Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Schubert – C Major Sonata, D. 840

Schubert – G Major Sonata, D. 894


Like almost every other festival this year, Petworth’s annual summer music festival, which normally takes place in July, fell victim to the restrictions imposed in response the coronavirus pandemic, but rather than cancel this year’s festival altogether, its organisers sensibly moved the music festival to the autumn and combined it with the literary festival. The events are all online, though some are live, with audience, to create “a real ‘Petworth’ feel about them” (Stewart Collins, Artistic Director) and, as always, there’s a fantastic line up of performers and guests, including Sheku and Isata Kanneh Mason, The London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley, and Mitsuko Uchida. Petworth Festival always attracts an impressive roster of performers and amply confirms that there is very high quality music-making to be found outside of the capital.

We’re all pretty used to watching concerts via livestream and videocasts now; superior technology allows such broadcasts to be presented with high-quality sound and visuals, which undoubtedly enhances the experience. It’s impossible to entirely recreate being in a concert hall, but one of the advantages of livestream is that you can choose when the view the concert: watch it live or at your own convenience, perhaps in the middle of the afternoon, as I did with this particular concert. With my laptop connected to the tv in the living room and a cup of tea in hand, I settled down to enjoy Mitsuko Uchida playing two sonatas by Franz Schubert.

I’ve only ever seen Uchida performing in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall, yet every time she has managed to shrink the space, drawing us into her personal, musical world to create the atmosphere of a salon concert. This is particularly true when she plays Schubert, a composer who despite writing large-scale works, is a master of the introspective, and, as I have written on this blog, a composer for these corona times.

Uchida is very alert to Schubert’s idiosyncrasies, his chiaruscuro and elusive, shifting moods, and I always feel that she is very at home with this music. She creates the most remarkably sense of intimacy through hushed pianissimos, tapered sonorities and a sensitivity to Schubert’s “psychological dynamics” – where a fortissimo, for example, is tempered by a certain restraint and emotion is implied rather than made explicit in sound. She highlights details or moments of significance with a touch of rubato here, a little more pressing forward there, and these feel spontaneous, of the moment, never contrived (of course the ability to do this so effortlessly comes from a long association with the music and a deep knowledge of it).

Uchida also seems to subscribe to Andras Schiff’s assertion that one must “follow” Schubert, allowing the expansiveness of this music to unfold gradually. Her melodies have a warm cantabile, her dynamics subtly shaded, often revealing dark, mysterious layers beneath.

In the D894, described by Robert Schumann as “most perfect in form and conception”, she created a timeless serenity in the opening movement, opting for a relaxed moderato (rather than Richter’s famously ‘meditative’ slowness) to allow the narrative to flow naturally into the dramatic grandeur of the development. What followed was a second movement with a contrasting rhythmic vigour in the more passionate passages, a tender, folksy lullaby in the third movement, and an elegant, supple finale replete with pastoral charm.

122117455_4474452515958519_7672388628339138679_oSchubert isn’t a showy composer, and nor is Uchida a showy performer. For this concert, she was dressed soberly in a dark fluid trouser suit, but there was a glint of showiness in her footwear – the most elegant silver shoes which lent a roccoco flair. Of course, the superb camera work allowed one to enjoy such details: to get up close and personal with the performer as the camera lighted on her  hands and face, revealing myriad expressions, often unconscious, and which perhaps offered a glimpse to the personality beyond the notes.


Petworth Festival continues until 1 November – more information

Photo credits

Decca/Justin Pumfrey

Petworth Festival

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Part 1 – Letting go of the music


Writers, artists and musicians all understand this dilemma – when do we “let go” of that article or book manuscript, painting or piece of music? Given half the chance, most of us would happily continue tinkering and refining ad infinitum, but there has to come a time when we must let go.

Amateur pianists are lucky, in many ways, because they can, if they so desire, continue to tinker with a piece or pieces of music for as long as they like. Professionals, on the other hand, know that there must come a point when the music is deemed “concert ready” – the time when it is put before an audience, or recording equipment, and held up for public scrutiny.

