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?

I don’t think I could have pursued a career in anything other than the creative arts to be honest. I was encouraged to become a musician as it was seen as a more secure career choice than pursuing my love of dance! My A level teacher, Patrick Larley, was my greatest influence and my piano teacher, John Gough, also improved my technical playing and enabled performance opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

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

I’ve been very lucky in my life and career, but not having a job that offers me financial security is my biggest frustration

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Working with Corra Sound, Harlequin Chamber Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 1 week before lockdown in 2020. I also loved the experience of winning Choir of the Year in 2000 with Choros Amici on the RAH stage. And being a part of the Rodolphus Parry Songs of Farewell recording. I suppose my two concerti as a piano soloist should also be up there too!

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

Corra Sound performed part of Ruth Gipps’ ‘Goblin Market’ with the RPO and I would like to pursue a recording of the full work some time soon. Her work demands more exposure. We have also just done a Music for Mothers concert series which suited us really well where we highlighted works by Sarah Quartel, Don MacDonald and Maya Angelou.

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

Corra Sound are mostly working mothers so we have a close empathetic bond where it comes to balancing our musical work with motherhood. Our collective passion for performance is powerfully released on stage because we have mulitple plates spinning in other areas of our lives, so this is where we can finally shine and show our creative flair.

Corra Sound

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

Usually through creative and collaborative discussions both within the ensemble and with external professional colleagues. The internet, of course, then provides much inspiration and connection when a creative thread appears.

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

St Mary’s, Guildford has seen us perform there twice, including last year’s Christmas concert with Emma Johnson. The venue size and acoustic suits us well. We are accustomed to intimate venues such as the drawing room at Bracknell’s South Hill Park Arts Centre but also larger venues such as St Martin’s Church, Worcester, for last year’s Elgar Festival or Romsey Abbey, Hampshire for this year’s Ethelflaeda Festival.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

More dynamic approaches to how diverse and creative concerts can be. Family events, more interaction between performers and audience, breaking down barriers to inclusion and broadening the concept and expectations of what performances can be.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Feeling satisfied and fulfilled with musical outcomes in serving the ongoing needs of my choirs and our audiences. Having productive and happy musical relationships with colleagues all over the world. Having compositions published or bought also feels pretty successful!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

I am often asked for advice on tricky situations within choirs and feel well placed and experienced enough to offer support and guidance on most of these topics now! Issues are usually around personality dynamics, committees and value for money! Sometimes it’s hard to be bold when you’re a young sole trader.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

How crucial and valuable the arts are (for all people to have access to and engage in) and how they need to be financially supported and secure. In South Korea it’s the Arts that bring in money and exposure, which in turn raises the profile of other large businesses and corporations such as Kia and Samsung. The UK government is massively short-sighted in how its treats, values and promotes its artists. And it’s looking more grim by the day in light of new ACE cuts.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

Alive, happy, travelling and free

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Autumn dog walks in the woods.

Amy Bebbington directs Corra Sound in their Christmas concert on 3 December, in a programme highlighting the power of female creatives, featuring glorious and rarely-heard music written for upper voices and harp by composers from Britain, Norway and Canada. Information and tickets

Graduating with First Class Honours and a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance (UK), Amy went on to be awarded a Doctor of Musical Arts, specialising in Choral Conducting, from Texas Tech University (USA). She is the Director of Training for the Association of British Choral Directors, an organisation that sits at the forefront of choral conductor training in the UK. She oversees and tutors on their extended courses, sits on its advisory council, was the Artistic Director of its festival in Winchester (2016) and established its notable webinar series.

Amy is a co-founder of the inaugural London International Choral Conducting Competition, and sat on the jury of its inaugural event, which took place in 2018. She is also a co-founder of Wavelength, an organisation designed to celebrate and serve women in all areas of choral leadership. Amy is proud to have recently become a founding member and the UK Ambassador of the International Choral Conducting Federation (ICCF). Amy has taught choral conducting for The University of Cambridge, Sing Ireland, The Sherborne International Summer School, The Royal College of Organists, the Military Wives’ Choral Association, the ISM and the Hallé Youth Choir. She has successfully established her own Choral Conducting Masterclass Series and has recently launched a brand new online Choral Leadership and Pedagogy course (CLP). Amy has worked closely with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain as Course Director, Musicianship Tutor and Guest Tutor. 

Amy has performed in award-winning choirs and has choral works published by Banks Music Publications and Multitude of Voyces. She has had the pleasure of adjudicating for both the Derry and Cork International Choral Festivals, Choir of the Year, Music for Youth National Festival and the Cheltenham Music Festival, among many others. As a teacher trainer/animateur, she has worked for Trinity/Open University, Glyndebourne Education, Sing for Pleasure, Youth Music and Music of Life.

Amy is in great demand as a choral clinician, mentor and teacher, and is currently Musical Director for Harlequin Chamber Choir, Corra Sound, Holmbury Choral Society, Nota Bene and the Sir William Perkins’s School Chamber Choir.

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The exceptionally gifted British composer William Baines died 100 years ago on 6 November 1922; he was just 23, yet he left behind a remarkably large body of work, which is celebrated in this new release from pianist Duncan Honeybourne, a long-time champion of Baines’ music.

Born in Horbury near Wakefield, Yorkshire, William Baines came from a musical family (his father was a cinema pianist and organist at a Primitive Methodist Chapel). He took piano lessons from a young age and also studied at the Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds, though his later compositional style was largely self-taught. At the age of 18, in the final months of the First World War, Baines was called up for military service and was sent to Blandford Camp, Dorset, for training. Within weeks he feel ill with septic poisoning and remained in fragile health after discharge from the military until his death in 1922. After the War, Baines set to composing, producing around 150 works by the time of his death, many of which were piano miniatures.

When a composer, such as Schubert or Mozart, or indeed William Baines, dies young it always begs the question “what might they have gone on to write”? There are certainly some intriguing hints throughout this generous disc.

Baines described himself as “like Debussy” and while some of his music is certainly impressionistic in style – in particular the Pictures of Light suite and the atmospheric diptych Tides, which evokes the coast and sea of his native Yorkshire – there are also unexpected and daring modernist idioms, unsettled harmonies and conflicting textures redolent of Scriabin, Ravel and Prokofiev (Baines’ Eight Preludes were written at the same time as Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives). Some of the pieces on this disc share that particularly English romantic/pastoral soundworld of Delius and Ireland, yet everything is distinctly Baines.

The album includes first recordings of Eight Preludes – Set 2, and Pictures of Light, together with Baines’ most well known works, Tides and Paradise Gardens. The album also includes a suite of five songs for tenor and piano, sensitively and emotionally sung by Gordon Pullin – also a first recording. At the Grave of William Baines is a substantial piece for piano written by Robin Walker, a fellow Yorkshireman who as a boy lived near to the house in York where Baines lived and died, and whose music also draws inspiration from the natural world and local landscapes. His tribute is surprisingly muscular, playful, and rather exotic, replete with hints of Baines, and imaginatively shaped by Honeybourne.

Duncan Honeybourne is very much at home in Baines’ picturesque, atmospheric music. He is ever alert to the ecstatic climaxes and sweeping, Lisztian romanticism, bringing supple, flexible tempi and subtle rubato to passages which feel almost improvisatory. And then there is a glittering clarity and multi-layered textures coupled with a gorgeously warm, yet transparent piano sound.

This album is a wonderful introduction to the imagination, originality and genius of William Baines, brilliantly illuminated by Duncan Honeybourne’s compelling performance.

Pictures of Light is available on the Divine Art label and also on Spotify

On 12 March 2020, pianist Igor Levit tweeted the following:

He then rushed out of his flat to purchase a cheap camera stand, returned home, then realised he also needed a stand for his phone, so he slipped out again. A friend was co-opted to help ensure the livestream was working. At 7pm Berlin time, Igor Levit gave his first livestreamed “haus konzert”.

Two days before, on 10 March, his birthday, Levit gave a concert in Hamburg; the next, in Cologne, the following day was cancelled, and it was now clear that live music, and similar activities, were being shut down, who knew for how long, in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Levit gave 52 house concerts via Twitter, dressed casually and livestreamed from his flat, its minimalist decor interrupted only by the shiny grand piano and a striking painting on the wall behind. It became a nightly ritual, for pianist and audience. He performed whatever repertoire “felt right” – from Beethoven to Morton Feldman, Nina Simone to Schubert and Bach; it didn’t matter, for these performances were about being together when we were isolated in lockdown. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in via Twitter every night and the livestream feed was crammed with comments, compliments, emojis; there was a potent sense of a shared experience, even though we were all listening on our own, separated by lockdown, yet together. Spontaneous and unplanned, these house concerts helped to alleviate Levit’s – and others’ – lockdown despair and isolation, a means of keeping live music going when it was unclear when we would be allowed back into the concert halls to enjoy live music again, together. The Observer chose Levit’s online recitals as number one in its top ten classical picks for 2020.

From a pragmatic point of view, the house concerts were also an incentive for Levit to keep practising, an impulse shared by so many musicians whose performing careers stopped dead in March 2020. Like many of his musician colleagues, in the months before the covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, Levit was enjoying a busy career: without concerts, what was the point of practising?

Igor Levit performing in his Berlin flat during lockdown

Igor Levit’s new book ‘House Concert’ (published in the UK by Polity press in November) is about these Twitter concerts – the musician’s need to play, to express oneself through music, and the experience of playing in isolation to an unseen audiences of tens or even hundreds of thousands – but it’s about much more than this too.

Organised in a series of conversations and diary-type entries between Levit and German journalist Florian Zinnecker, ‘House Concert’ explores what it is to be a professional musician in the 21st century, and charts Levit’s career from an unknown young pianist to an internationally-acclaimed performer who plays to sold out houses around the world. It’s about the development of an artist; what it means to “be” a pianist and the need to perform, to share one’s music with others; the role and power of social media, in particular Twitter; the classical music industry; and wider issues of whether it is appropriate for an artist to engage in politics and other pertinent issues of our time – the pandemic, racism, climate change.

Levit’s path to international fame was not an easy one. As anyone who has attended one of his concerts will know, he is an uncompromising player who has a remarkable ability to create an intensity of sound and concentrated emotion when he performs (Alex Ross of The New Yorker describes him as “a pianist like no other”). His choice of repertoire may be considered “narrow” by some: eschewing the big showpieces or “top of the pops” of the pianist’s repertoire, he has instead chosen to focus on a handful of composers, recording and performing the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Rzewski’s mighty ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, together with lesser-known works by Busoni, Reger and Ronald Stevenson. As a young pianist at the start of his career, his uncompromising attitude and refusal to “play to the gallery”, as it were, to satisfy the whims of the market by including the popular classics in his programmes, meant that he was overlooked by artist managers and agents who felt he was not sufficiently marketable. This section of the book offers some really fascinating, honest and sometimes brutal insights into the workings and attitudes of the classical music “industry” today – where marketability is placed above artistic integrity. Levit didn’t fit the image that record companies were looking for and he was not willing to compromise; as a consequence it was a long time before he was picked up by a manager who was sufficiently sympathetic to his way of doing things. (An indication of how the industry reacts to the maverick, when Levit recorded Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas for his debut disc, there were more than a few mutterings that he was too young, that it was an impertinence that he should record these works at his age. It was a risk, but it was a worthwhile one: as anyone who has heard Levit perform late Beethoven knows, he is a master in this repertoire.)

The Twitter concerts throw an interesting light on the ecosystem of the classical music business and the power structures within in. In his house concerts, Levit demonstrated that it was possible to reach an audience directly via social media, without the usual tools of the business – marketing, publicity, staging. The simplicity of the Twitter concerts made them special – and for Levit they made him feel strong, that he wasn’t a fake.

For the pianist, Levit makes some challenging assertions regarding interpretation, context and the over-intellectualisation of music and its performance. He eschews the notion that music must have “meaning” or a distinct narrative, or that there is a “right way” to play it, and feels it is “just there to be experienced”. He sees the role of the musician as an “enabler”, one who brings the music to life from the page by making the piece his own.

“I’m telling my own story…the one that’s closest to my heart. The information about what happened to this piece one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago isn’t really my business.”

Igor Levit

In the realm of classical music, with all its conventions and tradition, where fidelity to the score and an appreciation of the context in which the music is written is regarded as essential to any “authentic” performance, Levit bucks the trend. Because he’s not interested in tradition or convention; for him it’s all about the music. He’s not interested in whether in his performances of Beethoven we hear the sound of Beethoven. For him, “it’s Beethoven, of course, but played by me.”

A keen activist, the book also explores Levit’s vocal opposition to German right-wing attitudes to immigration, anti-Semitism and online hate crime, and his advocacy for environmentalism, the plight of Syrian refugees. He’s received abuse and even death threats for his views but he refuses to submit to “artistic neutrality”. Does he believe music can make a difference, shift attitudes and effect change? Absolutely not: “If you believe music will make fascists less fascist, then you’re just naive” – and for this reason his music and his activism are kept largely separate, though his large social media following and reputation undoubtedly serves his activism.

This absorbing and highly readable book is neither diary nor straightforward artist biography. It shifts back and forth between periods in Levit’s life, from student days, to now, and explores a variety of themes, not all of them musical. It not only showcases the remarkable achievements of a charismatic classical musician, it also reveals their anxieties and doubts, strengths and weaknesses, and offers an important snapshot of the difficulties faced by professional musicians in a highly competitive industry riven with convention, power structures and tradition. The success of Levit’s house concerts – and similar livestream projects from other musicians all around the world – perhaps prove that the industry does not necessarily need all the trappings of “the business” to communicate and share the power and joy of music with others.

‘House Concert’ is published by Polity books (November 2022). Further information here

In response to my article Where Have All The Audiences Gone, a reader, and a keen concert-goer, makes this response:

First, we need a functioning transport system at a price that normal people can afford.  We need trains outside London running 24/7 as tube and bus has inside London for years.

Second, we need to radically reduce the “cost of experience”. I have no issue with venues making a profit but a sandwich in Waitrose is about £3 so a 10% uplift would seem reasonable – say £3.50.  Drinks likewise.  And have everything open!  Covid is being used as excuse for poor customer service – plain-as.

Tickets – bring the cost down and fill all the seats. The Proms was a case in point – much better to have ALL the seats filled for £10 each rather than the 50% empty I witnessed. I found £44 stalls seats for the Labeque Sisters on StubHub for £11, a sure sign that the market has collapsed. Have transport-included/subsidised offers – buy two tickets for concert X and get the associated rail fare for 50%.

And start giving out tickets for students and children for free via schools and heavily reduced for their responsible adults – get young, really young people back just as the Schools Opera and Robert Meyer concerts did for my generation.

And. Stop Talking about COVID! My view is that our reaction to it was totally overblown, likely to kill more people through a depressed economy than the illness itself. My generation (50s) has always been the cultural backbone audience and so many that I know have taken Covid as an excuse to curl-up into early retirement. I rage against the dying of that light.

Comments are open if you would like to join in this discussion, or respond via Twitter

There has been a fair amount of commentary and angst in recent months about a noticeable drop in audience numbers for concerts as live music returns to (almost) normal post-pandemic. The subject of a number of articles in the press, the issue was also aired in an episode of BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters series. In almost every article and discussion, ongoing anxiety about Covid was cited as the main reason why audiences are not returning – whether anxiety about catching Covid in a crowded concert venue or opera house, or the possibility that the programme may be changed, or the concert cancelled at the last minute due to illness amongst performers.

In fact, audience surveys reveal that Covid is fairly low on audiences’ list of concerns (source here: https://www.audienceoutlookmonitor.com/post/june-27-executive-briefing-with-alan-brown-goodbye-again-hello-uncertainty).

So if it’s not Covid that’s keeping people away, what is it?

  1. Cost of tickets. Concert tickets have noticeably increased in price since the pandemic as venues try to recoup lost revenue when they were closed or forced to operate with limited capacity (West End ticket prices are about c30% since the spring). This is in the face of a serious cost of living crisis which means people have less discretionary spending, even those from the more affluent demographic which tends to comprise classical concert audiences. As pressure on personal finances bite, people cut back on activities and spending which they may deem to be “non essential”. Unfortunately, for many people concert-going may now fall into this category.
  2. Additional costs of attending a concert. On top of the concert ticket (c£25-£30 on average in London), there are additional costs such as travel and food and beverages (a glass of wine at a leading London venue now costs nearly £10!). Add these to the ticket price and it’s already turned into quite a pricey night out. (See 1. above.)
  3. Time value. Is this concert worth my time? Will I get value for money and value for my time if I attend? High ticket prices raise the level of audience expectation: the higher the price, the less likely that expectations will be met, leading to disappointment (see also 5. below).
  4. The seductively low or zero cost of streaming services at home. Why schlepp up town with all the additional costs of going to a concert or opera when you can watch from the comfort of your living room, the only spend being a reasonably-priced bottle of wine from Lidl.
  5. Programmes. Audiences are reporting that some promoters/artistic directors/venues are simply not offering them the kind of music they really want to hear. We have an inherent cognitive bias rowards minimising disappointment over maximising enjoyment; this especially works against ‘new’ content.
  6. Ease of booking. Organisers and promoters report that audiences are booking later and later, which is deeply anxiety-making for concert organisers. Because there is an assumption amongst concert-goers that there will be last-minute availability, and online booking is easily accessible via your smartphone, concert-goers will act accordingly and book at the last minute. This also ties in with 3. above, whereby people are weighing up the benefits/value to them of attending a concert and then deciding at the last minute whether or not to go.

Some possible solutions:

  1. Dynamic pricing — in which ticket prices increase as demand increases (a pricing model favoured by airlines such as EasyJet). To make this work, you have to first open with a low ticket price and step-up prices as demand builds. So, for example, you might run an ‘Early Bird’ ticket offer in the first instance, and increase prices as the concert date approaches. Audiences may be incentivised to book earlier because of the special offer.
  2. Lower prices across the board. Venues are reporting low audience numbers and while all of the points above may be contributing factors, price is the single most important issue at present. Most concert tickets are priced according to seat position in the venue – the best seats cost the most. While some people may enjoy the kudos of being in the most expensive seats in the house, I suspect many more would happily pay a lot less. Why not offer lower prices across the entire venue and enjoy potentially higher attendence?
  3. Give audiences the programmes they want to hear. It is possible to offer programmes which include both the well-known/popular works of the classical canon alongside lesser-known, rarely-performed or new music. Remember that people go to concerts for entertainment (in the best possible meaning of that word), to escape from life’s daily grind for a few hours, to meet up with friends, and because they enjoy live music.
  4. Build greater trust between promoter/organiser/artistic director and audiences. Nurture and respect your audiences and they will repay you with their presence. (I will write more about trust in a future article.)

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

Ayriel Studios is a new residential recording studio and creative retreat set within the spectacular landscape of the North York Moors National Park. Against all odds, the studio was launched during the pandemic and is attracting world-class musicians inspired by its idyllic rural location.

The brainchild of internationally-renowned cellist, artistic director and cultural entrepreneur, Jamie Walton, it has taken six years from inception to completion. The studio is in a large, converted barn, with three adjacent self-catering farm cottages that sleep up to 12 people, surrounded by stone-walled fields on one side and heather moorland on the other. It is a musical haven, where artists enjoy an extremely personal and bespoke service that starts from before they arrive with help for travel arrangements. Artists may stay on site and have everything taken care of, including home-cooked meals, so they can relax and focus fully on their project.

The L-shaped, oak-floored studio is expertly designed, offering a unique sound – rich, clear, natural – with great acoustic versatility and an unusually broad reverberation range (from 0.8 to 2.6 seconds) suitable for all musical genres. The studio space is overlooked by a comfortable, well-equipped control room housing the latest SSL Origin 32 channel analogue mixing desk, ideal for an all-digital workflow and easy to use. Both spaces are flooded with natural light.

We aim to provide the optimum working conditions for our guests,” comments owner and technical director, Simon Hopkins. “The studio is temperature controlled and benefits from a continual air exchange, keeping the air as fresh inside as it is outside. We offer the studio on a 24-hour day rate, so artists can work whenever they want and for as long as they want. Noise is never an issue as the building is so well soundproofed.

A sense of timelessness and freedom is what helps this studio stand out from the norm” observes artistic director, Jamie Walton. “We’ve created a space for musicians to do their best work, to focus on their creativity and self-expression, and to completely immerse themselves without distraction.

It seems to be working – pianist, Peter Donohoe, surprised himself by recording 17 sonatas in one visit, Viktoria Mullova and Alasdair Beatson recorded a disc of Schubert and finished early, and I recently recorded The Bach Suites in three days.”

Other notable classical artists to have discovered Ayriel Studios include oboist, Nicholas Daniel OBE, who described it as “the most beautiful place imaginable to record.” To find out more about Ayriel Studios visit www.ayrielstudios.com, or call the studio manager, Hannah Ahrens, on 01287 669900 for rates and availability, or email bookings@ayrielstudios.com.

Source: press release

(Image credit: Paul Ingram)