Tag Archives: British pianist

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

Meet the Artist……Simon Callaghan, pianist

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

There was always a piano in the house, which we inherited from my great grandmother.  It was by no means a good instrument (quite a tired old upright) but I took to it immediately, apparently playing with both hands and picking out tunes before I began lessons as the age of 8.  I never practiced as such (at least not until I went to Chetham’s at 16), but just loved playing right from day one!

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

Bernard Roberts (my teacher at Chetham’s) lived and breathed music and was a constant source of inspiration.  He was a kind, warm person and never strict in the lessons – he really made me want to improve, but in a relaxed way and always with the pure love of music in mind.  Yonty Solomon at the RCM was also invaluable in my development.  He never talked about technique but the magic and colour in his playing is something I will never forget.

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

I found my first solo recording one of the greatest challenges so far.  I felt so uncomfortable when the red light went on, that it was such a stressful experience!  It taught me a lot about relaxation in performance and about the importance of focusing on the music, not just on accuracy!  Now having a few recordings under my belt, I feel much more relaxed in the studio and actually quite enjoy it.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

It’s always difficult to listen to one’s own recordings, but I am particularly satisfied with the two-volume set (on SOMM) I did with Hiro Takenouchi.  There are several world premieres of Delius works in arrangements for two pianos, recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  I thoroughly enjoyed discovering these wonderful works and the two piano arrangements (while not coming close to replicating the orchestral sonorities) provide a special clarity and transparency.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing works by composer-pianists of the twentieth century, especially Rachmaninoff.  I’ve performed the Third Piano Concerto a number of times and despite the infamous technical challenges I feel at home in this repertoire and while I strive with every performance to find something better, Rachmaninoff’s world is one in which I always feel welcome.  At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early chamber works (especially the cello sonata and trios) provide such excitement and inspiration that they are always a joy to perform.

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

I guess this largely depends on who I am collaborating with (I play a lot of chamber music) and the requirements of concert promoters.  I have been part of a number of ‘composer immersion’ projects in recent seasons, such as a complete cycle of Brahms chamber music, all the Beethoven trios etc – a wonderful way to get inside the musical ‘journey’ of these great composers.  I also try to always include an element of lesser-known repertoire in all my performances so new ideas and discoveries feature high on my list of priorities when planning future concerts.

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

I have played in a number of wonderful halls (particularly the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall), but probably my favourite so far is Symphony Hall in Birmingham.  Despite being such a large venue, the feeling on stage is an intimate one and not at all intimidating, and the acoustic is the most satisfying of any of the larger halls I’ve played in.  St John’s Smith Square comes in a close second, with one of the finest Steinways ever!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I listen to quite a variety of music (not only classical but even – dare I say it – some musical theatre!) However as I spend most of my waking hours involved in music performance or teaching, I do appreciate silence when I am relaxing!  I love listening to the great orchestral repertoire (especially Mahler Symphonies) and opera also provides wonderful inspiration.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I have always admired Martha Argerich – I once commented to one of my teachers that watching her performances had taught me more about technique and musicality than any of my teachers – I don’t think this went down so well!  I’ve been to quite a number of her live performances and am always struck by the way she communicates raw emotion and energy, and by the fact that she is so humble in person.  For me, she epitomizes the musician as communicator.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There have been so many!  That said, I particularly enjoyed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto a few years ago with a wonderful amateur orchestra in London, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra.  I love performing – especially in chamber music and concertos – and the performances with amateur groups have often been the most satisfying.  I’ve played with some wonderful amateur orchestras and the fact that the musicians are there out of choice rather than to earn money means that they are constantly striving for higher standards and love every moment – something that is quite infectious!

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

Having recently returned from three weeks teaching on a course for 14-18 year olds, one thought that is very much on my mind right now is that aspiring musicians must learn how to listen to their own playing.  We spend a good deal of time playing and of course we hear the sounds, but how often do we actually listen and analyse the sounds we are producing?  I often encourage my students to record their performances and they are frequently shocked by what they hear!

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am working on some interesting repertoire for a new solo album – further details to be announced soon!  I am also learning some new piano quartets (Walton, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré, Mozart) and revising the Franck Quintet for a performance with the Edinburgh Quartet later this year.  Next year is Scriabin’s anniversary year and as such I will be playing his concerto in several performances, so this is also on my long practice list!

You have been Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts since 2008.  Tell us more about this.
As I had no experience whatsoever at the outset, it was a steep learning curve and was so grateful to be given the opportunity to see the music business from the other side!  The concert series has gone from strength to strength and we now programme around 27 concerts per season by some of the finest chamber music groups around.  We also have generous support from several distinguished patrons including Timothy West and Prunella Scales and pianist, Stephen Hough.  Working at Conway Hall is hugely challenging as well as rewarding, but I greatly value this variety in my career.

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

Doing exactly what I’m doing now, but at an even higher level and performing even more often.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A life in which I can enjoy what I love most – making music – and with plenty of time for relaxing and spending time with people close to me, and my beloved dachshund, Fergus!

What is your most treasured possession? 

Probably my Steinway Model D.  It’s a great instrument and constantly maturing, so makes practicing a pleasure!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

When not performing, I enjoy eating!  I love discovering new cuisines, and spend rather too much money on eating out at exquisite restaurants.

What is your present state of mind? 

Excited.  I’m discovering lots of new repertoire at the moment – it’s always great to have this freshness.

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts

Recognised as an exciting performer of the new generation, Steinway Artist Simon Callaghan’s recent schedule has included Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. His engagements have taken him all over the UK, throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. He has also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, ITV and BBC Television. In September 2013 he took up the Anthony Saltmarsh Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

Following his highly successful release of English piano music on the Belgian De Rode Pomp label (featuring several world premières), Simon Callaghan’s collaboration with SOMM Recordings began in 2012 with two volumes of Delius Orchestral Music in arrangements for two pianos, with Hiroaki Takenouchi. Receiving great critical acclaim, the BBC Music Magazine commented that “Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi… play with such love, panache and exact synchronisation.” Simon’s burgeoning relationship with SOMM has led to two further volumes of Brahms chamber music with award-winning cellist James Barralet, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and violist Hannah Strijbos (including the first recording of all the Hungarian Dances in Barralet’s arrangement for ‘cello and piano). He also recorded a highly-acclaimed disc of violin sonatas with Midori Komachi and will release a further solo album in spring 2015.

Simon Callaghan’s busy performing schedule has included two residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), rare performances of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and the Third Concerto of Nikolay Medtner (the first in the UK since 1946). He has also collaborated with Prunella Scales, Ilona Domnich, Timothy West, Jack Liebeck, Thomas Gould, Raphael Wallfisch and the Maggini, Sacconi, Carducci and Coull Quartets in a broad range of repertoire. Simon is a founder member of the Werther Ensemble, brought together at the inaugural Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2013. Recent and forthcoming projects for this ensemble include recitals throughout the UK, a complete cycle of the chamber music of Brahms, a return to the Whittington Festival playing works by Mendelssohn and a three-concert series at St John’s, Smith Square, exploring the jewels of the piano quartet repertoire. Together with pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Simon is also part of the Parnassius Piano Duo, which has a particular interest in championing lesser-known English works, particularly those of Parry and Sterndale Bennett.

As a teacher, Simon is Head of Piano of the Ingenium Music Academy (Winchester), a member of the faculty at Harrow School, and has given masterclasses around the world, most recently in Malaysia and Thailand. He is also Artistic Director of the renowned Conway Hall Sunday Concerts (London), the longest-running chamber music series in Europe. Alongside this work he is co-producer of MusicUpClose, a highly successful series in collaboration with sound collective, introducing non-musicians to the world of classical music. Following his studies at Chetham’s School of Music with Bernard Roberts, Simon was awarded a full scholarship to study with Yonty Solomon at the Royal College of Music, from where he graduated with first class honours and won numerous prizes.

simoncallaghan.com

The Erard Project – Piano Rescue! Save this historic piano

British concert pianist Daniel Grimwood is fundraising to save this historic piano, an 1850s Erard, similar to the type and make of piano Chopin, Liszt, Clara Schumann and others would have known and performed on.

Here Daniel explains why this piano is important in the study, understanding and performance of mid-nineteenth century piano music:

These instruments offer an unclouded sonority, separation of register and clarity which enliven music of the 19th Century in a magical way. Hearing music performed on the instruments for which it was written is always illuminating; it opens up aspects of a score which can often seem nonsensical on modern pianos.

See Daniel talk about and perform Liszt on a similar instrument:

Daniel is fundraising via Kickstarter. You can read all about the project, watch a video presentation and make a pledge by visiting his Kickstarter page.

Please consider supporting this interesting and worthwhile project. Historic pianos like this Erard can teach us a great deal about how music was composed and performed. They are also beautiful pieces of furniture in their own right.

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Richard Uttley: Ghosts and Mirrors

This week I was delighted to attend a concert to launch British pianist Richard Uttley’s new CD Ghosts and Mirrors. Richard is a passionate advocate of contemporary piano music, and this CD, his third, follows his previous recordings with its focus on contemporary and 20th-century music. In addition to works by Toru Takemitsu and Luciano Berio, the disc includes the first recordings of Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy which was written especially for Uttley and was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.

Richard explains the title of his CD as “the works collected here [are] are reflection on something”, and the “ghosts” appear, in part, in memoriam to departed composers, namely Messiaen (Takemitsu/Rain Tree Sketch II and Murail/Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire). There are more metaphoric ghosts and reflections here too: Thomas Ades harks back to the Mazurkas of Chopin and Szymanowski in his Op. 27 Mazurkas, while Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy is a paraphrase on themes from Berg’s opera which charts the rise and horrific fall, ending in death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, of its eponymous heroine. In Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy, the work opens with a fragment of an “alberti bass”, an eighteenth-century musical device in which chords are broken or arpeggiated to create continuous sound.

It can be hard to present a programme entirely comprising contemporary music in concerts (witness the BBC’s anxieties about this in its Proms broadcasts this year – more on this issue here) and some performers seek new ways to present contemporary programmes which challenge and excite the eyes as well as the ears. Thus, Richard Uttley, was joined onstage by Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist, who created the artwork for the CD, and who designed and mixed live visuals as Richard played. These were not a simple “accompaniment” to the music, but rather had been designed to reflect not only the mood and characteristics of the pieces performed (a selection from the CD), but also textures, colours, dynamics and articulation. From trembling, pulsing sea anemones to a dizzying, plane’s eye view of London at night, the frenetic rhythm of a weaving machine to an unsettling tour of a ruined Gothic church, these visuals enhanced and informed the music, without detracting it from it. Perhaps the most powerful was the film which accompanied the Lulu Fantasy, suggesting the horrible fate of the protagonist through shuddering black and white images, hinting at sexual depravity and violence.

It was evident throughout the performance that Richard really enjoys the challenges, both musical and technical, of playing this kind of repertoire. His total immersion in and understanding of this music produced a performance that was entirely convincing, and, more importantly, extremely absorbing.  A pristine sound, clean articulation and broad dynamic range combined to create one of the most exciting concerts of contemporary music I have attended. I was pleased to find even more to delight and intrigue in the CD, which is also elegantly designed with copious and intelligent liner notes by Richard, with contributions from the composer’s themselves.

Recommended.

‘Ghosts and Mirrors’ is available on the ARC label

www.richarduttley.com

Meet the Artist……Penelope Thwaites

 

(photo credit: Rory Isserow)
(photo credit: Rory Isserow)

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

I don’t remember not playing the piano! But as a career – the London-based Swiss pianist, Albert Ferber, with whom I was studying, encouraged me to make my debut at Wigmore Hall in 1974.

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

All my teachers in different ways; musical members of the family; friends and colleagues who believed in me. The composer William L Reed was a marvellous mentor and facilitator. Perhaps most important of all, a passion for the music I had found and a powerful desire to communicate it.

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

To focus on priorities.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

The ones where there has been that special communication with listeners – whether in the concert hall or in feed-back from far-flung corners of the world. I do not wish to be solely defined by the many Grainger ones, but they have presented much repertoire that is new, fresh, entrancing, life-enhancing – hard work, but what a joy!

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

The particular ones for which I feel a gut instinct, whether by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninov …. the list goes on.

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

That is dictated by the projects I am undertaking.

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

I have enjoyed different venues for different reasons – the Melbourne Recital Centre is lovely, but so too is London’s Kings Place for its vibrant sense of enterprise (and very fine hall), and St John’s, Smith Square for its beauty. I have often relished the pin-point acoustics of Wigmore Hall, and the warm atmosphere of the Purcell Room. It was a thrill to play on the stage at Covent Garden for a gala Australia Day concert and at the Royal Festival Hall in Grainger’s ‘The Warriors’. By contrast, a good piano in a large music room can be perfect for a recital where one introduces the music.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Most recently Bach transcriptions and originals for a Bach CD on LIR Classics. And see above……

Who are your favourite musicians? 

To hear: I so loved the Pollini Beethoven cycle, and in different sonatas, Brendel (the last three) and, unexpectedly, Barenboim in some of the early ones. Of course, that force of nature, Argerich!  On disc – Dinu Lipatti, Solomon and Richter.

For many years I played two piano programmes with my friend and colleague, John Lavender. We gradually developed a way of creating one texture from two pianos. We recorded much new Grainger repertoire on three discs and John also made some splendid two piano versions of such works as Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture as part of an all-Russian programme.

I have been lucky to work with so many fine artists – in earlier days, the mezzo Muriel Smith, more recently, certain outstanding singers – Stephen Varcoe, Martyn Hill, James Gilchrist and Della Jones, in the Chandos Grainger recordings and in concert. Wayne Marshall was a memorable colleague both as pianist and conductor. It has been a great pleasure to work with the cellist, Rohan de Saram, who has recently returned to the standard repertoire along with his extraordinary abilities and achievements in the field of contemporary music. Earlier women pianists who inspired me in concert included

Lili Kraus, Alicia de Larrocha and Rosalind Tureck. Also Hephizibah Menuhin, whom I knew and admired as a friend.

These are but a few names amongst many others…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Too many memorable experiences to choose one – but playing in 1980 in the Beijing Conservatoire and to a radio audience they told me averaged 50 million – was certainly the largest audience ever!

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

Be yourself. Find your unique path. Work hard. Know that beyond failure there is always the next step. Cherish your friends and the wonderful opportunities we have to share our music.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A concert at King’s Place, London, to mark 40 years since my London debut.

It will be a programme filled with melody and shared with some good friends, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and a group of gifted young professionals, as we shall be premiering a piano concerto movement written by Grainger when he was just 13 years old.

I’ll start with mighty Bach arr. Liszt and progress through Grieg (lovely Grieg) by way of Grainger to the Dvorak Piano Quintet Op 81 – what an utterly gorgeous work.  

What is your present state of mind? 

Expectant.

 

Penelope Thwaites’ 40th Anniversary Concert takes place at London’s King’s Place Hall One on Wednesday 8th October. She is joined by the Fitzwilliam Quartet and outstanding young professional artists in a programme of music by Bach arr. Liszt, Grieg, Grainger and Dvorak. Further details here

 

London-based pianist and composer Penelope Thwaites has performed and broadcast in over thirty countries on five continents. Since her Wigmore Hall debut in 1974, she has appeared regularly as recitalist in major concert halls, and in a wide repertoire she has built a reputation as an intensely communicative artist. As concerto soloist she has appeared with the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of London Sinfonia and the BBC Concert Orchestra, and with leading orchestras in Australia, Europe and America.

Sunday afternoon music and tea at Craxton Studios

On a fine mid-September afternoon a group of adult pianists, piano fans and music lovers gathered at Craxton Studios for a recital and talk by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

Craxton Studios, a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Hampstead, north London, has an important musical heritage and is therefore the perfect place for concerts and gatherings of musicians. Originally built by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio, the house was bought by Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Professor Harold Craxton OBE was an eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher (he was a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music), and those of us of a certain age will know his name from ABRSM editions of Beethoven and Co, edited by him and Donald Francis Tovey. The house on Kidderpore Avenue became a meeting place for musicians to come together and the house became a focal point for the artistic and musical milieu of London. This tradition continues today, as the house is used not only for concerts but also rehearsals, auditions and as a film location.

When Harold Craxton died in 1971, a trust was established in his name to support young, extremely talented musicians embarking on a professional career.

I first visited Craxton Studios in December 2013 for a concert by pianist Sarah Beth Briggs. I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and particularly the special ambiance and decor of the venue. Concerts are held in the artist’s studio, a large airy room at the back of the house, adorned with paintings, which looks out over the garden. The piano, which was Harold Craxton’s own instrument, is an early 20th-century Blüthner. (There is another grand piano in the small rehearsal studio on the top floor of the house.) The Craxton family still manage the property and it continues as a lively hub for musical activities in London.

‘Notes&Notes’ with Graham Fitch was the launch of a new concert concept for the South London Concert Series (which I run with my pianist friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage). I have always found concerts in which the performer introduces the music most interesting, and I find audience members enjoy hearing anecdotes about the music or why particular pieces are important, and as such offer something more personal and interesting than a standard written programme.  Inspired by the magnificent high tea at Sarah Beth’s concert, I suggested to Lorraine that we might offer our guests tea, and so ‘Notes&Notes’ was created. The concert also marked the launch of the second season of the South London Concert Series.

Graham Fitch introducing his programme
Graham Fitch introducing his programme

Graham’s programme consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat and the French Suite, No. 5 in G, both popular and accessible works, and Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C, Hob. XVI/50, written while the composer was living in London. Graham introduced the music, explaining that Bach was drawing on a tradition of presenting a suite of stylised dances popular at the time (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue etc). He also described his first encounters with this music and his studies with Andras Schiff, who has received high praise for his own intepretations of Bach, and who “gave” Graham the ornaments in the French Suite. Graham also explained that there is no “right way” to play Bach and that a romantic interpretation is as valid any other.

Graham combines a vibrant, colourful sound with an ability to highlight all the different strands of melody, voices and interior architecture in the music, together with subtle use of pedal, sensitive phrasing and restrained rubato. As his introduction to the Haydn Sonata, he explained that Haydn was working with John Broadwood, the London piano maker, and the Sonata shows the composer experimenting with the range of possibilities afforded by an English piano (as opposed to the Viennese instruments which Haydn had previously been used to). Graham’s performance sparkled with wit and humour, while the middle movement had a lovely arching melody, warm and supple.

Afternoon tea & scones
Afternoon tea & scones

After the music came the tea party and guests gathered in the dining room to enjoy tea and scones (with clotted cream, of course) and the chance to meet Graham and talk to other pianists and piano fans. There were many friends amongst the audience and the house was full of conversation. Some people even went to try the piano, before the studio was cleared ready for an audition the following day. The general consensus was that this was a really lovely event, combining music, words and conviviality, and we hope to host a similar concert at Craxton Studios next year.

South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson
South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson

The South London Concert Series continues at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo on Friday 3 October. For full details of all concerts please visit the South London Concert Series website

 

Craxton Studios website

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch

 

Benjamin Grosvenor at Proms Chamber Music, Cadogan Hall

(picture credit – operaomnia.co.uk)

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

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

Read my full review here:

http://bachtrack.com/review-benjamin-grosvenor-chamber-prom-september-2014

Date reviewed: 1st September 2014

‘Brief Encounter’ with Leon McCawley at the Royal Festival Hall

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love this summer, there have been three screenings of the classic love story Brief Encounter, with a live performance of the score (drawn largely from Rachmaninov’s perennially popular 2nd Piano Concerto) by pianist Leon McCawley with the LPO. The film screening took place during the second half of the concert and was preceded in the first half by a full performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto. The whole event was introduced by Lucy Fleming, daughter of Celia Johnson, who plays Laura, the female lead in Brief Encounter. Her introduction was full of wonderful anecdotes about the making of the film (which took place during the final year of the war), including extracts from Celia Johnson’s diary.

Trevor Howard as Alec and Celia Johnston as Laura in ‘Brief Encounter’

Based on Still Life, a one-act play by Noel Coward, and directed by David Lean, the plot centres around Laura, a suburban housewife married to a dependable but rather dull man. A chance meeting with a doctor, Alec Harvey, in the ‘refreshment room’ at the station (which is fiercely guarded by the wonderfully-named Myrtle Bagot, played by Joyce Carey with some of the best lines in the entire film) leads Laura into a brief but intense romantic liaison with the doctor, before circumstances and their own moral integrity forces them to part, never to meet again…. Much of the action is narrated by Laura, and despite the plummy, cut-glass RP accents of the main characters, the plot is sharply-observed, witty, very funny at times, and also heart-rendingly poignant. The story is underpinned by the wonderful score, and was in fact largely responsible for bringing this epic piece of music to wider fame. It has undoubtedly contributed to the enduring appeal.

It must be 20 years since I last heard the ‘Rach 2′ performed live (I think by Evgeny Kissin at the Proms) and I had forgotten what a gloriously rich and expressive work it is. Towering and climactic, it is demanding work to play, and one of the chief challenges is avoiding an overly-romantic reading of it. Leon McCawley’s warm tone was perfect for this work, combined with an exquisite clarity and an ability to highlight some of the less obvious details in the score. The entire work had a classical edge to it which avoided sentimentality, yet never detracted from the rich textures of the score.

Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)
Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)

To perform the score with the film must have taken some very careful rehearsing to create such a smooth synthesis of film and soundtrack. In her introduction, Lucy Fleming explained that some complicated technical processes were used to strip out the original music from the film. A new soundtrack was commissioned especially for the RFH screening: this played while we watched the film was the most wonderful cinematic and musical experience, a nod back to the days of silent cinema, almost, when films would be accompanied and “narrated” by a resident pianist, small orchestra or organist.  A really superb evening celebrating great music and a great film, both of which have most definitely stood the test of time. Oh, and the enduring power of love…..

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch

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

I was destined to read modern languages at Oxbridge but my heart wasn’t really in it. The piano was an all-consuming passion by my mid teens, and I’m afraid once the blinkers went on I couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else.

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

Apart from my wonderful teachers Stephen Savage, Peter Wallfisch and Nina Svetlanova (each of whom gave me different parts of the puzzle), I was very influenced by András Schiff. Not only his playing (which blew me away the first time I heard it) but having the privilege of studying with him at Dartington in 1982 and then privately afterwards. Another profound influence was Leon Fleisher’s weekly piano class during my Peabody year, studying Chopin with Ann Schein and having some marvelous lessons with Julian Martin. Playing chamber music with some amazing string players and also playing the song repertoire have made me a more rounded musician than if I had just played solo.

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

I think juggling the various elements of what I do – playing, teaching, writing, adjudicating and now in my role as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK. There never seems to be enough time to practise!

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best? 

I have played a wide variety of styles in my time, from the French and German baroque through to contemporary music. If push comes to shove I would have to say I identify most with the mainstream Classical and Romantic repertoire. I can’t imagine a world without Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin – to name but a few.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If you mean as a listener, it would have to be Schiff’s Goldbergs at Dartington in 1982. One of the most memorable of my own would probably be playing the same work in Perth, Australia in the late 90’s – in front of an audience of pianists.

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

A love of music, an appreciation of how music is built and how to communicate this in your playing. Aspiring musicians need a heck of a lot of discipline if they are going to amount to anything, but so often they don’t really know how to work. Part of my mission seems to be helping them learn how to practise.

Your ‘Notes & Notes’ recital on 14th September includes works by J S Bach and Haydn. Tell us a little more about why you selected these particular composers and works? 

I chose to play these particular works because I think Bach and Haydn go very well together. The B flat Partita and the G major French Suite are very often played, and I find I often teach them. The Haydn C major is such an inventive work – I just love the humour in it.

Why perform and talk about the music? How do you think this approach illuminates the music and composers for the audience? 

There is a growing trend for performers to talk about music, and to engage with their audience on a more personal and intimate level. If the venue is small enough, it can be a great way of enhancing the listening by offering what are basically spoken programme notes – and maybe some personal observations and anecdotes.

Graham Fitch’s ‘Notes&Notes’ recital is on Sunday 14th September 2014 at 3pm at Craxton Studios, Hampstead, north London. After the concert, the audience is invited to join Graham for a cream tea and a chance to socialise with other music lovers. Further information and tickets here. This concert marks the launch of the 2014/15 season of the innovative and popular South London Concert Series.

Graham Fitch, now based in London, maintains an international career not only as a pianist, but also as a teacher, adjudicator and writer. He has been appointed to the piano staff at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and runs private teaching studios in South West London, and the West End of London.

A published author, Graham has written several articles on aspects of piano playing and musical style. He has also produced a generation of teachers through his influence as a teacher. He is a regular contributor to Pianist Magazine, and is the author of a very successful blog, http://practisingthepiano.com/

www.grahamfitch.com