Tag Archives: British pianist

Meet the Artist……Susan Tomes

(photo: Robert Philip)
(photo: Robert Philip)

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

We didn’t have a piano in the house when I was little, but gradually my friends’ parents started reporting that I had been trying to play their piano when I came to their house. My parents were surprised (neither of them had had the opportunity to learn an instrument) but intrigued, and eventually they decided to take the plunge and acquire an upright piano. It was a make of piano I’ve never come across since: Eungblut & Eungblut. I remember that when it arrived in our living-room I already felt it was an old friend and I ‘knew how to play it’, though I can’t really account for that feeling as I hadn’t yet had a piano lesson.

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

I think I’d have to name various professors I met at masterclasses when I was in my twenties and had officially ‘finished my musical education’. In some ways, it was yet to begin! I met the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. Later on I met the Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sebok when I was spending a semester at the Banff Centre in Canada. Those two musicians with their very different personalities and pedagogical approaches were hugely influential, opening my eyes and ears to a larger, more profound and multi-layered way of thinking about music.

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

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself. I suppose the friction between those things has been the reason that I took to writing about music and being a musician [I’ve written four books]. I find that writing about performance helps me to come to terms with the self-imposed challenge of being an introvert in an extrovert profession.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I feel very fortunate in having lots and lots of concerts I’m proud of having been part of. I’ve worked with so many amazing musicians. Recording-wise, it’s a little different because I’ve never much enjoyed the process of making records. Nevertheless I am proud that many of my recordings have been well-received and have meant something to people. I guess my favourite one is still the first: the Domus recording of Fauré piano quartets. We were all novices then, of course, but we also had a very special bond. I can still hear our freshness and idealism when I listen to that recording.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I really hope I can say Mozart’s works, because he has always been my favourite composer, and I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to live up to his beautifully lucid yet deep and subtle music. Other favourites are Schumann, Schubert and the French composers of the end of the nineteenth century; I adore the piano music of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré. Then there are two ‘greats’, Beethoven and Haydn, whom I used not to feel so close to, but with time I’ve come to appreciate them more and more, and when I perform their music I feel more confident that I have something to say about it.

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

That’s always a blend of things that people ask me to play, and suggestions I put forward if I have the opportunity. Unfortunately, programmes usually have to be planned far in advance, which means that you find yourself committed to play something you suggested two years ago, and may not feel like playing quite so much when it comes to it! But somehow, just because you’re committed to playing a certain work on a certain date,  the appetite to prepare and perform it does develop when the time approaches.

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

For years and years I have loved the Wigmore Hall, where I first played as a child and have been fortunate to play in regularly ever since. Other favourites? Well, there was Domus’s white portable geodesic dome, in which we played memorable concerts and tried to forge a new way of presenting chamber music to new audiences. I also remember a wonderful old hall in Bilbao, very similar in character to the Wigmore in a way. I loved the feeling of Carnegie Hall, where the auditorium seems to open up before you in a very pleasing way as you look from the stage. The Konzerthaus in Vienna is pretty special; I was impressed by a beautiful new hall in Zaragoza, and I have a happy memory of playing in Grieg’s house in Bergen, where the audience sang me ‘Happy Birthday’! I always enjoy playing ‘house concerts’, especially in beautiful drawing-rooms; I often feel that these are the kind of rooms, and the kind of audiences, for which a lot of the classical repertoire was conceived. I love the intimate atmosphere and the closeness of the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I don’t really have favourite pieces to perform; I find that whatever I’m working on occupies my imagination and becomes my ‘favourite’, or at least my obsession. Funnily enough, at the moment I don’t listen to all that much music when I’m away from the piano. When you spend a lot of time practising or rehearsing, you don’t particularly feel the desire to listen to even more music just for fun. I often listen to jazz radio when I’m working in the kitchen, but in fact I just as often enjoy silence.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I couldn’t single out particular people from the amazing list of musicians I’ve been lucky to work with. There are so many different ways of being a good musician, and so many ways of collaborating with other musicians. Over the years I have been inspired by the attitude and standard of playing of many of the musicians I’ve met and worked with in Prussia Cove, both during the ‘masterclass seminars’ in April, and during ‘Open Chamber Music’ in September. Many of those people have become my long-standing musical colleagues. People travel from all over the world to be in Prussia Cove, and I’ve lost count of the illuminating and stimulating musical experiences I’ve had there. In general, I’ve always got most out of people who are interested in being good chamber musicians rather than single-minded soloists.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As many writers say when asked which of their books is their favourite, I’d probably say that my most recent concert is the one that’s most vivid in my mind. I don’t have a ‘most memorable’ experience – there have been so many. Just for fun I might mention my first-ever piano trio concert when I was a teenager, still at school. Fellow students and I performed the Arensky piano trio, which we had learned in after-school sessions. Unbelievable fun, and we had such a sense of achievement!

