A pianist drums a rhythm with his fingers on the side of the piano stool. At first he appears to be simply warming up his hands, but the rhythm is insistent and repetitive. His fingers move up to the fall board of the piano, still drumming. His hand reaches around to the flank of the instrument, edging towards the gold Steinway logo. He stands and moves around the curved body of the instrument, still drumming drumming drumming…. Suddenly a red balloon flies out of the belly of the piano, twirling into the air with a comical farting noise…..

Another pianist curls over a tiny toy piano, picking out a quirky tune which, on that instrument, sounds like many carriage clocks chiming…..

A flautist yells at the end of a piece which requires overblowing, triple tonguing and other complex techniques

Welcome to the world of composer and pianist Stephen Montague.

Steve at Barbican/G Crumb 2011

In celebration of Stephen’s 75th birthday St John’s Smith Square played host to 24 hours of music making, beginning at lunchtime on Friday 9 March: 5 concerts during the day and evening followed by a performance of Satie’s bizarre Vexations – 840 repetitions (c15 hours of music) of a curious little two-line piece, played by a tag-team of pianists in hourly slots. In the crypt below a video wall (set up by film maker Rob Munday and Royal College of Arts students) showed a new film by Kumi Oda (a biography of Stephen Montague) along with short films by Alex Julyan, Rob Munday and others which ran throughout the day and into the long night.

The daytime and evening concerts featured works written over the course of 40 years, including some new commissions/premieres, and demonstrated the quantity, breadth, variety and richness of Stephen’s work. This is the man who had breakfast with Aaron Copland as a student and who spent 15 years working with maverick composer John Cage; who has lived in the UK since 1974 but who still retains very strong ties to his American homeland, not least through his music. He’s a composer with a keen imagination, sharp wit and a healthy sense of humour, who, in his own words, has lived his life “looking forward”, and who shows no sign of stopping now that he has reached his three score years and 15.

Stephen’s connections to the country of his birth were revealed most strongly in the first concert of the day, ‘After Ives….and Beyond’. One of the most significant influences on Stephen is the American composer Charles Ives, and in the 1pm concert pianists Mikaela Livadiotis, Yaoying Wang, Jiarui Li, Christina McMaster and Lewis Kingsley Peart performed a programme of works which paid a direct homage to Ives in the use of folksongs, hymns and spirituals, marches, jazz, boogie-woogie and the mechanised sounds of the 20th century, together with Ivesian tone clusters and musical collisions, strummed and plucked effects inside the piano, and the drumming on the piano case. These effects – and the later performance by flautist Rebecca Griffiths of Vlug (Speed) which uses extended techniques and overblowing – demonstrate, in my view, Stephen’s fascination with sound. Now that may seem a daft thing to say of a composer, whose business is to create sounds, but Stephen is a composer who likes to push the capabilities of the instrument to it limits to create deep dark rumblings in the bass of the piano, or ethereal strummed murmurs from its innards, proving that striking the keys needn’t be the only way to “play” a piano. Chords and collections of notes are used for their colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression, and theatrics, surprise, chance and silence are also important elements. These things connect him closely to John Cage, who beleived that “all sound is music”.

The piano works in this segment combined Lisztian virtuosity in tumultuous passages with moments of repose, delicate far-away melodies and fragments of hymn tunes. The concert closed with After Ives (1993) which ends with an outrageously rambunctious and “perverse homage” to J P Sousa, whom Ives apparently detested, quoting his famous The Stars and Stripes Forever on the piano with Chopinesque melodic interjections and Lisztian extravagance, all masterfully and very wittily handled by Lewis Kingsley Peart.

In the second concert, Beguiled, Stephen paid homage to another of his musical heroes, Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a composer who liked to “live in the whole world of music” – an ethos to which I suspect Stephen also subscribes! This concert had an altogether more reflective, meditative atmosphere, showcasing works which draw on Japanese and Indian musical aesthetics, Blues, loops and phasing, and graphic scores. Highlights of the programme were Haiku, (which, according to the composer’s introduction, started out as a very short work (like Haiku) and became a long one): beautifully and sensitively performed from memory by Chi-Ling Lok, it was haunting, dreamy and ethereal, while the accompanying electronics lent a rather more unsettled backdrop to the work; Nun Mull, ‘Tears’ (2014) written in memoriam the Korean ferry disaster, commissioned and performed by Jenna Sung, who brought a plaintive tragic intensity to the work;  Raga Capriccio (2017), a kooky work for toy piano and tape, inspired by Indian music, commissioned and performed by Helen Anahita Wilson, which sounded like many clocks chiming and the delicate the “ting” of prayer bells; and Eine Kleine Klangfarben Gigue, in which the opening measures of the Gigue from Bach’s First Keyboard Partita provide a ground bass over which other instrumentalists (in this instance The Ling Ensemble – two recorders, violin and bass clarinet) gradually winkle out hidden melodies. It was played with a wonderful sense of humour and spontaneity, the musicians leaving the stage one by one as the piece drew to a close.

A quick glass of wine in the interval and back to the hall for the 4pm concert which was concerned with matters of life and death. Dark Train Coming (2001) was written for harpsichordist Jane Chapman and is the composer’s response to serious cardiac surgery following a doctor’s warning that he could be headed for the “Dark Train into the ether”. The work has a frenetic, filmic quality, with passages in the first movement reminiscent of the soundtrack to a silent film where the heroine is tied to a train track. In the second movement, we hear Baroque arabesques gone mad, while in the third the player taps out a rhythm on the case of the instrument before striking notes which have the exact electronic timbre and insistency of a hospital heart monitor. The finale was a simple melody in the upper treble accompanied by a music box playing Brahms’ famous lullaby, which suggested the hallucinatory landscape of anaesthesia and coming to from a deep sleep.

The middle works in the programme – Folk Dances (2002) performed by Ian Pace (piano) and Madeleine Mitchell (violin) and Mira, performed by pianist Roxanna Shini – were rather more upbeat. The first work was infused with idioms drawn from folk music, jazz and Blues, the second an exercise in using only the white notes of the piano with forearm clusters to create a work of expressive warmth. The programme closed with a magnificently portentous and apocalyptic organ work, Behold a Pale Horse (1990), inspired by the Book of Revelation (“Not exactly a happy birthday message but ya gotta have a sense of humour!”).

The final concert of the afternoon showcased talented young people performing works from Stephen’s collections Five Easy Pieces and Autumn Leaves, together with the world premiere of Hound Dog Blues for piano duo. In his introduction, Stephen explained that he has always found inspiration and nourishment from working with children and young people, and this charming short concert celebrated the new generation. Stephen even performed some of the music himself which lent a lovely sense of shared experience to the concert.

Fortified by more wine and supper, we returned to St John’s Smith Square for the evening concert which brought together other instrumentalists, pianists and the Fulham Symphony Orchestra, who between them performed three concertos, a short ensemble work called Dead Cat Bounce (2014) with lively animations on the columns of SJSS by Royal College of Art students, and a humorous piece Texas Pulp Fiction which was an ode to the composer’s travels through Texas on a Greyhound bus.

Ritual Ode to Changwan (2017) received its premiere at the concert. Performed by pianist Jenna Sung and the Project Instrumental ensemble, it is a theatrical work based on a popular South Korean folk song realised by prepared piano and string orchestra. Once again, we experienced the extraordinary sonic worlds a grand piano can produce when the pianist barely strikes a single note. It was a concentrated and highly arresting work in which the piano took centre stage, though not in the conventional sense of a classical piano concerto, but rather as a piece of performance art, and which finished with Jenna leaving a trail of tiny roses as she glided gracefully off the stage.

Disparate Dances showcased Nancy Ruffer (flute) and Oliver Wass (harp) in a three-movement work inspired by Eastern European, Japanese and Irish dance forms, with a wonderful foot-tapping, exuberant finale.

The final work of the evening was Stephen’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997). Scored in the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra and in three movements, it employs experimental elements favoured by Ives and Cowell, including fist and forearm clusters, and great walls of sound from the piano. The work draws on American vernacular music, folksongs and Civil War battle songs, and is an epic confluence of the composer’s American roots, viewed from the perspective of having lived away from the US for over 40 years. An intense, energetic and highly-charged work, it was performed with great gusto, vigour and elan by Rolf Hind.

Although the formal concerts finished at 9.45pm, the music was not over, and the performance of Satie’s Vexations, which had commenced at 9pm on an upright piano the crypt bar, continued upstairs as Norman Jacobs (New Music Brighton) appeared in the lift, playing the work on Helen Wilson’s toy piano. The music was then “transferred” to the upright piano and thence to the Steinway D for the overnight performance. Space was cleared in the hall for people to chill out or bed down for the night……. The all night count of repetitions was cleverly made visible by the RCA students’ real-time animation of expanding tree rings elegantly projected on the high walls and ceiling.

The whole event was a wonderfully vibrant and exhilarating showcase of Stephen Montague’s impressive compositional output, and the cheerful presence of the composer throughout the day – introducing the works, chatting to the audience – created a relaxed, informal atmosphere: this was very much music for friends, with friends and amongst friends.

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Birthday cakes for Stephen Montague in the crypt bar at St John’s Smith Square

It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by –  American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.

Never had Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.

Read full review here


Artist photo: Marco Borggreve

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When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..

Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.

It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.

Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.

It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.

Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.

The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….

The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.

The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.

when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)


Meet the Artist – Jeremy Denk

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Thursday 11 January 2018

Samson Tsoy, piano

Schubert – Four Impromptus, Op 90

Rachmaninoff – Five Preludes Op 23

Two composers writing 75 years apart, both 30 and both entering significant periods of intense creativity in their compositional lives. By 1827 Schubert knew his life was drawing to a close. Ill with syphilis and the side-effects of its treatment since 1823, the year before his death, when his composed his Impromptus for piano, signalled a period of remarkable output. 75 years later in 1902 Rachmaninoff marries his cousin Natalia Satina and embarks on his Second Piano Concerto, the Cello Sonata, and Second Suite for Two Pianos, in addition to the Preludes Op 23.

Both sets of works are infused with their composer’s distinct psychology. Schubert’s bittersweet nostalgia, his markedly shifting moods, his long-spun melodies and the lilting rhythms of the ländler and the waltz run through the Four Impromptus Op 90, creating a unifying thread, and Samson Tsoy revealed these special qualities of Schubert’s writing with sensitivity and poise, from the desolate opening of the Impromptu in C minor, to the warm poetry of the fourth in A flat. This was refined and mature playing.

Rachmaninoff’s Op 23 Preludes are confident and exuberant, never more so than in the famous G minor, and Samson responded to with equal confidence and spirit, offering a rich palette of musical colours presented with stylish panache and an evident relish for this music. A special warmth and elegance was reserved for the D major Prelude.

A most enjoyable and rewarding lunchtime concert.

 

The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, a riverside pub in Barnes, SW London, more usually vibrates to the tunes, rhythms and vibe of the genre from which it takes its name, but last night the intimate space was filled with altogether different sounds in a concert given by two highly acclaimed classical musicians – David Le Page (violin) with Viv McLean (piano).

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In addition to his solo, ensemble and orchestral work, David Le Page is also a composer of beautifully-crafted, imaginative and highly evocative music. His latest album ‘The Book of Ebenezer’ (release date TBC) is inspired by The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards. Set in Guernsey through the late nineteenth century up to the 1960s, the novel takes the form of a fictional autobiography narrated by Ebenezer Le Page, a typical “Guern’ man, deeply engrossed in his life on the island. David Le Page also hails from Guernsey,  no relation to Ebenezer Le Page, though as David said in his introduction to his music, the name Le Page is as common in Guernsey as Smith is elsewhere in the UK. David has taken moments in Ebenezer’s life as recounted in the book as the inspiration for an album of 10 exquisite miniatures for violin and piano.

In the slower, more reflective pieces, the music is redolent of the spare grace and meditative stillness of expression of Arvo Pärt, while the more lively pieces have folksy intonation and foot-tapping rhythms. Several of the pieces use Guern folksongs, and one is based on Sarnia Cherie, the national anthem of Guernsey. All the music is highly evocative, infused with a tender poignancy which speaks not only of the eponymous hero’s reminiscences and reflections but also of David’s connection to the island of his birth, its landscape and its weather. There are haunting bird calls, as if heard from afar, the gentle wash of the sea rippled by the wind, the glint of light in water – elements which give the music a filmic quality and serve as a narrative thread which runs throughout the suite of pieces.

Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression which this music demands and offers. And David Le Page and Viv McLean create a very special intimacy of their own – these musicians work together regularly and their empathy and mutual understanding is palpable in every note they play.


David Le Page and Viv McLean return to the Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head for a special concert for Valentine’s Day on Wednesday 14 February – details here

Is Baroque music about composers or performers?” mused Lindsay Kemp in an article ahead of the launch of his new festival of Baroque music at the splendid venue that is LSO St Luke’s. The inaugural concert was given by Joanna Macgregor in a programme which sought to confirm Kemp’s assertion that Baroque musical festivals don’t have to be about historically informed performances (HIP), or period instruments and people in periwigs.

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Kemp, who was artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) which morphed into the London Festival of Baroque Music when Lufthansa withdrew funding, is clearly well-versed in presenting ambitious musical ventures (he’s also senior producer at BBC Radio 3 and a writer on music), and in creating Baroque at the Edge he decided he wanted to do something that was not just another early music festival, but rather a festival of music which “anyone can come and enjoy” (surely all music festivals and concerts should be thus?). Hosting the majority of the concerts of the weekend festival at LSO St Luke’s is symbolic for Kemp too – “an 18th-century church on the outside, and a beautiful modern concert hall on the inside“. The programmes in Baroque at the Edge seek to celebrate Baroque music for what it is – wonderful music first and foremost for anyone to play without worrying about HIP and all that it encompasses – combined with music from other eras and genres. In short, a modern “no rules Baroque festival” to attract the kind of audience who wouldn’t normally go to Baroque or early music concerts, and also people from the locale in which St Luke’s is situated – trendy Shoreditch, Hoxton, Islington and the City.

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It was good to see the first concert so well-attended. Joanna Macgregor’s programme offered a typically provocative and eclectic selection of music on the theme of birds (in the first half) and ground basses/the Chaconne (second half), grouping works by Couperin, Daquin, Rameau, Poglietti, Byrd, Purcell and Pachelbel with music by Janaček, Messiaen, Birtwistle, Glass, Liszt and Gubaidulina. The programme opened with a triptych of Baroque works recalling birdsong (cuckoos, nightingales), characterful works delicately enunciated, written for the court, yet tender and intimate in expression. Macgregor introduced the sets of pieces: more softly-spoken than the first three works, she would have benefited from some amplification for those of us towards the back of the hall (or even some programme notes, though one of the stated aims of the festival is “no programme notes, no lectures”). The twentieth-century works were more satisfying, in particular the bird pieces by Messiaen from his Petites esquisses d’oiseaux and Birtwistle’s melancholy Oockooing Bird (written when the composer was just 16) with some lovely musical colours and highly evocative filigree chirruppings in the upper register. These were reflected in Poglietti’s Aria bizarre del Rossignolo, an early example of descriptive instrumental music where the nightingale’s song appears throughout the work in various virtuosic passages, replete with trills and short, syncopated attacks. Here was Baroque truly at the edge – the music freed from its courtly cage to take flight in a series of vivid improvisatory episodes.

The second half focused on the ground bass, a repeated pattern in the bass over which a series of variations or improvisations are played, and closed with Sofia Gubaidulina’s monumental Chaconne, preceded by a reflective Chaconne in F minor by Pachelbel, expressively played by Macgregor. Two works by Philip Glass were intended to demonstrate the use of the ground bass device in modern music, but these pieces felt rather flat; in fact, in this half, the Baroque pieces were far more rewarding. Joanna Macgregor offered one final work on a ground bass, Handel’s magnificent dramatic Passacagalia in g minor, HWV 432, as an encore.

This was an interesting and varied selection of pieces, elegantly presented. While I enjoyed most of the music, I was not fully convinced that this programme said anything new or different about Baroque music, nor felt particularly “edgy”. But perhaps the programme did at least serve one of the key aims of the festival: to allow artists like Joanna Macgregor to take Baroque music and see where it leads them, freed from worries of ‘authenticity’ or being ‘correct’, and this programme demonstrated that composers from any era can take a theme or concept and work imaginatively with it, be it birdsong or the ground bass.

 

Friday 5 January 2018, LSO St Luke’s

Joanna Macgregor, piano

Programme:

Rameau – Le Rappel des oiseaux

Daquin – Le Coucou

Couperin – Le Rossignol-en-amour

Janáček – The Barn Owl has not flown away! (from On an Overgrown Path)

Messiaen – Le Rouge-gorge (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Oockooing Bird

Couperin – Les Fauvétes plaintives

Messiaen – Le Merle noir (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)

Hossein Alizâdeh – Call of the Birds

Couperin – Les Coucous Bénévoles, sous des dominos jaunes

Poglietti – Aria bizarre del Rossignolo: Imitatione del medesimo ucello

Rameau  – La Poule

Byrd – Hughe Ashton’s Ground

Philip Glass – Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi)

Philip Glass – Knee Play No. 4 (from Einstein on the Beach)

Purcell – Ground in C minor

Liszt – Prelude on Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’

Pachelbel – Chaconne in F minor

Sofia Gubaidulina – Chaconne


Baroque At the Edge

Meet the Artist – Joanna Macgregor