21 January 2020 – Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tom Hammond – conductor
Tamsin Waley-Cohen – violin
Orchestra of the Swan
It was the music of Jean Sibelius that first sparked conductor Tom Hammond’s interest in classical music: he found the mystical world of The Swan of Tuonela entrancing on first hearing it. This haunting tone poem opens Intimate Voices, a concert curated and conducted by Tom Hammond with Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan.
In Intimate Voices, Hammond combines his great love of Sibelius’ music with his skill in creating imaginative programmes to explore the musical and personal landscape of Jean Sibelius through his own words and compositions. From the magical sonorities of The Tempest and the stark simplicity of Scene with Cranes to the bold, distilled complexity of the seventh symphony, Sibelius the man is revealed through the intimate thoughts in his letters and the dark, awe-inspiring qualities of his musical imagination.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen joins Hammond and the orchestra as soloist in the rarely-played Humoresques for violin and orchestra – highly virtuosic yet introspective miniatures which reveal the composer’s great love of the violin, and which Hammond believes are musically superior even to the Violin Concerto.
For Tom Hammond, Intimate Voices is “a dream of a programme”, containing some of his favourite music, and an opportunity for audiences to experience Sibelius’ lesser-known works: deeply imaginative and utterly absorbing music that evokes Finnish myths and Shakespeare’s magical isle, pine forests, lakes and snow.
The Swan of Tuonela (from Lemminkäinen Suite)
The Tempest, Suite No.1 [excerpts: The Oak Tree, Humoreske, Berceuse, Ariel’s Lied (The Rainbow)]
Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op.89
Kuolema (Valse Triste & Scene with Cranes)
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I was born into a family of musicians: a pianist mother and a composer father. As a little child, I watched my mom practicing and grew competitive – as a three-year-old I would jump at the piano the moment she left it and wouldn’t let her back, pretending it was my time to ‘practice’. Seeing my father composing and listening to a lot of symphonic music at home with him shaped my musical demands, tastes, and desires. And attending concerts, opera and ballet performances, my mother’s recitals and rehearsals truly imprinted in my mind an idea of what life was supposed to be. Being immersed in all sorts of musical practice early on was the biggest influence. And thus I started to show my personal understanding and views in music quite early as well.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was homeschooled until age 10, and the programme that my mother chose for me was completely her creation. As a three-year-old, I got a hold of the typewriter as a source of learning how to put letters together and create words, sentences and then stories. Later, I learned grammar and spelling through copying countless poems by the greatest Russian poets by hand into my journals. I looked through museum catalogues and albums of different artists in the same fashion kids use their cartoons and picture books. I constantly tried to create my own continuations of stories from that artworks, drawing and painting Perseus and Andromede after Rubens, and many other idols I acquired. At 6, I was given an unrestricted access to the turntable and the entire collection of LPs and soon after discovered that I always cry over Furtwängler’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, but the same piece conducted by Bruno Walter left me cold and unengaged. Simultaneously, my father taught me to read music in all clefs and transpositions and that opened for me the world of orchestral scores which I could sightread without any trouble. I was exposed to serious literature early on, reading the Divine Comedy at 7, thinking it is an awesome fairytale and drawing illustrations to what I read. That same year I destroyed an LP with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, simply from overplaying it, and the immense passion of that music definitely created a craving for emotional intensity in musical performance that I continued to feel throughout my life.
Such exposure to an array of arts was definitely one of the best things that happened to me, thanks to my mother’s wisdom, and all of that continues to influence me in everything I do. Besides playing piano, I compose, transcribe, write poetry both in Russian and English, draw and paint, and create original projects in which all the arts interconnect.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It is hard to answer briefly or in any summarizing way.
I have had many obstacles on my way, which could have completely broken me and definitely delayed the development of my professional career. But they taught me to overcome anything and to always keep in mind where I am going and why.
I was born in Izhevsk, a provincial city which is a capital of the Republic of Udmurtia within Russia. When I was 9 and passing required exams to enter the Central Music School in Moscow, the first time I entered the examinations, I was given an A in piano and F in ear training with a remark that I have no musical hearing ( I have perfect pitch). It was suggested I enter a paid study programme (as opposed to a free programme). The school’s hidden assumption was that my home town would sponsor my studies.
