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

The value of music lessons – why we need music education

Music education, particularly for young children in state primary school, and beyond, has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, not least because of a new initiative and accompanying TV series Don’t Stop the Music headed by pianist James Rhodes, and the publication of a report on music education by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). While the ABRSM report highlights increased access to music tuition amongst schoolchildren, James Rhodes’ tv series presents a much bleaker picture of little or no funding, woefully inadequate provision for music lessons in the state school sector, and untrained teaching staff. His campaign, Don’t Stop the Music aims to right these wrongs, and, working in conjunction with Oxfam and Yodel, the courier company, Rhodes is asking people to donate unwanted and unused instruments so that schoolchildren across the UK can have the chance to play an instrument, join a school orchestra and generally experience the joy and wonder of making music. This is all very laudable – and there is no doubting Rhodes’ passion and commitment (akin to Jamie Oliver’s campaign to reform school dinners) – but without the trained staff to teach the children how to play these instruments, the project may not be as successful as Mr Rhodes hopes, which would be a great pity.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this subject as my knowledge of music education in school is based largely on my own experience at school in the 1970s and 80s, but I would like to offer some of my own thoughts and observations on the value of music tuition, based on my experience over the last 8 years as a private piano teacher.

But first, a little background as to how I arrived at my current career path. I was very fortunate when I was growing up to be surrounded by music: at home my parents listened to Radio 3 and classical and jazz LPs. I was encouraged to begin piano lessons around the age of 6 and although I remember being quite bored a lot of the time with my first teacher, I can still recall the pleasure that came from being able to sit at the piano and play for my own enjoyment and to escape into my own fantasy world that was music. In addition, my parents took me to many concerts and operas. At senior school, I had an inspiring music teacher who took me through O- and A-level music, and who led the senior choir, orchestra, madrigal group and baroque ensemble with great energy and enthusiasm (he retired quite recently, having remained at the school for nearly 30 years). Alongside this, I had a very good private piano teacher with whom I learnt fast. Music was part of my day-to-day landscape, at home and at school. In fact, it seemed to be everywhere in my life. Looking back, I now realise that I was very privileged to be surrounded by music and to be encouraged in my music by supportive parents and music teachers. What I enjoyed was very much the preserve of a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but I do not believe that music and music lessons should only be the exclusive preserve of the better off.

Fast forward 30 years, and now I am involved in music education, in a tiny way, as a private piano teacher in an affluent area of south-west London. I didn’t choose this profession (I worked for 10 years in art and academic publishing and bookselling before I had my son); rather it chose me when I was approached by a friend to teach her daughter. At the time, I had no great desire to become a piano teacher, but I quickly grew to enjoy the job because it gave me an opportunity to share my passion for the piano, a passion that had been reignited after a long period in hibernation while I was busy working in London, getting married and having my son. And I could work from home.

Children in the leafy suburbs where I live now are very lucky indeed – as lucky as I was when I was growing up in an affluent part of Hertfordshire in the 1980s. In addition to excellent state and private schools, they have parents who are interested and keen to invest in their children through extra-curricular activities, and piano lessons take their place alongside tennis, French, Kumon maths, judo, gymnastics, horse riding and much more. The children who attend private schools in the area have access to fantastic music facilities (Hampton Boys’ School, for example, has a new purpose-built theatre/concert hall, complete with a Steinway D grand piano), and even those at state school receive good music tuition in class and via visiting peripatetic instrumental teachers.

So why is music so important? For me, music, of all the arts, puts us in touch with what it means to be human. I suspect we were drumming on the floor of the cave with sticks long before we started painting on the cave wall, and we are driven by an internal drumbeat, if you will – our pulse. Music (and indeed all the arts) is important in broadening our horizons, both culturally and socially.

The benefits of learning a musical instrument are well-documented and I have observed many of them at close quarters through my teaching and my own recent studies when I returned to piano lessons as an adult. One of the key benefits is building confidence, and I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote about one of my students, who I’ll call Jane.

Jane came to me as a complete beginner about five years ago. At the time, her mother decided to have lessons as well, to help support her daughter. Jane was a very timid child (until very recently her mother would sit in on her lessons), but obviously bright and keen to learn, and she progressed quickly. I was impressed by her determination to learn notation, musical terms and signs, and the “language” of music without much input from me during lessons, and by the time she took her Grade 1 exam, it was clear that she was developing into a rather fine young musician. Despite her shyness and anxiety, she would perform in my student concerts and was rewarded with a special prize at one of the concerts. This endorsement of what she could do, from an independent observer (a teaching colleague of mine), together with a high merit for her Grade 1, signaled a wonderful transformation in Jane and she quickly grew noticeably more confident, eager to progress to Grade 2. Meanwhile, her playing was showing great poise, sensitive sound, and a solid musical understanding. It was no surprise to me when she achieved a Distinction for her Grade 2 exam earlier this year, around the same time as she gained a place at a prestigious local grammar school. This week she came for her first lesson after the summer holiday – she literally ran in the door and was at the piano and ready to play before I had time to ask her about her summer break. And she played beautifully.

I would not dream of taking all the credit for Jane’s new-found confidence, but I have no doubt that her piano lessons have contributed to this in no small way, and I have seen other students make similar strides in confidence and self-esteem as a result of their music lessons.

Learning a musical instrument equips us with important life-skills. If you can perform in a student or school concert or a public music festival, you can also stand up before a room of people and give a paper at a conference. Music stimulates brain function and can improve memory, cognitive and motor skills, concentration, time management and organizational skills, and creative thinking. Playing an instrument is both stimulating and therapeutic, as the physical activity of playing releases the same “happy hormones” (endorphins) which sportspeople enjoy. Learning and playing a musical instrument fosters self-expression and relieves stress, and can also bring a deep sense of fulfillment and personal achievement (I have observed this many times in recent months when hosting events for the London Piano Meetup Group). Meanwhile, playing in an ensemble, orchestra or band, or singing in a choir, offers a wonderful sense of a shared experience while also encouraging team building, sociability and cooperation. For children with special needs or learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD, music can offer an important outlet and allow them to shine when they may be struggling in other areas of their school life.

We need music, and we need committed, skilled and enthusiastic people to encourage and train the next generation of musicians and to foster an appreciation of and excitement in music, whatever the genre. The devaluing of music, along with the other arts, by former education secretary Michael Gove, was an outrageous attack on a crucial aspect of our cultural landscape and heritage, and music and arts education is still not safe in this government’s hands.

We need music. Support music in schools, music hubs, local ensembles, national orchestras. Encourage your children to learn music, sing in a choir, join a band, form their own band, go to concerts, talk to musicians. Write to your MP and urge him or her to take music education seriously. Listen, engage, and above all enjoy. Please.

Protect Music Education

Don’t Stop the Music – a response from My Music Classroom

Don’t Stop the Music – Starting on the Wrong Note?

Look to the Informal – Abigail Amore

 

 

Meet the Artist……Patrick Nunn, composer

_MG_8764Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I don’t recall the initial trigger(s) to take up composing but there was always a strong desire from about the age of seven to put dots onto the page.  Similarly, the decision to make a career appears to have been there from an early age in some form – it just always seemed to be the path I was destined to follow.

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

There are key figures and key works that have become significant in my musical life – those being Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Messiaen and more recently, Jonathan Harvey, George Crumb, Anton Webern and Matthias Pintscher.

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

The process of composing itself is by far the greatest challenge of my career to date.  Self-doubt and anxiety has often crippled my creative output for months on end.  I’ve also never been a composer to repeat the same technical trick over and over in my writing.  Every new piece presents a new problem to solve and each time the solution requires a different approach.  Perhaps this explains why I write so slowly.

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

I rarely write without a specific request for a work (with or without payment) and that brings with it certain pleasures such as working closely in collaboration with a musician or ensemble to develop a specific idea or sound.  The biggest challenges are always the deadlines and time-frames that often appear to get in the way of the creative flow.  It seems to be a common issue amongst artists, yet I am finding more and more that these goal posts can serve as great motivational forces when hitting a creative dead end.

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

I’m always interested in exploring new sounds often through the combination of electronics and acoustic forces.  Working with particular performers, especially those who have developed new performance techniques or use extended instruments, is really exciting because as a composer I get to try out sounds that perhaps nobody has written and heard before.

Which works are you most proud of?  

There are a few recent works that have been significant for me because they represent either a change in style or in the way I approach writing. Music of the Spheres (2006) for piano and planets  was a real labour of love due to hundreds of hours spent trawling through data files from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in order to find a few gold nuggets that could be turned into something of musical interest.  Despite all the effort, I am very happy that performing piano alongside a sonic representation of our solar system is accessible to anyone from about Grade 2 piano upwards.  Escape Velocity (2006) for accordion and string quartet is also an important work because it represents both a change in style that felt very comfortable for me but also because it demonstrates an attempt to explore and ultimately integrate two different instrumental forces into a single sound world. Fata Morgana (2007) for cello with Hyperbow, ensemble and live electronics is another key work as it represents the culmination of several years of research exploring the application of sensors and performance data in shaping and controlling the evolution of accompanying live electronics. It was also the first time I began to feel confident with my expanding musical language and with writing expressively at the extreme ends of the cello’s range. In this work, I felt that I had finally begun creating a more unified and meaningful connection between the expressiveness of the performer and the resulting reflections from the electronics through the aid of the sensors – something that has been a developing working method for me ever since.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not at all – I’m always grateful for a performance, wherever that might be!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

In addition to those composers I mentioned earlier who were of most influence in shaping who I am as a composer, I would include Ockeghem, Pergolesi, Prokofiev and some contemporary heavyweights such as Schoenberg, Ligeti, Boulez, Crumb, Magnus Lindberg, Helmut Lachenmann, Unsuk Chin, Harrison Birtwistle and GérardGrisey.

As for performers, I wouldn’t say I have any favourites as such.  Moreover, I just really appreciate and admire performers generally as I gave up myself after completing my undergraduate studies due to stage nerves.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are three that are particularly memorable for me – the London Sinfonietta’s 2008 QEH performance of Grisey’s complete Les espaces acoustiques; the Sinfonietta/Royal Academy 2013 RFH performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen; and the Britten Sinfonia’s astonishing performance of Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Thethera at the Barbican this May.

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

In the words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss”.  If you don’t feel utter joy and a sense of deep passion for something, change direction and try something else.  Life’s too short!

_MG_8646_cropped

Tell us a little more about your new work ‘Morphosis’, recently premiered by Zubin Kanga. What was the inspiration/creative impulse for this work? What were the particular challenges of creating and performing this work? 

I’ve wanted to work with the wonderful Zubin for many years.  He’s a real collaborator and that excites me because it affords me space to try new things and to make mistakes – essentials in the quest for new methods of creating and working.  Zubin knew of my work with sensors and electronics so it seemed a perfect collaborative partnership.

Much of my recent work is fundamentally concerned with this notion of meeting points – of fusing apparently opposing sound worlds; moulding, mixing and states of flux. I see my work as becoming more sculptural of late – where musical ideas grow outside of their original form, then take an unexpected turn and morph into something else, perhaps falling back temporarily to allow the electronic reflections to come to the fore only to suddenly re-emerge with a fresh direction that overwhelms all proceeding shapes.  This concept of flow, of coursing and of flux is also at the base of Morphosis. Musical objects begin as simple chords surrounded only by their electronic reflections that are subtly influenced by the movement of the performers hands (the sensors being attached to the back of the hands and transmit three-dimensional movement data to the live electronics).  These musical objects are presented several times as if one is looking at a single object from different angles. They are joined together by the morphing states of the electronics into what I hope is a flowing musical argument that is both visually and aurally engaging.

Working with live electronics is always a challenge but is particularly so with the addition of sensors.  Speed is critical!  Six channels of data from the performers hands must stream into the laptop once every 20ms.  This data must be refined for musical processes.  Each movement must be carefully calibrated and assigned to a particular parameter of a digital sound process.  Vast amounts of number crunching are performed in tiny segments of time and any blip in the system results in either a click in sound or a fatal system crash.  All this must be performed from just a single laptop that gets slower the more processing is added.  As a composer, the months of computer programming can become unbearable.  Many challenges emerge: Which should I write first – the music or the electronic effects?  How will the sounds change if I do not fully know how the performer will try to control the sound through the sensors?  How can I impose limits on what the performer will do with their hands to shape the sounds?  All these questions push my creative process to the edge – something I fear yet something I crave too…. living on the precipice…. creating something new, something never before uttered…. it’s the ultimate drive….

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

Southern Italy full time – writing more than I teach

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Acceptance of myself and everything external

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind – all else is temporary

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dancing 4am, hot sand between the toes, cool breeze on the skin – Italian beach

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzy and tired – it’s 4.30am!

Patrick Nunn (b.1969, Kent, UK) studied composition with Frank Denyer at Dartington College of Arts, Gary Carpenter at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and Simon Bainbridge and Jonathan Harvey whilst completing his PhD in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music (funded by a PRS Scholarship).

He has been the recipient of many awards including the Birmingham New Millennium prize for Sentiment of an Invisible Omniscience (2010), the Alan Bush prize for Transilient Fragments (2008), a British Composers Award (solo/duet category) for Mercurial Sparks, Volatile Shadows (2006), and the BBC Radio 3 Composing for Children prize for Songs of Our Generation (1995).

Patrick’s music has been performed widely in the UK and on the continent and has featured at more than fifty festivals worldwide. He has worked with a diverse range of collaborators, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Kreutzer Quartet, Thalia Myers, Piano Circus, Icebreaker, Ballet Rambert, Gogmagogs, Composers Ensemble and New London Children’s Choir.

Under the auspices of Tod Machover (MIT), Nunn, in his role as Hyperbow Researcher at the Royal Academy of Music, wrote two new works incorporating Diana Young’s (MIT) Hyperbow design: Gaia Sketches for solo cello and live electronics (finalist in the New Media category, British Composers Awards 2006); and Fata Morgana for cello, ensemble and live electronics. Nunn presented the collaborative process between composer and engineer in a research paper alongside Young at the 2006 NIME conference at IRCAM.

In addition to his extensive work as an educator, Nunn has recently completed two ABRSM commissions for their Spectrum series, as well as a new work for the Tempest Flute Trio. His work Prism was nominated for the solo/duo category for the 2009 British Composers Awards and Pareidolia I for bass clarinet, electronics and sensors has been shortlisted in the Sonic Arts category for the 2012 Awards. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His music is published by Cadenza Music and the ABRSM, and also features on Red Sock Records (Music of the Spheres), NMC (Prism) and the Sfz label (Gonk).

© Patrick Nunn (Nov 2012)

www.patricknunn.com

Photo credit: Nick Fallon

 

Sunday afternoon music and tea at Craxton Studios

On a fine mid-September afternoon a group of adult pianists, piano fans and music lovers gathered at Craxton Studios for a recital and talk by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

Craxton Studios, a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Hampstead, north London, has an important musical heritage and is therefore the perfect place for concerts and gatherings of musicians. Originally built by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio, the house was bought by Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Professor Harold Craxton OBE was an eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher (he was a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music), and those of us of a certain age will know his name from ABRSM editions of Beethoven and Co, edited by him and Donald Francis Tovey. The house on Kidderpore Avenue became a meeting place for musicians to come together and the house became a focal point for the artistic and musical milieu of London. This tradition continues today, as the house is used not only for concerts but also rehearsals, auditions and as a film location.

When Harold Craxton died in 1971, a trust was established in his name to support young, extremely talented musicians embarking on a professional career.

I first visited Craxton Studios in December 2013 for a concert by pianist Sarah Beth Briggs. I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and particularly the special ambiance and decor of the venue. Concerts are held in the artist’s studio, a large airy room at the back of the house, adorned with paintings, which looks out over the garden. The piano, which was Harold Craxton’s own instrument, is an early 20th-century Blüthner. (There is another grand piano in the small rehearsal studio on the top floor of the house.) The Craxton family still manage the property and it continues as a lively hub for musical activities in London.

‘Notes&Notes’ with Graham Fitch was the launch of a new concert concept for the South London Concert Series (which I run with my pianist friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage). I have always found concerts in which the performer introduces the music most interesting, and I find audience members enjoy hearing anecdotes about the music or why particular pieces are important, and as such offer something more personal and interesting than a standard written programme.  Inspired by the magnificent high tea at Sarah Beth’s concert, I suggested to Lorraine that we might offer our guests tea, and so ‘Notes&Notes’ was created. The concert also marked the launch of the second season of the South London Concert Series.

Graham Fitch introducing his programme
Graham Fitch introducing his programme

Graham’s programme consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat and the French Suite, No. 5 in G, both popular and accessible works, and Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C, Hob. XVI/50, written while the composer was living in London. Graham introduced the music, explaining that Bach was drawing on a tradition of presenting a suite of stylised dances popular at the time (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue etc). He also described his first encounters with this music and his studies with Andras Schiff, who has received high praise for his own intepretations of Bach, and who “gave” Graham the ornaments in the French Suite. Graham also explained that there is no “right way” to play Bach and that a romantic interpretation is as valid any other.

Graham combines a vibrant, colourful sound with an ability to highlight all the different strands of melody, voices and interior architecture in the music, together with subtle use of pedal, sensitive phrasing and restrained rubato. As his introduction to the Haydn Sonata, he explained that Haydn was working with John Broadwood, the London piano maker, and the Sonata shows the composer experimenting with the range of possibilities afforded by an English piano (as opposed to the Viennese instruments which Haydn had previously been used to). Graham’s performance sparkled with wit and humour, while the middle movement had a lovely arching melody, warm and supple.

Afternoon tea & scones
Afternoon tea & scones

After the music came the tea party and guests gathered in the dining room to enjoy tea and scones (with clotted cream, of course) and the chance to meet Graham and talk to other pianists and piano fans. There were many friends amongst the audience and the house was full of conversation. Some people even went to try the piano, before the studio was cleared ready for an audition the following day. The general consensus was that this was a really lovely event, combining music, words and conviviality, and we hope to host a similar concert at Craxton Studios next year.

South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson
South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson

The South London Concert Series continues at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo on Friday 3 October. For full details of all concerts please visit the South London Concert Series website

 

Craxton Studios website

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch

 

Xerxes at English National Opera

Xerxes (Alice Coote) sings to his beloved plane tree

In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.

In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.

Xerxes (Alice Coote), Romilda (Sarah Tynan) and Arsamenes (Andrew Watts). Picture credit Mike Hoban

The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.

The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.

Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October

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