The processes involved in arriving at this point are not only the learning and upkeep of thousands of notes, but also a mixture of intelligent, highly focussed practicing and many hours of reflection and refinement. Many professionals (and serious amateurs too) use recording and video to self-critique, as well as working away from the piano using a variety of practices to really ‘get inside’ the music, know it intimately, and appreciate its myriad details and nuances.

Professionals and more experienced amateur pianists are able to judge when their music is “ready” – and I prefer to use the word “ready” rather than “finished”, for how can we ever say a piece is truly “finished”?

Art is never finished only abandoned. – Leonardo da Vinci

When we set aside music after a period of intense learning, returning to it at a later date can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, but it is also an opportunity to discover new things and reveal new details, if we approach that return with curiosity. We also bring experience, gained from learning other music – for every piece we learn and play will give us something which can be applied to another piece or pieces – listening, and from our life experiences too.

As a performer, I love the process of a piece always revealing something fresh if I’m open to it. – Eleonor Bindman, pianist

But before we have reached that moment of return, when do we know when to “let go” in the first place?

It would be easy – and facile – to say that you know when to let go when you feel you can play the piece confidently, that it is technically and artistically secure. But for less advanced pianists, recognising this point in their progress may not be so easy. A teacher or mentor can help by offering honest feedback.

Many of us have a goal in mind when we’re practising – be it a concert or other performance (perhaps at piano club), an exam, competition, or an audition. When I was working towards my performance diplomas, and especially the second and third diplomas when I had a much clearer understanding of the processes and timescales involved in bringing the repertoire up to performance-ready standard, I almost worked backwards from the performance date, knowing how long it would take to reach certain stages of refinement and readiness. This meant I could manage my practising efficiently, set and achieve realistic goals along the way, and, hopefully, prevent the music from “going stale” from too much practising, thus keeping something back for the day of the performance.

And this, for many amateur pianists in particular, is the real issue. At what point does your music reach the fine line between readiness and staleness, and how do you know this?

I think the danger points are when silly mistakes start to creep in during practice. Familiarity with the music can make us sloppy and complacent; we may overlook details, because we know the music too well, and we may be less assiduous about correcting errors, saying to ourselves during practice, “Oh it’s ok, I can fix that tomorrow!“. In fact, at this point, it is important to be super-vigilant in our practicing; it may also be a signal to set the music aside, if only for a few days, or perhaps weeks or even months.

Boredom is another sign that it might be time to let go. If each time you go to practice you inwardly sigh at having the same piece of music confront you on the music desk, and practicing it feels like a chore (even if it is music that you enjoy playing), it is time to let it go. Put the music away for awhile and turn your attention to other repertoire.

There is another aspect, which applies particularly to repertoire which is being made ready for performance, and that is the need to hold something back (or indeed let go of it!) for the concert.

I often repeat British pianist Stephen Hough’s assertion that one needs to be “a perfectionist in the practice room” in order to be “a bohemian on stage“. Disciplined, meticulous, deep practice gives us the technical and artistic security, and, importantly, the confidence to let go in performance. And it is in those moments of letting go that the real magic of performance happens – for audience and performer.

Don’t be afraid to let go of your music when you feel you have done all you can up to that point. The fingers and brain do not forget easily, and if you have done the right kind of practicing, returning to the music at a later date will not be too arduous. Remain open-minded and curious about your music and on each return to previously-learnt repertoire, you will discover different details and find pleasure and excitement anew.


In the second part of this essay, I will look at more extrinsic and psychological aspects including the problem with perfectionism, and learning to let go of criticism and self-critque, and how to release expectations, of ourselves as musicians, and of others.


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As clarinettist Michael Collins takes over as Artistic Director in Residence of the London Mozart Players for the 2021-23 seasons, he talks about his influences and inspirations, challenges and hopes for the future of classical music.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was inspired by my primary school to enjoy classical music. The headmistress took a group of us the the Royal Festival Hall once a month to the Sir Robert Mayer concerts. I heard a piece involving the clarinet and it inspired me to start learning. One of the biggest influences in my musical life has been the great pianist Martha Argerich whom I have had the privilege of working with many times.

