Meet the Artist……Marianna Prjevalskaya, pianist

marianna-photoWho or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music? 

I was born into a musical family and was surrounded by music all the time when I was growing up. Both of my parents are musicians, therefore it was assumed I would follow the same path. They only asked me if I wanted to play piano or violin, and I picked piano. Honestly, I never regretted my choice. I started my piano lessons under my mother´s guidance, and continued until I was 17 years old, when I began my education at the Royal College of Music in London, studying with wonderful Irina Zaritskaya.

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

When I moved to Spain with my family, I met the pianist Krystian Zimerman, and was inspired by his interpretations of Chopin’s Ballades and Concertos, and Liszt Sonata. I also had a chance to hear him live several times in my hometown in Spain performing with orchestra. He introduced me to music I had never heard before, and I was so stunned by its beauty that I was desperate to get those scores out and start learning. I think I sight-read everything we had at home, and it got to the point that my mother had to hide music from me, as I did not want to practice works she assigned. That was probably the time when I realized I wanted to devote my life to music. I always felt that knowing that pianist at that age was crucial for my development. Later, as I grew up, my attention shifted to other musicians. I admire Grigory Sokolov. I should not dare to say he is my influence, but he is the type of musician whose artistry resonates with me most. He fills each note with meaning when he plays, each silence has a meaning, and each note has its beginning and its end! Every single phrase is preciously delineated, well thought and deeply felt. His musicianship is so powerful that he takes control over you and is capable of hypnotizing you. He neither tries to impress, but remains authentic. I think his performances are transcendental experiences, at least for me, and he is an artist who speaks from his truest self.

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

I think everybody has to go through some challenges, but personally I tend to be quite private about difficulties I go through. What I can share, perhaps, is that I learned how to remain true to myself no matter what others think of me and expect from me. I found it quite challenging because I am a vulnerable person. When you are surrounded by many musicians and participating in competitions, the pressure grows even greater. Very often your thoughts can be scattered around in your mind about other contestants, and whether the impression you left on the jury was positive or negative. With a bit of experience I realized that all these thoughts are very distracting, they separate you from who you are, and don’t let you express yourself authentically. Eventually, during my competition performances, I was able to attain the freedom I feel when I perform any public recital.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I am not sure the word “proud” is the most appropriate; I am a perfectionist and always feel I can do better. However, I would probably say that I am happy with my most recent album dedicated to Rachmaninoff.

Tell us more about your new recording…

The album features Variations on themes by Chopin and Corelli. I was dreaming about this project because Rachmaninoff is a composer whose music I find very close to my heart and my soul. I have to say that I had an absolutely awesome team: I was lucky to work with an amazing producer Elaine Martone, who was extremely supportive, encouraging and inspiring during the recording sessions. Chelsea VandeDrink is a fantastic recording engineer who did her work fabulously, and Anilda Carrasquillo created a booklet I could only dream about. I felt that it was a very strong team, and it was an excellent experience to work with these people, with whom I created a strong bond and most importantly, a lasting friendship. This CD was possible thanks to the Cincinnati World Piano Competition, which I won in 2013.

What is the particular appeal of these works by Rachmaninoff for you? 

I have always felt a close relationship with this composer, and considered recording some of his compositions a long time ago, but then in my twenties discovered his Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op.22, a work that unfortunately is not often performed. I was fascinated by the incredible variety of moods and emotions Rachmaninoff reveals in this music, as well as by the way he transforms the theme throughout the composition, making it barely recognizable. It is a work with endless possibilities for a pianist to display his or her mastery.

I often think that composition’s fate grows from the roots. What I mean in this case is that the work had a very moderate reception when Rachmaninoff premiered it in 1903 in Moscow. The preludes Op.23, written during the same summer, enjoyed a bigger success, and his other major hits, like his second sonata, or the second concerto, for example, completely overshadowed this composition. Even though nowadays you may find a few recordings, I feel pianists are afraid of its length and that it might not be an easy piece for the audience. This set of variations lasts about half an hour, but isn’t the Liszt Sonata thirty minutes long? Any late Schubert sonata would be even longer! When I performed this work in the semifinals of Seoul International Piano Competition in 2008, one jury member asked me at the end of the competition why I chose this piece and told me that it is inappropriate for a competition, and that instead I should have played the second sonata. I made to the finals anyway, but am still puzzled why this composition is not appreciated. It is an actual gem in the piano repertoire!

Regarding the Variations on a Theme of Corelli I have to say that at the time I was making my decision what else would go together with Chopin variations, it happened I was working on Corelli variations, and thought both sets would work greatly together. Thirty years separate both pieces and they are incredibly different. The Corelli Variations exhibit a stylistic growth and some kind of a structural compactness: he expresses his ideas in a more concise way, somewhat similar to a mature person who prefers to speak less, but whose choice of vocabulary is very accurate. I do love this composition, but in a different way.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Works that speak to me emotionally. But not necessarily has to be from the same period. I played Scarlatti sonatas that were very precious to me. I felt a particular affinity with Haydn Andante and Variations in F minor that I recorded for NAXOS a few years ago, for example. My attention usually shifts to different composers at different periods of my life. There were years when I felt too attached to Chopin, but thought I would never understand Schumann for his crazy and hectic romanticism. A few years later I felt I only wanted to play Schumann, and it was never enough of him. To name a few that deeply belong to my heart: Schubert Sonatas D.845 and D.959, Schumann F sharp minor Sonata Op.11, Brahms Intermezzi Op.117, Liszt Sonata, Debussy Preludes Book II, obviously Rachmaninoff, including the second Sonata, Prokofiev Sonata No.8 Op.84, among many others.

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

I feel that every time I go through a difficult internal process before I make my repertoire choices. I always play what I want, what I like most and what I feel is right for me at this moment. What it means is that for some reason, on some kind of subconscious level, a particular piece rings my doorbell. It happens when I constantly hear this music in my head, and it does not cease until I take the score and start learning it. It is as though the piece was being chosen by itself, asking to be played. I find it very interesting. And what is even more surprising is that I usually never misunderstand the signal. If I feel the need to play a particular composition, it means I feel something very special for it, a very strong emotional connection. I should probably say I am lucky, because I usually build my own recital programs, however I wish I had the same freedom to choose concerti I want to play with orchestras.

I have also had other experiences. I forced myself to play something that did not seem the right choice, and all of a sudden, when the work began, I realized that I made a huge discovery, a work that I never thought I would enjoy became one of my favourites.

My former teacher Boris Berman told me one day: “Try to learn to love a piece you do not like.” At that time I did not understand how that was possible, I neither wanted to try. I guess now I know what he meant.

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

I can name several venues where I felt particularly good. A concert hall in Malaga, Sala Maria Cristina was a very special venue where I played all Schumann recital. I loved their Steinway, and the decoration of the hall and its acoustic were very inspiring. I enjoyed immensely performing at Weill Hall in New York, as well as remember wonderful experiences performing at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and Minato Mirai Hall in Yokohama.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

This questions is partially related to my choice of repertoire. I prefer to perform works that are emotionally intense and that speak to me most. Compositions I choose to play become my favourite pieces to perform. I do like listening to music, in fact I only listen to classical music, and I should probably feel ashamed that I do not listen to anything else. It all depends on my mood. One day I might want to hear a Baroque ensemble, another evening I want to listen to Schubert’s Lieder or Brahms, or may be Haydn’s symphonies.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

If we talk about living pianists, I would name Grigory Sokolov, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, Radu Lupu, Evgeny Kissin, András Schiff.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I have several. I will never forget my experience performing Brahms d minor piano concerto with Kazufumi Yamashita and Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra in the final round of Sendai International Piano Competition in 2010. It is an exceptionally rare experience when you feel that the orchestra, conductor and yourself blend into one organic whole, and music drives you with its force somewhere beyond reality. And I give thanks to this conductor for making me feel that way. A similar experience occurred performing Chopin e minor concerto with Stamatia Karampini, she made me to forget that I was not playing alone, and with Chopin that is really dangerous, because the conductor and the orchestra have to be constantly alert, Chopin´s rubato is unpredictable and too fragile to foresee. I have also enjoyed tremendously performing with Roberto Trevino and Cincinnati Symphony, and with Carlos Prieto and David Danzmayr and Louisiana Philharmonic. My solo memorable experience was probably my Weill Hall debut and a recital I performed in Baltimore with Schubert A major Sonata D.959, a work I have a very intimate connection with; in fact all Schubert occupies a very special place in my heart. I am not sure what happened that evening, but I was watching my hands and thought I am witnessing my own playing. My intensions were shaping phrases with no effort, and music was being created in the moment. That state of mind is not something you can experience every time you go to play on stage.

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

I think the most important advice I would give is to stay true to yourself, avoid being influenced by others and do not give up.

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

I am not sure I can answer this question. I like the idea of not knowing what is ahead in my life. I have learned not to rush things, and that everything comes at its right time. I try to enjoy living in the present moment.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To feel internal harmony and see my family healthy and happy. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

The ability to feel and understand music.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing the piano.

What is your present state of mind? 

I feel pretty balanced and in peace with myself.

cincinnati_disk_230Marianna Prjevalskaya’s all-Rachmaninoff CD is available now. The recording features two works for solo piano: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22, and Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42. (Fanfare Cincinnati FC-008) Marianna Prjevalskaya plays Rachmaninoff

Born to a musical family, Marianna benefited from early lessons with her mother from age six, her principal mentor for more than eleven years. She continued her studies at the Royal College of Music in London with Irina Zaritskaya and Kevin Kenner. In 2003 Marianna moved to the United States where she joined the Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University. She also holds an Artist Diploma and Master of Music from Yale School of Music, where she studied with Boris Berman. Currently Marianna is a doctoral candidate at Peabody Conservatory of Music where she studied with Boris Slutsky. At diverse festivals, she has studied with renowned pianists such as Liliya Zilbernstein, Emmanuel Ax, John O’Conor, Leon Fleisher, Choong-Mo Kang, Richard Goode, Peter Frankl and Piotr Paleczny, among others.

‘Writing the Piano’ at the 1901 Arts Club

This week I hosted and spoke at ‘Writing the Piano’, an event I conceived out of the Music into Words project which I launched with some blogging colleagues in February 2016. The purpose of the event was to explore writing about the piano, piano playing, pianism…..with presentations by Graham Fitch, Andrew Eales and myself and a Q&A session with the audience. Because the focus of the event was the piano, I invited pianist Elspeth Wyllie to give a short recital to open and close the event, which turned the evening into something really special.

The presentations were varied and interesting, with each of us giving an overview of how and why we decided to start writing a blog. As Andrew said, “if you are posting or commenting on Facebook or Twitter, you are writing”, and he highlighted the fact that the internet and social media has made writing possible for everyone. Deciding to create a blog is just an extension of this activity.

Videos/transcriptions of Andrew’s and Graham’s presentations will follow shortly.

A lively Q&A/discussion session followed our presentations, with questions ranging from “how long do you spend at the computer as a blogger and does this affect your piano playing?”, to how to get new music heard and programmed in concerts, learning from listening at concerts (something I will cover in a future blog post), reviews and how to write about a negative concert experience in a sympathetic way, and how reviews should be seen as a way of encouraging people to come to concerts.

I would like to thank Elspeth Wyllie for performing a beautiful selection of music by Nicholas Sackman, Gabriel Fauré and Peter Maxwell Davies, and my colleagues/friends Graham Fitch and Andrew Eales for their insightful contributions, to the audience who helped make the event so enjoyable and stimulating, and to Glenn and Daniel at the 1901 Arts Club for making everyone feel welcome and, as always, creating a convivial, relaxed atmosphere. The club, whose ethos and ambiance is very much in keeping with that of the 19th-century European cultural salon, seems just about the perfect place to host such an event: if you have suggestions for a future event along the same lines, do get in touch.

Graham Fitch’s blog Practising the Piano (from here you can access Graham’s eBook and new Online Academy)

Andrew Eales’ blog Piano Dao

Elspeth Wyllie, pianist

1901 Arts Club

Transcription of my presentation at Writing the Piano:

People have been writing about the piano for almost as long as the instrument has existed, from early treatises on technique to manuals of exercises, student guides, pianist autobiographies, pianists writing about other pianists or the great works in the piano literature, and novels about pianists and piano playing. It’s a mark of our ongoing fascination with the complexity, beauty and appeal of the instrument that so much has been written – and continues to be written – about the piano. Today the piano seems to be more popular than ever, as evidenced by the wealth of study books, technique manuals, glossy magazines for pianists and piano lovers, books by and about pianists, and of course blogs on the piano, piano playing, piano teaching – and myriad other subjects more or less related to pianists, the piano and its literature. We will be exploring some of this tonight.

I met the three people here with me tonight – Elspeth, Graham and Andrew – via the Internet. Elspeth and I met through Twitter, I met Andrew via Facebook, and Graham via his Practising the Piano blog which I discovered in 2010 shortly after I starting my own blog. Without the internet there would be no blogs and no community of bloggers and readers. The internet is a wonderful resource for pianists and musicians in general and can be a force for good in forging relationships and creating communities and forums where like-minded people can exchange ideas.

What is a blog?

I am sure most of you understand what is meant by the word blog. The word itself is a shortened form of “weblog”, and a blog is a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other websites. It differs from a website in that the content is regularly updated, whereas a website is often static, and it is usually interactive so that readers can leave comments and engage in discussion with the author and other readers. In effect, a blog is more like a magazine or journal with regularly changing content.

Why a blog?