The following year, I entered again, was given an A in ear training and F in piano performance with a remark that I have “no technical abilities and will never become a pianist”. My mother lost her pregnancy upon hearing this news and that is how I never got a brother.
At this point, the chair of composition of Moscow Conservatory, Albert Leman, being disgusted about the situation, went to the Ministry of Culture and opened a composition department at the Central Music School of which I became the first student.
A mere three years later, the same person who claimed I had no abilities as a pianist, after listening to 13-year-old me performing Liszt’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ fantasy at a winter exam, exclaimed at his impressed colleagues “what are you surprised about? It was always clear she has limitless technical abilities”.
In the 9th grade, I was thrown out of school for “excessive touring without the consent of administration”. Luckily, I was put back by Ministry of Culture and the school’s dean at the time lost his job.
As a freshman at Moscow Conservatory I soon started playing with best orchestras in the country. At the same time my mother got hit by a car on the street and I had to take care of her after her major trauma.
But my professor, who performed with same orchestras, would call those orchestras and ask them to stop inviting me to play. It was always a major fight when I told her that I had a new engagement. I wasn’t allowed to prepare for competitions. The only one she forced me to apply for was the Chopin competition in Warsaw. It was 9 months of hard work, and three days before I was to fly out to the preliminary round, she asked me “why did you decide to go there? All the jury members this year are my enemies, they won’t let you in no matter how you play, just because you are my student!..” I did not go.
In my third year, she threw me out of her class for accepting a last-minute request to stand in to perform Prokofiev’s Second Concerto with the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia (now Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra), and arranged for me to be kicked out of the Conservatory, having badmouthed me in such a fashion sggesting that I got my engagements through intimate relationships with conductors.
She made sure I was never be able to reinstate my student status at the conservatory. After several unsuccessful attempts to come back (other conservatory professors to whom I tried to transfer, were all scared of ruining their faculty relationships), I ended up completing my studies at Saint-Petersburg conservatory, thanks to maestro Mark Gorenstein who immensely helped me to find my way there.
However, in Saint-Petersburg I was presented with new surprises. I finished the conservatory in 2009 as the best piano graduate of the year, a status that has given me an opportunity to debut at the Saint-Petersburg Philharmonic Society with an orchestra. The performance was a big success, but just 8 weeks later I was given an “F” at each of the entrance exams to the post-graduate program, preventing me from entering.
I was lucky to develop amazing relationships with orchestras and concert presenters in Moscow, which allowed me to build a substantial concerto repertoire (by the end of my conservatory years I have performed over 45 different concerti). But the moment I was thrown out of the Moscow conservatory, I became an outcast and many people turned their backs to me. One of the few people that did not care about any of that was Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra’s music director Mark Gorenstein, who continued our regular collaboration.
But in 2011, maestro Gorenstein got fired from Svetlanov Symphony himself in politically-tailored circumstances and the backlash from that event hit me as well as one of his favorites – more doors got closed before me.
So in 2012 I moved to the US to enter the DMA programme at the invitation of Santiago Rodriguez and to start over in terms of building a career.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I am proud of my YouTube project ‘Midnight Pieces’ that I started in 2017, recording works that I pick for their beauty and emotional depth. I tailor them according to an inner pattern: 1 obscure piece, 1 famous piece, 1 Russian piece, 1 transcription of mine. The goal is to produce 53 works by 53 composers, and I have recorded 30 so far. I have discovered a great deal of rarely-played pieces that are to-die-for in their stunning beauty, and I keep discovering more as I develop a habit of digging into different composers’ outputs.
Another recording that I like is the live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1, also available on my channel.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think I have special connection to counterpoint and so playing Bach or any other polyphonic music feels very natural and fulfilling. With Bach, I always somehow memorize his music immediately. It feels like I know what will be going on right away, so it is definitely a special connection.
I’ve bonded with Liszt’s music very deeply, having approached it with orchestral thinking and I feel I am good at bringing many colours to it and maintaining multi-layered textures distinguished from each other.
I’ve been told many times that I am a very good Beethoven player. It is a bold thing to claim, but at the same time Beethoven attracts me immensely. There were periods of my life where I did not get to play much of his music and I felt robbed. In recent years, I’ve done much more and always felt I was doing the right thing. Right now I am totally in love with his Eroica Variations. It is such an underplayed set and I am trying to play it as much as I can so people can experience its magic.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am highly driven by inspiration and I have a huge appetite. 99 percent of the time I play what I want to play and I combine pieces together to match or contrast each other in spirit. Another passion is complete cycles, where you are getting yourself into an imaginary journey through a composer’s life or period of life through the performance of everything written in a particular genre. For instance, this was the main attraction for me when I decided to perform complete 24 Liszt études as a recital program. Indeed, I also am driven by the idea of always posing a challenge for myself, so it was a perfect choice.
In recent years, I have also been writing piano transcriptions that have become a regular part of my programming. Two of them take a whole recital’s half each – Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata and Richard Strauss’ tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’. For the latter I put together a programme called ‘Heroes’, playing Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and Wagner-Liszt’s Tannhäuser overture as a first half.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
In 2016, I discovered this unbelievable space, Earl and Darielle Linehan concert hall on campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. My astonishment was so intense that I decided to start summer music festival there. It was an extremely crazy idea since I have never lived nor studied in Baltimore and creating a music series from scratch was akin to operating blindfolded. But it was all worth it – the hall is incredible in its acoustic characteristics, has amazing pianos and very powerful recording capabilities. Every note you play resonates perfectly and can be heard from any seat no matter how soft it is. Each performance in this hall is a true joy, and I am very proud that this summer I was able to pull of the third season of my series, called Festival Baltimore.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It is impossible to pick one. Concert experiences become memorable due to either the overall circumstances or the personal feeling of artistic achievement.
I will never forget my performance at a teenage prison witnessing inmates getting unbelievably moved by a Schubert sonata and the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Or the first time I played the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier without an intermission and how on stage this 2 hour 25 minute recital felt as just half an hour long. Or my debut with an orchestra at Carnegie hall’s Stern Audithorium – this intense feeling of checking off an imaginary milestone. Or the times when I performed my music or my transcriptions for the first time.
Or any of my recitals I play for kids at schools, where I perform the most difficult and intense repertoire for them and they stop moving and get completely absorbed by the music.
Each concert experience is unique and special on its own and there are definitely no ‘regular’ ones.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
There are definitely two types of success to be considered – creative, personal success and social, public success. To me, success is first of all the ability to fully embody my vision, drive and ideas in a musical piece, combined with the ability to deeply reach my audience.
To me, music is a spiritual process. There is something very sacred in how each musical piece unfolds akin a new life, and it releases a lot of feelings in people, when you are able to truly release yours in the real time of live performance. When playing something really demanding – and potentially extremely impactful – it could be easy to get swept away with your focus on technical excellence, ‘craft’, while staying closed emotionally. When you are reaching every note with your inner self, the audience perceives music on a completely different, transcendent level. The biggest success is to be consistent in your openness while maintaining your focus and thus connecting with people on this very deep level. It may sound strange, but when I see people who can’t stop crying after the performance is over, I feel I opened just the right door and it feels like my mission is accomplished.
Indeed, social success is very important and desired as well; it opens doors of amazing venues with instruments that can convey any of your sound color demands, and brings you together with like-minded musicians, but without the first one it would not make any sense.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never be satisfied with meeting the requirements. If you are happy with what is required, you’re dead as an artist. You have to be always in a process of jumping over your own head, doing more than you think you can do. And you have to be constantly curious. If you want to be a musician, you need to really know music and arts in general. Half of what you do in music is practice and another half – sightreading, listening, discovering, reading, exploring. And not just music for your instrument – everything.
I will give you one example. I was 19 and preparing for my first performance of the Brahms D minor concerto. In heavily tradition-oriented Russian music institutions it is hard to voice your own vision and not being scolded in “this is not Brahms” or “this is not Chopin” manner. So I felt I have to substantiate my personal ideas in this music, even though they all were based on literal and uninfluenced reading of the Brahms’ text. Most of what I had to ‘prove’ was tempi and shaping of the form.
And to support my vision with facts, I researched all Brahms’ music to find links and matching elements. The final movement of the 1st piano concerto has the tempo marking ‘Allegro non troppo’. I found all the “Allegros non troppos” throughout Brahms’ output and at certain moment discovered a piece for choir and orchestra, ‘Gesang der Parzen”, op.89, which shared not only the tempo marking but the key and time signature with the concerto’s final movement. It was a blessing, it helped me immensely.
Of course, I also found all works in D minor, all works sharing same time signatures and tempo markings with other movements of the concerto. I discovered an insane amount of vocal and choral music which most of the pianists unfortunately do not get exposed to.
By the end of my research work I truly felt that I know Brahms as a composer.
I continue conducting researches like this throughout my life and it always brings incredible discoveries and reassurance for ideas that came intuitively.
Another aspect – be supportive and be genuine in it. Support your colleagues, learn from them, help them out instead of being jealous or trying to be better than them. Be better than yourself, and you will see how much more productive it is. And the love and support that you would give to others will always come back to you, directly or indirectly.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
It has been always so difficult to me to think in these categories. Probably, because I have much more ideas and wishes than I have time to fulfill them, so setting exact goals feels somewhat limiting. Instead of 10 years’ goal, I have a list of ideas and projects that I am crossing out as I accomplish them.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
There are different aspects of happiness that I recognize for myself.
Perfect happiness is to be true to yourself. As and artist and as a human being. Life challenges us and makes this hard to achieve at times. But once you get to the point where you are true to yourself in absolutely everything you do, you are free and your soul and spirit are free and that brings peaceful happiness.
There is also happiness that can be achieved through overcoming yourself. I am really happy when I can jump over my own head and reach new a level. It could be a level of understanding, a level of performance, a level of strength, a level of ability, a level of openness – anything that makes you a better human being, the better version of yourself.
What are your current projects?
Recently, I finished two projects related to the music of Modest Mussorgsky to honor his 180-year anniversary. One is the transcription of the complete Mussorgsky’s cycle ‘Songs and Dances of Death’. I wrote a transcription of the ‘Serenade’ from it two years ago and always meant to continue with the rest of them.
The second one is the series of my own artwork for ‘Pictures at an exhibition’. Both are being premiered this week at the Rockefeller University’s Tri-I noon recital series.
It is incredible to deeply connect to Mussorgsky’s music. It is so psychedelic in a sense, it is dark and almost sacred, and provides an infinite variety of ways to interpret it. I am glad I waited so long before getting my hands on it, not playing in my teen years when there was a brief “fashion” to perform the Pictures.
Asiya was born in Izhevsk, Russia, to a musical family. She began to learn piano when she was 4 years old from her mother, her first piano teacher. She was taught to read music in orchestral clefs by her father, an exemplary composer, at the age of 6, and started composing her own music. At 9, she made her orchestral debut, playing Mozart’s Concerto No.8 with her own cadenza, and performed her first philharmonic recital.
Her love for new music has come effortlessly as a result of her early bond with composition. She was invited to premiere 3 piano concertos by Vladislav Kazenin and Shamil Timerbulatov, with the Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Capella Symphony Orchestra, the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra.
Additionally, she has presented the premiere performance of various works by Matthew Evan Taylor, Michael Daugherty, Thomas Sleeper and Orlando Garcia.
I’m a returner pianist – and maybe, if you’re reading this article, you are too and therefore what follows will chime with you. Or perhaps you are thinking of taking up the piano again after a long absence (as I did), in which case you should definitely read on…..
I played at a piano club recently and during the coffee break someone asked me if I was “a professional pianist”. This gave me a momentary glow of pride – evidently I had “made an impression” – and I know that many amateurs dream of reaching the dizzy heights of ‘professional standard’ in their playing. It’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to practice; alone with that box of wood and wires we dream of playing to a full house to the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.
So I replied that no, I was an amateur pianist, an adult ‘returner’ and that I had given up the piano at the age of nineteen, returning to it just shy of my fortieth birthday with an all-consuming passion for the instrument, those who play it and its vast and varied literature. (You can read more about my return to the piano at the end of this article.)
The world of the adult amateur pianist is a curious one – at once rich, vibrant and varied, but also obsessive, anxious and eccentric. But above all, it is inspiring, and in my encounters with other adult pianists, through my piano group and on piano courses, I come across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and failures, the frustrations and pleasures of practicing, and the fear and thrill of performing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.
When you tell people you’ve taken up the piano again they always ask, “Are you any good?” And I never know quite what to say. Some days when my spirit and fingers are in sympathy with each other, I think I make a reasonable sound. On other days, spirit and fingers aren’t on speaking terms and the result is fumbling, dismal, depressing.
Alan Rusbridger, journalist and amateur pianist
When I put out a call for contributions to this article via Twitter, I was deluged with responses, as varied, fascinating and moving as the literature of the instrument we play. What follows are just a few of the responses, but what they demonstrate is that, while there are some obvious common threads, our reasons for returning to and playing the piano are often deeply personal and hugely meaningful to us as individuals, and that our passion for the piano is all-consuming. Never forget that the word “amateur” derives from the Old French word meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator: all the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it. Our love drives our commitment to the instrument – amateur pianists are possibly the most dedicated practicers – and many of us are absorbed by a compelling need to get better, to progress, to master. It’s a lonely road to travel, which is why piano clubs and courses are so popular for the opportunity to meet others who are similarly driven and obsessed. Those of us who commit to the journey do so willingly; it’s an ongoing process, one which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.
That is not to say that professional pianists don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed and know personally have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.
Now, back to those inspiring adult returners…..
My primary reason for returning was that both my parents had lived the last ten or twelve years of their lives with advancing dementia, as well as some second degree relatives. I thought the best way to really work my brain was to go back to playing music. The secondary reason was to help relieve stress which was something my piano teacher had told me I would need at some point in my life……For me, having started to suffer the lacunar strokes in my family history which have a type of dementia related to them, I keep hold on the fact that the part of the brain the works with music is usually the last to fail. I still feel that playing the piano is probably one of the best avenues to take to keep working the brain. Apart from that I simply love playing again. – Eleanor
It was the death of an uncle which prompted me to return to the piano. He was very musical, and after he died my other uncle asked me whether I would like his piano, a rather fine Steinway grand which had been in the family for ages. However, grand pianos are somewhat incompatible with the three bedroom semi in which I live, but it did remind me how much I’d enjoyed the piano. I was lucky enough to be left some money in his will, and with that I bought a Yamaha upright with silent system fitted. I wanted a proper acoustic, but I have young children so a silent system means I can practice at night after they are in bed. I have lessons once a fortnight and they are completely indispensable for my enjoyment
I studied music at university and did two years of a performance major but struggled with various chronic injuries and dropped out as a result (I had two operations and had seen many medical specialists in attempt to resolve these problems). I then “sold my soul” to capitalism and started a business, following which I continued along a corporate career. I had always dreamed of getting back into playing but my schedule was punishing and not at all conducive to playing. I started to play again and unfortunately ended up with RSI (tennis elbow) which swiftly ended my return to playing. Then a few years later I managed to extricate myself from the corporate world and…..I managed to start playing again and although I had some niggles from the RSI, was able to play around 0.5 – 1 hrs a few days a week. I also started going for lessons with [a teacher who] focussed very much on reducing tension…..and I realised how much of my injuries came down to poor technique and tension. I wish a greater emphasis had been placed on this when I was a music student because while [my teacher] helped me find a much more natural, comfortable way to play, it was already too late and my RSI flared up again to the point where a few minutes of playing would leave me in agony for days. It was devastating after so long of trying to be in a position to have the time to play that I wasn’t able to. A few years later (whilst consistently seeing medical specialists and trying various approaches) I managed to have a breakthrough in which I was able to slowly start playing again, a few minutes every second day and was able to gradually build up. This was a useful exercise in that I had to be more focussed on practising effectively given the limited time available. Despite being told by numerous doctors that I wouldn’t play again, I’m now able to play for up to an hour on some days. This has been sufficient to learn some new repertoire and to perform in some amateur meet-up groups which has really been a wonderful experience. In fact, once I was able to let go of the inner critic (as a former music student, the inner critic remains highly developed even though one’s technical ability wanes without practice!), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed playing. It would have never have occurred to me all those years ago when I dropped out of university that I’d be able to derive so much enjoyment out of playing as an amateur.
I originally started piano lessons aged 13, of my own volition; I’d had one of those 80s electronic keyboards that were all the rage back then, and wanted to progress to something more substantial. My progress was very slow, however, and ultimately not very fulfilling. I managed to pass my Grade 1 but found the exam experience stressful. I think a lot of it had to do with the prescriptive way children are typically taught: everything was just scales, sight reading and set pieces that weren’t especially fun or engaging to play. Nearly twenty years later, I was in a piano bar on holiday, and the pianist was playing modern music set to piano. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of regret that I had abandoned such a beautiful instrument. On returning home, I did a spot of research and found that digital pianos had come on a long way in the intervening years and were now touch-sensitive with weighted keys and even a sustain pedal. I took the plunge, ordered a decent model (the Yamaha P115) and signed up for lessons with a local teacher. It’s been a wonderful decision, and I have fallen in love with playing. It’s still small steps, but I practice regularly and have actively witnessed improvement in my own playing.
I discovered classical music as a teen (Bach) and started taking lessons. I wanted to be a composer, and eventually became a composition major at a local university. Having started late, and not having received family support and good advice from those who did support me, I let my insecurities defeat me, and I ended up getting a degree in English. Decades later, we inherited a spinet from a relative, and I found my passion once again. I finally have a good teacher, and am making progress toward being the pianist I wanted to be.
And what of me, the author and creator of this blog who through my activities tries to support and advocate for amateur pianists? Discouraged from applying to music college with the suggestion that I wasn’t “good enough”, I threw myself into other studies (Medieval English), followed a non-musical career path for 10 years, while setting up home, getting married and starting a family. But in my late thirties, when my son was about eight, my mother bought me a digital piano and urged me to start playing again. So I dug out the music I had loved as a teenager – music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy – and also some I had hated: Chopin’s Nocturnes. I fell in love with Chopin’s music; coming at it as an adult with a greater degree of life experience, I found it vivid, beautiful, passionate, poignant – and incredibly satisfying to play. I also returned to Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, music I’d first started playing (badly!) at the age of about 12 when my mother bought me an Edition Peters score of this music, having heard Alfred Brendel play the Impromptus in concert. Within a couple of years, I was teaching piano to the children of friends and acquaintainces I’d met via my son’s primary school, and in 2007, my husband bought me a proper acoustic piano. The instrument arrived, and I spent hours and hours playing it and learnt the first movement of Schubert’s final sonata – in a day. Within eighteen months I was having lessons again with a sympathetic teacher who improved my technique beyond recognition and built my confidence. When she suggested I start looking at Chopin’s Etudes and Ballades, I knew I had reached a significant point in my piano journey – I felt I was now a “real” pianist – and she supported my decision to take a professional performance diploma (in fact, I took two and passed both with Distinction, under her guidance). Meanwhile, I had started writing this blog, initially to record my thoughts about the experience of playing the piano again, music I was enjoying at home and at concerts. (I had no notion of how successful and popular this blog would become in the subsequent 10 years.) Today I work in music: I’m not a professional pianist, but I am a ‘music professional’ (a writer, blogger, teacher and, more recently, a publicist working with musicians, and concerts manager), and everything I do now goes back to that decision to return to the piano at the age of 39. I’ve forged firm friendships through piano courses and clubs, and made significant connections with professional pianists, teachers, bloggers and others, and I know I would not given up this life for anything now.
My piano journey has been relatively straightforward compared to some of the accounts of other adult returner pianists, but we are all on our own personal path, some of us supported by teachers, others choosing to “go it alone”, but all driven by a common, consuming passion for the piano.
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?
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)
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.
‘Darkness Illuminated’ is released on the Ulysses Arts label
“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….
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