The first post-pandemic full season of Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts (WLCC) drew to a close with a beautiful rendition of Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, played by pianist and artistic director of the series, Duncan Honeybourne. This glorious piece of music was written by Schumann as a gift to his beloved Clara; for Duncan, playing it at the close of his concert, and the finale to the series’ 20th anniversary season, it also felt like a gift to our audience to thank them for their ongoing support.
I’ve been Concerts Manager for WLCC since November 2019. Shortly after I took over the role, the pandemic hit and we were forced to suspend all our performances. We resumed in a limited way in the autumn of 2021, presenting just two socially-distanced concerts before we were obliged to suspend the series once again. Throughout this time, our audience supported us, returning enthusiastically, though in vastly reduced numbers due to the constraints of socially-distanced performances (we could only allow 25 people in a church which normally seats 80), and adapting to new ways of doing things, including an online box office and advance booking system.
Having now completed my first proper season as Concerts Manager (absent a Christmas concert due to the omicron wave), I have seen at first hand the importance of trust between artistic director/organiser and the audience. In fact, it was my husband, who has been regularly attending WLCC concerts in recent months, who highlighted this significant aspect of the series’ success. Our audience place a great deal of trust in Duncan Honeybourne’s stewardship of and artistic vision for the series and because of this, they reward us with their loyalty, returning to the concerts month after month, regardless of who or what we are presenting.
So how does this trust manifest itself? For some audience members, Duncan is a friend, and this friendship fosters a sense of trust. He is also well-known and highly regarded in the local community, as well as in the wider British musical world, with a 20-year record of running WLCC, a reputation that counts for a lot. But I think above all it is Duncan’s unsnobbish, authentic and enthusiastic approach to music-making which makes audiences feel confident that they will enjoy the concerts. (And it’s worth noting at this point that the series specialises in presenting lesser-known and rarely-performed music and composers alongside classical favourites and well-known works.)
Promoters, programmes and audiences
As concert life returns to normal after covid, promoters and venue managers – and musicians too – need to rediscover or reconfirm a sense of trust with their audiences. From the most basic aspect of making people feel comfortable and safe when visiting the venue to the planning of programmes and featured repertoire, I believe a sense of trust should be cultivated at all times.
Unfortunately, it strikes me that some venues have a rather casual, untrusting attitude to their audiences, and I see this most clearly in the type of programmes being presented. I sense a certain unwillingness to trust audiences’ taste/discernment and instead to impose programmes, repertoire and composers on the audience. In some instances, especially with regard to contemporary music, a didactic, almost patronising attitude prevails – that one must listen to this music because “it is good for you” or because it has “an important message”. This misses the point of why, in general, people go to concerts: most of us want to escape the hectoring and finger-wagging of politicians, public health “experts”, commentators and others, at least for a few hours, rather than endure a polemic in music. And now, more than ever, because of the lack of live music over the past two years, many of us want to go to concerts to socialise as well. Concert managers and promoters need connect with their audience in such a way that shows they understand them: the most basic aspect of this is presenting the music the audience wants to hear. If you’re spending upwards of £25 on a concert ticket, in addition to the effort and expense of traveling to the venue, you probably want a guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the concert.
The anti-popular, anti-classical favourites advocates seek to impose their ideas of what audiences should be listening to and then wonder why tickets don’t sell and concert halls are half-empty.
Sadly, an attitude prevails in the contemporary music world in particular that the music matters far more than the audience and that considering the audience is an egregious form of pandering which devalues the “art”.
Music is there to be heard – a particular concern for contemporary classical music. But that music won’t be heard if the audience feels alienated but the way it is programmed and/or presented. Advocacy of new or neglected music is important, and audiences should be given the chance to hear that music for themselves. But in the end, however hard you argue a case for the music, audiences either will or won’t like the way it sounds, and there’s not much one can do about that!
A more trust-oriented way of doing things would be to plan programmes which include well-known repertoire as a “hook” to entice audiences, while also featuring more unusual, less familiar, rarely-performed, or contemporary music. Presented in a non-didactic way, audiences may enjoy the chance to discover new music, while hearing it alongside the more familiar. Thus, you can build a degree of trust with your audience by gradually expanding the repertoire alongside popular classical favourites. Open the concert with something familiar, so people don’t arrive late, then give them something new or less familiar. Programme another such piece after the interval but end with a box-office favourite so people stay to the end.
Musicians and audiences
The relationship between the musician and their audience is, or at least should be, founded on mutual trust.
If the audience doesn’t trust you, it won’t turn up for the concert. If there is no trust, people will be reluctant to listen to and engage with the performance – and, by the way, audiences are very good at sending whether or not the performer trusts them!
When I hear of A Famous Pianist complaining about audiences or insisting that they sit through 2-hour programmes without applause or a comfort break because that would “interrupt the flow” of the performance, or sneer at a perceived ignorance or lack of discernment in current audiences, I sense a lack of trust between performer and audience. In fact, this musician perhaps does not trust audiences at all, instead preferring to impose his will upon them.
Many performers are expert at creating a sense of connection and trust between themselves and audience from the moment they walk on stage – or even beforehand through posts and exchanges on social media (the British pianist Sir Stephen Hough is particularly skilled at this). Verbal and non-verbal cues can quickly set up a sense of shared experience and even friendship between artist and audience. Speak to the audience but in a language they can understand. Introduce the programme in a way that allows audiences to feel a connection to the performer – why is this music meaningful to them, for example? – rather than simply parrotting programme notes. Know your audience and where they’re coming from and respond accordingly. Show your gratitude to the audience – by playing encores (if appropriate) or by greeting them after the concert in the green room or at a CD signing, for example.
Concerts are a customer-facing activity, and while some may baulk at such a phrase in relation to classical music, accepting and understanding this can go a long way to making audiences feel welcome and trusting. Do more “Put the customer first”, and audiences will reward you with their support and loyalty.
Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash
Fauré, Poulenc, Messiaen: Preludes & Nocturnes – Tal Walker, piano
A keen advocate and performer of French piano music, the young Israeli-Belgium pianist Tal Walker explores three masters of French pianism in his debut disc of music by Fauré, Poulenc and Messiaen.
The idea of miniatures (Preludes and Nocturnes) written by French composers at the beginning of the 20th century has always interested me. These are improvisatory-like pieces, rather short and therefore combined in a cycle. These pieces give free rein to the composer’s imagination and reveal a sometimes more secretive side of their personality. – Tal Walker, pianist
The disc takes the listener on a fascinating musical journey, charting these three composers’ exploration of the miniature form and revealing connections within each cycle, while also demonstrating their own distinct musical voices and soundworlds, from the perfumed late romanticism of Fauré to Poulenc’s witty neo-classicism to Messiaen’s mystical harmonies and exotic rhythms.
Fauré composed his set of nine Preludes at the end of his life. Historically overlooked by performers, these miniatures are infused with the richness of late 19th-century romanticism yet look forward to modernism in some of their tonalities and harmonies. Highly imaginative and improvisatory in nature, they hark back to the Preludes of Chopin in their variety, fleeting moods, lyricism and whimsical charm. Tal Walker responds to the mercurial nature of these pieces with fluency and nuance, allowing the listener to enjoy and appreciate the multi-layered textures of these tiny gems.
Poulenc’s Nocturnes were composed between 1929 and 1938, and unlike the nocturnes of John Field or Fryderyk Chopin, these pieces are ‘night-pieces’ more in the manner of Bartok’s The Night’s Music. Some are dream-like, almost childlike in their simplicity. Others are nostalgic, some are humorous and ironic (No. 4 in C minor, for example, is a wry waltz), and many evoke the various personalities of the composer’s friends and intimates, either in the form of a miniature musical portrait or a dedication. There are touches of Stravinsky in the harmonic language in some, while others are richly melodic. The many moods and contrasting voices of these delightful pieces are showcased in Walker’s thoughtful, sensitive playing.
The Eight Preludes of Olivier Messiaen were composed 1928-29. They are clearly influenced by the impressionism of Debussy, with unresolved or ambiguous veiled harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus. In this suite of early pieces it is already clear that Messiaen was carving a distinct compositional voice of his own with his distinctive modes, birdsongs and a profound sense of mysticism and spirituality.
It is perhaps in these pieces that Tal Walker really shines most of all, revealing his skill, musical intelligence and maturity. Whereas in the pieces by Fauré and Poulenc we find a warm lyricism, to the Messiaen Walker brings a slight stridency and brightness of tone (a very ‘French’ style of piano playing) which highlights the many contrasting colours, timbres and textures of this music.
This is an impressive and rewarding debut disc and a fascinating hommage to French pianism by a young pianist who was taught by, amongst others, Madame Françoise Thinat, who herself studied with or was influenced by Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s second wife), Marguerite Long (who premiered Fauré’s Preludes), and Yvonne Lefébure. This musical heritage is evident in Walker’s thoughtful, nuanced playing, as if he has fully absorbed the great tradition from the past and melded it with his own personal artistic vision.
Fauré, Poulenc, Messiaen: Preludes & Nocturnes is available on the Collection Cabinet de curiosités record label and also on Spotify
An earlier version of this review appeared on the InterludeHK website
Guest post by Hugh Mather, Chairman, the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale
St Mary’s Perivale is a tiny redundant medieval church in West London, only 7 miles away from Marble Arch. We are now a classical music centre with a national reputation and growing international outreach. The venue has a maximum capacity of only 70, but has state-of-the-art video broadcasting facilities, a good piano, perfect acoustics and a dedicated fibre-optic link to the internet. Our video facilities comprise 8 high-definition cameras and 6 high-quality microphones, and the technical quality of the broadcasts on YouTube and Vimeo is outstanding. Over the past four years we have taken a lead in livestreaming classical concerts, and pride ourselves of now being the foremost UK video broadcasting venue for instrumental and chamber music. During the pandemic, we initially broadcast daily recordings from our archive, and then over 150 ‘live’ concerts with no audience in the church. Since being allowed to admit an audience in September 2021, we have streamed another 150, making a total of over 300 broadcasts since June 2020 – more than any other venue. These activities have now been recognised by the award of the ‘Lockdown Star’ venue by the Critics’ Circle.
We are passionate about the future of livestream classical concerts, which came to prominence in the pandemic in June 2020, when they were the only means of providing performing opportunities and income for musicians. At the time they were presumed to be a temporary pandemic phenomenon, but they have now become established as an important new way of enjoying concerts. There is a huge swathe of the population who cannot travel to attend concerts, because they are variously elderly, disabled, have family commitments, live far away from a concert venue, cannot afford the cost of the ticket and travel, or cannot face an unpleasant journey, particularly in adverse weather. The convenience of being able to enjoy the concert in the comfort of one’s home, particularly via a smart TV, for little or no expense, is obviously attractive, particularly with the current pressures on living costs. While the livestream is not a complete substitute for the ‘real thing’, it is a different and valid option for many concertgoers. It is admittedly difficult to obtain emotional involvement in a concert when sitting alone at home, but this can be partially resolved by participating in ‘live-chats’, sharing opinions with other viewers, leading to the formation of on-line communities enjoying concerts together. The frisson of a ‘live’ event is important, providing an authentic ‘feel’ compared with watching old performances on YouTube.
We have now developed a ‘hybrid’ concert model, catering for two separate audiences simultaneously. We have a small cohort of 20 to 60 local music-lovers in the church, and perhaps ten times as many viewers watching the broadcast on YouTube or Vimeo, either concurrently (about 50) or in the following few days (about 250 to 500 viewers, and sometimes more). This arrangement works well for us, and we intend to continue it indefinitely. The audience in the church provides the ambience and applause, and their donations usually cover the musicians’ fees. The latter gain vital exposure from the viewing of their performances throughout the world – so far in over 50 countries. All concerts remain freely available to view for 3 weeks after a concert, and most are retained permanently. However, we receive disappointingly few donations from our virtual audience, with perhaps 2 to 5 using our PayPal Donate facility from several hundred viewers. This lack of financial support for broadcasts has been noted elsewhere, and is probably why so few other venues now livestream their concerts. Everyone has become accustomed to free entertainment on the internet. Nevertheless, we will continue to provide this important service to our musicians. We can afford to do so, because we are unpaid volunteers and have no salaries to cover, and we have no hire charges for the church, and are thus in a much better position to provide this facility than other organizations.
We specialize in solo piano recitals, making use of the large pool of exceptional pianists currently living around London, and these provide performing experience for about 65 carefully selected musicians per year. Most of the best young pianists in the UK play regularly at Perivale. We also have ‘blockbuster’ piano festivals, devoted in the past 13 months to all the Beethoven and Mozart piano sonatas, and most recently all the important Chopin piano works, and we have forthcoming talks by Julian Jacobson, Pascal Nemirovksi, John Humphreys and Peter Frankl, following on from lectures by Christopher Elton, Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Vanessa Latarche, Murray McLachlan and Norma Fisher. Our performer database has details of over 150 pianists, and it is difficult to accommodate them all, but we try to be as fair as possible.
Our residual problem is that of publicity. The broadcasts only receive a fraction of the number of viewers watching some international piano competitions. It is difficult breaking into the dominance enjoyed by larger publicly funded organizations in Central London, but we will persevere and hope to attract more viewers to our high-quality concert schedule. Perhaps the award from the Critics’ Circle might increase our profile. We are dedicated to promoting the careers of the best young musicians. Do please help to spread the word.
A retired physician, Hugh Mather is a pianist and organist who organises c160 concerts per year at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Concerts are free to attend with all donations going to support the artists.
THE SOUNDS OF CHRISTMAS IN OUR HISTORIC CHURCHES
1st December 2022, 7-8.30pm,
All Hallows by the Tower, London EC3R 5BJ
Narrator: Zeb Soanes
Presented by the Royal School of Church Music & the Churches Conservation Trust
Following a successful partnership for the virtual event The Big Christmas Carol Service (winter 2020), the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) and the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) are once again teaming up to host another unique and exciting collaboration, showcasing the continued importance of church buildings, engaging in the history of congregational singing, and exploring the living tradition of carols.
Christmas Past, Present, and Future: The Sounds of Christmas in our Historic Churches will explore the nature of traditional and modern carols and their symbolism within our churches in a unique narrative combining words, live choral music, and participative song. Classic FM presenter, concert host and author Zeb Soanes will bring to life the tale of these intertwined histories. Tickets for the live event on the 1 December cost £25 per person and include the festive concert, drinks reception, and a mince pie
About the event, Zeb Soanes says:
“I am hugely looking forward to this festive concert on the very first day of December, taking the spirit of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ to discover how the celebration of the Nativity has changed through time.
It is a real pleasure to work with both RSCM and CCT. Having grown up in Suffolk and Norfolk, the counties with the most churches in the UK, I am well aware of the vital work these charities undertake in preserving both the fabric of these historic treasures and filling them with musical and spiritual breath.”
Hugh Morris, Director of RSCM, says
“It is really exciting to be offering a completely fresh take on a Christmas Concert. Beautiful words and beautiful music combine to enable us to look at Christmas past, present and future; and to celebrate how both RSCM and CCT are part of a living heritage, supporting churches, communities, and worship.”
Churches, by design, provide the perfect setting for music of every kind both acoustically and aesthetically. However, if you were to visit a church on Christmas Day 1644, you would have heard, at best, some verses from Psalms, chanted first by the clerk, and then raggedly repeated by the congregation. Since then, it is clear to see a great passion for worshiping through song emerging in a way that is both reflective of the political and social setting of the time. From slight tuneful murmurings during the Reformation to theatrical styles of worship in the Victorian era, to the inspirational carols we know and love today. During this unique, interactive, event, Zeb will explore what we may come to expect from carols in the future by reflecting on their journey over the past 400 years.
In addition to filling the oldest church in the City of London with festive sounds, a digital recording of the event will also be made available, providing those who are unable to join in person or those who simply wish to relive the evening with the opportunity to listen, learn, and enjoy the event online from 14 December at 7pm at the very reasonable price of £5. All sale proceeds will be split evenly between CCT and RSCM to contribute to each charity’s important work.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I don’t think I could have pursued a career in anything other than the creative arts to be honest. I was encouraged to become a musician as it was seen as a more secure career choice than pursuing my love of dance! My A level teacher, Patrick Larley, was my greatest influence and my piano teacher, John Gough, also improved my technical playing and enabled performance opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I’ve been very lucky in my life and career, but not having a job that offers me financial security is my biggest frustration
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Working with Corra Sound, Harlequin Chamber Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 1 week before lockdown in 2020. I also loved the experience of winning Choir of the Year in 2000 with Choros Amici on the RAH stage. And being a part of the Rodolphus Parry Songs of Farewell recording. I suppose my two concerti as a piano soloist should also be up there too!
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
Corra Sound performed part of Ruth Gipps’ ‘Goblin Market’ with the RPO and I would like to pursue a recording of the full work some time soon. Her work demands more exposure. We have also just done a Music for Mothers concert series which suited us really well where we highlighted works by Sarah Quartel, Don MacDonald and Maya Angelou.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Corra Sound are mostly working mothers so we have a close empathetic bond where it comes to balancing our musical work with motherhood. Our collective passion for performance is powerfully released on stage because we have mulitple plates spinning in other areas of our lives, so this is where we can finally shine and show our creative flair.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Usually through creative and collaborative discussions both within the ensemble and with external professional colleagues. The internet, of course, then provides much inspiration and connection when a creative thread appears.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
St Mary’s, Guildford has seen us perform there twice, including last year’s Christmas concert with Emma Johnson. The venue size and acoustic suits us well. We are accustomed to intimate venues such as the drawing room at Bracknell’s South Hill Park Arts Centre but also larger venues such as St Martin’s Church, Worcester, for last year’s Elgar Festival or Romsey Abbey, Hampshire for this year’s Ethelflaeda Festival.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
More dynamic approaches to how diverse and creative concerts can be. Family events, more interaction between performers and audience, breaking down barriers to inclusion and broadening the concept and expectations of what performances can be.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Feeling satisfied and fulfilled with musical outcomes in serving the ongoing needs of my choirs and our audiences. Having productive and happy musical relationships with colleagues all over the world. Having compositions published or bought also feels pretty successful!
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
I am often asked for advice on tricky situations within choirs and feel well placed and experienced enough to offer support and guidance on most of these topics now! Issues are usually around personality dynamics, committees and value for money! Sometimes it’s hard to be bold when you’re a young sole trader.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
How crucial and valuable the arts are (for all people to have access to and engage in) and how they need to be financially supported and secure. In South Korea it’s the Arts that bring in money and exposure, which in turn raises the profile of other large businesses and corporations such as Kia and Samsung. The UK government is massively short-sighted in how its treats, values and promotes its artists. And it’s looking more grim by the day in light of new ACE cuts.
What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
Alive, happy, travelling and free
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Autumn dog walks in the woods.
Amy Bebbington directs Corra Sound in their Christmas concert on 3 December, in a programme highlighting the power of female creatives, featuring glorious and rarely-heard music written for upper voices and harp by composers from Britain, Norway and Canada. Information and tickets
Graduating with First Class Honours and a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance (UK), Amy went on to be awarded a Doctor of Musical Arts, specialising in Choral Conducting, from Texas Tech University (USA). She is the Director of Training for the Association of British Choral Directors, an organisation that sits at the forefront of choral conductor training in the UK. She oversees and tutors on their extended courses, sits on its advisory council, was the Artistic Director of its festival in Winchester (2016) and established its notable webinar series.
Amy is a co-founder of the inaugural London International Choral Conducting Competition, and sat on the jury of its inaugural event, which took place in 2018. She is also a co-founder of Wavelength, an organisation designed to celebrate and serve women in all areas of choral leadership. Amy is proud to have recently become a founding member and the UK Ambassador of the International Choral Conducting Federation (ICCF). Amy has taught choral conducting for The University of Cambridge, Sing Ireland, The Sherborne International Summer School, The Royal College of Organists, the Military Wives’ Choral Association, the ISM and the Hallé Youth Choir. She has successfully established her own Choral Conducting Masterclass Series and has recently launched a brand new online Choral Leadership and Pedagogy course (CLP). Amy has worked closely with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain as Course Director, Musicianship Tutor and Guest Tutor.
Amy has performed in award-winning choirs and has choral works published by Banks Music Publications and Multitude of Voyces. She has had the pleasure of adjudicating for both the Derry and Cork International Choral Festivals, Choir of the Year, Music for Youth National Festival and the Cheltenham Music Festival, among many others. As a teacher trainer/animateur, she has worked for Trinity/Open University, Glyndebourne Education, Sing for Pleasure, Youth Music and Music of Life.
Amy is in great demand as a choral clinician, mentor and teacher, and is currently Musical Director for Harlequin Chamber Choir, Corra Sound, Holmbury Choral Society, Nota Bene and the Sir William Perkins’s School Chamber Choir.
The exceptionally gifted British composer William Baines died 100 years ago on 6 November 1922; he was just 23, yet he left behind a remarkably large body of work, which is celebrated in this new release from pianist Duncan Honeybourne, a long-time champion of Baines’ music.
Born in Horbury near Wakefield, Yorkshire, William Baines came from a musical family (his father was a cinema pianist and organist at a Primitive Methodist Chapel). He took piano lessons from a young age and also studied at the Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds, though his later compositional style was largely self-taught. At the age of 18, in the final months of the First World War, Baines was called up for military service and was sent to Blandford Camp, Dorset, for training. Within weeks he feel ill with septic poisoning and remained in fragile health after discharge from the military until his death in 1922. After the War, Baines set to composing, producing around 150 works by the time of his death, many of which were piano miniatures.
When a composer, such as Schubert or Mozart, or indeed William Baines, dies young it always begs the question “what might they have gone on to write”? There are certainly some intriguing hints throughout this generous disc.
Baines described himself as “like Debussy” and while some of his music is certainly impressionistic in style – in particular the Pictures of Light suite and the atmospheric diptych Tides, which evokes the coast and sea of his native Yorkshire – there are also unexpected and daring modernist idioms, unsettled harmonies and conflicting textures redolent of Scriabin, Ravel and Prokofiev (Baines’ Eight Preludes were written at the same time as Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives). Some of the pieces on this disc share that particularly English romantic/pastoral soundworld of Delius and Ireland, yet everything is distinctly Baines.
The album includes first recordings of Eight Preludes – Set 2, and Pictures of Light, together with Baines’ most well known works, Tides and Paradise Gardens. The album also includes a suite of five songs for tenor and piano, sensitively and emotionally sung by Gordon Pullin – also a first recording. At the Grave of William Baines is a substantial piece for piano written by Robin Walker, a fellow Yorkshireman who as a boy lived near to the house in York where Baines lived and died, and whose music also draws inspiration from the natural world and local landscapes. His tribute is surprisingly muscular, playful, and rather exotic, replete with hints of Baines, and imaginatively shaped by Honeybourne.
Duncan Honeybourne is very much at home in Baines’ picturesque, atmospheric music. He is ever alert to the ecstatic climaxes and sweeping, Lisztian romanticism, bringing supple, flexible tempi and subtle rubato to passages which feel almost improvisatory. And then there is a glittering clarity and multi-layered textures coupled with a gorgeously warm, yet transparent piano sound.
This album is a wonderful introduction to the imagination, originality and genius of William Baines, brilliantly illuminated by Duncan Honeybourne’s compelling performance.
Pictures of Light is available on the Divine Art label and also on Spotify