Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

I would say it was a mixture of circumstances: parents, musicians, the environment in which I grew up, and an intuitive love for music and instruments. I was just a normal child until the turning point at the age of 13, when I made the decision to pursue a career in music (as a conductor). It engaged a personal responsibility for that decision, which was —and still remains —a motor in my professional life.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

My father, who was a prominent Ukrainian composer, Ivan Karabits, and my teachers at the music academies in Kiev, Vienna and the Bach Academy Stuttgart. Today, I hugely respect musicians and personalities that remain true to themselves and “serve music” rather than their personal careers and ambitions. Artists I respect include: Yuri Temirkanov, Ivan Fischer, Mikhail Pletnev and a few others.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

The most challenging part is the daily life of travel and inconstancy, and how to balance that with family and relationships, with friends and the close circle of relatives and colleagues. Also, keeping in good shape —physically and mentally —remains a challenge. The greatest fulfillment comes from music-making with great orchestras around the world, it simply breaks boundaries, and gives a feeling of being useful in changing the world for the better. Being Chief Conductor at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), an orchestra with a clear mission to serve its communities throughout the South West of England, is great; we engage with all ages both on and off the stage.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Through my gestures and expressions first of all, then come words.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

My role is to put together several elements —the audiences, musicians in front of me and the composer’s message written in the score —and my job to make those elements collaborate and harmonically function together. The methods of achieving that harmony can vary: it might be inspiring musicians, or just helping them to play together; communicating more with the audience; and sometimes it just happens during the concert without any special effort, but it is rare. I’ve been Chief Conductor of the BSO for over 10 years now, and the way in which I’m able to work with the players has become gradually more instinctive, this has been one of the greatest achievements of my career and it’s a great feeling.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

I try to follow the principle that the work (a score) that is on my table today is the best and I would love to conduct it.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I like my home venue (Lighthouse, Poole) and other places with a warm atmosphere and audiences, like Musikverein, in Vienna, or the Lincoln Center in New York.

What are you looking forward to in the coming BSO season of concerts? Any particular highlights?

Every single concert is a highlight for me, but I especially look forward to conducting Elektra by Strauss (18 March, Poole, 21 March, Birmingham) and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 (19 February, Poole, 20 February, Basingstoke). This year, we released recordings of music by Terterian and Lyatoshynsky on Chandos, as part of our Voices from the East series. I’m really looking forward to exploring music by Chary Nurymov with the BSO in a programme that also features Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, in May.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success to me is when at least one member of the audience comes away having felt special during your performance. Also success is a feeling that your dreams come true.

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

Being honest.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness to me is a state of mind when you love yourself and every moment of your life as it is.


Kirill Karabits is Chief Conductor of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Forthcoming performances include: Handel’s Messiah(18 December, Poole), Beethoven 250 (29 January, Poole, 1 February, Barbican Centre, 22 February, Sage Gateshead), Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schubert with Jeremy Denk (19 February, Poole, 20 February, Basingstoke), Richard Strauss’ Elektra (18 March, Poole, 21 March, Birmingham)

For full details see bsolive.com

 

(photo by Konrad Cwik)

 

71tdcq35aal._ss500_Russians Alexey Stanchinsky and Alexander Scriabin are featured on Darkness Illuminated, a new disc on the Ulysses Arts label by Uzbek pianist Nafis Umerkulova. Here she seeks to put the obscure Stanchinsky in the spotlight alongside his far more famous contemporary, Scriabin, and the album comprises works by both composers written over a 17-year time period from 1894/5 until 1912, allowing the listener to appreciate how each composer’s oeuvre developed over time while also comparing and contrasting their music.

Such was Stanchinsky’s artistic gift that many believed he was destined to follow in the footsteps of that other great Russian Romantic composer Rachmaninov (he studied with Taneyev, who also taught Rachmaninov). But with his premature death at the age of 26, and the turmoil of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Soviet Regime, Stanchinsky fell into obscurity, and has since been thoroughly overshadowed by his more famous contemporary, Scriabin.

Both composers come from the great nineteenth-century European Romantic tradition, and the influence of Chopin is especially clear in their piano miniatures (one could easily mistake some of Stanchinsky’s Preludes and the Nocturne on this disc for Chopin). These are deeply lyrical, sensitive works, often introspective and intimate, and the later sets reveal more experimental writing, with forays into counterpoint, unexpected harmonies, modality and idioms drawn from Russian folk music. But perhaps the most striking work is the Piano Sonata in E-flat minor which opens this album. Cast in a single movement, with all the richness and virtuosity of Rachmaninov, it is a homage to Scriabin and shares many of the features of Scriabin’s piano sonatas with its fantasy-like structure, colourful harmonic palette and wide-ranging ideas, including a slow section in the major key which could be influenced by American folk music. It’s an impressive opening and Nafis gives this big-boned work full rein, allowing its myriad concepts to flow with a vibrant spontaneity.

Scriabin’s Preludes, Op 16 and 22, are wonderfully intricate, replete with Romantic elegance and lavish lyricism, each Prelude with its own distinctive character. Hints of experimentation are already present, especially in his use of harmony and dissonance to suggest specific moods, and his mastery of tension and release. By the time we reach the two Poems, Op 32, in the latter part of the album, his experimental approach to texture and harmonic shading is clear; these are works which look forward to the atonality of Schoenberg.

This is a most satisfying album which works rather in the manner of a recital disc, and Nafis makes a strong case for both composers in her highly accomplished playing, a spontaneity and freshness which really suits this music, and a rich, warm direct sound, combined with her evident affection for this music.

Recommended

‘Darkness Illuminated’ is released on the Ulysses Arts label


Meet the Artist interview with Nafis Umerkulova

 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough

– Jeremy Denk, pianist


Our relationship with our repertoire is personal and often long-standing. Connections with certain pieces and composers may be forged in our early days of learning our instrument, which remain with us throughout our musical lives. Many of us can clearly remember some of the earliest pieces we learnt as children, and returning to repertoire learnt in childhood and during student years can bring an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable rush of memories. Opening the score of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I saw my teacher’s markings, her explanation of the structure of a fugue, and for a moment I was transported back nearly 40 years to her living room and the big black Steinway grand piano on which she taught me.

Sometimes these repertoire relationships forged during early study can be detrimental to our learning as mature players. Bad habits from childhood and student days are deeply ingrained, and all too easily recalled, and thus very hard to shift later on. This is interesting in itself as it demonstrates how carefully (or not) one has learnt the music previously, and sometimes the only way to step aside from these habits is to buy a new score and start the music afresh, as if learning it for the very first time.

Jeremy Denk’s comment on the Goldberg Variations is interesting and will resonate with many musicians, I’m sure. We all have pieces which have a particular hold over us, which fascinate and compel us to revisit them over and over again. Yet their technical and musical complexities make the learning and practicing process difficult and sometimes less than rewarding. Some repertoire, however beautiful, satisfying or intriguing, is simply a slog, and the more progress one makes, the more “just out of reach” it seems.

Other works, in comparison, feel relatively easy, the music flows in practice and performance, gives satisfaction to player and audience, and enters into one’s personal catalogue of “favourites”.

However, “easy” can be a myth, because everything, even the simplest little prelude by Bach, can be taken up a level each time we revisit the music. This setting aside of and returning to repertoire also affects our relationship with it, and we may observe how that relationship changes over time and with the benefit of artistic maturity. I have gone back to previously-learnt works and wondered what I found so difficult before. The passing of years, and accumulated experience and wisdom make the process of reviving repertoire stimulating and enjoyable. We are reminded of what attracted us to the music in the first place, while also continually finding new aspects to it. This curiosity also helps to keep alive our relationship with the repertoire.

Then there are pieces which we may never play, but, rather like the books you haven’t read, and may never read, remain special. Just knowing the score is there, on the bookshelf, can foster a particular relationship with that music (I often buy scores of music I know I will never play simply for the pleasure of reading the music or admiring the organisation of it on the page), and maybe one day you will open it, set it on the music stand, and start the process of learning it….

 

 

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

I was naturally good at music (I could play by ear from a very young age) but did not come from a musical family so I was a bit of an oddity. I started the clarinet aged around 10, having lessons at my local comprehensive school. We didn’t go to many concerts or arts events when I was young, but my parents were very supportive and I loved the local North East Derbyshire Music Service and my County Wind Band. They were very ‘happy places’, run by passionate, dedicated and inspirational musicians. I didn’t really know much about a career in music and I sort of vaguely drifted into music college (Royal Northern College of Music) – which was a bit of a shock. What had been ‘fun’ suddenly felt super-competitive and I think this was the point when I really started working very hard indeed.

But something wasn’t quite right. I soon realised I didn’t get the same buzz from playing in an orchestra as many of my fellow students did. But I did love the theatres, the museums, the art galleries, the urban architecture of Manchester. I used to wander around the abandoned Hulme Crescents (the largest public housing development in Europe, described as ‘Europe’s worst housing stock’ – demolished 1994) feeling sad for it, and I think my fascination with the way that people (audiences) ‘consume’ art and design stems from these days. I started composing (lessons with the wonderful Tony Gilbert) and doubled up my course – two simultaneous programmes of study as a clarinetist and composer. I also loved chamber music and really enjoyed playing contemporary music – it felt more ‘theatrical’. The more unconventional and challenging it was, the better – I was a bit of a thrill seeker. The year I played Max’s Eight Songs For A Mad King was a real turning point. Alan Hacker used to come and give us clarinet masterclasses. He would bring his reed knife and whittle all our reeds down until they were paper-thin. It was like playing a kazoo after he’d finished and we soon learned not to bring our best reeds along! But I really enjoyed his classes and, through him, having what felt like a close connection with the incredible composers he worked with.

I pursued music as a clarinetist for decades, playing lots of new repertoire and chamber music, mixing it up with composition and academia – but still not feeling it was 100% ‘right’. It was only when I was in my late 30s that the penny finally dropped. A colleague pointed out how ‘theatrically’ I described things – and I suddenly realised what was missing from my purely musical life – theatre. It was a peculiar light-bulb moment as I’m certainly no actor and the desire was to MAKE theatrical events rather than be in them. I started to create shows and, a few years later, I resigned from my senior academic post at Guildhall to set up my own company. Goldfield Productions make ‘adventures in sound’. We work with composers, puppeteers, writers, artists, animators, inventors etc to create extraordinary touring cross-arts shows but we always have the highest quality chamber music at the heart of what we do. Everything I do now seems to be connected in some way to both music and theatre and I love it! Goldfield’s work with young people is really important to me too – I’m very passionate about that.

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

I’m inspired by artists in other fields – which I think I like to apply or ‘translate’ into musical ideas. The ones I couldn’t imagine life without – John Berger, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes…the breath-taking imagination of Italo Calvino, Angela Carter….I have many books of fairy-story collections, on design & architecture (especially ‘ways of living’) and amateur music making (past and present). I am often inspired by museum and gallery curators and how they tell narrative through objects and in a space. I love what Paola Antonelli (senior curator of architecture and design) did with MOMA (making design relevant to everyone) and what Paul Holdengraber did with the New York Public Library (turning it into a huge conversation for the City and beyond) – he calls himself a ‘curator of Public Curiosity’. Art and music doesn’t exists in a vacuum for me – its always in a dynamic relationship with those who ‘consume’ it. The things that inspire me the most are those that have engaged people with art in extraordinary ways.

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

I juggle a LOT now. In addition to running Goldfield as Artistic Director (and being the sole fund-raiser), I also work as a freelance producer for many other companies and venues. Writing (words) has also become a rather big thing. I’ve written 5 children’s productions and, since 2017, I’ve written and presented stories for BBC Radio 3 – a most unexpected outlet for exploration and discovery which I absolutely love. I’ve written around 140 stories so far – each on a topic that I research from scratch. My shelves are rammed with fascinating books that I may never have otherwise bought! I try to play the clarinet every day – even if I don’t have a run of concerts coming up. Playing the clarinet is still very much part of my identity and although I do so many other things that compete for time, I’d hate to give up performing and making music with my chamber music friends. I probably ought to have more sleep and exercise regularly – fitting those in would be a genuine challenge!