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

For me, the most important thing to impart to students is that great music is not ‘entertainment’, nor just a social accomplishment, but a reflection of life. Most of the music I care about is a metaphor for life, of its complexity (and sometimes its simplicity). Great composers have found a way of channelling their thoughts and life experiences into music, in such a way that the rest of us can receive a kind of ‘distilled understanding’ through the music. Once a young musician has grasped this point, working on music becomes much more than a surface task, and they can begin a huge journey of exploration.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m usually pretty organised about working a long way ahead on repertoire. When I get to the day of a performance, I don’t want to have think about producing the right notes; I want all that to have sunk down into an unconscious layer. So I’ve usually got at least the next six months’ worth of concert repertoire on a sort of practising rota. Next up is Beethoven’s A flat major piano sonata opus 110. I’m doing a lecture-recital about the piece – quite a task. On February 16, I’m playing an all-Schubert programme in Wigmore Hall with the wonderful Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth. Our programme includes the rarely played Schubert Fantasie, one of the most virtuosic and most technically demanding pieces I know. Schubert’s imagination soars above the usual capabilities of merely human players with ordinary-sized hands. It’s supposed to sound effortless, too – something to aspire to!

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

In ten years’ time I’d love to be reading in the press that older women have outstripped every other kind of artist in popularity. They will be top of every concert hall’s agenda; they’ll be the toast of the town because of their wit and wisdom, and governments will plead with them to head important initiatives. Images of glamorous young musicians will disappear from adverts and brochures, to be replaced by iconic portraits of wise women. (We can dream – that’s one thing you learn as a musician!)

Susan Tomes appears at Wigmore Hall with Erich Höbarth on 16 February 2015. On 17 February at 7pm she will be talking about her latest book, ‘Sleeping in Temples’, at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly. 

Susan Tomes is a leading UK pianist, a rare example of a woman who has achieved several decades as an acclaimed chamber music pianist. In 2013 she was awarded the Cobbett Medal for distinguished services to chamber music.

Born in Edinburgh, she was the first woman to study music at King’s College, Cambridge. She has been at the heart of three internationally admired ensembles: Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble, and the Florestan Trio, winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2000. With these groups she has performed and broadcast all over the world. She is a long-standing participant at the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, where she met many of her chamber music partners. She has made over fifty CDs, many of which have become benchmark recordings, winning Gramophone Awards, Classic CD awards, Diapasons d’Or in France, and Deutsche Schallplattenpreise. At Hyperion Records’ 20th anniversary, Gramophone wrote that ‘Susan Tomes’s playing is always magnetic and concentrated whatever the repertory, a rare gift which she consistently employs not for her own glorification but in the cause of corporate music-making.’ Her recital repertoire focuses particularly on French music, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann; as a soloist, she has recorded Mozart piano concertos and 1920s piano music by the Savoy Hotel’s Billy Mayerl.

As well as performing, Susan is a champion of the art of the chamber music pianist, illuminating the role and promoting the status of the collaborative pianist over many years in radio talks, newspaper and magazine articles, keynote speeches, seminars, and masterclasses. She is the author of four books on performance issues: Beyond the Notes (2004), A Musician’s Alphabet (2006), Out of Silence (2010) and Sleeping in Temples (October 2014), which has already been a Books of the Year choice, a Christmas Books selection and Editor’s Choice in various journals. Her books are now studied in ‘performance practice’ courses in various parts of the English-speaking world. She has been a guest on the BBC flagship radio programmes, ‘Today’ and ‘Woman’s Hour’. She has served on many international competition juries and is often invited to give masterclasses at music conservatoires. She is a guest tutor at the European Chamber Music Academy, and holds her own masterclasses every year in London, attracting international chamber groups.

Susan is currently engaged on a long-running duo series with the Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth. They focused on Mozart for two years, and are now exploring the sonatas of Schubert. Susan is the solo pianist on a  record made by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to celebrate Creative Scotland 2012 with the gift of a special CD for every child born in Scotland during the year.

www.susantomes.com

 

 

Tableaux and Pictures: Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall

It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the high calibre of the performers, that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

Read my full review

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

 

Listen to the concert on BBC iPplayer

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux – an earlier article on the Opus 33

CD review: ‘Etude’ by Clare Hammond, piano

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo Julie Kim)

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing etudes to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano etudes has continued into the modern area with composers such as Ligeti, Cage and Kapustin.

On her new disc for BIS, British pianist Clare Hammond explores the Étude in works by Lyapunov, Szymanowski, Kapustin and Chin, a truly international line up of composers (Russia, Poland and South Korea). The imaginative programme combines some of the most electrifying and adventurous piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the impassioned late-Romanticism of Sergei Lyapunov to the jazz-inspired rhythms of Nicolai Kapustin and the mercurial, post-Debussyan soundworld of Unsuk Chin. For Clare Hammond the choice of works on this disc represents some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and  the opportunity to explore what the piano is truly capable of. All the Études on the disc fulfil the traditional criteria of the Étude (in the Chopinesque sense) of a piece which combines the excitement of technical and virtuosic display with expression, colour and compositional inventiveness.

This disc is not only a showcase for the variety and ingenuity of these composers,  but also a fine vehicle for Clare Hammond to demonstrate a sparkling technical sure-footedness, clarity of touch and musical sensitivity (particularly in the Études by Chin, which are, by Clare’s own admission, extremely difficult). The works by Chin are more closely aligned to Clare’s particular interest in lesser-known and contemporary piano repertoire, for which she has received much praise, and these virtuosic and playful études skip and dance across the keyboard with wit, colour and vitality.

Clare brings a richness to the works by Lyapunov with which the disc begins. They recall the soundworld of Rachmaninoff in their scale and textures, and are modelled directly on Liszt’s set of the same title (Études d’exécution transcendante).

Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op 33 share Chin’s interest in pianistic colour, and are more closely related the Études of Debussy rather than his fellow countryman Chopin. Fleet and mercurial, Clare deftly captures their transitory moods and luminous colours, dancing rhythms and haunting sonorities, while handling their technical demands with aplomb.

Finally, Five Études in Different Intervals complete this fascinating survey of the enduring appeal of the piano etude. Composed by Nikolai Kapustin, they are characteristic of his output, fusing formal classical structures with idioms drawn from jazz, which Kapustin studied from the age of 16. Clare pulls them off with precision and wit, and an evident relish for this kind of writing for the piano.

‘Étude’ by Clare Hammond is available on BIS Records label and is available from all major online retailers. 

Creating the Definitive Recording – an article by Clare Hammond on the process and experience of creating Étude

Creating the ‘definitive’ recording

A guest post by pianist Clare Hammond

 

As a child, I used to curl up on the floor in front of the imposing speakers of my grandfather’s sound system and work my way through his extensive collection of LPs. A lover of the core classical repertoire, he had little beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but these composers were amply represented. While listening to Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas by Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets, I imbibed a sense that these works were made permanent, somehow concrete, by their incarnation on disc. It seemed that these renditions were ‘definitive’, in a way that I didn’t feel when listening to live music. I hoped that one day, I too would be able to record ‘the’ Moonlight sonata and somehow set my interpretation in stone.

Despite this orthodox musical education, my specialisms now veer somewhat to the side of the mainstream repertoire and I find myself releasing a disc of études by composers from across the globe; two Russians (Sergei Lyapunov and Nikolai Kapustin), a Pole (Karol Szymanowski) and a South Korean (Unsuk Chin). These études represent some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and have given me the chance to really delve into what the piano is capable of (and, rather less pleasurably, where my limitations lie!)

I started preparing for this disc many months before the recording sessions. This was partly because the repertoire is extremely difficult technically, and also because this was a very personal project in which I had invested a great deal of emotional and creative energy. I have developed a reputation for playing works that lie at the more elaborate and frenetic end of the musical spectrum, so these études are essentially my ‘core’ repertoire, where I felt most at ease and most stimulated creatively.

I practised the pieces on different pianos, in varying acoustics, and performed them to different audiences, in order to explore the sonic options available to me. I listened to recordings of the études by other pianists, to orchestral repertoire by the composers, and read about their work in order to ‘live’ the pieces and make them my own. I had long abandoned the idea of a ‘definitive’ recording or interpretation, but I thought that I had a clear idea of what I, personally, wanted to achieve. At least, I did before I set foot in the studio…

The first few minutes in front of a microphone soon put a stop to any notions of creating my ‘ideal’ recording, although not in as devastating a way as you might expect. When recording, as in performance, you are suddenly faced with a single instrument which you may not have played before. In my case, at Potton Hall in Suffolk, I had a beautiful Steinway Model D which had been expertly regulated and tuned. However, all pianos have their foibles and if yours doesn’t have the bloom in the higher register that you had set your heart upon, or the percussive timbre that you sought in the bass, you have to find an alternative solution.

I had not anticipated how dramatically altered my physical state would be. I was nervous, though in a different way from live concert performance. We had a finite amount of time (5 days) to record two discs of challenging repertoire, these études and works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik. I wasn’t quite sure how far I could push myself, or for how long (8 hours per day before my wrists give up entirely…) as I’d never done anything this demanding before. The awareness of just how much effort both I and the wonderful team at BIS Records had put into assembling the project, and that my performance over the next few days could potentially undermine all of this, added an extra frisson of anxiety.

Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with producer Thore Brinkmann whose calm demeanour and consummate expertise made the whole process far easier and more enjoyable that I could have expected. We spent the first half hour warming up, with me at the piano and Thore at his desk altering the levels of the seven microphones poised some 12 feet off the ground in a semicircle around the piano. When I heard the first ‘playback’, I was astonished at the sound he had captured. It was so different from what I had heard at the piano. There was a clarity and a crystalline quality in some passages which had not been audible at ground level. Thus began my five-day guessing game where I made alterations at the keyboard whose result I could only hear minutes later in playback.

The specific character of one instrument, the resonance of an acoustic, or the choice of one brand of microphone, would seem to place limitations on the ‘ideal’ performance that I had in mind but, of course, in real life the most interesting results often come when you have to be most pragmatic. I started to respond to the situation and to find creative possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. While I wouldn’t countenance incorporating the heady cry of a randy pheasant into a recording (and there was one point where I thought I would have to chase a number through the undergrowth away from the hall), certain effects were suggested by the depth of the sustaining pedal on the piano and, fancifully enough, by the vibrations of an aeroplane engine that had ruined a previous take.

It takes some time to fully appreciate that a recording is its own medium and most certainly not a convincing simulacrum of a live performance. For a start, there is no audience and the sense of reciprocal communication that you experience onstage is absent. Secondly, certain effects work much better on tape than they do in the hall. Why this should be, I do not know but there were a number of occasions where a take that I thought unusable, because of its vulgarity or my ineptitude, was by far the best in playback. While we tried to keep editing to a minimum, as with almost any recording, ours involved cutting and pasting tracks together to create a performance that never actually existed. Some may complain that ‘authenticity’ is lost but, again, this assumes that the aim of a recording is to recreate an ‘ideal’ performance for posterity. In reality, people listen to recordings very differently from a live performance and demand a greater level of accuracy and precision than a human being is capable of in one take. As a musician, knowing that if the next passage doesn’t go well you can always redo it, without having to jettison the performance up to that point, is enormously liberating. You are able to take risks that you would rarely contemplate in concert and that adds a vitality that is unique to the recording.

Fast forward nine months and I was able to hear the first edit of my Etude CD, around the time that the other disc, Reflections, of the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik was released. This was a sufficiently long time that the pieces sounded ‘fresh’ to me and I was intrigued to hear what my family and friends thought of the recording. I was struck, as I am again now that the disc has been released, by how differently people listen to a piece. The concept of a ‘definitive’ performance is only meaningful if you can find a ‘definitive’ listener and, of course, both are a nonsense. Listeners bring their own experience, preferences and emotions to a recording and respond accordingly. While this might seem frustrating for the musician, it is actually an intriguing process and has certainly opened my ears to elements that I didn’t initially hear when performing in the studio.

If this is my experience as a pianist, how does the composer feel, compelled to translate their ideas into inadequate notation and submit them to the whims of a performer, and that’s before encountering the uncertainties of the recording studio? It’s important to remember that in order to be authentic, any art-form must be to some extent human and imperfect. The loss of control that one experiences, whether performing on stage or recording, can and should become an integral part of the creative experience. Learning to do this is difficult, and I can’t say that I have succeeded, but the process of becoming receptive to uncertainty is an extremely important part of anyone’s musical and artistic development. When I was younger, I felt that I should strive towards an abstract ‘perfection’ in music. The messy reality is far more interesting.

Clare’s new disc, ‘Etude’, has just been released by BIS Records and is available from all major online retailers. 

“unfaltering bravura and conviction”, Gramophone Magazine

“style and substance”, The Observer

“imagination and bravura”, The Sunday Times

Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is forging a reputation as an advocate of new and unfamiliar repertoire. In 2014, she gave debut performances at 7 festivals across Europe, including the ‘Chopin and his Europe Festival’ in Warsaw, and world premieres of works by 10 composers. Clare has now released two discs with BIS Records; Reflections, of works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, and Etude, with études by Unsuk Chin, Sergei Lyapunov, Nikolai Kapustin and Karol Szymanowski.

More information is available at www.clarehammond.com/etude.html

Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes – guest post by Daniel Harding

Meet the Artist…….Clare Hammond

Meet the Artist……Adam Swayne, pianist & composer

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

As a teenager I was lucky to have Jeremy Carter as my piano teacher. I also revered the rock’n’roll pianism of Jerry Lee Lewis (and still do).

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

I struggled during my first couple of years on the demanding joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM, but my third year was something of a revelation. I learnt reams during my piano lessons with John Gough (including, crucially, a fresh and non-stuffy approach) and also took composition lessons with John Casken and lectures in postmodern music from Kevin Malone and Shostakovich from David Fanning. It was at this point I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Fulbright studies in the US with Ursula Oppens sealed the deal.

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

Juggling a range of disciplines and trying (hard!) to excel in all of them. Alongside piano I compose frequently for many varied ensembles (that, strangely, hardly ever include piano – for example this one) and I regularly conduct performances of (mainly) new music. My work with CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) is really important because it involves getting amazing people from all walks of life participating in the music, and I also serve on the board of the Riot Ensemble in order to get the most cutting-edge of this stuff out there in concert. I love teaching and am lucky to supervise over 80 groups of all styles and genres as part of my role as Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester, and I also have a clutch of brilliant and talented students at the Junior Royal Academy.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I played Rzewski’s colossal ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ in three venues last year, and I think I am proud to have scaled that particular pianistic mountain (although I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the recording yet!). I’m also pleased to have performed Lutoslawski’s terrific concerto – here’s a clip of the ending in my performance with the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Victor Yampolsky.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Probably pieces by Shostakovich. I relate well to nervous energy, tragedy…. and comedy!

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

Whatever I think will be fun to prepare and fun for people to listen to.

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

Hmm, tricky one. I like venues where it is easy to blur the boundaries between the performers and the listeners, so it’s more of a community experience. Maybe St Martin-in-the-Fields?

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Kevin Malone wrote me a wonderful and hilarious piece involving plenty of theatre called Count Me In. You can watch a performance here. I also love the sound of wind orchestras and have been lucky to have been involved in quite a few over the years. You can’t beat the Americans for their brass sound.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’d have to include Pierre Boulez – a great musical polymath with an amazing conducting style. You can see every single composerly detail in the gesture. My American conducting teachers (especially Mallory Thompson) taught me the importance of this. At other ends of the spectrum I love Eddie Cochran and The Who.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my first outing of Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ in which I have to adopt the persona of two female goddesses as well as play some really imaginative piano music. (You can listen to a performance here.) I’m playing this again in a Riot Ensemble concert on January 30th.

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

Just to give 100% energy and commitment to whatever is being asked of you, however big, small or unusual.

What are you working on at the moment?

This morning, the John Ireland ‘Phantasie’ Trio. I play in a piano trio with Ellie Blackshaw (violin) and Peter Copley (cello) and we are on a mission to present all three of the Ireland trios. They are wonderful and really reek of Sussex, which is where I live.

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

Doing the same sorts of things, but with less anxiety about note learning/ preparedness.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious about note learning/preparedness!

Adam Swayne works with a vast range of musical media and styles that go beyond conventional labelling. He is just as at home giving a solo piano recital or conducting an orchestra as he is organising musical installations in art galleries or composing for amateur ensembles. He takes an inclusive, informative and innovative approach to his music making that is drawing an increasingly large audience.

Adam is a graduate of the joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM. He gained first class degrees from both institutions, and an MMus from the RNCM. Manchester University gave Adam their highest award (Sir Thomas Beecham Medal) along with other prizes including the Recital Prize. Prizes from the RNCM included the John Ireland Prize and an award for performances of contemporary music.

In 2003 Adam was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to begin doctoral studies at Northwestern University, U.S.A. He graduated in 2006 with distinction, having presented several U.S. premières of works by British composers.

Adam is now Senior Lecturer and Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester and piano tutor at the Junior Royal Academy of Music.

Adam’s Swayne’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.adamswayne.com

Celebrating 150 years of Sibelius and Nielsen

(photo credit: Gareth Barton)
(photo credit: Gareth Barton)

Violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Nicola Eimer celebrate the 150th anniversaries of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen in a concert combining works for violin and piano by these two composers, together with new works by contemporary composers.

Alongside works by Sibelius and Nielsen, the duo will premiere a new set of five pieces composed on the footprint of Sibelius’s Five Pieces op.81 by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Alasdair Nicolson, Matthew Taylor, David Knotts and Anthony Powers.

Programme

Jean Sibelius: 4 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.115
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Alasdair Nicholson: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
David Knotts: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81knotts da
Matthew Taylor: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Anthony Powers: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Jean Sibelius: Sonatina in E for violin & piano, Op.80
Interval
Carl Nielsen: Violin Sonata No.2 in G, Op.35

The concert takes place on 4th February 2015 at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Further information and tickets here

‘Fenella Humphreys responds to its elegiac reflection and technical display at top flight level’ (Orchestral Choice CD, 5* BBC Music Magazine)

‘Nicola Eimer is an outstanding artist’ (The Strad Magazine)

Meet the Artist…… Ashley Wass

(Photo credit: Patrick Allen)

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

My (non-musical) parents ran a seafront guesthouse and had an electric organ standing (unused) in the corner of the lounge. I’m an only-child and got nominated fairly early on to be the one who’d put it to use. (As a 5 year-old I suppose I couldn’t really argue.) I used to play Christmas carols and Richard Clayderman hits to the guests and haven’t looked back since.

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

I think it was Stravinsky who said “great artists steal”. Now, I’m not calling myself a great artist by any means, but I do empathise with that quote; I feel I’m constantly learning – or ‘stealing’, if you like – from other musicians. I guess we all do really; part of what ultimately defines our individual musical personalities is the process of choosing which bits of ‘stolen’ information we nurture and which bits we cast aside.

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

Deciding exactly what kind of career it is I want.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m (thankfully) quite fond of my last two CDs. The first – Bach to the Future – features a collection of solo pieces that have been particularly significant in my life and career to date. It was actually recorded just a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, so the fact I managed to produce something vaguely coherent is quite an achievement. More recently, my piano trio released its debut album. It’s called The Seafarer and includes a collaboration with Willard White and a brand new transcription of Debussy’s La Mer by Sally Beamish. It’s a project which took a tremendous amount of time and effort to realise, so it’s lovely to see it hit the shelves.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Ha – that’s a question which is probably best answered by others. I know what I enjoy playing, but musicians are often their own worst judges.

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

I love the process of developing repertoire-led ideas into fully-fledged projects that can be toured (and sometimes recorded) over a full season. They tend to be getting more eclectic and adventurous as I get older; I think I’m driving my poor agent mad.

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

St. George’s in Bristol. It has the best acoustic of any chamber hall in the UK, a fine piano and – best of all – is within 30 minutes of my home. It means I can play a concert in a beautiful space and still be home in time for Match of the Day. That’s the ideal set-up as far as I’m concerned.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

In truth, I hardly ever listen to music these days unless I’m in the car, and then it’s either jazz (my choice) or nursery rhymes (my daughter’s choice). The Wass household is a strict no-music zone (piano practice aside).

Who are your favourite musicians?

Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Oscar Peterson. Oh, and I’d better say my trio [Trio Apache] partners – Matthew Trusler and Thomas Carroll – too. They’d kill me otherwise.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my Proms debut. Though that’s less because of the performance itself and more because I’d got engaged to my now-wife during the overture.

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

Variety. It’s essential, both to the maintenance of a career and to one’s musical well-being.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a big project with Matt Trusler for 2015 which involves commissioning 12 pieces from 12 different composers, plus a yet-to-be-written script, so that’s taking up a huge amount of time. It’s going to be awesome – watch this space.

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

Doing what I’m doing now, but with another ‘0’ added to my fees.

What is your most treasured possession?

Photos of my trek to Everest Base Camp. Not only because going there was a dream come true, but because it also reminds me that I was once relatively fit.

The Seafarer‘, Trio Apache’s debut album, featuring Sally Beamish’s transcription of Debussy’s La Mer alongside her original work, The Seafarer Trio (with Sir Willard White narrating), is now available on the Orchid Classics label.

Ashley Wass, began playing the piano at 5, and studied music at Chethams Music School from age 11. In his teens he studied on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, where his teachers included Christopher Elton and Hamish Milne. Wass later studied with Murray Perahia. He is the only British winner of the London International Piano Competition (1997), prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, and a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.

Described as an ‘endlessly fascinating artist’, Ashley Wass is firmly established as one of the leading performers of his generation. Increasingly in demand on the international stage, he has performed at many of the world’s finest concert halls including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Konzerthaus. He has performed as soloist with numerous leading ensembles, including all of the BBC orchestras, Philharmonia Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lille, Wiener Kammerorchester, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and under the baton of conductors such as Simon Rattle, Osmo Vanska, Donald Runnicles, Ilan Volkov and Vassily Sinaisky.

Ashley Wass’s full biography

www.ashleywass.com

Editions Peters launches record label

The well-established music publisher Editions Peters has launched a new recording label, Edition Peters Sounds, which will focus on recordings made by artists represented by Edition Peters’ artist management company, EPAM, including tenor Paul Phoenix and vocal group Apollo5.

The label launches with a new disc of Fauré’s ‘Nocturnes’ by British pianist Daniel Grimwood. Recorded on a Steinway D at Wyastone in Monmouth, this elegantly presented collection is notable for the beauty and transparency of Grimwood’s tone, particularly in the upper registers of the piano. Grimwood’s elegant, sensitive and refined playing perfectly befits these lyrical, gracious and suave works.

Grimwood says of Fauré, “It is hard to name another composer who enjoys such renown in his homeland and such relative neglect elsewhere. Like Liszt, Fauré’s fame rests on a small percentage of his output; an output which is consistently excellent. That pianists tend to shy away from his works strikes me as a peculiar quirk of my profession”.

Listen to a track from the album

The disc is available now via iTunes and other retailers. Read more about Fauré and the Nocturnes on Daniel Grimwood’s website

Meet the Artist…… Natalie Bleicher, pianist and composer

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

I grew up in a musical household as my mother was a piano teacher. She taught me piano and I also played viola and violin, and for as long as I can remember I knew wanted a career in music. I think I first started composing because improvising new melodies and harmonies made practising my scales more interesting!

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

Many and varied. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent musical education with many good teachers, starting with my mother. My secondary school, Dame Alice Owen’s, had a very strong music department and I attended Trinity College of Music, Junior Department on Saturdays. I also played the viola in Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra. I then went on to study music at Oxford and composition at King’s College, London.

More recently, I joined CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) in 2005, playing the piano in CoMA London Ensemble which is a contemporary music group open to all instruments and all abilities. Initially I thought that CoMA would be a good way to provide composing opportunities, but I enjoyed playing the piano in the ensemble so much that I started to realise that I had more of a passion for playing than composing, particularly the excitement of playing contemporary music. CoMA has taught me more about contemporary music than my master’s degree in composition and I have discovered many wonderful composers and explored their solo piano music, including Paul Burnell, Joanna Lee and Dave Smith whose works appear on my latest CD.

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

The greatest challenge for me has been working out how to find my niche as a musician in the first place. I always knew I wanted a career in music and after graduating I worked for several years in music organisations alongside some composing and teaching. However I always felt that I wanted to spend more time making music myself. When I had the opportunity to switch to part time hours in my administrative work I was able to think seriously about what career I really wanted and how to get there, and that’s when I realised that I wanted to focus on piano.

While I had always taken piano seriously I knew that converting this into a full-time career would require a concentrated period of study and that’s when I got in touch with my teacher Thalia Myers. Under her guidance I threw myself into getting my playing up to a standard where I could forge a career as a pianist.

Embarking on a career as a professional pianist in ones thirties rather than twenties has its challenges, but I believe that a richness of musical and life experiences informs my playing, providing me with something a little different to offer audiences.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

My first CD, Dream Rotation, which I recorded in November 2013 and which has recently come out. Dream Rotation is a collection of six contemporary works by composers I know. Four of the works were in fact written for me to play, two of which are dedicated to me. Five are premiere recordings.

I had at the back of my mind that I would like to record some of the repertoire I had been working on. I decided to go for it in 2013 when I discovered I was expecting a baby in early 2014 and I knew that my practising time would be reduced afterwards. I recorded the six works in one day in November 2013 at the Jacqueline du Pré music building in Oxford with the excellent recording engineer Adaq Khan. In the run-up to the day I had to put a lot of work into learning the works to a standard I was happy with and I had three other concerts during that two-week period. All while being seven months pregnant! The recording day itself was enormous fun and went more smoothly than I could have hoped for, then all the editing and admin that goes into bringing a CD out was done during 2014 in bits of time snatched in between looking after my little boy.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As I am always learning new things and developing as a player it tends to be whatever I’ve performed most recently. I love playing contemporary music and I actually find standard repertoire quite daunting because there are so many interpretations already out there. I also love playing in ensembles and orchestras and regard this aspect of my playing as just as important as my solo playing.

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

In a variety of ways. Depending on what concerts are coming up I may look for a piece for a particular occasion or others might make a specific request. In addition, composers often send me their works, which I welcome although I also warn them that their pieces will go on to a large pile on my piano and there’s no guarantee of a performance! I have discovered that male composers are much less shy about sending pieces to performers than female composers. Women take note!

As a composer, who are the major influences on your work?

A tough question! Every piece is different and I have sometimes noticed that each piece has something of whatever I’ve been listening to and playing at the time. In recent years this means CoMA repertoire, particularly the use of aleotoric notation such as indefinite pitches and rhythms and generally thinking outside the box. Composers such as Howard Cheesman, Joanna Lee, Stephen Montague and Dave Smith all think creatively about what the performers are required to do and how to express that in a notation which will be understood.

Do you find your composing informs your performing and vice versa?

Absolutely! In terms of playing it is useful to think about what kind of sound the composer was aiming for in any particular texture and to imagine each passage as if it were written for voice, and as if it were written for orchestra, as well as how it is actually written for piano. Understanding the structure of a piece and how the material develops is essential in planning a performance.

It is imperative for composers to understand their music from the point of view of a performer because it is only the performer who can actually bring the music to life. Since I have been playing contemporary music I have thought much more carefully about writing music for the instruments playing it and notating from the performer’s point of view. I think the music I have written as a result of this has greater clarity and I have been much more careful about how things are notated.

You have a special interest in contemporary repertoire and new music. What are the special pleasures and challenges of working with this repertoire?

Bringing a piece to life for the very first time is a wonderful experience. I love the feeling of discovering a piece I didn’t know before and with a brand new piece there is the added feeling of being the first to discover it. Think of your favourite piece of music and imagine being the first person to hear it!

Performers who concentrate on mainstream repertoire rely on a filtering process by which the best works survived and the less successful ones didn’t, whereas performing contemporary music involves being part of this filtering process. I find this exciting and rewarding but it does require patience because one has to engage with the less successful pieces as well as the gems. Patience is also required when working on a piece for the first time because there are invariably teething problems requiring a dialogue with the composer. Again, I enjoy this but it does require patience.

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

I have given several recitals at the Schott recital room in central London. I like the intimacy of this venue which enables the performer to engage with the audience. So many concerts are in churches and other large venues where the audience can hide at the back. Having said that, I am very much looking forward to performing at St. Cuthbert’s Church NW6 on 27 September. It is a modern building with a wooden interior and is beautifully proportioned inside. The concert is to celebrate the arrival of a new piano and launch of their concert series and I think it is going to turn out to be a popular chamber music venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a few pieces which I come back to regularly because they work so well in performance. Gabriel Jackson Angelorum is one I have performed many times as it is so satisfying to communicate to the audience, whether they are regular listeners of contemporary music or completely new to it. The pieces on my CD, particularly Joanna Lee Atta and Hopper and Paul Burnell 3 Plain Pieces fall in to the same category. Another piece I loved performing and hope to perform again is Patrick Nunn Music of the Spheres which includes electronic sounds taken from data from Voyager spacecraft as it flew past the planets. Great fun!

To listen to, I have several favourite composers including Bartok, Messiaen, Ravel and Schumann but really I love all classical music from Bach to Birtwistle.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Goodness, how long have we got? I think I’m just going to pick out a few musicians who have inspired me somehow for various reasons.

The pianist Mary Dullea is quite special. I have heard her and taken masterclasses with her at CoMA summer schools and her playing displays a really sensitive and intelligent musicianship as well as formidable technique. I am also a fan of the pianist Nicholas Hodges whose mastery of counterpoint makes sense of the most complex of Birtwistle’s piano works.

There are a number of living composers who I count amongst my favourites. Aside from the composers I have previously mentioned, I love the music of Phil Cashian. He has written a number of pieces for CoMA which work really well and he always uses fresh textures and has a wonderful ear for harmony. Julian Anderson and George Benjamin are also favourite composers of mine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My first recital at the Schott recital room in September 2011 was very special as it was my first recital after I started studying piano seriously again. I played a set of twelve waltzes by Schubert, a short piece by Phil Cashian called Slow Air, Gabriel Jackson’s Angelorum and Schumann Kinderszenen. Unfortunately the event was tinged with sadness because, having taught me to play the piano in the first place and provided so much support over the years, my mother was not there to hear it as she had died earlier that year.

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

General musicianship is so important. Develop a good sense of rhythm, pitch and harmony and everything else will be much easier. Taking part in a variety of musical activities, particular singing in a choir but also playing in an orchestra, accompanying, composing, arranging and improvising all helps to build a rounded musician.

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

I would like to be able to play a scale in thirds with one hand and for it to sound beautifully smooth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The things around me here at home: my lovely piano, wonderful husband, brilliant son and Maestro the cat. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your most treasured possession?

It would have to be the piano. What else? It is my first real piano. Until five years ago I only had a digital piano which is no replacement for the real thing. When I got married my in-laws gave us a proper piano as a wedding present. It was the best possible thing anyone could have given me. We chose a Boston upright UP132. When it arrived I realised that all I wanted to do was play the piano and I followed the course which has led me to where I am today.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing the piano, spending time with the people I love, eating and sleeping. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your present state of mind?

My mind is in many places at once nowadays as I try to get so much done in so little free time.

 

Launch of ‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′

This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015′ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards