London Haydn Plaque to be unveiled by Sir Neville Marriner

On the 24 March Sir Neville Marriner will unveil a commemorative plaque in central London to celebrate the work of the composer Joseph Haydn.

The plaque is the first dedicated to Haydn in London. When he visited for the first time in 1791, the composer was at least as popular as his contemporary, Mozart. Though Mozart has three plaques in London, Haydn had none, despite fifty years of attempts to establish one.

Now, taking inspiration from the successful subscription concerts of his day, the Haydn Society of Great Britain has raised funds through a crowdfunding campaign to commission and install the plaque. In addition to Sir Neville Marriner, both the director of the Haydn Society Denis McCaldin and the Austrian ambassador will speak at the unveiling.

The Haydn plaque will be unveiled at 18 Great Pulteney Street, Soho, London W1F 9NE in Soho on 24 March at midday (12pm), a week before the composer’s birthday.

A Richter Miscellany

Remembering Sviatoslav Richter, on the centenary of his birth, in words, pictures and music….. Please feel free to add more reminiscences, articles, pictures, video etc in the comments box below….

Sviatoslav Richter 1992 ©roberto ugolini
Sviatoslav Richter 1992
©roberto ugolini

Rubenstein on Richter:

“I was curious to hear the “great Richter” and went to his concert. He played three pieces by Ravel, simply incredibly! A sound of prodigious beauty! I had never heard before a piano sound like that. It was an other instrument. It brought tears to my eyes. Richter is a gigantic musician with great intelligence. He plays the piano, and the piano responds. He sings with the piano.”

Richter’s aversion to television (article)

Sviatoslav Richter about himself

I was born in Zhitomir in 1915, in Berditchev Street which was later called Karl Marx Street, even though it turned into Berditchev Highway, thus preserving the original name. This highway led to a bridge over the Teterev River. In a cabin at the edge of the city – I am digressing – lived Irina Ivanova, whom I knew as a girl, and her mother. When you entered the cabin, you ran the risk of tumbling head over heels. Irina later became the wife of Lev Nikolaevich Naumov. Neuhaus was very fond of him. Naumov was a magnificent musician, almost a saintly one, and was a loyal adherent of the Neuhaus School. A likeable and emotional man. I heard him play Chopin’s fourth Scherzo wonderfully well… From the bridge, looking to the left, one could make out a church in the distance, and it awakened hopes, as it were, of something both fascinating and mysterious. I always had a longing to go there – the name of the village was Stanishovka – but we never got there. The grown-ups always dodged my questions, they ascribed no importance to them. Stanishovka will remain forever in my memory… My first memories are dreams.

Aus Walentina Tschemberdschi
Swjatoslaw Richter, Eine Reise durch Sibirien
Residenz-Verlag Salzburg 1992

Sviatoslav Richter is dead – New York Times obituary

Benjamin Britten listens to a point being made by Richter in 1968. (Photography: Brian See)

Maris Jansons: “This is [pianist] Sviatoslav Richter and my father rehearsing when the Leningrad Philharmonic was at its summer home. It was around 1953. I knew all the artists very well; they were very good friends with my father. It was a family there in the summertime. We all lived for two months in a hotel, so we spent breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Of course I didn’t speak too much because I was quite shy. Since I studied music, it was all so interesting. I was all the time in the musical atmosphere … and I learned intrigue, bad things, things behind the scenes.”


Schubert Sonata in G Major, D 894

Richter in his own words….

“The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.” Or, similarly: “I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror . . . Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.”

Richter on Stalin’s funeral (from Richter: The Enigma, a film by Bruno Monsaingeon)

The Wild Man of Classical Music – filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon recalls his first meeting with Richter

Meet the Artist……Fabrizio Chiovetta

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

My older brother used to play the piano, so there was a piano in the house which I ended up spending more time with.   I loved to imitate what I heard and to improvise.  I went to study piano at conservatoire and even though music was my life-blood, I was interested in so many things – I studied maths, Italian literature, Latin and musicology at Universitybut in the end, the piano just stuck very naturally.

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

The professor who had the strongest influence on me was undoubtedly Dominique Weber. He was taught by Eduardo Vercelli and Leon Fleisher, where he also served as an assistant at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. His instinct and his musical intelligence make him an extraordinary pianist and outstanding pedagogue. During the 4 years I studied with him, he helped me consolidate my technique and develop my sense of structure, rhythm and beauty of sound. He taught me the need to be engaged fully, to communicate and to search for my own sense of expression. He was an ideal professor. Dominique Weber’s recitals, which I am delighted to have listened to, have been unforgettable moments in my life as a musician.

I often played for Paul Badura-Skoda, the most illustrious representative of the Viennese tradition. With him, I had an opportunity to study works of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert on original instruments. His open-minded approach and broad interests enriched his understanding of art and this was a major source of inspiration to me.

I also have regularly taken classes with John Perry in Germany. John Perry is one of the most talented musicians I have met. His knowledge of the repertoire is impressive. He is a magnificent artist, able to move his audience as he sits at the piano. He can draw out the best out of each student while respecting their own personality.

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

There have been so many.  One recent example which springs to mind was recording two discs at the same time of Schumann Lieder and Haydn sonatas in four days.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Even if I would do everything again differently today, I still have a close recognition of those recordings and I don’t know which ones I prefer of the three for solo piano – Schumann, Schubert or Haydn.  This is compounded by the different circumstances – all three in 3 different halls with 3 different pianos – so they all have their own personalities and reflect where I was at the time of playing them.

A challenge presented itself recently which I am particularly happy about.   I was due to go to hear a concert at a festival an hour and a half away from home.   I had bought the ticket online, and I was just walking out the door, when the festival director gave me a ring to say that the pianist due to perform that evening was ill and did I want to play instead. I went back inside to change and I arrived on the stage at the last minute.  The strange thing is that probably if the director had phoned me the day before, I’d probably have turned it down, but the fact that the suggestion had come just at two hours notice, it was was so mad that I had gone ahead with it without thinking and chose the programme in the car on the way.  The concert went very well and it was the first time that I had bought a ticket to my own recital.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

That’s something to ask the audience.   I’m particularly drawn to the German repertoire, and audiences seem to find that I have a particular affinity for Schubert.

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

There are promoters who ask me to perform certain works.  If not, I try to find a balance between something new and pieces I already have in my repertoire.

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

There are so many, but I am very happy to be returning in a couple of weeks time to Sala Mahler di Dobbiaco in Italy for the next recording of Bach (French Overture, 4th English Suite and the 1st Partita).    The acoutic is fabulous, and I will be playing a very wonderful piano – a Steinway D which is called Rufus, prepared by my favourite technician.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

It’s always a pleasure to play Schubert, which is often requested by promoters.   I often go to concerts, not only of classical music, and I seldom listen to piano discs.  At home, I willingly listen to jazz, lieder and string quartets.   A disc I particularly like is of pieces for lute by Bach played by Jakob Lindberg. 

Who are your favourite musicians?

It’s difficult to make a complete list.   I admire many pianists – Radu Lupu, Sergio Fiorentino, and amongst the musicians I have recently listened to live and which made a big impression, I’d mention Christoph Pregardien accompanied by the pianist Michael Gees, the Belcea Quartet, pianist Grigory Sokolov.   And that’s without forgetting jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Bill Evans….

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I don’t know what to say.  I love playing solo in recital but I have experienced some magical moments on the stage with cellist Henri Demarquette or with the baritone Roman Trekel, a sensation of something truly unique, poetic and spontaneous.

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

From a performer, I expect musical honesty and respect for the work. The performer should always provide the musical structure intelligently and be able to communicate this fluently.  One has to search to understand and to make understood what is hidden behind a musical score, all the things that the composer couldn’t write on a page. Sound is most important. It is the fundamental ingredient of everything.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently studying works by Bach which I am about to record.  Then also numerous concerts (recitals and chamber music) with works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Janacek, Stravinsky, Britten and Kurtag. 

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

I’d like to be a lottery winner like everyone else so that I could construct a concert hall and record the complete works of Schubert in it! And if it happens in 10 weeks or 10 months, that’s fine too.
Fabrizio Chiovetta studied the piano and music theory at the Superior Conservatory of Geneva, his hometown. He obtained diplomas in piano and theory  as well as the City of Geneva’s Adolphe Neumann Prize, an award bestowed upon particularly distinguished artists. He pursued his education with Dominique Weber at the Tibor Varga Academy in Sion until he obtained his Soloist Diploma in 2003 with the highest level of distinction. He has regularly worked with John Perry, Marc Durand and Paul Badura-Skoda – notably on the classical Viennese repertoire on original instruments – and has participated in the Master Classes of Gyorgy Sebok, Julian Martin, Yoheved Kaplinsky and Irwin Gage for the Lied. Recipient of the Göhner Foundation scholarship in 1999, he received the Audience Award at the Klaviersommer Festival (Cochem, Germany) in 2001 for his interpretation of Mozart. He has won the New Talents (Genoa, 2002) and the Orpheus (Zurich, 2003) competitions and has received the Honorary Mention Award of the Seventh International Web Concert Hall (USA, 2005). Fabrizio Chiovetta regularly gives concerts across Europe, North America, the Middle East ans Asia both in recitals and chamber music. His performing partners have included Henri Demarquette, Katia Trabé, Roman Trekel, Julian Bliss, Nicolas Gourbeix, Brigitte Fournier and Gérard Wyss. He has notably played under the direction of Gabor Takacs-Nagy and Ovidiu Balan and has accompanied Lady Jeanne’s and Sir James Galway’s Master Classes. His recordings include works from Honegger, Schumann and Schubert. His Schumann recording received the 5 Diapasons Award and Fanfare Magazine described his Waldszenen as “one of the best ever silver-disc’d”. Talented in improvisation, he performs with ensemble Piano Seven and with diverse musicians such as Anna Prucnal, Masako Hayashi, Levon and Gregoire.
Fabrizio Chiovetta’s new disc of Haydn Sonatas and Variations is available now on the Claves label

‘Variations for Judith’ at the University of Kent, Canterbury

‘Variations for Judith’ is a set of 11 short reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ (G H Stölzel arr. JS Bach). The Variations were composed as a special gift for Judith Serota when she left the Spitalfields Festival in 2007 after nearly twenty years at the helm. The project, to create 11 short pieces, was managed by Diana Burrell (who also wrote one of the variations) and the variations are composed by other Spitalfields Festival Artistic Directors, all people with whom Judith worked. An initial collection of seven variations was presented to Judith and a further four were added, all by composers associated with the Spitalfields Festival. The Variations hark back to a precedent probably set by J S Bach – a collection of short pieces of varying difficulty, and rather like Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which Bach presented to his wife, the Variations for Judith were presented to Judith Serota to encourage and inspire her own piano studies.

I first encountered the Variations last autumn after reading a review on another music blog. I then listened to Melvyn Tan’s recording (available on Spotify and as a download here) and decided I would like to learn some, if not all of them, to include in a concert I was putting together for my local music society. Their chief attraction is their variety and individual characters, with the original theme, which appears in different guises in each variation (in some less discernible than others, but always there), acting as a unifying thread. They are also an excellent way of introducing contemporary piano music to audiences and piano students. I was very touched when Judith Serota came out to Teddington to hear me play three of the Variations, and she kindly talked about the creation of the music after my concert.

Thus, I was delighted to discover that Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent, was involved in a project called ‘A Variation Day’, in which he performed a single variation over the course of 11 days. Each day, the theme was sung by soprano and final-year student Kathryn Cox. At the end of the 11 day-project, Daniel performed the complete Variations in a concert which also included the UK premiere of a work by British composer Alison Wrenn.

The Colyer-Fergusson Hall, University of Kent
The Colyer-Fergusson Hall, University of Kent

The concert was held in the beautiful wood-panelled Colyer-Fergusson hall at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Opened in 2012, the hall forms the centrepiece of a new music centre at the University, and is an airy performance space – and on this early March day, a space saturated with sunlight. The concert opened with Satie’s first Gnossienne, rarely-heard and played with a melancholic suppleness.

Alison Wrenn’s ‘Unicorn in Rainbows’ followed, a beautiful short work inspired by a picture of three unicorns in a magical landscape under a rainbow sky, infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms. This set the scene nicely for the centrepiece of the concert, the ‘Variations for Judith’.

The opening theme was sung by Kathryn Cox, whose clear soprano allowed the music to speak for itself, unadorned, setting a blank canvas on which the Variations were painted with elegance, wit and sensitivity. Daniel played with subtlety and delicacy of touch, revealing each variation’s individual character and the connections between them. Some are fleeting and ethereal, others more robust; each is distinct, with the composer’s individual personality shining through; yet they are all united by the opening theme, which became a pleasing earworm for my homeward journey through the sun-drenched Kent countryside.

Kathryn Cox, soprano, Judith Serota & Daniel Harding, piano
Kathryn Cox, soprano, Judith Serota & Daniel Harding, piano

The pieces are aimed at the intermediate-level player, but studying and playing the works myself, and hearing the complete set performed by Daniel, proved that writing easier pieces can be a challenge. The Variations work beautifully as concert pieces, and can be successfully integrated into a larger programme of works by composers old and new. And because the Variations are not organised in the manner of a classical theme and variations, one can perform the opening theme with a handful of contrasting variations, and in any order.

The music is available from Music Room and proceeds from the sale of the Variations go to Dimbleby Cancer Care

The work was premiered on 8th June 2012. Melvyn Tan will be performing Variations for Judith on 27th and 29th April – details here

More information about Variations for Judith on the NMC Recordings website.

Read Daniel Harding’s article on the Variations


A post for International Women’s Day

I have interviewed and reviewed many female composers and performers during the lifetime of this blog. To celebrate International Women’s Day 2015, here are a selection of these interviews (in no particular order nor preference):

Janina Fialkowska – pianist

Cheryl Frances-Hoad – composer

Clara Rodriguez – pianist

Alison Wrenn – composer

Clare Hammond – pianist

Norma Fisher – pianist and acclaimed teacher

Corinne Morris – cellist

Susan Tomes – pianist and writer

Lara Melda – pianist

Charlotte Tomlinson – pianist and teacher

Review: Ivana Gavric at Wigmore Hall

Sarah Beth Briggs – pianist

Madelaine Jones – pianist

Laurence Redhead – composer

Debbie Wiseman – composer

Judith Bingham – composer

Francesca Barritt – violinist

Joy Lisney – cellist

Fenella Humphreys – violinist

Heather Bird – double-bassist

Ruby Hughes – soprano



The Virtuoso Teacher – seminar with Paul Harris

Renowned educator, writer and clarinetist Paul Harris, author of innumerable books on sight-reading, music theory and music teaching as well as original compositions, led a seminar based around the ideas set out in his seminal book T’he Virtuoso Teacher’ (Faber, 2012).

The book focuses on the core issues of being a teacher and the teaching process. By examining topics such as self-awareness and the importance of emotional intelligence, getting the best out of pupils, dealing with challenging pupils, asking the right questions and creating a master-plan taking the stress out of learning teaching for the right reasons, Paul Harris offers an inspirational and supportive read for all music teachers, encouraging everyone to consider themselves in a new and uplifted light. The book formed the basis of Paul’s presentation, with plenty of opportunities for discussion during the breaks and in a Q&A session at the end of the seminar. I read Paul’s book when it was first published and found it very empowering, yet much of what he suggests is both simple and easy to put into practice in the teaching environment.

These are my notes taken during the seminar; by no means comprehensive, I hope they will provide a useful overview of Paul’s approach and the philosophy of the Virtuoso Teacher.

Definition of a ‘Virtuoso Teacher’

  • Not someone who teaches virtuosi
  • Nor a virtuoso player themselves (as Paul said, virtuoso players may be fine instrumentalists, but are not necessarily the best teachers)
  • A virtuoso teacher takes teaching to a virtuoso level through being collaborative, imaginative, engaging, non-judgmental and energetic.

Just as a virtuoso performer has qualities such as a sense of communication, secure technique, and a sense of artistry so the virtuoso teacher has the same qualities. But instead of playing to an audience, the virtuoso teacher works with students.

The virtuoso teacher has a heightened awareness of what is happening, is mindful, has a profound understanding of the instrument, technique, musicality and a deep knowledge of our pupils. The virtuoso teacher encourages pupils to reach their own infinite potential.


The special things….

  • Teach music for its own sake
  • Guide pupils
  • Show possibilities
  • Open minds
  • Enable pupils to become independent learners and teach themselves

The word “teach” comes from the Old English world tæcan (“tee-shan”) meaning to “show”, or “point out”, but not “tell”.

The virtuoso teacher does more than teaching the instrument and pieces: the virtuoso teacher encourage pupils to really know music and enable all pupils to achieve, taking into account the needs and desires of all our pupils.

For the virtuoso teacher the process is more important than the outcome (i.e. exam or competition results, assessments or performances, all of which are stressful situations and which lose the enjoyment of “now”). For the pupil, learning to play an instrument or sing should be a happy experience. Unhappy or stressed students don’t learn (physiologically, the brain stops releasing hormones which enable us to take in information when we are stressed). We develop our pupils’ self-responsibility and turn mistakes into opportunities. We share our love of music and encourage our students to develop this love too. We make our students confident and independent.

Personal qualities of a Virtuoso Teacher

  • An excellent communicator
  • Certain, but never absolutely sure
  • Open-minded
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Still learning
  • Focused (on the pupil)
  • A good role model
  • Good-humoured
  • Patient
  • Proactive
  • Innovative
  • Having good judgment, but never judgmental
  • Kind and caring
  • Reflective

How we teach

The “process” of the lesson

  • Warming up (e.g. stretches away from the instrument or use an aspect of the first piece as a warm up exercise)
  • Find ingredients and connections within the piece
  • Offer achievable, well-explained instructions (done well, this is unlikely to lead to mistakes, or will reduce mistakes)
  • Give well-expressed, clear feedback
  • Ensure the lesson is energising and always moving forward

When giving feedback, first wait and then notice the way the pupil reacts to the feedback. Positive feedback motivates and allows us to be effective because it empowers the pupil. We need to nurture, not control. As a result, pupils are

  • Confident
  • Happy
  • Enthusiastic
  • Motivated
  • In sum, the “virtuoso pupil” knows how to learn.

Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough and meticulous approach
  • The quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.

High-satisfaction teaching allows the lesson to flow and for pupils to be musical. They will also make fewer mistakes, feel less stress, feel less constrained by structure, which allows them to achieve. Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.

  • Simultaneous learning and simultaneous practising:
  • Teaching proactively
  • Making connections using the “ingredients” of the piece
  • Positive
  • Non-judgmental

Pupils need to practise in a way which matches this

  • Integration – refer to practising during the lesson
  • Representation – make practising interesting and engaging
  • Connections – ask how the practising went in the intervening week between lessons

This enables pupils to see how lessons and practising join up.


Teaching a new piece using the Simultaneous Learning process

Know the ingredients of the piece:

  • Key
  • Rhythm
  • Pulse
  • Time signature
  • Dynamics
  • Character

Don’t overload the pupil with information but know how much the pupil can take in.

Allow the lesson to unfold around the ingredients using various element, e.g. improvisation based on a rhythm or short motif within the piece.

Use Q&A and demonstration. Talk about practising as you go along. Practising should be fun, engaging and collaborative.

  • Don’t hurry
  • Make connections
  • Empower the student
  • Check the student has understood all the instructions given
  • Teach the right things at the right time
  • Be imaginative
  • Encourage flow
  • Collaboration
  • Encourage students to know their music
  • Encourage students to become independent



We need to get to know our pupils (but never interrogate them!)

  • Interests
  • Prior learning/knowledge
  • Vocabulary (important – so that we can communicate with them at the right level)
  • Preferred learning style, i.e. visual, auditory or kinesthetic
  • Gender difference
  • Relative speed of learning
  • Level of motivation
  • Expectations (pupil’s and parents’)
  • Psychomotor skills (e.g. finger dexterity)
  • SEN
  • R/L brain development
  • Experience and background
  • Maturity
  • Parental involvement

Having this information allows us to personalize our teaching to be more effective.


Managing expectations

We live up and down to expectations (the ‘Pygmalion Effect’)

“As the teacher believes the student to be, so the student becomes” (Rosenthal & Jacobson)


  • We should have high but appropriate expectations and the student will live up to them.
  • We have different expectations for different students
  • Don’t base expectations on pre-determined criteria (e.g. exam results)
  • Don’t compare students, especially negatively
  • Discourage pupils from comparing themselves to their friends/peers – explain to a Grade 1 student that the Grade 7 student is not “better”, just “more advanced”
  • Focus on achievement rather than attainment: pupils can achieve continuously
  • Encourage self-comparison: “How am I doing?”
  • Encourage students to hear friends playing in a positive context: peer support is very important.
  • Celebrate every student’s strengths
  • Have positive and appropriate expectations
  • Create a positive teaching environment
  • Labels are not helpful – there are no “bad” pupils! (but there are plenty of bad teachers!)
  • All pupils are able – different, but able


Giving praise

It needs to be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety


Examples of appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practise has really made a difference”


This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing


Praise what they are doing or their effort, not the ego or talent.


Praise followed by criticism is not helpful.


Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.



Using questions in lessons

Good questioning is very valuable and can be used to

  • Check knowledge and understanding
  • Encourage understanding
  • Encourage recall of facts and information
  • Diagnose difficulties and involve the pupil in the “cure” (e.g. tension, problematic fingering scheme etc)


Questions also encourage students to think, engage, apply and reflect. Use open-ended, thought-provoking questions, e.g. “What do you like about this piece?”



Getting the best out of our pupils


  • The way we are and how we respond to our pupils
  • The way we manage expectations (of pupils and parents)
  • The care we invest in teaching methods
  • The level of positivity and love of our subject
  • Ensuring pupils understand what they are doing



In conclusion


Our values and beliefs colour the way we are and drive our thinking and teaching. We should be certain, but never absolutely certain, and we should always look outwards.


The present

  • The Power of Now
  • Living in the moment
  • Grasp opportunities and run with them, while always keeping an eye on the future
  • Using aspects such as applied psychology and physiology (e.g. understanding the reasons for warming up before playing), and using technology to enhance our teaching (e.g. internet, apps).

Teaching now

  • Teach laterally and holistically
  • Be proactive
  • Take care of our personal accountability
  • Make connections
  • Understand and appreciate what our pupils need
  • Use wisdom – how do we use our knowledge? We guide our pupils to enable them to progress.
  • Be honest (i.e. honest evaluation of our students, and in our dealings with parents)
  • Have courage – take risks and be prepared to tackle issues
  • Give our students our unconditional support

The Virtuoso Teacher wants to create well-balanced musicians who are driven by a love of music and a desire to sustain this great art.


Never forgot – teaching is A PROFESSION!

More about Paul Harris and his publications and other resources here



Meet the Artist…… John Metcalf OBE, composer

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

I fear my answer may sound pretentious . . . When I was 12 years old there was a single moment when, while out walking, the idea came to me to be a composer and it was an idea which for the first time seemed to make sense of my whole life. It was quite unusual in that it wasn’t an obvious choice – I do not come from a particularly musical background

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

I see it as much as a vocation as a career. There are very many influences – it’s a life’s work. Anything that helps to reconnect new music with an intelligent audience has been important. I also love the simplicity and rigour of minimalism. Working with other artistic disciplines, especially but not exclusively in opera, has also been very formative

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

Again several. Being true to myself; understanding that recognition needs to come from within rather than without; and seeking a radical artistic path despite composing in a non-modernist idiom.

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

I think the obvious ones either way. It can be helpful to have a structure and a deadline. Even for the best organised composer creative work can at times be chaotic as well as totally absorbing. Similarly the timing of commissions can be a help or a further challenge.

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

It’s a commonplace of course but the best collaborations are those in which all those involved have a part in the decision making and there’s a huge range within music from individual performers who commission specific works to orchestra members who have little or no choice over what they play. At its best collaboration – the  highest sum of the best parts – can be the pinnacle of artistic work

Which works are you most proud of?

Well, I have put on ice much of my music before 1990. However, I am not one of those composers who doesn’t like to listen to his own music and I am proud of so many of my works since then. A breakthrough piece for me was Paradise Haunts (1994) violin and piano, later (1999) violin and orchestra. The short piano piece Endless Song (1999) is probably my most played work and there is a set of variations for Harp and Strings, Mapping Wales, based on it.  I’m also proud of the song cycle In Time of Daffodils (2006) and my last two operas –  A Chair in Love (2005) and Under Milk Wood (2014). Most composers have their ‘ugly duckling’ work. Mine is Cello Symphony (2004) – only one performance to date but there is happily a recording. (Thank you for this promotional opportunity, I think I’ve made the most of it!)

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Bach, Stravinsky, Elgar and Arvo Part are among them and I love listening to new pieces that I don’t know! I have the greatest admiration for new generation of young British performers also. They are really extraordinarily good. It is an odd realisation that the fees for classical musicians have decreased markedly as the standard of playing has increased.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been some very special concerts at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The 1996 concert at Llandaff Cathedral with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performing Part, Vasks and Kutavicius stands out. Hearing the Kutavicius work – The Last Pagan Rites – prior to that at a cathedral in Vilnius following a very traumatic travel day was also memorable. Finally the premiere of Under Milk Wood: an Opera on April 3rd 2014 is still fresh in my memory

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

I think, excellence. As few compromises as possible. Never the middle ground, always the high ground. And spend as little time as possible teaching, administering, examining – crucial, wonderful skills though those are – and as much time as possible be it on composing or playing.

John Metcalf is a leading Welsh composer who has composed major works in many musical forms. While his cultural roots are in the heart of Wales, his work has a broad international following and is represented in a growing catalogue of recordings.

In 2009 he received one of four inaugural Creative Wales Ambassador Awards from the Arts Council of Wales. The awards recognise artists’ achievements, their standing in the arts in Wales and their capacity to push the boundaries of their art inherently as form and as a point of contact with contemporary Wales.

2010 highlights included the release in September by Signum Records of the ‘Paths of Song’ CD, containing Septet, Llwybrau Cân (Paths of Song), Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle) and Mapping Wales and a recording of his six piano palindrome Never Odd or Even in a multi-track version by Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant Classics 9171/7. On October 29th his new saxophone quartet On Song was premiered by the Lunar Saxophone Quartet at the Riverfront Centre, Newport. Several performances followed and the work was also released on Signum Records SIGCD233.

In Her Majesty the Queen’s 2012 New Years Honours List John was awarded an MBE for services to music.

An impressive debut: Antonii Baryshevskyi at Wigmore Hall

© Neda Navaee

I seldom select concerts to review based on performer. An interesting programme is usually what will pique my interest, and this was certainly true when browsing the Wigmore’s spring season of concerts: it is unusual to find Ligeti and Messiaen in the same programme. I didn’t know the performer and was unaware at the time of booking the concert that he was first prize and gold medal winner of the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

Winners of competitions are often paraded before audiences with the promise of greatness. Generally young performers poised on the brink of an international career, too many may offer a bland synthesis of music, technically polished but lacking in insight or maturity. Not so Antonii Baryshevskyi, a young pianist from Kiev, whose impressive Wigmore Hall debut combined pristine technical facility and consummate musicality in a challenging and highly varied programme.

Read my full review here

Mindfulness and piano playing

The other day I was on my way to my Monday job (I work as an assistant to an elderly writer who lives in London’s Notting Hill). My train drew into platform 1 at Earl’s Court station. I alighted the train, crossed the platform and boarded another identical tube train without pausing to consider whether this was in fact the train that would take me up to Notting Hill Gate station. It was only when I heard the announcement that this was in fact a Tower Hill train that I “came to”, so to speak, and got off the train to wait for the right one. As the tube rattled up to Notting Hill, I pondered my “mindless” behaviour and decided I should pay more attention, not just to my Monday commute, but to other aspects of my daily life, specifically my musical life.

After completing my Licentiate Diploma in spring 2013, I had nearly a year where I “drifted” through my piano playing. I learnt a handful of pieces, enough to create a couple of interesting and varied concert programmes, but nothing particularly challenging nor “difficult”. I fell out of love with the piano for awhile (admittedly, this was during a period of noisy and disruptive building work in my home which prevented the long practise sessions I had previously enjoyed); I acquired my beautiful Bechstein piano and fell back in love with the piano, more passionately this time, but always with a sense that I wasn’t quite worthy, as a pianist, of such a gorgeous instrument. Family and friends told me I was being ridiculous, that I had worked hard and the piano was absolutely well-deserved. Meanwhile, I was busy helping to run a piano group for adult amateur pianists and setting up a concert series, making new piano friends; still blogging and writing articles for other music websites, and reviewing concerts. And all the time I felt I wasn’t really playing the piano with the seriousness it required. I considered studying for a final Fellowship diploma, but was dismotivated by comments from others insinuating that I would find it “extremely challenging”, or  that I wasn’t “good enough” to attempt it.

So, why “mindfulness”? My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a friend talked of following a mindfulness course and employing mindfulness as a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a musician and the exigencies of everyday life. I decided to explore further to see if employing some techniques drawn from mindfulness could help me, and the start of a new year (2015) seemed the perfect opportunity to put this into practice.

Basically, “mindfulness” is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. When in a mindful state, mindless “daydreaming” is replaced by presence, and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, such as those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation.

How I am using Mindfulness in my musical life:

Reaching a state of acceptance

I suffer from a certain lack of confidence as a musician (despite appearances to the contrary when I play and the many positive endorsements I receive from teachers, colleagues and friends). I realised that part of this stems from a habit of constantly comparing myself to others. I have resolved to stop comparing myself to others, to accept that certain repertoire just isn’t “right” for me (for whatever reason, technically or emotionally), that I don’t have to attempt pieces just because others are, and to focus on developing my own playing in repertoire that I enjoy and which interests me.

Banishing the inner critic

Alongside this sense of acceptance, I am learning to switch off the voice in my head which tells me I am “just not good enough”. I’ve realised that this voice is, in part, the manifestation of a variety of critical comments, from a music teacher at school to certain others who have hinted that I am committing some form of pianistic “hubris” by performing in public concerts or taking on works such as Beethoven’s Opus 110 or Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 (my current preoccupation). I now try to draw confidence from the positive and supportive comments from colleagues, diploma adjudicators, mentors and friends.

Mindful practising

Mindfulness enables us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care. Too often I come across students (and others) who simply “type” their pieces, processing notes with little care or thought and revealing that their practising has been repetitive and mindless. Repetitive practise is important, for sure, but it should be both thoughtful and repetitive – and each repetition should be considered. Taking notice of what one is playing – each phrase, dynamic nuance, subtleties of touch, expression, articulation – will result in more efficient and rewarding practise, leading to vibrant and authoritative playing.

It also enables us to become more aware of our physical state when playing, to check that the wrists are supple and mobile, arms are soft, shoulders relaxed, and so forth, and to know to stop playing when the body becomes tight, sore or stressed.

On a broader level, mindfulness can make us more insightful as musicians, to connect better with our inner selves, be less self-critical, to see mistakes honestly and without fear and know how to understand and adjust them more easily, and to improve our playing and musicianship based on experience and intuition rather than self-criticsm: in essence, to better trust our musical self.

Dealing with anxiety

My main strategy for dealing with performance anxiety is knowing that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. In addition to this, I try to perform “in the moment”, to focus on the “now” of performing and to silence the destructive inner critic voice that wants remind one of all the slips and errors, and can stifle creativity and spontaneity in performance. After a performance, I try not to post-mortem it too closely, but to return to practising the day after with renewed interest and (hopefully) deeper insight, while looking forward to the next opportunity to perform the pieces.

Daily meditation sessions may not be for everyone (and this is not something I actively engage in) but increased awareness while engaged in music practise can help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication. While playing, banish the “mindless” thoughts that distract and fill the mind – “what shall I cook for dinner?”,  “did I remember to collect the dry-cleaning?” – and focus instead on observing and listening to yourself playing. Try to notice things that perhaps weren’t apparent before or which you previously took for granted, and bring meaning, value, love and life to every note and phrase you play.


The surprising world of synaesthesia

Article from ‘The Psychologist’, vol. 28, no. 2, February 2015

(image source: BBC)

In its simplest form Synaesthesia is best described as a “union of the senses” whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together. Some synaesthetes experience colour when they hear sounds or read words. Others experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in almost any combination. I have ‘grapheme synaesthesia’ which means I experience colour when I think of letters, words, numbers, the musical keys, chords, the notes on the piano keyboard and music in general.

In this interesting article from The Psychologist, Jack Dutton meets people with the condition and the researchers who study them to reveal the very surprising world of synaethesia, including its impact on memory and how it may even be taught.

Download and read the article here (PDF file)

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture


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