Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster, pianist

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

I am the youngest of three girls and I always wanted to do everything my sisters did including piano – which I think they found quite annoying! I begged my Mum to allow me to have lessons too, and when I was finally allowed there was no stopping me! A few years on I remember listening to Ashkenazy play Beethoven’s ‘The Tempest’ Sonata in the car and feeling so excited about this fantastic piece and thinking how amazing it would be if I could play it one day. Forging a career as a pianist is not something I really thought about until I went to the Purcell School. Being surrounded by musicians already performing on the International circuit was slightly intimidating, but it motivated me to strive for a career as a performer.

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

There have been so many. More recently my mentor Joanna MacGregor has been an immensely important figure for me. Whilst at the Royal Academy of Music she taught me so much about programming, presentation, life skills, all in addition to playing the piano!  My parents have also been influential. They have been very supportive in a non-pushy way which has allowed me to find my own path and have a genuine passion and drive for what I do.

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

Maintaining balance and focus between my many musical projects, overcoming the post-concert come downs and performing Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks in front of the composer!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I have just recorded my debut album Pinks & Blues which will be released later this year. It’s a mix of classical and contemporary to jazz and blues and includes music by György Ligeti, Bill Evans, Gerswhin, Rzweski, Ravel as well as two new commissions. It took me a long time to decide on the content and order but am proud of it because as well as being my first album I think it takes the listeners on an excursion of familiar and unfamiliar sounds which I hope they’ll enjoy discovering!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel a strong affinity to American Music of the 20th Century. The American ‘can do’ attitude resonates strongly with me. I love a challenge and that is what is often presented by these composers. Charles Ives’s music can often be extremely complex – 13 note chords for example! Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and others pushed boundaries, proving that we are not limited by the piano or traditional techniques.

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

My concerts are often curated and informed by my interests – I like to keep adding new repertoire or presenting the old in new ways. For my next performance at St John’s Smith Square (June 25) I have programmed the Debussy Preludes interspersed with the lesser-known Ruth Crawford-Seeger Preludes for a new perspective. Other concerts coming up include an American programme with violinist Lizzie Ball, a two week residency at Dartington International Summer School performing Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with fantastic soprano Sarah Gabriel and a Film and Piano programme – so I like to keep it varied!

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

This year I performed at the Holders Season in Barbados; it was a grand outdoor venue and a beautiful place – I would definitely like to return there! I also recently performed in a private house concert in Holland Park; I loved the freedom of playing in this relaxed and intimate atmosphere, with some people sitting on the floor, others standing. Here I felt a real involvement and concentration from the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

This changes all the time and depending on the season or even what time of day. I go through phases: recently I had a Mozart Sonata period, listening repeatedly to the complete recordings by Maria João Pires – this is good before noon and it helps to clarify my thoughts. The Britten/Pears recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise are another favourite – I would love to work with a singer on this work. I also spend a lot of time of Spotify exploring new pieces and for when I go running I definitely need something with a beat!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have so many, but to name one of them: Radu Lupu. I adore his deep and warm sound and in particular his Schumann and Brahms recordings.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Martha Argerich at the Royal Festival Hall. I was just a few seats back from the front row watching her play Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and I could hear, feel and see everything – WOW!

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

Well, I am still learning myself, but I would say enjoy challenges, avoid imitation and explore other interests. There never seems enough time to practise at music college, but developing your character and having substance is absolutely crucial.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have recently been studying Debussy with Maestro Bernard Flavigny in Aix-en-Provence. He is a wonderful, charming and very funny man (90 years old!) and was in the same class as Pierre Boulez at the Paris Conservatoire. It was really special working on Debussy with him particularly as he has a direct lineage to the composer through his teachers Messiaen, Cortot and Gieseking.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Practising (with a good coffee and high quality chocolate). When I first left Music College I found I had to do so much aside from practising in order to progress in my career. It was a basic yet incredible discovery for me that I am only happy if I have practised at least several hours a day. Without this I definitely notice a feeling of incompleteness and I’m probably not very pleasant to be around!

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

New York. It’s a city I’ve always been drawn to – it’s a City for dreamers and big ambitions – I love that it never stops – a bit like me and I guess that’s why I am so attracted to it!

Christine McMaster performs works by John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle, Debussy, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina and Richard Bullen at St John’s Smith Square, London on Thursday 25th June. Further details and tickets here

Christina is a highly innovative pianist and curator with a continually growing reputation for bold and vivacious performances.  Christina has performed extensively in major venues including at the Southbank Centre, Kings Place, Aldeburgh Festival and The Holders Season, Barbados. She has won numerous prizes including the Jacob Barnes Award, The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Prize, The CAVATINA Chamber music trust prize and audience prize, and the audience prize in the Jacques Samuels Intercollegiate Competition.  

Christina attended the specialist music school Purcell School and achieved a first from the Royal Academy of Music in 2013, where she studied with her mentor Joanna MacGregor. Christina has continued her education and exploration of 20th Century French Music taking masterclasses with Maestro Bernard Flavigny who has a direct lineage to Debussy.

She has collaborated with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, Director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. Christina is a strong supporter of diversity within and outside of the arts and recently founded Ensemble WOW – an organisation dedicated to promoting equality through unique and imaginative programming.  

Christina is a dedicated performer and discoverer of new music working with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

Upcoming performances include a residency at Dartington International Summer School, Guiting Festival and Ronnie Scott’s. Lookout for Christina’s debut album Pinks & Blues – a fusion of classical, contemporary, jazz and blues released later this year.

