Composed: a documentary

Originally Composed was an exposé about the use of beta-blockers by classical musicians. A heart medication drug that helps stop your body’s fight or flight response when faced with stage fright. For years musicians, surgeons, actors, dancers, and lawyers have used beta-blockers as an unspoken solution to the problems of stage fright. Some would call them performance enhancing and others performance enabling. We’re going to ask those questions of course, but it’s more about all of the ways musicians have overcome performance anxiety. You might feel it too when you’re giving a presentation or when you’re put on the spot in a meeting, but understanding whats happening internally and having a strategy to overcome that fear is what musicians have been practicing for years. Painting a broader picture of what the real problems might be we’ll hear about how some amazing and dedicated musicians have found answers in a world where a few minutes on stage can close or open the gates of success.


From the press release

John Beder, director and producer of Composed, has spent the past 9 months traveling the US and UK interviewing classical musicians and health care professionals, building a comprehensive story about the ways musicians have overcome performance anxiety.Initially, Beder was interested in the debate surrounding a prescription drug called propranolol, a heart and blood pressure medication that some musicians use to calm the physical symptoms of stage fright. After many months of interviews and conversations, Beder has learned of a plethora of additional remedies which musicians have explored and embraced in their quest for the highest quality performances.

In exploring these anxieties and remedies, Composed explores themes that are relevant to everyone, not just musicians: on how people deal with fear and pressure; how to understand and address moments of fear and doubt; how to move past these obstacles and achieve high-­‐pressure, high-­‐performance goals.

In the research phase of Composed’s pre-­production, Beder focused on a key question about what methods of addressing performance anxiety are most popular amongst classical musicians. A 1987 study with the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) has stood for the past 28 years as the closest indicator of what’s happening within American orchestras; it is long overdue for an update. The original survey was also the first publication made about the percentage of musicians who used propranolol, or beta-­blockers, and is often quoted when mentioning the drug.

With the support of ICSOM Beder sought out health professionals from the US, UK, and Australia, and has worked with them to develop a new survey to learn what has changed among musicians over almost 30 years, where performance fears come from, and what can be done to address them.

As a guest presenter of the 53rd annual ICSOM conference in Philadelphia, Beder encouraged the delegates of all 52 orchestras represented to participate in this new survey. ICSOM is the only organization of its kind in the US, representing 52 orchestras and over 4,000 classical musicians.

About the film-maker

John Beder is a percussionist, classical musician, and filmmaker based out of his hometown of Boston, MA. Composed is a forthcoming documentary about overcoming performance anxiety, and the lengths to which professional classical musicians are willing to go to deal with the stress of performance. Beder is anticipating a Spring/Summer 2016 release of the final feature. Learn more at


John Beder, Bed Productions LLC
617 383 4407;

twitter @JanBoder

Meet the Artist……Laurence Equilbey, conductor

(Photo: Jana Jocif)

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

I like to take the broad view of works: their historical and philosophical context, their structure, the issues surrounding them. As an artist, I like that music expresses itself using the body. Conductors are not far removed from dancers.

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

My time as a student in Vienna was unforgettable: the language, the repertoire, those life-changing sessions with Abbado and Harnoncourt. Those Nordic and English musical influences set me on my musical path.

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

There have been several! Creating a professional chamber choir in France, then developing a structure which brought together artistic discoveries, new technology… transmission… and now the creation of Insula Orchestra, playing on historical instruments.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m very proud of our recording of Richard Strauss’s monumental choral works, and, more recently, of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Franco Fagioli.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel an affinity for many composers, starting with Bach. As a conductor, I particularly enjoy performing Beethoven, Weber, Schumann…

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

It’s a very delicate operation: you must find a balance between your own wishes regarding the repertoire you want to create for yourself and your orchestra, soloists you’d like to work with, rare and unjustly neglected pieces, pieces by women composers, what the programme creators want…

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

There are several halls which really inspire me with their beauty and their acoustic… In France, the Philharmonie de Paris, soon to be the  Cité musicale de l’Ile Seguin, Theater an der Wien, the Barbican in London, and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. There are also lovely halls in Tokyo and in the US.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I would like to come back to the final Schumann Ballades, they’re nothing less than little operas. I also enjoy conducting Mendelssohn’s ‘[Die erste] Walpurgisnacht’, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’… But also Bach’s St. John Passion. As a listener, I like listening to the big Romantic symphonies; Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich. At home, chamber music or Lieder.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

With the Brussels Philharmonic, I performed Schumann’s “Das Paradies und die Peri semi-staged. It’s a spiritual tale from which no-one escapes unscathed, and the music is sublime from start to finish.

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

It’s important to make your vision of the work, its artistic issues, clear to the musicians, and to speak to them about your view of it. On the other hand, the most important thing is to let the musicians communicate their musicality and feelings themselves. As a conductor, you are there just as much to understand their emotions and the colours they bring, and to relish them. You shouldn’t lead, you must be followed.

Could you tell us a bit about the Insula orchestra?

Insula is a period-instrument orchestra that focuses mostly on music from the Age of Enlightenment, the Classical style, and the pre-Romantics. We play symphonies and oratorios and also operas. There are 50 musicians, with the string section enlarged to fill today’s halls. We try to find a balance between a very cultivated, historically-informed style and one compatible with the size of concert halls.

Insula are making their UK debut on 21 September, how did you choose the programme for this? 

I proposed a programme to the Barbican that typifies our current artistic goals: Zelenka’s Miserere, a real forgotten masterpiece. Then, the Solemn Vespers, a famous work by Mozart, a composer central to our project, and whose Requiem we recorded earlier this year. Finally, a piece to which I feel particularly attached, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s rarely-performed Magnificat.

What are Insula’s plans for the 2015-16 season? 

Insula’s highlights for this season include the release of Orfeo in September on Archiv, then the Magnificat programme at the Barbican and, on tour, an all-Beethoven programme, with the 3rd piano concerto and Nicholas Angelich, as well as the Eroica symphony. After that, Mozart’s Lucio Silla with Franco Fagioli, in a semi-staged performance which will go on tour to Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Vienna.

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

I would like to have been involved in some exciting, innovative projects which bring in a big audience, and to have played in the greatest halls.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I am always searching for it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Giving concerts, and connecting with the public, an “être merveilleux”, as Novalis said.

What is your present state of mind?

Insula make their UK debut on Monday 21 September at London’s Barbican Hall


Zelenka Miserere

Mozart Solemn Vespers K.339

C.P.E. Bach Magnificat in D Major H.772

Insula orchestra, accentus choir, Laurence Equilbeyconductor

Judith Van Wanroijsoprano, Wiebke Lehmkuhlalto, Reinoud Van Mechelentenor, Andreas Wolfbass

21 September 2015, Barbican Hall, London, 7.30pm

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice 

CD release: 11 September 2015 

Archiv Produktion

Insula orchestra | accentus Choir

Franco Fagioli | Malin Hartelius | Emmanuelle de Negri

Conductor and musical director of Insula orchestra and accentus, Laurence Equilbey is acknowledged for her demanding, yet open-minded approach to her art. Her exploration of the symphonic repertory has seen her conducting the orchestras of Lyon, Bucharest, Liège, Leipzig, Brussels Philharmonic, Café Zimmermann, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, Concerto Köln, Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, etc. In 2015, she performs Beethoven’s König Stephan with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra.

She has recently conducted Britten’s Albert Herring (at the Opéra de Rouen Normandie and the Opéra Comique), Weber’s Der Freischütz (Opéra de Toulon), Sous apparence (Opéra de Paris) and Reynaldo Hahn’s Ciboulette (Opéra comique).

She regularly conducts the Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen. Since 2009, she has been working with accentus as an associate artist of the Paris Chamber Orchestra and will be joining up with them again for a Gounod/Liszt programme. She is also an associate artist of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix-en-Provence and a companion of the Philharmonie de Paris.

In 2012, with support from the Conseil départemental des Hauts-de-Seine, she founded Insula orchestra, an ensemble devoted to the classical and pre-Romantic repertory, using period instruments. In 2014, she recorded with her musicians Mozart’s Requiem on the Naïve label and she continues to honour the Austrian composer in 2015-2016, with Vesperae solennes de confessore, and also Lucio Silla, including at the Theater an der Wien. Their second album – Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Franco Fagioli – will be released in September 2015 on the Deutsche Grammophon label (Archiv Produktion).

With accentus, Laurence Equilbey continues to interpret the great vocal music repertoire. She conducts a Bruckner program in the spring with the Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. The extensive recorded work of accentus (on the Naïve label) has received wide critical acclaim. Laurence Equilbey supports contemporary creation and she’s also Artistic Director and Director of Education at the Department for Young Singers at the Paris Conservatory.

Laurence Equilbey has studied music in Paris, Vienna and London, and conducting, notably with Eric Ericson, Denise Ham, Colin Metters and Jorma Panula.

Don’t bash the Proms – because they’re great

The Proms – London’s annual eight week festival of (mostly) classical music – is over for another year, despatched with the traditional Last Night pomp and circumstance and noisy flag-waving enthusiasm.

This year I attended more Proms than at any other time during my adulthood, and out of the 10 I attended, I reviewed 6 concerts. I also deliberately chose Proms outside my usual “comfort zone” of piano music and this gave me the opportunity to experience some truly wondrous orchestral music including Messiaen’s joyful and ecstatic Turangalila Symphonie, two Sibelius symphonies, an all-Brahms Prom (with the splendid Marin Alsop) and a superb Schubert C major Symphony with Bernard Haitink. As a pianist who (mostly) plays music conceived with orchestral textures in mind (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), to see and hear live orchestral music was extremely instructive. Aside from that, the infectious atmosphere and good-humour of the Proms, and going with a companion or companions to each concert, undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and this year was no different. In fact, if anything the anxious and dissenting voices were louder than usual because with the BBC Charter up for review, the BBC’s activities under extreme scrutiny by the Conservative government, and a general antipathy towards classical music, also on the part of this government, it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. As usual there were howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” (with concerts such as the Radio One Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom or the Sherlock Prom), or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms, but each season the Proms has a pretty good go at doing this – and usually gets it just about right, in my opinion. The Proms enjoy a pre-eminent position as a national treasure, and for every detractor there are hundreds of others vociferously standing up for them (myself included). That the Proms attract such noisy debate every year is surely a good thing, and a sign of their enduring importance in our national cultural landscape.

When the Proms were originally conceived, by Robert Newman (not Henry Wood as many people assume), the intention was to bring classical music to a wider audience by presenting “easy” pieces and gradually introducing more challenging repertoire. They were called “Promenade” concerts because a large part of the seating area at Queens Hall, their first home, had no seats and so patrons had to stand during performances. Patrons were also allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the auditorium, though were requested not to strike matches during the quiet passages. The first Promenade concert programmes were lengthy affairs, often lasting three hours and certainly challenged the audience with Beethoven and Wagner nights, and new works which were called “novelties”.

The spirit of the original Proms continues today, with modern and contemporary music and new commissions being presented alongside more familiar repertoire, and “themed” concerts: this year, for example, solo Bach in separate concerts featuring works for violin, cello and keyboard (Andras Schiff’s magical performance of the ‘Goldberg Variations’). There were “novelties” too, such as all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single concert: for some this was too much Prokofiev in one night, or nothing more than an “ego trip” for conductor Valery Gergiev; but for others (myself included) it was an extraordinarily immersive experience, with fine pianism on display from Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergey Babayan, and Arcadi Volodos. As for the “gimmicks”, these were largely successful and very popular (and let’s just pause here to recall the fuss and eye-pulling that erupted the first year the John Wilson Orchestra performed at the Proms – and how they are now an integral part of the festival, ever popular and always attracting a full house).

Nowhere else can one enjoy such an international range of artists: leading orchestras, and celebrated conductors and artists from all around the world converge on the Proms between July and September, and this year there have been fine performances by established artists such as YoYo Ma, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniel Barenboim, as well as the younger generation of performers, including Martin James Bartlett, Nicola Benedetti and Benjamin Grosvenor. In addition, in recent years there have been spin offs such as the excellent Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall, and Proms in the Park, as well as pre-concert talks and lectures, and Proms Extra programmes on television.

The Proms also remain affordable – you can Promenade for a fiver – and the more relaxed atmosphere means that classical music “newbies” are more likely to sample the Proms rather than a concert in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall. When I attended the all-Brahms Proms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop, I shared a box with a family who had never been to the Proms before – and they loved it: the special Proms atmosphere, the music, the whole experience.

We’re very lucky to have the Proms and we should celebrate rather than criticise them. Of course not every concert is going to appeal to everyone, but for every person who enjoyed the Sherlock Prom or the Ibiza Prom, I can guarantee that there are countless others who have enjoyed total immersion in Sibelius or Bach, Brahms or Bruckner. And if the more “populist” Proms encourage people to explore classical music, then the Proms are definitely doing it right. Of course there’s more the Proms could do – more coverage of women composers, for example – but one hopes that the organisers and concert planners learn from past seasons, while looking at what other artists and orchestras are doing in order to move the great behemoth of the Proms forward each year. And as of this year, the Proms has a new director, David Pickard (formerly of Glyndebourne). Described as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and deeply musical, it will be interesting to see what developments and innovations he brings to the concerts.

I for one am already looking forward to next year’s season with interest and excitement

Meet the Artist……Loré Lixenberg, singer 

Who or what inspired you to take up​ singing and pursue a career in music?

I was crazy about Beethoven as a child and I listened to everything. My Dad taught me and my brother the piano and we learnt simplified piano transcriptions of some movements from Beethoven symphonies. I also was transfixed by Elizabeth Soderstrom’s voice, and after hearing her in ‘Capriccio’ my brother smuggled me backstage to meet her. She was so nice. I was lucky enough to study with her. I didn’t really choose to do music, I just assumed that’s what I would do. The moment that blew me away was at school hearing ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’. I used to like frightening myself by listening to it with the volume up in the dark! Also’s Ligeti ‘Lux Aterna’ and ‘Requiem’. I was totally transfixed by the colours, textures and extremity of the vocal writing.

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

I wanted to be Freddie Mercury. I still want to be Freddie Mercury. I also loved The Jackson 5, such great performers. I especially loved the horn section in the Jackson 5 songs. When I was growing up my mum listened a lot to the African band Osibisa and Leonard Cohen, as well as Mahler and Mozart.

My brother was an Astro-physicist so keeping one eye on the cosmos was to me a normal thing to do and there was really no separation to me between pure scientific experiment, and music and sound as experiment. My dad was an engineer specialising in radar and brought home loads of bits of equipment to play with that made all these great sounds: there was always for me an awareness of pure sound.

Rabbi Rosenblum at our synagogue had a completely amazing high tenor voice and used to make beautiful complex vocalisations from liturgical tunes that I later recorded him singing and memorised. This particular influence led me to a musical trip around the Middle East where I became fascinated by Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish music, and I really enjoyed tracing song lines from the most ancient liturgical chants I could find to present day Christian hymns that began every morning at junior school. I continue to be fascinated by forms of music such as Bosnian Sevdah that combine scales and forms from several different cultures to make a new form.

Then of course there was the classic situation of a really amazing music teacher at school, Mrs Ellefson, who with seemingly insouciant ease created loads of opportunities for a young sound freak to freely explore all kinds of music. When I came to London, I studied at City University where music could be read as a science: you could choose to study sound recording and the physics of music, ethnomusicology and aesthetics and criticism. They called it the ‘consciousness transformation department’! My first professional experiences were with Complicite, then called Theatre de Complicite. That experience really opened my eyes to what was possible physically with regard to singing. My work with Richard Thomas and exploration of comedy in music has been an underlying constant. I love comedy, I love its form. I think it’s one of the noble arts. No one seems to takes it seriously enough.

Rather short-sightedly I’m afraid I never really thought of music as a career in the conventional sense of the word. If I had, my choices and behaviour might have been very different.

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

Too many to write here, I suppose the biggest challenge is the daily battle with myself. Also the eternal battle with finances.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m very proud of my latest CD recording of ‘Lore Ipsum’ by Frederic Acquaviva. It’s an experimental piece based on my voice and the cultural news of the day because culture is the barometer for all that is going on in other areas of the life. ‘Lore Ipsum’ took several years to come to fruition and has I think really benefited from being slowly cooked.

I’m very happy with the collaboration I have with violinist Aisha Orezbayeva. We have been performing concerts of ‘Kafka Fragments’ that have been going really well. However, on the whole I’m usually unhappy with everything I do. When I listen to recordings of myself I want to kill myself. I always try to persuade people to let me re-record.

I find it easier to be pleased with things I’ve done as a director as there is a bit more distance involved. I directed the UK premiere of Kagel ‘Staatstheater’ at Durham university and the Sage and I was really pleased with that. All the details were just right, the timings, the individual performances. It was really great.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Works that are written in the true spirit of creation and experimentation.I think I’m best in repertoire that require a huge range of colours and where the vocal range itself is wide. I enjoy music where the vocal writing is instrumental if it’s a living or dead composer, i.e. Bach, Furrer, Okegham, Aperghis, Barry. I like it when the composer knows traditional vocal technique but consciously reaches for something beyond it. Messiaen is incredible because he combines the spirit of experimentation with spiritual transcendence. I love birdsong and I love the texts he uses. I often work with conceptual artists who experiment in sound which is fascinating because they often have a very strong ideas that can be very pure.

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

I have a list of pieces I want to perform and a personal schedule for a year of when I want to perform/record them. Often seasons are artist-led so it’s more who I want to work with, performers and composers, then choices are made in collaboration.

Some seasons have an element of ‘chance operation’! In other words a strange and fabulous project can appear seemingly out of the ether.

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

I like Wiltons Music Hall, the Philharmonie Berlin, Peckham car park, CBSO centre, Venice fish market, Musikverein and Stefansdom. All these places have a very specific acoustic that I really like.In stefansdom the acoustic changes according to where you are.

I also love to perform in art galleries and churches because the space is more flexible.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

My first response to this question is I love to sing things that are totally new, experimental, hot off the press! I like to sing things in Russian because that language has such a wonderful mouthfeel. To listen to, a big treat for me is a massive orchestral concert, maybe Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony, or the concert version of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ in a huge venue that can really contain the sound. For similar reasons I love singing orchestral song cycles where the full throttle of the orchestra is right behind you, rather than in opera where it is contained in the pit.

I love to perform ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ because it is a groundbreaking piece in every way. In the same way I like to perform John Cage’s ‘Aria’ which is another piece that is way ahead of its time and set the bar for solo vocal pieces that came after it. John Cage between 1952 and 1975 I think is fabulous. I love the texture virtuosity and ranginess found in Aperghis’ vocal music such as the ‘Recitation’, ‘Monomanie’ and ‘Tourbillons’. For similar reasons I enjoy singing Mahnkopf.

I like to listen to music where the composer is clearly on a creative quest and where you can hear the struggle and process. Also where the composer has embedded codes and secrets within the music. I’m still a Beethoven fan: I wish he had written more vocal music. I’m also a fan of Chopin’s piano music: he has a totally original voice, his use of harmony is really amazing and I love that he concentrated mainly on this one instrument.

I listen to Carnatic music. It’s fascinating the way the tuning up process is included in the form and isn’t separated. It’s interesting that the music is both spiritual and functional with set times of day to be performed. I also relish the extraordinary length of time over which these ragas develop. It’s one of the reasons I also explore the operas of Wagner or the films of Tarkovsky and also Kubrik’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. I really enjoy that these creators allow the images to hang for a very long time that allows you to completely absorb them.

At the moment I’m listening a lot to the Notre Dame school.

Both Charles Ives and Varese get my imagination going as does Nancarrow.

As a listener and performer, of course Bach is fantastic. I like to try and sing his solo instrumental pieces. I went through a phase when I was a student of transcribing instrumental solos to sing, such as the Brecker Brothers and also Anthony Braxton because I enjoy practising music that really stretches the technique and forces me to expand my technique. I also enjoy singing Sorabji for its insane complexity and sensuality.

I have been really lucky in having composers write for me, who have written especially for my voice. I have a ‘marmite’ voice – people love it or hate it. So for singers with marmite voices, having rep written especially for you is doubly important. I’m incredibly grateful to composers who take on this strange instrument.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Cathy Berberian, Françoise Kubler, Leo Slezak, Kim Borg, Karita Mattila, Pascal Galois, Christopher Redgate, Anton Lukoszevieze, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Pappano, Sylvia Hallet, Samer Totah, Natalie Stulzman, Scott Ross, Roger Norrington (especially conducting Beethoven), Glenn Gould, Mark Simpson.

All the performers in the Occupy the pianos’Pierrot Lunaire line up – I nearly fainted when I saw who was playing.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

An audience member crawling into the stage and trying to set fire to me

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

I usually advise young musicians to do everything in the opposite way that I did.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
To be performing ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ on KEPLER – 452b.

I would love to be curating and performing in a contemporary/electro acoustic opera season at the Menaus Opera House.

Also I would like to be in a position to realise projects much faster than I can now.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Endless time discussing ideas with the people I trust the most.

Endless time in a recording studio.

Endless time.

What is your most treasured possession?

My instrument (my body) – though strictly speaking I suppose I don’t really own it, it’s more on loan until it dissolves back into the sub atomic flow.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Listening and eating but NEVER together.

What is your present state of mind?

Totally confused.


Meet the Artist……Adam Tendler, pianist


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

It was a combination of things. In one regard, I took piano lessons since the age of six and, at least in my own memory, was rather unremarkable as a student. By middle school, however, I was playing certifiably classical music, though not well. By high school, when I hit the more advanced work of Chopin I started to see the creative possibilities of classical music—how I could really express through it—and then a kind of riptide dragged me from Chopin to Rachmaninov to Prokofiev to Copland to a whole world of modern and classical music. Totally obsessed, it was then that I started to practice, study, and really hustle to prepare for conservatory. On the flipside, I was bullied pretty relentlessly growing up, and the piano eventually served as a kind of escape. Not only could I retreat into my practice regime and not really have to navigate the hallways of my high school, but my talent itself—you know, this idea being special or exceptional at something—worked as a kind of shield or barrier from the harassment. And I guess it almost worked.

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

The first pianist who really inspired me was William Kapell, an American virtuoso who died young, in a plane crash, in the 1950s. His playing had such personality and fire, and he had such strong convictions as an artist and such a complicated inner-world, almost debilitatingly nervous as a performer. I needed an idol who was both astonishing and complex, when in classical music everyone else seemed so perfect and unflappable. I should add that, while I’ve worked with dozens of teachers in my lifetime, all of them great artists, it was really my first teacher, a local piano instructor in Barre, Vermont, who let me truly explore music as I wished until I grew to love it on my own terms. He allowed me to play in the truest sense of the word, and as a musician I owe everything to him. He received my book’s dedication.

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

I tend to wrestle with time, and always have. If I’m not practicing or reading or working on something, I’m apt to spiral into depression and guilt over what I didn’t get to and how that’s a reflection of my own deeply personal failure. This probably stems from a sense that I started late as a musician. I mean, I don’t even really know if I started late, and evidence probably shows that I actually didn’t start late, but it’s a perception I have and I battle it all the time. Even at Indiana University, I told myself that I had a tremendous amount of catching up to do, even though I really had an astonishingly accomplished number of years there. So I might also owe my life in music to this impulse to absorb and perform and push forward, but still, it’s a challenge and can feel kind of miserable in the day-to-day. I tend to believe that everyone else has it all figured out and that I’m the only one who can waste a whole morning drinking a cup of coffee.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I love the recording I did of my book, 88×50, which I don’t think a lot of people know about even though it’s on iTunes, streaming on Spotify, and is pretty much anywhere online. I spent months recording it at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York, and the result is really fun and full of surprises. I also like the life that my live recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes has taken since I released it for free on the web over five years ago, though I think I play the piece quite differently now. Also, Autumn Lines, is a very personal speaking-pianist piece that I released a few years back. Frankly, I’ve found that it’s too traumatizing to do live, so I’ve stopped performing it, nor will I really listen to it or watch live footage from concerts of it, but people seem to like it and I do like it, too. It’s just an intense composition from an intense period in my life. I’m proud of it, I just don’t like being around it. In terms of performance, most recently I performed a concert of music by Cage and Cowell at the open-air Maverick Theatre in Woodstock New York, where Cage’s 4’33” had its premiere in 1952. That was an incredible honor and a huge career highlight for me. Also, this week I organized a twenty-four pianist performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, featuring mostly new music pianists, which was an epic and totally shattering experience in all the best ways.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I tend toward modern music by Americans, and love exploring the wide range of whatever that means. That said, I also like when a program pushes me out of my comfort zone, either backwards or forwards.

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

It really depends on the series, the space, and sometimes the specific requests of my hosts. This season I learned a program of music by Luciano Berio, another by Henry Cowell, and for this festival coming up in London, I learned Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari—all simply because my presenters asked. The great thing is, I’ll probably play this music for the rest of my life.

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

Probably the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas. The space itself… the air… it has a kind of epsom salt effect on a person, just pulling stuff out that one doesn’t even know is there. I’ve played three concerts at Rothko Chapel, and would like to do a fourth! They consistently present inspiring and fearless programming for free to the public, so I’m proud to call it home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

There are certain pieces I come back to, like the Cage Sonatas and Interludes. I’ve played that for eight years now—not constantly, but coming back to it once or twice a year—and each year it feels a little more settled and a little more internalized. It’s like seeing an old friend and jumping right back into a conversation, but then being like, “Hey, what’s different? Did you do something with your hair?” Something’s always a little different when I come back to it. I finally think I play that work with total assuredness—no traps or doubts or anything like that—which makes me think that perhaps it takes eight years for me to truly know a piece! Honestly, though, I find myself totally enrapt and obsessed with whatever I’m working on at a given time. In the days before a concert, I feel totally consumed with that music and its world, and after, I feel a little lost and desperate. In terms of listening, I only occasionally listen to classical or concert music. My brain buzzes too much with it on. I’d rather listen to bluegrass or artists outside of my field.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Nonspecifically, I’m taken with musicians who have a firm sense of their own creative identity, an unshakable passion for their craft, and the humility to understand that their journey is their own, and they have no obligation to mirror anyone else’s life or standards. I have countless examples of these kinds of people in my life, and aspire to their grace every day, people who seek to move their listeners rather than impress.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Gosh, that’s really tough to answer. Every concert on my fifty-state tour from about ten years ago felt like a miracle. The good ones and the disastrous ones, they all still beat the odds in that I was creating a life in music when for all intents, people… experts…had told me that there were only certain ways to do it, certain avenues to take, and of course all were supposedly closed to me. So the experience of just getting out there and doing it and having people actually respond…well, yeah it was simply miraculous.

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

That there’s a place for anyone in music. Truly. Everyone has a seat at the table. One has to envision that place, though, be open to it shape-shifting over the years, which it will, and put in the work to build it, simply carving into that identity, that little niche, every day. Some days will feel super tough and other days effortless, but faith and tenacity and a great deal of devotion—those are the ingredients to a life in music. Not Hanon, I’m afraid.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxiety, worry, dread, fear, embarrassment, doubt, wonder, joy, gratitude… a regular morning.

Adam Tendler has been called “an exuberantly expressive pianist” who “vividly displayed his enthusiasm for every phrase” by The Los Angeles Times, an “intrepid…outstanding…maverick pianist” by The New Yorker, a “modern-music evangelist” by Time Out New York, and a pianist who “has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all,” by The Baltimore Sun, who continued, “if they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.”

Tendler has performed solo recitals in all fifty United States, including engagements at Columbia University, Bard College, Princeton University, New York University, Kenyon College, Boston Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Portland State University, University of Nebraska, University of Alaska and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, as well as artistic landmarks including Houston’s Rothko Chapel and James Turrell’s Skypace in Sarasota, where he was the space’s first musical performer. 

Tendler’s memorized performances of John Cage’s complete Sonatas and Interludes include a sold-out concert at The Rubin Museum in New York City and a featured solo recital in the “Cage100” festival at Symphony Space on what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday, listed by New York Magazine as one of the Top 10 Classical Music Events of 2012. In 2014, Tendler performed Cage’s 31’57.9864” in an appearance with the John Cage Trust at Bard College’s Fischer Center, presenting a realization of Cage’s 10,000 Things, and in 2015 he performed music by Cage and Henry Cowell, including Cage’s 4’33”, at the famed Maverick Theatre in Woodstock NY, where 4’33” had its premiere.

Tendler’s memoir, 88×50, about the year he performed solo recitals in all fifty states, was a 2014 Kirkus Indie Book of the Month and Lambda Literary Award Nominee. His premiere recording of Edward T. Cone’s 21 Little Preludes will appear in 2015, and he is developing an album of piano works by American composer, Robert Palmer. He also maintains the blog, The Dissonant States.

A graduate of Indiana University, Tendler presides over a private teaching studio in New York City, and in 2013 joined the piano faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school.

Book review: ‘That Iron String’ by Jack Kohl

Guest review by Hilary Haworth

Lifting the lid on the intrigue and intense rivalries of the concert artist’s world, That Iron String unearths shocking violence with quite clinical detachment, in a way that endures the story will live with the reader for some time after the turning of the final page.

Two healthy baby boys are discovered, together with three corpses, on an abandoned boat off the north shore of Long Island. Port and Boston are raised by those presumed to be family in separate houses on the same street, both become accomplished pianists but Port, our narrator, stays local while his cousin takes to the road on the competition circuit. After ten years of silence, Boston’s piano arrives, then several letters from him, which the family inexplicably leave unopened. When he finally puts in an appearance in person, it is with a train of notoriety – disastrous competitions, a public seemingly turning against him, bizarre accidents befalling those close to him…

As a core fan of the crime fiction genre, with a great interest in the unusual and intriguing world of competitive pianism,  I really should have loved this novel.

However, it is peppered with structural and technical flaws that ultimately make Jack Kohl’s This Iron String an unsatisfactory read.

From the brief synopsis above, one might expect an atmosphere of menace and mystery to build from the start. But Kohl makes such efforts to avoid sensationalism that his novel is simply too clean and quiet to successfully engage our curiosity.  It is like a pianist misjudging an opening pianissimo, making a sound too shy to draw us in.  This reticence lasts well into the second half of the novel.

Port is also highly proprietorial about his own narrative.  He hands out those details he thinks we warrant knowing in miserly portions, and always reported in his own words, so that his characters seem entrapped by his summaries and corrections.

This is odd in that large parts of the book are in the form of letters from Boston, the enfant terrible who is marked out for pianistic glory. But Boston’s voice is so very like Port’s in its didactic self-importance that this doesn’t truly freshen things.

As events take a darker turn, Boston’s letters increasingly  substitute unhinged but very intellectual rants for Port’s poetic forays. For there is true poetry here, small prose poems trapped in the novel like jewels in sand, or like a rich subterranean tenor melody which the pianist’s left hand sustains beneath a stern and chromatic étude. A beautiful description of child’s play at a piano is one particularly enjoyable one, although most such moments are more sombre.

Direct speech is so rare in this novel that when it comes it has the shock value of colloquial spoken language in an opera. Unfortunately Kohl’s conversational dialogue never seems to be character-revealing or quirky but is nearly always dully functional. As a result, every character is shadowy, practically gagged, filtered as they are through the reporting of them by Port. People become types- the gym-honed divorcée, the vain and absentee conservatoire professor, the woolly headed elderly aunt.  Even a late-night, whispered phone conversation between Port and Lana, a childhood almost-sweetheart, is glossed in this way.  Port tunes us out almost at “hello” and tells us we would be better to hear just his own version of events as his memory is better!

One is left with many unanswered questions so in some ways the book does succeed in living on in the mind long after it is put down. Unfortunately this is mainly because the mysteries, miracles and murder that are at work through the plot seem to hold absolutely no curiosity for Port, his family, the conservatoire –  or even the local crime department!

There is certainly much evidence of poetic promise here.  But sadly, what lingered for me was not fascination but more a sense of disappointment. An undoubtedly inspired idea for a narrative – and a setting rich with dramatic possibility – had sadly been submerged by an incomplete technical and interpretive mastery.  

‘That Iron String’ by Jack Kohl is published by The Pauktaug Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers

The Hannah Lindfield Concert

On Friday 4th September, I took part in a very special concert celebrating the life of Hannah Lindfield, a young woman who died in November 2014. Hannah suffered all her life from a rare genetic disorder called Pfeiffer Syndrome that causes the bones of the skull to fuse together so it cannot grow properly. Hannah was in and out of hospital all her life until her premature death at the age of 23 in November 2014. She was deaf and registered blind but despite this she was a talented artist with a wonderful sense of colour and an incredible personal story.

Speaking about her art, Hannah said:

“it allows me to communicate my emotions and fears to doctors and loved ones and to act as therapy to get myself through difficult and painful times. Furthermore, this is also why colour is so important in my art, as it allows me to communicate emotion”

A selection of Hannah’s art:

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My duo partner Lee Varney and I were approached by members of the medical team at UCLH who cared for Hannah to organise a fundraising concert to enable Hannah’s family to publish her autobiography and also to make a significant contribution to Headlines, the craniofacial charity which offered invaluable support to Hannah and her family.

The venue for the concert was St-Mary-le-Bow in the City of London, home of the famous Bow Bells. With a capacity of c200, we knew this was going to be “the big one” and we were determined to plan the event meticulously to ensure it was very special and memorable for everyone. We invited guest performers to take part, and having these wonderful professional musicians on board, who gave up their precious time and their fees, took the event to a whole new level. In addition, we organised an exhibition of Hannah’s paintings and the opportunity for guests to purchase prints of her art, with all profits going into the charity fund.

The programme was planned carefully to include music that was reflective and poignant, and the concert was preceded by a touching tribute by Hannah’s father, Mark Lindfield. He spoke of his daughter’s incredible bravery, her talents and joie de vivre, and her determination not to allow her condition to prevent her from enjoying life to the full. When it was clear that Hannah could undergo no further surgery, her decision to leave intensive care to be cared for at home reveals an incredibly mature and stoical young woman. He also praised the NHS who cared for Hannah all her life, at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and UCLH, and also Headlines, the charity which offered Hannah and her family so much support and reminded them that they were not alone with the condition.

The concert closed with a standing ovation, led by Hannah’s family, a very moving tribute to Hannah. It was a huge privilege to be involved in such a wonderful event, and to work with a fantastic group of talented and committed people. I think we were all conscious of the enormity of the occasion and played with a heightened awareness, which resulted in a really beautiful concert.

Events like this do not happen automatically, and we relied upon a great team of willing and enthusiastic volunteers to ensure the event ran smoothly on the night, to whom we offer heartfelt thanks:

Front of house and bar: Mary Newton (UCLH) and her family, Dot Fraser, Rebecca Singerman-Knight and Nick Marlowe

FlowersHelmer Cuartas

PianoCoach House Pianos, Swansea, who generously loaned us a beautiful Steinway D, free of charge

Piano tuning – Rolf Dragstra

Poetry readings – Kate Foot and Katie Maughan

Programme – Action Graphics, Teddington

Fiona Page of La Balie France, for her generous donation which enabled us to produce a beautiful full-colour souvenir programme

Filming – Ed Lindfield and team

Nick Cressey and staff at St Mary-le-Bow

Extra special thanks must also go to our wonderful guest artists:

Corrine Morris, cellist

Fenella Humphreys, violinist

Natasha Hardy, soprano

I would also like to offer my personal thanks to Lee, who in addition to holding down a stressful full-time job in the anaesthetics department at UCLH, learnt all the music and organised rehearsals, as well as running the majority of the admin for the event.

Our fundraising page is still active and open for donations. Do please consider making a donation to enable Headlines to continue its important work. Prints of Hannah’s art can be viewed and ordered here

Thank you again to everyone who helped make it happen

Frances Wilson, 6th September 2015

Courses and summer schools for pianists 2016

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

Courses in the UK

Alan Fraser Piano Institute. Intensive courses with leading pedagogue, pianist and Feldenkrais practitioner Alan Fraser to expand your range of tonal colour, deepen your musical expression, and solve all manner of technical challenges. London course.. Open to all pianists, the course designed to bring a new dimension to your piano playing and teaching, and combines daily Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement lessons with lectures and individual work at the piano. Every pianist has a lesson with Fraser every day. London course: 1-4 October 2015. Further information here

Chethams Summer School for Pianists. Known affectionately as “Chets”, this is the most famous UK piano summer school and boasts a fantastic faculty of international artists and teachers. Masterclasses, concerts, ensembles and more. Further details here

Hindhead Piano Course.  Four days of intensive study, with masterclasses on technique and repertoire, workshops on improvisation, faculty talks and recitals, and participants’ concerts. Glorious setting of large Victorian country-house, with six acres of gardens, and heated outdoor swimming pool, surrounded by National Trust common and woodlands, with views to the South Downs. Faculty: Simon Nicholls & James Lisney. Further information and booking

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

London Piano Network. Not strictly a course, the LPN (formerly London Piano Meetup Group) offers regular performance platforms, informal concerts, visits to museums with musical connections and masterclasses with visiting tutors. Suitable for adult amateur pianists of all levels and piano teachers, all run in a friendly and supportive environment. Full details of all events here

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

Piano Week Run by pianist Samantha Ward, Piano Week offers classes for adults and children of all abilities, combined with an international piano festival, all based at Bangor University, North Wales. Full details here

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

Summer School for Pianists. This popular and long-standing summer school offers courses for pianists taught in mixed ability groups. All-Steinway facilities at the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus. Friendly atmosphere, tutor recitals and pre-concert talks, and opportunities for accompanying and duet playing. Faculty: James Lisney, Christine Stevenson, Karl Lutchmayer, Graham Fitch and Lauretta Bloomer. More information here

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Courses outside the UK

La Balie. Launched in 2015, La Balie takes the piano summer school to a whole new level with its luxury accommodation, gourmet food, and expert and sympaethic tuition with concert pianist James Lisney in the beautiful Lot-et-Garonne region of France. Courses in May, July and August 2016. Full details here

Lot Piano. Popular and well established courses for advanced pianists in the Lot region of France. Past tutors have included Susan Tomes, Noriko Ogawa, Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, William Fong and John Barstow. A convivial atmosphere and quality tuition. Further information here

Music at Albignac. The latest incarnation of the renowned piano summer school Music at Ambialet founded in 1991 by the pianist Paul Roberts and arts journalist Jenny Gilbert. Over the years they have maintained and developed their original vision: to nurture the highest standards of music-making in tranquil and idyllic surroundings, far removed from competitive urban pressures, bringing together teachers and pianists of international reputation with conservatoire students from around the globe; and to offer the same learning opportunities to amateur pianists, giving them a quality of teaching and insight they would not find elsewhere. It is the combination of amateur and aspiring professional, and the wide mix of ages, nationalities and life experience, that give the summer school its unique musical and social ambiance. Further information here

Music Holiday Italy:  for pianists who love piano music, sunshine and Italy in equal measure. Part festival, part summer school, part Italian holiday, it’s a series of informal one week courses running through most of the year in the heart of the Apennine mountains. Music Holiday Italy gives pianists, teachers and students a chance to play to an informed audience and learn from colleagues. Masterclasses, more in the nature of discussions, are held each morning while afternoons are free for practise or exploring the many treasures of the region. Tutor: Gil Jetley. Further information

Other courses which include a piano element:

Sherborne Summer School of Music

Jersey International Festival for Amateur Pianists

This blog post is regularly updated and reposted around my networks – please feel free to contact me if you would like details of your courses to be included in this article.

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

Searching for the real Beethoven – Concerto with Leif Ove Andsnes

Acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been spending a lot of time with Beethoven: four years in fact, as Andsnes has journeyed physically and metaphorically through the five piano concerti to understand and interpret one of the greatest sets of works for piano ever written. This extraordinary journey ended, perhaps appropriately, at this year’s Proms, the greatest festival of classical music on the planet, where Andsnes performed to a packed Royal Albert Hall.

Along the way, Andsnes has been followed by award-winning film-maker Phil Grabsky and his Seventh Art team, and the result is a remarkably absorbing, insightful and beautifully-crafted portrait of both pianist and music. Following the chronology of the five concerti, we hear directly from this articulate and intelligent musician as he speaks honestly and humbly about the unique characteristics of each concerto, the development of Beethoven’s artistic vision, and his personal connection with this music. His decision to devote four years of his life to one single composer, and specifically the five piano concerti, is clearly one he relishes and he speaks of his special relationship with the music of Beethoven, which developed when he was still a young performer. We see Andsnes working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (with whom he has also recorded these works), practising at home and interacting with other musicians, including the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as well as friends, colleagues and family. These interactions are mirrored by glimpses, though Beethoven’s letters, of the relationship between the composer and his world. Detailed footage from the concerts in Prague forms the main structure of the film, offering the viewer wonderful shots of both pianist and orchestral musicians at work, as well as a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a busy international performing and recording artist.

Part composer biography, part personal diary, this intelligent and accessible film is a must for anyone who loves this music, or who has enjoyed Andsnes in concert or on disc. The film is released on 7th September and is being screened at selected cinemas across the UK (details of screenings here). View a trailer of the film:

Director Phil Grabsky says “I knew this exclusive journey with Leif Ove would allow me access to great performance – but I had no idea it would be this great. These became the best reviewed concerts of the past few years and I was on stage to record them. Even more importantly the music and Leif Ove’s intelligent and accessible insight creates a staggeringly interesting new biography of arguably the greatest composer of all time. (source: Seventh Art press release).

Meet the Artist……Sadie Harrison, composer

Bella West Photography. Childrens Portraits
Bella West Photography

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

I come from a household of musicians. My father brought the family over from Australia in 1970 in pursuit of his dream to be an opera singer. He worked at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne for a while and my earliest musical memories were of curling up on velvet seats in dark, dusty auditoriums listening to music that didn’t make much sense at all! My mother’s musical tastes were pretty eclectic – I remember a lot of Chopin, heavy metal and Wichita Linesman on repeat. I learnt piano and violin as a child, mainly under duress and sadly, often felt all at sea, happier with books and paints.

In October 1983 I heard my first piece of ‘contemporary music’ in a composition class at Surrey University taken by George Mowat Brown – Der kranke mond from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. It was an absolute revelation…it sounds ridiculously emotive but honestly, it was like coming home. I wrote my first piece the same day, eventually played by the brilliant composer and clarinettist Sohrab Uduman, and from then I’ve been on my composing journey. ‘Modern music’ took a hold of me in a way that I couldn’t resist. I wanted to be part of this extraordinary world of sound.

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

Of course, looking back now I thank my parents for keeping me at it as a kid, for giving me wonderful opportunities and indeed for filling my head with music (that I have come to like somewhat!) George Mowat Brown believed in my ability and Susan Bradshaw told me that she’d never known anyone write so much music with so little technique – George gave me the get up and go, Susan, the desire to learn how to do this tough composing job. Nicola Lefanu was a huge influence on me as a student (and still is) – her encouragement, sometimes sternly critical, has been a foundation for much of my work and I respect her work ethic (and her music indeed) immensely. John Baily and Veronica Doubleday opened my eyes and ears to the music and people of Afghanistan and the last 14 years have been devoted more or less to exploring the extraordinary musical traditions of this country. And then there are the countless performers who have taken the time to learn, understand and play my music. Amongst them, I count Peter Sheppard Skaerved who helped me resurrect myself during periods of creative despondency with his untiring belief in what I do; Rusne Mataityte who understands the heart of my music so well; Andrew Sparling who played my early works with such total commitment and showed me that anything was possible! And most recently, my partner Richard Dunn for whom I wrote my first piece after a 5 year break away from composing. Thank goodness for his inspiration!

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

Starting again in my mid 40s after a long break away. Coming to terms with how the musical world had moved on, how very many more composers are out there now, how technology has become so important in terms of promotion, how hugely competitive the composing world is now. Of course, it always has been but the pool seems so terrifyingly huge now.

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

I am less worried about working to commission now and I like deadlines. I think people know my music well enough to know what they are getting so now I just write the best piece I can, really thinking about the qualities of the people I am writing for. Recently, I’ve written works for four different pianists, each with such special and defining qualities. I think that all the pieces sound like ‘me’ but each reflects, I hope, something of the technical prowess or quirkiness or passion of the players. And course, the relationship you build up with a player through writing something just for them is a hugely intense one, challenging on both sides – how terrifying it might be for some performers to share their interpretation with the composer that first time.

Which works are you most proud of? 

I have recently been working as Composer-in-Residence with an American ensemble Cuatro Puntos, a group who are dedicated to global co-operation and peace through the teaching and performance of music in some of the most dangerous and deprived areas of the world. This August, two of the group’s members, Kevin and Holly Bishop traveled to Kabul to work with the young girls of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, recording some pieces I had written for them based of Afghan songs and dances, to be integrated into a large cycle of works entitled Gulistan-e Nur (The Rosegarden of Light). Quite literally, Kevin and Holly risked their lives this August, working as explosions went off around them during one of the worst periods of recent bombings in Kabul. I am immensely proud, and privileged beyond words to have the chance to work with Cuatro Puntos and the students and staff of ANIM. And delighted that their playing will be heard by many people in America this September and in the UK and Berlin next year during tours of The Rosegarden of Light Project Tours.

I spend much of my composing time questioning why I bother adding to the volume of new music, and my pieces related to Afghanistan and Lithuania (The Light Garden Trilogy, An Unexpected Light) offer some answer. They are concerned with bringing to light the endlessly beautiful, witty, dramatic and ‘real’ traditional music that can now only be heard on ancient recordings. My interaction with other musical cultures is the driving force behind most of my writing and I gladly welcome all the political connotations and misunderstandings that such an interaction can engender. I was accused by an American reviewer many years ago of writing a piece of music I was accused by an American reviewer many years ago of musical terrorism – he described a performance of one of my Afghan works in Carnegie Hall as the equivalent of my writing a piece in support of the IRA and having it played in the Albert Hall. It was a ridiculous statement but I am rather proud of it – it was a piece that said something important about the state of things.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Too hard! This morning I was listening to John Coltrane’s mellow album Ballads from 1962. He made it at the same time he was thrilling and confounding the world with his pioneering free jazz. I love the easy way all these musics can co-exist in the hands of a master. He’s great, so let’s say John Coltrane today.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Watching my 5 year old daughter jump up (from being asleep) in the middle of an execrable piece of music (can I say that?) at Blackheath Concert Halls, exclaiming “Stop that horrible noise!”

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

Work harder than you think possible. Make it your duty to work at your technique. Be generous to people. Support other composers. Never take performers for granted. Listen to everyone’s point of view. Don’t panic when things aren’t running as smoothly as you’d like. Learn from your mistakes. Listen deeply and intelligently. Take every opportunity that is offered to you. Be passionate about what you do (quietly if you want!) Remember that the musical world intersects with every other bit of your experience so make music part of your life, not all of your life – your music will be better for it. Don’t give up. Don’t be scared.

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

By the sea.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

There’s no such thing.

What is your most treasured possession?

My daughter (yes, I know, she’s not a possession, but she is my treasure.)

What do you enjoy doing most?


What is your present state of mind?

Accommodating – my cat has slowly taken over more and more of the chair I’m sitting on to write this and I am now balancing on the edge with my feet jammed against the skirting board!

Sadie’s music has been performed and broadcast across the globe in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, Vilnius Philharmonie Hall and the SBC, with works released to critical acclaim on Naxos, NMC, Cadenza, Toccata Classics, Sargasso, BML, Divine Art/Metier, and Clarinet Classics. Many of her compositions have been inspired by the traditional musics of old and extant cultures with cycles of pieces based on the folk music of Afghanistan, Lithuania, the Isle of Skye, the Northern Caucasus and the UK.  

Highlights of 2015 include the release of a portrait CD by Toccata Classics, appointment as Cuatro Puntos  

Composer-in-Residence 2015-16 and Guest Directorship of the 2015 Irish Composition Summer School. Notable 2015 performances include works at the International Mozart Festival in Johannesburg, in Pietermaritzburg and Stellenbosch, SA (Renée Reznek), Late Music Festival (Chimera and the Albany Trio),  

Bergen Music Festival (Peter Sheppard Skaerved), Club Inégales (Dr. K Sextet), Bristol (SCAW), Seaton  

(Trittico), Isle of Rasaay (Sarah Watts/Antony Clare/Laurence Perkins), Huddersfield (Nancy Ruffer), York Spring Festival (Geert Callert), National Portrait Gallery and Wiltons (Peter Sheppard/Eve Daniel/Roderick Chadwick), Holbourne Museum (Elizabeth Walker/Richard Shaw), Shaftesbury (Madeleine Mitchell/Geoff Poole) and Hartford, Connecticut (including radio and TV broadcasts with Cuatro Puntos and the Hartford Community Orchestra). September 2015 will see the premiere with 10 subsequent performances of Gulistane-Nur for string sextet and youth ensemble in Boston, Massachusetts and Connecticut, supported by an Arts Council England International Development Award and the Ambache Charitable Trust. Sadie is currently writing works for the Afghanistan National Youth Orchestra (Kabul, December 2015), Rusne Mataityte/ Sergey Okrushko (Vilnius, September 2016), Frano Kakarigi (Granada, November 2015) and David Heyes (Teppo-Fest 2016). Sadie’s music is published by UYMP and Recital Music.  She has several works on the Trinity Examination Syllabus and in the ABRSM Spectrum Series. Full details of her past and current works can be found at and on her website  

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture


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