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

I grew up hearing music from the time I can remember anything at all. My parents both played instruments, and when my mother was not playing the piano, my father was playing Mozart symphonies for me (fantastic LPs of Bruno Walter and Bernstein and Toscanini).

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

In terms of musical influences I would have to say my teachers Elizabeth Buday (a graduate of the Liszt Academy and devoted Dohnanyi pupil who taught me about digging into the scores and keeping relaxed while playing), Amanda Vick Lethco (who taught me about color in music), and Morey Ritt and Anton Kuerti (who both emphasized fidelity to the score, deep musicality and the highest calibre of technique). Kuerti was also immensely important in my thinking about pedaling which he understood very well and utilized brilliantly); other artists who were influential were (and are) Cortot, Horowitz, Serkin and Annie Fischer; one non-musician who had an immense influence was David Rockefeller, Sr., the great arts patron and philanthropist. He was both a great friend and supporter of my playing and also of my interest in commissioning new music. He and his wife had superlative taste in art and music and often had great musicians such as Casals, Rubinstein and de Larrocha playing in their homes; both encouraged me to study and perform the very finest repertoire (they loved Schubert; he once memorably said while encouraging me to go for depth over surface, “Playing beautiful music beautifully is the art, and you can do that.” That simple phrase has really stuck with me over the years.

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

The great challenge for any artist is to find their own voice and listen to it. I remember really hearing my “voice” for the first time in a performance when I was 9 years old; then there was a period where I felt I had lost it, or found it difficult to regain that purity of communication and expression I heard so clearly when I was a child; as I began to really listen, REALLY LISTEN, not only to my music, but to myself, I found it again; my playing and my life changed with that moment, and I’ve listened to and used that “voice” ever since.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The recording I made called Heavy Sleep contains a number of works of Bach, one of which I waited 30 years to record. A reviewer from the New York Times wrote that the performance revealed “heart-breaking tenderness and vulnerability” which is exactly what that work should convey. It was my hope that somehow I could get this sense of the fragility of life across in my interpretation. I feel I finally achieved that in this recording.

I feel very much the same about my new recording Windows. I have heard and played Schumann’s Kinderszenen, a central work on the album, for most of my life. It is such a seemingly innocent and deceptively beguiling piece. Compared to so many of Schumann’s piano works, there are far fewer notes, but each note really counts. There is an overall hidden psychological complexity to the cycle that is quite difficult to convey. One must capture each vignette for the delicate and childlike watercolor it is, yet fit it into an overall canvas that forms a very adult sensibility of the memories and remembrances of early life. I hope it is not too immodest to say I believe I manage to convey that in this new recording.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I very much “hear” in color, so I believe I am really at my best with works in which I can utilize my sense of colors and shadings. It is not necessarily appropriate to use a wide spectrum of color in every genre, and sometimes one may choose, as a photographer does, to “shoot” a piece in black and white, or shades of grey, but one still can still use colors, which for me have the ability to convey tremendous emotional and musical information.

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

I keep many different programs going at the same time. Some of these have overlapping works and some not all; some things I’ve played my whole life and some are very new. I think keeping the new and old in dialogue, in repertoire and most everything else, keeps oneself and one’s music informed, alive and fresh.

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

I have played a lot at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and I love them both. It may be because both are in New York where I have lived for so long, but both venues are places where I not only played a lot myself, but heard others give very memorable concerts and performances; so they have very special places in my heart.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Of figures from the past or no longer performing, I would say Cortot, Horowitz, Carlos Kleiber, Rudolf Serkin, Annie Fischer, Leontyne Price, Michelangeli, Callas, Louis Armstrong ; of active living performers I am often moved by Fleming, Sokolov, Uchida, Trifonov, Argerich and my colleagues of the original Brooklyn Rider quartet, Eric and Colin Jacobsen, Johnny Gandelsman, Nick Cordes, all astounding musicians. Of composer / performers I have to mention Lisa Bielawa and Philip Glass, both incredible composers, of course, but also generous and wonderful collaborators.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’ve had many great experiences so it is hard to choose; but in terms of sheer “wow” factor, hearing Vladimir Horowitz live in 1985 for his “comeback” concert at Carnegie Hall was pretty memorable. I was given a front row center “keyboard” seat by Steinway and Horowitz was very “on” that day. The music, the hall and the atmosphere were electrifying.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It’s all about expression of feelings and emotions and of course what a piece, a composer, and oneself is trying to say. Achieving a perfect, expressive voicing or color, or a perfect pianissimo in the exactly the right place at the perfect moment makes me very happy. But that is rare, which is the pain and joy of what we do!

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

Listen to your own voice. It is unique. Don’t let anyone change that. Find yourself and be fearless. Mistakes and funny turns are all part of life, but it’s your road. Take it.

Bruce Levingston’s latest Sono Luminus recording, entitled WINDOWS, was released on January 26 2018.


Bruce Levingston is a concert pianist and one of the US’s leading figures in contemporary classical music. He is known for his “extraordinary gifts as a colorist and a performer who can hold attention rapt with the softest playing” (MusicWeb International). Many of the world’s most important composers have written works for him, and his Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center world premiere performances have won notable critical acclaim. The New York Times has praised his “mastery of color and nuance” and called him one of  “today’s most adventurous musicians”; the New Yorker has called him “a force for new music” and “a poetic pianist with a gift for inventive — and glamorous — programming.”

 

Levingston’s recordings have also received high critical praise. His recent album Heavy Sleep was named one of the Best Classical Recordings of 2015 by The New York Times which called the album “tender” and “exquisite.” England’s The Arts Desk called the album “sublime” and Gramophone declared his playing “masterly.” In a glowing review of his CD Nightbreak, The American Record Guide wrote “Levingston is a pianist’s pianist… stunning and highly illuminating performances.” MusicWeb International named his album Still Sound “Record of the Month.” His CD Heart Shadow also received notable praise and was named “Album of the Week” by New York City’s WQXR. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called Levingston’s recording “vivid and richly expressive” and Classics Today lauded his CD Portraits for its “transcendent virtuosity and huge arsenal of tone color.”

Levingston has appeared in concerts and music festivals throughout the world, and his performances have been broadcast internationally on radio, internet and television. Noted for his creative programming, he has worked with some of the most gifted artists of our time, including painter Chuck Close, composer Philip Glass, authors George Plimpton and Michael Cunningham, actor Ethan Hawke, dancers Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, Colin and Eric Jacobsen and the Brooklyn Rider, and choreographers Jorma Elo, Russell Maliphant and Alexei Ratmansky. Levingston is the founder and artistic director of the music foundation, Premiere Commission, Inc., which has commissioned and premiered over fifty new works.

Levingston has collaborated with numerous prominent cultural institutions on programs related to art and music including Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of Art; Alliance Française/French Institute; The Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 2015, Levingston’s new biography about the painter Marie Hull, Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull, was published on the 125th Anniversary of the famed Mississippi artist’s birth. Levingston also curated two major exhibitions of Hull’s work at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in conjunction with the publication of the book.

Long interested in human rights and education, Levingston gave a special premiere performance for the opening of Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and collaborated on the commission and world premiere of the oratorio, Repast, which was based on the life of the civil rights figure Booker Wright. Levingston regularly performs and conducts master classes in public schools to promote the arts and bring live music to young audiences. He was awarded the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Levingston is the Chancellor’s Honors College Artist in Residence and Holder of the L. G. Fant Chair at the University of Mississippi. He resides in Oxford, MS and New York City. 

MTA

The Meet the Artist interview series began on this blog in April 2012. From an idea thought up late one night, and loosely based on the Proust Questionnaire, which I first read in the back of Vanity Fair magazine, the series has gone from strength to strength – so much so that it now has its own dedicated website.

“a wonderful series” – Alisdair Hogarth, pianist

Whether an internationally-renowned concert artist or a young musician at the start of his/her career, each participant answers the same set of questions, and while common responses do appear, in particular to the question “What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?“, the range of responses is highly varied, insightful, informative and inspiring, giving readers a unique glimpse into the musical/creative lives of musicians, composers and conductors. In addition to interviews with individual artists, the series also features ensembles, including piano duo Worbey & Farrell and JACK Quartet, and since 2017 the series has extended beyond classical music to feature jazz and crossover artists.

I am very grateful to all the wonderful artists who have contributed to the series so far (some of whom have since become personal friends of mine), for sharing insights into their professional lives with honesty, openness, humour and poignancy. I am also grateful to the many music PRs and artist agents who have proposed candidates for the series and for the ongoing and very fruitful collaboration I enjoy with all these people.

To find out more or to take part in the series click here for more information

“a terrific site” – Robert LaPorta, MSR Classics

 

I was distressed to read this article by Richard Morrison in The Times yesterday about the possibility that St John’s Smith Square (SJSS), a beautiful baroque Grade 1 listed church in the heart of Westminster, may close permanently within 18 months due to financial difficulties.