So there is the on-going personal challenge of keeping all the balls in the air, and combining this with the kids and family life. But there are also the wider challenges of sustainability for Goldfield and the arts in general, short and long-term funding, trying to ensure that funders are not entirely shaping the art we make, how we can tackle the reduction of music education in schools, how we can possibly do justice to the huge volume of new music being created …I guess these are everybody’s challenges, but they are constantly on my mind.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of Goldfield’s recent Erika Fox CD for NMC Records. We (Goldfield Productions) often work with composers over a long period of time in a bespoke way (‘what do they need that we can provide?’) and we aim to have a transformative impact on their development / careers. But the relationship with Erika and her music exceeded all expectations! She was a true ‘neglected’ voice. Two years ago, the only way to listen to her music was to go round to her house and put on one of the cassette recordings she had salvaged from the 70s and 80s when her music was often played and won numerous awards. With huge support from funders, trustees and NMC records, Goldfield set out to record six of Fox’s chamber works on what would be the very first album of her music, released in June 2019 in her 82nd year. Press and public response has been overwhelmingly positive and Erika’s composition career has literally taken off again with new commissions coming in and high profile recognition and performances in the UK and abroad. Its amazing that this sort of change is possible. Its a privilege to be part of it but the credit is due to Erika – she is a genuine, remarkable and unique voice. We just had to get the music out there.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I still love playing new music and I’m definitely happiest in a chamber music setting. I’ve got a super-flexible embouchure so anything that involves lots of colours, multi-phonics, endurance and generally finding non-clarinetty type sounds is good. I like to discover and learn new musical languages – learning Erika Fox’s language last year was fascinating. That said, I also think I play Brahms well and I do a cracking good Copland concerto. For sheer pleasure, I play unaccompanied Bach on the clarinet….but only in private.

How do you make your production choices from year to year?

I seem to have an inexhaustible number of ideas (kept in scrap books, note-pads, on my phone, in my head….) but they don’t all come to fruition. I’ll think about stuff for ages – playing with it, developing it in my mind, testing it out in different imaginary contexts…is it a piece of theatre… radio..a site-specific work? I don’t think ‘I’m going to make an opera’. I think ‘I’ve got an idea– what will it become?’ I’m really careful about what I invest time in. It has to be right. ‘Right’ means – a great artistic idea expressed in the most succinct way, with the best people to deliver it, something that is wanted or needed right now (even if people don’t know it yet!), a wholly balanced proposition (budget, aims, outcomes, reach, partners, people, venues etc). There is something beautifully satisfying about a production blueprint that is ‘right’. I do a lot of brutal self-culling and whittling down of ideas to make sure that they are truly the best they can be and I’m constantly looking at how we are communicating art and ideas to audiences.

Here’s what happens when you make a show: initial idea and brainstorming (‘OMG this is going to be amazing’); long period of fund-raising and work going into development (‘OMG this is really hard’): period of intense challenges (‘OMG this is going to be awful’): finally, the home straight as it all comes together (‘OMG this is going to be amazing!’) Four stages. Every. Single. Time.

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

I’ve put shows into all sorts of venues – museums, tiny churches, vast warehouses, concert halls, theatres, schools, outdoor spaces, galleries… but the Parabola Theatre at Cheltenham Music Festival stands out as special because it was the first venue that gave me a shot at being a producer. I am forever indebted to Leksi Patterson and Meurig Bowen who – for reasons best known to themselves! – believed me when I strode over to their table in the Barbican café in 2012, waving a small book of poems, proclaiming ‘I’m going to make an opera!’ I had literally NO idea how to do it. And – even worse – I didn’t know that I didn’t know! (Hey – how hard can it be? It’s just like chamber music with some singers, right?) What a learning curve. I raised a budget of c. £170,000 (how? Fear of failure and gritty determination), put together an opera company and an 8-date tour for what was going to become Nicola LeFanu’s Tokaido Road. After that, I DID know how to make an opera. It nearly killed me, but I loved it and it set me off in a new direction. Cheltenham Festival gave me was the venue for the world premiere and we’ve been back many times since with other shows. I always feel very happy in the Parabola. I’ve played on the stage a lot too – sometimes in my own shows, sometimes in other peoples’ productions.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I really do have an enormous amount of empathy for a lot of music. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of lesser-known, lesser-loved music from the 1960s. Thanks to some brilliant listening-lists from friends, I have discovered and re-discovered works by Lumsdaine, Dale Roberts, Bacewicz, Ustvolskaya, Bedford, Jolas, Subotnick, Gilbert to name but a few. Its an often neglected and overlooked decade, yet the music is beautiful, well-crafted, shocking, surprising, fun, funny and wonderful. I am pondering what to do with a lot of this repertoire …. I’m very driven to play and programme the brilliant music we already have.

What is your definition of success?

For me, I think that ‘success’ is often to do with facilitating things and usually connected to making what I consider to be positive change. For example, someone telling you that they enjoyed contemporary music / opera / classical music for the first time because of something you did… when a young person says that the project they have taken part in has been a total game-changer for them… when you can bring the music of a composer to a new generation of listeners… when an artist you have commissioned has been able to push themselves in a new creative direction…

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

Be nice and be kind. Be polite and courteous to everyone (even…especially…more ‘challenging’ people…we’ve all got our own problems and these can surface in all sorts of ways). Never forget that making performance art / music takes a whole team and the person that books the venue / fetches the coffee etc is as much an essential part of that team as the director or leading singer. Be yourself and have fun, but always do your job and follow your passion with total professionalism. Be the sort of person you would want to work with…smart, hard-working, reliable, calm, generous, open-minded, honest, cheerful, considerate, efficient etc No one is perfect (I very much include myself in that), but try your best.

Listen to your instincts. If I had paid more attention to my love of art, galleries, theatre and architecture in my 20s (rather than trying to suppress it and be a ‘proper’ musician) I might have set up my company years earlier!

Be open to change. Sometimes, the path you think is ahead of you veers off in a new direction. Another door opens, you meet someone or see something which becomes a catalyst to dramatically change the way you think about things. The arts are volatile – be good at adapting to change within organisations and also within yourself.

Love what you do. That’s really important because working in the arts in the UK is tough. There is a lot of competitiveness and not enough money. But on the plus side you will get to work with some of the most extraordinary, talented and marvelous people that ever existed, your life will be rich with culture and you will – hopefully – enhance the lives of others too. That’s not a bad way to live 🙂

Build up strategies for resilience. At some point, things will get tough but its part of what makes you successful. You learn far more when things don’t quite work out than when everything is smooth sailing. You learn about yourself, your attitude to risk, your own definition of ‘success’. You don’t really know just how resilient, strong and determined you are until you have to be. Patience is important too – it can sometimes take a long time to get things off the ground.

Stay curious and keep questioning things. Don’t be afraid to keep challenging yourself and the world around you and asking how you can you best express the things you want to say.

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

I’d like Goldfield to still be flourishing, growing and evolving. I’d like to push myself more as a writer. I would only return to composition if I felt I had something to say, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I would like to have made great strides in my thinking about how audiences ‘consume’ music and how this understanding feeds into the art and events we make. I would like to be as curious, as energised, buzzy and optimistic as I feel now.

What are your most treasured possessions?

1. My books.

2. A necklace with a plaster cast of an ammonite that my parents made in the late 1970s. I wear it a lot.

3. The things the kids made for me when they were little – there is so much unconditional love embodied in these tiny, wonky, honest objects and each one tells a story.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious, energised, buzzy, optimistic.


Kate Romano is the founder and Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions.  She is also an independent producer of opera and music theatre and is passionate about story-telling and cross-arts productions.

Kate is a writer for the BBC Orchestras and the Proms. A regular BBC Radio 3 presenter, she has written and narrated around 150 short stories for Essential Classics and the 2019 Our Classical Century season leading up to the Proms. She has written and directed Goldfield’s five acclaimed children’s productions which have been seen by over 9000 children in 60 primary schools. In June 2019, Kate took up the post of Director of Aspire! at the Lichfield Music & Literature Festivals, developing a new outreach and participation programme for the festival.

As a clarinetist (chamber musician and soloist), she has performed at most major UK venues and festivals. Kate has given over 70 premieres and has recorded for NMC, Metier and Minabel. Her debut solo CD was awarded 5* reviews from Gramophone and ‘Pick of the Month’ in the chamber music section for the BBC Music Magazine. Kate studied at the Royal Northern College of Music where she graduated with first class honours, she holds an MPhil from Cambridge University and a doctorate in composition from Kings College London. From 2003  – 2016 she held a senior academic post at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and co-founded the schools’ flagship doctoral programme. In 2014, Kate was awarded a Fellowship from the School. 

kateromano.co.uk

 

(photo: Chris Frazer Smith)

Defining Artistry

The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it….

Mark Mitchell, ‘Virtuosi’ (Indiana University Press, 2000)

Earlier this year I was privileged to hear two performers who are the living embodiment of superlatives like “world class” and “greatest living pianist”. In Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Martha Argerich did miraculous things with the pacing and rubato to create a performance which felt fresh, vivid and spontaneous, but when asked to describe exactly what she did, I was lost for words. Equally, in Evgeny Kissin’s solo performance, also at London’s Barbican Hall, there was a moment when, in just two chords of a Chopin Nocturne, it seemed as if every piano concert I’d ever attended coalesced into those two chords, such was the performer’s magic. There’s something ineffable in the way musicians like Argerich or Kissin, Pollini or Uchida play. These are performers whose artistry leaves one lost for words.

Artistry is not the same as virtuosity, which can be defined and discussed in terms which are commonly understood: accuracy, fluency, technical mastery, fidelity to the score, spontaneity in performance. It is far more difficult to differentiate between a technically masterful performance and a truly artistic one. There is no defined vocabulary to describe artistry, and so commentators, critics, reviewers et al may fall back on inadequate superlatives or clichéd metaphors. I’m listening to the pianist Keith Jarrett as I write – and I can’t explain why his playing is so good. As performances by Argerich and Kissin – and Jarrett –  prove, true artistry cannot be described in words.

Some say that artistry is bestowed upon performers by listeners/audiences and critics, but I think true artistry comes from the musician and is something which remains unaffected by musical taste, the comments of critics etc and other extrinsic forces. It is intrinsic and unique to the individual musician.

Artistry is about getting to the essence of the music to such an extent that the performance takes the audience beyond itself, transcending the everyday and transporting it to another place where it can dream or imagine. In these instances, the performer allows their ego to step aside so that the music can speak. This ‘transparency’ in performance is quite rare, and not all performers seek nor desire it. Some prefer to draw attention to themselves or remind us of the difficulty involved in what they are doing.

To achieve transparency artists engage in a paradox which is familiar to all those who seek true personal expression: they must master the technique and craft of their art (music in this instance) to such a point that they are free to think about interpretation, and to put art ahead of ego. This requires performers to have a certain level of humility and an appreciation that while the mastery of their art is powerful, they do not hold all the power – that lies within the music.

I feel that special secret current between the public and me. I can hold them with one little note in the air, and they will not breathe. That is a great, great moment.

– Arthur Rubinstein

Once this state of interpretative freedom is reached, another facet of artistry comes into play – the control of fine details of musical nuance. Such details are not fixed by the composer/score, and though they may be implied within the text, the translation of such details into sound is reliant on the performer’s own understanding of the music. Performance is an act of producing “versions” of the music and no two performances will ever be alike. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised, and finessed to such a degree that it sounds spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their experience and their mastery of their art.

If you are lucky enough to witness it – and you certainly won’t find it at every concert you attend – you will know it (but you might not be able to explain it), and it will stay with you and resonate for years to come. It will be the touchstone against which other performances are measured. It is there, too, for the performer, but it’s an elusive state, fervently to be desired and recreated.

At every concert I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew.

– Arthur Rubinstein

 

The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the act of performing, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it.

And then, suddenly, it is all over…..You wake the morning after with a sense of deflation, the euphoria of the previous night now replaced by ennui.

This is in fact quite normal and the explanation for these feelings is simple: you’re coming down from an adrenaline ‘high’.

Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. While many of us may dwell on the psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety (the fear of making mistakes, memory slips, negative self-talk etc), most of the symptoms we feel ahead of a performance are in fact physiological, the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, nausea, and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Understanding the physical symptoms of performance anxiety can go a long way to managing the unpleasant feelings, together with deep practising and good preparation, which can remove some of the psychological stress. We do not need to “fight the fear” but simply accept that these sensations and feelings are normal and common to us all – even musicians at the top of the profession.

The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless,  irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the clichéd example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.

In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough