All posts by The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, writer, music and arts reviewer, and blogger on classical music and pianism

Meet the Artist……Joanna Macgregor, pianist

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

I played all kinds of instruments when I was young, but the piano is like a universe. You can use it to compose and to perform – it represents so many different styles of music from early French keyboard music and Bach, to Beethoven and John Cage, jazz and blues. I’ve always loved the piano, and loved listening to other pianists.
I’m devoted to practicing and studying music, mainly. It’s the physical and intellectual stamina it requires that I still find so exciting; I really enjoy talking a pencil and marking the score, and spending hours with a work. It’s allowed me to travel all over the world, which I never expected, as a performer. I love teaching, and collaborating with other artists and composers.

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

My mother had me when she was young, and I was her first piano student. She was very imaginative in her musical tastes: together we played Bach, Mozart, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Beatles songs, and gospel music. Being taken on by YCAT (Young Concert Artist Trust) in my twenties was a fantastic apprenticeship; I built up a big repertoire, and learnt to communicate with audiences.

David Sigall was also undoubtedly a major influence. He was my manager until he retired last year. He taught me to see the long game, and encouraged me to be a curator and artistic director. He seemed totally unfazed by anything I got up to, whether it was starting a record label, conducting or collaborating with world musicians.

I’ve also been heavily influenced by jazz musicians; the way they collaborate, make things happen, hang out together, and support each other’s gigs.

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

I’ve always loved playing at the BBC Proms – my first one was nearly thirty years ago! And broadcasting live is tough – you have to be on top of everything.
My most treasured memory is working with Pierre Boulez, twice; first on a European tour with the Philharmonia and later with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was witty, warm, elegant, gossipy and just a gorgeous musician to be with, both on and offstage.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Impossible to say, as they’re all flawed to my ears, of course. But for different reasons, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards; Deep River with the saxophonist Andy Sheppard, which explored music of the Deep South; and my most recent recording, the complete Chopin Mazurkas.

Very early on in my career I recorded Charles Ives’ First Sonata, an absolute epic, at Snape Maltings. I still love his music very deeply.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I seem to gravitate towards intense miniatures – Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys, Chopin Mazurkas – or huge cycles – Messiaen, Beethoven, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I like architecture; on the other hand I also like playing in the moment. I find so much music is a mixture of structure, and unfolding, like following a fork in the road.

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

It depends on the venues, and what I’d like to add to my repertoire. I still learn new pieces – this year it was Schubert’s last sonata in B flat, coupled with some late Liszt and Ligeti. I’m not at all rigid about the number of recital programmes or concertos I’ll carry around in any one season. It depends on all the other collaborations and new work I’m doing; I always seem to be working on new projects with poets or artists, as well as other musicians.

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

Many favourites – the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Bimhuis in Amsterdam; the Wigmore Hall, the medieval hall at Dartington. Something to do with intense atmosphere and audiences.

Favourite pieces to perform?

I always love Bach and Beethoven; I love practising them. I’m heavily into Chopin’s fifty-eight mazurkas at the moment, played chronologically; rather like reading someone’s personal diary.

Who are your favourite musicians?

So many. The pianists I listen most to (at the moment) are Edwin Fischer, Rubinstein and Maria João Pires. I adore spending time with Alfred Brendel; I admire great improvisers and slip into their concerts all the time.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably playing Shostakovich First Piano Concerto at the Last Night of the Proms – memorable for all kinds of reasons, including the controlled hysteria backstage. Being invited to play the Goldberg Variations at the Albert Hall by John Eliot Gardiner was pretty exciting for me.

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

Individuality, fearless talent, creativity, and the ability to design opportunities – fundamental to building a long career. The piano students at the Royal Academy of Music (as Head of Piano there I mentor them all) come with a very high degree of technical skill and musicianship. But I encourage them to develop other skills—curating, improvising, working with multimedia, commissioning composers, conducting from the keyboard, having a working knowledge of early keyboards—that will help them flourish at the beginning of their careers. Every summer we run a Piano Festival, which is largely curated now by the students themselves, and it’s a testament to their imagination and unstoppable energy.

 

Joanna MacGregor is one of the world’s most innovative musicians, appearing as a concert pianist, curator and collaborator. Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor of the University of London, Joanna MacGregor is also the Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School & Festival.

As a solo artist Joanna has performed in over eighty countries and appeared with many eminent conductors – Pierre Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, Valery Gergiev, Sir Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas amongst them – and orchestras, including London Symphony and Sydney Symphony orchestras, Chicago, Melbourne and Oslo Philharmonic orchestras, the Berlin Symphony and Salzburg Camerata. She has premiered many landmark compositions, ranging from Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Django Bates to John Adams and James MacMillan. She performs regularly at major venues throughout the world, including Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre and the Barbican in London, Sydney Opera House, Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Mozarteum in Salzburg.

 

St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 season 

On 19 June 2017, St John’s Smith Square announced its 2017/18 Season. 

In a characteristic programme, punctuated by a range of Festival celebrations, St John’s Smith Square continues its core mission to provide a home for Baroque music within the UK’s only concert hall dating from the Baroque period while equally championing new music. International artists sit comfortably alongside emerging talent and St John’s Smith Square also continues to provide a vital and unique central London home for the best in community music.

Festivals at St John’s Smith Square

This season, St John’s Smith Square presents seven festivals, each with their own distinct identity, featuring the highest calibre artists and repertoire as expected of its renowned programming approach.

The 32nd Annual Christmas Festival curated by Stephen Layton (9 – 23 December 2017) includes concerts with regular favourites Ex Cathedra, The Tallis Scholars, Solomon’s Knot, the choirs of Clare College Cambridge, Trinity College Cambridge, Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford, King’s College London, City of London Choir, the National Youth Music Theatre, Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. New to the Festival this year are Vox Luminis and the London Choral Sinfonia. A very special bonus for December will be organ curator David Titterington’s marathon undertaking to perform the organ works of JS Bach on the magnificent Klais organ at St John’s Smith Square. The Bach in Advent series comprises daily recitals, usually at 6.00pm, from 3 – 23 December 2017, and these will be open to all, free of charge.

The Holy Week Festival (26 March – 1 April 2018) returns after the huge success of the inaugural festival in 2017. Curated by Nigel Short and Tenebrae and featuring a mix of ticketed concerts and free late-night liturgical events, St John’s Smith Square will once again resound with choral music for Passiontide. Artists include Tenebrae, Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, Gabrieli, Skylark (from the USA), Aurora Orchestra, Ex Cathedra and The Tallis Scholars.

The London Festival of Baroque Music (11 – 19 May 2018) will have a French theme. In this, the 34th Festival since it was originally launched as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in 1984, the LFBM commences its new system of working with different Guest Artistic Directors for each festival. To develop the French theme, the Guest Artistic Director for 2018 is the conductor Sébastien Daucé who will be bringing his own Ensemble Correspondances for a staged setting of Charpentier’s Histoires sacrèes (17 May 2018). The Festival will also celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Couperin.

Following the ‘taster day’ in May 2017, Rolf Hind and friends will return for the iconoclastic Occupy the Pianos festival (19 – 22 April 2018). The growing stable of pianistic trailblazers will be joined by percussion, voice, film and elements of theatre in an exploration of the two broad subjects of Nature and Technology. The festival will also feature a performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ ground-breaking Eight Songs for a Mad King.

The Brook Street Band (and friends) lead a weekend Festival in February (23 – 25 February 2018) exploring the varied musical styles that informed and shaped the composer Georg Muffat. The Band will explore his legacy in the form of chamber and orchestral music by composers including Bach and Handel, with four concerts (plus a dance-music workshop and illustrated pre-concert talks) providing a comprehensive musical survey, as well as a natural ebb and flow in terms of mood and scale, small chamber versus orchestral line-ups, and art music versus dance music. Concerts include music from Muffat’s Armonico Tributo as well as a selection from the two volumes of Muffat’s ground-breaking Florilegium 

Also in February, St John’s Smith Square welcomes back the Principal Sound Festival (16 – 18 February 2018), which this year will focus on the music of Luigi Nono, alongside works by Rebecca Saunders, György Kurtág, Claudia Molitor and, once again, Morton Feldman. Artists featured include Exaudi, Explore Ensemble, the Bozzini Quartet, Siwan Rhys, George Barton and Jenni Hogan.

Americana ’18

Throughout the calendar year of 2018, St John’s Smith Square celebrates music from America in a series of concerts curated by the conductor David Wordsworth. Highlights include a celebration of Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday (9 March 2018) with a day of events including his complete works for keyboards and the London premieres of a number of his concertos. There will be a whole day of events, stretching for 13 hours (to represent the 13 stripes of the Stars and Stripes flag) on Independence Day (4 July 2018) and in Autumn 2018, there will be a focussed festival of American music.

Other features of Americana ’18 include the Carducci Quartet playing Philip Glass (23 March 2018), the London Chorus with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, celebrating the centenary of Bernstein’s birth (8 March 2018) and Orchestra Nova in a programme that includes the complete chamber version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring (22 May 2018). The pianist Zubin Kanga will give a concert of music by Terry Riley and John Adams among others (9 February 2018) and the Crouch End Festival Chorus will collaborate with the Brodsky Quartet in a programme including music by Randall Thompson, Copland and the Barber Adagio (10 February 2018). For everyone, there is an opportunity to ‘Come and Sing the Bernstein Musicals’ (17 March 2018).

Period Instrument Performance

Period instrument performance is always at the forefront of St John’s Smith Square’s programme. La Nuova Musica and The Holst Singers, both familiar to St John’s Smith Square audiences, collaborate for the first time in a programme of Handel and Mozart (13 November 2017).

London Bach Society make their contribution to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with a concert which brings together the Steinitz Bach Players and Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short (30 October 2017). St John’s Smith Square continues marking the Reformation’s anniversary when Gabrieli and Paul McCreesh return with their recreation of a 17th century Lutheran Christmas morning (7 December 2017) 

Following their debut performance back in April, the Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra with Christopher Monks will give a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (4 October 2017), continuing the celebrations of the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.

The young conductor, Joel Sandelson, brings his period instrument orchestra Wond’rous Machine for a concert of Corelli, Purcell and Lully (28 October 2017) and soprano Anna Dennis will give a concert of Purcell songs with Sounds Baroque directed by Julian Perkins (19 January 2018).

The European Day of Early Music (21 March 2018) will be celebrated at St John’s Smith Square with a performance in collaboration with the London Handel Festival, and there will be more Handelian celebrations when Stephen Layton directs a concert with Florilegium, soprano Mary Bevan and countertenor Tim Mead (27 February 2018).

Opera

Opera always plays a significant role in St John’s Smith Square’s calendar. Bampton Classical Opera continue to champion the work of Salieri (12 September 2017), this time with his The School of Jealousy, a work that almost certainly inspired Da Ponte and Mozart to create Cosi fan tutte. Later in the season Bampton return to give a programme illustrating the life of the legendary singer Nancy Storace (7 March 2018) marking the bicentenary of her death.

In October there is a chance to hear the opera stars of the future when St John’s Smith Square hosts the final of The Voice of Black Opera Competition (3 October 2018) featuring six young singers accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia , conducted by Kwamé Ryan. There is a further showcase opportunity when Irish Heritage Opera visit to celebrate 44 years of bringing Irish operatic talent to the stage (12 April 2018).

La Nuova Musica return with Handel’s Orlando (1 February 2018), the start of an annual cycle of Handel operas at St John’s Smith Square. There is more Handel in April when Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company return with Giulio Cesare (11 April 2018). Further opera can be found during the London Festival of Baroque Music when La Nuova Musica return with Iestyn Davies in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo (13 May 2018). 

Moving on from the baroque period, Kensington Symphony Orchestra present Puccini’s La Bohème conducted by their music director Russell Keable (21 May 2018).

Orchestral Performances

St John’s Smith Square enjoys close relationships with many of the UK’s top orchestras. The London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley’s innovative explorations of great piano concertos this season features works by Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Grieg whilst the Orchestra of St John’s continues its My Music series with celebrity guests including Sir Simon Jenkins, Lord Archer and Lord Hague. 

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief series Matthew Barley leads a performance of Sir John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil with the City of London Sinfonia (2 December 2017).

Orchestra Vitae return with an intimate programme of Mozart and David Lang which will be presented ‘in the round’ (7 November 2017) and then in the spring with a programme within the Americana ’18 season including Copland’s Third Symphony and the Gershwin Piano Concerto (2 March 2018). Another classic American Third Symphony, this time by Ives, is featured in a programme marking the return of the English Symphony Orchestra which also includes the Copland Clarinet Concerto, Piston’s rarely performed Sinfonietta and a newly commissioned work from Jesse Jones (18 April 2018).

In Spring 2018, St John’s Smith Square welcomes the European Union Chamber Orchestra for a programme of Haydn and Mozart (21 February 2018). 

The Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra have five concerts this season, and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra once more brings its unique programming style to St John’s Smith Square in its 17/18 concert series. The Royal Orchestral Society and the Salomon Orchestra also return to St John’s Smith Square for regular concerts including a performance of the Berg Violin Concerto with violinist Ben Baker and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 conducted by Holly Mathieson (16 October 2017).

Choral and Vocal Music

Given the outstanding acoustics at St John’s Smith Square, many choral societies return year after year and 2017/18 is no exception with performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius given by the 1885 Singers and Orchestra and the Malvern Festival Chorus (14 October 2017), Brahms’s A German Requiem with The London Chorus (11 November 2017), Islington Choral Society (18 March 2018) and the Anton Bruckner Choir (28 April 2018), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony with Twickenham Choral Society (8 July 2018), Handel’s Joshua with the Whitehall Choir (17 November 2017) and Haydn’s The Creation with Vox Cordis with the Orchestra of St Paul’s (21 November 2018).

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival St John’s Smith Square is delighted to once again welcome The Cardinall’s Musick with a programme of music from the 16th Century to present day. The English Baroque Choir celebrates its 40th birthday with a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor (24 March 2018) and the London Choral Sinfonia return with a programme that places music by James MacMillan, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen around the Requiem of John Rutter (22 February 2018)

New Music and Emerging Talent

The celebration of new music has always been central to the programming at St John’s Smith Square and this season is no exception. Among those whose works will receive premieres at St John’s Smith Square in 17/18 are Gregory Rose, Sally Beamish, Alexandra Harwood, Hanna Kulenty, Patrick Brennan, Khyam Allami, Nimrod Borenstein, Owain Park, Arlene Sierra, Kareem Roustom and Jesse Jones.

The highly praised Young Artists’ Scheme at St John’s Smith Square enters a fifth season with three extraordinary talents. The Bukolika Piano Trio present music by Boulanger, Hanna Kulenty, Messiaen, Górecki and Panufnik alongside more familiar works by Beethoven and Dvořák; the violinist Mathilde Milwidsky performs music by Arvo Pärt, Janáček, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Richard Strauss, while the piano and percussion duo of Siwan Rhys and George Barton offer programmes including music by Vinko Globokar, Kagel, Cage, Feldman and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. All three Young Artists will be showcased as part of a special concert (17 September 2017) within Open House London. 

Regular Concert Series & Chamber Music

St John’s Smith Square hosts its regular Thursday Lunchtime Concerts, which feature, among others: Yeomen from The Musicians’ Company; prize-winners from the Oxford Lieder Festival; performances from St John’s Smith Square’s Young Artists 17/18; artists featured at the Dartington International Summer School and a monthly organ recital series programmed by St John’s Smith Square’s organ curator, David Titterington. Particular highlights of the lunchtime series include the Pettman Ensemble with Stephen De Pledge and guest violinist Clio Gould (7 September 2017), the chamber choir Siglo de Oro (9 November 2017), the Duke Quartet (1 February 2018) and the violinist Daniel Pioro (22 March 2018).

The Sunday at St John’s programme, in its fourth year, once again includes a number of mini-series within it. Returning artists include I Muscanti and Leon Bosch who will give a series of concerts juxtaposing Russian chamber music with premieres by the composer Alexandra Harwood. Lucy Parham also returns with her Sheaffer Sundays ‘Composers in Love’ concert series featuring well-known actors such as Harriet Walter, Tim McInnerny, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell Beale.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room reaches the Razumovsky Quartets as it enters the second year of the complete Beethoven Quartets cycle (concluding in the 2018/19 season) and the pianist Julian Jacobson gives four concerts in his 70th birthday year that bring together masterpieces by Schubert, Beethoven and Prokofiev. Deniz Gelenbe and friends give two concerts of romantic chamber music while Ensemble de Note makes its St John’s Smith Square debut with a series of early classical chamber music performances. The Prince Regent’s Band will give a fascinating programme of 19th century band music (5 November 2017) and the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas together with Elizabeth Kenny (lute and theorbo) will set the scene for Christmas with their programme ‘Now Winter Comes Slowly’ (3 December 2017).

The virtuoso brass ensemble Septura opens the audience’s ears to new sounds as they make their St John’s Smith Square debut in a sequence of concerts entitled Kleptomania, playing arrangements of great works written for other instrumental combinations.

Piano recitals include a performance with Sibelius scholar Joseph Tong in a Nordic themed concert to mark the 60th anniversary (to the day) of Sibelius’s death (20 September 2017) and Blüthner Pianos present a series of concerts to showcase their instruments with the pianists Tom Poster, Dmitry Masleev and Martin Sturfalt. Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev is another pianist celebrating his 70th birthday at St John’s Smith Square (2 November 2017).

Southbank Centre at St John’s Smith Square

The collaboration with Southbank Centre continues for 17/18 during their period of refurbishment. Highlights include the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion (25 September 2017) and Rachel Podger playing and directing the OAE in a concert featuring two of Mozart’s Violin Concertos (27 November 2017). The London Sinfonietta return under their founder conductor David Atherton to give a performance of Henze’s landmark work Voices, based on 22 folk songs from around the world (11 October 2017) and St John’s Smith Square will also host some of the London Sinfonietta’s 50th birthday celebrations as they revisit many of the most iconic works from the past 50 years including music by Xenakis, Colin Matthews and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Highlights from Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Series at St John’s Smith Square include the Emerson Quartet in concerts on two consecutive nights with the late quartets of Beethoven (31 October and 1 November 2017) and Steven Osborne returning with friends to perform Messiaen’s monumental Quartet for the End of Time alongside Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio (14 November 2017). Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series at St John’s Smith Square includes concerts with Bertrand Chamayou, Víkingur Ólafsson, Boris Giltburg, Alice Sara Ott and George Li.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: “St John’s Smith Square is unique amongst London’s concert halls. It is the oldest, yet most flexible, concert hall in London and as such I am very proud that we are able to offer a programme that is so diverse but equally filled with events and festivals of deep integrity. The programme at St John’s Smith Square is forged through collaborating creatively with many hugely talented and generous musicians and my grateful thanks go to all those who enable this programme to be offered. We look forward to welcoming artists and audiences to this iconic venue throughout the coming season.”

 

Booking information:  

Box Office 020 7222 1061   

Book online http://www.sjss.org.uk  

 

St John’s Smith Square 2017/18 Season booking opens:

Monday 3 July 2017 for St John’s Smith Square’s Patrons

Friday 7 July 2017 for St John’s Smith Square’s Friends

Monday 10 July 2017 for General Booking
(Source: press release)

The Pianist’s “MUSTerbation”

As a pianist, do you suffer from “MUSTerbation”?

The term was coined by American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, the father of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy. It is a cognitive trait often present in people who are maladaptive perfectionists, who strive to achieve unattainable ideals or goals, and is a classic recipe for general anxiety and unhappiness.

“Musterbators” live by a set of inflexible, highly polarised beliefs, such as

I MUST do well and be treated with respect, or it is AWFUL and I can’t bear it

Is your piano playing and music making driven by ‘must‘ and ‘should‘ and ‘ought‘? Maybe you regularly make statements to yourself and others like:

  • I must practise
  • I should be practising
  • I ought to be practising
  • I have to practise

– and feel guilty and angry with yourself when you don’t act upon them

Such statements demonstrate a very inflexible and unrealistic mindset, and leave musterbators feeling angry, frustrated and resentful (of self and others) if they fail to fulfil a “should have” activity – such as piano practise.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” these shoulds, oughts, musts and have to’s create unrealistic and over-generalised absolutes. If we don’t stop to look objectively at these inner statements, we become enslaved by them. In addition, when we think we should be acting in a certain ‘ideal’ way, we create a judgmental Inner Critic and a part of us puts pressure on ourselves to follow these rules. We then feel guilty and depressed when we don’t. This often leads to strong feelings of guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression, and to procrastination, withdrawal, and obsessing about what has been (“I should have practised more”).

“The tyranny of the shoulds.”

Karen Horney

Such feelings can be deeply inculcated in us and often stem from parental pressures when we were children (“You should be practising!”) or from teachers, for example. We carry these behavourial traits with us into adulthood and may not even be aware of how much they impinge on our day-to-day life.

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Most pianists – professional or amateur – know they should practise, and most know that regular, focused, and intelligent practise leads to noticeable progress and deep learning. An important part of the practise process is retaining a sense of creativity, curiosity, spontaneity and experimentation. These aspects prevent practising from turning into mindless note-bashing and encourage us to find joy and excitement in our music making. There’s not much joy or vibrancy in a mindset which is continually under the sway of the tyranny of the should, and a whole lot of dissatisfaction and resentment. Unfortunately for musicians, much of formal musical training is geared towards the pursuit of perfectionism, even though perfectionism is an artificial construct and an unattainable goal.

As a musician, such obsessive perfectionist behaviour can stifle musical growth and creativity. The musterbator sets unrealistic or unachievable goals and then feels angry or depressed when such goals are unfulfilled. Musterbators worry excessively about mistakes, they dislike uncertainty, fear negative evaluation by others (teachers, peers, colleagues), and feel frustrated by the gap between what you expect of yourself and your current level of achievement/ability. The musterbatory mindset can lead to over-practising which in turn can lead to injury or greater susceptibility to injury, as well as feelings of low self-esteem and self-loathing, and resentment towards the instrument.

Last year, when I was working towards my Fellowship performance diploma (a high level professional exam), I found myself indulging in musterbatory behaviours, though I wasn’t aware of the term at the time and did not really recognise my obsessive perfectionist attitude as being anything other than taking a “professional” approach to my practising and study. I have always enjoyed practising, I know how to practise productively, and I work best when I have a clear focus or end goal. These attributes are not negative in themselves. My self-imposed practise schedule was such that I would be at the piano by 8am and would schedule at least 3 hours practise into each day. I felt I needed to practise every day and if I missed a day, I berated myself for lack of focus. I think it is important to note at this point that I am not a professional concert pianist and I did not, and do not, need to work at such a concentrated level day in day out. There were periods of time when I felt very angry with myself for not making greater progress and several occasions when I felt I had a reached an immovable impasse with the music (Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). On these occasions, the piano, which resides in my living room, became a negative presence looming over me, reminding me of my failings. In addition, I suffered several bouts of extremely painful tendonitis and developed a shoulder problem which has still not been fully resolved. There were many times during the process when I felt deeply dissatisfied and disappointed with myself, that I was “not good enough” and I was ready to give up. On reflection – and I took 4 months away from the music after failing to pass the diploma to do some serious re-evaluation – I can now see that my personal unhealthy perfectionism, my “musterbation” was actually harming my relationship with the piano and my enjoyment of music, in addition to causing harm to my body and my emotional well-being.

Fortunately, it is possible to reframe one’s way of thinking to escape the tyranny of the shoulds and the musterbatory mindset. Not all perfectionism is negative, and unlike the musterbator, the “adaptive” or “self-oriented” perfectionist derives “a sense of pleasure from their labors and efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation to succeed…….Self-oriented perfectionists may then use their pleasure in their accomplishments as encouragement to continue and even improve their work“*

Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyzed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.

– Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

These “healthy” perfectionists set themselves realistic goals and high personal standards which are achievable. They enjoy the process of striving, have a strong sense of personal autonomy and self-determination (“I choose to….” instead of “I must”), and notice incremental/marginal gains as well as larger achievements, and feel good about them. This in turn encourages greater effort and further achievement. In piano practise, this attitude enables one to regard mistakes as learning tools, to be imaginative and resourceful about problem-solving (of technical issues, for example), to be positive in self-evaluation and reflection, and be open-minded about critique from others (mentors, peers). The healthy perfectionist finds joy, spontaneity and love in their music making, which leads to greater feelings of satisfaction, self-worth and motivation.

If you find yourself prone to musterbatory traits in your piano practise, it’s probably time to question where this negative way of thinking or behaving has come from and why it must be followed. Are you placing undue pressure on yourself to meet unachievable goals, or maybe the pressure – real or imagined – is coming from an external force, such as a teacher or peers? Query whether this mindset is really benefitting you and your music (does it make you happy? Probably not……) and consider how setting realistic goals may improve your musical progress, your relationship with your instrument and your overall emotional health. It may be necessary to do this in consultation with a sympathetic teacher or trusted colleague.

Only when you banish toxic musterbatory thinking and free yourself from the tyranny of shoulds can you truly rediscover the love and joy of making music.

I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something – Yo-Yo Ma

 

Further reading

The Problem With Perfection

 


*(Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46

 

If you listen to one thing this week……

primafaciepfcd061……make it Kenneth Hamilton’s new disc ‘Liszt, Rachmaninov, Busoni: Back to Bach – Tributes and Transcriptions’

Liszt- Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH. Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’.

Bach/Rachmaninov – Suite from the Violin Partita in E Major.

Bach/Busoni – Choral Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. Chaconne from Violin Partita in D Minor. Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’.

PRIMAFACIE 061

This rewarding new disc of the music of Bach viewed through the lens of three great Romantic composer-pianists forms the first in the Prima Facie labe’s Heritage Series, which aims to shine a new light on familiar repertoire

Kenneth Hamilton’s imaginative playing is clearly founded on a passion for this repertoire combined with his extensive study of nineteenth-century pianism*, which includes historic recordings by Rachmaninov and Busoni themselves and the reminiscences of pupils of Franz Liszt. Thus one has the sense of very “informed” playing (though it never becomes overly intellectual nor dry). Thus the Bach-Busoni Chaconne features the revisions from Busoni’s own piano roll of the work, while the heartfelt performance of Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen” reflects Liszt’s own performance advice, as well as Hamilton’s assertion that the work is an emotional tribute to Liszt’s children Daniel and Blandine, whose tragically early deaths are depicted in the music. But like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), which this work seems to foreshadow, it ends on a note of hope for future redemption.

The two works by Liszt bookend this satisfying recital disc. Virtuosic in scale, the Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH and Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’ pay tribute to the genius of Bach through Liszt’s distinctive pianistic voice, but these are not show pieces. Here we find Liszt at his most serious and ruminative. and Hamilton’s clean, sensitively-nuanced playing reveals the dramatic contrasts in this music from quiet introspection to impassioned gestures.

This contrasts well with the works by Busoni which are played with warmth and refinement, with clear attention to the sophisticated harmonic details and voicing. The Bach/Busoni Chaconne, too often ponderous in the hands of the less skilled, is here grandly expansive, but never heavy. The interior details and individual voices have a lucid clarity which brings the music to life with ever-increasing drama.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninov’s glittering transcription of the Violin Partita in E major provides a joyful and witty interlude. In a way, this is the closest of all the transcriptions presented here to Bach’s original, but infused with Rachmaninov’s inventive, muscular textures (the Prelude has contrapuntal elements redolent of the Etudes-Tableaux) and piquant harmonies.

This is a splendid tribute not only to J S Bach but to the ingenuity and superlative pianism of three great composer-pianists of the golden age, pianism which is matched by Hamilton’s own.

Highly recommended

 


*Hamilton, Kenneth: After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

 

Kenneth Hamilton is a concert pianist, writer and broadcaster, and former student and colleague of Ronald Stevenson.

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Seong Jin Cho at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

“A fresh take on Mozart” – Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek in Amsterdam

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11 June 2017

Mozart – Sonata in F, KV 332

Chopin – Four Ballades

Debussy – Images (Première série), L. 110

Debussy – Images (Deuxième série), L. 111

 

South-Korean rising star and Chopin competition gold medallist Seong Jin Cho made his solo debut in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 11th June 2017. The concert was a part of the legendary 30-year series ‘Meesterpianisten’, organized by Marco Riaskoff. His made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Great Hall in 2015, almost straight from the stage of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not very long after that, in January 2016, he returned to Amsterdam with almost a ‘pop-up’ recital in the Recital Hall and I was really lucky to grab the last seat. He presented himself proudly as winner of the most prestigious piano competition in the world and gave the audience a flavor of what he served to the esteemed jury in Warsaw a couple of months back: a Nocturne, the Sonata in B flat op. 35 ‘Marche Funebre’ and finally the Preludes op. 28, which in my opinion guaranteed him the gold medal already in the third stage.

This time, still at such young age (23), he arrived at the Concertgebouw to rightfully take the stage in the Great Hall and claim his spot among the other master pianists. There was a slight last-minute change of programme, which finally consisted of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332, followed by the both books of Debussy’s ‘Images’. After the break we heard Chopin’s Four Ballades (which also appear on Cho’s latest CD for Deutsche Grammophon, along with the First Piano Concerto).

The opening piece sounded to me like a warm up, a way to test the feeling and acoustic of the hall now filled with the audience. Cho’s interpretation had everything that you would expect from a fresh take on Mozart: clarity, brightness, energy, vigour. I really appreciated that he emphasized a few polyphonic, fugue-like moments, which then later smartly contrasted with romantic fragments. The Adagio was played in an almost meditative manner and I was captivated by the way Cho produced the sound, focusing so much on exerting the right touch to yield the highest quality results. The final movement was the place to discretely show off his phenomenal technique and great control of dynamics of the instrument.

I feel that by bringing ‘Images’ by Debussy to the stage the young pianist made a statement, that he clearly doesn’t want to be labeled as a ‘Chopinist’ (Chopin-specialist – this term actually exists in Polish). Six pieces that are the essence of impressionism were performed pensively, with great confidence and the highest care to produce quality of sound. This wise choice of repertoire presented him as a mature, multi-dimensional artist. It was clear that he spent a lot of time experimenting and searching for his own identity in each of the pieces. Yet, the strongest feeling radiating from the instrument was freshness: fresh to the point that one could forget that it is still classical music – so jazzy and free, the music just flew from beneath Cho’s fingers. He showed the strongest command of the instrument; the precision with which each sound, tone and colour was executed was phenomenal. I felt that by playing Images he could fully express what he is going through, that this is what occupies his mind. His performance at this point was truly stunning, however, it felt that he is not yet done with the search for the key to these pieces and he may still work on them and experiment more. He is already very convincing in his interpretation, but youthful hunger and curiosity may lead to, hopefully, something unexpected on a new recording, perhaps? He was awarded a well-deserved standing ovation before leaving the stage for a break (the Concertgebouw audience does not do it very often).

And although the interpretation of Debussy was something new and captivating, I was most looking forward to Chopin’s Ballades. Sadly, these turned out not to be the pinnacle of the performance. Usually I am very sensitive to Chopin’s music (maybe because we are both Polish people living abroad) and often I shed a tear or two during public performances, but this time I was left just feeling puzzled. In my opinion, Cho set off too fast with the first Ballade and he could not calm himself till the end of the piece. Everything was in its place – the changing moods, the dynamics – but I cannot shrug off the feeling that it was all rushed and even nervous. The second Ballade started softly as it should, and I hoped that he had fought off the nerves after coming back from the break, but the more he got into the piece, the more chaotic it sounded. He lost clarity and brilliance in the high registers and right hand; the heavy chords in the left hand overpowered the piece. Things were back under control for the last two Ballades. Nevertheless, I was rather disappointed with the second part of the concert. However, a warm and sincere standing ovation for the debutant invited him to perform two short pieces for encores, one of them being Debussy’s ever-popular ‘Claire de lune’.

To sum up, it was a very good debut by Seong-Jin Cho, but I got the impression that the young artist felt the pressure of performing at such as prestigious venue and maybe a little overwhelmed, which showed especially in the openings of his pieces. Surprisingly, he felt most at ease when performing the more difficult to interpret Debussy, as if this was so close to him in that particular moment. On the contrary, coming back to Chopin, after the competition and all that buzz, seemed to be something that he would rather leave behind, or put aside for the time being. Seong-Jin Cho is such a young man, it is only natural that he is still searching for who he is or who he wants to become as an artist. The wonderful news is that along that search he leaves behind him beautiful, already very mature piano music for us to enjoy.

Shock and Awe: Igor Levit at Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Meet the Artist……Steven Devine, harpsichordist & director


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

I started as a pianist – we had a piano at home and I just enjoyed the sensation of interacting with it. Things seemed to go OK and I got a place at Chetham’s School of Music. While I was there I discovered the harpsichord and started to learn it with David Francis whose enthusiasm and approach to the instrument and music suited me perfectly.

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

I think it’s been everyone I’ve ever made music with; the harpsichord is such a collaborative instrument and as we spend so much of our time improvising, everyone has an influence on what we do. Two teachers played a big part in my thinking about the instrument – David Francis and the late John Toll.

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

Maintaining my own musical personality whilst needing to work and pay the bills.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It’s always hard listening to my own recordings – the music is always developing so often recordings feel like an earlier statement of a work. Performances are very much more satisfying and I’m proud of every one I’ve done – even the not very good ones!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think that depends what I’m working on and on what instrument at any moment. Each new project needs immersion in the musical language and also a different approach to the specific instrument. Every different harpsichord/clavichord/piano needs listening to as well to bring out what they offer so I play best what I’m working on at any moment.

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

I try and have an idea of things that I’d like to get under my fingers in the next few years, but working with a record company and concert promoters has to be more flexible than simply what I’d like to work on next season.

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

The nature of the instruments I play means that smaller is better. The Wigmore Hall is, of course, ideal. However, any venue where the instrument is balanced with the acoustic is great.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing the Goldberg Variations – it’s such a journey for performe and audience.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Anyone that makes me think about the music first, and the performance next.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

So many spring to mind: but the most memorable ones are nearly always collaborations. There’s something special about sharing the experiences with other people.

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

Practice, train and develop yourself to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. You never know what a concert situation or instrument is going to bring. Treat each new factor as an enhancement of the music, rather than a hurdle that must be overcome. There is no “perfect” musical situation.

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

Doing what I do now and working with as many musicians across the world as I can!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

At home in the garden with my family and a lovely glass of something.

 

Steven Devine enjoys a busy career as a music director and keyboard player working with some of the finest musicians.

Since 2007 Steven has been the harpsichordist with London Baroque in addition to his position as Co-Principal keyboard player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He is also the principal keyboard player for The Gonzaga Band, Apollo and Pan, The Classical Opera Company and performs regularly with many other groups around Europe. He has recorded over thirty discs with other artists and ensembles and made six solo recordings. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Chandos Records) has been received critical acclaim – including Gramophone magazine describing it as “among the best”. Volumes 1 and 2 of the complete harpsichord works of Rameau (Resonus) have both received five-star reviews from BBC Music Magazine and Steven’s new recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto has been voted Classic FM’s Connoisseur’s choice.

He made his London conducting debut in 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall and is now a regular performer there – including making his Proms directing debut in August 2007 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has conducted the Mozart Festival Orchestra in every major concert hall in the UK and also across Switzerland. Steven is Music Director for New Chamber Opera in Oxford and with them has performanced repertoire from Cavalli to Rossini. For the Dartington Festival Opera he has conducted Handel’s Orlando and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

From 2016 Steven will be Curator of Early Music for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble and will complete his complete Rameau solo recording for Resonus Classics.

Quality chamber music in the heart of Kingston

Launched in May with a fine performance by noted fortepianist and academic John Irving, the first tranche of Kingston Chamber Concerts (KCC) closed last night with a recital by the Armorel Piano Trio, who performed works by Beethoven, Schumann and Dvorak.

The KCC formula is quite simple: quality chamber music performed by young professional artists and local musicians in the convivial setting of the East End Café at All Saints’ Church, right in the heart of Kingston-upon-Thames and its historic market place. Tables are set out salon style and the bar serves good wine at a fraction of the cost of a glass of house white at the Wigmore Hall. You can take your drinks to your table and share a bottle with friends, as I did last night.

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The Armorel Piano Trio comprises Kathy Chow (piano), Lucia Veintimilla (violin) and Sebastian Kolin (cello). Their programme, opening with Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, Op 70/1 and closing with Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op 90, B 166, with Schumann’s Op 80/2 the middle of the triptych, demonstrated the development of the piano trio genre, from the strictly classical three-movement structure of Beethoven, though already showing the forward-pull of Beethoven’s vision in its eerily dramatic middle movement which connected it, in this concert, to Schumann’s sweeping romanticism, to the freedom of Dvorak’s six-movement ‘Dumky’ which feels more like a suite than a trio in its organisation highly  contrasting moods and textures.

This was a very committed performance by all three musicians, and extra credit must go to the young players who had had their final recitals for their post-graduate studies at conservatoire the same day: they must have been shattered but they hardly betrayed this, and their playing really came alive in the Dvorak which was replete with folk idioms and fine solos from cello and violin, with vivid colouration from the piano, in particular in the third and final movements. The Schumann was genial, laced with a bitter-sweet poignancy (the work was written in 1847, the year of the deaths of the Schumanns’ son Emil and Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn), and Armorel really caught the fleeting mercurial moods of this music.

The Beethoven, meanwhile, provided drama of a different kind, with much boisterous dialogue between violin and cello in the first and final movements, and colourful interplay between the piano and the other instruments. The slow movement was freighted with Gothic gloom, with its fragmented themes, uncertain harmonies and eerie tremolos in the bass of the piano. This was a movement of great tension, rich in quasi-orchestral textures.

This was a fine end to the first three concerts in KCC’s six-concert first season and the sizeable audience prove the series is already off to a very good start. The series resumes on Saturday 16 September with Ceruleo, an early music ensemble, whose concert entitled ‘Love and Betryal in the music of Handel and Barbara Strozzi’ includes performances on harpsichord, theorbo and Viola de Gamba.

For further information about Kingston Chamber Concerts/join their mailing list, please contact kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com, or telephone 020 8549 1960