When I first started The Cross-Eyed Pianist, I did so without any expectation of gaining readers or followers. My main motivation for writing CEP a means of recording my own thoughts about the music I was playing, studying and hearing at concerts. In effect, it initially began as a kind of informal practise diary: rather than hunt around my piano room for a notebook each time, I could record ideas and thoughts about the music in one place – a blog. I had returned to the piano after a break of nearly 15 years, and I was rediscovering repertoire I had learned and enjoyed as a teenager, as well as exploring new repertoire.


L to R: Graham Fitch, Andrew Eales & Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Since my teens, I’ve been interested in writing about music, about the process of learning and playing certain repertoire, what the music of Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy or Debussy feels like under the hand and the emotional responses it provokes in us, and I have long been fascinated by the pianist’s special connection to the instrument and the feel of certain chords, passages or entire pieces under the fingers and hand. Some years before I started the blog, I interviewed a concert pianist and asked him what it “felt like” to play Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata. He replied that it was “horrible”, that one felt “utterly exposed”, “like having one’s entrails picked over in public”. This is partly because in the final movement there is literally nowhere to hide: it’s a whirlwind of unison notes of unvarying and unremitting tempo and dynamics, an elusive, enigmatic stream of musical consciousness. The words he used to describe this music are those more usually applied to the human body, particularly the body in pain: visceral, gut-wrenching (painful, stomach-turning, extremely unpleasant or upsetting) – but they perfectly describe the music: the final movement is painful – its briefness, the swirling motif that turns back on itself and never seems to fully free itself of its tethers, the unsettling notation

It is things like this which fascinate me as a pianist and a writer, and the blog became a way of exploring them more deeply.

So I wrote about these things, and gradually people began to take notice of my blog, read and comment on my posts, and even sign up to follow the site. It took a few years to become established: it now enjoys an average readership of 20,000 visitors per month.

Through the blog I have made connections, made new friends in the piano and music worlds, become a concert reviewer, and I now feel part of an important and vibrant community whereas previously I felt rather alone with just the piano and dead composers for company……

And this brings me to what is, for me – and I suspect many other pianists – one of the primary reasons why I think blogs such as Graham’s, Andrew’s, and mine, and many many others, together with the spin-offs they create (Facebook groups, piano meetups, courses etc), are so important for us as pianists:

Playing the piano can be a very solitary activity. In fact, I enjoy the loneliness but it is also important to meet other pianists, share ideas, go to concerts and so on. A blog can provide a bridge from the lonely piano room to a community of other pianists and piano teachers – online and in real life.

Writing about the piano is not easy – how to explain the activity, both physical and emotional, of being a pianist, the complexities of piano technique or particular genres or styles of piano music in a way that is engaging, comprehensive and intelligent takes a certain skill. In my articles about piano playing and piano music, I write entirely from my own perspective and experience. These are my own observations and I make no claims to be right, nor an authority.

It seems that the piano can exert an almost mystical attraction over us, an inexplicable magic which draws us back to the instrument time and time again. I have tried to explore and explain this in some of my writing – what are the psychological and emotional factors which motivate us to spend hours and hours conjuring sounds out of that big black box of wood and wires. What motivates some of us to perform, why people go to hear live concerts and the special fascination with the pianist alone on the stage…..

I’m an avid concert goer, and as a reviewer, I get to combine two activities which I love – going to concerts and writing about music! In my reviews of piano concerts, I try to approach the subject from a non-specialist angle, to recreate in words the sense of being there at the concert with me. In order to do this, I write less about the performer’s technique or artistry per se, and choose instead to use descriptive words or metaphors which are not necessarily directly related to the piano or music. It’s not easy to capture in words something so elusive, and personal, as music, and the piano offers so many sonic possibilities that a single word such as “staccato” or “legato” is simply not sufficient to describe that sound

The piano is an instrument which can whisper, stutter, jangle, chime, pulse, throb, hum, spiral, clatter…… phrases and melodies sing, spool, meander, scurry, tumble, question, breathe…… chords declaim, shout, growl and float.

And here, just a few examples from actual reviews which describe both the sounds the performer makes and the manner in which he or she makes them:

“scurrying and spidery, metallic, stamping, tinkling, growling, manic.” (from my own review of Maurizio Pollini in the Boulez 2nd Sonata)

“Each and every note placed with thought and imagination”

“Tense, heavy-handedness”

“Trudging through the music”

“Aristocratic subtlety”

“Mumbled into the piano with blurry pedaling”

Many of the words used to describe the piano are drawn from other walks of life – art or nature, for example – to create metaphors for the experience of hearing and playing the piano.

And sometimes it’s almost impossible to describe what one has heard: words like “Intense, profound, breathtaking, spellbinding” seem inadequate in the face of truly exceptional piano playing.

The blog is now a huge part of my musical life. I love being part of an online community of like-minded people, and I relish the exchange of ideas that comes from people commenting on my posts. My writing, concert-going, teaching, and playing all feed into my own musical landscape, creating a wonderful continuous circle of stimulation and inspiration.

And the name? Well, surely that is obvious? I am a pianist who also happens to be cross-eyed!

For more on reviewing piano concerts, do listen to this podcast which I made for a couple of years ago




A Land So Luminous


A Land So Luminous – music by Richard Causton and Kenneth Hesketh, performed by The Continuum Ensemble under the direction of conductor Philip Headlam with outstanding soloists including soprano Mary Bevan, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, pianist Douglas Finch, flautist Lisa Nelsen and cellist Joseph Spooner.

The disc features work for large ensemble, duos, trios and music for solo flute, cello and piano. Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton are amongst the foremost British composers of their generations, and ‘A Land So Luminous’ showcases their distinct compositional voices and musical craftsmanship, from Hesketh’s piquant, light-filled textures to Causton’s inventiveness and imagination. The music on the disc is diverse and atmospheric, and draws inspiration from an eclectic catalogue of sources, including Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th cautionary tales for children, Der Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-Headed Peter’), the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva, Fats Waller, shamanic ritual and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622. The title track ‘A Land So Luminous’ takes its name from a piece by writing by 17th century French philosopher-poet Cyrano de Bergerac.

All the works on the disc reveal strong musical gestures and means of expression. Hesketh’s works are expansive, visual and colourful: in Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (‘Don’t Suck Your Thumb’) clarinet and piano dart and weave in a playful yet faintly grotesque dance; while in the second ‘Netsuke’ long sustained sounds emerge overlaid by a wistful clarinet melody gradually build to an unsettling climax. Causton’s ‘Threnody’ is a haunting setting of the English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. The piece relies on the musicians being sensitive about their roles, resulting in a work of concentrated poignancy. Mary Bevan’s crystalline yet highly expressive voice is complemented by elegaic clarinets and a delicate piano part. In ‘Sleep’, a work for unaccompanied solo flute inspired by a poem called ‘Mythistorema’ by George Seferis, Causton creates an unsettling aural image of sleep, beset by frequent changes in time signature and tempo. Lisa Nelsen, on flute, displays control and sensitivity in her performance. The night-time theme continues in ‘Night Piece’ for solo piano, based on the clarinet line from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and performed by Douglas Finch, who brings a delicate clarity and tenderness to this dreamlike work.


Release by Prima Facie Records

Meet the Artist…… interview with Kenneth Hesketh

‘One Before Zero’ – an oratorio for the Battle of the Somme

Benjamin Ellin, the award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer, has been commissioned to create a classical composition focusing on the concept of peace and this year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The resulting Oratorio One Before Zero is one movement for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo soprano and boys’ choir.

(picture source:

This large-scale musical narrative work is inspired by the moment before battle, before zero, zero hour, the time at which hostilities commence.  Benjamin Ellin explains: “It’s the time when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions dominates the mind and soul of any soldier”.

The work is in English, French and German and aims to illustrate musically and linguistically how the race to war, the loss of life and the destruction of humanity affected all sides in this devastating war.

Benjamin explains the inspiration behind the new work: “The Imperial War Museum provided a great deal of the research materials that helped inform my understanding of the period and I used the archives of Royds Hall School in Huddersfield which was a military hospital during WW1.  I enlisted the talented writer Ben Maier to help me ensure the work flows as a  continuous and complete line. The work has a personal connection too. My great relative, Private Samuel Vincent Boot (No. 19463) was killed in WW1.  I used his army number to develop a lot of musical material and develop the narrative.”

The performance will take place on 11th November 2016 at the renowned Maison de la Culture in Amiens in Northern France which is located just behind where the front line was established in WW1.  A second performance is scheduled on 12th November 2016 in Beauvais, Maladrerie Saint-Lazare.


In this Meet the Artist interview, Benjamin discusses his musical influences, the challenges of his career as a composer, and the creation of ‘One Before Zero’.

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

I heard a performance of the Nutcracker at the Royal Ballet as a young boy – my mother took each of us (myself and my two older sisters) to see a ballet when we were young by way of a musical intro – and I was hooked. I persuaded her to buy me the tape recording in the shop and listened to it constantly. Whenever I hear a great piece of music, in whatever genre, I just want to write music or do something creative.

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

There isn’t one single thing. My initial musical impulse often comes from the environment I am in or the world events of our time. I also love the sounds that are around us generally and how they often turn in to little musical ideas all by themselves. For instance, one of the tracks from the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ is inspired by the sound of the Victoria Line tube at Highbury and Islington; the piece is called Three Fishes Laughing.

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

Being pigeonholed really – or people trying to. For me, music is genuinely indivisible and once you try to put people in to boxes you are missing the point. Sadly it seems, at times, this obsession is a by-product of lazy elements of the ‘business’, but I have always believed that the most inspiring characters around do more than one thing and I genuinely just happen to love and feed off different musical arenas.

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

The shape of a piece is very important. Once the overall structure is set in your mind, even if it changes slightly in the process of being realised, you can really start to write it out. For ‘One Before Zero’ that really was the main issue; deciding on the form and arch because after that a lot of decisions have been made for you. The challenge is knowing what to not use or not do and structure helps that process of illumination a lot. Pleasures? I love harmony and the juxtaposition of chords and the resonances they have; that and treating the audience to the theatrical elements of music so they are – hopefully – truly gripped and engaged.

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

If you have a relationship with a performer or a group then you can try and build the musical material around them in subtle ways; this is a joy. A challenge is to always respect the skill and talent of the musicians. They have to play your music and you hope that they actually want to. I don’t believe music is all about the composer in an egotistical way but always about the collective.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I am proud of my Violin Concerto which was premiered last year with the Philharmonia Orchestra, my Trombone Concerto for Joseph Alessi, my tracks on the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ and the works I have written in conjunction with Violist Rivka Golani and the people of the Siksika nation in Canada – amongst others…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

That is a difficult question – in fact, all these questions are! In short a mix of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Vaughan Williams and the jazz world of Miles Davis and Count Basie amongst others. Jazz and blues were major influences growing up in that they were the main style of music that I heard and I still love them. In general, as a composer, I don’t seek to reinvent the wheel but I’ll always express myself as honestly and boldly as I can.

How do you work? 

It largely depends on the piece or the commission. Sometimes a solid idea for a gesture within a piece starts the process and other times I have to work relatively slowly. Waiting for inspiration is all well and good, but sometimes it doesn’t always flow and you have to then rely on your technique – however good it is – when a deadline is there! I also like to sow ideas in my mind and let my subconscious chew them over for a bit; they nearly always find a way of becoming a key part of the process.

Please tell us more about your new work ‘One Before Zero’, to be premiered on Remembrance Day. 

In short it is a large oratorio for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo and SATB male choir to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

Not so short, well, subconscious played a major part here too. I first worked in Amiens several seasons ago when I wrote two smaller pieces for a new festival there. As soon as I went on a research trip I was hooked on the area, the cathedral and the history of World War 1. I knew I wanted to write something about it and that was a good start for mental gestation! Then I had the chance to work with the orchestra in Picardie as both a composer (I wrote a new work for them) and also as a conductor in several performances. Therefore I got to know the players a little and I also got to work with their Music Director Arie. By the time the commission came I had soaked a lot up about the people, the area and so I could start from a decent place. The desired use of an all male SATB choir provided another set of options for the work as it was clear to me that the choir should be the soldiers and the baritone soloist is one of them whilst the mezzo represents the home front, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of everything that was going on through the mirage of propaganda and misinformation through media…how things change!

Then, after lots of reading and textual research I decided on the structure of the piece. The soldier (baritone solo), drained, exhausted and battle-hardened from war stands at the front of the stage. Gazing out at the audience he begins to question who are the people across the stretch of no man’s land in front of him who he will shortly be ordered to attack, to kill, or indeed be killed by. Who are they? Are they anything like him? How did he get to this point where a mere order from a higher rank can result in him, a hitherto ordinary man, attacking with such aggression and ferociousness.

This awakening marks the start of the work. The title itself (ONE BEFORE ZERO)  underlines the importance of this moment before battle, before zero, zero hour  – the time at which hostilities commence – when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions can surely fly through the mind and soul of any soldier.

The text is also a mixture of source letters, propaganda and diary entries from the time and also a number of commissioned texts by Ben Maier – a writer who I work with regularly. The new texts help knit everything together and I wanted to move away from using war poetry as it had already been done several times. The piece is in three languages, English, French and German as the aim of the piece is to underline the human cost on all sides of this conflict.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Again, there have been many for all sorts of reasons. I think my first concert as a conductor at the Philharmonic in St Petersburg was very special. I studied in St Petersburg and saw a concert there during my studies with the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Amazing. Then, years later when I used to do stage managing I stage managed a concert with the EUYO and Ashkenazy there. A few years after that I made my debut as  conductor and with one of my own pieces, WHITE CRUCIFIXION, so it was a powerful feeling of full cycle!

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

Be really honest with yourself about what you are trying to do, what you love and what you are doing. Lots of people will try and knock you down, directly or just through ignorance. If you genuinely love what you do, no matter what, then just keep going – however hard it gets. Take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously so that it becomes destructive – ego is the ugliest trait in people and especially in music.

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

Music Director of a Professional Orchestra, writing a small handful of film scores a year, touring and collaborating with Tafahum, guest conducting with a handful of organisations and carving out commissions that I am interested in.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Now, as a father, a good afternoon picnic with my wife and children followed by prating around with them, and possibly some creative work in the garden with my daughter helping.

What is your most treasured possession?  

I would say my family, but they are not a possession, so, therefore, I don’t have one.

What do you enjoy doing most?  

Lots of things and as much as I can. I learn about other things from doing something seemingly different so I love variety in work and in life.

What is your present state of mind? 

A mixture of love, contentment, frustration at the world and hope in the many beautiful things that still manage to exist.

‘One Before Zero’, a new oratorio in one movement commissioned by l’Orchestre de Picardie for the Network ONE® – an Orchestra Network for Europe – to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be premiered in France on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2016. Further information and tickets

Award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer Benjamin Ellin is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Founder of the Contemporary Fusion ensemble Tafahum, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.

His belief in the positive power of music within society is reflected in the wide-ranging projects of which he is currently a major figurehead. From his own ensemble Tafahum, major projects and collaborations at London’s Southbank Centre, his own commissioned works with the First Nation communities of Alberta, Canada to his commitment to outreach and development work as well as appearing on stage with leading ensembles across the globe, Ellin’s belief in a musical world without boundaries is equalled by a tireless commitment as a guest artist and as a Music Director.

“Schubert-Reise” – a personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata

Part 1

In the autumn of 2014 I set myself the task of learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No 20 in A, D959. My intention was to learn and finesse the work to be performed in public, confidently and convincingly. I wanted the challenge of immersing myself in a large-scale work over a long period of time: it would test my ability to plan and use practise time intelligently, to set and fulfil goals during the process, and to reflect on learning outcomes. The work was to be included in the programme for a final performance qualification, for which a very high level of musical competency and professionalism was required. In this series of essays, I will explore my approach to learning this work, and what I have gained from the experience. I hope my reflections will offer useful resources to others and serve as a “travelogue” of my journey through this sonata.

So why this sonata and not the final sonata, D960? My reasons were twofold: 1) from the point of view of the professional assessment, I felt most people would select the D960 if choosing a late Schubert Sonata; 2) the Sonata in A has always been one of my favourites for its open-hearted warmth and nostalgia (notwithstanding the extraordinary slow movement).

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
The Sonata in A always seems to provoke strong reactions: whenever I mention it online, a whole host of other pianists will comment, citing the slow movement in particular as a significant clue to Schubert’s mental state at the time of the work’s composition. Some commentators suggest that this movement, more than anything else that Schubert wrote, is the clearest indication of the effect of his illness (advanced syphilis) on his mental state and his music. This article offers some frank and disturbing insights into syphilis and its treatment in the early nineteenth century, specifically in relation to Franz Schubert. The side-effects of the illness and its treatment may well have had a detrimental effect on Schubert’s mental state, and it is thought he also suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression (his friends reported periods of dark despair and violent rage). The traditional clichéd, sentimental image of Schubert as the cheery songster or  cherubic “little mushroom” is refuted by these accounts. Is the slow movement of the D959 a manifestation of both depression (the opening and closing sections) and mania (the middle storm)? 

Another issue which merits consideration in relation to this sonata (and indeed the others which form the final triptych) is the notion of Schubert’s “late style”: whether a sense of his own mortality presaged a change in his compositional style in the works written in the final years of his year. In On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006, and LRB article here), Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence, which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, reconciliation – “fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present” (Edward Said). But rather than express acceptance or a sense of his own mortality, Schubert’s last works seem to communicate an “incompleteness”, that he had much more to say, and suggest “the triumph of artistic achievement over the degradation of death and disease, the permanent presence of death” (Lorraine Byrne Bodley, Schubert’s Late Music, Cambridge: CUP, 2016).

The Sonata in A, D959, certainly expresses these sentiments: it is joyous after the darkness of the C minor Sonata, D958, which precedes it, and its themes are springlike and lilting. In this respect it is related to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.  If ‘Winterreise’ is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, this sonata, and other works from the last year of Schubert’s life, reveal, and revel in all of life – intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming, never unremittingly melancholy or heavy.


A programme note….

Schubert completed his final three piano sonatas in September 1828, just a few months before his death at the age of 31. These were the first works of the kind he had composed following the death of Beethoven, a composer whom Schubert much admired, and his last three piano sonatas pay tribute to Beethoven: indeed the first of the three is even cast in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. Schubert numbered the three sonatas sequentially, perhaps envisioning them as a cycle. After his death, Schubert’s brother sold the manuscript to the publisher Diabelli, but the sonatas were not actually published until 1839, and they were dedicated to Robert Schumann, a keen advocate of Schubert’s music.

The final year of Schubert’s life was one of extraordinary productivity, marked by increasing public acclaim and declining health (he had been suffering from syphilis, and the debilitating effects of its treatment, since 1822/23). In addition to the three final piano sonatas, the last months of Schubert’s life saw the appearance of the Drei Klavierstücke D946, the Mass in E-flat D950, the String Quintet D956 and the posthumously published ‘Schwanengesang’ songs, amongst many other works, all of which  display a high level of artistic maturity.

The almost complete survival of the manuscripts of the final three piano sonatas suggests that they were written in two stages: a preliminary sketch, probably made in the Spring of 1828, and a full, final version, most likely notated in September 1828, which contains many remarkable transformations and changes. For example, in the working draft of the Sonata in A, D959, the initial theme is presented in the the style of a chorale, without the octave leaps in the bass which give the final version its rhythmic propulsion, and the calm melody of the second subject has far less rhythmic tension and expansiveness. The final version is also particularly notable for its cyclic innovations.

Working draft of first movement of Sonata in A, D959 (source:
During the 1820s, Schubert had begun to experiment with cyclic devices, whereby motifs or themes established in the opening movement recur elsewhere, often subtly modified, to create an enhanced sense of “belonging” between the various sections and movements. For example, in the Sonata in A, D959, the majestic opening sequence of chords in the first movement re-emerges, much reimagined, towards the end of the slow movement, which then forms the melodic outline of the Scherzo and its Trio; the closing bars of the finale refer back to the opening of the first movement; and the arpeggiated ending of the slow movement anticipates the spread chords of the Scherzo. These simple cyclic motifs, and an innate sense of musical geometry which allows Schubert to draw the whole sonata together at its conclusion, represent his boldly experimental approach to traditional sonata form, further reinforced by a dramatic expansiveness, and the daring underlying harmonies which create contrasting and often startling musical hues and shifts of emotion.

The first movement opens with noble chords which give way to a gentler motif whose falling arpeggio figure could have come straight out of an impromptu. These two motifs form the melodic and rhythmic basis of the first movement and indeed the entire piece. The second subject, a lyrical theme in the dominant key of E major, leads into an intensely chromatic triplet passage culminating in a dramatic section built on descending arpeggios which recall those from the opening. The second subject returns briefly at the close of the exposition, fused with a quiet echo of the urgent triplets from earlier on.

Instead of developing the main thematic material from the exposition, as is traditional in classical sonata form, the development section deals entirely with new material and in the first section the harmony constantly oscillates between C major and B major. Later on, a passage first in C minor and then the tonic minor appears, based on the motif which opens the development.

The recapitulation is traditional: it remains in the tonic and emphasises the tonic minor and the flat submediant (F major) as subdominant tonalities, while the second subject is presented in C major. The coda restates the opening sentence, but in a much more hesitant manner: marked pianissimo, it is interrupted by whole bar rests with fermatas, while the left hand imitates pizzicato strings. The movement closes with gentle ascending arpeggios which mirror those from the opening. It is not until the close of the fourth movement that the opening theme is restated in its full-bodied guise.

The second movement, marked ‘Andantino’, is in F-sharp minor (the relative minor key of A major) and is in ternary (A–B–A) form. It opens with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by descending seconds with a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The almost hypnotic main melody recalls several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Schubert creates an almost static quality in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register.

The middle section unfolds like a fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. This leads to a serene phrase, redolent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3), which leads back into the opening melody, now with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.

The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the brilliant arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by a dramatic descending scale which recalls the stormy middle section of the previous movement. A reference to the main melody of the Andantino is heard in the ensuing passage before the opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, Schubert reimagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serene choral quality.

The finale is a Rondo whose scheme is modeled on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no.1. In fact, the only truly imitative element is Schubert’s reworking of the slow movement theme from his Piano Sonata in A minor, D537, composed more than a decade earlier, to which he brings the lilting gentleness of ‘Im Fruhling’ (D882). Scored in sonata-rondo form (A–B–A–Development–A–B–A–Coda), this lyrical movement comprises an almost continuous triplet movement and a songful melody, replete with striking harmonic and emotional shifts. The development section culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor which refers back to the dramatic middle section of the Andantino. The ensuing passage leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again with the second subject in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, which recalls the hesitancy of the coda in the first movement. The final section of the coda is marked Presto, and here agitated and exuberant arpeggios, redolent of those from the first movement, overlay fragments from the main theme in the bass before arriving at a dramatic false cadence of sforzando chords. Now a fragment of the main theme is heard again, this time marked pianissimo, before the closing statement of sforzando chords, based on the majestic chordal theme of the opening of the Sonata.

©Frances Wilson 2016

Meet the Artist……Peter Jablonski


©Peter Jablonski

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

I never took a conscious decision to have a “career in music”. Music was all around me when I was little. I was interested in sport, but my father was a musician, classically trained, from Poland. He came to Sweden in late 60s as the leader of his own jazz quintet, so there was a lot of music at home – jazz and also classical. I grew up with music. I started playing drums early on and that was what I was going to do. I toured and played drums.

At 6 I started having piano lessons with my dad, and then I discovered this amazing instrument and its possibilities, and that got a hold of me. At 11 I went to a Polish piano teacher at the college of music in Malmo. The way he spoke about music – about the smell, sense, colours, pictures of the music – it just opened my mind. And after 4 years study with him I was a pianist.

In my last year at the Royal College of Music, I got a record contract. I had good people around me but I never took a conscious decision to pursue a career in music. It was a need – I couldn’t be without it

When I started on the professional circuit I felt uncomfortable with the “business” side of it – i.e not to cancel, not to use music if one wants to. Things that felt to be anti-artistic to me as a young musician …. I love music, I love being with it, practising, playing. You get into this groove on the professional circuit which can be difficult for a young artist

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

In a purely practical sense it was Vladimir Ashkenazy. In a way he “spotted” me, and he is the reason I didn’t have to go down the competition route (I and some colleagues applied for the Tchaikovsky competition in our final year at college). My first recordings with Decca were with Ashkenazy. I encountered him by chance through my Swiss manager who lived in the same village as him. My manager took him a tape and he listened and said he wanted to hear me. It was pure luck.

I did a few local competitions, but I was spared that world. I was lucky enough not to have to go down that route. And I came out of college at the time when recordings still mattered in your career.

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

From a practical standpoint, when you are younger and thrust in to the limelight, the challenge is finding the time to get the repertoire learn and to be a human being. I have a rebel in me that didn’t like being on the road. I loved playing and I liked the solitude. I have a family, a daughter, I basically missed the first 2 years of her life. I struggled with that. I want to live with the music, enjoy it, chew on it, be with it, but the modern career does not allow it. But I think most young performers find this. I wanted other things in my life – family, friends, freedom, I wanted to enjoy the music.

But of course there is an adrenaline high connected with that life. I have colleagues who play 100 concerts a year, but that would just kill me and my love of the music. Some people are at odds with the “career” side of being a pianist.  When you’re on the road and you play a lot, you get to a state of readiness and you’re ready always – but you cannot make it any easier. The requirement of the repertoire is keeping the love for it, it’s difficult when it gets busy. Many different concertos, practising non-stop – sometimes I didn’t even like the piano very much because of the concert schedule.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I don’t know…..a very difficult question. That’s for other people to say. Because of my drumming side, I’ve had an affinity for the more rhythmical music (Bartok, Barber for example) but that also applies to Beethoven. I’m feeling more and more comfortable playing Beethoven now. I’m programming Schubert sonatas and Scarlatti – such fresh air! And I’m getting quite heavily into Brahms now

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

I have always loved the nooks and crannies of the repertoire – Szymanowski, Scriabin, Barber, Copland. Incredible music. But of course I have played most of the standard concertos. The only one I’ve stayed away from is Brahms 2 from pure respect and love.

How long does it take you to bring a concerto back into the fingers ready for a concert?

It depends on which one it is. Some I have played so many times (100 times each)  I can play them tonight. I could go and play the Grieg tonight – I have about 10 concertos like that. Then there are a few concertos which are a few days away, then a week, and some I have lost completely.

Are there certain composers/works which always remains difficult?

Beethoven 4 – because I love it too much!

Chopin 2 is immensely difficult. There’s a simplicity/naturalness/ delicacy which is bordering on impossible on a modern piano. You have to over-articulate and then it doesn’t feel like Chopin. It becomes “Panzer Chopin”. It shouldn’t be forceful. Very often today the pianos are voiced quite aggressively so that they carry to the back of the hall over the orchestra. Trying to playing Chopin 2 or Beethoven 4 on those pianos is not easy, it kind of grates.

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

Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is amazing, and the Musikverein in Vienna, but it’s also the history of those places, knowing who played there, who stood on the stage.

In general halls in Asia, in Japan, are wonderful, not least because of the incredible choice of pianos: 5 or 6 pianos to choose from at Suntory Hall. But it’s also incredible difficult. The audiences in Japan are scary. I’ve been to Japan 21 times. At my first recital in Tokyo, there was lots of applause and then the second I sat down they stopped clapping, and it’s almost like you’re alone. It’s spooky. Even in the big halls, it’s the same. They don’t cough, no speaking, no rustling programmes, no one shaking their foot in the front row….. That’s both wonderful and scary. You can literally play to 2000 people without knowing anyone is there. And there is something quite unnatural playing this music to 2000 people. It’s a strange thing to do – to play the piano in public!

For me the music is the most important, it’s not about not me, what I wear…. The only thing you can do is really focus and draw people in. The ideal is when you play in a way which brings people to the music

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many for different reasons. For strange reasons, playing Tchaikovsky 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra outdoors, with Charles Dutoit. And they were going to end with the ‘1812 Overture’ and the canon went off in the slow movement of the piano concerto. It was a like a real bomb! The nerves disappeared after that!

I can’t remember all my concerts, but if someone mentions one to me, the memory of it comes back and I can remember how it went, how it felt sitting on the stage.

On recording

It’s very difficult. I’d much prefer a live concert, the sense of purpose, the adrenaline, which can get lost in the studio. It’s very artificial, it’s a tricky process.

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

First of all you have to be crazy about music. It starts there. You have to be obsessed without it otherwise don’t do it. You have to have to do it, otherwise the cost is too high.

For young pianists they have to be careful with their repertoire choices. Most people have their strengths, but somehow young prizewinners have to play ‘Feux Follets’, ‘Petrushka’ and late Beethoven sonatas. They are often influenced by teachers and the market. This a big mistake which many pianists make. One needs to have a strong sense of self, which can’t be taught. You have to have a sense yourself of what you feel you can say, you have to live with the music, love it, be with it.

This is the transcription of an interview recorded on 19th April 2016

Peter Jablonski performs music by Chopin, Szymanowski, Bartok and Liszt at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Thursday 20th October. Further information here

Born in the south of Sweden to Swedish and Polish parents, Peter showed an early talent for music when he started playing the drums at the age of five and piano at six. Rapid development on the drums led to performances at some major festivals and venues including the `Village Vanguard` in New York aged nine and with musicians such as Buddy Rich and Thad Jones. Peter even received praise from the legendary Miles Davis.
Meanwhile, Peter’s interest developed in the classical piano repertoire which led to his first solo performance aged eleven and his debut with orchestra, playing Mozart’s piano concerto in G, K.453 the following year. At this time he was accepted to the Malmo Academy of Music to pursue studies in piano and percussion and by the time of his graduation he was invited to perform Beethoven’s Concerto No.1 with the Swedish, Danish and Polish radio orchestras.
Further studies in piano and conducting followed at the Royal College of Music in London when, in his final year, Peter was heard by Vladimir Ashkenazy who invited him to record his debut disc for Decca with Ashkenazy conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.





Rick Simpson – Klammer

Jazz pianist and composer Rick Simpson is trying to convert me to his particular genre – and he’s succeeding, with the help of espresso martinis and improvisations of Gershwin on my old Bechstein grand, which preened and purred under his fingers.

Jazz is largely uncharted territory to me: when I listen, I feel like the classical music ingenue, entering the sacred shoebox of the Wigmore Hall for the first time. I worry that I won’t understand the music, or the specialist lingo. In fact, just as with classical music, jazz is begging you to surrender to its sounds.

Rick is a regular performer at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Jazz Club, The Vortex and The Bull’s Head, and he performs with many renowned jazz musicians, in addition to his sextet. His new album ‘Klammer’ contains nine original pieces composed and performed by Rick along with some of the UK’s best jazz musicians of their generation – Michael Chillingworth, George Crowley, Ralph Wyld, Tom Farmer and David Hamblett. The album reflects many of Rick’s influences (which you can read about in more detail in his Meet the Artist interview with me), including hip-hop and classical music, but this album is not a simple hommage to genres or musicians from another time. Instead, these influences are passed through the lens of Rick’s personal musical voice to create music which is vivid, urgent, smoochy, energetic, urban, tender and distinct. There’s fine ensemble playing, revealing multi-layered textures, crunchy sonorities and sensitive voicing, but equally there is freedom for individual improvisation and flights of fancy.

I’m definitely on the road to conversion.

My personal pics from this album


Meet the Artist……Helen Grime, composer

news-3412Who or what inspired you to take up composing and pursue a career in music?

I was surrounded by music from a young age and went to a music school (city of Edinburgh Music school, then St Mary’s Music School) where everyone was encouraged to compose. It’s difficult to put my finger on what exactly inspired me to pursue composing but I think it was this ethos combined with individuals such as the pianist, Peter Evans and ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust at the time)taking an interest and performing as well as commissioning me.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Coming to London and studying with Julian Anderson and Edwin Roxburgh made a real shift. They introduced me to so many composers as well as ideas and techniques, and this really instilled me with a desire to always be ambitious with he music I write. Studying in Tanglewood (2008) and working closely with composers Oliver Knussen, Augusta Read Thomas and others was also a very important time for me, not least because I was immersed in the music of Elliott Carter during their celebration of his centenary.

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

Having my son, in 2013, has been a real challenge, although not a frustration. I was used to devoting any or all my time to composing and this had to change, I’m much happier for it though!

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

Each commission has its own challenges, this may be linked to a brief. It often feels like you have to learn composing anew for each piece and that’s tough. Another challenge can be the pressure you feel to produce your best work and not to let the commissioner/organiser/individual/performers down, this can be very daunting at the beginning of the composing process.

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

Working with musicians for the first time, whether soloists, singers or orchestras can be very exciting but also completely nerve racking. I want so much for them to respond well to what I’m doing and also enjoy learning and performing my music. My music (everyone tell me) is pretty difficult and detailed, even when I fell I’m doing something very simple. I know it takes a huge amount of energy and time to embrace a new sound world and am always incredibly grateful when musicians seem to get what I’m doing and really believe in it.

Which works are you most proud of?

It takes me a long time to feel really comfortable with a piece and it might take several years and different performances for me to let go and enjoy it. For this reason it’s a difficult question, also, how I feel about a piece can be linked to other people’s reactions at the time or the performance. I think I’m most proud of some chamber pieces such as Aviary Sketches for string trio and my Three Whistler Miniatures for Piano trio. I am proud of my Violin Concerto just now, but it’s not receiving its premiere until December so I will have to wait and see! Often I’ve had particular compositional challenges in these works but don’t feel I’ve had to compromise on my language or original vision for the piece.

How would you describe your compositional language?

My language is detailed and intricate. I am drawn to rich harmonies, initially influenced by Messiaen, Takemitsu and Boulez, and long expressive musical lines. I love to create different layers in my music and often slow music exists at the same time as fast music. Clarity and focus, as well as a dedication to always get exactly the right notes, are always paramount for me.

How do you work?

I work in a spare bedroom and spend a lot of time sketching on manuscript and using piano. Once I have developed and discarded a lot of material as well as discovered what I want to try to achieve in a piece, I start using Sibelius software alongside, always moving back and forth manuscript to rework and draft passage. This is usually pretty extensive.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Difficult to say, but Ravel, Stravinsky, Janacek, Byrd, Bach,Ligeti, Knussen feature pretty highly- obviously there are many others, living and dead, but these are composers whose music I love in its entirety.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Berg violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff when I was an usher at the Usher Hall during the the Edinburgh International Festival.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and composers?

To always keep a core of self belief and never ever give up, even in really tough times. Keep an open mind but always be true to your musical identity and don’t compromise on that.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Snuggled by an open fire with a good glass of red and a good book on a winter day.

Helen Grime is Wigmore Hall’s first female Composer in Residence. Helen will compose three new pieces as part of the residency, beginning with a piano concerto for Huw Watkins and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and will also contribute to the hall’s Community and Education programme. The first event of the residency will take place on October 15 with a day of concerts devoted to the composer’s music and figures that have influenced her work. Further information here

Born in 1981, Helen studied oboe with John Anderson and composition with Julian Anderson and Edwin Roxburgh at the Royal College of Music. In 2003 she won a British Composer Award for her Oboe Concerto, and was awarded the intercollegiate Theodore Holland Composition Prize in 2003 as well as all the major composition prizes in the RCM. In 2008 she was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship to study at the Tanglewood Music Center where she studied with John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas. Grime was a Legal and General Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music from 2007 to 2009. She became a lecturer in composition at the Department of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, in January 2010.
Helen has had works commissioned by some of the most established performers including London Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center. Conductors who have performed her work include Daniel Harding, Pierre Boulez, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Sir Mark Elder. Her work Night Songs was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2012 and premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen. In 2011 she was appointed Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra for an initial tenure of three years. Her first commission for them, Near Midnight, was premiered on May 23, 2013 and a recording of her orchestral works performed by the Hallé was released as part of the NMC Debut Disc Series in 2014, which was awarded ‘Editors Choice’ by Gramophone Magazine. 

Nicholas Young, piano, at the 1901 Arts Club

Guest review by Simon Brackenborough

The 1901 Arts Club is a small venue specialising in chamber music, converted from a plush and cosy former Schoolmaster’s house, tucked away on a side-street near Waterloo station. I had come and hear the Australian pianist Nicholas Young, who was presenting a programme of music tucked away in the more hidden corners of the piano repertoire.

Young’s programme was a brave and intriguing, loosely based around 1920s London. First on the bill was fellow antipodean Roy Agnew (1891-1944) – a completely new name to me – who arrived in London from Sydney in 1923 and studied at the Royal College of Music. Young contrasted two of Agnew’s single-movement sonatas with the second sonata by English composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) – also a single span, but of a scale reminiscent of Liszt’s famous B minor sonata.

As a long-time Bax fan, this made for an interesting pairing. The two composers share many stylistic features – both wrote highly passionate, romantic music, with frequent mood swings and harmonies dripping with chromaticism. Even Agnew’s titles mirrored the kind of language Bax used: ‘Sonata Legend: Capricornia’ of 1940 (Capricornia being a term for part of Northern Australia) and ‘Fantasie Sonata’ of 1927. Of the two, it was the former, later work, with its moodily modal melody, that left the more lasting impression.Both composers shared a fascination with the murky lower end of the instrument, and that gothic quality that, with rich harmonies, can at times erupt into bursts of menacing ugliness. Young dispatched these difficult works with admirable technical ease, teasing out the melodic charm hiding beneath the virtuoso decoration, hand crossings and all. 

The late conductor and Bax champion Vernon Handley always emphasised the form underlying his apparently rhapsodic music – it is by taking care not to wallow in the episodes that the logic within becomes discerned. Young took a similarly no-nonsense approach to Bax’s second sonata, and it worked magnificently. Talking after the concert, he told me how the opening 30 seconds of the sonata had drawn him to the piece. Out of this eerie introduction, with its obsessive repeated notes and ghostly colouring, emerges a complex emotional journey, its enormous turbulence always projecting a steely, withdrawn face to the world.  

If it was brave move to programme these composers, it was even more so to front-load the concert all with music of such intoxicating richness. The second half was dedicated to Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), a composer who spent most of his life in Berlin but who, Young informed us, admired Dickens and considered London one of his favourite cities. After the first half, his Berceuse was a relative oasis – the more measured take on chromaticism imparting a strangely frozen quality. The tripartite Toccata – a piece beloved by Alfred Brendel – took us further into Busoni’s eccentric neo-classicism, with plenty of pyrotechnics from Young to match.

As Young revealed before the third work, Busoni was not a huge fan of Chopin, that most adored of pianist-composers. Nonetheless he was taken enough with his Prelude in C minor enough to turn it into ten variations. The grave simplicity of Chopin’s theme certainly provides a framework ripe for elaboration, though the piece starts, counter-intuitively, with a strange canonic introduction before the true theme enters. The less cerebral variation form was welcome in its simplicity by this stage in the programme, with one of which was a waltz in itself cheekily marked ‘Homage to Chopin’. Young brilliantly guided us to the thrillingly virtuoso climax.

The rather eccentric world of Busoni’s music has been less well remembered than his Bach transcriptions, and the concert ended with the Chaconne from the violin partita no. 2, augmented by Busoni into something truly monumental. The piece is a natural concert-finisher, a kind of transcendent ‘back to basics’ that helps put everything else into perspective. It was a nice touch that, before he played, Young acknowledged that his programme was of fairly heavy hearted music, and invited us to consider the spirit of those times, between the two world wars, alongside our own. It seemed that at the close of Bach and Busoni’s cross-century collaboration, he drew out a well-earned touch of indulgent grandiosity. 

Nicholas Young is a fantastic pianist, and if he continues to promote such interesting programming, it will be no bad thing in establishing a distinctive name for himself. But inevitably this adventurousness poses a challenge to the audience, who may not be inclined to give this less familiar music their time and money. It is a pity that even the small salon of about 30 seats was only filled with five punters, myself included. Such a fine musician certainly deserves better than that.

Simon Brackenborough is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London. He is the founder and editor of, which features in-depth writing on classical music, designed to illuminate the art form for a diverse audience. 

‘Writing the Piano’ – 18th October 2016

Tickets are still available for this special words and music event at the charming 1901 Arts Club, exploring our fascination with the piano. Leading UK bloggers on pianism and piano teaching Graham Fitch, Andrew Eales and Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) will explore why and how they write about the piano with presentations and Q&A session with the audience. There will also be a short recital by guest artist Elspeth Wyllie playing piano music by Nicholas Sackman and Gabriel Fauré.

Book tickets

If you are unable to attend, but would still like to participate, questions for the panel are invited. You can leave your questions in the comments box below or use the contact form.

The Salon at the 1901 Arts Club


Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture