Music into Words February 2017 event

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The second Music into Words live event took place at Morley College, London, on Sunday 12th February 2017. This event built on the success and popularity of the project’s launch event, held last year in Senate House, UCL. This year we had two panels of speakers covering a wide range of subjects from engaging audiences through well-written programme notes and pre-concert presentations (Katy Hamilton) to how we “curate” sound (Kate Romano), the use of jargon in academic writing (Ian Pace) and why music critics and reviewers seem to take a rather London-centric/celebrity approach to reviewing concerts (Tom Hammond). With lively panel and audience discussions, sensitively chaired by Simon Brackenborough, the event proved stimulating and thought-provoking. It was also a chance to connect with people whom I and other participants had previously only “met” online. We were also delighted to have concert pianist Peter Donohoe as our special guest, together with Neil Fisher, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times, who both made insightful and intelligent comments about the responsibilities of reviewers and music critics, and the difficulties of deciding which concerts should be covered in the mainstream press.

To appreciate the wide range of discussion that took place at the event, and the parallel online discussion via Twitter, please see this Storify compilation

My friend and blogging colleague (we met via the blogosphere and Twitter!) Adrian Ainsworth, who blogs as Specs, has put the text of the very engaging talk about being a blogger which he gave at the event on his own site – you can read it here

Meanwhile, I would like to thank all the panellists – Adrian, Tom, Katy, Leah Broad, Kate, Ian, Neil and Peter – for their very interesting and varied contributions to the event. Plans are already underway for a future event and the organisers welcome suggestions for speakers and subjects to be covered.

Visit the Music into Words website

Follow Music into Words on Twitter

Find Music into Words on Facebook

Music Into Words was created by a quartet of writers and bloggers and aims to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.

” a fantastic panel…a brilliant agenda, raising really vital issues”

– Tom Service (BBC Radio 3 & The Guardian)

Meet the Artist……Richard Barnard, composer

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

Probably many things. I remember sitting at home at the piano, playing (I use the term loosely) Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, trying to work out how the hell he did it. Also my parents, teachers at sixth form and university: Martin Read, Michael Zev Gordon, Vic Hoyland and then Diana Burrell at GSMD.

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

Unfavourably comparing myself to other composers and artists. It’s so easy to descend into a Facebook-style Scroll of Shame where every successful and sparkly new thing makes you panic and think ‘I should be doing that!’ It is challenging to learn how to be influenced by other people’s ideas and techniques without feeling you have to follow their path.

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

First of all, commissions are fantastic. Everyone should commission composers AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE! Pieces often take ages to write and there won’t be much decent new music that defines and enriches our time and culture if people don’t commission it.

It is also incredibly motivating to have that deadline and the vision of a future audience at the first performance anticipating your new work.

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

I write for a variety of people and situations, from professional singers and ensembles to school or community groups who have to learn things quickly and have fun doing so. Learning what works in what context is a tough skill. It takes a long time to master. I love writing for voice and I’ve been working a lot with solo singers recently. It’s great to have their voice in your head as you write and to think about the shape of the text, the breathing, the pacing and the drama of it.

Of which works are you most proud? My two recently commissioned song cycles, ‘Woolf Letters’ and ‘Early Stroll Songs’, which set Virginia Woolf’s letters to her sister and Ian McMillan’s Early Stroll tweets. I’m also very proud to have produced three performances of my opera ‘The Hidden Valley’ at St George’s Bristol this year, working with an incredible team of artists – I did, however, need a very long lie down in a darkened room afterwards.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I like to think it’s an English sound, rooted in nature, often starting from melody and the voice.

How do you work?

I work best early. I have a lot of ideas doing other activities (gardening, showering etc.) as it gives space and time for the brain to process ideas. When I was writing ‘Early Stroll Songs’ I got into a routine of starting composing first thing (6.30-ish) for a few hours: At the keyboard, with pencil, Manuscript paper, black tea. I could usually complete 1 short song each day or two. My wife often acts as an editor, offering a second pair of ears to help me hear the music from an audience’s perspective. Later in the day, if not teaching, I would do computer / admin-type work: Typesetting, emails, checking twitter too much, grappling with a labyrinthine funding application etc.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Starting out, my heroes were Bach, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Britten and Steve Reich, but I’ve recently been more drawn to the vocal music of Purcell and Handel, Mozart’s Symphonies, Schubert’s song cycles and the music of David Lang and Laurence Crane. I’m always interested in opera composers and I enjoyed Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds at ENO and Fairy Queen at Iford recently.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was 16 or 17, I went to a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Southampton. We sat right at the back. After the concert, walking out into the car park, I couldn’t speak. It was such a visceral experience.

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

Listen to and interrogate lots of good music. Like what you write. Befriend performers. Don’t follow advice too much.

Richard Barnard is a composer based in Bristol. He studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and University of Birmingham. He has written operas, song cycles and choral works for Welsh National Opera, Opera North, BBC Singers, Bristol Ensemble, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Siân Cameron and others. He has composed music for dance and theatre, and his chamber pieces have been performed internationally by groups including Delta Saxophone Ensemble, Juice Vocal Ensemble and Kungsbacka Trio.

Richard curated the acclaimed new music series Elektrostatic at Bristol’s Colston Hall and Arnolfini for five years. He has taught orchestration and composition at University of Bristol and is one of the UK’s foremost composition workshop leaders, working with WNO, CBSO, London Sinfonietta, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Philharmonia Orchestra and Eighth Blackbird.

Richard Barnard on YouTube

Twitter@richardmbarnard

richardbarnard.com

5 common misconceptions about pianists and piano lessons

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore

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“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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Piano All-Nighter – a nocturnal pianothon

Featuring……

Gergely Bogányi | Simon Callow | Alistair McGowan | Peter Donohoe | Mark Bebbington | Dr Anna Scott | Mystery Guest and many more

Olympianist Anthony Hewitt cycles through the night, live-streamed to the foyer

Tickets from £1!

Friday 3 March, 7.30pm – Saturday 4 March, 7.30am

Town Hall Birmingham

Inspired by the all-night jazz sessions at Birmingham’s Town Hall in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham Conservatoire has put together a nocturnal pianothon of epic proportions featuring some of today’s greatest pianists, superb guest artists and supremely talented students.

The 12-hour through-the-night voyage of discovery takes place at Town Hall Birmingham on Friday 3 March, from 7.30pm and features over twenty pianists including guest artists Gergely Bogányi, Simon Callow, Alistair McGowan, Peter Donohoe, Mark Bebbington and Dr Anna Scott. A mystery guest of international stature plays Beethoven’s last three sonatas, and The Olympianist, Anthony Hewitt, cycles through the night from his London home (with pictures screened live in the foyer), to arrive at dawn and play Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. As Anthony Hewitt says, “Playing Ravel’s wonderfully descriptive Gaspard de la nuit poses pianistic challenges at the best of times, let alone at 7am after having cycled 125 miles through the winter night!! But I think I can do it, with the right ‘cyclogical’ approach!”

The evening begins with the award-winning Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi playing the complete Chopin Nocturnes and other highlights include Beethoven’s three last piano sonatas performed by the Mystery Guest, Messiaen’s The Garden Warbler from Peter Donohoe and John Ireland’s Sarnia from Mark Bebbington. Impressionist and amateur pianist Alistair McGowan – whose rekindled love of the piano is an inspiration for anyone who learned as a youngster to start playing again – will play music by Satie and Grieg. In the early hours, celebrated actor Simon Callow gives a rare performance of Tennyson’s epic narrative poem Enoch Arden, in a setting for narrator and piano by Richard Strauss, with pianist John Thwaites. Dr Anna Scott takes a look at ‘Brahms as he might have heard it’, student Nafis Umerkulova plays Schumann’s First Piano Sonata on a historic instrument made by Clara Schumann’s cousin W Wieck, and prize-winning pianists and tutors from the Conservatoire’s own ranks are showcased throughout.

Head of Keyboard Studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, John Thwaites says, “I wanted to put together something that was shocking in its audacity, youthful in its exuberance and, in its totality, offering the finest night of piano playing anywhere on the planet this year! The inspiration for an All-Nighter comes from the Swinging Sixties, when Birmingham Town Hall regularly hosted All-Night Jazz Festival gigs, pictures of which still adorn the lower bar. These sessions were filled with young people and students and, to encourage them, tickets for our All-Nighter start at just £1.”

This unique event will have three Steinway concert grands, period pianos and harpsichords. Bar and catering all night!

The Piano All-Nighter is at Town Hall Birmingham on Friday 3 March, 7.30pm until Saturday 4 March, 7.30am. For further information and details of how to book, visit www.bcu.ac.uk/concerts

***

John Thwaites selects some highlights:

Piano-playing means Chopin and all-nighters need Nocturnes. The complete Chopin Nocturnes are played by Gergely Bogányi, winner of the 1996 Franz Liszt Competition in Budapest and one of the most exceptional pianists of our times.

Peter Donohoe gave the British Premiere of Messiaen’s La Fauvette des Jardins in 1977 having studied it with the composer and his wife in their Montmartre apartment. The panoramic ‘day in the life’ of a garden warbler seemed fitting for this event and Peter is joined by his wife Elaine, who he met for the first time at that first performance.

Audiences are guaranteed to be knocked sideways when the Mystery Guest steps on stage to play Beethoven’s last three Sonatas.

In the early hours, we add poetry to the mix, welcoming the celebrated actor Simon Callow in a recitation of the Victorian melodrama Enoch Arden by Alfred Tennyson in a setting by Strauss for narrator and piano, with pianist John Thwaites. Callow’s lifelong passion for classical music has included producing opera and performing with orchestras around the world and makes him the perfect casting for this monumental work which has echoes of Robinson Crusoe and Ulysses. This is followed by the Birmingham premiere of Rzewski’s De Profundis (after Oscar Wilde) for speaking pianist.

Margaret Fingerhut, Daniel Browell, Pei-Chun Liao, Di Xiao, David Quigley, John Thwaites, Julian Jacobson also feature in this marathon – more pianists than can be heard anywhere on a single night!

Prize-winning pianists from the Conservatoire’s own ranks are showcased throughout, presenting some of the greatest masterpieces for the instrument.  Domonkos Csabay, who won the 2016 Brant International Piano Competition, plays Schubert’s last great Sonata in B flat D960. Lauren Zhang, a Birmingham Juniors student who won the 2016 Ettlingen International Competition for Young Pianists, plays a Transcendental Study by Lyapunov, and Róza Bene, who was joint winner of the 2016 Anthony Lewis Memorial Competition, plays Couperin.

Birmingham is increasingly a centre for historically-informed performance practice and in this context Dr Anna Scott will perform late Brahms as the composer himself might have heard it played. It’s more than a little thought-provoking, so prepare to be scandalised, and to further enjoy the playing of Gyorgy Hodozso, a Weingarten Scholar in Birmingham and Dr Scott’s latest prodigy. There’s also a chance to hear Schumann’s Piano Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor, played by Nafis Umerkulova on a piano made by Clara Schumann’s cousin, W Wieck.

Mark Bebbington is particularly celebrated for his interpretations of British music. He’ll play Sarnia by John Ireland, the British composer who has left the single greatest body of solo piano music.

Finally we welcome impressionist and amateur pianist Alistair McGowan whose rekindled love of the piano is an inspiration for anyone who learned as a youngster to start playing again. He’ll play Satie (a composer whose life and work he has studied in detail) and Grieg before introducing his good friend, ‘The Olympianist’ Anthony Hewitt, who will cycle through the night from his London home to play Ravel’s masterpiece of nocturnal virtuoso pianism Gaspard de la Nuit.

After that, only the magnificent organ of the Town Hall can provide a fitting close: Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous.

Piano All-Nighter is at Town Hall Birmingham on Friday 3 March, 7.30pm until Saturday 4 March, 7.30am. For further information and details of how to book, visit www.bcu.ac.uk/concerts

Source: press release

The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams

81qtgtkexyl-_sy355_Best known for his orchestral music and songs, Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) is not immediately associated with music for the piano (with the exception of the piano part of his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. But this new disc from SOMM demonstrates his skill and imagination when writing for this instrument.

Mark Bebbington, a champion of British piano music, is renowned for bringing lesser known or rarely-heard repertoire to light and this disc contains the first recording of the Introduction and Fugue for two pianos, written in 1947 and dedicated it to the famous two-piano team Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. It is a work of Bachian polyphony, carefully-crafted counterpoint, rich orchestral textures and echoes of Debussy and Ravel in some of the filigree passagework, as well as English folksong idioms. There are even hints of Messiaen in some of the harmonies.  It’s the most substantial work on the disc and is handled with precision and sensitive colouration by Bebbington and Omordia. Beautifully paced, it combines moments of exquisite delicacy contrasting with grand statements and dramatic interludes, in keeping with its Baroque model.

The other longer work on this disc is a transcription for two pianos of the ever-popular Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, arranged by Maurice Jacob and Vaughan Williams. In this version it has a spareness which allows interior details to come to the fore and is more intimate than its orchestral cousin. The sparser textures reveal the Renaissance harmonies more clearly, reminding us of the inspiration for this work.

The rest of the disc is occupied with short works, including the Fantasia on Greensleeves (also recorded for the first time), A Little Piano Book and the Suite of 6 Short Pieces, works for junior piano students, which although miniature in scale reveal so many of the attributes of RVW’s musical language and innate lyricism which make his work so enduring and popular. But these are not mere trifles: the slower movements are reflective, tinged with melancholy.

The opening track, The Lake in the Mountains, also written for Phyllis Sellick, proved to be RVW’s last work for solo piano. Haunting and mysterious, it is a piece of great charm and is thoroughly pianistic in its structure and serene character.

 

Complete Piano Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Lake in the Mountains for solo piano
Introduction and Fugue for two pianos *
‘Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’  JS Bach BVW 649 arr. Vaughan Williams for solo piano
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for two pianos (arranged by Maurice Jacobson and Vaughan Williams)
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) for solo piano
Fantasia on Greensleeves – Piano duet —  adapted from the Opera ‘Sir John in Love’ *
A Little Piano Book (solo piano)
Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano solo

Mark Bebbington solo piano
Mark Bebbington & Rebeca Omordia, two pianos/piano puet

* World Premiere Recordings

Comprehensive liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker

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Further information here

 

 

King’s College Chapel hosts 21 Pianos, played simultaneously……

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In what promises to be an unmissable event, King’s College Chapel will be hosting 21 pianos in one of its Chapel Lates concerts. The pianos, donated by Cambridge music shop Millers Music and worth more than £50,000, will then be gifted to local schools and institutions, who are being encouraged to apply to receive one of the instruments.

Taking place on Tuesday 21 February 2017 at 10.00pm, the Nocturne for 21 Pianos is a collaboration between composer and King’s College Fellow in Music Richard Causton, the Peterborough Centre for Young Musicians (PCYM), King’s College Musical Society and Millers Music.

A reworking of Chopin’s original Nocturnes, the concert will see 21 local young musicians play 21 pianos simultaneously. With the pianos arranged in a large circle in the Chapel, it will be both a visual spectacle and an aural extravaganza, with a previous performance reviewed by the Times as “…eerie, ethereal and enchanting.”

Richard said: “This is a unique event for King’s College Chapel and the sound and sight of 21 pianos in this wonderful space promises to be really memorable. As a child I studied at the Centre for Young Musicians, and I am very happy that pianists from the Peterborough and Saffron Walden branches of CYM will be joining forces with Cambridge University students for this very special performance. It’s a fantastic chance to play in such an awe-inspiring space.”

All 21 pianos have been provided by Millers Music, in celebration of its 160-year anniversary, and its Norwich-based sister store Cookes Pianos, for its 130-year anniversary.

After the event, Millers will gift the pianos to schools and institutions across East Anglia, based on applications received via its website www.millersmusic.co.uk/21pianos. Submissions are now open, and those who apply will need to state why they believe their institution would benefit from a piano.

Entries will be reviewed by a panel of judges, including Richard Causton and Millers managing director, Simon Pollard.

Simon said: “We’re thrilled to be collaborating with a prestigious university that celebrates music education. As the oldest music shop group in the UK, we are dedicated to encouraging more young people in the region to embrace music, and gifting these pianos to local institutions does just that.”

The 21 Piano Nocturne concert is part of the Chapel Lates concert series, which Richard also curates.

Attendees must arrive at 9.45pm for a 10pm start, with an estimated finish time of 10.50pm. Tickets are priced at £10 (concessions £5 and King’s members £2) and available to buy at http://shop.kings.cam.ac.uk/box-office-s/1514.htm and King’s College Visitors Centre from Wednesday 1 February.

Schools, community centres, churches and other education institutions in East Anglia are eligible to apply to receive a piano. The closing date for applications is Sunday 12 March. Delivery of the pianos will cost £150 + VAT and will take place in March.

Meet the Artist…… Olga Jegunova, pianist

© Gerard Uferas Olga Jegunova 12_02_15

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

My grandfather who had a natural musical talent and could not imagine his life without his violin. He was played it passionately at every family gathering. He also bought our piano. Later, my mother taught me how to play a C major scale. Since then, I am still learning how to play it….

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

Musically, it is J.S.Bach. He has always moved me, paralyzed any fear or disbelief. Later, recordings of great Rubinstein, Horowitz, Gilels, Gould, Richter, Michelangeli, Karajan, Callas, Oistrakh, Rostropovich. Then live concerts of Zacharias, Zimerman, Schiff, Argerich, Perahia, Maazel, Bartoli, Rattle and many others. They all form my musical taste and repertoire.

As per career, I should be influenced by the PR company of Lang Lang but sadly I am not!

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

To actually have a career.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Ibert – Le petit ane (avalable on YouTube) when I was 10 years old because it made my mum proud.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

4’33” by John Cage.

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

Concert promoters always want a Moonlight sonata but I try to spice it up with some Bach & Ligeti (this season).

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

There are so many of them. I am not so obsessed with venue what worries me is no audience, empty hall or just a few people with ringing mobile phones.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

It is great to share great music with good audience. Yet the most non-judgemental experience was when I was playing “Peter and the wolf” to the 5-year old kids.

I like to listen to all sorts of music, I have my Ramstein moments, yet I listen to a lot of classical music, often jazz and some good pop/rock.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Elvis

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My very first concert at the age of 5 or 6 – very scary but I loved the applause.

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

Being a musician is a life-long service. It is hard, non-profitable and lonely. But it is a very important input into people’s minds and hearts. It gives another dimension to our being. And without this dimension it would be too miserable and too technical.

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

At the piano, safe, warm and loved.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

See above.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being happily quiet.

Olga Jegunova’s disc ‘Poetic Piano Sonatas’ is available now

www.olgajegunova.com

(photo © Gerard Uferas)

Wigmore Hall – you are spoiling us!

The Wigmore Hall’s 2017/18 season has been announced, and in addition to a really splendid variety of chamber music and performers, piano fans can look forward to a fantastic line up of pianists including Sir Andras Schiff, Peter Donohoe, Imogen Cooper, Steven Osborne and Angela Hewitt, as well as young rising stars Daniil Trifonov and Pavel Kolesnikov, amongst many others. 

Sadly, there are only four women pianists in this impressive roster.

The full list is here: 

Reflections on turning 50

56167176-house-number-50I believe it was the pianist Claudio Arrau who said that passion intensifies with age, and I am sure this is the case when one hits a significant birthday, as I did last winter.

50 – it feels like a large number. It’s half a century, and for a while leading up to my Big Birthday, it felt very significant. Admittedly, I felt the same when approaching my 40th birthday – in fact, I felt worse because at that time I was going through a difficult period in my life, trying to find my identity after emerging from the fog of the early years of motherhood and feeling invisible to everyone but my child. But at 40 I returned to the piano seriously, with a passion, after a break of over 15 years, and I quickly realised I had been waiting for this creative impulse to awaken in me again. Repressed for the years while I was first working in London, moving house, getting married, starting a family, it now re-emerged with the maturity which comes from age and experience, and which has, over the last ten years, led me to fully immerse myself in music and writing, which is where I had always truly wanted to be.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be a professional musician (I also wanted to be a published writer….), but a dismissive comment by a school music teacher quickly scotched that desire. Looking back, he was probably being realistic, but the comment stung and has remained with me into adulthood, becoming the spur which urged me into the place where I am now, professionally (a piano teacher and writer on music). I’m neither a concert pianist nor a novelist, but I do perform, gaining satisfaction and pleasure from doing so, and this blog and my concert reviewing and other writing more than satisfies the writerly itch. Now, at 50, I am realistic about my capabilities, but I do not feel that the entry into my second half-century should be a time when I sit back and rest on my laurels.

The decade of my 40s was an interesting one. It was a time when I learnt that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration. It was also the decade during which I established an identity (and not just my writerly nom de plume), now that my son was growing more independent, and I could explore and re-explore the things that I cared about as a teenager and young adult (music, art, literature). Establishing this blog (in 2010) marked my decision to share my activities with others in a wider public forum, and it has led to many fascinating and inspiring encounters with wonderful musicians (via the Meet the Artist series) and forging new connections and friendships with fellow writers, bloggers, concert reviewers, teachers, amateur pianists and music lovers.

***

As a musician, maturity (in terms of years, rather than attitude) gives one perspective, the ability to take the long view, and not sweat the small stuff quite so much (because there is Big Stuff looming: old age and what that brings with it…). I think the “passion” Arrau speaks of comes from the realisation that one has a finite amount of time left, that one should seize the day and make the most of it. For me this has led to a greater sense of mindfulness about what I do, being fully “in the moment” when I play the piano (and indeed elsewhere in my life), trying to always look forward rather than going back over what has been, combined with a maturity of outlook which enables me to really appreciate what I have now.

Maturity can also bring confidence and the self-assuredness of knowing one has found one’s niche and metier. In my musical life, the single most significant and confident step I have taken as I’ve matured is that I’ve ceased constantly comparing myself to others (a toxic habit which can fuel resentment, jealously, and lack of self-esteem), and instead try to follow Schumann’s advice:

As you grow older converse more with scores than with virtuosi

As we mature, it is important to recognise the value of what we have to say, personally, as musicians and to measure that against the score, rather than other people’s perceptions, preconceptions or interpretations of the music. Thus the challenge becomes between oneself and the music, rather than constantly seeking or needing validation from peers, audiences or colleagues (though I do have a handful of trusted friends, colleagues and a teacher/mentor whose opinions I value and respect), and one appreciates that it is more important to gain approval from the works themselves by living with them and in them.

I have much to look forward to in the next decade (and beyond, I hope), with a number of personal projects on the horizon this year which will offer new challenges, both intellectually and musically. And, all things considered, 50 is just a number……

If you listen to one thing this week…..


Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture