This book is an absolute joy from start to finish. So much so that I read it in one sitting, busily making notes in the margin and nodding my head in agreement.
Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians was originally written in 1848 to accompany his famous, and still very popular, Album for the Young, a suite of piano pieces for children and students. Schumann was a remarkable man, not least for his huge and varied oeuvre of miraculous music, but also his championing and support of other musicians, as well as teaching, writing and encouraging young musicians. Celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis has taken Schumann’s advice and expanded upon it, added his own commentaries and words of wisdom, and often matching Schumann’s humorous or witty tone with his own amusing observations. Schumann’s advice, though couched in the language of his age, is always relevant and Isserlis, through his own words, demonstrates how perceptive Schumann’s wisdom is by passing it through the lens of his own experience as an established and highly-regarded classical musician. He brings the advice right up to date for today’s musicians working in a profession that is increasingly busy, competitive, uncertain and stressful. Such advice includes the importance of playing with others, receiving critical feedback from one’s peers and teachers, appreciating audiences and understanding the structure of music.
Divided into five sections, the book explore keys facets of the musicians life and work, from being a musician through playing (and performing), practising and to composing, something which Schumann felt all musicians should do, and which far fewer practising musicians do to day (Steven Isserlis’s good friend and colleague the pianist Stephen Hough is a notable exception, whose polymath musical life Schumann would certainly approve of). The final section contains Isserlis’s own pieces of advice which are thoughtful, intelligent and accessible. Isserlis reveals his reverence and enthusiasm for his chosen art in a way that is never didactic, sometimes profound, always realistic yet never depressing. The tone throughout is modest and sensitive, for musicians can be fragile souls. prone to much self-doubt and anxiety.
Not just a handbook for young musicians, this delightful and wise book is a manifesto for all musicians, music teachers and music lovers, one which one can read in a single sitting, or dip into at one’s leisure to extract a nugget.
One of my favourite quotes: “As you grow up, communicate more with scores than with virtuosi”
To feel the musician’s concentration and communication
To sense the synergy between ensemble players, or orchestra and conductor
To enjoy a concert in an unusual venue, by candlelight
To get up close and personal with the musicians
To applaud whenever they like
To exclaim at the soloist’s beautiful gown
To see more young people in the audience
To dress down
To dress up
To sit in comfy seats
To have value for money
To meet friends & have interval drinks
To have time for dinner beforehand – or afterwards
To not have to get the last train home
To not be patronised or treated as uneducated or ignorant
Performers can never please all of the people all of the time and usually need to balance their desire to play certain repertoire with the expectations of the audience. Personally, I don’t think performers should ever feel the need to pander to an audience
Some actual audience views
…..quality, enthusiastic performances (not robots) and a diverse mix of repertoire
[I want] An ineffable mix of emotion, technique… and always something new. I want to be moved, educated, entertained, and astonished!
And some actual performers’ views:
……communicating. I want them to know and feel what I’m feeling in the amazing music
Audiences want to feel that they are engaged in the performance, that they are part of the communication. I think primarily they don’t want to feel patronised or bored. It’s probably easier to say what they don’t want. I think it also depends where you’re playing. In a village church with an audience who like classical music but might not want to feel challenged, you’d play something different to what you might do in an inner city concert hall……. different audiences want different things but ultimately they want to feel part of what’s going on.
This debate will run and run, in tandem with the endless hand-wringing and eye-pulling about the death of classical music. There is no simple answer. Maybe, as this article suggests, it is time classical music became more radical, to stop chasing audiences or worrying about ticket sales, and to simply revel in “great, challenging and rewarding music”. An idealistic view perhaps, but certainly one which merits consideration.
Why do I go to concerts? Because I love the uniqueness and excitement of a live performance, the sense that it is a one-off, created there and then (of course, as a musician myself I also appreciate the many hours of careful practising that go in to creating that performance). I love the sense that this is a shared experience, but one from which we can each take something personal and special – and that, for me, applies to all concerts, regardless of performer, repertoire or quality of performance.
As a performer, I believe the music was written to be shared and for me that is the fundamental motivation for performing.
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
It was a slow process, with music growing into such a presence in my life that midway through college I realized it had taken over, so I switched from pre-med and never looked back.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
That has changed many times: As a teenager I tried to play piano like Erroll Garner, then more like Keith Jarrett. In college I fell in love with the music of Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe, but listened about as much to Bonnie Raitt and the Band. In more recent years my work in opera led me to Verdi and my work in ballet to Prokofiev. Next week I might mention different names, but just now these are the influences that spring to mind.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
My challenges are the same as those of most composers: almost all orchestras and opera houses pay lip service to the importance of new music but in practice consider it a risk to their box office. So our work as composers is marginalized, perhaps set apart as a prestige item; classical music as a whole is correspondingly impoverished. Wonderful music is being created and performed all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it from Lincoln Center or similar places.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I find it most inspiring to be given very specific guidelines, such as “an oboe quartet of about 15 minutes, to be paired with the Mozart for the same ensemble.” Or “5 minutes of fight music that becomes a love duet, for changing numbers of dancers.” These are both challenges and pleasures.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
For most of us this is the usual situation, and it’s a healthy one, because as a composer I don’t write for the audience – I write for the performer, who in turn shares the music with the audience. Performers can do that best if I can write effectively for them – show off what they do best, while giving them something a little unlike the rest of what they perform. I love tailoring the music in that way; it also offsets the essentially solitary nature of composing.
Of which works are you most proud?
My four operas, because I think the way I combine the various elements that make up opera (text setting, stage timing, vocal deployment, use of the orchestra) is not like anyone else’s, and works better than most. Each of my operas is full of the most radical music I could think of, and at the same time each one reaches out passionately to the largest possible audience of non-specialist listeners. I try to combine those goals with anything I write, but opera feels particularly congenial.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I’m a “notes and rhythms” kind of composer. There is lots of life left in traditional musical devices, in fact more life than there is in straining for extremes or following musical fashions of any kind. I enjoy inventing unusual melodic lines, finding surprising moments for traditional chords, and combining fairly simple rhythms in unexpected ways.
How do you work?
It depends on the piece. If I have a text, that helps me to organize the music. A dance or film scenario gives me another kind of structure. A portrait done from life is a combination of meditation and improvisation. A tribute usually starts with some sort of core of pre-existing music around which I spin other notes and rhythms.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I return over and over to the music of a few composers of roughly my own generation. In no particular order: Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Lee Hyla, Arthur Levering, Poul Ruders, George Benjamin, Chen Yi, Scott Lindroth. I’ve also played and conducted music by most of these composers, and highly recommend any of them to listeners looking for a fresh musical experience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Here are a few: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony when I first heard it live; Sibelius 6th symphony live; The Band in concert; the opportunity to conduct Ramifications by Ligeti and Corpus Cum Figuris by Poul Ruders.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Composers should write what they actually want to hear; performers should play and sing what passionately inspires them; audiences should demand excitement, not settle for what the PR agents are peddling that month.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Writing more music, probably in New York.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Coffee and composing in the morning, friends and a good meal in the evening.
What is your most treasured possession?
Nothing physical – I treasure my family and friends.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Besides composing? Playing tennis, I guess, if I could only find the time to do it more.
What is your present state of mind?
Opening out to new possibilities.
Scott Wheeler’s new album ‘Portraits & Tributes’ (works for piano 1977-2014), performed by Donald Berman, is available now. Further information here
Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains.
This thoughtful and well-argued article appeared on the Gramophone website, an “insider’s” view of the way music is taught in UK state schools.
a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society
The word “elite” has been frequently heard during the fortnight of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Athletes and sportspeople at the top of their game are regularly described as “elite”, and afforded an elevated status. And rightly so: these people are at the peak of their fitness, they’ve trained long, hard and meticulously to prepare for the games, and the medals and approbation are the visible badges of their great achievements. They are truly “elite”. We have no problem in applying this word to our sporting champions and when we use it it is replete with respect, admiration and awe.
It’s a rather different scenario when the word is used in relation to classical music. In this case it suggests exclusivity, inaccessibility, snobbery, and describes an art form which is regarded as the preserve of the few not the many whose practitioners are aloof, stuffy and out of touch.
You wouldn’t say that about Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins would you?
But of course classical musicians are elite. Look at how they train, the meticulous way they approach preparation, fitness, mental attitude. The mindset and physical preparation of the musician is very similar to that of the athlete, and many comparisons can – and should – be drawn between sporting elite and musicians.
These days many musicians look to sport and more specifically sports psychology to inform their musical training and preparation (cf The Inner Game of Music which came from “inner game” sports training which has been used successfully by top tennis players). Musicians, like sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to put in the many long hours of training to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this. And just like elite athletes, musicians undergo a very rigorous training which includes much repetitive physical activity (practising) and psychological conditioning. We admire our elite athletes for their physical prowess, their stamina, their grace and strength – and we praise them for their dedicated, meticulous training. And we should admire the same attributes in our musicians.
Musicians, unlike sportspeople, last longer: those who’ve been elevated to the dizzy heights of “elite” (aka “world class”, “internationally renowned”, “legendary” etc) can continue a career well into their 80s (Paul Badura Skoda, for example). A few know when it’s time to step back to let the younger players through (notably, Alfred Brendel). Others cling on determinedly, even if their playing does not match their revered status.
Sportspeople, meanwhile, are judged more objectively by their results and they usually know when it’s the right time to quit. They retain their special status and enter the hall of fame for others to aspire to and emulate. The greatest sportspeople go out at the top of their career (Bradley Wiggins, for example, who eschewed the big salary to concentrate what he enjoys and does well – track cycling; also Sir Chris Hoy, Boris Becker and Victoria Pendleton). These people know that they have reached a point in their professional career where there is nothing left to add and that now is the time to stand down. This is partly because of the physical demands on the body, motivation, the punishing lifestyle, and the recognition that better, younger people are coming through. Many turn their attention to coaching, sharing their wisdom and experience to support and inspire the next generation of elites.
We want our musicians to be elite: by adopting a mindset and training regime akin to that of the elite athlete, musicians are able to produce performances which are consistently impressive, technically assured, absorbing, moving, exhilarating, inspiring…… These are the traits we admire in our elite musicians and for this reason we should celebrate their superhuman talents, in just the same way that we lionise our medal-winning athletes.
Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.
It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.
As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.
The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.
But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:
Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive
We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.
It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……
I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..
No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)
This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.
“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.
Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.
James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.
‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.
Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.
Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?
I gravitated quite instinctively towards the little cottage upright piano which we had at home when I was a child. Neither of my parents are musicians – vicar and teacher respectively – but both love music and encouraged my earliest fumbling attempts at the keyboard!
There was never an actual moment when I decided to pursue a career in music. It all happened very organically from the earliest lessons with a Hampshire County Award teacher followed by a place at the inspirational Yehudi Menuhin School and then onto the Royal College of Music. I’ve never had any real doubts or regrets about following the musical path
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Two exceptional pianists have guided my playing and approach to the piano and music making in general:
The wonderful Russian pedagogue Irina Zaritskaya taught me at the RCM in the early 1990s. She revealed and shared her special secrets into achieving pianistic fluency, a huge variety of touches and rich musical imagery. Her warm personality coupled with a generosity of spirit are qualities I remember and treasure.
I later had the privilege of working closely with Imogen Cooper on a wide range of repertoire. Imogen’s focus, intellect and sheer intensity of listening are truly exceptional. She demanded a greater sense of ‘digging deep’ into the scores, really focusing on long lines, balance of sound, projection, colour and style. All of the qualities that make her own playing so memorable and remarkable’
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
For me these are threefold:
Studying, developing and maintaining a huge range of music is a challenge for the vast majority of pianists. Tackling certain epic works such as Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ or Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto stand out in my mind as particularly demanding but immensely rewarding experiences.
The ability to cope with long journeys, strange environments and a wide range of different instruments, whilst always aiming to deliver the best performances is a perennial challenge!
Keeping a sense of long term perspective in one’s aims as a musician. Managing leaner times, dealing with difficult aspects of the music profession, remaining motivated and hopeful whilst keeping the flickering flame of that essential love of music alive and well’
You’ve recently announced the London Piano Festival with your duo partner Katya Apekisheva. Why did you decide to found this festival?
Katya and I have both attended many excellent festivals where various instrumentalists gather together to play chamber music. In 2011 we were invited to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland where the focus was almost exclusively on pianists performing in solo and duo capacities. The atmosphere, camaraderie and sheer quality of the concerts there were very special indeed.
After this positive experience, we decided to create something similar in the UK and were thrilled when Kings Place in London, with their pair of vibrant, contemporary concert halls, enthusiastically took up our idea. Pianists are destined by the very nature of the instrument to be solitary creatures. We hope to change all that for one dazzling weekend in October!
What are you most looking forward to in the London Piano Festival?
The Two-Piano Gala on the evening of Saturday, October 7th!
This mammoth concert will see the two Kings Place Steinway pianos placed together for an evening of piano duo music drawn almost exclusively from the Twentieth Century repertoire. Seven pianists including Stephen Kovacevich, the doyen of current players, will join forces in various duo formations to explore the riches, complexities and excitement of music for two pianos. Rachmaninoff, Ravel and a world premiere by the superb American composer Nico Muhly, will all be on the menu.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
It is difficult to be truly proud of any particular performance or recording as so many aspects can always be improved upon.
Having said that, certain concerts where all the elements seem to combine do remain in my memory. Recent positive concert experiences include a Wigmore Hall performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Takács Quartet, the Beethoven concertos at the magical St Endellion Summer Festival in Cornwall and a concert from last summer’s Ryedale Festival where I played the Goldberg Variations to a rapt, packed audience in one of Yorkshire’s grandest stately homes.
In terms of recordings, my have fond memories of a beautiful September weekend in Barnes when I recorded a solo Poulenc disc at St Paul’s School with super views across the Thames. I had just met my partner and was ‘walking on air’ at the time of the sessions. All that was back in 2003!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Another impossibly embarrassing question! If forced to answer, I would mention the Debussy Preludes, Bach Partitas, some of the big Schubert sonatas and of course my beloved Janáček.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am not one of those musicians who has a clear plan for their whole playing career in terms of repertoire. Perhaps I should try to be!
I gravitate towards certain composers and their works rather as you may pick up a book from your packed library shelves. There is a little bit of divination going on here.
My aim is to constantly learn new works, to react to the suggestions of others and to regularly revisit pieces from earlier in life. Returning to these with new experiences and musical knowledge is one of the best aspects of being a full time musician. I’m becoming increasingly interested in contemporary music and feel excited to have recently worked with/recorded music by Jonathan Dove, James Macmillan and Nico Muhly
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Wigmore Hall for its sublime acoustics, stunning pianos and sheer history
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Concerto wise, I love to perform any of the five Beethoven, also the Schumann and Bartok’s 3rd. Plenty of two piano works are a thrill to play, particularly Ravel’s La Valse and the Rachmaninoff Suites. As a listener my list is utterly endless – Bach Brandenburg concertos, Janacek operas, Mahler, Sibelius symphonies, Schubert & Schumann lieder, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright…
Who are your favourite musicians?
Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Martha Argerich, Andras Schiff, Brigitte Fassbaender, Gerald Finley. Of those no longer with us – Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Jacqueline du Pré to name just a handful
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Impossible to select just one! Perhaps the most unexpected was a performance in the South of France at the En Blanc et Noir Festival, Lagrasse where pianists perform in a semi covered, stone market place. I was giving my first ever concert of Liszt’s Anneés de Pelerinage, Switzerland and whilst launching into the octave deluge of ‘Orage’, a genuine summer storm raged overhead complete with crashing thunder and flashes of lightning. Perfect timing, coincidence and choreography!’
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Commitment, passion, patience and a sense of giving your all to the works of the truly wonderful composers who enrich our lives.
On a practical front, each musician needs to acquire the essential knowledge of musical building blocks – harmonic movement, structure/architecture, a feeling for melodic shaping, precise rhythmic grasp – whilst constantly developing their abilities to listen closely to what is actually coming out of the instrument!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Having clear headspace and a mind free of extraneous worries
What is your most treasured possession?
My 2009 Steinway Model B Piano
The London Piano Festival, a brand new celebration of the piano created by Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, runs from 7-9 October 2016 at London’s Kings Place. Further information about the festival here
Charles Owen is recognised as one of the finest British pianists of his generation with an extensive series of performances and recordings to his name.
Charles has appeared at London’s Barbican and Queen Elizabeth Hall and regularly gives recitals at the Wigmore Hall and Kings Place. Internationally he has performed at the Lincoln Center, Weill/Carnegie Hall, the Brahms Saal in Vienna’s Musikverein, the Paris Musée d’Orsay, and the Moscow Conservatoire.
His chamber music partners include Adrian Brendel, Nicholas Daniel, Augustin Hadelich, Chloë Hanslip, Julian Rachlin and Mark Padmore as well as the Carducci, Elias, Takács and Vertavo Quartets. In addition he has an established piano duo partnership with Katya Apekisheva with whom he has recorded the duo versions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka
Charles studied in London at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal College of Music with Irina Zaritskaya and later furthered his studies with Imogen Cooper and Valeria Szervánszky. He has won numerous awards, including the Silver Medal at the Scottish International Piano Competition (1995) and the 1997 Parkhouse Award with the violinist Katharine Gowers. A regular guest at many leading festivals such as Aldeburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Leicester and West Cork , Charles has also performed concertos with the Philharmonia, Royal Scottish National, London Philharmonic and the Moscow State Academic Symphony orchestras.
Charles’ solo recordings include discs of piano music by Janácek, Poulenc and the complete Nocturnes and Barcarolles by Fauré. Together with Natalie Clein, he has recorded cello and piano sonatas by Brahms, Schubert Rachmaninov and Chopin for EMI.
Charles Owen is a Professor of piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
British pianist Stephen Hough has sparked a lively debate by suggesting in an article that classical concerts could be “shorter” to attract younger or new audiences, or allow venues and musicians to offer two concerts in one evening. He has also hinted that intervals could be ditched in favour of a performance lasting around 70 minutes, and that concerts could start at different times (in the UK the standard start time for an evening concert is 7.30pm) perhaps to allow two performances in the same evening. Reactions online to these suggestions have ranged from outrage (at the thought of anyone messing around with the “traditional concert format”) to applause (for creative thinking).
In fact what Stephen Hough is suggesting is not that new. Many musicians, ensembles, orchestras and venues have been experimenting with different ways of presenting classical music for some time, from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals. Earlier this year I met and interviewed John Landor whose innovative Meet the Music concerts allow audience members to get right up close and personal with the musicians and the music, literally, while the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has for some time offered concerts in pubs and late-night “speed-dating” sessions where the audience can meet the musicians after the performance.
Trying to encourage “young people” to come to classical music concerts is an ongoing preoccupation of ………well, anyone with an opinion on the future of classical music, it would appear. There seems to be a current misconception about young people that because they are used to the instant gratification of the internet and platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Netflix et al, they are incapable of sitting through a concert or performance lasting more than 30 minutes, maximum, in one go. Personally, I think it is less to do with this and more to do with education – or lack thereof – that has inculcated in them the idea that classical music is “boring”.
Personally, I have never had a problem with the length of concerts. I think this is partly due to the fact that from a very young age I was taken to concerts and opera at which I was asked by my parents to sit quietly and attentively. In fact, my mother used to say to me that it was “very rude to yawn or fidget” during the performance “because the musicians can see you and will be offended if they think you’re not listening properly!”. Having been on the other side of the stage, so to speak, as a performer in recent years, I am not so sure she was right (I tend not to look at the audience, as a pianist, until I stand to bow), but I think her comments certainly taught me to be a well-mannered and attentive concert goer. In over 40 years of concert going I have only twice fallen asleep during a concert, once during a Prom which I had rushed up the M3 in the car to get to (and I also fell asleep momentarily at the wheel of the car during the journey). I also feel slightly embarrassed if I leave during the interval (again, something I rarely do).
The length of a concert is dictated by many factors, including the programme of music being performed, type of venue, and time of day. Sometimes performers like to run a whole 70-90-minute programme without a break (Pierre-Laurent Aimard did this a few year’s ago with his Liszt Project cycle at the Southbank), and certain works, such as Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, are best performed (in my humble opinion) without a break to allow listener, and performer, to appreciate the arc of the narrative. But some repertoire is very demanding for the soloist and an interval may be necessary not only for the performer/s to have a break, a pee and a drink, and regroup before going back on stage, but also for the audience to pause and reflect on what they have heard, have a break, chat with friends and go back for the second half with refreshed ears and mind.
And I think it’s easy to forget too that for many people going to a concert is very much a social experience: it’s not just about the music, though of course that is the greater part of the evening, but it is also about meeting friends, sharing the excitement of live music, the conversations afterwards about what you heard.
Other factors dictate how long one can last in the auditorium, such as comfort of seats (Cadogan Hall has the comfiest seats in London), climate (the Royal Albert Hall can sometimes be unbearably hot and airless), and quality of the “social areas” (bars, foyers etc).
So I think what Stephen Hough is really suggesting is that it’s important to keep thinking of creative and exciting ways to present classical music. Concerts may be short or long, with or without interval, or formal dress. Performers may speak to the audience beforehand, or be interviewed, or maybe there is a pre-concert talk, or a post-concert Q&A session. We don’t need “gimmicks” to sell classical music – and most young people can spot a gimmick which has been thought up by a focus group or a bunch of middle aged people trying (and failing) to get on down with the kids. The most important thing is not to patronise audiences or talk down to them.
This is a very interesting discussion – feel free to leave your thoughts on this subject in the comments box below.
Readers may be interested in the Music Marathon project at St John’s Smith Square, London which takes place over the weekend of 17 and 18 September as part of Open House London 2016. Soloists, choirs and ensembles will perform over a 24-hour period while the doors of St John’s will be open during the entire weekend to allow people to come in and explore the building, while also enjoying performances by a wide range of musicians (I will be performing there from 1.15-1.30pm on Saturday 17 September).
‘Heading for the Hills’ by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith Performed by Strata String Quartet Violin 1: Oliver Morris Violin 2: Alexandra Dunn Viola: Laurie Dempsey / Alice Billen Cello: Roderick Skipp
Recorded at Blueprint Studios, Salford Mixed and Mastered by Gaz Hadfield Cover design by Louis Barabbas
Debt Records, released July 15, 2016
This first classical release by Debt Records celebrates a groundbreaking East-West collaborative partnership between Japanese composer Nobuya Monta and British composer Peter Byrom-Smith. ‘Heading for the Hills’, a suite in 10 movements for string quartet, is the main work on the album, bookended by Sonata Lamentosa and Sinfonia by Monta. Peter Byrom-Smith’s work, which lends its title to the album, is a tribute to the landscape of the Peak District close to where Peter and his wife Gillian, a poet, have made their home in Glossop in Derbyshire.
“The title of the album was taken from a poem written by my wife Gillian Byrom-Smith. The poem was inspired by the frequent rail journeys we have taken across the ﬂat Vale of York towards the beauty of the Pennines.”
The main six movements of the work are musical images of real journeys between the east and west of England, depicting things the composer observed, or thought he had observed during the course of these journeys (Galleons, Swallows, Raindrops, Heading for the Hills Lanterns, Buds). A Prelude and Postlude were added to complete the work – and the journey – so that the suite works as an entire narrative when performed in concert. No. 7, Buds, was composed by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith.
This haunting, expressive and evocative music contains hints of British minimalist composer Michael Nyman, but without the (sometimes tiresome) insistent repetitions. Byrom-Smith seems more intent on using melody, harmony and dialogue between the instruments to create interesting textures and musical interactions. Motifs are stated, restated and developed, for example the dancing figure which opens over a drone in ‘Raindrops’ develops into a playful, twirling dance between the instruments. Here there are more than a few hints of English folksong and dance before the middle section unfolds in a more contemplative manner. Later, the folksy motif returns and an insistent little fanfare is heard in all instruments.
‘Swallows’ creates a feeling of space, of birds wheeling and circling in the sky, with its contoured melodic lines and delicate fioriture, redolent of the solo violin line in ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan-Williams. ‘Buds’ unfolds slowly, just as a flower or plant opens to reveal itself. The final work in the suite, Postlude, recalls themes heard previously in the Prelude and introduces new material to bring the narrative and imagery to its conclusion.
Nobuya Monta’s ‘Sonata Lamentosa’ is an emotional response to the tragedies that have occurred all over the world. The textures here are more florid, the mood more urgent with an almost Schubertian melancholy (cf String Quartet No. 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’), though, as in Schubert, there is also a sense of hope.
The closing work on the album, ‘Sinfonia’, is also by Monta, and once again seems infused with the moods and motifs of late Schubert and the harmonic and rhythmic piquancy of the early twentieth century (Ravel, Debussy). It utilises contrapuntal textures and the second movement is a thrilling fugue.