If you are naked at the piano, whether literally or metaphorically, there is nowhere to hide, and you must do everything in your power to distract the audience from your “nakedness”. (Those of us who perform, and who suffer from the anxiety of performance, may well have had the dream/nightmare where we are in a performance situation without the protective carapace of clothes.), So, do you run screaming from the stage, or do you face up to the challenge?

Playing “naked” means:

  • Stripping away inhibitions, over-interpretation, unnecessary gestures, and pretensions
  • Giving yourself up to the music
  • Playing with heart and soul
  • Believing completely in what you do
  • Fearless and focussed performance
  • Playing “for the love of music” (Rostropovich), with a vibrant sound and charismatic rhythm which radiates authority and emotion
  • Precise execution from well-honed technique
  • Crafting confidence and developing a positive response to stress
  • Finding meaning, desire and depth in your performance

Today has been spent watching others play and being taught. Chets operates an “open door” policy which means you can go and observe other people’s lessons and attend workshops with any of the teaching faculty. From a teaching point of view, watching others being taught is highly informative; equally, as a player one gains useful insights from a teacher working with another student, and workshops/masterclasses like this are also a great way of discovering new repertoire. So, this morning I sat in on a workshop led by pianist and teacher Graham Caskie at which students played works by Liszt and Bach. While looking at the Aria and First Variation from Bach’s Goldbergs, we had an interesting discussion about reverence in music and how certain works are afforded a special elevated status (this is certainly true of the Goldbergs) which can make it harder for us to play them because we feel they must be treated in a particular way, when in fact we should simply take ownership of the music and make it ours. Graham also talked about breathing – both physical and metaphorical – in music. I enjoyed his commentary and advice to the students and found him a very thoughtful and considerate teacher.

After lunch I attended the daily Adult Amateur workshop. This runs every day for 2 hours and is led by Kathryn Page and Philip Fowke (whom I had hoped to see in action but he was rehearsing for the evening’s concerto concert). The Adult Amateur workshops give pianists of all levels an opportunity to play to an audience and receive feedback from the teacher. Kathryn is an enthusiastic, positive and highly supportive teacher who was able to give each participant some very useful nuggets of information with which to work when practising. There were some lovely performances of music by Janacek, Beethoven, Turina, Bach, and Sibelius. Once again, people’s love of the piano and its literature was really palpable.

Tonight’s concerts are all about concertos – four concertos in fact with pianists Seta Tanyel (Addinsell/Warsaw Concerto), Leslie Howard (Tchaikovsky 2), Dina Parakhina (Rachmaninoff/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) and Philip Fowke (Grieg Concerto in A). It promises to be a splendid evening and an excellent way to end my weekend at Chets.

The second evening of concerts at Chetham’s featured musicians of the next generation and an established international concert artist.

The Ronald Stevenson Memorial recital is given in honour of one of the greatest composer-pianists of modern times, and was established in 2015 with generous funds donated by the Stevenson Society. Stevenson, who died in 2015, was a visitor to the Chetham’s Summer School. He wrote highly attractive, virtuosic and engaging music inspired by the landscape, heritage and culture of Scotland where he made his home. His large and varied post-Romantic oeuvre also includes music written for children, which is sophisticated and characterful.

In this concert, students from Chetham’s School of Music performed works by Stevenson, including his Scottish Folk Song Settings for Piano and the quirky Six Pensees sur des Preludes de Chopin, Stevenson’s clever combining of Preludes by Chopin to create miniatures which are witty and imaginative. It was wonderful to see young people, one as young as 9, performing with such poise and confidence. In addition, their individual sound and range of pianistic colours and moods was impressive, and this concert was both a celebration of Stevenson’s genius and these young musicians.

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Leon McCawley’s concert was one of those occasions where the reviewer’s role is rendered largely redundant! What can I say about a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K279 whose outer movements sparkled with wit and good humour, contrasting with an Andante of understated operatic drama and elegance? Or Richter’s favourite Schubert Sonata, the genial D894, performed with such taste, clarity and sensitivity that we never lost sight of the overall arc of this long sonata. So many little details – of melody, rhythm and harmony – were deftly managed to create a compelling and fluent musical narrative that was expansive yet also highly intimate. McCawley caught Schubert’s fleeting moods, his unexpected volte-faces (often signalled by “distant” harmonies or rests), with lyricism and grace.

Double-bassist and director of Classical Evolution, Heather Bird shares her mixtape of music which reminds her of childhood musical encounters, teenage hearthrobs, student music making, living and working in Spain and performing at the Proms for the first time…….

Brandenburgs – apparently when I was a baby my dad would put the headphones from his big wooden stereo on me and play this. I’d sit there for hours and yell the place down if they took the headphones off before the end of a phrase. Strange kid….My grandma bought me a penny whistle when I was 18 months and I worked out bits of 3 and 5 on it.

Dvorak- my mum’s favourite piece and she adored Du Pré. She died when I was 12 and was so supportive of my flute playing. She wanted me to take up the cello as well as the flute. Bass is an improvement on that I suppose! Still can’t listen to this without crying.

Mahler 2. Mum took me to see the Hallé playing this when I was 4. The bit where the flutes go mad in the last movement is the reason I took up the flute.

Save All Your Kisses For Me. I had the best grandma in the world. She was a school cook in Liverpool. I would phone her every day from when I was 6 and we would sing this down the phone to each other.

So What – first heard this when I was about 10 and completely fell in love. Would improvise over the kind of blue album for hours on my flute. Have lost count of how many copies of this album I’ve bought.

Lloyd Cole. My first love. Several ex-boyfriends bear a striking resemblance….

Sueños de autostop!! I lived near Cádiz for three years and played in a band with some Argentinian guys. They introduced me to this band Me Daras Mil Hijos which translates as “I’ll give you 1000 sons. Optimistic. This reminds me of me, my kid and my band driving down the Costa de la Luz to gigs in Sevilla and Granada singing along to this. Very happy time of my life and amazing musically to work with these incredible musicians.

Nielsen 5. I got put in Symphony Orchestra at the RNCM in my first week. We did Nielsen 5 and toured it to Denmark and Sweden. It was my first real taste of top class playing. I was thinking about leaving the RNCM for various reasons and this made me stay. I also accidentally offered the queen of Denmark a free pint of carlsberg accidentally in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.

Stone Roses. This album was the theme tune to my late teens.
Took my son to see them a couple of years ago and he said that I was mum dancing. How time flies…..
Brahms. Played my first prom back after a break to be a parent with the OAE under Marin Alsop. It was stunning and working with her was an immense privilege. It was great to get back to that level after the parent break as you always wonder in the back of your mind if you will get to that point again. It was a wonderful gig and the OAE are definitely my favourite orchestra to work with. I felt very lucky that night.
 

 

To submit your Mixtape, click here

Another full day at Chets and a late night! My second day at Chets has been all about conversations with pianists – and specifically adult amateur pianists. Get people talking about why they are here and the personal stories come flooding out: people who learnt the piano as children but gave up and are now rediscovering the joys of the piano; people who have played all their life and who crave serious critique of their playing from the pianist-teachers who comprise the faculty at the summer school; people who had the professional training in conservatoire but who have chosen a different path, but who still play the piano with dedication and commitment and whose practising is informed by the formal training they had. What is most evident – and most inspiring – is the pure passion of the adult amateur pianist. “We do it because we love it” is the mantra of today and to spend time with so many like-minded people is stimulating, encouraging and humbling. It also makes you realise that you are not alone. Those of us whose partners may not understand our passion (despite having an equivalent passion/obsession – in my case my husband’s passion for cycling) find common ground and kindred spirits amongst others on this course and the chance to speak openly about our passion – be it the repertoire, practising, performing or going to concerts – is refreshing and supportive.

In addition, I have observed some teaching, attended a CD launch (piano music by John McLeod) and two fine concerts, including one by students at Chetham’s School (reviews will be posted separately), and forged new friendships. I’ve talked with others about playing, learning, teaching and teachers, other piano courses, and what makes us, as pianists, really tick. Conversations have ranged from childhood experiences of piano lessons, teachers and pianists we admire, memorable concerts to Brexit, Trump, and much more…. A demonstration, perhaps, of the range of people here and the myriad personalities and views one might encounter…..

It’s late and tomorrow is my last day here and I intend to make the most of it

My first evening at Chetham’s International Summer School ad Festival for Pianists – or Chets – as it is affectionately called, offered me the opportunity not only to meet piano friends, make new connections and experience the unique Chets vibe, but also to enjoy three fine recitals by professional pianists, who are all members of the teaching faculty at this year’s summer school.

Canadian pianists Megumi Masaki is a keen advocate of contemporary and new piano music, with a specialisation in exploring interactions between sound, image and movement. Her concert featured three works which used electronics and live video art to create a unique audio-visual and multi-sensory experience. Two works, ‘Corona’ and ‘Touch’, by Canadian composer Keith Hamel opened and closed the recital. Both utilise electronics, gesture tracking, interactive visuals and interactive computer processing and the live electronics and visuals react to one another so that each performance is unique. ‘Corona’ depends on the sound of the piano to create the visuals (an abstract sequence of shapes suggesting the planets) and because the video is generated by the piano and is completely interactive, each performance is unique. Musically, this piece had shimmering filigree passages redolent of Debussy and the processional quality of John Adams’ ‘China Gates’, but the additional layers of sound created by the electronics created mesmerising almost orchestral textures. Throughout, Megumi’s clarity and precision of touch and musical sense was clear, making this piece atmospheric and uplifting.

Keith Hamel’s ‘Touch’ utilised similar technology, with the addition of balletic gestures by the pianist to create wondrous shimmers of sound. The work is inspired by bells and all the harmonic material is derived from the analysis of bells and change-ringing patterns. Once again, the piano sound combined with the electronics offered beautiful haloes and extraordinary layers of sound.

These two works book-ended another piece by a Canadian composer. Douglas FINCH’s ‘Epiphanies’ is inspired by the short stories of Alice Munro in which a character has a moment of sudden inspiration or revelation which happens at unexpected times in the narrative. Compared to Keith Hamel’s pieces, this suite of four movements had a spare elegance and understated grace, and the interplay between piano and words, with live interactive visuals by artist Sigi Torinus, was engaging and at times unsettling, almost portentous.

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The second concert of the evening gave me my first experience of Stoller Hall, Chetham’s new multi-million pound concert venue. It’s a really beautiful contemporary shoebox hall, light and airy and finished with pale wood and stone, with an impressive acoustic. This was the setting for Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Neckleberg’s performance of Bach’s remarkable Goldberg Variations – one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and an epic journey for player and audience. This was a highly personal and romantic account, with each movement shaped to highlight its individual character. This had the effect of suggesting each movement was a stand-alone work in its own right, and was particularly effective in the G-minor variations, especially the last one, which had a poignant intimacy. When the Aria returned, it was as if it came from another place, yet was wholly familiar.

***

The final concert of the evening given by Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch in repertoire for two pianos. I have heard this piano duo before and I was once impressed by their pitch perfect timing and precision and musical understanding, so much so that one forgets there are two pianists playing as the music is given absolute priority. Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 was lush, liquid and transparent, with elegant natural phrasing and a wonderful sense of ease, which I am sure comes from deep familiarity with the work and a special synergy between the two pianists. The second work was by the little known English composer Arnold Griller (look out for a new disc of his music on the Toccata Classics label for which Douglas Finch wrote the liner notes). His ‘Introduction, Cakewalk and Allegro’ opened with a rather sensuous section, redolent of 1920s cocktail jazz, before lively sections with rhythms reminiscent of ragtime and shifting moods, at times witty, then serious. It was vibrant and colourful and handled with understated panache by the performers. The final work, ‘Hapsburg Burlesques’ by Douglas Finch, was written at the time of the Brexit referendum and includes quotations and transcriptions of Rosenkavalier, Mahagonny, When You Wish Upon a Star, Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet, and even the British National Anthem. With its intricate weaving of recognisable themes and rather decadent character, this work was both stylish and slightly surreal, but without any sense of irony or pastiche. For an encore, Bobby and Douglas performed Rossignols, written as a wedding dedication, and based on Granados’ The Maiden and the Nightingale, from Goyescas, a delicate, intimate miniature.