Like many other cultural venues across the UK, the London concert hall St John’s Smith Square is currently closed to the public due to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Closed doors means a drastic reduction in income.  One way of helping to ease the immediate financial pressures of lockdown is the ‘pay it forward’ model, where customers are invited to purchase goods or services in advance, to be redeemed when lockdown has ended.

Inspired by the ‘clap for our carers’ initiative and with a desire to look ahead to life after lockdown, St John’s has launched a ‘pay it forward’ campaign with a difference.  Supporters are invited to give to the campaign to fund free concert tickets for NHS staff.

With an initial target of 500 tickets, gifts received during the 4-week campaign will be used to create an NHS free tickets fund.  When St John’s is able to reopen to the public, NHS workers will be invited to register for the free tickets scheme and redeem their tickets for a concert of their choice at St John’s.

St John’s Smith Square Director Richard Heason comments:

“The current situation has left many of us feeling quite helpless yet wanting to do something positive to let NHS staff know how much we appreciate all that they are doing for us.  As an organisation that lives and breathes music, we wanted to give people a way of saying thank you through music”. 

For further information and to give to the campaign, please visit the Crowdfunder page here:



Source: press release

Image: audience applauding at St John’s Smith Square. Photo by Matthew Andrews

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

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What inspired you to take up piano and pursue a career in music?

In an odd way, music itself. I was eleven, still at primary school, when I wanted to explore some extra-curricular interests, something to call my own, and I was drawn to the piano in the corner of the assembly hall that one of the teachers used to play to lead us in songs. In addition, a couple of my close friends took piano lessons, so it felt like a natural course for me to take. I asked my mum if I could start piano lessons at school, but she reluctantly said no, having just been made redundant from her job as a result of the financial crisis.

I decided to get creative, so I drew a keyboard onto some pieces of paper, and I began to follow music theory lessons online; I started cross-referencing the sounds of notes, scales, and chords with the visual patterns on my paper, until I could begin to her those sounds in my head, when I could then pick out some easy pieces. I found the internet was an invaluable resource when it came to understanding how music worked, but it was also my first introduction to classical music. I didn’t come from a musical family at all, and the only classical music I heard was the odd offering from an advert, so when I discovered such a vast selection of music, across Bach, Debussy, and Rachmaninov to name some of my favourites at the time, I resolved then to play those pieces myself; I’m proud that I’ve ticked off a few, but I’m still working my way through the list!

I worked like this on my own for six months, until my mum managed to raise enough money from friends to pay for my first piano lessons at school. I would pass my Grade 1 exam with Distinction after only four hours of tuition, practising at home still on my paper keyboard; the excitement of performing, even if only to the examiner, encouraged me never to look back. I have tried to retain that childlike curiosity and delight as I continue to work through my repertoire now.

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

I came quite late to the piano, so there was a lot of catching up I needed to do if I were to realise my ambitions of a career in performance. I spent the much of my teens scrambling for opportunities to practise on real pianos. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning to ensure I got to school by 7am, when the gates opened, as the Head of Music there allowed me to practise on the school’s grand piano whenever it was not in use. I would fit in about an hour and a half’s worth of practice in the morning, followed by the total time of another hour of my mid-morning break and lunch, and another long stretch after school, normally until the caretaker kicked me out. I would get home for dinner, but I would rarely get to sleep before 1am, due to work I had to do for both my school commitments and mental practice… and added to all this, I was continually bullied by my father, who refused to support my musical efforts. I don’t think I’ve been pushed quite so physically or mentally since the three years I followed that daily routine.

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

I have had a news article about Lucas Debargue on my wall for several years, whose story renews my spirits when things get tough. I am grateful for the encouragement and advice of my piano teachers, particularly Soojin Kim, who encouraged me as I first turned my attention towards a career in music, and Charles Owen, my current piano teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who inspires me every week. I must also thank the Head of Music at my secondary school, Johanna Martin, and William Fong and Mary-Kate Gill at the Purcell School, for all their guidance and support. I am forever thankful, though, for my mum, whose love and belief in me has helped me every step of the way.

Which performance are you most proud of?

I was awarded the opportunity in my second and final year at the Purcell School to perform at the Milton Court Concert Hall at Guildhall, where I performed Berg’s Sonata Op 1. I relished the musical, mental, and emotional challenges of such an incredible piece — I had to learn to look at music in very different ways — and it felt like a culmination of everything I achieved there. I’ve enjoyed more performances of the work since, and I think back to that concert every time I play it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I doubt I’ll ever figure that one out, but I’m happy to spend my life trying.

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

I always look for something that will push me towards greater playing; after all, what is a musician without the curiosity to learn? I like to include a mix of repertoire favourites with less familiar works, which I hope leaves the audience with two interesting experiences: hearing the classics in new and different contexts, and discovering music within the wider history of the musical catalogue. I like to incorporate a single unifying thread into my recital programmes too, although I don’t always share exactly what that is!

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

Milton Court, St John’s Smith Square, and the Fazioli Concert Hall in Italy are among my favourites — have you tried those pianos?! I’ve had some really lovely experiences at several other venues, however, simply because the people there were so caring and welcoming, which makes all the difference as the nerves begin to set in.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Aaaah, there are far too many! I’ll have to mention Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, Robert Levin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Claudio Abbado, Mariss Jansons, Dame Janet Baker, Diana Damrau… I’m afraid this list could go on quite a bit longer!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was once asked to play a short recital as part of an outdoor arts festival. I took to the stage, and as I sat down to play Bach, a young boy at the front shouted “Beethoven!”, so I played Beethoven for him instead. I ended up taking requests from the audience for the whole recital as they shouted out the names of different composers after each piece. I never got to play any Bach, but I did get a taste of the ‘rock star’ life, or at least as close as I can expect to get!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a human, to be happy. As a musician, to be human.

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

Listen, in every sense; I can’t begin to explain how important that is.

I’ve found you can’t just wait to be inspired, rather you need to find inspiration from within, and that comes from the love of music; if you find new ways to love music, you’ll find new ways to be inspired.

Finally, another item from my bedroom wall:

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well…”

— Johann Sebastian Bach

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

If all goes well, at the piano.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Yamaha b1 SG2.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited. Inspired. Happy.

Andrew Garrido began learning the piano at the age of eleven, in 2010; lacking funds to afford lessons or an instrument, he drew a keyboard onto paper and learnt from YouTube for six months before his first piano lesson. He began study with Danielle Salamon upon his entrance to the prestigious Purcell School only five years later in September 2015, where he was awarded the Senior Piano Prize and Senior Academic Music Prize in 2017; Andrew obtained a Licentiate Diploma from Trinity College London (LTCL) that August.

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Andrew Garrido also hosts a podcast series Scores and More



(Photo Paul Cochrane)

Guest post by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Remember how, almost as soon as the Second World War ended, Britain passed on Churchill and elected a Labour government that created the National Health Service? We’re not at war, whatever governments like to say. But it’s possible that we may come out of this coronavirus crisis with a changed sense of what really matters.

Musicians—venues closed, audiences staying home—are responding with generosity and humanity, playing online from home for anyone who wants to listen. This is a wonderful thing. We seem to be rediscovering music-making as something you do in homes, for friends, intimately, in performances that don’t have to be completely perfect and whose value lies in their spontaneity and intensity: they communicate, they comfort; their kindness is part of their artistry, their conviction, in fact their truth. These are not shows, they are offers; and they are the more valued for that.

In these exchanges, musicians and listeners are meeting directly, through their own arrangements; unmediated by managers, planners, venues, fixers; undistracted and unmonitored by critics. The longer this lasts the more thought will be put into the way pieces may be played when such constraining figures are absent. The chance to try a score differently, to see what happens if…: these may begin to foster enough creativity to make this hiatus something more than just a weird interruption in the status quo. Yes, we want venues to open, we want the audiences coming to them, we really need that income; but will we want to go all the way back to artistic business as usual?

How can we retain these values—intimacy, generosity, direct communication, the exchange of fresh ideas and sympathetic attention—how can we retain them in concert life? Let’s have a conversation about it now, while we have the chance. What do we really wish professional musical life to be like?

Let’s talk. We won’t all agree (let’s hope not). But to get us started I suggest three desiderata. More time to work together in preparing performances. Fewer pressures constraining how we make music from scores. More direct communication with listeners.

For the last of these, we’re learning every day at the moment the value of being in direct touch. Wouldn’t it be great to have more concerts planned and publicised online, held in less formal venues, announced at shorter notice?

The first and the second—more preparation, fewer pressures to conform—are bound together. There are so many other ways of getting these scores to work, and more time allows us to discover them. The rewards of making great music in persuasive performances that have never been heard before are intense: real joy in performing once more. It’s just not true that there is broadly one perfect performance, the one that everyone is trying and failing to give, the way the piece is ‘supposed’ to go. That’s the myth that holds us in thrall to teachers, managers, recording companies, producers, critics. ‘I know what the composer wants’ (note the self-serving present tense). ‘Play it as I tell you if you want work.’ That’s what we have to refuse when all this is over.

I’ve made a detailed online case for this, aimed at young professional performers. It’s free at if you want to think about these questions further. Or we can start with a conversation. But let’s use this time really well so that, when it’s past, we don’t make do with business as usual.

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson is a musicologist, and Emeritus Professor of Music at King’s College, London

Twitter @danleechw @ChalPerformance

The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.

With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.

Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.

“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.

For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.

I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?

In the meantime, stay safe and well.



intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching

Jonathan Biss, pianist

It’s the single most humane music imaginable

Igor Levit, pianist

Somewhere in the world right now, as I write, a pianist is performing or recording the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, maybe just a select handful of them, maybe all 32 in a crazy, Herculean marathon of music and emotion. At London’s Wigmore Hall alone, the past three years have seen cycles by Igor Levit, Llyr Williams and Jonathan Biss (currently). In autumn 2019, Igor Levit released his recording of the complete sonatas; Jonathan Biss’s boxset of was released this month, his personal vision of  these sonatas. These are just a few of the many pianists who feel compelled to perform and record “the 32″, the most comprehensive single body of Beethoven’s output.

Each generation brings a fresh crop of pianists willing to rise to the challenge of this music, from the pre-war recordings by Arthur Schnabel, with their fistfuls of wrong notes, which can give comfort to the keen amateur, to those of Wilhelm Kempff, Friedrich Gulda, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Steven Kovacevich, Andras Schiff, Ronald Brautigam (on period instruments), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Paul Lewis, François-Frédéric Guy, Igor Levit…. the list of illustrious names goes on and on. (As a teenager, my prized possessions, along with a three-volume crimson clothbound edition of the complete sonatas, were my LPs of British pianist John Lill playing these sonatas.)

The compulsion to play and record this music, combined with, more often than not, a fair degree of reverence, is very much alive and well. Yet today it seems a curious, almost anachronistic act, which harks back to the sort of enforced serious music appreciation of the latter part of the nineteenth century, and something which would have probably amused and surprised Beethoven, since hardly a single movement of one his sonatas was performed to a paying audience in the concert format as we understand it today. Felix Mendelssohn performed the entire ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in a public concert in the 1830s, and Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist of his age, played the supposedly unplayable ‘Hammerklavier’ for an invited audience in Paris, but he only played two of the sonata’s four movements when he next performed it, perhaps concluding that the audience did not wish to sit through the entire work!

The pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to perform Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single concert (the last five in 1878), declaring that “Berlin must have sunk very low if it cannot listen to my reading of Beethoven’s complete testament”. It was von Bülow who called the 32 Piano Sonatas the “New Testament” of the piano repertoire, thereby setting works, which were originally mostly composed for private study and domestic performance, on a high pedestal of veneration. Von Bülow often used religious rhetoric in relation to music, and his concerts were serious, didactic affairs, proclamations of “musical gospel” to the “congregation” of the audience. This created a quasi-religious veneration of Beethoven’s music, and specifically the 32, and this aura of reverence around the piano sonatas remains today.

Initially hard to sell, by the late 1880s von Bülow had launched and was touring with a four-concert Beethoven cycle. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Artur Schnabel was performing sonata cycles in Europe and the US, and in 1932 HMV launched the Beethoven Sonata Society through which subscribers could purchase Artur Schnabel’s recordings of the piano sonatas. He was the first pianist to record the complete sonatas, a monumental feat in itself given the limitations of the technology at the time. Schnabel was one of the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreters on record, and his performances remain highly prized for their simplicity of approach and his anti-virtuoso nature, which reveal the essence of this music. The American music critic Harold Schonberg called Schnabel “The Man Who Invented Beethoven”, and his recordings and performances brought the piano sonatas to a wider audience at a time when they were not that well-known or admired. It was Schnabel who also described this music as “better than can be played”, thus contributing to the cult, almost mythic status of the 32.

Today, this music continues to enjoy an elevated stature which goes far beyond the notes on the score, and despite some relaxation in the rituals and etiquette of classical concerts, the 32 are still regularly presented in an atmosphere of awed reverence. Any pianist who takes on this colossal challenge enjoys special respect: not only is this music physically and psychologically demanding, but the hand of history, tradition and expectation weighs heavily upon their shoulder.

There’s something seductive about this process of really going to your limit with this music

Jonathan Biss

For the completist – both performer and listener –  the 32 provide a satisfyingly significant opportunity to explore their composer’s output across three distinct periods of his career and to be immersed in repertoire on a grand scale (the complete cycle comes in at around 11 hours of music – a few pianists have performed all 32 sonatas in a single day, a crazy feat of stamina and perhaps a performance stunt too…. it’s more usual to hear a complete cycle over the course of 8 concerts). For any pianist embarking on this great journey, the experience is fascinating, frustrating, uplifting, intense and absorbing. This is music which places one face to face not only with Beethoven’s genius but also the sheer force of his personality. He’s stubborn, explosive, intimate, witty, rhetorical, angry, forbidding, despairing, anxious, joyful, his humanity evident in every phrase, his innermost feelings expressed with a startling lucidity. It is this, amongst other things, which makes his music so remarkable, inspiring and shocking. It is this too which allows so many pianists to bring their personality to this music, presenting his emotions through the prism of their own life experience and throwing a fresh perspective on this music every time it is performed or recorded.

He’s also incredibly precise in his writing and every marking and direction must be understood in its context: why, for example, does he differentiate between different kinds of staccato, or place a crescendo over a single note (a physical impossibility for the pianist!)? Yet he also leaves plenty open to one’s own interpretation and personal vision. In this respect, his music embodies the maxim “through discipline comes freedom”: it demands both a laser-like focus and also total abandon.

Beethoven never wants us to be in any doubt about what he is saying. Even when he asks the pianist to create an illusion……….the intention behind the sound, and the message it conveys, remains clear.

Paul Lewis, pianist

Playing the 32, your ego is constantly being tested because this is music which is bigger than you are. To meet a Beethoven sonata head-on, it stops being about you, how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. It is about getting beyond yourself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas became your own. As one layer is uncovered, so another presents itself; the summit of this music is always just out of reach. There is no sense of a final arrival, an end to the journey with this music, and this is what makes it so endlessly fascinating for players and audiences alike.

These sonatas speak of fundamentals: the meaning of life and shared values. And so when sharing the music with others, you are debating, with the audience, what it means to be alive, to be human – those basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us today.

With Beethoven there is always a life beyond the mundane – the whole universe could be contained in a single sonata.

whatever your connection with these works, their infinite scope will never fail to reward, overwhelm and inspire

Paul Lewis