High-powered pianism: Francois-Frederic Guy & Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Wigmore Hall

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Hot on the heels of the release of their new disc of works by Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky for two pianos, French pianists François-Fréderic Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet returned to London’s Wigmore Hall to present a programme of music featuring these composers. Three 20th century orchestral scores written within just four years of one another – Bartok’s Two Pictures, Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – were brought to life in a concert replete in colour, rhythmic vitality, sensuality and split-second precision.

I first heard Guy and Bavouzet perform Jeux and The Rite of Spring in 2012 in a concert which brought fire, daring and vertiginous virtuosity to a weekday lunchtime at the Wigmore. To hear the same pianists in the same repertoire three years later was revelatory, for it seems as if the music has matured, like a good wine. This second performance was slicker, yet full of even greater spontaneity and vibrancy.

Read my full review here

Sunday Feature: The Nash Equilibrium and Classical Music

A guest post by Tom Wilson

John Nash, American mathematician and Nobel prize-winner and his wife were recently killed in a tragic car accident. Nash gained recognition as a Nobel laureate but became really famous when he was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the hit film “A Beautiful Mind”.

Nash won his Nobel prize for conceiving the The Nash Equilibrium which spawned Game Theory. The Nash equilibrium is the same as the MiniMax theorum in game theory, which states that “with a zero-sum game, each player does best for himself by minimizing the other player’s payoff”

The easiest example to understand is the pie game. It’s a game of 2 players who can share a pie if they follow 2 rules:

  1. One player cuts the pie any way they want
  2. The other player has the first choice of slices

The winning strategy for Player 1 is to cut the pie exactly in half. Player 1 maximized the minimum size of the piece of pie that would be left after Player 2 chose.

Can game theory explain why new composers find it so difficult to break into mainstream concert programmes?

Here’s how the MiniMax Theorum might be applied to concert going: the concertgoer has a choice between a recital of familiar works by Bach or a recital of unfamiliar contemporary music. MiniMax Theorum  says choice is made by minimizing the maximum regret and suggests that the concertgoer’s winning strategy is to choose the Bach recital since he/she knows they won’t regret hearing Bach but could regret hearing the new piece. So it doesn’t matter how good the new music might be, mathematically the optimum choice is Bach!

Unfortunately, the concertgoer’s choice is further determined by the paucity of new music in mainstream programmes and venues. It comes back to the argument that if we are not exposed to new music, how can we decide if we like it?
For promoters, agents and venue managers, a rather more straightforward strategy is at work: that it is simply too risky to programme new music when a concert featuring familiar works by Bach is likely to ensure a full house, a contented audience and decent revenue from ticket sales.

With the odds apparently stacked against it, how can new music be brought to a wider audience? One very effective way is via social media: “teaser” tweets and imaginative Facebook posts can tempt audiences to try a concert featuring new music, and the promoter/concert organiser can reassure the prospective concertgoer that this may well be music that they will enjoy. One organisation which is doing this very creatively is New Dots, established in 2012 with the aim of creating connections between composers and musicians, and bringing these connections to a broader audience. Concerts take place in unusual venues, further stripping back to the perceived barriers between audience and musicians/composers.

Tom Wilson is an independent revenue management consultant. He is married to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

http://revenuenexus.com/

Further reading:

Our Narrow Repertoire is Holding Classical Music Back (guest post by Simon Brackenborough)

New Music Needs Curators

Where has all the new music gone? (guest post for The Sampler blog)

Meet the Artist……Maria Camahort, guitarist

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

Listening to a friend of mine, when I was 9 years old (and so was she), playing the cello when she just started… which probably didn’t sound exactly wonderful… but to me it did!! And I decided I wanted to start music, and that I wanted to learn the guitar. Since that day that I listened to my friend, I kept saying to my parents during a whole year that I wanted a guitar… and finally I got one for my birthday!

To decide that music would be my career, happened later, at 18 years old. I was starting Bmus in ESMUC (Superior School of Music of Catalonia, in Barcelona), and at the same time Journalism and Public Relations. However my studies at Conservatoire started one week before the University… and during that week I fell in love with the Conservatoire… so on my first day at University (during my first 2 hours of lessons!) I decided to gave up Journalism and dedicate myself entirely to Music.

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

My main two influences were two teachers I had during my studies in Barcelona. I studied with them for several years, and I think it was from studying with them that I developed my own personality as a musician.  Feliu Gasull, Spanish composer and guitarist with a very interesting music language that combines the complexities of contemporary themes and variety of Spanish folk idioms. And Emilio Molina, a pianist specialized in classical improvisation, who is entirely dedicated to change Music education in Spain with a method that he created and that introduces Improvisation from the very beginning of the music learning process.

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

I think the greatest challenge for me has been focusing my career in chamber music and collaborative projects. As a classical guitarist, the main training you get during your studies is as a soloist, and your career is mainly focused in solo repertoire, with only a few projects on the side that involve more musicians. What I love is to learn from playing with other musicians, and that’s what I decided to focus on, before coming to London. And yes, it’s been a challenge!

However, this great challenge has allowed me to broaden my musicianship, as it lead me arranging repertoire (in order to be able to play repertoire that I liked with different ensembles), collaborate with other artistic disciplines (as it is the case of theatre), and actually  start composing my own little songs/themes.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

That’s an easy one… our Quintet debut album “Iberian Colours”, about to release!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The works I arrange/create myself, without doubt. The process of arranging/creating repertoire makes you learn those particular pieces in a deeper level that if you approach a piece directly from a score already written.

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

Usually I work with projects that have already a defined theme, as it is the case of the Quintet (we focus on music by Spanish composers that was influence by traditional songs and dances). If that’s the case, that’s what decides the repertoire.

Sometimes just because I would like to learn a particular piece…

…And many times I listen to the suggestions from the musicians I work with, and go along with them.

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

I like venues that bring different genres of music, or even different artistic disciplines in the same space, and also that they do so in an informal setting although always with respect towards the events and the artists. I think The Forge venue, in Camden, could be a good example of this. But there are many others in London!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

There’s one that always gives me goosebumps when playing, at a particular point of the piece; it is Asturiana by Manuel de Falla. Also, the works by Feliu Gasull always interest me and they are always challenging, technically and musically, so I love to work on them.

Listen to…I don’t know where to start with… Orchestral music always amazes me, so does flamenco… I listen to very different styles of music, I wouldn’t be able to decide!! Lately I’ve been listening to Iberia by Albéniz… and also different works by Walton, the ones written for guitar but also other major works, like the Cello Concerto.

Who are your favourite musicians?

This is going to sound like an easy compliment, but it’s actually true… the ones I work with!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I don’t think I can choose one in particular, and the ones I remember well it’s not because the concert itself, but because the complexity of the project/the hours spend on making the performance happen! I could say about the UK premiere of Feliu Gasull (it involved 15 musicians and lots of music learning), about the collaboration with Guildhall Drama department on the production of Blood Wedding by Federico García-Lorca, and many of the concerts involving the Quintet. Also a concert I did last January in Paris, at Salle Cortot, together with wonderful flutist Lucy Driver.

Again, these memories are not about the concert itself, but what I’ve learnt from the projects…

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

It’s about making them develop their own music personality, … so those ideas and concepts would vary depending on who is the aspiring musician. One thing for sure to say is that during their studies, apart from learning the core repertoire, the required technique, etc… they really need to ask themselves what is that they would like to achieve, and what they would like to work on in the future. Music studies are very demanding, especially from Undergraduate onwards… it could happen that with all that huge amount of hours of practising the repertoire for the auditions and exams, there is no much time left to question yourself what you really would like to focus your music career on.

What are you working on at the moment?

Various things: Obviously working on the quintet project!  Preparing our Cd release in June and our forthcoming performances in July. I’m at the moment arranging a piece from flamenco genre this time, which will be our new one to add on repertoire for the concerts we have at Buxton Festival and Arts in Action.

A concert in 18th June with Soprano Laura Ruhi-Vidal at Instituto Cervantes, which will feature works by catalan composers, especially Roberto Gerhard.

And a collaboration with theatre, with the company Little Soldier Productions, on their mad adaption of the work Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think there is no concept of perfect happiness…but if I would have to describe it, I think the trick is about finding things that makes you smile and projects (professionals and personal!) that make you excited about the future. And to try to be always awake, working towards keeping that energy that children have and share so easily…

The Maria Camahort Quintet’s album ‘Iberian Colours’ is launched on 16th June at a concert at Brixton East. Further information and tickets here

Maria Camahort is a guitarist, ensemble leader, composer and teacher. Graduating with a distinction in MMus Performance from the Guildhall School of Music, and awarded with the Guildhall Artist Fellowship 2010-12, her career has broadened vastly during the last five years. Her exceptional knowledge of her instrument and her devotion towards chamber music and collaborative projects have given her the opportunity to perform in a great variety of genres, settings and contexts.

Maria has performed in several festivals such as Barcelona Guitar Festival, City of London Festival, International Conservatoire Week Festival, Bath Guitar Festival, London Guitar Festival, Kings Place Festival, Edinburgh Guitar & Music Festival, etc. She has performed in venues of many cities, such as Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris, St Petesburg, Warsaw, Cracow, Sevilla, Valencia, Oxford, Edinburgh, Brighton, Orléans, etc. In London, she has performed at Bolivar Hall, St Luke’s, St James´s Picadilly, The Forge, Bishopsgate Institute, Barbican Centre Pit Theatre, The Blue Elephant Theatre, Jackson’s Lane Theatre, Kings Place, St Martin in the Fields and Southbank Centre among others.

mariacamahort.com

A is for……

I am delighted to launch this new series A Pianist’s Alphabet

A what?

A is a beginning word, an adventure. Not knowing what will come next.

A is for a moment in time – how long should it last?

A is for all those Italian musical terms for tempo or expression, so hard to distinguish at first: Andante, Allegro, Adagio, Andantino, Allegretto, Amoroso.

A is for the space before, between, and around the notes, the ether that connects them, the breath of vitality and rhythm.

A is for Anacrusis, the anticipation, the article before a noun, leading to things new and unexplored.

A is for Acciaccatura, the fleeting sound that brushes or crushes into something else, making it pretty or cool, somehow different from the plain note that was there before.

A is for Appoggiatura, the note that makes us wait for resolution, but for how long.

A is for a world of possibilities at the piano

Jane Lakey, pianist and piano teacher

www.janelakeypianoteaching.com

Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Gerald Moore

A is for Accompanying

You will all, I’m sure, be familiar with the saying “those who can do; those who can’t teach”. I expect this attitude is as familiar to piano accompanists as it is to piano teachers. In many ways, piano accompanists are the unsung heroes of the music world. Often thought of as failed performers, they are in fact the backbone of so many concerts and recitals, not to mention millions of graded examinations and diplomas.

Being a piano accompanist requires a great degree of skill and patience; as with teaching, being a brilliant concert pianist doesn’t necessarily make you a great accompanist. Accompanists need to be as quick-witted, with the ability to react in the moment: a necessary skill when your soloist skips two verses of a song, six bars of sonata, or one beat in every bar of a sonatina. Only recently, I read of the accompanist whose soloist had managed to convert the time signature from 4/4 to 5/8 for the entire musical theatre song!

