Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I had a sort of mundane epiphany when I was sixteen, the realisation (while sitting on a cramped coach with fifty other sweaty and tired musicians) that I could spend every day for the rest of my life doing music and not mind. This was quite a big deal considering that I minded the possibility of pretty much anything else being a serious pursuit; my attention span was very unpredictable, and I didn’t tend to truly persevere at much except doodling ferociously in lessons.
We were touring Holst’s The Planets in Sweden, I was playing first oboe with my youth orchestra and over those ten days I just fell helplessly and unglamorously in love with music, having spent twelve years coasting along at the piano and at rehearsals without ever fully committing. I also fell a bit in love with a cellist which may have helped the decision-making process…
I subsequently had a weird spiritual experience back home in Newcastle where I felt that composing was my one true calling and that I had no option but to pursue it obsessively. The first piece I wrote was a strange and dissonant duet for violin and cello, and the second was a terrible ‘Chopin-with-a-hangover’ piano sonatina. I had no concept of structure, form, or large-scale harmony, so these pieces are still my most, and least original compositions.
It was necessary to learn the ‘big picture’ at university first before specialising. Oxford was a slightly mad choice, as the workload left rather little time for creativity, but I learned a lot there, and I started my string quartet which I have just finished this year! The career bit came during my Masters at RNCM as I needed time to work out how on earth people made it work full-time. Sometimes I look back at eight-year-old me, dancing around in bizarre, one-woman musicals on the living room stage for her dear parents, and wonder how she got here.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The biggest milestones so far have probably been: hearing Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet at a concert with my mum when I was seventeen; discussing one of my first compositions with Nicola LeFanu at St Hilda’s; meeting Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and sending him one of my scores (he replied); getting my first professional commission with Streetwise Opera after my Masters; working with Rambert Dance Company as the Music Fellow last year.
Streetwise Opera showed me the power that music, and new music, can have in people’s lives, and how collaborating with performers can inspire me to make something completely different. Working alongside everyone at Rambert taught me more in a year that I think I’ve learned in the other twenty-three. My teachers gave me the tools to write and helped to equip me with the resilience and the perspective you need as a professional musician.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Undoubtedly the first summer was the hardest. I was juggling eight different jobs/commissions and I was still broke because none of them were going to pay me until September, so I got a café job on top of that. I had just moved house and all of my friends were away, I was ill every week so lost a teaching assistant position, I hadn’t had any holiday in over a year, my mental health was awful and I had zero inspiration for any pieces. It was hard to see how it was going to work out, but it did! I think it was J.K. Rowling who said “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I don’t think I was anywhere near rock bottom but I wasn’t feeling very confident about the future, and it has all seemed less bad since that August.
The other greatest challenge was that of producing my chamber opera, which was a much bigger task than composing it! I spent a whole year on it with RNCM musicians, and it resulted in a collaboration with choreographer Dane Hurst at Tete a Tete opera festival, funded by the Arts Council and by the generosity of individual sponsors. I was very, very nervous before the August performance and barely slept for a week, but my team were amazing so I shouldn’t have worried so much.
It’s always frustrating when you get rejected from things, but I’ve made a ‘folder of failure’ that helps me to find the pitfalls funnier. If you want to know the really good anecdotes, you’ll have to ask me in person!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I love commissions as they give you restrictions within which to be creative! Sometimes they verge on being too restrictive, and if you don’t get to choose your collaborators it can be tricky at times, but generally I find it easier to write when I have a clear brief. Context is all. It’s also really lovely, every time, to be asked to write something for a special occasion or exciting new project.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It’s their unique tastes, characteristics, personalities, strengths and weaknesses that give me my musical language for that piece, and the collaboration process generally produces something more original and exciting than I would have made on my own. Working with amateurs provides great variety as every group is different. Most of my pieces are tailored quite carefully to the ensemble that I am working with, but I also aim for some adaptability for future performances.
As well as working with other musicians, I love collaborating with writers, dancers, and artists with different specialisms. This work can be challenging in terms of communication and teamwork, but I love these messy and dynamic processes and their results.
Of which works are you most proud?
The chamber opera-ballet, Citizens of Nowhere, my string quartet, Antiphony, my choral piece, Fall, Leaves, Fall, and my two electronic pieces made with choreographers Carolyn Bolton and Julie Cunningham, Solo Matter and Imaginary Situations.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Sometimes it’s like Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, Machonchy and Sibelius in a blender, and sometimes it’s like Sondheim and Bjork got drunk together and fell asleep on my keyboard.
How do you work?
