Meet the Artist……Ian Pace, pianist

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

My parents bought a piano, at first just as a piece furniture, when I was aged 6, and (so I am told!) I asked them ‘When am I going to have lessons?’ They said ‘Oh, hadn’t thought about that’, but I went to lessons with the local piano teacher (in Hartlepool), Christopher Simmonds, who was great in many ways. Within a year he could see that I had the potential to go places, and I went to Chetham’s when I was 10.

But I got inspired to really go with it mostly through taking music out of my local library and bashing through it at the piano, as well as listening to lots of recordings. I bashed my way through the whole of the Ring cycle, and lots of other operas, and got absolutely hooked. And then at around age 10, I first heard music of Stockhausen, Cage and Messiaen, and was instantly transfixed (I also read the Richard Kostelanetz volume on Cage which was available then, in the late 1970s). I just found a world of the untethered imagination there which was unlike anything else I knew in life. I was equally interested in composing in those days, too. Nowadays, composing is very occasional, but I do have plans to do more at some point when time permits!

I was very inspired by listening to a few pianists at an early stage – Brendel, Barenboim (I still love Brendel in particular); later on I got to know a much wider range, and was transfixed by Horowitz, Cziffra, Rosenthal, Hofmann, Gieseking and various others. But listening to recordings of Furtwängler and Karajan conducting Beethoven, Wagner, Musorgsky, Strauss, and so on, was every bit as important.

I think I just naturally took to the piano as an instrument – I could do a lot on it without it being too difficult at an early stage, though it was later that I really refined all sorts of technical things.

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

Too many to mention! I would like to try and honestly say something about how humanistic and socialist values are the most important influences, right down to how I play music, but that might sound very loaded. In some sense which is very very important to me, I want as a musician to somehow expand, even if only a small amount, the range of experience, consciousness, thoughts, desires, feelings, ideas, available in the cultural realm, to as many people as possible. This is of course a huge ambition, only ever likely to be achievable with a relatively small few, but that is still valuable. I play, and play in what some would say is a relatively uncompromising manner, because I believe in humans, believe in listeners, believe in their potential. I despise elitism for its own sake, but equally despise dumbing-down, and those who claim to be on the left who think culture should be reduced to a lowest common denominator in the name of some pseudo-egalitarian notion of ‘accessibility’. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why a relatively average human being (if such a person exists!) could not engage with music of Lachenmann, or Ferneyhough, or Nono, or Finnissy – or late Bach, late Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman, or whoever – if they are open-minded and prepared to put a bit of effort in. I came to all this stuff for that reason – it certainly was not instilled in me through canonical education or anything like that. The same is true of the most advanced literature, film, theatre, painting or other artistic medium.

I am an academic and university lecturer as well as a pianist, teaching a range of musical areas, not just performance-related. I cannot express how rewarding it is to me when I read essays from students, many of whom have only had a relatively limited exposure to music and ideas thereof upon coming up to university, writing intelligent and incisive essays on musical subjects. I can be uncompromising as a teacher as well – I do not wish to provide pre-digested ideas to be parroted unthinkingly, nor to preach some credo in order to gain followers. There are unfortunately plenty in higher education today who primarily look to students for self-validation, rather than looking to bring out creative and critical thinking in students themselves and listen to what they have to say; and towards that former end some teach via spoon-feeding in a way that to which some will respond positively. I just want to expose students to a range of music and ideas that they might not otherwise have encountered (and, alas, in many cases still will not even after a university education), and let them arrive at their own conclusions, even if they are radically different to my own. And in some ways I feel the same way about giving a performance – I do not really feel any need or desire to win listeners round to my own perspective, I just offer it up for them to arrive at their own perspective.

To answer this question more directly, perhaps unsurprisingly I would say that the most important influence on my playing was my main piano teacher, György Sándor, with whom I studied in NYC in the early 1990s. I discovered his book On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound and Expression when I was about 18, and it completely transformed everything about how I play, at least in a physical sense. I knew then that this was who I wanted to study with, where I would find what I had not found with previous teachers. I had no teacher for the next four years as I prepared above all to study with Sándor, and I was not disappointed at all. He was also a tremendously generous, warm, human being, entirely void of any type of affected grandeur, preciousness, or anything like that. We disagreed violently about various things – he had no time for any atonal music, or much after Bartók, and also little time for historically-informed approaches to performance. I did and do disagree with him strongly on both those things, but still admired the coherence of his positions. As a teacher myself, I teach in a way based upon his pianistic methods, which I continue to believe are move valuable than any other systematic approach. Having spent a lot of time (not least in a scholarly context) studying other schools of playing, I see many of their limitations; some Russian schools preclude a pointed attack and to my mind rather restrict the range of articulations as a result, whilst some French schools (not all!) make a true legato impossible.

I could name any number of composers whose work has been an influence in one way or another, but that probably goes without saying; amongst performers, all of those mentioned above, and then very different ones including David Tudor, Frederic Rzewski, Andreas Staier, all sorts of singers, string players, conductors, and others, some pop and jazz musicians, lots of writers, film-makers, and so on. Overall – perhaps as a natural extrovert in some ways – I feel a natural empathy with all types of artists who I seem able to externalise somehow, and in whose work I find a type of honesty (a much maligned category, but which I continue to find meaningful – perhaps I might put it better by saying a quality of vulnerability?) rather than cynical calculation or preciousness. For those reasons I love the playing of Gieseking, or Charles Rosen, say, but have much less time for that of Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer or Samuel Feinberg.

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

There have been many. I like to think I am something of an idealist, though my ideals have changed or at least been modified over time (I’m 48 now, and think quite differently to how I did 20 years ago, say, though the underlying motivations are similar). I’ve always felt somewhat estranged from what I perceive as the rather precious and snobbish culture which surrounds classical music, and have sought approaches other from those which satisfy that culture’s concomitant expectations, but without this entailing musical compromise.

That has taken many forms, some of them hard-line to the point of belligerence, and sometimes led to some resistance. In some cases, deliberately avoiding a particular approach was interpreted by some as a simple inability to do it, which I don’t think was true, and I could get disappointed by this. I wouldn’t deny that I’m sensitive to criticism, though inwardly some of my own criticism can be as harsh – though not necessarily of the same nature – as that of anyone. Not that I expect everyone to like all I do (I don’t like everything I’ve ever done), by any means, but at least realise that this is a conscious choice rather than knowing no better. Towards the end of the 1990s, I moved towards more of an ‘anti-romantic’ position, with implications in terms of general approaches to articulation, voicing, pedalling, and so on (though with flexibility), at the same time becoming more deeply interested in historically-informed performance; in the mid-2000s I wanted to relax this more and more. Coming to terms with how one used to play, when things have changed, is not easy – and maybe my approach will change again?

Feeling truly at ease with concertising – at least as much as one can do (nerves never completely go away for me at least) – is not something I think I achieved regularly until the late 1990s, a little bit into my performing career. I made a lot of very significant technical adjustments when working with Sándor, and just sometimes, when very tense, I  found I might revert inadvertently to some of the bad old ways. In time, I came to see how this might come about, and which preventive steps to take in advance of a concert.

Overall, dealing with the internal politics of the profession, and some of the poison therein which exists, is very hard and wearing. The depths to which some people will sink shocks and upset me – for example when I heard one composer invent a story about another one’s father beating him up (definitively not true – that latter composer would have told me long before he told the other person) in order to portray him as mentally unstable. Certainly in the end the music we produce matters more than the musicians, but musicians are human beings, and it is far too easy to lose sight of this in the name of some elevated aesthetic ideals. Ultimately human interests do matter more than art.

In terms of academic music, I’m in many ways quite at odds with the dominant ideologies and approaches in a sizeable part of the Anglo-American world (perhaps less so with other schools from elsewhere). There is a good deal of musicology (though by no means all) which distrusts music and especially its particular quality of ambiguity, wanting instead to pin it down to firm, fixed meanings, or investigate anything except for the actual sounding music. And at the same time there is the strong presence of a market-based ideology, especially in the so-called ‘new musicology’, which is utterly dismissive of the idea that there could be any music with some degree of autonomy from commercialism, or that there could be any value in such a thing. As such, many academic musicians have put up little resistance to a lot of dumbing-down of wider education, not to mention cuts to public funding of classical music. Some will happily consign a good deal of Western art music to the dustbin when it seems fashionable to do so, and in the process deny a lot of students help with grappling with a repertoire which those academics themselves could take for granted (you can read more of my thoughts on some these subjects on pp. 28-29 of the following – http://www.sma.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/SMA_newsletter_2015.pdf ). In quite a bit of musicology, I see a bit of a cynical jostling for position, which privileges whatever are the ‘right’ conclusions in order to win favour with particular factions, as well as what are often quite simple arguments bathed jargon in order to impress. My models for academic writing (not ones I remotely think I could match!) are the likes of Charles Rosen, or Richard J. Evans – extremely clear and intelligent writers who convey complex ideas but have an ability to communicate to a wider public. At the same time, I do not accept what a ‘reductive’ view of music in terms of its social context; no music or other culture can probably be entirely autonomous of such a thing, but still, most fundamentally, I believe in the importance of culture which does more than simply reflect its conditions, but can reflect back critically upon them, in various ways, not least by offering up the possibility of other types of experience than those otherwise provided by its context. To deny that is really to deny creativity, I would say. This is an unfashionable view in academia today, but one which is vividly apparent to me coming first and foremost from the world of musical practice.

To make a more general point, one about which my thoughts have been influenced by regular conversations with many other academics in many institutions: I would say the corporate structures of much contemporary academia, and the ways in which power is distributed and exercise, can work against academic freedom and the possibilities for critical thinking. The very principles of independent rational and critical thought can be strongly at cross-purposes with hierarchical organisations which reward conformity and compliance. Some are unbothered by this, so long as they can derive personal gain and advancement. With this can come bullying, though attempts to ostracise scapegoat anyone who doesn’t go with the flow. I have seen, heard about, and experienced this sort of thing.

But nothing is more of a challenge than coming to terms with the extent of abuse, mistreatment and bullying in music education and the wider musical world. In early 2013, the former Director of Music at my old school, Chetham’s, was found guilty of sexually abusing a pupil, Frances Andrade, from when she was 14; she tragically took her own life during the trial. I and others knew that this was far from the only case at Chetham’s – in particular the atrocious way in which the case of Chris Ling (a serial abuser at the school, who fled the country (at first together with six girls from the school) to avoid prosecution, and who shot himself when facing extradition last year) had been hushed up.

Why did I get involved with all of this? I think that, as a musician and an educator, I have felt for a very long time (perhaps in part as a response to the toxic culture which existed in my time at Chetham’s) that there can be a hideous conflation of supposedly artistic, aestheticized values, and a culture of dehumanisation and brutalisation. I don’t want to exaggerate this parallel, but I was influenced by some of my academic research into aesthetics and fascism, seeing how a fundamentally aesthetic view of humankind can lead to an easy way to utterly dehumanise those who do not fit that aesthetic vision (see for example Frederic Spotts’ work on this subject). A lot started to make sense to me more clearly than ever, and my belief in the vital importance of working for a music world in which despicable behaviour was not excused by the veneer of artistry became hardened. Michael Brewer epitomised everything that was wrong, something I saw but maybe did not fully comprehend when at school.

Anyhow, after the verdict, I hosted on my blog (http://ianpace.wordpress.com ) a petition calling for a public inquiry into abuse in musical education in general (all types of abuse – sexual, physical, psychological). Within a couple of weeks, I had got thousands of signatures from the musical profession, including many former pupils from the five specialist music schools. But with this, a great many people wrote to me with testimony of their own awful experiences, glad that at last there was a climate where people might be prepared to believe this had happened. As a result of this, I had inadvertently become an expert on the subject, and there was no turning back (this was not information I could easily turn over to anyone else). I submitted the petition to the appropriate authorities, but didn’t get much positive response. I came to realise that if I was to be taken seriously on this subject, I needed to know more about the wider issues of abuse (which to politicians and others seemed more significant), especially if abuse in music might be connected to these. This led me to the case of Alan Doggett (a conductor associated with Lloyd Webber and Rice, based at Colet Court School and then elsewhere), and to the organisation PIE (I don’t want to go into detail on this now – you can look on my blog for more). It took over a significant part of my life for an extended period – I have pulled back a little now, but am still active, and have compiled many documents on the basis of my research.

You cannot imagine how upsetting and frightening this can become – I had heard people say so, but never really had the measure of it until I actually felt it first-hand. The personal toll this has taken has been immense, both in terms of state of mind, relationship, and many other things, and it has coincided with other difficulties (including some other academics exploiting the situation to try and undermine my work in general). It is also impossible to avoid getting caught up in the wider politics of this, which is complicated by the fact that there are clearly some involved with other agendas, some far from benign, and also simply the fact that there are inevitably some very damaged people there. This has been the biggest challenge of my life. But I don’t regret doing it at all.

Some might want to use this issue to undermine classical music in general. In no sense is that my agenda – I care about that music very deeply, but want to see it practised and taught in a more humane environment. This should not be impossible.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Performances: mostly I go away from them thinking of the things I was least happy with, but as time goes on I come to think a bit more positively. Not through listening to recordings (I rarely record live concerts from choice – live performance and recording are to me fundamentally differently mediums, as much so as theatre and film), but just having time to reflect and digest. I recall being quite pleased with a concert in Leeds in 2010 where I played Finnissy’s English Country-Tunes, probably the best I have played it. I also greatly enjoyed a concert the previous year as part of my leaving event at Dartington College of Arts, where I used to teach. This included the Fauré Nocturne No. 4, Janáček In the Mists, and Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrouchka and Rebecca Saunders’ Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall. There was a performance of Stockhausen Klavierstück X I gave at City University in 2014 which I think was not bad at all. What else? Radulescu’s Third Sonata in Leuven in 2007, in an extra concert after the main one (where I had given the premiere of the Sixth Sonata). And a performance of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus right back in 1997, within the context of a series of the music of Howard Skempton. And any number of performances of Christopher Fox’s More Light, which I adore. Also a performance of Lachenmann’s Serynade in Aberdeen last autumn. And a concert in the Festival d’automne in Paris in 2002 where I played all of the Dusapin Études (the premiere of the complete set) and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. One concert in my home town of Hartlepool in 2014, with Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Janáček, and Earl Wild’s Fantasy on Themes from Porgy and Bess. These are a handful of those about which I feel reasonably happy.

Recordings: harder to say, because soon after they are released, I stop listening to them. When you have dissected them in the process of preparation, you know all the things which didn’t quite turn out how you wanted them too, and those become more difficult to handle with every listening. My recording of Dusapin’s Études and piano concerto À Quia is not bad, also that of Walter Zimmermann’s piano works, at least some of them. And I’m not unhappy with my biggest recording project to date, that of Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound, a 5-CD set.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’m less and less convinced about how well a good deal of repertoire from before around the mid-19th century works on a modern piano, so can’t imagine that I play much of that particularly well now. Best? Some Liszt, Brahms, some Debussy and Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage, Feldman, Ligeti, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Kagel, Rzewski, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Sciarrino, Radulescu, Dusapin, Fox.

Chopin I adore (and above all I see as a contrapuntal composer), but I’m never really convinced that I can do what I want to on a modern instrument. The same is true of Schumann (all that thick passagework in the central registers is one reason his music is mistakenly assumed to be somewhat muddy). Scriabin I continue to try to negotiate (I find its exaggerated qualities can lead to banality, and have too much of an ironic sensibility to take all that mysticism and affected sensuousness at face value) with mixed results. Schoenberg is hard to bring off.

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

In many cases, depending upon what I get asked to play! But I like to expand what I do, as well as playing some of my well-ingrained repertoire. In the last few years I’ve been doing various new things – the transcriptions by Earl Wild of music of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, the amazing Piano Sonata of Sergei Zagny, more recent work of Christopher Fox, whilst on my own looking more at composers like Florent Schmitt and Frederic Mompou. I want to play more lesser-known Slavic music of various types. This year I played the Dukas Sonata for the first piece, and have been documenting the process for an article on practice-as-research.

I hope at whatever age I will continue to champion the works of younger composers. In many ways that is the most important thing to do. Of course not everything is fantastic, but if these people do not get a proper hearing, we will never know which stuff is.

I love playing new work. I’ve just premiered an incredible new piece by Finnissy called Beethoven’s Robin Adair, and later on in the year I will be playing new works by Lauren Redhead and Patrícia Almeida. I cannot say how excited I am about this.

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

Various ones I have enjoyed: the main radio concert hall at Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Berliner Konzerthaus, the Warehouse in London. In general, venues without tiered seats sound best!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To perform: many things mentioned above! Above all Liszt, Debussy, Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Finnissy, Radulescu, Dusapin, I think.

To listen to: then things get much broader. I can listen to any amount of medieval music of whatever type, though some music of the Renaissance leaves me cold (but I like Josquin, Ockeghem, and then later Marenzio (very much) and Gesualdo). After that, much of what I listen to is from the nineteenth and twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. I adore a great deal of opera (and teach a module on it). I also listen to a good deal of jazz of all periods, and have a real love for British jazz of the 1930s and 1940s – Henry Hall, Ambrose, and so on. A good deal of popular music – perhaps more British than American, though I go for 1940s and 1950s American music of many types, and then stuff of Hendrix, the Doors, and Zappa and Beefheart on one hand, and lots of Motown and Chicago funk on the other.

All sorts of music which I find somehow culturally significant, I suppose. My listening habits are extremely eclectic and catholic, but not undiscerning, I hope.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Again – see the above! I also am drawn to many historically-informed performers and groups: Harnoncourt (especially), Goebel, Europa Galante, Il Giardino Armonico, Music Antiqua Köln, Frieburger Barockorchester the ORR and Gardiner, countless medieval vocal groups (but not so much those in the British traditions). I love the work of Ensemble Organum under Marcel Pérès, and also that of my university colleague Alex Lingas’s group Cappella Romana.

Some other pianists as well as those mentioned before: Josef Lhevinne, Ignaz Friedman, Egon Petri, Grigory Ginsburg, Earl Wild, Julius Katchen, Paul Jacobs, Jörg Demus, Aldo Ciccolini, Lazar Berman, Friedrich Gulda, Samson François, Kristian Zimerman, Dezsö Ránki, Marc-André Hamelin, Janusz Olejniczak, Bart van Oort.

Some other composers beyond those listed above who are favourites: Adam de la Halle, Guillaume de Machaut, John Dunstable, Guillaume Dufay, Marenzio, Monteverdi, both Scarlattis, Frescobaldi, Biber, Purcell, J.S. Bach, Rameau, Couperin, Charpentier, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Bellini, Donizetti, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Fauré (cannot hear enough of his music), Albéniz, Ives, Debussy, Ravel (every work is worth hearing, many times), Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg up until the early 1920s, and then from the late 1930s, Varèse, Bartók, Kodály, Percy Grainger, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Dieter Schnebel, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Sylvano Bussotti, Franco Evangelisti, Josef Anton Riedl, Hans Otte, Galina Ustvolskaya, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Ivo Malec, Nicolaus A. Huber, and lots of others.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The final concert in my 1996 series of Michael Finnissy – the high I felt after that was really something. Various occasions where I have stepped in at the last minute to play things. I can do this, and sometimes it generates such a level of adrenalin that the performance has something particularly special, even if it feels knife-edge! A few occasions where I really didn’t know if it was going to be possible: the world premiere of Brian Ferneyhough’s Opus Contra Naturam in Leuven in 2000 (finished just three days before the concert), or of Wieland Hoban’s when the panting STARTS four years later in the same place.

Playing with lots of singers, having the chance to play operatic repertoire I love so much.

It is difficult to answer this question, really.

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

Find a really good technical approach as early as possible – remember there is loads of quackery around. For pianists, if anyone tells you to play with your elbows locked into the body, or with a fixed wrist, find someone else instead.

Listen to all types of music, you can never listen to too much. And listen to many types of performers, and really listen – when you find something really striking, see if you can see how that is brought about. And don’t just listen to your own instrument, or even your own musical genre. For pianists, listen in particular to singers, but also to orchestras. Listen to music from outside of Western traditions. Look for music you would not encounter otherwise.

Try and have some experience of all of the following: keyboard, singing, percussion. All vital skills. Learn at least basic harmony and counterpoint as early as possible, and develop aural skills as best as possible. Get used to being able to listen intently and mentally analyse many musical and aural phenomena you encounter. Read more widely about music, music history, music theory, and lots of critical questions surrounding music.

Do lots of sight reading from an early age – that is how the skill is developed (spending time bashing through opera scores and the like when I was young helped immensely here). I can’t stress enough how important a skill this is, and how much one needs to be able to absorb music and get into a performable state in a short amount of time in a professional career, and with all the other pressures and demands of life.

If any teachers or others try to dismiss the music you care about, on grounds of its being allegedly elitist, Eurocentric, or whatsoever, remember they almost invariably have a chip on their shoulder about it for other reasons. Stand up for what you believe in against such people, even if they are your teachers.

Become more widely conversant with many arts – literature, poetry, theatre, film, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc. and ideas, and the world in general. Understand what you can about the cultural, social and historical context of the music you play, but try and understand the context in which you are playing it too. Look outwards as well as inwards. Embrace the world and people with all their imperfections. Remember how much you can always learn from others. Try and imagine yourself inside the mind of someone who shares few of the same core assumptions about music and culture as yourself. Then you will have a clearer idea of how you might be able to communicate with them.

Take on board two bits of advice I heard from different pianists: Peter Donohoe once said that when young and starting out, do whatever you can that is to do with music, it will all benefit. John Lill once said that a musician has to be very sensitive to the music they play, but very insensitive to all the crap they will put up with because of the politics of the profession. Both of these are very good pieces of advice.

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

Mostly doing the same type of thing, perhaps a bit more recognition, feeling a more supportive general environment in society as a whole (with a different complexion of government) for what I believe. Having issued more recordings and writings. Maybe composing some more. Commissioning lots more new works. Remaining in good health as I approach 60!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Just spending time together with my wife Lindsay, in a nice place, such as in Italy.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano and my books.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing, reading, listening, eating and drinking well, cycling, teaching, and being with Lindsay. Seeing friends and people in general.

What is your present state of mind? 

Somewhat anxious, distrustful, ever-aware of how easily corruptible and awestruck by power so many people are. Concerned about the world is getting even more ruthless and inhuman all the time, and how fear is being stoked to breed prejudice. The US might elect Donald Trump President – that is terrifying, and speaks of a wider malaise in that society. Also concerned to see classical music and other forms of demanding artistic education get lost (or rather, become restricted to those privileged enough to have an elite education) in a mire of relativism and eschewal of value judgement. Preparing to go on strike tomorrow against real-terms cuts in pay for academics, casualization, and gender inequality. But still ultimately hopeful and optimistic, refusing to give in to complete cynicism.

I think I feel very internationalist in outlook. And as inspired as ever when encountering creativity. That’s why I remain an optimist, however jaded by experience.

And as I write this, I’m feeling exciting about reading a book I just received (Francis Booth, Amongst those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980). And looking forward (not without a little trepidation) to my concert this Friday, the third in my series this year of the piano music of Michael Finnissy, featuring his major cycle Folklore and a host of shorter pieces, including the fearsome all.fall.down. I would like to invite people to come to it if in London – this Friday, May 27th, beginning at 18:00 (early evening concert), then the main concert at 19:15. All at City University, Performance Space, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB. Full details are here: http://www.city.ac.uk/events/2016/may/michael-finnissy-at-70-the-piano-music-3-ian-pace

I would  also like to mention another project I am involved in, crowd-funding to make a recording of the piano music of Marc Yeats. This is something I so want to make happen, and has less than two more weeks to run. Full details, and ways of supporting the project, can be found here – https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/my-recording-of-marc-yeats-piano-music-please-support-this-project/ . Please do help!

 

Ian Pace is a pianist of long-established reputation, specialising in the farthest reaches of musical modernism and transcendental virtuosity, as well as a writer and musicologist focusing on issues of performance, music and society and the avant-garde. He was born in Hartlepool, England in 1968, and studied at Chetham’s School of Music, The Queen’s College, Oxford and, as a Fulbright Scholar, at the Juilliard School in New York. His main teacher, and a major influence upon his work, was the Hungarian pianist György Sándor, a student of Bartók.

Ian Pace’s website

Horae (pro clara) – Kenneth Hesketh

hesketh_coverThe latest release from pianist Clare Hammond is a disc for BIS Records of solo piano music by British composer Kenneth Hesketh –  Horae (pro clara) (2011/12), Notte Oscura (2002), Through Magic Casements (2008) and Three Japanese Miniatures (2002).

Horae (pro clara) was written for Clare Hammond following Kenneth Hesketh’s meeting with Clare at her debut recital at the Southbank Centre in 2010. They have subsequently developed a close artistic collaboration.

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Clare Hammond (photo: Julie Kim)
Clare says of Ken’s music that “it can seem overwhelming at times, yet if one engages with its textural intricacy, the scope of his extra-musical allusions, and volatile virtuosity, rich rewards lie in store”. Clare seems ideally suited to this type of repertoire. Her debut album, Piano Polytych, containing works by Kenneth Hesketh, Julian Anderson, Piers Hellawell, Giles Swayne and Philip Grange, revealed her to be a fine advocate for contemporary piano repertoire, combining flawless technique with a sharp intellect and musical sensitivity to bring such works to life with colour, vibrancy and rhythmic precision, and totally without the self-consciousness or affectation that sometimes accompanies performances of this type of repertoire.

Kenneth Hesketh’s musical language is drawn from a broad range of stimuli, including classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry, Bauhaus constructivism and existentialism, and these extra-musical references bring texture, structure and a wide range of moods, tempi, colour and piquancy to his music. The works presented on this disc are complex, both technically and musically, with dense textures and abrupt voltes faces between the macabre and grotesque and the delicate and poignant. What Clare Hammond does so well is to bring a sparkling clarity to the tightly-packed textures without comprising her sensitive musicality and her ability to shift seamlessly between the myriad moods and styles of the pieces.

The first work on this disc, Through Magic Casements, takes its title from Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale and much of its soundworld seems to echo the imagery of the poem with its urgent febrile passages which fade to nothing at the end.

The work which occupies most of the disc, Horae (pro clara), was premiered by Clare Hammond at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2013, and consists of twelve miniatures which as a whole form a ‘breviary’ or book of hours. The movements are not titled; instead they have evocative performance directions and some incorporate literary references. Thematic material, such as Hesketh’s fascination with machines and automata, is shared across the set, thus linking the pieces, though they can be performed in any order. Some contain dense thickets of notes and melodic lines, abrupt and plangent bass interruptions, and vibrant rhythms (VII: Capriccioso), while others comprise spare shards and delicate scurrying traceries (VI: Nervoso, ma dolce, for example).

The third work Notte Oscura (2002) is a piano transcription of the first interlude in Hesketh’s opera The Overcoat, after Nikolai Gogol, and in it Hesketh highlights Gogol’s description of St Petersburg’s powerful and all-pervasive cold. The opening bass chords are perfectly judged by Clare Hammond, lending a sense of foreboding before the music moves into a more melodic passage, though the mood of menace and anxiety is never far away. Repeated tremolo notes high in the register suggest shards of ice, while the bass sonorities conjure up the vastness of the Russian landscape.

The suite Three Japanese Miniatures concludes the disc. The works are drawn from fragments and paraphrases of a larger work by Hesketh inspired by Japanese folk tales and each movement portrays a story, from a nocturnal wanderer who finds himself amid the imposing grandeur of a ruined temple to a winter sprite who takes revenge on a broken promise by taking the lives of a man and his children and finally the story of Bumbuku, a daemon who takes the form of a badger and lives in a tea kettle. The works are expressive, haunting and humorous, and, as in the previous works on this disc, Clare highlights their distinctive narratives with precise articulation and a vivid palette of musical colour.

Horae (pro clara) is released on 27 May on the BIS label. Further information and sound clips here

An interview with composer Kenneth Hesketh will appear in the Meet the Artist series on 2 June

Clare Hammond is the recent recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society young artist award 

Pleasure and pain: on being an amateur pianist

A regular commentator on this blog has asked me to write more on amateur pianism. Here are some honest and occasionally light-hearted thoughts on the joys and frustrations of being an amateur pianist.

Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play It Again’ (published in 2013) shone a delightful and inspirational light on the world of amateur pianism, but people have been playing the piano at home and with friends for almost as long as keyboard instruments have been in existence. In the nineteenth century, when advances in design and production significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing pianos, an upright piano in the parlour was the norm for family entertainment, much as the PlayStation or smart TV is today (sadly).

Pleasure

Probably the single most positive aspect of being an amateur pianist is not having to make a living from playing the instrument. Recently, I have begun to paid for solo performances and accompanying, which puts me in the hallowed category of “professional pianist”, but my main income comes from piano teaching, and I wouldn’t have it any different, to be honest. Not having to earn a living from playing the piano means one can truly indulge one’s passion for it. (Indeed, the word “amateur”comes from the Old French meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator.) All the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it.

That is not to say that professionals don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed for the Meet the Artist series have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano and its literature. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Talking of which, the piano has a vast repertoire, more than enough to suits all tastes, a good chunk of which is copyright-free and easily available online from sites such as IMSLP and Pianostreet. One could spend a lifetime learning and playing only the music of, say, J S Bach or Fryderyk Chopin and only scratch the tiniest surface of the piano repertoire. And in addition to solo works, there is music for three, four, six hands to enjoy with other pianists, not to mention being called upon to accompany other instrumentalists and singers…. Really, we are spoilt rotten!

Pain

Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation/hobby (though I like the solitary nature of the instrument) and working alone on that knotty section of Liszt or Hanon exercises can at times be frustrating and demoralising. However, it needn’t be lonely: in recent years the popularity of piano meetup groups and piano clubs, or even informal get togethers at one another’s houses, has created a wonderful community of like-minded people who meet regularly to play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and I still attend the group’s meetings when I can. Our drinks and lunches after our informal performance platforms are always noisy with conversations about the music we are working on, concerts we have enjoyed and discovering new repertoire.

Some adult amateur pianists are shy about playing to others for fear of making mistakes and looking foolish, or because of negative experiences in childhood. Piano Meetups and Clubs are a good way of overcoming these anxieties – you quickly discover that most people feel the same and playing to a friendly non-judgmental group of people is an excellent way of overcoming those performance nerves.

Adult pianists may also find it difficult to find the right teacher to support and encourage them. Some adults like to be pushed by a teacher, others need more gentle handling. Many come to lessons with a lot of “baggage” and anxieties, often a hangover from childhood music lessons, and need encouragement and support. Some have rather over-ambitious ideas about their capabilities (I had an adult student who informed me at his first lesson that he was going to play the Rach Three one day!) and want to play repertoire which is too challenging. In such instances, I recommend selecting repertoire that is well within one’s “comfort zone” to give one confidence, while gradually introducing more complex repertoire to extend and challenge one’s abilities, both technical and musical. And no repertoire should ever be considered “off limits” to the amateur pianist: the music was written to be played!

However, the music still has to be learnt and one of the greatest frustrations expressed by amateur pianists is finding the time to practise, especially if you have a busy day job and/or family commitments. We all know that “practise makes perfect”, but what is more important is that practise makes permanent and regular practise means notes are learnt, finessed and made secure. My personal mantra is “little and often” (a shoulder injury means I cannot practise for more than about 45 minutes in one sitting without a break) and I have become adept at sneaking practise sessions in to a particularly busy day or if I am going to be away from the piano for a period of time. It’s amazing what just 10 minutes focused practising can achieve – but you need to know what needs to be done (a good teacher will offer guidance on this and give one tools to practise efficiently and effectively). If you are serious about your piano practise, try and set aside some time every day for it. Alan Rusbridger used to practise before he went to work, shoe-horning a brief 20 minutes on the Chopin G minor Ballade into his busy day. And if you are very serious about your practising, be ruthless about setting the time aside, turn off your phone, and simply shut yourself away with the piano.

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Alan Rusbridger (photo: The Guardian)

If you don’t have the benefit of regular lessons with a teacher, there are plenty of online resources in the form of blogs, YouTube tutorials, and forums, and there are also courses for adult amateur pianists where you can study with international concert pianists and acclaimed teachers or simply enjoy being amongst like-minded people. Such courses are a great way to meet other pianists and observing others being taught in the masterclass or group workshop setting can be really useful. You can even have a rather special “piano holiday” and stay in luxury accommodation with gourmet food and beautiful facilities (though “mandals” seem to be mandatory for both male participants!). Many of my pianist friends return to the same courses year after year and firm friendships have been forged.

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A rehearsal room at Peregrine’s Pianos, London

Not everyone has the luxury of an acoustic piano (upright or grand) but there are some excellent digital pianos on the market now. There are also street pianos at railway stations and airports, and if you crave the sleek elegance of a grand piano, there are rehearsal rooms available to hire for a modest fee and many churches and community centres have grand pianos which are just begging to be played. Seated at that glorious, gleaming expanse of mahogany, you can dream of playing to a full house at the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.

Above all, love your piano and its wonderful music

 

If there are any specific aspects of amateur pianism which you would like me to cover, please leave a comment below or contact me

Frances Wilson, author of this blog, is experienced in teaching adult pianists and also runs performance workshops for adult amateur pianists.

 

Further reading

More than hobbyists: the world of amateur pianism

The Adult Amateur – article on Practising the Piano blog

Street Pianos

 

Rehearsal rooms in central London

Peregrine’s Pianos

1901 Arts Club

Markson Pianos

Steinway Hall

Bluthner London

 

Meet the Artist……Steven Osborne

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(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

There was a piano in the house and as soon as I could reach the keyboard, I was mucking about on it. I was very, very drawn to it and spent every spare minute playing it. I didn’t sleep much as a kid and I would get up very early and go straight to the piano, and my dad would come down and tell me it was too early to be playing.

I didn’t really think in terms of planning any kind of career. I loved playing piano, I went to music college, won a competition and secured a few concerts and it kind of started from there – I was very lucky with that. But there was always a very visceral attachment to the piano.

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

There have been a few:

One would certainly be Ian Kemp, my tutor at university. His way of looking at music, at analysing it, was so passionate in an understated way. He went right to the essence of music

Richard Beauchamp, my piano teacher at St Mary’s School in Edinburgh, was very musically opened-minded

Renna Kellaway, my teacher at RNCM, gave me a real grounding in technique which was lacking before

Arnaldo Cohen – he was very influential. He had a way of looking at the smallest detail in the broadest scope

Bobby Mann of the Juilliard Quartet and chairman of Naumburg Competition, which I won in 1997. He was a musical guru without particularly trying to be. But he could make a single remark to me after a concert and that would form the basis of several years of exploration for me. He could put his finger on the absolute nub of an issue.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season

It tends to be based on an instinct of what I am desperate to learn next. Happily, the repertoire being so big, you don’t have to retread old ground if you don’t want to, so I’ve always been moving on to new things.

In fact, in the last few months this has been the first time I’ve actually had to think what I want to play. It’s also driven by recordings – what am I dying to do.

Are there any composers whose music you keep returning to?

Definitely Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Ravel. Beethoven has this incredible balance of very strong structure and an extremely wild spontaneity which breaks out of structure. How he keeps those things in balance, especially in the mid to late works, I find unbelievably satisfying

Rachmaninov’s completely visceral connection to the music, in terms of how he expresses things that really no one else quite does, how open he is to his own emotions

What attracted you to the music of George Crumb and Morton Feldman, and what is the particular appeal of this music for you?

I first heard George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’ while I was at school and I was quite amazed by the variety of character, the craziness of it, the bizarre sound effects: I found it really compelling. There’s the sense that he is really interested in character, with a complexity which never seems gratuitous. Later I came across his piano music. I love the soundworld, the sense of atmosphere. He talks about growing up in west Virginia and the atmosphere of being in the forest – the birds and other sounds.

Rather often composers towards end of 20th century are showing off their wares, especially in the 60s and 70s, and it’s refreshing to find someone who is interested purely in sound, that visceral quality of sound

Morton Feldman’s music is very ambiguous. I first came across it when Ivan Volkov told me he’d heard ‘Palais de Mari’ played in one of his festivals. I found it very interesting, and I loved it. It’s a really really beautiful piece of music.

It’s a very extreme position that he takes on music – like John Cage – that the notes aren’t that important, but it’s the moment to moment experience of the notes, letting go of that self-satisfaction that exists around some music. It strikes me that there is maybe a philosophical paradox to really do that – even though you might be able to encourage people to lose the sense of where they are

Will you perform the Feldman from memory?

Oh no! Absolutely not! I don’t memorise music like that because it’s so much trouble and it seems like a needless waste of energy, and I really don’t think it adds anything to play it from memory. There is this obsession about memorisation for pianists, but increasingly I don’t bother if I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s so insignificant in the great scheme of things

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

The big thing is to enjoy it, to play music that you love, not to feel pushed into playing music that doesn’t suit you. Choose music that you really love playing, not because a teacher has told you to learn it.

It can take a while to discover what you really want to do. A lot of people in the profession lose that love for the music, so anything you can do to guard against is important.

(Interview date: 2nd May 2016)
‘The Music of Silence’

Steven Osborne plays Crumb and Feldman

31 May 2016 / 20:00
Milton Court Concert Hall

Further information and tickets

Steven Osborne’s standing as one of the great pianists of his generation was publicly affirmed in 2013 with two major awards: The Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist of the Year and his second Gramophone Award, this time in the Instrumental category for his recording of Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition and solo works by Prokofiev. Previous awards include a 2009 Gramophone Award for his recording of Britten’s works for piano and orchestra, as well as first prize at both the Naumburg International Competition (New York) and Clara Haskil Competition.

www.stevenosborne.co.uk

N is for…..

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Notes

In music, the term note has two primary meanings:

  1. A sign used in musical notation to represent the relative duration and pitch of a sound
  2. A pitched sound itself.

(Wikipedia)

Notes, or notation, is the system by which we visually represent the aural in music. The notes are arranged on the staff (or stave) which is the framework on which pitches and duration of individual notes are indicated. Thus the staff and what is written upon it provides the roadmap for the musician to navigate to realise sound.

Notes on the score are the musician’s language. For the uninitiated the score may appear to be a forest of confused dots: to the musician, these have profound meaning, special associations and sometimes even dislike! (That fiddly passage in Beethoven which always catches you out…..)

Notes can be treated, or articulated, in different ways to produce particular sound effects. A dot above or below indicates staccato, a note of shortened duration, a detached sound. How one treats staccato in, for example, Mozart or Debussy, depends on one’s experience, musical knowledge and instinct. Each type of note has the equivalent “rest”, a marking to indicate silence, a pause or a breath in the music.

Notes stacked on top of one another create chords which open the door to a world of harmony and musical colour.

Thickets of demi-semi-quavers may suggest extreme rapidity or, in the slow movement of a Bach concerto, the delicate arabesques and decorative filigree of Baroque architecture.

Frances Wilson

 

Ernesto Nazareth, the father of Brazilian Tango Music 

Tango music has acquired millions of new fans because of Strictly Come Dancing. But how many of them have heard of Ernesto Nazareth, the father of Brazilian tango?190px-ernestonazareth

But before we look more closely at Ernesto Nazareth, we should ask why it is that tango dancing is so popular. Maybe it is because it represents the freedom and daring we miss in our everyday work-orientated world. “No mistakes in the tango, darling!” says Al Pacino in the movie ‘The Scent of a Woman.’

He means: don’t worry about getting it wrong. The rhythm is everything.

For those who haven’t seen the film, Pacino is blind and tries to persuade a beautiful ingénue to dance with him in an elegant restaurant, where all eyes are on them. “Simple,” says Pacino’s character. “That’s what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, get all tangled up – just tango on!”

Ernesto Nazareth, the classically trained composer who became known to millions as the father of Brazilian tango music, might not have agreed with that simple sentiment. Nazareth had his own exact ideas about tango – especially his tango. He complained about the speed at which some of the pianists interpreted them. He wanted them slow and played with feeling and with the right accentuation, so that the melody came through sweetly.

And why not, tango is an intricate art form, played well, which requires all the attention one would play to a classical piece.

I was first introduced to Nazareth’s work by my Brazilian piano teacher. Wearying of my classical musical repertoire and my musical exercises, which I was playing week in, week out, my teacher, fresh back from Sao Paulo, laid out two Sellotaped sheets of ‘Odeon, Tango Brasileiro’ on the music stand one day.

‘Who is this?’

‘Ernesto Nazareth. He’s very well known in Brazil and South America but over here, no one has heard of him. He composed ‘Odeon’ in the early 1920’s, most probably during the time he worked as a pianist in a cinema foyer. He was hired to entertain the people queuing for tickets.’

It was love at first play so to speak. ‘Odeon’, a seemingly unprepossessing piece at first glance, was however a challenge to play. The rhythms were multi-layered and perplexing, bringing in samba, other Latin and ragtime influences.  My da-tatata, tatata would morph into a datata, datata. I was less worried about hitting the wrong note than getting the syncopation and emphasis wrong.  Putting the challenges aside, I found the joy of playing something exotic and new exhilarating and found myself transported to the beautiful and chaotic Rio de Janeiro, Nazareth’s home town.

For those of you who haven’t heard of poor old Ernesto, he did meet a tragic end, (he drowned himself) after a family tragedy, I urge you to take a look at his music – and remember, when you’re playing it – not to let your fingers run away with you!

If you would like to play ‘Odeon’, click the link below for a free download of the sheet music.

http://www.ernestonazareth150anos.com.br/files/uploads/work_elements/work_136/odeon_piano.pdf

 Karine Hetherington

Karine is a teacher and writer of fiction and poetry, drawing most of her inspiration from France, past and present. Read more about her writing and excerpts from her first book here

 

 

 

 

 

BBC Young Musician 2016 – The Future Becomes the Present

The BBC’s biennial Young Musician competition reached its thrilling climax in an absorbing, nail-biting and inspirational final concert at London’s Barbican on Sunday 15th May and I was privileged to be a member of the audience for this wonderful celebration of shared music making.

In the nearly 40 years since it was founded, the prestigious competition to find the nation’s top young classical talent has become something of a national treasure. It has “discovered” many fine musicians, including Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Emma Johnson (clarinet), Freddy Kempf (piano), Guy Johnston (cello), Jennifer Pike (violin) and Benjamin Grosvenor  (piano), to name but a very few, and continues to inspire and support aspiring young musicians. The programme also regularly poses important questions about child prodigies, the hot-housing of talented children, private education, specialist music schools and music education in the UK, but fundamentally the competition emphasises the joy and pleasure that music brings to those who play it, engage with it and listen to it. This was particularly evident at the Barbican on the afternoon of the final where there were activities for eager young musicians of all ages and abilities ahead of the final concert and during the intervals.

In the old days, when I watched the programme avidly as a teenage piano student (frustrated that I was never quite good enough to enter the competition), it was all rather wooden, cringeworthy, and geeky. In recent years, the programme has had a glitzy makeover and now bears more than a passing resemblance to shows like Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice, though the format remains the same with talented young people competing in instrumental categories (keyboard, woodwind, brass, strings and percussion) to be selected for the semi-final and then the grand final. In a neat piece of continuity, Clemency Burton-Hill, daughter of the competition’s co-creator Humphrey Burton, was presenter of this year’s television coverage and final concert.

This year’s finalists were French horn player Ben Goldscheider (18), saxophonist Jess Gillam (17) and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (17). All the category finals revealed some incredibly talented and dedicated young musicians, and what I found most reassuring was that all the young people involved in the competition expressed a real passion for their music. I am a firm believer that if one does not love it – whether one is a professional or amateur musician – there is little point in doing it! The range of instruments played and repertoire performed begs the question of how one chooses between one young musician and another because each instrument and its repertories presents its own unique technical, artistic and emotional challenges. In the final stages of the competition, technical mastery of one’s instrument is a given, and in the end the judgement comes down to aspects such as communication, stage presence and musicality. All three young finalists displayed these qualities in spades in their individual and very distinctive performances.

It is very hard to go first, and I felt Ben Goldscheider  was quite nervous. The French horn does not lend imageitself to much physical movement or gestures on stage., but his performance of Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto no. 2 displayed concentration, fine intonation and a clear purpose.

cge-pcrwcaeji00Jess Gillam, a finalist in the 2014 competition, bounded onto the stage and mesmerized us in silver sequined leggings and Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances. Her stage presence is charismatic, infectiously extrovert, and highly expressive – as is her sound which ranged from vibrant and imaginative to haunting and delicate. She was assured and very comfortable on stage, interacting enthusiastically with the orchestra and lifting the sound out of her instrument and into the audience. At just 17 she has already had a good deal of performing experience and this came across very clearly in her confident, colourful and technically assured playing

From his first notes of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 Sheku Kanneh-Mason was authoritative, thoughtful and totally committed. This music is a sophisticated choice for a teenager and Sheku rose to the technical and emotional challenges presented by Shostakovich’s music with an impressive maturity and musical insight. His modesty, evident throughout the competition, allowed him to stand back from the music and the resulting performance was intense and highly-charged.

While the jury were deliberating we were treated to a lively and witty performance of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 by the 2014 winner, pianist Martin James Bartlett.

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Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photo: BBC)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was awarded the top prize, but ultimately all three finalists are winners: to have reached the final of this competition is a credit to their dedication, passion and commitment to their music, and through this experience they all have the potential to be huge role models for a younger generation. Ben, Jess and Sheku are enormously talented, down-to-earth and likeable (all three attend state schools), and one hopes that they are given the opportunity to inspire young people from all walks of life to engage with and explore the wonders of classical music.

 

(This is a longer version of an article first published on Bachtrack.com. I am grateful to my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight for her input, and her company at the final).

 

BBC Young Musician 2016 – And the winner is….

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 17, is winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician. Sheku gave an intense, highly committed and extremely mature performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat in the final of this year’s competition at London’s Barbican.


Congratulations also to the other finalists Jess Gillam and Ben Goldscheider

A longer article on the competition to follow. 

Meet the Artist……Tabea Debus, recorder player 


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

From a young age I was fortunate enough study with very inspiring teachers – although in the first place I came to the instrument by chance. A childhood friend of mine wanted to learn to play the instrument but did not want to go to the lessons on his own. Further along the way I was also extremely lucky to be given the opportunity to play with other musicians of my age and the chance to experience manifold concert situations in Germany and abroad. When I was old enough to start thinking about what I would like to do for a living, I could not imagine my life without playing recorder and making music everyday…

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

There were several, including studying at three different conservatoires, attending master classes with numerous renowned musicians. Most recently, being chosen as St John’s Smith Square Young Artist for the 2015/16 season has been a major influence and given a boost to my musical development and career!

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

Making potentially life and career changing decisions, such as deciding to complete a Master of Music in London, rather than somewhere “at home”.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My two solo CDs: “Upon a Ground” (2012, https://open.spotify.com/album/68Qaixt8WbErB9MpwE3miK), which was the first CD I ever recorded on my own, solely with the wonderful support of the four other musicians playing on the recording. My second CD, “Cantata per Flauto” was released in April this year (here’s a review: https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2016/04/07/tabea-debus-cantata-per-flauto/), and I launched it at St John’s Smith Square with a fantastic ensemble playing with me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oeUH206Im0)

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s very had to say.., It’s always the questions if the works that I would identify as the ones “I perform best” actually come across like that to an audience. I particularly enjoy baroque music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, but I also love to perform contemporary music for recorder solo or chamber music ensembles – these pieces require a completely different approach to the learning process and the presentation.

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

I have an long and ever-growing list of pieces I want to play or arrange for my instrument, and I therefore try to include at least a few of those into programmes I am planning. Of course there are many other factors to consider: the venue, its size, the occasion and the audience who will be listening, the scope to bring in other musicians, a possibly already existing overall theme. And finally I always strive to include different facets of recorder repertoire, old and new, solo and chamber music etc.

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

I could not say I have a favourite venue! Smaller venues, such as an art gallery, a chapel or small concert room have an intimacy and direct exchange with the audience which I value very highly. On the other hand, larger spaces, like London’s St John’s Smith Square, are fantastic as well, as they challenge the projection and presence of the performer in a very different way.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Probably music by Georg Philipp Telemann – he played recorder himself and through his music one can feel this deep understanding of the instrument’s capacity and special qualities. He has his very own musical language, which is still very flexible and changeable, which for me as a performer opens many doors to creatively engaging with his music. At the moment I often listen to JS Bach Cantatas, as this might related to a future project I am thinking about putting together, but I love music by Henry Purcell, especially his (semi-) operas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to name all…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s hard to choose one! Perhaps playing as part of the Singapore Youth Festival in 2011 – we were preforming in a huge venue, but it almost seemed as if the audience was with us on stage. There was a lot of spontaneous applause, even in the middle of a movement, which is how it should be! One should be allowed to show and react when something is enjoyable and fun, or even the opposite…

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

Travelling and having lessons with as many different professionals as possible would be a vital advice – both for the own instrument and others. Also, one can gather so many ideas and concepts by collaborating with other instrumentalists, singers and composers and by embracing different styles of music from medieval to contemporary.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Arranging new repertoire for the recorder is definitely a favourite! I get very excited when there is the chance to include something “new” in a concert programme, to discover repertoire primarily intended for other instruments and make this repertoire my own.

Tabea Debus performs at London’s St John’s Smith Square on Thursday 19th May as part of the London Festival of Baroque music 2016. Further information here

Tabea Debus had her first recorder lessons with Gudula Rosa at the Westfälische Schule für Musik, Münster. Since then she has received many special prizes, including awards from the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben, the Manfred Vetter Society, the Ministry of Family, Women and Youth as well as the Irino Foundation.

More about Tabea here

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s ‘Winterreise’

Schubert’s Winterreise, published in 1828, the year of the composer’s death at the age of 31, is often described as the greatest song-cycle ever written, and its central themes and preoccupations – love and loss, life and death – resonate through the centuries and continue to have a deeply emotional and philosophical impact today.
German composer Hans Zender’s ‘Winterreise’ is not a transcription of Schubert’s original for small orchestra. It is a “composed interpretation”, a work in its own right, which reflects and refracts the original song-cycle. Its orchestration takes the listener from Schubert’s Vienna, through Mahler and Schoenberg to the cabaret of Weimar Berlin and Kurt Weil. In this way, it challenges received notions of authenticity, historical accuracy and interpretation, and the relationship between performer, composer and audience. If anything, Zender’s Winterreise is even bleaker than Schubert’s with its strong Expressionist flavour and rich sonic associations with contemporary repertoire and instrumentation.

(photo: Hugo Glendinning)

In this production at London’s Barbican Theatre, the music and its narrative are staged by director, designer and video artist Netia Jones using striking black-and-white film, projections, haunting shadows, and chiaroscuro. The video screen is slashed into jagged shards, like a broken mirror, onto which are projected images of frost, a river, bare branches, a lonely snowy landscape through which a solitary figure, Schubert’s tragic “fremdling”, trudges.

Read my full review here 

Satie’s Vexations – a call for pianists

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Pianist, composer and conductor Adam Swayne needs your help for a special fundraising concert in Brighton this August…..
Adam writes:

The beautiful New York Steinway at St Luke’s Church, Queens Park Road, Brighton is badly in need of an expensive restoration.

A series of fundraising events is planned including a marathon performance of Erik Satie’s extraordinary 21 hour piece ‘Vexations’ during the August Bank Holiday Weekend. Here is the score.

We need a team of pianists to tag-team the 840 repetitions asked for by the composer, and I am hoping that YOU will enjoy being involved!

The performance will begin on Friday August 26th at 7.30pm and will finish in spectacular style at c.4pm the following day. We are hugely grateful to Deacon Julie Newson and her amazing team of churchwardens for allowing us to use the church throughout this time.

Each pianist will collect sponsorship at 25p per repetition, and the minimum suggested number of repetitions is 20 (i.e. £5 per sponsor). 20 repetitions ought to take c.30 minutes each (or as near as possible) and each repetition should consist of bass theme/ top line of chords/ bass theme/ bottom line of chords.

The concert will be ticketed in the usual way at St. Luke’s – £7 a ticket – but the audience will be offered the opportunity to claim a 50p refund for every 60 repetitions they sit through continuously, which means that the concert is free for whoever makes it through the whole performance.

Each pianist will also be required to count repetitions for the previous player. There will be a number board and a live twitter feed counting up to 840. Please follow @TheVexator for updates and information leading up to and on the day.

After your performance you will be asked to manage the door for 30 minutes, ensuring that there are always three people in the church, even in the middle of the night. There will be a supply of refreshments.

If you would like to be involved please email adam@adamswayne.com before Friday June 3rd with answers to the following two questions:

  1. Would you like to be involved and are you happy with the arrangements as described?
  2. Are there any particular slots during the time frame that you would favour? Please remember that you will be needed for 90 minutes minimum (although you are obviously welcome to play/ stay for as long as you wish).

Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) will kick off proceedings on Friday 26th August. Why not come and join her and other pianists for this musical marathon for a good cause? 

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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