Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

For me, my earliest memories of listening to various great works for the first time was the biggest catalyst for me wanting to learn the piano. There was never really an exact point in which I decided this would be my career, but I guess I always pretty much had a one-track mind in wanting music to be my life. Partly a reason for this is that I don’t think I was good at anything else! My first piano teacher Dorothy she, who recently just passed away, was certainly an extremely instrumental figure in my life. She was the one who taught me everything from the beginning. All of my teachers each played a very important role in my development, from my professors in my early teenage years, A. Ramon Rivera and Alexander Korsantia, to the teachers that really molded my development from the age of 15 onwards up until today: Robert McDonald, Dang Thai Son, and Jonathan Biss. Aesthetically, I would say that the pianists whose musical language and careers have inspired me the most are Radu Lupu, Grigory Sokolov, and Mitsuko Uchida.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I listen to a lot of recordings of various works frequently. Whether it be a Bach Cantata, Schubert Lieder, or Mozart Piano Concerto, etc. I always want to have music in my ears, and somewhat subconsciously and consciously get deeper into the musical and emotional worlds of these great composers. Further, when I’m listening to a great piece of music whilst enjoying a beautiful part of nature, this inspires me the most.

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

This process varies all the time, but I would say first and foremost I would choose pieces I really want to play. The burning desire must be there for me to have to play this work at this time. Then, the decisions come where a programme must make sense musically, and also I have to imagine how it would work and sound to an audience. I don’t like programmes that are random, and are more of a showcase of all the different types of pieces a musician can play. I much prefer a programme that has cohesion and relation in its aesthetic, and the musical worlds of certain composers. This would apply mostly to the music within one half of a recital programme. After an intermission it can either be completely different, or continue on a common thread.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There really have been so many very memorable concert experiences, and in a way, all of them have been, because of how unique each experience is, and you never know what will happen on stage. However, one that has stood out very much so far was my BBC Proms debut. This was a concert that I had prepared a lot of time for, and there was nothing quite like that experience of walking out on stage to this ocean of people at the Albert Hall. I really did feel this unique and electric energy, and general warmth coming from the public that day.

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

I would hope that I can continue to have the chance to play music for people in all corners of the globe. I think despite all its unique challenges, and immense stress, our profession as a performing musician is a very lucky one. What an opportunity it is to be able to travel the world, see so many different countries and cultures, whilst doing what you love. Music is a very active and living thing. So much of this music left to us by these transcendent geniuses is so unbelievably great. However, without it being brought to life and played, it’s simply notes on a page. I just feel very lucky to be able to have a part in this wonderful process of bringing these works to more people.


Eric Lu won First Prize at The Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018, the first American to win the prestigious prize since Murray Perahia. He made his BBC Proms debut the following summer, and is currently a member of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. Eric is a recipient of the 2021 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and is an exclusive Warner Classics recording artist.

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Opera in Recital

Guest post by Joanna Harries

One of the many inexplicable snobberies I picked up from music college was that a recital should only ever include song and Lieder. Perhaps one aria – a party piece, or an audience favourite – was permissible as an encore, but otherwise opera was written for an orchestra. Performing it with piano was somehow second-rate.

It wasn’t until I’d left college that I realised how ridiculous this idea that “it’s not opera unless there’s an orchestra” is. After all, every singer spends far more of their life working with a pianist than an orchestra. Coachings, auditions, opera scenes – even the majority of rehearsals for full scale orchestral productions take place with piano. And full blown theatrical productions are expensive to put on. It’s simply not always feasible. Add to that all the amazing operatic repertoire that never gets an outing in the theatre for one reason or another and there’s quite simply no compelling reason not to perform opera in recital.

Don’t get me wrong – I love artsong and Lieder. I’m a massive Brahms fan, I love both the Schumanns, and I’ve spent the lockdowns pouring over collections of Rebecca Clarke and Wilhelm Stenhammar. I’ll never be short on material – but I wondered why I was so assiduously segregating opera and artsong in my programming. Were my college mentors right? Is opera in recital pointless?

Pianist Ashley Beauchamp certainly doesn’t think so. “Performing opera in recital is an amazing opportunity to strip the story-telling and music back to its most simple form,” he tells me. “It allows us to present opera in such an intimate way, and I find that audiences respond positively to that.”

We’re rehearsing for our upcoming recital for Opera Live @ Home on 30th March and, as the name suggests, it’s a full programme of opera. The series began in 2020 during the pandemic to bring opera live into people’s homes via Zoom. Each month a singer/pianist duo perform a carefully chosen selection of arias, followed by a Q&A, where the audience can ask any questions they like. In these most distanced of times, it’s a very intimate way to share music.