Perhaps the greatest quality of a good accompanist is the ability to be sensitive, not just to the soloist, but to the music too. A good accompanist should enhance and support a performance, not drown it out. Above all, teamwork is a necessity. Both soloist and accompanist have to work together to support and help each other.

So let’s sing the praises of the millions of piano accompanists, so often the general dogsbodies and unsung heroes of the music world.

David Barton, Music Teacher | Composer & Arranger | Freelance Writer | Piano Accompanist

www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk

Modest virtuosity: Murray Perahia at Barbican Centre

The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Read my full review here

Making Sonic Waves with Emmanuel Vass

Named by The Independent as “one to watch” young Yorkshire pianist Emmanuel (“Manny”) Vass is making waves in the iTunes charts (and beyond) with his new CD ‘Sonic Waves’. A compilation of music inspired by water, including Chopin’s ‘Ocean’ and ‘Waterfall’ Etudes, Debussy’s limpid and atmospheric ‘Reflets dans l’Eau’ and Liszt’s ‘Les jeux d’eau a la villa d’Este’, this album is, by Manny’s own admission, a means of to attracting young people to classical music by offering familiar and accessible works, and a few lesser-known pieces. This USP was put to very good use in Manny’s first album ‘From Bach To Bond’ too, in which he combined the familiar with the not so familiar and concluded the album with his own Lisztian take on key themes from the James Bond film soundtracks.

Manny’s new CD was entirely funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and he also does all his own promotion and publicity. He has neither agent nor manager and relies on his on hard work, drive and focus to get things down. He is, in effect, a prime example of the entrepreneurial musician.

Manny was one of the first musicians I interviewed for my Meet the Artist series (the result of a chance encounter on Twitter) and it has been wonderful to see him develop and progress. And with ‘Sonic Waves’ poised to top the iTunes album chart, he really will be riding the crest of the wave!

To accompany the CD, Manny is performing across the UK in venues such as the grandeur of Chatsworth House and Castle Howard to the hip intimacy of The Forge, Camden.

Full details of concert dates and tickets booking links here

Download the album from iTunes

Meet the Artist……Emmanuel Vass

Emmanuel Vass making Sonic Waves at Chatsworth House

Like a Chemist from Canada: when Isaiah met DSCH

A new play by Lewis Owens

In 1958, at the height of his artistic ability and reputation, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was invited by Oxford University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Music, along with fellow musician Francis Poulenc and other dignitaries. From the initial invitation by Oxford to Shostakovich in Moscow, the story is a fascinating, humorous and poignant portrayal of the clash of two distinct, and distinctly insular, worlds: the Byzantine rituals and orotundity of Oxford University and the unsmiling officialdom of Soviet Russia. When Shostakovich finally arrives in Oxford for his three-day stay, hosted by Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, we are presented not only with a unique insight into the inner personalities of Shostakovich, Poulenc, Berlin, Trevor-Roper and others, but also a searing reminder of the value of art in the Cold War period.

The play is based on the official correspondence and telegrams surrounding the visit, first published by Dr Lewis Owens in 2004, including Berlin’s astonishing ruminations on the significance of Shostakovich’s visit.

This story has never been staged before and includes the music of Shostakovich and Poulenc (including performance by internationally acclaimed pianist Colin Stone – see interview below).

Pianist Colin Stone talks about significant teachers, influences, recording and performing:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was only four when my mother started giving me lessons, I don’t think I had a great deal of choice in the matter. I always loved the sound of the piano and I was certainly inspired by her playing but equally I remember many family rows caused by my reluctance to practise and eventually I was sent to the junior department of RCM.
Who or what are the biggest influences on your career as a pianist?
I believe we always owe more to our teachers than we realise. Norma Fisher in particular was pivotal in helping me acquire some mastery over the instrument. Later, when I went to Oxford I was extremely lucky to be introduced to André Tchaikowsky, the most prodigiously gifted musician I have ever met. His death in 1982, my last year at Oxford, was not only a huge loss to the world of music but a personal tragedy as well. My last teacher was Edith Vogel. All three of them made deep and lasting impressions on me as a musician.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
Anyone who tries to make a career in music is facing a huge challenge. The biggest challenge can be simply planning one’s time. If you accept too many commitments, in the form of students or concerts, and you have a family as well, you suddenly find that there are not enough hours in the day. In terms of specific musical challenges I would put my performance of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich somewhere near the top. Without doubt the most nerve-wracking performance was a live broadcast premier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Rob Keeley’s piano concerto. I still don’t understand quite how it came together with so little rehearsal. A real testament to the amazing skills of that particular band of musicians and the conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Which recordings & performances are you most proud of?
I’ve made a number of solo piano recordings some of which I find difficult to listen to with the passing of the years. I prefer to listen to my collaborations with other musicians.
I am very proud of the duo with my dear friend Rustem Hayroudinoff. The CD we made for Chandos of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony in its version for two pianos was a real highlight.  Similarly, the recordings I made with the London Mozart Trio, in particular our recording of Smetana’s trio, give me cause for optimism.
Which works do you think you perform best?
I have no idea what works I perform best, I think that is for others to judge. I will say that I am most happy playing music with strong contrapuntal interest.
Favourite pieces to listen to? And to perform?
There is so much wonderful music, I have always thought that compiling a list in the manner of Desert Island Discs would be a complete torment. I find that I have occasional cravings; perhaps to hear a late Beethoven string quartet or a Bruckner Symphony or perhaps something played by Oscar Peterson but appetites change.
In my mind a number of performances have merged together. I have a very vivid and special memory of playing Schuberts B-flat trio. Vivid in the sense that the physical place was not important but the atmosphere in that glorious slow movement has somehow distilled itself into my mind. Without wishing to sound unduly pretentious that music really does transport one to another place.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I have been trying to write a book about the numerous things I wish my students knew. I think my biggest concern is that there is a YouTube culture that interferes with the process of students learning how to read a score. I have to beg my students not to rush out and listen to random performances of the pieces they are about to learn. I have nothing against them listening to other performances after they have studied the score but I do find it a problem when they treat the process of learning music as an aural tradition. I think the imagination is best served by discovering the music afresh, direct from the score.
Tell us more about working with Lewis Owens on his new play?
Lewis is a remarkable man. His erudition on the subject of Shostakovich is well known but I was surprised to discover that he has such gifts as a dramatist. It has been very easy for me to work on this with him, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and in those few areas of uncertainty he was brilliant at finding the solutions by picking the brains of his colleagues.

“The life of Isaiah Berlin contained several episodes that cry out for theatrical treatment, and Lewis Owens here dramatises one of them, co-starring Shostakovich, with intelligence and flair.” Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin’s editor, Wolfson College, Oxford

“A very imaginative and unusual play.” Peter Bien, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College, USA

“The play portrays, in sharp focus and with an immense attention to detail, not only the visit of Shostakovich to Oxford but, and as significantly, the various machinations that lay behind the apparent success of the visit. There are surprises too, both musically and politically speaking.” Alan Mercer, DSCH Journal editor

Performances include the play in the first half and a recital of music for piano and ‘cello by Liszt, Poulenc and Shostakovich in the second half.

13th June, 7pm – Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R 4TN. Tickets

14th June, 7pm – The Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT. Tickets

3rd July, 7pm – The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ. Tickets

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Meet the Artist……Tobin Mueller, pianist and composer

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

As a pre-teen, I taught myself the piano, after abandoning piano lessons in 3rd grade. Coming from a musical family, however, there was a great deal of musical osmosis. Two of my older siblings played guitar, and my initial piano style sounded more like fingerpicking than piano. Later, at age 14, I began accompanying my mother, who sang Jazz standards, and my style expanded as I help to arrange more and more of her music. But what inspired me the most happened on my sister’s deathbed, when she was 19. She told me to learn Joni Mitchell’s “River”, not just to play it, but to understand it. The act of playing the piano has always included an element of that moment.

Perhaps the most important psychological push that directed me to make music my career was the story passed down to me from my mother regarding my grandfather. In the days of silent pictures, Grandpa John had been a violinist for a beautiful movie house in Wisconsin. When talkies took over, he became the theater’s janitor. He would play violin at home, accompanied by his wife on piano, but she never appreciated his demanding expectations. So he took up the banjo and, on it, would write a special song for every family member’s birthday, as well as many holidays. But he carried a certain humbled sadness throughout the rest of his life, rarely playing the violin after that. My mother’s spin on the story gently encouraged me to do what her father could not: make music for a living. She urged me to follow my dream, but it was always implied that music should be that dream. The piano was the only instrument that seemed all mine, on which I played mostly self-composed or self-arranged music. I still sit at the piano and improvise for hours. When I am lost in my own music, I am most certainly living within my dreaming, in precisely the way my mother had intended.

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

It’s very difficult to hone my list of influences down to a few. Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky, Bach, Copland; George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett; Joni Mitchell, Rick Wakeman (Yes), Keith Emerson (ELP), Bruce Hornsby; Stephen Sondheim. My musical career hasn’t followed an ordinary path, if there is such a thing. I played Jazz and 20th Century Modernism in college (1970s), while learning Classical music; was one of the initial developers of New Age piano in the late 70s-early 80s; began writing, performing and touring Musical Theatre in the 1980s; moved to Manhattan to pursue musical theatre writing/composing in the 1990s; wrote my last musical drama in 2005, the same year I recorded my first solo piano album.

When I became a solo piano artist in 2005, I went back to my roots. My music was labeled Jazz, but was really a Neo-Classical/New Age/Jazz hybrid. As such, I am able to synthesize all my favorite disparate styles under the eclectic umbrella of personal expression… I have my own sound and try to have everything I play fall into that genre-less category.

The most important musical influences often depended on the different projects I became involved in. For example, Astor Piazzolla influenced the score I wrote for a film shot in Bucharest, utilizing mostly Tango rhythms. Stephen Sondheim peered over my shoulder while I was writing my musicals staged in NYC. Dave Brubeck, a personal mentor, watched through my eyes as I choose voicings and worked out fingerings. Keith Jarrett’s sense of cool innovation also casts its shadow. But, I must say, the ghost of my sister is the greatest influence.

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

The first challenge was to find a place to thrive: I lived in a small town in Wisconsin (a northern Midwest state in the USA). I could become a big fish in a small pond, receive positive feedback and good press, but had little professional criticism (which you need to improve) and a limited market. I became friends with many fabulous Wisconsin musicians who still rank among the best I’ve ever worked with, but I needed to move to New York City, the center of musical theatre, if my career was to blossom. Or, so I believed.

Extended gigs in NYC, which eventually took up 6 months of the year, ended in my moving to the West Village and, then, getting a divorce. Dealing with that disconnect was difficult. Being an involved stay-at-home father had been a huge aspect of my sense of self. Now I was 1000 miles away from my kids. It was very lonely, depressing. I dealt with this sense of guilt and dislocation by working all the time.  And I mean nearly every waking moment. I slept only a few hours a day, wrote 1-5 songs a week, recorded whenever I could, constantly networked with others, and never rested. This was my late 30s, early 40s, and it became my most important growth period.

For the most part, nearly every project in my musical career involved something I didn’t know enough about yet, something I was intensely curious about, a style I hadn’t yet conquered, an intellectual or creative challenge. It is part of what drives me, this internal artistic restlessness. A desire to know more. An agitation to grow. An inability to say no to a request for something I might not be qualified for, yet. I have an aversion to repetition. It keeps me young (if I can use that term metaphorically).

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I always think my latest recording is my best. My 2015 double album, “Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller” is my best piano recording, technically, but might also be the best at striking a balance between my drive to sound innovative and the audience’s need for accessibility and conceptual clarity. “Impressions of Water and Light” extended my musicality tremendously, incorporating stylings of Impressionism. I think I learned the most doing that album. (I’m always proud when I learning things.) But “Flow” is the most difficult playing I’ve done, and, at least until my next album, is my favorite performance.

My three jazz ensemble recordings all make me smile. It’s hard to compare an ensemble project with a solo one. There are so many more memories, so much more energy that grows out of an ensemble project. The logistics and time required to organize players, recording sessions and post-production, etc., make those projects more like events, plus working with great musicians provides better stories. My latest Jazz recording, “Come In Funky”, which features legendary bassist Ron Carter, received good reviews, but I think “The Muller’s Wheel” had stronger sessions, and “Rain Bather” won more accolades.

I like all my instrumental albums better than those on which I sing. But that may be my own  sense of criticalness about my voice.

Two musicals also rank up there as my proudest work: a progressive rock opera “Creature”, based on the Frankenstein story; and “Runners In A Dream”, an intimate story of survival and imagination/madness set in the Holocaust. (You can see that I tend toward the dramatic and macabre.) I love writing about death, or cheating death, or finding meaning around death. But I also love to write about those things using beautiful and thrilling music.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I play my own works better than I play other people’s. I am far more comfortable doing so. Tackling Bach was humbling. Although I love the arrangements where I flip between Bach’s score and my own inventions in quick succession (seamlessly, I hope). But the second CD from “Flow” might be my favorite CD I’ve ever recorded. The two original piano suites on Disc 2 enabled me to use theme and variation over 6 movements, which I love. Yet, the piece I replay the most is “Joy” (based on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), the first track from Disc 1.

My piano style favors Bill Evans style Jazz, or the constantly changing keys of Fred Hersch. As I get older and my hands and wrists hurt more and more, I prefer slower pieces. I have to prepare longer than I used to in order to play fast. Perhaps my best performances happen when I’m playing all by myself in my living room, however. I actually don’t like audiences that much anymore. I take more valuable risks when I am by myself.

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

At the height of my musical theatre career, I would write a show and get it produced in 9 to 12 months, sometimes going into rehearsals before every song was finished. The subject/stylings of the show came from internal curiosities and fascinations, but had to be backed by my financial team of producers. So there was a collaborative defining process that would occur before I would throw myself into the writing/composing process.

After 9/11/2001, everything changed for me. The New York Off-Broadway scene didn’t want serious musical dramas for several years after the terrorist attack. I lost my backers. I had to start over. My next show took over 3 years to mount, after a long succession of readings, etc. Then my health starting to fail and all of my choices were altered. I’ve had 16 collapsed lungs. The damage I’ve suffered from volunteering at Ground Zero, along with a genetic disorder, A1AD, began to affect me seriously when I turned 54 years of age, and has forced me to reduce stress to very low levels. My nerves sometimes swell, my muscles cramp, I have coughing spells, I tire easily. Live performances are few and far between. I try to do only studio work now.

Currently, I choose my next project as if it will be my last. What do I want to “say” if it’s the last music I leave behind me?

There is an interesting thread that runs through my last solo piano recording projects. It started in 2013 when I decided to finally do a Christmas album (after having it been requested/suggested to me for many years). “Midwinter Born” had 18 tracks, a long album, but I still had musical ideas that didn’t get included. I ran out of space. One of these ideas turned into a Jazz arrangement of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and formed the basis of my next project, “Impressions of Water and Light.” Thrilled with how fulfilling these two project became, re-arranging “Classical” piano music, it occurred to me how long it had been since I played any Bach. Over three decades! That’s how “Flow” began. It was not originally going to be a double album, but the idea of writing original music for a second disc, to show how Bach effected my own compositions, seemed a perfect balance. Plus, I hadn’t written anything original since 2012. While putting my personal spin on Bach, I realized Chopin was an even greater influence, thus my next project has presented itself. “Of Two Minds: The Music of Chopin and Mueller.”  I like the continuity.

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

Can I say “my living room”?

I prefer being a studio musician. I feel less pressure to be perfect, more freedom to experiment, and need to medically avoid stress. I’ve always preferred rehearsing to performing, so maybe I’ve always had an aversion to live performance. I get quite nervous before performances, intestinal upset and all that. My favorite moments are often in the rehearsal process. Most performances are a blur.

One of my favorite places to perform was The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh WI. Fabulously well-preserved, great acoustics, it also had a rich history of fabled hauntings and ghostly sightings. The Green Room was off a dark maze of tunnels and pipes. One time, while singing by myself on the Opera House stage, I let my emotions run away with me and began crying, for real, as I sang. It was one of the most emotional highs I’ve ever achieved while performing. But, at the end of the song, when I thought I had created a transcendental moment for the audience, I looked down and saw a string of mucus, illuminated like a glowing gossamer thread, coming from my nose. I deftly wiped my nose as I finished the song, hiding my embarrassment. But it taught me a very important lesson: It’s not the emotion you conjure up within yourself that is important, but the emotions you stir within your audience. Being self-consumed on stage can lead to a performance disaster.

