In a recent article in The New Statesman, Andrew Mellor whinged about racism, elitism, snobbery and exclusivity amongst classical music audiences. The basis of his argument seemed to be largely founded on the number of adverts for private schools in the BBC Proms programme. Myself, and quite a few other concert-going colleagues, Twitterati, music journalists and classical music fans have felt compelled to refute Mr Mellor’s anxieties by pointing out all the very good things about going to classical music concerts, operas and ballet.

Jessica Duchen has written an excellent article How to Be A Nice Audience, with her top 10 tips on “best practice” for audiences. Like me, she feels if Mr Mellor would stop feeling quite so paranoid about everyone around him at the Wigmore Hall or the Royal Opera House, he might enjoy himself more.

Sure, classical music concerts have their own ‘audience etiquette’, but so do rock concerts, jazz and folk gigs, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, theatre, fringe festivals et al. And if Mr Mellor wants snobbery and elitism, he should try attending the private view at a Mayfair art gallery (I know, I’ve done it!). Classical music has its own etiquette largely to ensure that most of us, including the musicians who have worked hard for weeks and months to present the music to us, have a good time.

One thing Mr Mellor seems to have overlooked, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that without the audience – snobby, elitist, elderly, racist or just there to have a great night out – there would be no concerts at all.

So let’s stop feeling paranoid about who’s sitting beside/behind/in front of us in the stalls, or who might be eyeballing us in the bar during the interval, and simply sit back and enjoy a few hours of quality music.

Here’s another article on this subject by a fellow blogger who tweets as @OperaCreep.

 

 

 

Mahan Esfahani, harpsichordist (photo credit: © BBC / Marco Borggreve)

Who or what inspired you to take up the harpsichord, and make it your career?

I think it’s impossible for people involved with the harpsichord to deny the influence of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959). Landowska was the first to make the modern concert stage take it seriously, and, quite frankly, I wonder whether successive generations did plenty to kill the goodwill of the public that she had so painstakingly engendered. Her command, her confidence, her authority, her drama, her understanding of what a plucked string means – she is why I am here. I guess you could say that the decision to take it full on and make a career out of it had a bit to do with latent adolescent rebellion against parents who loved the Romantic repertoire…

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

Probably my playing as a soloist has been most influenced by a lot of the orchestral recordings I grew up with. Otto Klemperer’s readings of the Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies go to the very depths of each piece without resorting to any formulae or cliches. Nikolaus Harnoncourt shows that it is possible to be historically-informed and yet not resign oneself from the messy business of artistic licence and an aesthetic principle.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

You would think that my answer would have something to do with the mainstream not taking the harpsichord seriously. I won’t say that hasn’t been a challenge, but so far the biggest challenge has come from fighting the dogmatism, ignorance, sensationalism, inability to embrace change, increasing emphasis on a star system at the expense of actual music, and general intellectual laziness of the so-called world of historical performance.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I’m proud (if that can be the word – delighted, happy?) when someone says to me that I can make the harpsichord sing. That’s me at my best – not fast fingers, not certain effects, but just the idea of the instrument singing and, might I add, speaking.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Where the spirit of the composer descends and in an act of transubstantiation inhabits our ears, our minds, our hearts, and, occasionally, my fingers (if I’m lucky), that’s the best place.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I like to perform whatever is in front of me at the moment! To listen to, there’s nothing better for me than one of the Bach Cantatas, or Haydn’s Creation. Lately I have been listening to Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit on repeat; how can anyone write such a beautiful melody? I have to admit that I like salon music very much – Quilter, Sullivan, and all that. I recently heard Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet – it’s a work of genius!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Sviatoslav Richter. He is like a bear at the piano – always struggling, fighting, taking risks, thinking out loud. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it is always imparting his special genius. I always try hear and study everything by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

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

To aspiring musicians, I can only say: focus only on your music and the quality of your execution and your message, and the rest will come. You will come into contact with a lot of young ‘musicians’ who think they need to dress the part, attend nice parties, and in general fit some sort of silly expectation of what artistry means, and I’m afraid it usually has to do with the bank of Mummy and Daddy. This is all nonsense. These people don’t believe in their musicianship. Even if you are destitute on the street and haven’t two coppers to rub together, you will always have your music, and that is more valuable than anything.  I know a lot of voices say otherwise, but, really, trust me on this.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a very interesting harpsichord transcription of Bach’s A-minor Solo Sonata BWV 1004; it may have been made by one of his sons or, in all probability, by his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. I’ve also just gotten my teeth into another marvellously fiendish concerto by C.P.E. Bach.

What is your most treasured possession?

Right before I left university, my mentor George Houle gave me two very special things as parting gifts. One was a small booklet with a cover reading, ‘the Dolmetsch Concerts,’ which contains the various dates and programmes for a set of concerts performed by Arnold Dolmetsch and his family in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. These were amongst the first performances of music on period instruments ever attempted in the United States, and so it’s very precious. Dr. Houle also gave me a turquoise bolo tie, a piece of American Western fashion which I think is now rather passé – this belonged to Landowska’s American student Putnam Aldrich, who later went on to found the early music programme at Stanford. It’s a nice connection to those pioneers who started this whole movement, and for some reason the bolo tie in particular reminds me of my university years in California, which were very happy and eye-opening in every respect.

Mahan Esfahani’s biography

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Proms 2011 performance of the Goldberg Variations

Several of my students have been learning and enjoying this well-known piece by the Penguin Café Orchestra, and so I thought it might be helpful to have some background.

The Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) was a collective of musicians, founded by Simon Jeffes in the 1970s. It is hard to categorise their music, but it combines elements of exuberant folk music, and the minimalist music of composers such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. The music also contains references to South American and African music, and uses a variety of instruments including strings, pianos, harmoniums, slide guitars, cuatros, kalimbas, experimental sound loops, mathematical notations and more. A number of their works are very familiar as they have been used in film, tv and advertising.

Perpetuum Mobile is one of PCO’s most famous pieces, and comes from their fifth album, ‘Signs of Life’ (1987). The title is Latin for “perpetual motion” (or continuous motion) and in music it refers to two things:

  1. pieces or parts of pieces of music characterised by a continuous steady stream of notes, usually at a rapid speed
  2. whole pieces, or large parts of pieces, which are to be played repeatedly, often an indefinite number of times.

In both cases, there should be no interruption in the ‘motion’ of the music. Examples from classical music include the presto finale of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. Marked “sotto voce e legato” (literally “under the breath and smoothly”), the entire movement is a musical stream of consciousness of unremitting parallel octaves, with unvarying tempo and dynamics, and not a single rest or chord until the final bars. The difficulty for the pianist, aside from keeping the triplets absolutely equal and even throughout, is the sotto voce (a fairly common marking in Chopin’s music) which suggests a muted sound. Careful pedalling will, in part, create the desired effect but the sound should never become woolly or muddy: we want to hear every single note. This movement has a strange and mysterious cast: Arthur Rubenstein remarked that the fourth movement is like the “wind howling around the gravestones”, and a pianist colleague of mine described performing it as “horrible – like having your entrails picked over on stage”. Interestingly, Chopin himself said of the movement: “The left hand unisono with the right hand are gossiping after the [Funeral] March” (source: James Huneker in his introduction to the Mikuli edition of the Sonatas). Played well it is inscrutable and brief; played badly and it’s just a muddle.

 

Here is Ivo Pogorelich, with a good view of his hands at work

 

 

Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat is another perpetuum mobile, at least in the outer sections (the middle section of the piece is a rough gypsy waltz), which, like the example by Chopin, is built from almost continuous triplets in swirling, tumbling scalic figures which never quite break free from the secure tether of the bass line. The difficulty in this piece, as in the Chopin, is keeping the triplets even, though with some give-and-take/rubato and dynamic shading to add interest: unlike the Chopin, there is prettiness and charm in this piece, and the dance rhythm of the bass line should be highlighted too. My problem when I was learning this piece (or rather relearning – I first encountered it in my teens) was lifting the fingers too high, which produced a chunky, “notey” sound and interrupted the flow of the music. It also made my arm tense. I taught myself to keep the fingers curled into the keys and to start with a slightly higher hand position: the result was a pleasing “trickling” effect in the long scalic runs, and the piece was far less tiring to play.

Pedalling is another issue in this piece, and I had a long discussion with a colleague about this, who kindly heard my Diploma programme ahead of the exam. In the end, I compromised on 1/8 pedal: like the Chopin Sonata, you don’t want a muddy sound (and I’ve heard plenty of live and recorded performances of this work with some very sloppy pedalling!). The beauty of this music, in my opinion, is the clarity of the writing, and the elegant song lines which are subtly embedded in the triplet figures. Careless or over-pedalling won’t highlight these interior elements to the listener.

A further danger of this piece is getting so caught up in the perpetual motion of it that you forget to breathe! This may sound daft, but I can confirm that in my Diploma recital, I probably played the restatement of the opening section on one breath. And in rehearsal one afternoon, my page turner was so absorbed in the music, he forgot to turn over the pages for me!

 

Walter Gieseking:

 

Perhaps the most famous example of a musical perpetuum mobile is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, an orchestral interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This popular work, often performed as an virtuosic encore, consists of nearly uninterrupted runs of chromatic semiquavers, with leitmotifs (Givdon’s themes) from the opera. It is not so much the pitch or range of notes that present the challenge, but the sheer speed of it and the musician’s ability to move quickly around the notes.

(picture source: Wikipedia)

 

Other famous perpetuum mobiles from classical music include Debussy’s ‘Mouvement’ for piano (from the first book of Images), and Francis Poulenc’s Trois Mouvements perpétuels.

 

PCO’s Perpetuum Mobile is built on a simple repetitive melody which is put through several harmonic and textural changes, building in grandeur as it goes. The repetitions of the melody make it a hypnotic piece, but the changes prevent it from being boring. Instead, the accumulation of elements and orchestration make this an energetic and exciting piece to listen to, and to play.

A friend of mine has adapted the music for easy piano (Grade 2-3 level), and although simplified, the music retains key features from the original, including the harmonic and textural changes. After the introduction, the main melody is introduced and repeated in the right hand before the left hand joins in with a progression of stern chords in open 5ths and octaves. Further along in the score, and both hands play the melody unison, reflecting the string articulation in the original. The two-bar melody, which is scored in 7/8 and 4/4, contains an octave leap which might be tricky for smaller hands. However, this also offers a great opportunity to practice ‘rotary motion’: I get students to practice the second, 4/4, part of the melody first, as the smaller stretches make rotary movement easier to grasp.

Before playing a single note on the piano, we practice rotary motion above the keyboard, or even away from the keyboard. Many teachers and tutor books describe rotary as “turning a doorknob” (an old-fashioned round doorknob, obviously) or turning cooker knobs. But my teacher and I decided the movement was more like the windscreen wipers of a car: it’s an “out-in” movement rather than “in-out”. To practice it at the piano, start in a 5-1 position, G-C (either Middle C position or an octave higher, if more comfortable), and place the hand in a “karate chop” position on the G with the fifth finger. Allow the hand to “flop” onto C with the thumb, and repeat. Encourage the student to watch the movement of the wrist: if the wrist isn’t moving, it ain’t rotating! Speed the movement up so that the student understands that it is the rolling (“rotary”) movement of the wrist that makes the sound, rather than the fingers. Keep the wrist and hand flexible and soft throughout: this will also help achieve a good tone.

Everyone I’ve taught this piece to wants to play it fast, but to try and play it up to tempo before you have practised rotary motion and grown comfortable with it will lead to tension in the hand and possibly pain. Keep the tempo sensible and perfect the rotary motion and good legato-playing before cranking it up. Meanwhile, enjoy experimenting with different dynamic levels for dramatic effect. The unison section should be light, nimble and nicely articulated to achieve the effect of the strings from the original.

Download the easy piano version from the SE22 Piano School blog

And the original, composed by Simon Jeffes:

A shorter version of this article was published on my sister blog, Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio

Retreat from the bustle of traffic and shoppers on London’s fashionable Bond Street, and step into the world of the great Baroque composer George Frideric Handel with a visit to the delightful and evocative museum in his house in Mayfair. Handel made London his home in 1712, and was the first resident of the newly-built 25 Brook Street W1 in 1723 until his death there in 1759. It is here that he wrote some of his most famous works, including ‘Messiah’ and the coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’. Read my review here

A modern copy of a harpsichord by Flemish maker Ruckers. Handel would have owned and played a very similar instrument.

Handel House Museum

Craig Stratton (photo: Peter Humfryes)

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin, and make it your career?

I used to hear my grandfather play violin when I was 7 years old and just seemed to be fascinated by the instrument itself and by his sense of humour that seemed to harmonise with it. After that, it was a question of parental encouragement and getting my first inspirational teacher, Mr. Duckering who lived locally. I think when you get good at something quickly you hang on to it and before you know it, it becomes a way of life, or indeed a living. I was also learning piano and the two instruments seem to go hand in hand right through University and music college. When you meet others along the way that are also learning an instrument and experiencing similar musical times, then inspiration comes naturally all around you.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

My two years spent studying in Prague, Czech Republic, became a huge influence in the way I played. My teacher there was Prof. Ivan Straus, who really changed the way that I practised, and helped me to think about my vibrato and sound. I attended numerous master courses in Austria and in the Czech Republic where I met some incredible players who shared invaluable musical and technical ideas that I try now to share with my students. Feats of brilliance in any discipline, being music or indeed any other, always evoke the question: “How on earth do they do that..?”. When you hear or see great artists both on the stage and in close proximity, it is bound to influence the way you approach your own skills in some from or another.

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

Recording my CD From the Homeland was one of the biggest challenges to date. It’s the actual process of getting to that red button that makes it so rewarding. It’s not just the hours of rehearsing, but all the administration and phone calls that go with it!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My CD is definitely something I am proud of. Any recital that I have done I would like to be proud of for similar reasons as in the previous question. There is something, however, about live performing though that is endearingly unpredictable! Each performance is so different (hopefully), and one never knows how the audience is going to react. Whatever the case, it’s a sense of accomplishment coming off the stage and is sure to make you feel proud. Whatever happens during performance, good or bad, you learn from the experience.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Bergersen Quartet, in which I play, performed at the Barbican in London late last year. So many amazing musicians have played there, so definitely one to tick off the list.

I did a recital in a Norman church down in a small village in the south of England. It has great acoustics and a very appreciative audience. I had the opportunity to play with my country folk band Pig Earth at Wembley Arena in London last month. It’s hard to beat the feeling of exhilaration as 6000 people cheer you on!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

The Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major by Prokofiev is a particular favourite of mine to listen to. I’ve never got tired of it. At the moment I love performing works by Astor Piazzolla, especially the Grand Tango, which I played at a recital recently. The Czech Rhapsody by Martinu is another work I love to play purely because of its driving folk rhythms and “on the edge of your seat” ensemble writing with the piano. I always like to put into a programme a work or two, which may be lesser known by audiences. I must also mention the Scriabin piano Preludes, some of which I love to play (although a little rusty these days). Many of these Preludes are barely a minute long but brimming with intense dynamics and incredible harmonies.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Most people reading this question will be screaming simultaneously at their screens, claiming that such a list is far too big to put on here, but since you’re asking, Shlomo Mintz or David Oistrakh have to be on my personal list favourites for violin tone. Others on that list include Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman and Vadim Repin. For technical prowess, check out violinist Ning Feng. I also love pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Horowitz and John Lill. Outside the classical world, I’ve always been a huge fan of Prince, who is certainly one of the most talented musicians and songwriters I’ve ever heard. His after show gigs are unforgettable and in fact I managed to meet him personally in a bar in New York a couple of years ago. I’m learning how to play banjo at the moment (but don’t tell anyone) and admire the picking of Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny and Tony Trischka.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Years ago, I went with my dad to hear Shlomo Mintz perform at the Barbican playing Paganini’s Concerto No. 1. Talk about faultless technique and a warm rich sound! I remember a close friend of mine at school introduced me to a recording of Shlomo Mintz playing the Prokofiev Violin Concertos, particularly No.1 in D major. I just couldn’t believe how sublime and dream-like this music was. Years later I managed to get Shlomo Mintz to sign that CD for me after a concert he played in London. Must also mention that I had the pleasure of looking after John Ogden when he came to give a concert at my school. As a young pianist, that was a musical experience that I wasn’t going to forget in a hurry and still remember vividly.

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

As with any art form, I would say the bottom line is work at it everyday. Find a teacher that comes highly recommended and that can inspire you. There is an ever increasing number of great and talented musicians out there so you have to be on top of your game. Get out there and go to concerts. Try to find other like-minded musicians that you can form groups with. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn from your colleagues or indeed they can learn from you! Try to perform regularly, even if to just family and friends. Setting concert dates is important, as you will have a target to work towards. Don’t forget to enjoy it!

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I am working on the usual suspects of scales and studies. I have some concerts coming up with the quartet next month at the Brighton Fringe Festival, and solo work in the Czech Republic. For the latter, some unaccompanied Bach is on the menu. On the piano, I am pretending to learn Un Sospiro by Liszt.

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

I often have this conversation with friends who ask me of where I want to be in the next 10 years or what my dreams are for the future. I always reply that I hope I am doing exactly the same variety of projects as I am now. I like to think that I am indeed living the dream now, as we speak.

Craig Stratton studied violin performance in London and in Prague, with Professor Ivan Straus. He has attended courses in Bechyne, Czech Republic and spent numerous summers at the master courses in Semmering, Austria.

Craig has given solo recitals in the UK, France, Czech Republic and Florida and has also performed extensively on Fred Olsen, Page and Moy and Noble Caledonia cruises. He has performed duo recitals with pianists Sholto Kynoch, Simon Howat and Liz Rossiter.

He has appeared on countless film and TV productions including, Downton Abbey (Series 3), Star Wars Episode 1, Bridget Jones, Die Another Day, Holby City, Miss Marple, Foyles War, and Midsomer Murders.

As a session player, Craig has performed on Julian Cope’s album ‘Interpreter’ and appeared on the Jools Holland Show with Tindersticks. He is a member of the BERGERSEN STRING QUARTET which specialises in spectral music and contemporary works by living composers. The quartet performed on the recent “Songs to Save a Life” album for the Samaritans.

In 2004, Craig released From the Homeland which is now available online. The CD was featured on the Classic Fm Evening Concert and given three stars in the Classic FM magazine. From the Homeland has also been broadcast on Lyric FM, Dublin.

Craig plays violin, banjo and mandolin in the country folk group PIG EARTH who won best Horizon Act of the Year at the British Country Music Awards and performed at Wembley Arena in February 2012

www.craigstratton.co.uk

blog: www.craigstratton.wordpress.com
Pig Earth: www.pigearth.com

The Soane Museum, former home of the architect, Sir John Soane, who designed the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, is a treasure trove of the eccentric and eclectic right in the heart of London – and one of my favourite museums. Read about my visit and what antiquities, objets and oddments lie behind the door of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Field here.

Sir John Soane presides over his collection of Roman statuary in the basement of his home