If you could tell me that, I’d hire you immediately.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
That changes every month, but I will always love the four old B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Britten and The Beatles, and the lieder/piano pieces by Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann and Josephine Lang are just gorgeous. I grew up listening to my parents’ ceilidh band, my granddad’s jazz favourites, my grandpa’s bassoon practice, the best of Simon and Garfunkel on LP, and my siblings’ CD collections. I have not yet heard a piece by Stravinsky that I didn’t like. My contemporary playlist changes every week but it usually involves some classical, some electronic music, some pop, some jazz, and some silence…
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Putting your heart into your music so much that other people can hear it beating, without exhausting yourself or exploiting anyone else. Success at the expense of others looks empty to me.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Everyone will tell you that it isn’t easy or sensible, but life isn’t easy or sensible, so think about whether you are happy for music to cause a lot of those problems for you, or whether you want it to stay safe as a side profession. Be prepared to fail as it will help you improve, and be prepared to compromise but not so much that you lose sight of your boundaries. Surround yourself with musicians and artists who can help you and whom you can help in turn, don’t be afraid to walk up to interesting people at drinks receptions and ask them about their work, but also have some friends outside the music world who can help you to have time off!
What do you enjoy doing most?
Something completely spontaneous like going for a long walk and taking photos of weird things that I see, or dancing full-whack after sitting at my desk for hours, or eating a huge homemade curry and playing pool with my housemates, or talking about life until the small hours, or praying / meditating / reading when I’ve realised that I have lost perspective, or looking at the sea when I visit my parents in the North East, or going to an art gallery in a new city, or getting on a train to meet an ensemble that I’m about to work with and then becoming part of their community for a time. And then, really, the two things I enjoy most of all are starting a piece and finishing a piece.
Anna Appleby is a multi-award-winning composer based in Manchester and is part of both the RSNO Composers’ Hub and the Making Music / Sound and Music ‘Adopt A Composer’ scheme for 2017/18. Anna has been the 2016/17 Music Fellow with Rambert Dance Company. She has written for artists including the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Cavaleri Quartet, the Hermes Experiment, the BBC Singers, Manchester Camerata, Jonathan Powell, Het Balletorkest and A4 Brass. Her work has been performed on BBC Radio 3, and in venues including the Holywell Music Room, the Southbank Centre, RNCM Concert Hall, HOME theatre, RADA Studios, the National Theatre River Stage and the Sage Gateshead. Anna has recently been a composer in residence with Streetwise Opera, Quay Voices, Brighter Sound and the Cohan Collective.
Originally from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Anna has a great love of folk and jazz, and now specialises in writing contemporary classical music. Her work often consciously revolves around the human voice or body, with opera and dance being particular interests. Collaboration is at the heart of her creative practice.
Anna has worked with numerous choreographers including: Dane Hurst, Michael Naylor, Jacqueline Bulnes, Nina von der Werth, Igor & Moreno, Peter Leung, Pierre Tappon, Julie Cunningham and Carolyn Bolton.
London Orchestra Project
Sunday 27 May 2018 at 19:30, LSO St Lukes, London, EC1 V 9NG
The London Orchestra Project, a new venture where principal players from across London’s professional orchestras sit side-by-side with outstanding students and recent graduates from London’s music colleges, performs Strauss’s deeply moving Metamorphosen along with Ligeti’s intricately rhythmic Ramifications and Bartok’s folk inspired Divertimento on Sunday 27 May at LSO St Lukes.
Co-founded by Stephen Bryant, leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and conductor James Ham, the orchestra consists of a true 50/50 split of professional players to recent graduates. Speaking about LOP’s unique approach to player development, James Ham says: “We’re very excited by this concert and are fortunate to have some of London’s finest orchestral players on board. It’s a way for students and graduates on the cusp of a professional orchestral career to directly benefit from the knowledge and insight from some of the UK’s most experienced orchestral musicians. Our future plans also include working with emerging composers and ultimately establishing LOP as a gateway to the profession”.
Stephen Bryant added: “By bringing together principal players from across London, our focus is very much founded on quality in terms of not only the players, but also the experience of the students and graduates involved, our choice of programmes and the musical experience for the audience”
For this concert, Stephen Bryant will lead graduate players from the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire alongside principal players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Birmingham Royal Ballet, London Sinfonietta, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Tickets: £15 (£5 for students and under 18s) are available from the Barbican Box Office: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: 020 7638 8891 (10am-8pm Mon-Sat, 11am-8pm Sun)
(source: press release)
I had a great time in December putting together music for my friend Honor’s wedding in Singapore. We met each other through an immersive theatre company called Punchdrunk, whose shows we have both been to multiple times – on three continents. Their current production “Sleep No More” lured us both to Shanghai last year, and she wanted some of its atmosphere to permeate her wedding, meaning a large dose of 1930s and 40s jazz. But her fiancé (now husband!) is Russian and his family were obviously coming to the wedding, and we thought it would be nice to include something with a Russian flavour as well. So this mix includes not just obvious crowd-pleasers like Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine”, but also obscurities like “Morning and Evening” by the Leoníd Utësov Jazz Orchestra or the fantastically catchy waltz “Always Together” by Mikhail Mikhailov and the Michael Ginsburg Jazz Orchestra. It’s amazing how seamlessly they fit in. There are also a few deliberate hat-tips to “Sleep No More” in there, such as “Weep No More My Baby” by Al Bowlly and the Ray Noble Orchestra, which is featured on the show’s soundtrack.
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a composer and arranger whose work is published by Edition Peters. He is also a freelance music engraver and provides professional music services at www.opus101.org.
The Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast invites three people who play, listen or otherwise work in classical music to sit and discuss the subject they love. They’re unplanned conversations recorded as live, very nearly unedited, and more often than not take unexpected twists and turns.
In this the second Thoroughly Good Podcast to which I’ve contributed, Adam Gatehouse, co-Artistic Director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, outlines the changes the competition has undergone since the retirement of Dame Fanny Waterman (the competition’s founder), in addition to more general conversation about communication in performance and why the core canon of the piano repertoire is special.
Hugh Mather, the indefatigable director of concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London, introduces a major weekend festival of Chopin’s immortal piano music, and examines some of the rationale behind the festival.
We are holding the St Mary’s Perivale Chopin Festival from Friday 15th June to Sunday 17th. In summary, this comprises most of Chopin’s solo piano works played by 21 excellent pianists giving recitals of 24 to 44 minutes, providing about 12 hours piano music over a glorious weekend of piano-playing.
Firstly, it gives a chance to ‘show-case’ the amazing pianistic and musical skills of so many of our younger pianists. I currently have a shortlist of about 80 pianists who are certainly good enough to give a decent solo recital in my concerts, and the 21 playing in the festival include some of the best. In alphabetical order, they are Ashley Fripp, Artur Haftman, Tyler Hay, Dinara Klinton, Ilya Kondratiev, Renata Konyicska, Ke Ma, Viv McLean, Mikhail Shilyaev, Asagi Nakata, Luka Okros, Mengyang Pan, Mihai Ritivoiu, Tamila Salimdjanova, Colin Stone, Iyad Sughayer, Michal Szymanowski, Julian Trevelyan, Amit Yahav, Yuanfan Yang and Hao Zi Yoh. Most are young (aged below 30) and have won multiple awards in international competitions. Many pianists – possibly most – are at their peak when aged 25-30, after 15-20 years of excellent teaching, long hours of practice, sheer hard work, intense competition and financial support, with little need to divert their energies into piano teaching and other activities to provide an income. Our pianists come from all over the world, with different musical and pianistic backgrounds, and it will be endlessly fascinating to hear their varied approaches to Chopin. This is much preferable to hearing any single pianist – be it Perahia, Zimerman, Pollini or a re-incarnated Rubinstein or Cortot – playing through all this repertoire. I am always amazed to hear how the same piano can sound so different with successive pianists. It will be a heavenly weekend for all pianophiles.
Secondly, it provides an opportunity to hear much neglected Chopin piano music. In the concert hall, Chopin performances tend to be dominated by the same few ‘warhorses’ which most pianists feel obliged to learn and perform. I have undertaken an analysis of works played in over 700 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in the past decade. Way out top is the ubiquitous G minor Ballade, which has been played 16 times, followed by the Barcarolle and 3rd Scherzo (11), the 3rd and 4th Ballades and Polonaise-Fantaisie (9), the F minor Fantasy, 2nd Scherzo and 3rd Sonata (7) and the 2nd Ballade, Polonaise Op 53 and 2nd sonata (6 times). By contrast, many of the smaller pieces are hardly ever programmed. When I assembled the programme, I asked all the pianists to list all the works they could offer, and it was instructive to see so many offering – yes, the G minor ballade – the A minor Mazurka Op 17 no 4 and the D flat Nocturne Op 27 no 2 , but surprisingly few other mazurkas or nocturnes. On CD, the situation is complicated by the almost universal practice of complete sets of nocturnes, polonaises, mazurkas and waltzes. Hearing all the mazurkas or waltzes in succession isn’t a satisfactory musical diet. Our festival provides a satisfying mix of all the different genres throughout the festival, and a chance to hear many under-performed works in concert. It comprises 12 hours of music, out of the approximately 16 hours in total of Chopin’s solo piano music, without any repetition of a single work. Some early works are omitted, such as the first sonata, and some early variations, but much gorgeous music which is rarely heard in concert will be included. This required a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and was achieved by asking all pianists to list works they could offer, and giving them a limit of one major work (sonata, scherzo or ballade etc), to ‘spread the jam’ evenly among all the musicians!
Thirdly, it is particularly appropriate to hold the festival this year, and in Ealing, which has the highest proportion of native Polish speakers in the UK. Many Polish soldiers who fought alongside British troops in the second world war settled in the borough after the conflict ended. Their numbers were boosted in subsequent waves – first, around the time martial law was imposed in Poland in the early 1980s, then at Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. Chopin has, of course, always occupied a special place in Polish culture. And in this year, we mark the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence in 1918. Our festival can be regarded as part of this celebration. It also marks the 170th anniversary of Chopin’s visit to London and Scotland in 1848, the year before his death. Our festival will commence with a short introductory lecture from Amit Yahav, entitled, ‘Chopin: A Polish Poet at the Piano in Paris’ to set the scene and to consider the main features of his life and the influences on his piano composition.
Fourthly, it utilizes the special atmosphere of St Mary’s Perivale. This is a charming, small and intimate venue which has much more in common with the Paris salons of Chopin’s day than those other larger venues in Central London. It is a Grade 1-listed architectural jewel which is blessed with excellent acoustics and a glorious ambience. Its small size creates problems of its own, in that our church can only seat a maximum of 100 people, but we are confident that this will accommodate our audience. No tickets will be sold beforehand. All our pianists will be paid £200 for their performance, and we are charging £15 for admission to each long session. Since they contain between 3 and 6 piano recitals, we think that this is a reasonable charge, and compares well with those for piano recitals elsewhere. Please bring cash rather than cards or cheques.
In summary, this promises to be a very special weekend of exceptional piano-playing which should appeal to lovers of Chopin and the piano, in London and further afield. Come along to enjoy Chopin in Perivale!
St Mary’s Perivale Chopin Festival runs from 15 to 17 June 2018. Full details of all performers and programmes here
For more details about the church and other concerts at St Mary’s please visit www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk
Hugh Mather is a pianist, organist and retired physician, who organizes classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing.
Lauren Zhang (16) has won the 2018 edition of BBC Young Musician with a coruscating performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto. A pianist of quiet poise, the Prokofiev was a bold choice, but Lauren owned it from the very first bars, revealing not only exceptional technically mastery but also acute musical intelligence and insight in a work of striking contrasts, substance and depth. At only 16, Lauren already seems fully formed as a musician, and throughout the competition she has displayed a level of artistry and musical maturity commensurate with a professional performer at least twice her age. Even viewed on television, it was clear Lauren has a special presence, displaying phenomenal power and control but with no loss of clarity or quality of sound. At times it was almost as if she was playing the music for herself only, free of unnecessary gestures or pianistic histrionics, and with an exceptional economy of movement, given the muscularity of Prokofiev’s writing. Thus the music could fully speak, communicate, and touch us. I can only imagine the electric intensity of that presence in Symphony Hall during her live performance.
Lauren was joined in the competition final by two other exceptional young musicians. Cellist Maxim Calver’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations was rich in witty interplay between him and the orchestra, elegant intonation, and an infectious sense that he was thoroughly enjoying this music. The third finalist was Rob Burton, the second consecutive saxophonist to reach the final of the competition (Jess Gillam, a wonderfully positive ambassador for the instrument and music making in general, was a finalist in 2016). His performance of Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto was vibrant, colourful and expressive. All three finalists were worthy winners in a contest where, ultimately, music triumphs.
On the day when previous BBCYM winners, including oboist Nicholas Daniel and violinist Nicola Benedetti, published an impassioned plea in a national newspaper to give all schoolchildren the opportunity to engage with music and learn a musical instrument, it is worth noting that this year’s BBCYM finalists all attend independent or specialist music schools. I know I’m not alone in fearing that with erosion of music provision in UK state schools, music is in serious danger of becoming the preserve of the privileged – either in fee-paying schools or via families who can afford private music lessons for their children.
Whatever one may feel about music competitions (and I tend to agree with Bartok’s view), BBCYM is a wonderful celebration of young people’s music making and should be an inspiration to all.
(Header photo by Greg Milner)