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

I have faced many challenges in life but the biggest one was three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. I was and am extremely proud that during all the treatment I was able to continue working and didn’t cancel one engagement. This was quite a challenge.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

It’s difficult to pin point any performance that I am proud of because I find something in every concert to be proud or critical about. Recordings are different; I have made so many recordings over the years but the one which really stands out is a very recent one of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony and the Finzi Clarinet Concerto with my old Orchestra, the Philharmonia

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I feel very “in tune” with the Classical period and Mozart in particular. I feel that I have something to say about this composer; his life and musical growth really intrigues me.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I enjoy fine wine and nice cars. These keep me busy in otherwise a very hectic world. As far as getting inspiration on stage, the excitement of each and every concert is inspiration enough, I feel.

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

Unlike other solo instruments such as piano and violin, I don’t have the luxury of a vast repertoire. Therefore I don’t usually choose repertoire season to season. I simply accept whichever work comes my way as and when, which means I can have several works and programmes on the go during any one season.

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

I love the Wigmore Hall. It is intimate, with a great acoustic, and it always feels very special when one walks onto the platform. In fact, most of my memorable concerts are from the Wigmore Hall.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Classic FM is doing a sterling job in encouraging a wider audience. I do think it is now up to the musicians to take a very active role in encouraging the younger audience to really enjoy classical music. This can be done by breaking down barriers which I feel have been a big stumbling block in encouraging the young audience into accepting and enjoying classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences was as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms. Walking out to such a huge crowd all waving flags, shouting and cheering and then total silence once I started to play will stay with me forever

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success is to be happy and content with the present. Not to worry about the future but to always look and search to find a way of keeping ones performance fresh, alive and never routine.

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

I think it is very important to take both the good things from one’s performance, the not so good things and learn from them. Take and accept good reviews and don’t take to heart not so good ones; the most important thing is to be yourself on the platform and never try to copy others. It will shine through if young musicians can be true to themselves and individual. In the long term, this will prove to be a very important part of music-making.

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

I would like to be a better musician, introducing new works to the public and bringing the old ones with a fresh approach. This is something which really excites me for the future.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting quietly with a lovely glass of wine listening to a Schubert String Quartet.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think, without reservation, my two children!

What is your present state of mind?

After coming out the other side of cancer, I am in a very positive and upbeat state of mind, even if we are experiencing a terrible moment in all our lives. Music really does help our state of mind; it’s calming, uplifting and can fill us with hope and optimism.

Michael Collins will be London Mozart Players’ Artistic Director in Residence for the 2021–2023 seasons.

His concert as part of LMP’s new online ‘Classical Club’ concert series playing Mozart and Weber clarinet quintets, filmed at the Tower Room in the St Pancras’s iconic gothic revival Clock Tower is available to watch here.


Michael Collins’ dazzling virtuosity and sensitive musicianship have earned him recognition as one of today’s most distinguished artists and a leading exponent of his instrument. At 16 he won the woodwind prize in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, going on to make his US debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall at the age of 22. He has since performed as soloist with many of the world’s most significant orchestras and formed strong links with leading conductors. Collins also has the distinction of being the most frequently invited wind soloist to the BBC Proms, including several appearances at the renowned Last Night of the Proms.

Read more

Stewart Collins, Artistic Director of Petworth Festival, writes:
Writing as I do just a few days away from a festival that genuinely looks as though it will happen, I have to express a degree of astonishment mixed with an enormous dose of gratitude to everyone involved, gratitude not least to a group of festival sponsors who have stuck with us and enabled us to press ahead with plans that, only recently, seemed so forlorn. But having also kept a group of performers on-side since the loss of their original dates in July, the fact that Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, MILOŠ, Mitsuko Uchida and Tasmin Little are about to grace the Petworth stage in person, I can only say that we have a long overdue and much needed feast of music making just around the corner. Beethoven will be celebrated as was always intended, the personally selected Steinway will resound to Mitsuko’s impeccable readings of Schubert, and Tasmin Little will at last complete a date she set aside for one of her special ‘retirement’ series of concerts. And of course that’s barely the start of it!
 
The journey in ensuring that we can indeed go online and do so with quality and in style is another story altogether, but all in all it’s remarkable and it’s about to happen.

Petworth Festival begins on 16 October with a concert by the London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley.

Full programme details & booking

I was so cheered to read this thread of tweets from cellist Julia Morneweg, and I agree with her comment that it is those in the profession with a “Can do” attitude who are driving the return of live music to venues.

It’s true that London’s Wigmore Hall has done a great deal to bring live music back to audiences, first with its summer series of livestream concerts (albeit to an empty hall) and now with its autumn season of concerts with a limited, socially-distanced audience. Other larger venues, such as St John’s Smith Square, are beginning to follow suit, finding ways to manage the logistics of admitting living, breathing audience and performers within the constraints of government covid-secure guidance and rules, and its seems audiences are very keen to be back. It is well known that classical music audiences are generally older/elderly – the demographic which is most vulnerable to coronavirus – but these are also people who are well able to make their own judgements about levels of risk, without constant nannying and interference from the state, and it’s encouraging to see pictures such as those in Julia’s tweets of people enjoying live music again.

As I wrote on my sister site ArtMuseLondon back in May, the pandemic may have forced the closure of music and arts venues, but it has also presented musicians and concert organisers with an opportunity to innovate and experiment. Julia Morneweg is quite right when she states that it is the smaller venues and organisations which will rebuild live music. Musicians want to perform and with the support of such organisations, they can do so again. Smaller venues/organisations are often more adaptable – from how seating is arranged to managing overheads and other financial considerations (bigger venues have hefty overheads such as staff costs, property maintenance and rent).

If we sit on our hands and wait to be told when is the right time to resume live concerts, we could be waiting a long time. With this in mind, I and my pianist friend/colleague Duncan Honeybourne, who founded Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts which we run togetherm, decided we would take the initiative and approach the church where we hold our concerts with a view to resuming our series with at least a handful of concerts before Christmas (our last concert before lockdown was in late February). We decided that before approaching the church management, we should formulate a plan about how we would manage the events (I’m the concert manager, so am responsible for ticketing and audience relations, amongst other things). We were delighted that our suggestions were met with an very enthusiastic response from our friends at the church, and we then met at the church to do a risk assesssment and discuss covid-secure arrangements.

Without the contribution of food and beverage sales, from which venues like the Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre derive a sizeable income stream, smaller concert venues/organisations/music societies often rely on ticket sales alone for revenue. Smaller audiences due to social distancing obviously mean lower ticket sales – and it is not necessarily practicable, nor fair on audiences, to hike up ticket prices to make up for the loss of revenue. For our Weymouth series we decided, again with the support of the church and our performers, to offer two shorter concerts on the same day. All being well, we will be able to sell nearly as many tickets as we used to for a single lunchtime concert with the church at full capacity (c70 people). And to ensure that numbers are strictly managed, I set up an online box office so that people can book in advance, with the option to reserve a ticket by phone and pay on the door (for which I have invested in a neat little contactless card reader which can be run from an app on my phone). This also allows me to keep track of people’s contact details, which we are required to do by law for Track and Trace purposes. I have been delighted by the response so far – the many telephone calls I have taken from our regular audience members confirm my belief that elderly people are willing to venture out, and many told me how pleased they are that the concerts are resuming.

The most crucial aspect is making audiences feel safe and confident about returning to a venue (restaurants have already demonstrated that it is possible to do this). People have praised the Wigmore Hall for its sensible approach and the venue has more than demonstrated that social distancing and other safely measures can be implemented without audiences feeling they are being herded like sheep or subjected to unnecessarily bossy rules. (There is nothing worse than visiting a venue, restaurant or visitor attraction and being ordered around by some officious person on the front desk!). If we treat our audiences as adults, with courtesy and respect, they will respond by observing guidelines, one-way systems, use of hand sanitisers and face coverings, etc. For many, these are fairly minor irritations (and things which we have by and large grown used to this year) in exchange for the renewed pleasure of enjoying live music in the company of other people. And my goodness do we need it, after the year we’ve had so far!


Some tips to make concerts happen safely and successfully:

  • Be fully conversant with the government guidelines/rules on live performance
  • Liaise with your venue, and understand and respect their own covid-secure rules/guidelines, including maximum numbers permitted, the Rule of Six,  including Track & Trace requirements, green room arrangements, cleaning of venue etc
  • Consider using an online ticketing platform such as TicketSource or Billetto to allow people to book in advance. Easy to manage, such platforms allow you to track bookings, including customer contact details (necessary for Track & Trace), and produce sales reports/guestlists
  • Consider using a portable card reader to take contactless card payments on the door, to avoid handling cash. iZettle and SumUp are two such systems and are very simple to use via a smartphone or ipad app.
  • Make sure covid-secure guidelines are prominently displayed on your website (if applicable) and at the venue.
  • Make sure your performers and audience are fully aware in advance of the venue’s covid-secure arrangements
  • As printed programmes (and other printed material such as tickets or flyers) are not allowed, consider displaying the programme with programme notes on your website or send it to your audience by email. Encourage performers to introduce their programmes to the audience.

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Over on Twitter this week this government advert on a skills and training website started doing the rounds:

Musicians, and others who work in the arts, are, justifiably, feeling extremely anxious, undervalued and largely ignored by government at a time when the arts sector in general is in a perilous position due to the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic (and yes, it is government response which has caused the current situation, not the virus: viruses don’t make policy.).

This insensitive, ill-thought advert, which actually originates from 2019, comes just a week after Chancellor Rishi Sunak inferred that working in the arts is not “viable” (for which read: “not a proper job”, thus ignoring the huge contribution the arts makes to the UK economy). He later attemped to clarify what he had actually said by offering some emollient words to theose who work in the arts – and Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary (who reminds me of Blinky Ben from tv political comedy The Thick of It) apologised for the “crass” advert. I note that this advert, together with others of the same style, have now all been pulled from the website in question.

Ever since I became more involved with the UK classical music scene, via this blog and my work with professional musicians, I have sensed an attitude that persists in the UK in particular that working in the arts is some kind of “hobby job”, rather than a “proper” profession. I think this comes, in part, from the perception that many of us who work in the arts love what we do, and thus we are not “serious” about our work.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The many musicians I know, as friends and colleagues, and others who work in the industry, are incredibly committed, serious and, above all, professional people; that we enjoy our work is a bonus, but it does not mean that our work is not viable, nor has value.

The trouble is, for those outside the profession and, it would seem, politicians, creative people like musicians or artists or writers don’t always display outward productivity – the fruits of their labours may not be immediately visible and as a result there is a societal attitude which suggests these people are “lazy”, “unproductive”, or “don’t contribute to society”.

So to counter the suggestion that we are not viable, that we need to “reskill”, here are just some of the very important skills which musicians possess:

Well-organised

Self-starting

Self-motivated

Self-determined

Good time-managers

Adaptable

Flexible

Collaborative

Team players

Hard-working

Resilient

Mental toughness

Physically dextrous with fine and large motor skills

Highly developed memorisation skills

Able to take initiative

Thinking creatively/thinking on their feet

Goal setting/achieving

Used to working to very high standards

Able to cope with stress

Imaginative

Persevering

Determined

Empathetic

Good listeners

Able to cope with failure/setbacks

Diligent

Patient

Able to concentrate for long periods of time

Detail-oriented

Intuitive

Analytical

Entrepreneurial

Pattern recognition skills

Lateral thinking

And let’s not forget all the others in the creative industries:

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