In fact, Ash and I have performed opera to all sorts of different audiences over the years. We first met performing opera in a recital at Pushkin House – repertoire from Russian operas that never get staged in the UK. And our last gig before the pandemic (on the very day the theatres closed) was to young children at the Royal Opera House’s “Opera Dots”. There is nothing like singing Hansel and Gretel to a room of five-year-olds to remind you what’s important in opera. You don’t need the set, costumes or indeed orchestra to tell a musical story.

The idea that performing opera in recital could reach a wider audience isn’t new. In 1884 a letter in the Musical Times called for a “Music for the People”:

At present we cannot with the best intentions expect the working classes to attend opera or expensive Concerts far away from their homes…let operas in recital and chamber music be given, with piano and American organ as ground work; for I maintain that it is in recital that you can best appreciate opera works, from a purely musical point of view.”

The author of this letter – a mysterious O.L. – proposed they should “write to the mayor of every town throughout the United Kingdom” to initiate these regional opera recitals. (One to suggest to Oliver Dowden, perhaps…?) I wonder what O.L. would have thought of the Zoom recital – a phenomenon that can reach more audiences than ever before, all over the world?

Opera, but not as you know it

So how does performing opera in recital compare to the stage?

Well, from a singer’s point of view, working with the right pianist is key. Some pianists instinctively click with the drama – and that’s important, because they’re telling that character’s story as much as you are. In fact, you’re no longer a singer performing “over” an orchestra – you’re in duet with the pianist. The hierarchy is completely different from performing on stage – you are both the conductor; it’s a collaboration.

Unlike with song, pianists have the added responsibility of embodying an entire orchestra. “The challenge of playing opera in a recital is that the audience is completely reliant on the pianist to create the sound-world of the piece,” says Ash. “You’re the only other thing that the singer has with them in the room to help set the scene.”

I asked Ash how performing opera compares to Lieder: “The most obvious similarity is that, ultimately, we are trying to tell a story through music, and it can feel like you’ve travelled as far through a three minute song as through a three hour opera! The crucial difference with opera is that the piano part I’m playing from is a reduction of the orchestral full score. These reductions are very often a complete minefield – they can be full of mistakes, crammed with too many notes or even missing entire chunks of important material. My job is to be as faithful as possible to the full score – recreating the music in the same way that an orchestra would in performance.”

There are challenges for the singer too. In some ways, it’s more tiring – on stage, even the largest roles don’t sing all their big arias back to back! So you have to programme strategically. You’re also in charge of the audience’s emotional journey through the evening, instead of the composer or librettist – so you have to think about the pace of the drama too. In an opera you’re usually playing one character all night, but in recital, you’re an entirely new character in an entirely new scene every five minutes.

“An aria that appears at the very climax of a three hour opera can be difficult to present in middle of a recital, sandwiched between very different repertoire,” adds Ash. “We have to learn how to present these arias in isolation, without the benefit of all the contextual information that we enjoy in a staged performance.”

Colour and character

But for all the challenges, there is so much to be gained.

For one thing, it makes me a better singer – I’m sure of it. Not relying on set, costumes, staging means that you really focus on delivering the drama and finding out who that character really is. You’re unencumbered by a particular director’s vision or an exact staging you have to fulfil. You’re also able to play with vocal colour and dynamics in a way that isn’t always possible onstage. In many ways it’s the purest form of musical storytelling.

Ash finds he learns from performing opera too: “Playing opera has definitely informed how I approach solo music. I enjoy trying to imagine what instrument might be playing at any given time. Is that gorgeous left-hand melody a cello, or a bassoon? Are those chord in the right-hand a full string section, or perhaps brass? It definitely helps me to find colours in my playing.”

With our recital fast approaching, I ask Ash what his favourite and least favourite opera repertoire is from the pianist’s perspective. “I have a love/hate relationship with Handel, because I love the music but I hate how hard his fiendish string writing can be for the piano!” he admits. (We are performing Handel’s sublime ‘As with rosy steps’ from Theodora, but luckily I think I’ve been fairly kind with this one, and Ash captures the caressing parallel thirds in the upper strings beautifully.) “French opera scores seem to always be full of mistakes, so I have to spend so much extra time preparing them,” he continues. “My favourite opera to play is anything by Britten – I absolutely adore his operas, and would happily play them forever.”

For myself, it’s not so much any particular composer or aria I love, but the joy and challenge of the kaleidoscope of characters, emotions and stories I get to tell, all in one night.

We’ll also be including Mozart, Bellini, Massenet and Walton arias and – just to buck the trend, we might even throw in an actual song as an encore…

Joanna Harries and Ashley Beauchamp perform for Opera Live @ Home on Tuesday 30th March 2021 at 7:30pm; also available on-demand for 30 days for ticket holders. Tickets: operaliveathome.co.uk


Joanna Harries is a mezzo-soprano from South Wales who studied Cambridge University and went on to train at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Alexander Gibson Opera Studio). She has performed with Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Grange Park Opera, Opera Holland Park and Longborough Festival Opera, and her roles stretch from the seventeenth to twenty-first century.

www.joannaharries.com

www.ashleybeauchamp.com

Opera Live @ Home

This week I was reminded that it’s a year since the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the Wigmore Hall and countless other music, opera and theatre venues shut their doors in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, it felt shocking, because for those of us who frequent these venues (and despite living in Dorset, I was travelling up to London at least twice a month to attend concerts and opera performances) it was a stark reminder that this virus, which until that point had felt rather unreal, was something we should now be taking seriously. That week, I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang in concert at the Barbican; both events were of course cancelled, and now the virus had encroached directly upon my world, and my cultural and working life. The directors of a music festival, with whom I was working, hung on until the absolute last minute to announce the postponement of the festival, and then all my publicity/PR work dried up. The next weekend, the UK went into its first lockdown.

Looking back, I recall feeling anxious; I wasn’t worried about catching the virus (in fact, I think I almost certainly had it in January 2020 when I had what I can only describe as “a weird ‘flu”), but I was very concerned about my family, in particular my chef son who was out of work, and my mother-in-law, who lives on her own. When previously I might have taken refuge in music to alleviate or distract myself from the stress, I found I could not play the piano nor listen to classical music on the radio, or on disc. It just served to remind me what we had lost, and I found the prospect of no live music for goodness knows how long a depressing one.

In those early, anxious months of the first lockdown, the only classical music I listened to was the complete Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Jonathan Biss. This was special music – and I don’t need to elaborate here why Beethoven’s music is so meaningful to many of us – not only because I thought it was one of the most interesting interpretations of the piano sonatas I had encountered in recent years but also because the last concert I attended at Wigmore Hall was given by Jonathan Biss, playing a selection of Beethoven piano sonatas, just a few weeks before the Hall was forced to close. So this music felt significant for a number of reasons.

Meanwhile, amateur pianist friends were filling Facebook and YouTube with videos of them playing all manner of repertoire. For many of my pianist friends, this period of enforced isolation was a wonderful opportunity to do more practising, and, confined to their homes, they found they had the luxury of time. I wished I had their motivation – there was plenty of music I wanted to learn and play – but instead I felt a growing sense of estrangement from the instrument and music which I loved. My piano was out of tune as well (the tuner was due to come in the last week of March) and that quickly became another excuse not to practice.

So BBC Radio 3 and my classical playlists on Spotify were exchanged for my son’s playlists of hip hop and rap, reggae and (curiously) mixes of 80s pop music which took me back to my teens and student years. We listened to this music when we were cooking and it quickly became the soundtrack of most of 2020 (my son left London to live with us during lockdown). Occasionally, I would dip back into the music I thought I loved, but it just served to remind me, yet again, of what we missing.

By the early summer of 2020, things began to feel a little more positive and the Wigmore Hall launched a series of livestream concerts which were at once brilliant and incredibly poignant (I cried while watching Stephen Hough’s opening concert – it was wonderful to see beloved Wigmore Hall again but rather tragic to see it devoid of its audience).

As society began to unlock in early summer 2020, my piano tuner was able to work again and came to give my 1913 Bechstein some much-needed TLC. I played a little after that – the piano sounded wonderful and I had some new repertoire to learn and old favourites to revisit, but still I felt a strong sense of estrangement from the instrument and its literature.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Several professional musician friends expressed similar feelings of detachment from their music and instrument – perhaps understandably since the covid restrictions had decimated their concert diaries, and without the prospect of performances, and the focus and motivation which these bring, there seemed little point in practising.

The issue I have now is that I have spent too long away from the piano. It sits in its room in the basement of my house, and where previously I found its presence benign, I now find it rather hostile. It seems to be challenging me, and I feel guilty for neglecting it.

Of course I have nothing to feel guilty about. I don’t earn a living from playing or teaching the piano and it is entirely my choice whether or not I play it. But I am mindful of the fact that without regular practice, or simply playing for pleasure, it becomes harder to get back into the routine of playing. And routine is what I need.

I hope that when the concert halls reopen and I can enjoy live music again, with other people, the sense of estrangement will pass and the stimulation to play the piano once again will return.

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

It’s not often I take up my pen in literal anger, writing to purge myself somehow of an irritation that has been eating away at me for a day or two now. I speak – as you have no doubt guessed – of the latest BBC Proms recruitment ad, seeking candidates for roles in ‘Live Events and Communications’.

“Here’s a short video,” the BBC Proms Twitter account chirped, “to give you a taster of what it’s like working at the Proms.”

With a cute ‘technical-glitch’ shimmy, we’re immediately introduced to a freshly-minted young BBC publicist. Against a percussive, rhythmic soundtrack, she says: “One thing about the Proms that people don’t know is that it’s not all just about classical music like Mozart and Beethoven.” Cue frantic burst of definitely-not-classical music. She continues, over montages of Proms passim: “The Proms showcases so many different music genres and styles from House, Ibiza music, to Sci Fi film music, to breakdancing music. So there really is something for everyone, and you don’t necessarily have to have a background in classical music to work at the Proms.”

Then we switch to a colleague, whose ‘stand-out moment’ when working for the Proms was dressing up as an astronaut and jumping about on stage during a performance by the band Public Service Broadcasting.

Perhaps anxious to avoid the tone becoming any more ‘space cadet’, the video returns to our first correspondent, who says that “Working at the BBC Proms helped me to build up so many skills. This allowed me to get another job at the BBC working in publicity for TV programmes instead.”

We finish with the Spaceman warmly recalling the various teams within the overall Proms department feeling like a large, happy community, with further images from concerts in which, thankfully, some classical musicians are included.

It may be a feature of lockdown, and the slightly dislocated mental state it can produce, that the oddest and most unexpected things can really push your buttons. THIS really pushed my buttons. I checked to see if it was 1 April. On a second viewing, I felt like gnawing my own arm off, and by a blinking, disbelieving third, I wanted to cry. I assure you, my flippancy is disguising – perhaps not very well – a deep-seated hatred of this advert and the thinking that went into it.

When the ad first appeared, some people reacted with distaste, sadness or horror – similar responses to mine, in other words. Others played its impact down, more or less saying that it’s only aimed at getting a certain type of dynamic, can-do employee through the door and that the ‘audience’, in this case, is not the audience. And yet – it’s out there for all of us to see, isn’t it, as circulated by the BBC Proms team? They endorse this ‘message’.

And what a message. Taking it from the top, what have we got?

  • Luckily, the whole thing isn’t just classical music ‘like’ Mozart and Beethoven. Boooo-ring!
  • The Proms offer a wide range of musical genres, but I don’t know what any of them are. I thought they had quite broad, well-known names like jazz and soul, but someone handed me a piece of paper with ‘Ibiza music’ and ‘breakdancing music’ on it.
  • For those of you who aren’t really interested in the music aspect at all, there’s the jumping astronaut element.
  • After all, you’ll only be using the skills you learn at the Proms to get another job doing what you really want to do.

Forgive me: it turns out I am still angry.

This ad was put together by people who are, unaccountably, embarrassed by classical music – to the point where they feel the need to sideline it, to apologise for its irksome presence. They couldn’t be bothered to give their poor participants some kind of script or direction to sound at least vaguely interested – let alone well-versed – in music of any shape or form. Why bother, I suppose, if they’re only going to hang around for a minimum length of time before moving on?

The Proms is the world’s ‘largest’ classical music festival. I believe this claim is undisputed. Normally, I’d be the first to say size doesn’t matter, quality over quantity, and so on. But I think the sheer scale of the Proms says something positive. It would be pointless, unseemly and of course, wrong to say we have all the ‘best’ venues, singers, players, and so on: this is the arts, not sport. But the ambition shown simply to mount the Proms year in, year out – notwithstanding the virus wrecking the 2020 season – sends a signal about how much we care about classical music. Under the BBC’s stewardship, some 80 concerts take place each year, which reach well beyond the capital: every minute of Proms music goes out on BBC Radio 3, and a handsome amount makes it to TV on BBC4. Programming is deliberately wide, and at its inventive heights it seasons the classical music line-up (which, let’s get this straight, is the absolute backbone of the repertoire) with forays into other genres which complement the whole. The diversity can be itself diverse: macro – full concerts foregrounding musicians from all corners of the globe – or micro – lining up premieres from living composers alongside the old ‘warhorse’ pieces to ensure new music is heard. And as everyone involved knows, there’s still a lot more the festival can do, and a lot further it can go.

I try to get across in all my writing (and occasional speaking) that classical music is approachable and accessible as long as you treat it as such; as vital, vibrant and valid as any other style of music. As a result, the Proms recruitment ad felt like a kick in the teeth. It could have placed classical music proudly alongside the genres it inspires, supports, complements and interacts with… and accordingly, win over some applicants who would want to work in a classical music environment and stay there.

Instead, everything good the Proms sets out to achieve, this unthinking dumbshow throws into reverse. I hope they accidentally recruit some excellent communicators.

(This article first appeared on the ArtMuseLondon site)


Adrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else. He is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist and a reviewer for its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

This quote from a Meet the Artist interview with pianist Antoine Préat perfectly expresses my relationship with many composers and their music.

When I returned to playing the piano seriously in my later 30s, after a break of some 20 years, there were pieces which I felt I “should” be playing but which never felt comfortable to me. This feeling grew when I co-founded a piano meetup group where members played all sorts of repertoire. I envied those who seemed so at home with the music of Chopin or Ravel, two composers whose piano music I adore, but which does not necessarily love me back.

Of course, we should never feel obligated to play certain pieces or composers out of a sense of duty; the “tyranny of the shoulds” is often inculcated in our childhood music lessons, reinforced in music college, and – for the professional musician, further emphasised by teachers, peers, agents and critics – or for the amateur, at piano clubs and on courses. Students and those at the beginning of their career probably feel the pressure of this sense of obligation most acutely, and it takes confidence to stand firm against the tide of opinion that says one should be playing certain Beethoven sonatas, etudes by Chopin and Liszt, or the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Grieg in order to be recognised and endorsed by those who may help further one’s professional career and reputation. 

We’re very lucky as pianists; we have a vast repertoire to choose from and this means there is music within it to suit our varied, wide-ranging tastes. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest pianists have chosen to focus on a fairly narrow corner of the repertoire – for example, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff or Maria Joao Pires. It really isn’t necessary to have an affinity with or be able to play everything, though of course there are some pianists who seem perfectly at ease with a very broad sweep of repertoire, namely Maurizio Pollini or Marc-André Hamelin. Stephen Hough is quite open about his “uneasiness” about playing the music of J S Bach and I think it is a mark of a pianist’s honesty to admit that certain repertoire or composers do not suit them. 

Our affection for the music we choose to play is, I believe, one of the greatest assets in the learning process. It is what helps to keep us focussed and ensures we will return to the music day in day out to practice and refine it. If you don’t love the music you’re playing, it’s unlikely it will love you back, and the practice of practising will feel arduous and challenging. I recall feeling like this quite a lot of the time when I was having piano lessons as a child, where my first teacher would always select the music I was to learn, without giving me any choice (when I taught piano, I made sure my students played music they liked and enjoyed). It was only when I had passed my grade 5 piano exam, and moved to a new teacher, that I had the foundations of technical facility and the confidence to explore repertoire on my own. It was at this time that my love of Schubert’s piano music developed – and it remains amongst my most favourite music still. 

One of the great pleasures of being an amateur pianist, perhaps the greatest pleasure, is that you are not – or shouldn’t be – under any obligation to play music because someone else said you “should”! Of course sometimes a teacher will suggest repertoire which they feel may help with an aspect of technique or simply that it may appeal to your musical taste and sensibilities – and a good teacher should know and appreciate their students’ tastes. But if it doesn’t appeal, have the confidence to say “it’s not for me”. It’s also worth bearing in mind that our tastes change, and, as our technical facility improves, repertoire we previously loved but might not have been able to play, becomes more accessible.

If the music doesn’t love you back sufficiently for you to play it yourself, simply enjoy hearing others play it – on disc, on the radio, in concerts and via streaming services.

The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz are raising £6,000 to rescue a unique and historic instrument associated with the composer Felix Yaniewicz, and bring it to Edinburgh to celebrate his musical legacy. Yaniewicz was a Polish-Scottish violinist, composer and co-founder of the first Edinburgh music festival in 1815.

Two decades ago, a square piano dating from around 1810 came to light in a private house in Snowdonia.  Despite its dilapidated condition, it was recognised as an instrument of historical interest by Douglas Hollick, who bought it for restoration and embarked on a research project to discover more about its provenance and the link to Yaniewicz.

Above the keyboard, a cartouche with painted flowers and musical instruments bears the label ‘Yaniewicz and Green’ with the addresses of premises in fashionable areas of London and Liverpool.

Inside the piano, a signature in Indian ink has been matched with those on the marriage certificate and surviving letters of Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848). 

DONATE here