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

As a child, in Cape Town, I played recorder and then classical guitar, and at the age of 9 I started violin lessons as I really wanted to be in the school orchestra. Already then, the lure of making music with others took hold. But it was not a given that I would be a musician. My secondary school was sporty and academic, and I got a scholarship to study medicine at University. However a gap year convinced me that a career in music would be infinitely more exciting than life as a medic, albeit far more insecure, and I headed to the Guildhall School of Music in London to concentrate on the violin, a decision I have never regretted!

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

I would say violin lessons with Gyorgy Pauk and Sandor Vegh, and chamber music coaching from members of the Amadeus Quartet (especially Siegmund Nissel) were a real inspiration to me, musically. But I was also an avid concert-goer, and a love of live music-making was instilled in me from an early age.

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

Fitting everything in, and finding time for recharging those batteries! I was luckily born with a lot of stamina, and I have certainly needed it.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The complete cycle of Shostakovich Quartets which I recorded for Chandos with the Sorrel Quartet, and played live over a weekend in Cratfield Church in Suffolk. Nothing will compare to that epic journey, both emotionally and physically. One of the great excitements of now joining the Brodsky Quartet is that they have shared similar Shostakovich journeys and I am looking forward to comparing “travel notes”.

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

I can think of two, straightaway. The first, Wigmore Hall, London. Perfect acoustic, perfect size, wonderful audience, and the sense of history walking onto that stage, well-documented in all the photos lining the Green Room walls. I made my solo debut there at the age of 21, and I vividly remember playing the Bach Chaconne as part of the programme in that heavenly acoustic, and thinking how amazingly fortunate I was to be there. The second, Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh. Every creak and groan from the wooden structure has one imagining Benjamin Britten’s presence still there in those rafters. Years ago, when they replaced the bluffs on the roof, my then quartet, spending a winter in residence in Aldeburgh, was sent as a publicity stunt to be pictured with instruments (luckily not our own!) on the roof…and oh, the view across the marshes, with the steel grey water meandering in loops through the reeds! You never see that from ground level. A very special place indeed.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to list, but currently: Maria Joao Pires, Henning Kraggerud, Kristine Opolais, Paul Lewis

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a child, hearing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The setting, the architecture and the music made such an impression on me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think if one feels successful, one might as well retire! As musicians we are so fortunate to be involved in a career we love, where we can continue learning and being curious and growing in experience throughout our life. Sharing this passion and enthusiasm with audiences or students is surely the most rewarding part of our life? If just one person is moved or changed in some way by their experience in a concert hall then perhaps we have been successful in our mission?

What is your most treasured possession?

I know I should say my violin! But actually it is a string of pearls which belonged to my Austrian/Italian mother, and her mother before that, the only piece of her jewellery which travelled from Europe to South Africa and was not stolen in a burglary. My only sadness is I cannot wear it when playing violin!

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

Work hard – nothing valuable is ever gained without that – but be open to inspiration from a broad range of genres. Do not spend all your day in a practice room. Walk in nature, visit an art gallery, go to the theatre, read, explore… you will need far more than an assured technique if you are to have something interesting to share with an audience. And every time you play a piece, find something new in it, and take risks.

Gina McCormack will join the Brodsky Quartet from May 2019. Find out more


Gina McCormack is well established as one of Britain’s leading artists, with regular solo appearances at London’s Wigmore Hall, the South Bank Centre and at venues across the country. She has performed at many British Festivals, including the City of London, Henley, Edinburgh, Buxton, Aldeburgh and Salisbury Festivals, and has appeared as soloist in the UK with the Hallé and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and the former Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Tours abroad have taken her to France, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, South Africa and South America, and most recently to Austria and Switzerland.

Gina studied with György Pauk at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, and attended masterclasses with Sandor Vegh (at the Salzburg Mozarteum and at Prussia Cove in Cornwall), Dorothy DeLay, Andras Mihaly and Siegmund Nissel (from the Amadeus Quartet). While still a student, she was a prizewinner at the Royal Overseas League Music Competition in London and at the International Young Concert Artists’ Competition in Tunbridge Wells, where she has since returned to serve on the jury.