Favorite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing songs from The American Songbook and giving them a peculiar Tobin Mueller spin. “Over the Rainbow”, “Impossible Dream”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “The Long & Winding Road” are masterpieces that should never be played the same way twice. The fluidity and unpredictability of the moment works well within emotional songs.

Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Fliter’s 2014 release, “Chopin Preludes.” But I might also mix in 1960s Bob Dylan, 1970s Chick Corea, 1980s Michael Hedges, 1990s John Medeski, 2000s John Scofield, recent Fred Hersch.

Who are your favorite musicians? 

Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Loussier, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch; Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, The Brecker Brothers…

My favorite musician to play with is my Jazz collaborator and saxophonist Woody Mankowski, from Los Angeles CA (although we met when he lived in DePere WI).

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of the most memorable moments that occurred while I was attending someone else’s concert occurred when I was a short-on-funds college student. My University had a special program in which students could attend concerts at the Milwaukee P.A.C. at greatly reduced rates. I bought season tickets to several concert series.  At one concert, Virgil Fox played all by himself at center stage on an organ specially outfitted for maximum visual drama. At the time, I wasn’t that familiar with Virgil Fox, and, in my arrogant youthfulness put him in a category with Liberace, someone more interested in showmanship than art. I had box seats, fabulous. Somewhere in the middle of his first set, he performed “Ave Maria” (Gounod/Bach). I was transfixed. I lost my peripheral vision. Really. The world fell away and only that man playing that music existed. No other performer has done that to me, except when I saw my daughter sing a duet with Hans Christian Anderson, “And my thumb”, as a three year old Thumbelina.

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

There is no destination achieved, no goals that sustain, only a never ending process. Your work will never stop. But that’s a good thing. At moments of depression, dislocation and discouragement, you can return to your music and continue to perfect your craft, and a sense of peace and direction will come. As you nurture your skills and breadth of knowledge, music will nourish, in turn.

Consider the perspective that the journey is not as much about you as it is about the music. Serve the music, and you will find your internal life expand. Sometimes music isn’t even about music. Rather, it is the sum of your experience, an expression of those who you have encountered winding their way through your fingers and hands. In that way, music ties you to something beyond your life, inclusively.

Remember, it’s called “playing” for a reason. Retain the childlike innocence and expressive joy that is at the heart of play. Never let the work overshadow the wordless spirit that is given voice through your skills and energies. But always honor the work; it is essential.

That said, I get the most satisfaction out of composing and creating my own music, feeling the thrill of creative improvisation, and getting lost in the music making process. My moments at my own piano, in my own living room, free of stress and critique, are my most cherished music moments. Never lose that intensely intimate personal relationship with your music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I will be reinterpreting and rearranging several pieces by Chopin, adding an equal number of original pieces. I may play a Chopin Prelude and then play an original piece in response. The accompanying booklet might incorporate some of George Sands words, not sure yet. The working title is “Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin & Tobin Mueller.” The more I explore Chopin, the harder it will be to trim down the pieces I will want to tackle. I think another double album might be necessary…

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

I’d like to be alive. And healthy enough to play. Breathing well enough to sing. And maybe live in a place with lower property taxes. Ha!

The last thing my mother said to me before she died, in a barely audible whisper: “make…history…not…money…” I figured it was code for “don’t worry about anything but your music.” She had to say it in as few words as possible. Perhaps she meant “history” in the personal sense. I will always be working on making that kind of history, thinking up things no one has done in quite the same way. Doing something new, for me, at least.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

“Perfect” anything is a phantom. Thinking that perfect happiness is a real goal can set you up for a life of frustration and disappointment. You might even regret being “merely” happy. Happiness is fleeting, like any emotion. Enjoy it as it exists. It is a byproduct of other actions and thoughts, not really a thing held in its own right.

Some people are born happy. Or not. I was. Sometimes things that sadden, such as the memory of lost ones, can bring deep joy. The paradox of joy that comes from carrying the weight of ghosts on your shoulders is profound. This sort of dual emotion is far more interesting than pure happiness, in my experience.

I’ve had my successes. But life more often follows a pattern of failure, recognition, redemption; moments of confusion and defeat, followed by growth and a sense of meaning. And, hopefully, self-understanding. Failure can introduce you to yourself and remind you that you are not the person you thought you were. Not yet, at least. It can open doors to a better you. Often, this is how honest art is born.

Risk, failure, and trying something new, more than happiness, are pieces of the larger narrative, even if happiness is the destination we all strive for. On that journey, making music is my refuge.

What is your most treasured possession? 

I thought long and hard on this. My beautiful mahogany grand piano? My favorite fedora? My home, my backyard gardens, my art collection? My personal discography? My family?… If I’m honest, I have to say: my new iPhone. It’s the one thing never far from my hand. Sadly. Although my grand piano and family might win in the long term.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides moments alone with my wife? Or my personal concerts for her after I’ve cooked dinner and she’s done the dishes? Hmm… Not sure anything beats those two…

I love creating something new. Mostly, that’s music. But not always.

Tobin Mueller’s latest album Flow: the Music of J S Bach and Tobin Mueller is available now. Further details at www.tobinmueller.com

The Imperfect Pearl: A Baroque Fairytale

Part play, part opera ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ or ‘Perola Barroca’ (the derivation of the term baroque) explores the life and music of one of the Baroque periods most overlooked and forgotten about composers, Domenico Zipoli, whose his manuscripts lay undiscovered for 200 years in a box marked ‘toilet paper.’ The performance not only represents the return of Zipoli to the repertoire but also pianist Mark Latimer to the stage after pioneering treatment for Dupuytren’s contracture which was generously funded by Help Musicians UK and the Royal Society of Musicians.

For more than 200 years the enigma of Domenico Zipoli’s music and inspirational life lay forgotten in the dusty archives of the 18th century Roman Jesuits and the Missions they founded in the rainforests of South America, present day Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.  His strange departure from Rome in 1716 where he was a revered composer, to an uncertain future in the lands across the ocean, is the sad and yet beautiful story told in ‘The Imperfect Pearl’.

Described by The Independent as “sumptuous and romantic”, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ features Baroque keyboard, chamber and vocal music from Italy and South America, and was ccreated in collaboration with writer William Towers, and opera director Emma Rivlin.

Full details of tour dates here

I caught up with Mark Latimer to ask him about the inspiration behind The Imperfect Pearl and to talk more generally about his musical life.

Tell us more about how you conceived ‘The Imperfect Pearl’, what was the inspiration behind this music-drama and what have been the main challenges and pleasures of creating this music-drama and working with the actors and musicians to bring the story to life? 

You know that old adage about a million monkeys strumming on a million typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, they would never come up with the life story of Domenico Zipoli! As bizarre a story as anyone could ever imagine. On the cusp of a successful career in Italy, he turns his back on the entire enterprise and goes to South America to become a Jesuit. He died there aged just 37 and his music remained largely undiscovered until, staggeringly, 1972 when it was discovered in a priest’s lavatory! You couldn’t make this stuff up. This extraordinary biography was the impetus and the inspiration for creating and conceiving the project. The challenges were and still are immense. So little was and is known about Zipoli, such of his music that’s extant is either implausibly difficult to source and get hold of, lots of it exists in hard to read manuscript, and our current rural touring scheme involves venues that are not really suited to this kind of theatrical presentation, even a comparatively small-scale production – we’re not talking exactly RSC proportions here – is prohibitively expensive to put on, and logistically it’s a nightmare trying to gather all the disparate elements together. Indeed had it not been for two very substantial Arts Council grants it would have been impossible. My wife, who is producer and my co-creator of the show, and I have been monumentally fortunate in securing a team that is in every respect world-class and I’ll never be able to thank them all adequately. But between us all, in the face of sometimes apparently insurmountable obstacles, we actually HAVE brought it to life. With regard to the difficulties with my hands, in some respect I consider myself fortunate that these things did occur, for had they not I may still be hacking my way through Alkan, Busoni, Reger et al.. I know for a fact, I would never therefore have ever discovered Zipoli at all. And my life would’ve been infinitely the poorer for that!

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

Having unsuccessfully tried aged seven, to negotiate and navigate my way around the clarinet as a result of my poor late father’s immense collection of jazz 78s and realizing I was blowing through the wrong end, I jacked it in pronto! Some years subsequently, the Headmaster of my Junior School needed someone to play for assemblies and as I was the only kid who had even a rudimentary capacity to read music – albeit at that juncture only the treble clef – he nominated me to have a bash, pardon the pun, at it. It seems in retrospect that I must have had some kind of aptitude for it as I seemed to progress quite quickly and without too much impediment. As far as pursuit of a career, thinking back I had no real aptitude for or affinity with anything else…

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

One of my first and unquestionably most formative teachers was the great, great man Albert Ferber, to begin with his unique heritage – he was a student of both Rachmaninov and Gieseking – probably meant little or nothing at the time to a callow kid like me, but we became best of friends, his entire persona – charming, suave, genteel – alone was a massive, massive influence. And of course, there was the supernaturally towering figure of John Ogdon. We likewise became immensely good friends and in terms of sheer colossal intellect and ability he is and will always remain unsurpassed. And I still miss him. Then there was my teacher at the Royal College of Music, Angus Morrison who knew Ravel, Walton, the Sitwells inter alia, a truly ineffably wonderful musician and gentleman. Finally Jorge Bolet whom I knew quite well as for about three weeks in the early eighties we shared the same management. Had it not been for the first time I met him – a road to Damascus moment for all the WRONG reasons – I would never have started smoking! As a brief corollary to all this, I was once interviewed for the post of Head of Keyboard at a major UK institution and I was asked why everyone I ever knew and worked with was dead!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Without question the ‘Take 2 – Unhinged’ album for Spotlite Jazz Records. We did a whole bunch of complicated stuff and half of the record is my own compositions. We did it in just six hours, the five of us had never all worked together previously and I had pleurisy at the time. I think that CD is my greatest achievement.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can only recall two with any modicum of vividity, and both for entirely the wrong reasons; I visited China loads of times but at one stadium concert in Hangzhou, I was towards the end of La Campanella – halfway through the long high D sharp trill – and the entire 25,000 audience suddenly burst into applause. Didn’t know how to react to such spontaneous appreciation, which is very common there – along with other such unusual concert activities as having telephone conversations, babies crying, the habitual spitting!  

The other was centuries ago. I did a concert at Wigmore Hall but the day before substituted an advertised piece for one by a composer friend who died the previous week. The ‘critic’ reviewed the ‘unplayed’ advertised programme. The fact that the review was damning was less important to me than the heretic act itself. 

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

Everything’s a challenge; getting up in the morning, getting old, non-smoking long-haul flights etc.. Maybe dealing with the diagnosis of Dupuytrens Disease, a subject I’ve written much about lately owing to the interest in our production, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ being on tour was one of the greatest challenges. The loss of the use of one’s hands and all that that implies, not wishing to sound melodramatic, really is akin to a death or bereavement.

https://youtu.be/6D_OdtInwCQ

A Safe Pair of Hands? – Mark Latimer describes his diagnosis and treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture and talks about his return to music

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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