, but also questions or issues about the work that they have been set. I will often ask “What do you need help with?” and expect that they can readily answer this. All my students play at a high standard regardless of level; I might have a student at Grade 1 or 2 playing a Bach or Mozart Minuet but they will do it with exquisite phrasing, articulation and dynamics. We don’t cut any corners.

I expect my students to love music, love the piano, and to love learning, and I expect them to really want to progress and not to be reluctant to work hard or to shy away from a battle- everyone struggles at some point. I expect them to have their own aims and ambitions at the instrument, whether these are to pursue a musical career or not. After a certain age or level I expect students to lead their own repertoire choices, to have musical interests surrounding the piano, to listen to live and recorded performances, to study theory to the appropriate level and to have a knowledge of other instruments and the history of music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I think they suit some students very well, and others not at all. I think exams are not necessary, and part of me sympathises with the character in Jessica Duchen’s novel Alicia’s Gift who states that they help: “…amateur children to impress amateur parents. They play nicely to the dinner guests and sometimes they play for school assembly and everybody claps… The British view music as a diversion, an amusement, something it’s not quite cricket to be too good at… We [true artists] have something profound to say about life, why we’re alive, what it means to be human. We don’t jump through hoops to show out parents’ friends how talented out parents’ offspring are”. I think to just base a teaching or learning method around exams can be limiting, and can result in a student learning only three pieces a year, and gaining no real repertoire or knowledge outside the exam syllabus. It is my understanding that the exam boards were not set up for this purpose, but sadly (in my opinion) the emphasis on exams when teaching an instrument is huge. I never took any grade exams myself, although I auditioned for schools and courses and performed regularly in concerts and festivals. However, I do understand why many students want to take exams, and I think for many they can be a good yardstick or motivator. It really does depend on the student, their ambitions, and their reasons for learning and playing. I would however, never condone a student going from exam to exam without thought or question as to the motives, nor would I want a student to take exams for mistaken or false reasons.

Likewise, festivals and competitions can be brilliant platforms when considered on an individual basis for the student. I tend to suggest these events to those I feel might gain from the experience, but in general let the student lead the decision. I prefer non-competitive concert situations for most students, though again there will always be some who thrive on the competitive element and want to push for it. In my experience, those who gain a lot from the experience in the long-term tend to be in the minority, and my instinct and own experience tells me that there is plenty of time to compete when skills are more honed, hands have finished growing, musical interpretations have been fully-formed and are personal, with plenty of context and life experience behind them, and ambitions for life are clearer. But individual circumstances merit different approaches.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Beginner students must learn two almost opposing elements, in my opinion; joy and discipline. The most successful are those who quickly realise (or already know) that the two are actually intertwined, and that joy comes from discipline. I encounter a few students who harbour vague hopes that one day they may just sit down and be able to produce Fur Elise from nowhere. To have a beginner student who gains a lot of joy from working very hard at a tiny little aspect or piece and is inspired by their own hard work makes me confident and happy for their future.

For this reason I feel it is best for students to start young so they digest the concept of discipline from an early age. If you tell a four-year-old they must brush their teeth every day, they must wear a school uniform, they must practise the piano, and most importantly you don’t just tell them these things but you set in place a system that doesn’t allow them not to, then they grow up with this unconscious but very valuable discipline which will reap rewards later in life. That sounds harsh but too many parents sit back and hope their child will practice because they love music. That’s just not a reality for most small children or even teenagers with many demands on their time and other temptations. Why practise the piano (which seems to progress so slowly and give comparatively so little satisfaction) when you can play with friends?

An advanced student is someone who already appreciates discipline, but I think the joy still needs to be nurtured. Sometimes music-making at a high level can become mechanical, and so I’d encourage an advanced student to focus on bringing music to life. I think chamber music is so valuable in that respect and I’d urge everyone who can to make music with friends. Advanced students need to continue to work hard to improve, as everyone has something left to learn. But always remember why you love music, and what is at the heart of it.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

I get irritated by the assumption that musicians are either great players or great teachers. It is patently not true and it makes a mockery of the wonderful work many musicians are doing. I think we’re all familiar with the false premise that many who teach only do so because they can’t play and I hope that is something that is gradually losing its clout. However, I still come up against the idea that because a person trained to a high level as a concert pianist at an elite conservatoire, it automatically means they are a selfish diva who doesn’t understand children, or doesn’t have the time or patience for beginners and amateurs.

To teach well and professionally at any level demands a certain level of musical training, and the more professional the training, the more the teacher has to draw on when imparting advice to others. I believe teachers who perform, and performers who teach both have a lot to share with audiences and students alike, and I’d love to see a greater acceptance that these two strands of musical communication are not so far apart. It irks me to meet performers who claim to not be able to ‘communicate’ in a teaching studio, just as much as teachers who claim not to be able to perform on their instrument. Both these methods of communication take practice, confidence and skill, and I don’t see how you can do one without the other. I’d urge all budding musicians to take time to hone as many types of communication as possible through which to share their music.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

I love musicians who communicate with passion, and so my favourite pianists are probably Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. I respect Barenboim’s fearlessness in being politically involved as well, and the fact that he takes risks in his professional life and on stage. I also have some favourite recordings by Richter, Gavrilov, Sudbin, Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchida, Kissin, Bernard Roberts for Beethoven- an odd bunch probably… I once travelled to Berlin for the evening just to hear a recital given by Sokolov, once I’d realized he probably would never return to the UK in my lifetime. I think I listen for energy and vigour above finesse, and hopefully that’s what I put across in my own playing and teaching too.

British pianist Alice Pinto has appeared as concerto soloist with the Cheltenham and Cambridge Graduate orchestras, and recent recital highlights have included concerts at St. John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, and a live broadcast on Icelandic national radio. Alice performs regularly nationwide at festivals including Two Moors, Cambridge Summer Music, Lake District, Vid Djúpið and Malcolm Arnold. Praised particularly for her interpretation of repertoire from the Classical period and neglected British works, Alice is also in demand as an ensemble musician, and currently holds a Leverhulme Fellowship with Pro Corda. 

Alice gained her MMus degree in Piano Performance and Research from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, where she held a Richard Carne Scholarship and was shortlisted for the Jacob Barnes Scholarship. She was awarded the Anthony Lindsay Prize 2007, the Jaques Samuels Manager’s Discretion Prize 2008, and was keyboard finalist for the Isabelle Bond Gold Medal in 2010. Alice previously held the Else and Leonard Cross Memorial Scholarship at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Nora Day Scholarship at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. She currently teaches Piano and Chamber Music at Junior Guildhall, Dame Alice Owen’s School and Bute House Preparatory School. 

Alice’s upcoming concerts include for Leeds Lunchtime Chamber Music Series (8th October), St Lawrence Jewry London (13th October) and the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton (18th October). 

News from Meet the Artist #1

A round up of concerts, CD releases, and other events from people who have featured in my Meet the Artist interview series.

Pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi (interview coming soon) performs music by Haydn, Nancarrow and Prokofiev as part of the Festival (Piano) Oxygene in Paris. His new disc of Haydn Piano Sonatas was released on 15th September. Further details here

Platinum Consort, directed by Scott Inglis-Kidger, performs choral works by Howells, Batten, Tallis, Josquin, Sheppard, Purcell, Lassus and Bainbridge, together with the world premiere of Miserere by Richard Bates in a concert on Saturday 27th September at Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London SW3. Further information here

Hannah Woolmer, violin, and Daniel Roberts, piano perform at the Foundling Museum, London on Sunday 5th October. The concert includes music by Nimrod Borenstein. In November, Hannah and Daniel release a CD of works by Franck and Brahms. Further information here

Pianist Jonathan Powell tackles some of the most fearsomely difficult and lengthy music in the repertoire with performances in Seattle of works by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988), including Sorabji’s 1949 Sequentia cyclica super Dies irae, a set of 27 variations on the Gregorian requiem chant— seven hours of music in all, performed in bouts of roughly three, two, and two hours with two intervals. More on this pianistic marathon here

Congratulations to harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for the Gramophone Baroque Instrumental Recording Award for his disc of CPE Bach’s Wurttemberg Sonatas. Mahan has recently been signed by the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Fortepianist John Irving is giving a series of concerts, masterclasses and lectures around the UK and in Europe, focusing on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven:

4 October 2014: Finchcocks (Mozart Kegelstatt Trio and chamber music by his Viennese contemporaries – with Jane Booth and Peter Collyer)

31 October 2014: University of Hull – Haydn Keyboard Sonatas, 1.15pm – followed by masterclass for students

14 November 2014: Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich (Beethoven Trio for Clarinet, Cello, Piano, Op.38 – with Jane Booth and Ruth Alford). 2.30pm. Greenwich International Early Music Festival.

27 November 2014: Masterclass at Conservatorio “Benedetto Marcello” di Venezia

28 November 2014: Fondazione Cini, Venice: Beethoven and Mozart sonatas with Davide Amodio (violin)

30 November 2014: Holywell Music Room, Oxford (Haydn and Mozart sonatas), 4.00pm

21-4 January 2015: Masterclasses/Lecture-recital at Conservatorio dell Svizzera Italiana, Lugano

22 February 2015: Milton Court, London (Mozart’s 1764 ‘London Notebook’)

Another post to follow soon with more news from Meet the Artist…..

 

 

Game of Tones – VQ New Works Competition Final

I’m looking forward to being in the audience for a most unusual musical event this evening at Kings Place, London. The three works selected for the VQ New Works Competition final will be performed by Villiers Quartet and in the spirit of true public participation, VQ invites in an audience from all over the world, not just to listen but to decide the outcome. The winner will be announced at the end of the concert. Join me for a unique concert experience.

Watch the concert by live webcast and vote

 

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.

Socrates

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,923 other followers