Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My career in music has been an organic process of embracing a variety of opportunities that have unfolded as a result of my training as a multi-instrumentalist/ composer and following my intuition. The turning point in pursuing my musical career in particular happened during my years studying composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where I met a wide range of musicians and had several professional opportunities that opened the door to a continuous flow of experiences to date.

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

My Mum (who decided I should start piano lessons at 4 years old), Sweet Honey In The Rock, David Smith (my principal piano teacher), Sue Sutherly & David Kennedy (my cello teachers), Stevie Wonder, Trinity Laban, Bach, Courtney Pine, Nitin Sawhney and Anoushka Shankar.

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

Moments of my own self-imposed limited thinking.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut album Road Runner

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Roxanne

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

Every show is unique. I consider the venue, audience, music I have in my repertoire, whether it’s a solo or band show and then shape the performance accordingly.

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

King’s Place, London. It’s a beautiful venue in my hometown with great sound, two versatile rooms that are able to accommodate the range of my musical styles and the capacity is just right for me (intimate but big enough). I’ve had so many incredible pivotal performances there across my career and memories to last a lifetime.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing my song ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC, becoming the only non-American to win an entire season of Amateur Night Live.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A stream of exciting musical opportunities that facilitate artistic growth and truly enjoying the music you’re creating and sharing.

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

  • Hearing your own inner voice, following your intuition as an artist.
  • Creative discipline – having a practice to enable development and excellence.
  • Recording your output so you can reflect and move forward with confidence.

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

In 10 years time, I see myself engaging in a portfolio of amazing creative experiences including:

  • Creating an extraordinary multi-disciplinary live show and touring the world with
    my band, dancers and crew.
  • Composing music for theatre, dance and film.
  • Running a record label that supports release of music by other artists as well as
    my own.
  • Curating several music festivals worldwide.
  • Collaborating with some of my musical heroes including Sting, Anita Baker,
    Erykah Badu, Bjork and Take Six.
  • Composing for and performing with several orchestras including the London
    Symphony Orchestra, Chineke!, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropole Orkest

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Internal and external peace and fulfilment in all aspects of life in the present moment.

What is your most treasured possession?

Reuben, my cello.

What is your present state of mind?

Calm.


Singer, songwriter, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a rare exception to the rule that classical and alternative r&b music cannot successfully coexist.

Graduating with a first from both Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna was a participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme and become an Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She was a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors and became the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.

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For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to an energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.

7372kArthur Sullivan, Haddon Hall

Following the critical success of ‘The Mountebanks’, John Andrews’ recording of Sullivan’s late opera ‘Haddon Hall’ with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers  and a cast featuring Sarah Tynan and Henry Waddington was released at the weekend.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with John Andrews


 

img_5978En Pleine Lumière volume 1 – Sandra Mogensen, piano

This first album in the “en pleine lumière” project features 10 composers born in the mid-19th century, including Mel Bonis, Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Taillferre and Amy Beach.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with Sandra Mogensen


 

The concert halls are closed but the music goes on, and many musicians are turning to video-casts and livestreamed concerts to share their music with others. Here are a couple you might like to subscribe:

Fenella Humphreys, violin

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_JlM05leyWyMXxUjiZBn6w


Carducci String Quartet

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNe2mg8zBdHR6OPzIbKm1qg/feed


If you are livestreaming concerts and would like to be featured on this site, please contact The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was always a musical child; I used to sing a lot in choirs before playing the violin; this has had a big influence on my playing.  I’m not sure what made me want to play the violin, but I remember that it was something I nagged my parents to do for about a year before I finally started aged eight. Once I had my hands on one, I knew that I would be able to play the thing!  Once it became clear that I had something special, the choice of career was made for me!

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

I had a wonderful friendship and working relationship with my one and only teacher Mateja Marinkovic. I was very lucky to find a teacher at that top-level from the first lesson, so violinistically he was my biggest influence. Since then it has been making wonderful collaborations with other like-minded musicians.  I have always had a very strong musical instinct; later on in my career though teaching at the Royal Academy of Music I have had to unpick why I feel things in this strong way in order to explain it to others!

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

Learning to play the violin to a world-class level is undoubtedly the most challenging thing I have ever experienced! We have to sacrifice so much as youngsters to get there, missing out on childish fun and shedding a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Still, it was worth it in the long run.

It’s 25 years since I made my debut with the Hallé Orchestra, and another significant challenge is to continually evolve and develop yourself over time so as not to become stale. For me, that has meant pushing myself to try new things and taking risks with repertoire that other players shy away from.

I have always challenged myself to be the best I can and in order to evolve I have also had to be creative, from the founding of my Music, Science and Arts Festival in Oxford (www.OxfordMayMusic.co.uk) to recently being given the role as Artistic Director for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (www.afcm.com.au). These roles take me out of being a just a player into a whole new creative world.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am very proud of the three recordings I made for Hyperion of the complete Bruch works for violin and orchestra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins. In particular, the recording of Bruch Violin Concerto no. 2 is very close to my heart.  I’m also very excited by my latest recording of the Schoenberg and Brahms violin concertos (Orchid Classics). The Schoenberg was an incredible adventure to learn and get to grips with.  I have made some lovely movie soundtracks, and as I imagine music in terms of storytelling, the imagery and music make such a powerful combination; the soundtrack to Jane Eyre written by Dario Marianelli still makes me cry!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have probably enjoyed performing Brahms Violin Sonatas with my regular collaborator Katya Apekisheva the most out of any of the smaller scale repertoire. In terms of concertos, I adore Mendelssohn Concerto, and I could play it over and over again without tiring of it. I love Brahms and Dvorak Concertos too. I have also had a great time performing more contemporary concertos like those by Magnus Lindberg (no 1) and Brett Dean.

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

This happens kind of organically. Some things are requests from promoters (for instance an unusual concerto), others more ideas that come together because of a particular theme.  I am happy to juggle lots of repertoire, so sometimes there is no rhyme or reason!

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

In London I would say the Wigmore Hall is the most special – you can hear a pin drop!  Out of London where the best halls in the UK are, I particularly love Symphony Hall in Birmingham and Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The hall becomes an extension of the instrument, so the best halls allow the violin to fully vibrate and give a warmth to the sound, and the hall gives feedback to the musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have always said that as a British soloist, you haven’t made it until you have played a Prom concert. This happened for me in 2015 when I played Paganini’s La Campanella with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Performing in Leipzig Gewandhaus with MDR Orchestra a few years ago was magical. My father’s side of the family came from Germany but fled the Nazis, and I could feel my (long dead) grandfather in the room; he would have been so proud!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

See above re the Prom!

But, also I think longevity is a sign of success in the musical world, continuing to evolve and perform into your middle age (I’m getting there!) and then later is a real sign of success and stamina…

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

For me, integrity as a musician is the most important asset.  We are the voice of the composer, the notes didn’t accidentally land up on the page, so we have to justify every sound we make. No notes left behind!

What is your most treasured possession?

I have two; one is my incredible Guadagnini violin, a life partner that I have played for over twenty years. The other is my dog Mollie – although sometimes I think I am her possession.

Jack Liebeck’s new recording of the Schoenberg and Brahms violin concertos is available now on the Orchid Classics label.


Violinist, director and festival director Jack Liebeck, possesses “flawless technical mastery” and a “beguiling silvery tone” (BBC Music Magazine). Jack has been named as the Royal Academy of Music’s first Émile Sauret Professor of Violin and as the new Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music from 2021. Jack’s playing embraces the worlds of elegant chamber-chic Mozart through to the impassioned mastery required to frame Brett Dean The Lost Art of Letter Writing. His fascination with all things scientific has included performing the world premiere of Dario Marianelli’s Voyager Violin Concerto and led to his most recent collaboration, A Brief History of Time, with Professor Brian Cox and Benjamin Northey. This new violin concerto was commissioned for Jack by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from regular collaborator and composer Paul Dean, and is written in commemoration of Professor Stephen Hawking; A Brief History of Time received its world premiere in November 2019.

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Image credit: Kaupo Kikkas

I would like to offer what support I can via this blog and my social media networks to musician friends and colleagues, music teachers and others in the profession who are going to find the next months very challenging indeed.

Here is what I would like to do:

  1. Share details of forthcoming CD releases, and other material.
  2. Share videos and audio clips
  3. Share articles and other resources which others in our community may find helpful and supportive
  4. Stay connected with the musical community via my social networks

Separately, over on my piano teaching blog, I’m launching a forum called Coffee Shop Conversations. This was inspired by a friend of mine, an adult amateur pianist to whom I give occasional piano lessons and who always has plenty of queries for me surrounding repertoire, practising, piano exams and more.

Please feel free to contact me here or via Twitter to submit material for inclusion.

More support for musicians from my friend and fellow blogger Adrian ‘Specs’ here

Meanwhile, stay well everyone and let’s keep in touch.

img_2281Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist