Meet the Artist……Nicolas Hodges, pianist

(photo Marco Borggreve)

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

I don’t remember not playing the piano. As my parents were also musicians, it was probably a rather obvious thing to do. I never thought of music as a career per se, but it was clear to me rather early (certainly before my teens) that music would consume my life.

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

So many people! Obviously my teachers, Sulamita Aronovsky and the late Susan Bradshaw, have both been crucial. I learnt very different things from each of them. In a way they were very contradictory, but I have never felt confused, rather enriched by having multiple views on so many issues. I am hugely grateful to them both. Beyond that, clearly the influences on a musician who is even slightly inquisitive will be very wide-ranging.

Several pianists have been personally very important to me, most obviously perhaps David Tudor – who helped me most generously in my early 20s, as I was preparing a major Cage project – and Maurizio Pollini, whose work was influential on me in many ways from an early age, and who in recent years I’ve come to know personally. He invited me to share a concert with him at Suntory Hall last season, which was a huge pleasure – I played a work of Manzoni in the first half, and he played Beethoven Sonatas in the second.

I have had the honour of working with many living composers over the years and have learnt many things from them. When that honour has been dubious, I have learnt what to avoid rather than what to embrace. But in the case of a composer like Birtwistle, whose “Variations from the Golden Mountain” I am premiering at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 14th September, the relationship has been only fruitful and enjoyable (for me at least).

Conductors, studying works in other genres (string quartets, orchestral works), visual arts – everything goes into the artistic pot and influences the flavour like herbs in a stew.

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

Challenge in what sense? Every concert, every confrontation with a work of music, is a challenge. And practical life is a challenge. And bad conductors are a challenge.

Yes, that’s it: bad conductors are definitely the greatest challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

A composer was once asked which piece he was most proud of, and said it’s always his most recent. I guess the same is true for me. I’m just seeing a disc of the concertos of Birtwistle through the press, and have also just finished a disc of the complete piano music of Brian Ferneyhough. So I guess they’re the ones I’m most proud of.

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

There are many things I think about for ages but don’t programme for many years, and on the other hand sometimes I decide quite quickly that I want to do a particular work. One of the joys of my situation is collaborating, and bouncing ideas off a trusted promoter can be extremely stimulating.

You are performing a new commission by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at your Wigmore Hall concert on 14th September. What is especially exciting about working on new music such as this?

Working with great composers personally is something that can only happen with contemporary music. All the others are dead. I can’t work with Beethoven or Debussy, but I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to work with Birtwistle, for example. So much is made clear in our personal meetings and discussions; at the same time one understands the freedom available with more precision.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? What is your most memorable concert experience?

Well there are many remarkable acoustics around the world, and many halls with intelligent and searching programming. But what makes a concert really memorable is the situation – the programme, the audience, my mood, my collaborators (dead or alive). When everything aligns the experience is unforgettable.

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

The most important starting point for young musicians is the score. Students sometimes seem to view it more as a hint, rather than as the least indirect link to the composers intentions, which is what it is. Understanding notation in the deepest manner is one of the most important things which can be taught.

What are you working on at the moment?

After the Wigmore, I have to prepare a new piano concerto by Simon Steen-Andersen, and will also be working on Brahms 2nd Concerto for a concert in Finland in November. And many other smaller things in between!

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

No idea. I am sure though that I won’t be anywhere I could now guess.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I am still trying to work that out.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway (which is beyond obvious).

What do you enjoy doing most?

Watching my children develop.

What is your present state of mind?

Expectant before the birth of a new work at the Wigmore tomorrow!


Nicolas Hodges performs music by Mozart/Busoni, Debussy and Sir Harrison Birtwistle in an 80th birthday tribute concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, Sunday 14th September. Further information here


Born and trained in London, and now based in Germany, where he is a professor at the Stuttgart Conservatory, Hodges approaches the works of Classical, Romantic, 20th century and contemporary composers with the same questing spirit, leading The Guardian to comment that: “Hodges’ recitals always boldly go where few other pianists dare … with an energy that sometimes defies belief.”