For thirteen years Gina was the leader of the Sorrel Quartet, with whom she was frequently heard on BBC Radio Three. The quartet made twelve CDs for Chandos Records, of works by Britten, Mendelssohn, Schubert and the complete cycle of Shostakovich quartets. Their Elgar CD was chosen as one of Classic FM’s records of the year and was Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine. The group also recorded John Pickard’s Quartets on the Dutton label.

She then led the Maggini Quartet for two years, and decided to leave the group in March 2010 to focus on her solo work, continuing a long association with her duo partner, pianist Nigel Clayton. Since then the duo has had engagements in Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, and all around the UK.

Gina McCormack is also well-known as a teacher, having spent 11 years as professor of Violin at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (formerly Trinity College of Music) in London. She is currently teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow.  She also gives regular masterclasses both in the UK and at summer festivals abroad.

ginaviolin.com

 

artist photo: Melanie Strover


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Politicians in particular talk a lot about the “weight of history” or of feeling “the hand of history on our shoulders”, especially when faced with a serious national crisis or significant policy decision.

As musicians we feel the weight of history too – through the many exceptional musicians who have gone before us and the fine recordings of the “great works” of the repertoire which serve as benchmarks or models for our own progress. These can affect our approach to our music making and influence the way music is presented to others.

Whether or not you like his playing, the presence of Glenn Gould hangs heavily over anyone playing Bach, and his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, a great work in itself, are held up by many as the absolute zenith of greatness in this repertoire. Similarly, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt, both fine Bach interpreters, also cast a significant shadow over those of us who choose to play Bach’s music. In Mozart we have Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires, Barenboim in Beethoven, Lupu in Schubert, Pollini in Chopin, Argerich in, well, virtually anything, and Perahia for “all round excellence”….the list is endless as everyone has their personal favourites, and each era seems to bring yet another crop of “greats”.

Maria Joao Pires
Maria Joao Pires

The classical musician’s training is still largely about preserving tradition and the reverential “canonization” of repertoire: we’re taught from a young age that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms et al…. are “great” composers. Revering the music in this way can create problems when learning and playing it: for pianists, as for other musicians, certain works – the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, Chopin’s Études, the great piano concertos, for example – have an elevated status on a par with the works of Aristotle, Shakespeare or Dickens. We hold the music in awe and feel a tremendous responsibility towards it. Thus, the musician is like a conservator or gardener, bringing these great works to life.

As a consequence, it can be difficult for us to find our own personal voice: the music itself is not necessarily “more difficult”, but the weight of history, and the long line of renowned musicians who have played these great works, can stifle our creativity, artistry and personal interpretation (it is for this reason that I tend towards lesser-known or contemporary repertoire for performances). In addition, the many recordings of these works, plus a century or more of scholarship, can drown out one’s personal voice. You hear a “perfect” recording or performance and wonder “what can I bring to this music that is new/different?”

I had to stop myself listening to other people play it or there would no hope in hell of me finding my own way with it.

– Jonathan Powell, pianist

There are, however, ways to mitigate this. Listening to great recordings and performances does no harm. They can inspire and inform, highlighting aspects of the score which may not be obvious from our initial study of it, sparking ideas, expanding our perspective and nourishing our perceptions of the music. We can admire the great interpretations of the music we are studying, but should never seek to imitate nor borrow from someone else’s version. Acknowlegding the greatness rather than revering it can be helpful too: after all, if we continually keep the music on unreachably high pedestals, we may never actually play it, thus denying ourselves the opportunity of experiencing something truly wonderful and the feeling of being part of an ongoing process of recreation every time we play or perform the music.


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header image: statue of Glenn Gould in Toronto, Canada

Guest post by Michael Johnson

“It’s important,” explains piano builder Wayne Stuart of Tumut, Australia, “to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but through all of our body.” That’s how the Big Beleura, his new 108-key concert grand, gets to you.

Nine-Octave-Piano-fromabove

At the recent world première of the instrument, composer Alan Griffiths had rescored one of his pieces to better exploit the extended range of the keyboard, and pianist Nicholas Young had to play part of it standing up. As he reached inside to strum with his left hand, he played the octave melody on the upper keys, and the audience reportedly loved it.

Young says he finds the extended bass keys “incredibly sonorous even when not in use. They seem to contribute to the entire timbre. It pulses through one’s entire body like an organ pedal note.”

In this excerpt, Young is playing Griffiths’ “Cakewalk from Hell”. The deep bass takes over at 40 seconds :

Stuart has described his expanded keyboard concept in these terms: “Once players have tasted these fruits, they will never willingly return to 88 keys … Can you believe there are players and luddites who think this is crazy?”

And indeed, the premiere audience for the new model was a full house of “very excited”, but not crazy, music lovers who “listened to every note and sprang to their feet” at the climax, Stuart recalled during our week-long exchange of emails recently. Their attention never waned. “Folk were there to get everything they could from the experience.”

As director of Piano Australia Pty Ltd that presides over the manufacture of the Stuart & Sons brand, Stuart believes his new four-pedal expanded keyboard piano may show the way for the first radical advance in piano design in more than 130 years. Certain limited experiments aside (such as Bösendorfer’s Imperial and Daniel Barenboim’s disappointing “Barenboim”), piano architecture has been pretty much frozen since the 1880s.

Not surprisingly, some players and critics remain skeptical. I asked the respected critic and composer Melinda Bargreen of Seattle how excited she is – or isn’t — about the new piano. “I salute Wayne Stuart for pushing musical boundaries,” she wrote in an email exchange with me. “Experimental composers may enjoy tinkering with those extra 20 notes but they must face the fact that their performance opportunities will be extremely limited. The size, price and 1,420-pound weight will make these instruments inaccessible to nearly everyone outside of Australia.” (The Steinway Model D concert grand weighs a mere 990 pounds.)

108-key-stuart-piano-etched-5_1_origAnd yet the piano is off to a promising start. Beleura House and Garden villa and concert hall on Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, where the premiere was held, was already an attraction for music-lovers and is now boosted by the acquisition of the first Big Beleura.

The new piano will come to Europe and the United States only if a buyer will commission a new hand-crafted model. Stuart tells me it would go for about $250,000 and will require a full year to build. In the interim, YouTube videos and a forthcoming Griffiths recording will fill the gap for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Ashley Hribar, an Australian pianist of German-Slovenian parentage, has logged the most hours on the massive keyboard and praises the “amazing colour” of the piano. He tells me in an interview (see below) that the tone and the touch of the piano proved easier to master than he expected. “After about 30 minutes I felt quite at ease and everything became intuitive,” he said. The 1,492mm (4 feet 10 inch) wide keyboard would be a stretch for a child prodigy but average players seem unfazed. Long-limbed Hribar can reach both ends by leaning forward slightly.

Here he plays Jelly Roll Morton”s “Fingerbeaker”, stretching to reach the deep bass at 1;24.

A modest player and highly trained piano technician, Stuart has added ten notes to the bass and ten to the treble. He is now encouraging composers to come forward to experiment with it. The first to emerge is Brazilian pianist Artur Cimirro with a composition that takes in the full keyboard.

Premiere pianist Young reminds me there is a long tradition of imitating the organ when performing or arranging Bach (e.g. Busoni, von Bülow, Liszt), so the extended sonorities allow the pianist to come even closer to perfecting that illusion. “I imagine that works using extended technique, such as Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, would also be incredibly effective with the extended range, he said. “Duet arrangements of symphonies, like those that Liszt arranged of Beethoven, will sound fantastic.”

The additional keys, made possible in part by technical developments in string metallurgy, rarely carry melody but are effective for percussive effects and resonate when played together at an adjacent octave. I can confirm, after much research, that the effect of these extreme notes does indeed set the body tingling.

The limits of piano wire performance have been pushed by Stephen Paulello Piano Technologies, near Fontainebleau in France, at Stuart’s urging. A super-strong wire suitable for extreme treble keys was first developed in 2012 and toughened up just a year ago to enable the 108-key range.

As new repertoire for the instrument emerges, other works are being amended and adapted to incorporate the highs and lows. Griffiths says he was pleased to hear the “visceral energy” of the deep growling bass with percussive left-hand chord clusters. In his adaptations, he was after an “unworldly sound — primal even — to do what no other piano can do.”

Hribar is also rearranging some of his repertoire, including his own Paganini Variations and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz Nr 1. “I am hoping many other composers will continue to write for the expanded keyboard,” says Hribar.

———

An edited transcript of email exchanges with pianist Ashley Hribar follows:

How intimidating was it to approach the instrument for the first time and look at 108 keys?

People often say to me, “You must need long arms”, etc. In fact, physically, I don’t find the extra 20 keys make a huge difference. It’s probably more psychological, especially when you hear the number 108 as opposed to 88. One simply needs to extend the arms slightly further or lean a bit to either side. Playing the notes simultaneously on either end, which one rarely does on traditional pianos, does require one to move the head closer to the keyboard. This is no issue for my arm span, but it may be for smaller people.

Did you need a few hours to adapt to the touch and the sound?

It wasn’t so daunting. I had previous experience with the 102-key Stuart & Sons piano. Playing the Brahms Cello Sonata (F Major) was a little scary at first because I had to re-coordinate, sometimes needing a split second to reach octaves in the bass. After about 30 minutes, I felt quite at ease and everything became intuitive.

Did you need adjustment of your sensibilities to appreciate the growling bass notes or the tinkly uppermost register?

Yes, pianists need to adjust to each new brand of piano. My biggest adjustment to this piano has been with physical coordination and adapting a slightly different visual approach to the extra notes. This opening of a new sound world in colour and depth have been inspiring indeed. I’ve had a lot of experience with experimental new music and improvisation and so having access to such an instrument is a true blessing.

Do you find these additional keys suited more to enhancing chords rather than carrying melody?

Yes. The human ear has difficulty distinguishing these extremes of register, especially the last few notes on each end. So, playing melodies in this range can be challenging. From a compositional perspective today, this would depend on one’s approach to melody and something very new. But interestingly, the brain does compensate well by imagining the sound of these notes, especially when playing chromatic scales or broken chords toward these extremes. I think the piano balances and blends the sound, continuing from the traditional range in a way one would imagine.

This is starting to sound like the extremes reached by pipe organs in a grand cathedral.

Yes, much like the pipe organ, particularly those reaching 8 Hz (lowest organ note) and the high register (beyond 8,000 Hz), the listener feels the sound rather than distinguishing the notes. Transferring this to the acoustic piano, the sound of the pipe organ at this range is much different than the range of the Stuart & Sons. Nonetheless, these vibrations give an unexpected dimension to sound, adding depth and warmth to the lower registers and brilliance in the high registers.

Give us an example of improvisation that has worked well.

When appropriate, I add the lower bass notes to enhance the effect of the music. Debussy’s Claire de Lune is an example where at bar 15 and 17 I add the lower E-flat. When playing this note extra soft (ppp), you can feel the vibrations of this note as well as its overtones. This, in combination with the original notes creates an amazing colour.

What kind of repertoire is available and what is in preparation?

Brazilian pianist Artur Cimirro was the first person to write for the 108 key piano. Alan Griffiths has been rearranging and writing wonderful new works for the ‘Big Beleura’ (the 108 key Stuart) in his recent CD Rare View. As for myself, I have been rearranging some of my own compositions, such as my Paganini Variations and adapting traditional works like the Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz Nr 1. Other works of interest here originally written for 102 keys include Black Opal (2000) by Alex Mitchell and various pieces by Fabien Touchard, Charly Mandon and Stéphane Delplace written especially for the French 102 key piano built by Stephen Paulello.

Some composers invited improvisation. Aren’t they a good starting point?

Yes, virtuosic piano music, particularly of the romantic era with composers like Liszt, Alkan and others, show many examples where experimentation is implied. That is, the performer could in some cases use the score more or less as a guide. The lesser-known Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt are typical examples where we are left with bare bones on the page, leaving space between the notes to fill out harmonies, add arpeggios, extra notes or completely re-invent passages. These works and many others are perfect opportunities for pianists to use 108 keys.

The Liszt sounds appropriate for the broader sound spectrum.

True, and I have been reimagining Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, originally an orchestral work and later arranged for piano by the composer. The Peters edition includes alternative passages, suggesting experimentation or implementing personalised embellishments, for example the dazzling flourishes in the right hand. Such deviations from the score were commonplace in the 19th Century, especially with pianists of the golden age like Rachmaninov and Horowitz.

French composers like Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen experimented with rhythm and colour. Ravel writes the G sharp below the A1 in his Piano concerto for the Left Hand, and in Une barque sur l’océan (Mirrors) and Messiaen’s Par Lui tout a ete fait (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus). Claire de Lune and many other works show how 108 keys could be used.


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

Other versions of this article appeared in International Piano magazine and on www.factsandarts.com

 

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

It was hearing Monk’s Dream (Thelonious Monk Quartet) at 17, amidst the sea of UK garage and US Hip Hop I was listening to, that really made me want to play. I’d wander into the music rooms at my school between lessons and start hitting notes; school wasn’t the best of times (probably a universally applicable statement), and the sense of being able to assign inexpressible feelings to keys and sequences of notes, however primitively they may have been expressed and constructed, was completely absorbing.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

It’s probably no exaggeration to say Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). I didn’t know it by its name when I was a teenager (and wouldn’t until my early twenties) but I did know that the piano – the immersion I felt in it, the satisfaction of this innate [again universal, yet arguably slightly amplified [in the case of TS] craving for rhythm – offered me relief from my own body.

I think I would always have felt some draw to the instrument on a musical level – but without TS I’m not so sure that I would have stayed at the piano.

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

The greatest challenge has probably been sticking with things, over months and years, trying to carry on persevering in spite it feeling delusional/completely unachievable at points. But I’m not actually sure this was a challenge; I didn’t really view doing what I wanted to be doing as a choice.

As an aside – I’m not sure I’d call my relationship to/involvement with music a career as such – partly because I try to split my time relatively evenly between sonic and visual areas but also because I’m slightly uncomfortable with the word ‘career’. I’ve always associated that word with the people who came to my school, asked me some questions and then suggested I was destined for one in the catering industry.

‘Career’ seems to evoke a sense of detachment or distinction from a life that must exist around it, in spite of it…personal life versus career. For better or worse, I’ve wanted to avoid doing anything with my life that I’d feel any need or desire to escape or detach from.

Career’ to me at least, is the imposition of artificially constructed expectations – from society and self it implies trajectory, outcome, above all – an attempt to quantify that which perhaps should exist outside the realm of metrics.

So perhaps one of my biggest challenges is to remember quite how much I don’t want to build a career. I don’t ever want to retire from what I’m choosing to give my time and my life to. And I suppose within that lies the ever-present question of whether what I’m choosing to give my time to is something I should be giving my time to.

My biggest frustration would definitely be the amount of time I need to spend in front of a screen to facilitate my engagement with a world that exists beyond it.

Another challenge I’m becoming increasingly aware of is how to communicate simple ideas without sounding detached and pretentious.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

My main, and relatively limited, experience of ‘commissioned’ music has been through film scores (a few shorts, documentary / narrative and a feature documentary). It’s a real privilege to be trusted with someone else’s work – and exciting to be able to respond to it.

I think part of the challenge is to factor in an awareness that what I’m doing should be informed but not limited by my response to the material. At the end of the day it’s someone else’s film – something they’ve potentially been working on for years and poured their life into, they’ll be attached to certain ideas when it comes to soundscapes and it’s important to be respectful of those ideas whilst also knowing when to be assertive and speak out and constructively disagree.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

At its best, collaboration really takes me outside myself – there’s a lowering of inhibitions and a confidence that doesn’t quite exist when playing solo. There’s also far more objectivity – good ideas mean so much more and crap ideas get removed so much earlier – or at least the process of working to redeem them begins much earlier.As far as challenges go – giving / being open to receiving feedback. But then if communication’s good and there’s mutual respect that’s 90% of the work done.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of the mini album ‘Weightless’. I’d been holding on to four little piano tracks for a few years  – almost as a safety net to be used if felt like my involvement in music was really slipping away.

I decided to try to commission a non-remix style remix album (one which wasn’t comprised of four C-grade club remixes) that could extend the small scope of the piano tracks into something more expansive and offer a more cohesive listening experience. I approached some friends whose music I loved and asked them to respond as honestly as possible to the themes of titles, to go wherever they felt musically led but just asked they remained tethered, however loosely, to some part of the original. I loved the resulting reworks and the musical variety that had spawned from these four very simple piano pieces- all credit for that of course goes to the four artists involved (Tom Adams, Siavash Amini, Hedia, Transept).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m interested in attempting to bring a variety of influences and feelings to the piano. I like leaving room for slight variety in performance, space for improvisation at points. That gives me room to grow in my existing compositions and for them to grow with me too. I like melody but am trying to push my understanding and use of harmony further along. Whilst I love sparser music that I can get lost in, I find I’m generally more interested in narrative – I’d say most of the music I make, on piano at least, has some sense of journey attached baked into it. I can fully appreciate and welcome simplicity but equally don’t like easy answers so I try to not to offer those through my music either – life very rarely, if ever, finds itself exclusively steeped in one end of the existential spectrum so it doesn’t make sense to me for music to do so either.

How do you work?

Occasionally something will come out of nowhere but usually the process is fairly slow. I tend to play things over and over, record primitively on my phone (when camera phones were smaller I used to put one in my mouth and film what my hands were playing. Now I just record audio on my phone and hope to remember the fingering), listen back, play back, add, subtract, listen, listen – extend this process over weeks or months. By the end ideas have either been near fully formed or if I start to find them boring I let go of them.
Time becomes a filter, through which only the stuff that still interests me passes.

Even with my upcoming album – I’m listening to it on almost daily basis to make sure, at least up to the point of release, that I still feel accurately represented by it and sufficiently interested in it.  I don’t mind if I change my mind at some future point but I need to know that at the moment of release it is music that still means something to me.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I really love Stevie Wonder’s albums from the 1970s. Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck. My favourite album of 2018 was Baloji’s “137 Avenue Kaniama” and having him seen him perform it live last year can easily say he’s one of my favourite performers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To remember that expression isn’t a commodity and music isn’t a competition. To balance your strengths and limits over that fine line between thinking you’re shit / THE shit.

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

To have confidence in your story and own it, don’t expect everyone to get it or the music that comes from it – make stuff for yourself primarily and treat anyone else wanting to listen in as a welcome bonus.

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

Primarily outside.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Finding stability in transition and being free from expectations.. with a football in one hand and a frisbee in the other.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love walking and being outside as much as possible. I used to love playing football almost more than anything else – I really miss it.

What is your present state of mind?

Honestly – conflicted and unsettled. Trying to question things without getting completely lost.

Alex Kozobolis’ new album ‘Somewhere Else’ is released on 26 April and is an album with the piano at its heart. Alex describes the piano as possessing a therapeutic magnetism for him, having originally turned to the instrument as a way of regulating the symptoms of his Tourette syndrome. A jazz-like preoccupation with improvisation is embedded within the album, each track was brought to the studio slightly incomplete allowing for spontaneity during the recording process.


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(Photos by Özge Cöne)

The launch of the new season of the BBC Proms is always met with excited anticipation. I had a preview of this year’s programme late last night, thanks to an article on the Classical Source website. Glancing through the “highlights” my heart sank a little, then a little more…..By this morning, having read more detailed surveys of the new season, I felt rather deflated.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced, there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and every year it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. There are always howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” , or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too few works by women composers. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms.

When the Proms were founded by Robert Newman and Henry Wood, their stated aim was to bring classical music to a wider audience, and the concerts were, by all accounts, quite lively, eclectic affairs, with big programmes and an audience who were permitted to eat, drink and smoke during performances (though patrons were requested not to strike matches during quiet passages). Do the Proms succeed in doing this today? It’s hard to tell, without some rigorous audience surveying (“Is this your first time?” etc), and I’d very interested to find out what percentage of the audience are genuine classical music ingenues. Also, do those people who attend the Ibiza Prom or this year’s hip hop Prom actually then book to hear a mainstream (or even non-mainstream) classical music concert? Are these types of concerts really a “gateway” to classical music for younger audiences? I’m not sure….

I used to argue quite vociferously for as broad a range of concerts as possible in the Proms, my view being that if you could get young people or those who wouldn’t normally attend classical music concerts through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall for Jarvis Cocker’s late night Prom or the Strictly Prom, they might return for a drop of Beethoven or a healthy dose of Tchaikovsky, but I don’t think this is borne out in actual ticket sales.

A few years ago I attended an all-Brahms Prom performed by the OAE with Marin Alsop (I was there because a friend of mine was playing double bass in the orchestra). I happened to be sharing a box with a family for whom this was their very first visit to the Proms, or indeed a classical music concert. They were anxious beforehand: out of their usual comfort zone, they had arrived at the concert full of the usual preconceptions about classical music – would they applaud “at the wrong time”, would they be able to “understand the music” etc etc. I told them to simply sit back and let the music wash over them, and that if they were worried about when to applaud, they could follow my lead. In the interval they turned to me and beamed with wide-eyed delight – they were loving it! As a mark of our new-found joint pleasure in the music, they shared their box of chocolates with me. This to me more than demonstrates that one doesn’t need to programme trendy or gimmicky Proms to engage people in classical music – and I am sure my experience is not unusual.

My feeling on looking at this year’s programme is that the planners are attempting that impossible task of trying to please all the people all of the time, and as a consequence, the programme feels like a rather weird mish mash of mainstream classical music, a few novelties, some great warhorses of the repertoire, and a whole bunch of disparate “populist” oddities. More often than not these days, I feel the BBC is almost apologetic about classical music – an attitude which is fairly common (cf. Radio 4’s Today programme whose presenters frequently snigger or smirk when talking about classical music, as if is some kind of weird taboo). And then the BBC broadcasts something so splendid and moving as the recent programme about Janet Baker by John Bridcut and just for a moment, it feels like the good old days of high-quality cultural broadcasting….. Those days are gone of course, but why can’t we celebrate classiccal music for what is really is? It’s wonderful, it’s fantastic, it’s epic, it’s heart-stoppingly dramatic, tear-jerkingly beautiful, tender, poignant, funny, bizarre and so so varied. It’s not all written by dead white guys in periwigs and not all contemporary music sounds like a “squeaky gate”. There is something for everyone in the vast canon of classical music and a way to bring that to “a wider audience” would be to curate a festival that demonstrates and confirms this without the need to resort to “crossover” or gimmicks.

The BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, launched today with concerts featuring hip hop music…” (paraphrase of announcement on Radio 4 Today programme, Wednesday 17th April).

I’m tired of people (presenters, promoters, marketers, critics, audiences, even some musicians) apologising for classical music. Instead let’s celebrate it.

A conversation with Jon Jacob who blogs at Thoroughly Good

JJ: I read a few reviews this morning with star ratings. I’m reminded how they much they annoy me. I’m not entirely sure why they do. I was hoping our exchange might help me understand why a bit better.

Basically, I just think rating someone’s performance is a bit odd. Mean really. By stating how many stars you thought someone’s performance was you’re kind of elevating yourself – making out that your criteria for judging whether something is good or not is valuable.

What really irks is that so much marketing stuff makes use of these star ratings. Because when that happens that rating process is legitimised.

Do I need to lighten up? Am I missing something?

CEP: I have always been uncomfortable with the star rating system for reviews and was acutely aware of it when I wrote for an international concert listings and reviews site where star ratings were de rigueur. For me, when reviewing, it meant that I had to always been thinking “is this a …. star performance?” and the aforementioned site actually had guidelines for reviewers to help them decide whether the performance deserved five stars or fewer. Awarding three stars often felt quite mean-spirited to me – being in the middle of 1 and 5, 3 feels like you’re saying “it was ok”, when in fact it was quite obvious to me, being a musician myself, that the performer had clearly spent hours and hours preparing for the performance and was maybe just having an off day at the concert, for whatever reason (something I think many reviewers – and audiences – don’t appreciate: performers are human too and a disrupted journey to the venue, feeling under par and a whole host of other factors can affect one’s performance…..)

From the reader’s point of view, I think star ratings are very limiting, especially if they are published at the head of the review (as is common practice). The reader/potential audience may see a low star rating (and I think a lot of readers think 3 stars signals “mediocre”) and not bother to read on. There is, of course, a converse argument – that a one-star review might pique one’s interest to actually read the review and/or go and hear that performer out of curiosity.

As I think you know from my writing on this subject and our conversations, I do not think it is the reviewer’s role to “rate” the performance; nor do I think music performance can be rated via such a rudimentary metric as stars. We are not talking about hotel accommodation here where the criteria for star ratings are more easily comprehendable! I believe a music review should be a record of the event and as such serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). I believe we still need to record the activities of performers/composers via intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Unfortunately, I feel the star rating system discourages all of this by putting an undue focus on “rating” the event rather than describing it and bringing it to life for those who weren’t there.

I agree with your comment about the value of star ratings for marketing purposes and this troubles me for the same reasons you express. And to describe someone as a “five star performer” seems to me be an anodyne and lazy way of presenting what might be a really exceptional artist. Sadly, in our feedback-driven culture, where undue emphasis is placed on customer reviews on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, I don’t think we can easily escape this…..

JJ: Your response reminds me of the challenge in art music at the moment. On the one hand we want more people to enjoy it. I want people to experience a similar thrill discovering personal insights about the art. Such insights can’t be documented as a criteria or expectation from listening. They are by definition personal and distinctive. A Haydn sonata’s impact on you will be different from the impact it has on me, for example.

How do we report on a performance authentically and respectfully without stating implicitly or explicitly that the performance should be performed one way or the other? And how do we style that reporting such that it advocates attentive or active listening rather than promoting an erroneous requirement of prior knowledge in the subject? It’s as though we need to promote listening, rather than the content.

In that way, I’m not entirely convinced that star ratings support that approach to documenting events or promoting active engagement in performance.

There’s a personal perspective too. What if the star ratings apply to a soloist rather than an ensemble? Does the person using the rating mechanism have a responsibility for the way the rating might be interpreted by a large audience (ie the rater’s intent maybe entirely different from the audience/reader interpretation)?

I also don’t get the point in rating a live performance which is by definition a one-off. Fine for opera because there’s a run of performances, but a one off concert seems a bit odd.

But still, I wonder whether there’s another perspective I’m missing.

CEP: I agree re. star ratings for opera (or theatre/film, for that matter) – stars are more relevant if there’s a run of performances.

I’d love to know how much store audiences/potential audiences really set by star ratings (maybe we should run a survey?!). Do people really select concerts by performers who’ve received favourably ratings on the basis of those ratings (I know I don’t), or are there wider criteria (such as reputation of performer, venue, programme etc – the last point being my usual criteria for selecting a concert)? Do they think “oh I’ll book to hear Trifonov because he always gets 5-stars”? Not sure…. and I think audiences are actually far more discerning than mainstream reviewers/promoters give them credit for.

Your response ties in with something else I am pondering – the apparent need to find “meaning” in everything, specifically in classical music as a way, perhaps, of validating it or making it relevant to people today. In an way, reviews are complicit in this by trying to express meaning (whether it is actually there or not in the music) to the reader. It seems we can’t simply report on the concert, describing the sounds the performer/s made, the quality of the performance, our personal response to it. Everything must be freighted with meaning or “relevance”. The music is not simply allowed to “be”, or be “entertainment” (in the best sense of that word)… But I digress slightly.

When I was reviewing regularly, I would quite frequently receive comments from other people who had attended the same concerts and who might take issue with something I had said in a review. For example, I was accused of being “far too generous” to a very elderly pianist (now sadly no longer with us) because his Chopin performance was “riddled with errors and inconsistencies”, and why hadn’t I documented them? But I don’t believe it is my job as a reviewer to highlight a performer’s errors (unless they are really dreadful, in which case I simply wouldn’t write a review); nor do I think reviewers/critics should seek to tell the musicians how to do their jobs.

My personal “crusade” – and I think this is a sentiment we share – is to encourage people to enjoy classical music and to debunk this silly notion that one needs to be well-informed, knowledgeable or educated to a certain level in order to “appreciate” it. Unfortunately, some of the more high falutin or pretentious writing on classical music isn’t helping; but I also think people are becoming more suspicious of mainstream critics and reviewers and are turning instead to independent review sites/blogs where they can find longform/more considered writing which has a more personal/authentic voice to it.

JJ: We agree. For me I experience unfamiliar works, familiar ones, or new compositions as a journey of self-discovery. What or how the composer or performer does is of secondary importance to the effect their work is having on my emotions. That for me is the thrill of this art form. Being able to articulate when it works and when it doesn’t takes more than just a rating.

What I keep coming back to in our exchange here is the responsibility on the mediator – be it marketer, journalist, critic – to advocate the art form in a respectful way that pays deference not only to the effort involved in creating it, but also emphasises the listeners contribution to the end product.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the best way of achieving that preferred mediation, but I’m working on it.