For a long time the poor relation, despite its best efforts, to the cultural edifice of the Southbank Centre just across the river, SJSS has in recent years put itself on the map as a go-to musical destination, thanks in no small part to the imaginative, open-minded and innovative efforts of its Director, Richard Heason. In post since 2012, Heason has transformed SJSS from a “hall for hire” into a distinctive, forward-thinking vibrant cultural hub in the heart of London with new commissions, specially curated festivals and events, concerts featuring the venue’s fine organ, and a programme which supports young artists early in their careers. And while the Queen Elizabeth Hall was undergoing major refurbishment, SJSS hosted the International Piano Series and International Chamber Music Series, bringing it further endorsement of its status amongst London’s classical music venues

Back in the 1980s, when my father worked for a leading international insurance company, I attended concerts at SJSS which were sponsored by his company. I remember being struck by the beauty of the venue and its fine acoustic. In recent years I have rediscovered SJSS, not least because of its ease of access from Vauxhall station (a mere 10-minute walk across the bridge and along Millbank). It is my favourite concert venue along with Wigmore Hall and I have enjoyed some very fine concerts there – piano recitals by Paul Badora-Skoda, Steven Osborne, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, to name but a few, choral concerts by Polyphony, chamber music (most recently I Musicanti’s stimulating residency), Rolf Hind’s eclectic Occupy the Pianos Festival of contemporary music (returning 20th April), and Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday concerts (March 2018). I’ve heard premieres and new commissions, I’ve heard friends perform there, and I have made new friends there (a chance encounter in the café ahead of a performance of Messiaen last year).  I have even had the privilege of performing at SJSS myself, playing the hall’s beautiful Steinway as part of its Music Marathon events, which bring amateur and professional musicians together to celebrate shared music making.
For purely selfish reasons, I would be very sad to see this fine venue close for good. It would also be a loss for London’s cultural/musical heritage. It is a wonderful place, with a vibrant, varied programme of music. If you have not already done so, I urge you to discover it and support it. It is easy to find, being located within walking distance of Vauxhall, Pimlico, Victoria and Westminster stations. There is a pleasant café in the crypt and the venue is staffed by friendly, helpful people. Richard Heason can often be seen at concerts and is very amenable and approachable.
To survive, SJSS needs “a minimum of £200,000 a year for at least ten years” (Martin Smith, Chairman of the Board of Trustees). It receives no regular public subsidy, unlike its neighbour across the river, nor money from the Heritage Lottery Fund or Westminster City Council.
To quote that well-known advertising jingle, “every little helps” – so buy a ticket or three, or become a Friend, and go and experience the magic of music at SJSS (and the lemon drizzle cake is pretty good too, enjoyed with an inexpensive glass of rosé!).

This coming July sees one of the UK’s most stylish ‘small is beautiful’ annual festivals celebrating a ‘significant’ year – the 2018 Petworth festival is the 40th such event. Founded jointly by Lord Egremont and Robert Walker, the well-known composer who hails from the area, and now run by Artistic Director Stewart Collins, the 40th year boasts a programme built to match and salute this milestone. Topping the bill is a stellar list of performers that includes Dame Evelyn Glennie, Stephen Isserlis, The King’s Singers, Ji Liu, Alistair McGowan, Barbara Dickson, Darius Brubeck, Gyles Brandreth, Joe Stilgoe, Paul Merton, ….

An “experienced but never complacent” festival man, Stewart Collins tells me that he “has always sought to balance the various elements of the festival whether celebrating the West Sussex locale through its venues (ten are used this summer); the appeal to and involvement of the local community; and the balance of performing genres.” Following these loose guidelines, the 2018 programme offers three specific strands; firstly events that celebrate the festival’s 40 years, with concerts featuring performers who have particularly made waves at recent festivals and three in particular with former Festival Artistic Directors – Robert Walker (twice) and David Owen-Norris; secondly performances that doff the cap to the massive anniversary that is the conclusion of the First World War; and thirdly a whole series of events featuring young and emerging performers and others specifically aimed at the younger and family audience.

But it is the quality of the audience experience that most excites Stewart Collins about the Petworth event.

Because most of our venues are modest in size, Petworth audiences have an extraordinary opportunity to witness and participate in very high quality events in very intimate surroundings. The performances of the 1918-related theatre piece Between the Crosses in Petworth House’s ancient chapel are just one example, but it is the acoustic of Petworth’s St Mary’s Church that makes so many of the festival’s events “absolutely magical.” Steven Isserlis from a maximum of 50 feet, will be a wonder to behold, just as will be the King’s Singers who stop off in Petworth as part of their own 50th anniversary odyssey, not to mention the concerts lined up featuring baritone Christopher Maltman and the much lauded early music ensemble La Serenissima.

And with other smaller scale events being scheduled for the nearby Champs Hill Music Room, itself one of the most perfect and unique settings for chamber music in the region, the festival is obviously blessed with great options.

Stables - Comedy image_0
A Festival concert in the Stable Yard of Petworth House

The magnificent acoustics of the almost eerily beautiful Stable Yard of Petworth House that the Festival is so privileged to be able to use, will set the tone of this special anniversary year as the festival opens with a performance by the Armonico Consort, combined with the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, featuring Thomas Tallis’ choral masterpieces, Spem in Alium and the 60-part mass by Alessandro Striggio

The 40th Petworth Festival runs from 17th July to 4th August 2018

Festival tickets go on sale to Friends of the Petworth Festival on Friday 13th April. Many events sell out during this priority booking period. To become a Friend of the Festival (minimum donation £25) contact the festival box office on 01798 344 576 or mail info@petworthfestival.org.uk

Full details of the 2018 Festival programme at www.petworthfestival.org.uk

imageStewart Collins is Artistic Director of Petworth Festival

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

My mom, at the very beginning. She was a big classical music lover and an amateur singer. She told me that before she had me, she was wishing for her first child to be more musically-talented than herself. Well, I think the result became better than that, at least.

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

Many musicians and artists but especially all my (piano) teachers. All of them were so vital that I would’ve been a completely different musician without them in my life.

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

When I first came to Germany at the age of 20, when the new world was, all of sudden widely opened up for me. As a teenage girl in South Korea, I knew nothing about the classical music world in Europe. Let’s put this way, I didn’t know how to get concerts, from where or whom. My final solution was entering competitions again.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I like the two recent ones. ‘Modern Times’ featuring only the works which were written between 1910-1920, my favourite era!

The newer one, issued on my own label, is a very specifically-conceptual CD that I basically recorded for those who listen to music while doing something else – driving, cooking, reading, or drinking a cup of coffee on a hot, lazy summer day. I feel that music is ready to serve people even when people are not entirely ready to listen to it. When every bit of music you listen to – whether at restaurants, cafes, or through TV commercials – becomes more tasteful, it’ll certainly be good for you. That’s what I believe in.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel like I’m speaking my own language when playing Mozart. In the same sense, I feel like I’m telling my own story when playing Schumann.

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

Well, it is not the easiest process…. First of all, I want to create a special experience both for me and for the audience, anywhere, anytime. This means that certain occasions or acoustic, or atmosphere would not get totally along with my, “fixed program” because every place is too different from another. So I always tend to investigate the surrounding of that specific concert venue before I propose any program. As a result, the programs vary a lot, at each place.

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

I have none, and I wish not to have one. Every place is precious.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I would name few violinists, such as Michael Rabin, Christian Ferras. And many pianists as well of course, Alexis Weissenberg, Lili Kraus, Alicia de Larrocha, Earl Wild… My younger self was in love with many singers including Fritz Wunderlich. I was never such a big fan of orchestral music but I loved many renditions by Klaus Tennstedt and Georges Szell. But all of them as recording artists: I was born too late to catch any of these people’s concerts live.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When I am able to select repertoire on the spot, or say two weeks ahead of concerts so that I can play only what I 100,000% feel like playing. I simply can’t imagine what I would like to play in 2 years……sigh… It would not be bad either to bring my own piano to each place!

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

That we musicians are serving music, not the other way around

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

Still in this planet! The priority still is survival.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

If I could be, in a reality, as mind-blowing as I’m on stage, that’ll be perfect happiness!

What is your most treasured possession?

My siblings. Although I don’t quite possess them.

 

Yeol Eum Son performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 8 at Cadogan Hall on Friday 20 April 2018 with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Her recording of Mozart’s radiant Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K.467, also with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and its \ounder, the late Sir Neville Marriner, which was destined to be the legendary conductor’s final recording, is released on the Onyx label on Friday 20 April 2018. More information


www.yeoleumson.com

A double Second Prize winner at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 2011 and at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, Yeol Eum Son’s graceful interpretations, crystalline touch and versatile, thrilling performances have caught the attention of audiences worldwide.

Praised for her widely eclectic concerti repertoire, ranging from Bach and all-Mozart to Shchedrin and Gershwin, her recent concerto highlights include appearances with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Konzerthausorchester Berlin and Bergen Philharmonic under the baton of Dmitrij Kitajenko, a debut Paris date with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Mikko Franck, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, Seoul Philharmonic and European tour with KBS Symphony Orchestra.

(artist photo: IMG Artists)

Play always as if the presence of a master

Robert Schumann

The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.

Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.

I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher, that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time (4 to 6 weeks) between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.

During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique within lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.

Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.

As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).

Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separate ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.

…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.

– Steven Isserlis, cellist


My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection in practising. More on the Feedback Loop

feedbackloop