Full biography


Three Composers, YOU Decide – VQ New Works Competition 2014

(Photo by Charles Gervais – Both Hemispheres Photography) Villiers Quartet is James Dickenson (violin) Tamaki Higashi (violin) Nick Stringfellow (‘cello) Carmen Flores (viola)

Villiers Quartet (VQ) is an exciting and progressive chamber ensemble with a willingness to embrace a wide range of repertoire and genres. They have an established reputation as exceptional interpreters of English composers including Elgar, Britten, Delius, and Thomas Adès, and are also involved in a range of groundbreaking cross-genre collaborations

VQ are the creators of the VQ New Works Competition which celebrates an international field of new and emerging composers writing for string quartet, treating the format of traditional string quartet performance and the discipline of chamber composition in a fresh and thought-provoking way. Works are selected to go forward in the competition via online voting rounds, and the three works selected for the final will be performed by VQ in a special concert at London’s King’s Place on 21st September. 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.

I caught up with Villiers Quartet to find out more about their influences and inspirations, the motivation behind the VQ New Works Competition, and the pleasures and excitements of working as a string quartet.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

The genre of chamber music has always been a source of inspiration for us, and it is a driving force in our careers as musicians.  We love the intimacy and camaraderie that chamber music encourages between people.

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

We’re a group inspired by many different strands, reflecting the different backgrounds we’ve all had. Christopher Rowland of the Fitzwilliam Quartet was an early influence.  We studied with violist Jerry Horner from the Fine Arts Quartet and worked with him early on.

We’re also greatly inspired by each other – that’s the beauty of string quartet.  Where else can you gather in a room and be in the company of four fine musicians?

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

The greatest challenge of a string quartet’s career, we find, is keeping your identity amidst all of life’s forces working around it.  Maintaining your commitment to each other throughout life’s challenges can be a big struggle.  But we are always brought together by our passion for the music, and our joy in performing with each other.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

We are big fans of the piece Dialectic for String Quartet by Alan Bush, which we think is a masterpiece.  We’ll be performing Dialectic on September 21st along with our VQ New Works Composers.  We’re most proud of our recording Robert Still quartets, which will be released on Naxos later this month (September 2014 release date).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

We love late-romantic music.  We also have a have a penchant for English works, and we play the Elgar Quartet and Delius Quartets very well.  We love discovering new pieces by composers, as evidenced by our VQ New Works Competition.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working in a quartet?

We gain much pleasure from exploring the best repertoire, written by the best composers.  String quartet really lets you get into the centre of stringed instrument sound, and create a sound-world like no other.

String quartet always seems to challenge the compositional techniques of every composer; we enjoy discovering that composer’s challenge through this powerful genre. For us, the pleasure is all about this discovery – together, we discuss, argue, laugh, and construct our collective interpretation of the music.  And for us, the end result is much bigger than just the four of us playing together.

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

We each make a short list of three pieces we really want to play.  Sometimes our lists overlap.  We get together and discuss the repertoire, play through some of the pieces if we’re not familiar with them.  After this meeting we decide what our repertoire list will be, alongside any other special projects we may be running that season.

Tell us more about the VQ New Works Competition? What was the original motivation for creating this competition? What are the particular excitements and challenges of working with new music?

The motivation for the Competition was simply to experiment with different ways people could interact and connect with contemporary music.  We were a string quartet that loved new music, and we wanted to connect more with composers who were writing new pieces.  We also wanted to find a way to share these works with the widest audience possible, and going online seemed like the most obvious way.

When we read through each of the pieces that are sent to us, the most exciting thing is discovering a composer’s voice, and really connecting with it.  Being able to share our music through YouTube and our website is also very exciting.  We also like leaving the final decision to the audience vote, and letting the audience have a say in what they think about each piece.

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

On our last tour to America, we played in Sauder Concert Hall, which is part of Goshen College in the town of Goshen, Indiana.  You would never have guessed it by being in such a small town in the mid-west, but it is a beautiful, world-class concert hall with a fantastic acoustic.  The Tokyo Quartet recorded one of their final albums there a couple of years ago.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Ivry Gitlis, the Guarneri, Cleveland, and Alban Berg Quartets.  For groups that are around today, we love the Takacs, Brentano, and Artemis quartets – some fantastic playing and groups who really have something to say with their sounds and interpretation.

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

The most important idea is to find out who you are, and ask – what kind of musician are you? What are your aesthetic qualities?  What things do you do best?  What is your sound? There is no use trying to play like someone else, or copy someone else’s interpretation because that is the accepted or popular standard. What audiences really want to see is who YOU are.

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

Musically and intellectually matured, like a single malt whisky

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

According to James [Dickenson, violin], watching the cricket, and playing Beethoven quartets.

What is your most treasured possession?

Our most treasured possessions are our children and families. And our instruments, which make it possible for us to do what we do.

What do you enjoy doing most?

We enjoy each moment for what it is: quartet, all other musical activities, being with our friends and family.

What is your present state of mind?

We always aim to be in the present.  One of our slogans is:  “Expect nothing, experience everything.”

VQ New Works Competition final is on Sunday 21 September 2014 at Kings Place, London. Further details and tickets here

One of the leading string quartets in Britain, the Villiers Quartet is known for their imaginative and visionary programming. They have given acclaimed performances nationally and internationally at St. John’s Smith Square, Sauder Concert Hall (USA), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (USA), and Ronnie Scott’s. Their performances of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet have been described as ‘masterful playing’ (Classical Source) and they have been declared ‘one of the best young quartets around today’ (Jerry Horner, Fine Arts Quartet). Their concerts of Beethoven and Elgar have been hailed by the York Press as performances ‘that took the breath away… brilliantly balanced.’  Upcoming disc releases include the quartets of Robert Still on Naxos Records, and a collaborative CD with composer/tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, MBE for Keda Records. Their digital VQ New Works Competition – where they let the audience vote for the top prize – has become one of the most talked about new music events in London.


Meet the Artist……Ursula Oppens

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

My mother was a piano teacher; my father a musicologist and piano tuner. I was far from imagining that I wanted to be a professional pianist, though. When during the one hour of career counseling I received in college it was suggested that I learn to type, I thought that I can already play the piano, and the two skills are somewhat similar.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

Of course, my parents. As a child I spent every summer at the Aspen Music Festival, and heard many concerts. I was especially moved by the Juilliard String Quartet, whom I heard play the complete Beethoven Quartets, the complete Bartok, and the Carter Quartets as they were being written.

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

The daily challenge is to remain positive and with focus.

Which repertoire/composers do you think you play best? 

I find it personally necessary to practice a variety of music each day. I have had wonderful experiences with composers whom I know and have had significant works written for me. I have also performed all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the moment, some highlights of my daily practice are the very different, but both very romantic Franck Piano Quintet and Carter Night Fantasies.

How do you make repertoire choices from season to season? 

They are a combination of my own thoughts and the wishes of presenters.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In recent years, I have been asked to perform Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated to commemorate various historical anniversaries: The 40th anniversary of the Portugese “Carnation” revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the coup that resulted in the Brazilian dictatorship on the 60’s.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

In New York City these range from Carnegie Hall to the Barge on the East River

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I am always excited by whatever I perform. I love to go to operas, both those written by my friends and the greatest of all the classics, Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, etc.

Who are your favourite musicians?  

It is impossible to name all the truly exciting musicians – there are so many. Right now, I am listening to pianists from Claudio Arrau to Yuja Wang.

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

Always remember that performance is communication with another person. What you will say will change all the time, and that is good.


Ursula Oppens makes a rare UK appearance in Brighton on Friday 19th September, performing music by Carter, Ravel, Rzewski, Bolcom and Wuorinen. Further details and tickets 

Pianist Ursula Oppens, one of the very first artists to grasp the importance of programming traditional and contemporary works in equal measure, has won a singular place in the hearts of her public, critics, and colleagues alike. Her sterling musicianship, uncanny understanding of the composer’s artistic argument, and lifelong study of the keyboard’s resources, have placed her among the elect of performing musicians.

Ursula Oppens studied piano with her mother, the late Edith Oppens, as well as with Leonard Shure and Guido Agosti. She received her master’s degree at The Juilliard School, where she studied with Felix Galimir and Rosina Lhévinne. After 14 years as the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University, Ms. Oppens is now a Distinguished Professor on the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (source: Colbert Artists)

Full biography




Music Notes – How to Cast a Spell with Schumann’s #30 From Album for the Young

Guest post from Nancy M Williams

Schumann’s #30 (* * * (untitled), in F major) from Album for the Young has a way of casting a spell of contemplation over its listeners. Whenever I perform this music, I meditate on how I reclaimed my passion for classical piano music. As your guest columnist, I want to share with you my secrets on how to study and play the #30 with best effect.

In April, I performed the #30 as part of “Claiming Your Passion”, a keynote workshop I gave at a Toronto conference. I hesitated before including this relatively unknown piece in my program. How would it fare in a lineup with recognizable works by Chopin and Schubert? I placed the #30 towards the end of my workshop, when participants would reflect on a plan for claiming their passions.

At the workshop, as soon as I rippled the #30’s opening chord arpeggiato, the music’s calming harmonies drew me in. I contemplated the 25 long years, from the summer of my 16th birthday until my early 40s, when the piano had lain fallow in my life. I thought about the bliss that I had experienced once I reclaimed the piano, bliss that had radiated outwards, turbocharging my career as a speaker and writer and strengthening my family life. Now at the workshop, I played the #30’s ending, two Ds ringing out, connected by a chromatic inner voice, followed by a simple, plainspoken resolution to F major. Afterwards, I felt gratified when several participants told me that their favorite piece of music was the #30.

The #30 is one of the pieces at the back of Album for the Young that offers concert repertoire that is nonetheless accessible for the advanced student of adult piano lessons. In order to appreciate this music, we should start with its composer. Robert Schumann loved writing almost as much as composing. In the mid-1830s, he launched, as chief editor, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music). For his journal, he often wrote under the pen names of two distinct personalities, Florestan and Eusebius. While Florestan was impulsive and exuberant, Eusebius was thoughtful and contemplative.

These two aspects of Schumann’s personality also suffused his music. The #30 “is contemplative and expresses the Eusebius side of Schumann’s personality,” says Mark Pakman, adjunct professor at the Cali School of Music and my piano teacher. Once I learned the notes, I agreed with his assessment. This four-minute piece doesn’t have a dramatic arc with crashing chords or chattering scales; the sound ascends to forte on only two brief occasions.

The biggest challenge in studying the #30 is to create its contemplative mood via meaningful phrasing. The phrases in this decidedly Romantic music have less resolution than music from the preceding Classical era. Take, for example, the #30’s opening motif, a C lingering with longing, two As gaining urgency, and then the motif sliding with resignation into a G. This G clearly marks the end of the motif, yet it feels somewhat unresolved, as though the impulsive Florestan had snuck into the music and sliced off the motif. I found that playing only the top melodic notes of the chords helped me to absorb the melody and its phrasing. Away from the piano, I tested myself, making sure I could sing the melody in tune and out loud.

Further complicating the phrasing is the fact that the #30 has a surprising amount of repetition. The opening motif I described above appears four times in the music’s first period, a section that is then repeated, at Schumann’s suggestion, in pianissimo. Moreover, the entire second half of the music is essentially a repeat of the first. When my piano teacher first showed me the music, I silently registered the repetition with some glee: I could learn the notes quickly. Yet once I absorbed the notes I faced the challenge of preventing the music from sliding into a pool of monotony.

One technique for creating variety in the #30 is to use tempo rubato. Take, for example the opening motif, the lingering C, followed by two As, and finished with G. My piano teacher and I decided that the first time I played this motif, I would slightly delay the dotted C note, in contrast to playing the motif strictly in time in its next appearance.

I also used shades of different mood states within my own mind to create a slightly different color with the repeat of the opening section. This music reminds me of my own 25-year-long wandering back to the piano. The first time I played the opening section, I thought about the longing I had for piano music during that time in my life when I was not playing. The second time through, I reflected on how, now that I have reclaimed my passion for the piano, I actively seek to dedicate myself to music.

I’ll share with you a few more tips that I assimilated learning this music:

  • Schumann begins the music with a chord arpeggiato, and uses them frequently throughout the #30. Don’t do as I did, and create a bad habit that is later difficult to undo, by playing all three notes of these chord arpeggiatos with equal emphasis. The top note is the melodic one. If you play the first two notes with a delicate touch and allow the top note of each arpeggiated chord to ring out, the music will shimmer.
  • In the #30’s second section (measures 9 to 16, repeated in 25 to 32), half-note, trombone-like octaves ring out, while an inner voice picks its way up and down the keyboard, as though stepping through wildflowers. In order to achieve a contrasting effect, practice the octaves and the inner voice separately.
  • If you’re like me, and you sometimes forget to pedal, especially when you are concentrating on tricky chord changes, then pay special attention to measures 22 and 23 (repeated in 38 and 39). Here a crowd of tied notes, 16th notes, and inner voices create a general confusion, but stay calm and make sure you pedal after each eighth note.

Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young has become a staple of my repertoire. I hope you will obtain as much enjoyment as I did studying this music. For me, the contemplative #30 packages feelings of longing and seeking with a wrapping paper softly glowing when turned towards the light.

Watch Nancy play Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young


Nancy M. Williams is a motivational speaker on “Claiming Your Passion” and an award-winning creative nonfiction writer. She is also the Founding Editor of the online magazine Grand Piano Passion™. An amateur concert pianist, she debuted in 2012 at Carnegie Hall in a master class recital.

“Claiming Your Passion”


Are today’s concert pianists boring?

An article by Martin Kettle, which originally appeared in The Guardian in 2002 and has been doing the rounds of the social networks recently, claims that today’s concert pianists as “so boring”. He waxes nostalgic about the great pianists of yesteryear (Cortot, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Schnabel, Kempf, Serkin, Richter et al), highlighting wondrous sound, insightful and profound interpretations (“Arrau’s Beethoven always had a sacramental feel. Serkin’s Beethoven and Schubert recitals, of which I heard several, were overwhelmingly creative experiences in ways that one now never hears”), a seeming “golden age” of pianism that has passed, never to be rekindled; but the author singularly fails to explain exactly why he feels today’s pianists are boring.

Every age has its “greats” who are remembered, sometimes through rose-tinted spectacles, for their uniqueness, their special qualities. I believe that there are many pianists alive and working today who will also be remembered as “greats” in years to come, and I feel that the international piano scene today is very much alive, rich, varied and exciting. It is also highly competitive, never more so than now in our image-driven, here-today-gone-tomorrow fast-paced 21st-century world.

The life of the concert pianist is hard and can be a smothering profession. All the hours spent working, conjuring magic out of that big box of wood and wires, with only dead composers for companions, can feel like a form of captivity, the grinding, solitary hours of practise only intermittently relieved by work with colleagues, ensembles and orchestras and conductors, and of course concerts. It can be a tough, restrictive and lonely life. Then there is the traveling, living out of a suitcase, sometimes a different place each night, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic, fine foreign cities viewed through the fog of travel fatigue. These days, audience expectations seem higher than ever and so the pressure to achieve is matched only by the pressure to sustain, and  the uncomfortable knowledge that one’s reputation is only as good as one’s last performance.

To sustain a successful solo career it strikes me that one needs a thick skin, a keen focus and a hefty dose of self-belief and self-reliance. If my Meet the Artist interviews have revealed one key insight (amongst many other fascinating revelations), it is that a musician, whatever their discipline, must remain true to themselves and their own artistic vision. Yet, it can be hard not to endlessly compare oneself with others, with one’s peers, and wonder whether one should be doing it differently.

Alongside this, I feel that the wealth of high-quality recordings available today places an additional burden on performers to produce faultless performances every time. Competitions are also to blame in this regard, with performers under pressure to produce a
perfect rendition in artificial surroundings.

Today digital and social media mean that concert artists can offer innovative ways of traveling well-trodden paths, which can shine a new light on their work and provide audiences with different insights into the working and creative life of the musician. Valentina Lisitsa is perhaps the most famous example of this. Her YouTube films of her practise sessions and her concerts receive millions of hits. But this pianist is no nine-day wonder: I heard her at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year and was impressed to discover she is a “real pianist”, not just a YouTube sensation. Sure, the internet has contributed to her success, but fundamentally she is a committed and very genuine concert artist.

Many pianists working today are stepping outside the traditional concert hall to present music in more informal and/or intimate settings; others are engaged in unusual collaborations, pushing the boundaries of the instrument, commissioning new works, and inspiring the next generation of young musicians.

I will include my personal “top 5″ pianists of today at the end of this post. In the meantime, I’d like to publish some of the comments I received on Facebook in response to Martin Kettle’s article:

“… say that [today's pianists] are boring is just ignorant of the fact that there are musicians who can give phenomenal performances which will be in the memory of the keen listener for some time. Though there are dozens more, amongst my favourite living pianists are: Claudius Tanski, Grigory Sokolov, Arcadi Volodos, Maurizio Pollini, Carlo Grante, Daniil Trifonov, the list goes on…..” (LJ)

“Murray Perahia for his consistent excellence…. Andras Schiff for his peerless Bach, Stephen Hough for his thoughtful and sensitive playing, Gabriela Montero for her impossible improvisation skills, and Benjamin Grosvenor for his precocity….” (MH)

“In my lifetime I’ve heard Richter, Cherkassky, Perahia, Baremboim, Lugansky, Schiff, Argerich, Ax, Pletnev et al – all original, all interesting. I lament what competitions, conservatoires and editing suites have done and that a style epitomised by Cortot, Friedmann, Paderewski has been left behind, but boring? Not really” (DG)

“Pianists in “olden” days didn’t have and couldn’t conceive of the post-modernisms and post-colonialsms we have now. Meaning our “now” is about curating and curatorship rather than the “authenticity” of first-hand connection between pianist and composer. There’s also the interesting point about “boredom” in the title of the article – John Cage has pointed out boredom describes what we feel when we don’t connect to the moment, the now. Cage’s point was non-connection is fine (and also it’s temporary). It belongs to the individual rather than whatever the individual is looking at or hearing or experiencing…” (MP)

“There are many tremendously gifted pianists today, performing, recording and in intimate new venues scattered throughout the world…….there are exceptional musicians out there. The recital will thrive, and I surmise there will always be a turnover of talent as generations overlap. I actually see the piano as very much alive. There is a new generation of players studying now, and they will soon be noticed.” (JB)

“This idea of a ‘great’ artist is simply personal taste” (JdC)

“Technology, YouTube, new artists, have expanded classical pianist visibility on an extraordinary level. Simply stated, there is something for everyone now.” (JB)

My top 5 living concert pianists:

Murray Perahia – consistently excellent in all repertoire. I particularly like his ability to highlight the interior architecture and secondary voices in Bach and Chopin.

Grigory Sokolov – insightful Bach and Chopin coupled with an exquisite sound

Marc-Andre Hamelin – pianist and composer, Hamelin is, to my mind, a modern-day Liszt. A real musical polymath who combines extraordinary technical prowess with glorious sound and profound musical understanding.

Maria-Joao Pires – sensitive, thoughtful playing, interesting and exciting collaborations, beautiful sound, particularly in Schubert and Mozart

Yevgeny Sudbin – his exquisite touch and gorgeous soundworld blew me away when I heard him at the Wigmore earlier this year. Insightful and penetrating performances.

Please feel free to leave comments and contribute to the discussion







Meet the Artist……Kathleen Ryan, composer and pianist

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

I have just been making up music since I was very young and have kept on.  Music inspired me.

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

Musical life:  music of Gershwin (my first love), Schubert, Copland, folk songs, blues, and basically every sound I’ve ever heard; plus my piano teachers Barbara Lister-Sink and Alice Shapiro.   And almost most importantly, my dear friend the late Geoffrey Golner, a piano-playing theoretical physicist who loved music, had a very discerning taste, and encouraged me even when I believed “doing music” was useless!

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

Recognizing that I am actually a composer!  I think of myself as a pianist who makes up music.  It has taken me a long time to realize that a pianist who makes up music is a composer.

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

The special challenge:  Creating music with my authentic voice while also discovering what the person commissioning the music really wants.

The special pleasure:  The kind of back-and-forth that Keith (Porter Snell) and I had while I was composing ‘Verbs’ for him.

Which works are you most proud of? 

Well, ‘Verbs’ generally, especially the preludes Tangle, Shatter, Release, Bless, and Forgive.  Of the solo pieces I’ve created for myself,  What the Stars Saw on the Prairie, and Something Water, Something Light.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Gershwin, Schubert, Copland, Tavener, Keith Porter-Snell, Barbara Lister-Sink, Lee Bartley.

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

You have a wonderful gift and an opportunity.  Respect yourself, respect your audience.

I believe that most people need more beauty in their lives.  We musicians inspire and uplift our listeners when we are able to express both joy and sorrow through beauty.  It’s not about inflicting our own pain or other ugliness on our listeners.  They have given us a great gift of trust by listening to us (especially those of us who create new music—our listeners have no idea what we might be offering!)  Music can offer a doorway to insight, comfort, joy, peace.

Please note:  I’m not talking about avoiding dissonance!  I’m talking about always reaching for the most refined expression possible, using all the musical resources available to us, which of course includes dissonance.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A suite for piano (2 hands this time) for a wonderful young pianist, Meara Oberdieck; and a chamber ensemble for piano left hand and two violins, for Keith Porter-Snell.   Also, writing down all the improvisational pieces I’ve made up over the years, aka my repertory.  Oh, and editing the print version of ‘Verbs’ for the second edition.

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


What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Morning tea on my porch, watching the mountains across the way and listening to the breeze and the birds, followed by piano time.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Steinway, or possibly my special mug for my morning tea!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing piano for people.


Kathleen Ryan’s ‘Verbs’, a set of 24 impressionistic preludes for piano left hand alone, composed for Steinway artist Keith Porter-Snell, is available now.

In addition to practicing scales and classical repertory on her way to earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, Kathleen Ryan played snare drum in a marching band; wrote and performed singing telegrams; improvised music for avant garde dancers; composed a folk rock opera based on the Tristan and Isolde legend; and sang and danced in a hippie liturgical drama presented at the Ohio State Fair.

After a brief (very brief!) fling as a folk singer, and a somewhat longer interlude as a classical pianist, Kathleen began searching for ways to “sing the piano” — that is, transform the piano into a medium as intimately expressive as the human voice.

“When I am composing,” she says, “I don’t necessarily hear music inside. Instead, I experience a subtle dissatisfaction until the sounds my hands create match the deeper emotion I feel within.”

Read Kathleen’s full biography here


Benjamin Grosvenor at Proms Chamber Music, Cadogan Hall

(picture credit –

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is no stranger to the Proms: in fact, since he made his Proms debut, performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night in 2011, he has become something of a Proms veteran. However, this concert marked his debut in the Chamber Proms, held at Cadogan Hall.

The popular and precocious pianist presented a programme of music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, together with the world premiere of a new commission by Judith Weir, the newly-appointed master of the Queen’s music. A dance theme pulsated through this interesting and varied programme as Grosvenor explored the waltz from the contrasting perspectives of Ravel and Liszt, with interjections from Mompou, and opening with Chopin.

Read my full review here:

Date reviewed: 1st September 2014


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