guest post by Michael Johnson

It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?

Well, at first he might seem an unlikely idol for me, growing up in a small town in the flat, agricultural Midwest, too far from everything. My ears rang with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s recording of “Cry of the Wild Goose”, a mindless vehicle for the late crooner, but I ate it up. My five brothers and sisters and I played it over and over on our new 45-rpm console. It was one of the records that came free with the player.  There was also “Whoopie Ti-Yi-Yo” by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Only after I escaped from Indiana and moved to California for university education did I open myself to new worlds of music. I first discovered Baroque, an instantly accessible form that had me humming along and tapping both feet. Friends observed my head bobbing uncontrollably as Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Purcell, Corelli, Lully, Campra and others excited me.

Finally a colleague on the San Jose State University school newspaper took me aside and promised much better thrills – more satisfying than cannabis and completely legal. He had just come from a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and was still marveling at the experience. “You gotta hear this,” he gushed. “It will knock your socks off.” He was almost right.

I never lost my socks but over the next year I built up a complete library of Beethoven symphonies on vinyl LPs, moving backward from Nine to One. The scope and variety left me spinning, and I have never stopped exploring the rich oeuvre of symphonic, choral, solo piano and chamber music Ludwig left us.

In my early piano studies at university I played what every schoolgirl plays –  the Bagatelle “Für Elise”, moving on to his “Moonlight Sonata”. And by shameless cherry-picking, I plunged into parts of the “Diabelli Variations” and a few of his 32 piano sonatas, guided by tempo markings such as “Largo”, “Andante” and, my favorite, “Grave e maestoso”. The slower the better.

I gave up piano lessons when I grew tired of wandering around on the famous plateau students hit after the easy stuff is done. I have spent the rest of my life picking out passages of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt I catch on radio as I tell myself, “Hey, I could play that.” Sometimes I get the sheet music off the internet and start to work.

Now my CD collection is particularly rich in Beethoven. I am listening to the late string quartets as I write this, and his piano trios are among my favorites. Of course nothing beats the Ninth, or even the Fifth. I also relate to the emotional Seventh.

I gradually became a music writer and critic, keeping myself busy attending concerts and writing my reaction to the players’ efforts. The idea of a pianist alone on a spacious stage playing for an hour and a half from memory, no safety net, still strikes me as one of the great feats of human courage and accomplishment.

By chance, I have done interviews recently with two pianists who have performed the five Beethoven piano concertos from memory, conducted from the keyboard, in one day – François-Frédéric Guy and Rudolf Buchbinder. François also plays all the sonatas from memory over three weekends.

I liked Rudi’s dismissal of my praise for his “marathon” performances. “Ach,” he said, “it’s nothing special.” François said he is not running a marathon here, he is showing the audience how Beethoven’s creativity evolved.

Beethoven has a way of remaining ubiquitous. His work is eternal and musicians love performing it. New recordings appear like clockwork. In this crowded field, no one, in my opinion, has surpassed Wilhelm Kempf’s heart-stopping sonatas.

In many other ways Beethoven keeps entering my life. When I was based in Paris as an economic journalist I received news that my father was failing fast with lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking two packs a day of Lucky Strikes. We were never close, but I picked up the phone and asked my mother to put him on. Silence for a few minutes. She came back and said, “He is lying on the hardwood floor, the only place he can find comfort. He is listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.” He never made it to the phone. He died two days later.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Illustration by Michael Johnson

Wu Qian is an internationally acclaimed pianist and Co-Founder of Investec International Music Festival, which takes place from 26 March to 16 May 2020.

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

It was more like an accident; my parents took me to a friend’s house when I was 6 years old and they had a piano. As a child I have never seen anything like it before and immediately asked my parents if I could have one – they agreed thinking that it was proven how piano playing helps children developing both sides of the brain! After the first lesson, the teacher told my parents I was very talented so my mother had secretly hoped that I might make something out of piano and has pushed me ever since! There were times when I almost resented the amount of practise I had to do, but fortunately later on, I really started to appreciate music and it enlightened my life. That is what drove me to pursue a career in music.

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

I was very fortunate that I had wonderful teachers from different backgrounds. I feel it’s the combination of all these incredible musicians and mentors who influenced my musical path.

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

I think challenges are everywhere, but thankfully music makes me forget them!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am never that content with my own performances. I could perhaps pick out a few sections here and there to say “ah that was quite nice!”, but it is difficult for me to be completely satisfied.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

When I listen back my performances and recordings, I feel Schubert, Schumann suit me well.

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

I always like to add a few new works that I would like to learn or challenge myself, then there are always plenty of promoters requesting more of their wishes! So then it becomes a balancing act; trying t develop your repertoire while having a programme ready to perform.

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

We are lucky these days as there are many beautiful venues with good acoustics, so it is very difficult to pick one, but I do think it’s the combination of the space we perform in, the quality of the piano, the audience, the ambience and the performer’s mood and energy at the very moment of the performance which create a unique feeling.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I am lucky that I have been to quite a few concerts and even lectures that I was very moved by. I can’t always explain what it was but when a performance touches you, it is unforgettable.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, it’s knowledge of the entire music history, and I am sad to admit I feel there isn’t enough time in one’s lifetime to find out everything, but I try my best!

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

Love the music you are making, work hard but never forget to enjoy it! We are all so lucky to be able to work on incredible repertoire, created by these titans of history; I really can’t think of something as exciting and rewarding as working in the arts.

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

Too many possibilities that I honestly can’t choose, but I can’t imagine doing something in life that doesn’t involve music.


Wu Qian was born in Shanghai, where she received her early training before being invited to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School. At fifteen she performed Mozart’s E flat Major concerto (K449) in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and again at the Menuhin Festival in Switzerland. She also played the Saint-Saens Concerto No.2 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in St. John’s Smith Square. She made her debut recital at the South Bank Purcell Room in 2000 and has since played there again on several occasions, including a recital broadcast by BBC Radio 3.

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“….the quality and general culture of audiences has diminished in equal measure……The average listener of today has hardly the faintest idea about what he is hearing. He neither knows anything about new music, nor can he differentiate between outstanding, moderately good and poor performances.”

Sir András Schiff, The Telegraph, 8 March


It’s not the first time I’ve found myself bridling at criticism of “the audience”. There have been a few occasions, mostly in music reviews, where the audience and its behaviour have been commented upon in less-than-complimentary terms. I feel offended because as a regular concert-goer I am part of “the audience”, and I will nearly always rush to defend it.

And why? Because there’s a very simple equation here: without an audience, the musician/s does not have a concert, nor a fee. He/she/they may be performing to a handful of people or a full house at Carnegie Hall, but the audience is a crucial part of the concert experience. Without an audience, you are just playing into the void (sadly, some musicians are finding this is a necessity as concert halls close due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that’s another story).

András Schiff’s comments revive – yet again! – that tedious old chestnut that you need specialist knowledge or a certain level of education to enjoy, or better still appreciate classical music. The truth is, you don’t. All you need are your ears and a willingness and curiosity to submit to the sounds, to the experience, the flow of the music and the emotions it provokes. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy the experience, and there’s no test at the end of the concert to see if you “understood it”, no exam in musical analysis to check you know what Sonata Form is or the meaning of Allegro Amabile (“smile as you quickly play”). The majority of audience members are there not to show off their specialist knowledge, but because they enjoy the experience of live music. And in fact, contrary to what Schiff says, many audience members are highly discerning and really can spot whether a performance is truly inspiring or mediocre: they may not be able to express this in high falutin language but they can certainly sense it.

Performers like Schiff would do well to remember who is paying for the tickets to their concerts, for without those ticket buyers, those valuable (but, it would appear, not always valued) “bums on seats”, The Audience, there wouldn’t be the same opportunities to perform. This is especially true for less well-known musicians who are trying to make a living playing for local music societies and regional arts organisations, where the ability to pay the artist a fee is predicated almost entirely on ticket sales.

Patronising, arrogant attitudes towards audiences, and potential audiences, don’t really help an artform which is constantly trying to attract as wide an audience demographic as possible, and serve to reinforce the notion that classical music is “elitist”. If I was a newbie concert-goer reading Schiff’s comments, I think I might be tempted to head straight out of the concert hall, never to return.

Let’s stop behaving as if classical music is for the few, not the many; that it’s some kind of precious crystal that only a select minority can see and engage with. Instead, let’s endeavour to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of their credentials or knowledge.

Read Jon Jacob’s thoughts on this issue here

 

 

The author Umberto Eco had a library of an astonishing 30,000+ books, most of which he had not, and probably never did read. Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of The Black Swan) calls this an “anti-library” and believes it represents an ongoing intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge, for all those unread books contain what one does not know yet. The more one reads, the more one’s knowledge increases; the books one hasn’t read are a research tool, a means to extend one’s knowledge further.

The same can perhaps be said for musical scores. On the bookcase in my piano room are many scores of music which I may never play, but I have acquired those scores out of curiosity, and many of them represent, for me at least, an acknowledgement that my musical knowledge continues to grow. Some scores are also research tools, purchased for their detailed notes and annotations rather than the music itself; others I bought because I simply wanted to possess them. Some I have been sent by composers, hopeful that I may play their music. All of them are the music I haven’t played yet.

Years ago, long before I started writing this blog and interviewing musicians on a regular basis, I went to interview a concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. One wall of his piano room/office was filled with scores, floor to ceiling – dusky blue Henle, brick-red Weiner Urtext and pale green Peters editions and many more. This collection, including some very well-thumbed, much-used editions, represented a lifetime’s work in the profession, but I suspect there were more than a few scores that may never be opened, yet they had their place in this library as the music he hadn’t played yet.

In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. I am always rather suspicious of people who tell me they have played all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, this completist approach suggesting a certain lack of humility, as if to say “that’s it, I have mastered the instrument and its literature!”. I prefer to subscribe to a more humble approach, based on the knowledge that a piece of music is never truly “finished”. People who lack this humility may enjoy a sense of pride at having ‘conquered’ Beethoven, without acknowledging that learning is an ongoing process.

The music we haven’t played yet may well be the most interesting in our repertoire, for it offers new possibilities in broadening our musical knowledge, extending our technical and artistic facilities, and widening our cultural horizons. It is a sign of an ever-expanding understanding of our competence and a necessary spur to mastery.

In fact, all the music we haven’t played yet represents a wondrous opportunity – it is just waiting to be explored!

collections-music-scores

 

 

An interview with Wasfi Kani OBE, founder of Grange Park Opera


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music, and specifically opera?

I don’t think of myself as having a career. I’ve done lots of different things. Most humans can do lots of different things and they lumber themselves with a single track . . . a “career”.

Tell us a little more about your background. I understand you haven’t always worked in music?

I was born in 1956 in Cable Street in London’s East End, and I am the only opera impresario who spent their childhood in a house with an outside lavatory. My parents, from Delhi and Agra, had fled India at Partition to take refuge in the UK. I attended a state grammar school (Burlington Grammar School for Girls in White City), played the violin in the National Youth Orchestra and went on to study music at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

After 10 years in the city, programming and designing financial computer systems, I started a small computer consultancy which gave me the flexibility to spend more time conducting. I’ve always had this sense that the arts provide some kind of insight into the ultimate truth, whereas banking and computer systems don’t.

Who or what was the biggest influence in your career?

But I don’t have a career! The biggest influence is my mantra to work as hard as possible. And the fact that I don’t get tired. Then I jump into bed and fall straight asleep.

Grange Park Opera is your latest opera enterprise; how did you arrive at this point and what challenges did you encounter along the way?

It all began with Pimlico Opera and by 1992, I was made Chief Executive of Garsington Opera in Oxford. During my five years’ tenure, I more than quadrupled its turnover. In 1997, I founded my own opera company/charity, Grange Park Opera and built an opera house in Hampshire. I also started the operas at Nevill Holt, Leicestershire.

Wormwood Scrubs is very far removed from Grange Park: what motivated you to put on opera in a prison?

It was the Pimlico Opera days and we were performing for the National Trust, for private banks, in other big houses and I suddenly thought “Why not do a show for prisoners?”. I had gone to school behind Wormood Scrubs so around 1989 I wrote to the governor and he rang me. The rest, as they say, is history. Here I am 30+ years later…. we’re still in prison. That’s a long sentence!

You founded Grange Park Opera in 1997 and it has recently relocated to Surrey. Tell us about the process of securing the land and building the new opera house, known as the Theatre in the Woods.

In 2015 our Hampshire landlords terminated the charity’s lease and we had two years to find a new site, get planning permission, raise £10m and build a new opera house. Miraculously, we did it.

We found West Horsley Place in 2015, applied for planning permission in January 2016. It was granted in May 2016 and we had one year to build the five-tier opera house based on La Scala. It is in a magical wood behind the historic orchard and we named it the Theatre in the Woods.

Meanwhile…..we had to raise money to build it. I had assumed we would have to borrow cash at some point but people were very very generous. No loan was necessary.

The new location West Horsley Place, an estate in the Surrey Hills inherited by Bamber Gascoigne, is much closer to London, which is obviously a huge advantage. The audience usually, but not exclusively, dress in black tie/ long dresses and arrive two hours before the performance to wander, glass of champagne in hand, at leisure through this magical demi-Eden. A convivial atmosphere reigns – the city seems far away. A walk through the ancient Orchard – passing a 300-year-old mulberry tree, damson, pear and apple trees – takes you to the opera house for Act 1.

The long dining interval is an all-important part of the evening. There are two restaurants but some guests take a more bucolic approach and fling down a rug and picnic. When the opera ends, the audience walks out into the magical moonlit wood and through candlelit formal gardens.

The whole experience is beyond stylish. (There are even 47 vintage cars on offer (for a fee) to drive you from (and to) London or Horsley Station. Imagine arriving pre-War Rolls Royce . . .)

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of running your own opera company?

Pleasure: you can put on anything you like as long as you can pay for it! Challenges: every problem lands on my desk.

What are you particularly looking forward to in this season at Grange Park Opera?

The 2020 season combines mainstays and eyebrow-raisers: the traditional and the unexpected. We’ve possibly the biggest statement of the entire summer opera season: La Gioconda with superstar tenor Joseph Calleja fresh from the Met, New York, to play nobleman Enzo Grimaldo in this tragedy of Shakespearean scale. Ponchielli’s luscious musical palette tinges a Verdian richness with a biting acidity. The ribbon on the box is the Rambert School to perform the Dance of the Hours.

Then there is more acidity with a world premiere: The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko. Not to be missed.

Do you think opera is elitist?

This “elitist” tag is predicated on the idea that you need to know something to enjoy opera. You don’t. All you have to do is walk into the theatre and sit in a seat. A narrative is transmitted by 70 people in the orchestra, 50+ people on stage, all performing live, right in front of you. As the story unfolds you will feel lots of things. The people around you will feel different things. There is no right or wrong. Whatever you feel is an insight to your humanity. It makes you a better, bigger person.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring opera singers?

Work harder than everyone else. It’s a very competitive world.

How do you define “success”, in the world of opera and classical music in general?

Oddly, many of these questions use phrases that I shun! I don’t have a view on “success” and I don’t think about it. We are all the same. Me, the prisoners I work with, you, Bernard Haitink. We are all here to try to make the world a better place and learn about what it is to be a human in the world today.

Grange Park Opera’s summer season opens on 4 June

Visit the Grange Park Opera website


wasfi-kani-please-credit-robert-workman-700x455-1
Wasfi Kani

Grange Park Opera, founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani OBE, has staged more than 80 operas, performed to more than 300,000 audience, nurtured the careers of young singers and created a family of supporters that has helped me raise more than £22m in funds to support Grange Park Opera, which receives no subsidy from the government. Only 23 miles from London, Grange Park Opera is an integral part of the English summer season.

Wasfi Kani is an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA and St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2002 for her work in bringing her second opera company, Pimlico Opera, into prisons.

This annual initiative gives inmates the opportunity to work with professional directors and singers in creating a production which the public attend. The next show is Hairspray, 7-15 March 2020 at HMP Bronzefield. This is the 28thcollaboration and more than 60,000 public have ventured inside to witness remarkable talent. Besides the work in prison, Pimlico Opera gives a half hour singing class to 2,000 primary school every week of the school year a part of Primary Robins

 

(Image credit: Robert Workman)

 

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

It might sound weird, but music itself guided me to become a professional musician. As a child and teenager, I lived in my own world and spending time playing and listening to music was my favourite activity. It was much later – around my 15th or 16th birthday – when I realized pursuing a different career would equal spending less time with music and that was no option for me. You could say I was naÏve enough to think you could just choose a life. With time I learned that you have to make your way first.

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

Without doubt the people I love – my parents, my sister and my wife. They supported me from early on and without them I would not have had the luxury of mainly focusing on music. As a musician, I’m convinced it’s impossible to fully seperate the professional from the private parts of life. It’s interwoven and therefore I don’t like to call a vocation a career.

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

I’ve always believed in doing what I love and avoiding the things I don’t like as much as possible. Music has become such a big part of myself; therefore certain elements such as competitions never fit with my perspective on it.

The greatest challenge is, consequently, to stay true to yourself and to keep in touch with your instinct, especially in our noisy, stressful and competitive world. 

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This is impossible to define, because my assessment constantly changes. When I record I have the exact version in mind and I want to believe it is set in stone and made for eternity. However I have learned that even after a few months my concept has evolved and the recording is not up to date any more. The same applies to live recordings or performances. At first it frightened me, but thinking about it now, isn’t change the only true certainty we know?

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That I can’t decide. All I know is that my interest and passion are generated by the works I play or record. It’s hard to choose favourites, because music is too diverse and too dependent on mood and many other parameters.

I feel a strong affinity for Alexander Scriabin and also Franz Liszt, but that doesn’t mean I don’t equally enjoy Scarlatti, Ravel, Yun or Brahms. 

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

I love compiling recital programmes, creating  a proper ‘menu for the ears’. Proportion, variation, dimension and relations in between the works chosen make such a big difference. Sometimes promoters engage me for certain works desired and some other times they like my suggestions. It’s very much a fluctuating thing.

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

I love the Wigmore Hall, like so many other musicians do. Venues with a rich history usually fascinate me, but there is a few, partly modern concert halls I enjoy very much, such as the Philharmonie Luxembourg, the Maison Symphonique in Montréal or the wonderful Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

A great venue is more than just good acoustics – it’s atmosphere, surroundings, spirit and architecture.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many memorable experiences on stage. Alongside the highlights, such as sharing the stage with close friends or living legends such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin there is a series of exceptional incidents I encountered so far: Medical emergencies on or off stage, pets smuggled into concert halls or drunk promoters involuntarily popping up live on stage…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when you achieve separating your self-worth as a person from the satisfaction with your performance. I strongly believe you can only remain independent and free if you don’t allow your personal approach on music to be commercialized.

It’s a lot harder to achieve than it sounds.


Joseph Moog’s ability to combine exquisite technical skill with a mature and intelligent musicality set him apart as a pianist of exceptional diversity. A champion of the well-known masterworks as well as a true advocate of rare and forgotten repertoire paired with his quality to compose and arrange, Joseph was awarded the accolade of Gramophone Young Artist of the Year 2015 and was also nominated for the GRAMMY in 2016.

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(artist photo: Askonas Holt)