Pianist Emmanual Vass was one of the first interviewees in the Meet the Artist series, back in 2012. Now, 8 years on, to coincide with the release of his third album, Manny has updated his interview to reflect on his influences and inspirations, and his career path to date and beyond…


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

All my life, I wanted to connect with people, and be creative. As mentioned in my first interview 8 years ago, I started playing piano by complete chance, and it has always been my outlet and my joy. Pursuing a musical career made complete sense; it still does now, aged 31!

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

Picking myself up, and getting back on my horse after having been knocked off yet again. I wasn’t quite prepared for how much rejection, “no” answers, and unsuccessful attempts I’d face as an artist. It’s definitely easier as I get older, thankfully. Perspective is important.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My third album, “The Naked Pianist” released 19th June 2020 is by far my best recording to date. I’m really proud of it because I sound the best I have ever sounded, and the mix of pieces are very well suited to me: you’ve got the big guns from composers such as Chopin and Rachmaninov; popular classics by Beethoven and Debussy, and I’ve also included 3 of my original compositions which I’m sure listeners will love.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Bach and Debussy, but for opposing reasons! Funnily, I’ve just seen that I answered Bach 8 years ago, too. I’m clearly obsessed with him.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I’ve become fascinated by cosmology and astronomy; it’s absolutely mind-boggling! There are at least 50 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way, then at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe! Here we are, little old earth, with intelligent, sentient life that wants to create and express. Utterly inspirational!

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

“What do I want to play, and what might audiences like to hear from me?”

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

No – as per my original answer 8 years ago: anywhere with a half-decent piano.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

In 6 words: continue spreading the joy and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I love watching amateur concerts; they really inspire me. The word “amateur” comes from the verb “to love”, and it’s always a joy to watch other human beings be creative purely for the love of the music and the instrument.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To feel happy and fulfilled.

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

I say this regularly as part of my role as a lecturer: being a 21st Century musician is incredibly different and contrasting to past generations of musicians. We no longer live in the, “Beethoven sonata + tailcoat = money”, or the, “Orchestral excerpts + audition = job for life” age. Arguably, we never really did!

Did I ever imagine myself doing two UK reality TV shows as part of my career? No. Did I think I’d own a record label, from which I am to self-release my 3rd album? Certainly not. Did I ever envisage discussions with talent executives about some potential TV/radio presenting opportunities? Never. But alas, welcome to life as a 21st Century musician! I tell you what though, I’m happy, thriving, and thoroughly enjoying my life. I can’t ask for much more!

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

This is a particularly poignant question for me right now! I’m 31, and incredibly happy with where I am in life overall. I’ve recently appeared in two huge reality TV shows here in the UK: Britain’s Got Talent and First Dates Hotel both aired in May 2020. There’s a bigger picture/purpose for me doing these shows.

All I’ll say is dear Emmanuel Vass, aged 41, I hope it’s all worked out in the end, dude! And if it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end, is it…?!

Emmanuel Vass’ third album The Naked Pianist is released on 19 June.

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A Yorkshire lad who has performed for the Prince of Monaco; crowdfunded a #1 album, broadcast on ClassicFM, BBC World Service, and BBC Radio 3, and featured extensively across 30 countries. He became a senior lecturer at just 28 years old…

Named as ‘one to watch’ by The Independent newspaper, ‘rising star’ by BBC Music magazine, and ‘unsigned artist of the month’ by Yamaha, thirty year old Emmanuel Vass has established himself as, ‘one of the most charismatic pianists on the contemporary scene’, according to the Mail on Sunday.

Following a successful crowd funding campaign which ended at 165%, Manny self-released his 2nd album, Sonic Waves, an album of water themed classical music, and his own arrangements of traditional, British sea shanties. Following broadcasts on ClassicFM, BBC Radio 3, and BBC World Service, the album reached #1 in the UK specialist classical charts; spent a month within the top 10, and featured across national print media in Attitude magazine, and Cheshire Life magazine.

His first CD, From Bach to Bond, and Sonic Waves CDs and tour titles reflect both Manny’s eclectic taste in music and his versatility as a pianist. He is as at ease with the challenges of Bach as with the demanding pianistic technique required for his own arrangements – in the manner of Liszt – of the James Bond theme, traditional sea shanties, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

This supreme versatility is also revealed in the calibre and variety of his recent engagements. Manny’s busy performance diary has included The Bridgewater Hall (Manchester); Edinburgh Fringe, Sheffield Cathedral, the Welcome to Asia festival, Castle Howard, and Hexham Abbey, as well as at the prestigious London venues Steinway Hall, Queen’s Theatre West End, Kensington Palace Gardens, 1901 Arts Club Waterloo, St Lawrence Jewry, and St James’s Piccadilly.

He has performed for Lord Levy and the Russian ambassador in the Golden Room in Kensington Palace Gardens, for the Filipino ambassador at St. Sepulchre’s Church London, and for the French ambassador at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. At the Variety Club Jubilee Ball he played for the Prince and Princess of Monaco on the same programme as international artists The Manfreds, the boy band Blake, and Lulu.

Manny is a qualified, award-winning educator. He was a senior lecturer at Leeds College of Music in music business; marketing, and e-commerce. Here, he was nominated for “most innovative”, and “best feedback” awards, and won “most inspirational” in 2017.

Emmanuel now lectures at both the University of Liverpool, and BIMM Manchester. He frequently gives guest lectures and talks across the UK and internationally; most recently at Music and Drama Expo 2017 (London), the BSME Arts conference (Dubai), Reeperbahn Hamburg, and the Norwegian Academy of Music (Oslo).

Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, a centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough, and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011

One of my best friends is a published author. With two popular and successful books under her belt, she gave up her day job to write full time. When we meet, she and I often end up discussing creativity, for the life of the writer and the musician are not dissimilar. We share similar processes – for example, the need to keep to a regular routine, as this fosters more consistent creativity and output –  and we both appreciate the need to feed the muse: as my friend would say “what comes out must be put back”, and when our creative forces are depleted, we must stoke up further reserves of inspiration. She and I both also see value in accumulating experience and wisdom as we progress through our daily lives.

Just as writers have days when the creative juices seem to dry up, so too do musicians. We may rail against an unproductive practice session, frustrated that nothing seems to go right, the brain willing but the fingers sluggish and unresponsive – or vice versa. This can be seen as “wasted time”, pointless because you achieved nothing but, apparently, a slew of errors. It can be disheartening and demoralising to walk away from the instrument with the feeling that you have achieved very little.

In fact, nothing is wasted, and if we treat each practice session with curiosity and an open mind, it is possible to find useful nuggets in everything we do. Reflection is a significant aspect of deep practising, and it is important to consider why a practice session didn’t go as planned and to explore ways in which it could go better the next time. All errors should be regarded as learning opportunities (I used to tell my students “there’s no such thing as a wrong note”) and should be examined carefully: maybe that slip was due to a poor or improperly-learnt fingering scheme.

Students in particular also believe that they should only be practising the music they have been assigned to practice by their teacher. Wrong. Any time spent at the piano is useful, even if you’re just noodling, messing around with some chords, improvising, or simply playing through some pieces which you enjoy playing. One of my students actually apologised to me for having learnt the first section of Debussy’s Clair de Lune during the Christmas break. “Why are you apologising?” I asked her. She said she thought I would be “angry” that she had practised something I hadn’t assigned to her. What she hadn’t realised was that by taking the initiative to learn some music without me, she had taken a first step towards a goal which is imperative for a musician: autonomy.

Time spent away from the instrument is also beneficial. Our daily lives feed the musical temperament and contribute to our music making, and it is simply unhealthy, and often unproductive, to spend hours locked away in the practice room. We draw on life experience to inform our artistry and activities which may seem divorced from our musical lives can actually inspire and inform. Don’t feel guilty about spending time reading a book or watching a movie: this is not “wasted time” for the musician, and nor is “down time”, for body and mind need time to rest and unwind to be ready for the next practice session or performance.

As musicians we should cultivate curiosity, not only in practicing and performance, but in our daily lives, and just as the writer may squirrel thoughts away in a notebook, so we too should store ideas. This way we ensure that nothing is wasted, and everything contributes to the richness and variety of our musical lives.

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…and how it relates to the performance of Western art music


Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

 

I will never forget Tuesday 18th February 2020. In truth, there was nothing unremarkable about how the day itself unfolded: I woke up, went about my usual business of teaching, had lunch at my favourite coffee shop whilst browsing Premier League football news (yes, there was the small matter of Covid-19 that was making tidal waves in China and parts of Asia, but this has no interest to me. After all, “I live in Cape Town, and the damn thing probably needs a GPS or Google Maps to get here,” I reassured myself). The afternoon itself was equally uneventful: I did some grocery shopping in between teaching, practised for a few hours afterwards, then went home and ate the leftover dinner that my wife and I had cooked the previous day. It was after dinner that I received the phone call that changed my life forever, my beloved grandmother had passed away very suddenly, and in less than 48 hours I found myself in Changi Airport en route to Malaysia. I have visited Singapore many times in the last seven years, but I have never seen Changi airport so tranquil and serene, the exact opposite of its normal busy, bustling self. It was at this moment that I realised how potentially serious the Coronavirus was, and I prayed that it never finds its way to Cape Town.

Surely, but not slowly, the Coronavirus locked on to Google Maps and in under four weeks South Africa had her first infected case. Since then we have now been in lockdown for the best part of seven weeks and here I am writing to share my thoughts as the country ‘phases’ itself towards an economic recovery. However, before I proceed, I just want to be clear on the following points:

  • In regard to Covid-19, there is the narrative norm on one hand and the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ on the other, as well as everything in between. The point of writing this article is not to promote any ‘school’ of thinking but rather try to be as neutral as is humanly possible.
  • The opinions (musical and otherwise) stated in this article are based on my experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.

Here we go!

What I learn from the Coronavirus pandemic in relation to the performance of Western art music:

1. Be careful what you wish for…

Any die-hard fans of low budget, straight to video/DVD horror and slasher movies will no doubt be familiar with the above tagline as it was used use in Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 Wishmaster. In this film, an evil genie (known as the djinn) grants wishes to those who are willing to give up their souls. However, the wishes granted often contain a ‘catch’, or in other words, have an undesirable outcome for the wisher. For example (if my memory serves me correctly…), the djinn grants the wish of ‘eternal beauty’ to a female clerk by turning her into a mannequin! (Can you imagine wishing to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto only to be turned into a CD player?) For those who are not so familiar with Wishmaster, doubtless you will remember the climax of Disney’s Aladdin, when the protagonist mocks Jafar for not being as powerful as the genie, all the while knowing that once Jafar wishes himself into a powerful genie, he will have ultimately made himself a prisoner to the lamp.

In fairness to András Schiff, having part of your upcoming book quoted in a national newspaper is not a bad marketing ploy. The only drawback is that the editor will always choose the section from the book which is the most – hmm, how can I put it – musically provocative? The internet is full of ‘clickbaits’ and I suspect the purpose behind quoting the more aggravating passages from Schiff’s writing is to generate not only attention but also as reaction. That is not to say that Schiff is wrong, but does it really matter that ‘the average’ audience who attends Classical music concerts cannot hear the difference between a German 6th and a Dominant 7th Chord? All of us start our musical journey somewhere: I was a self-confessed Richard Clayderman fan in my early childhood who dreamt of playing Francis Albert Lai’s ‘Love Story’ on my wedding day (Thank God I didn’t!), but as a result of attending live concerts, I developed a lifelong passion for Classical music and made it a big part of my life. I must also confess that I am no angel and have on a couple of occasions fallen asleep during live performances. It is my humble opinion that having an audience who is just (if not more) musically knowledgeable than the performer is akin to a patient who ends up diagnosing himself/herself in a medical consultation with a doctor. I have not read Schiff’s book, and there is every chance he is being quoted out of context. However, saying that modern audiences don’t know the difference between poor and outstanding performances is kind of like biting the hand that feeds you. And even if this is the case, what does it say about Schiff’s own standing as one of the most revered pianists of the twentieth century? (I must also confess that Schiff was one of my musical idols during my teenage years). On Schiff’s remark with regards to the ‘dos and don’ts’ of concert etiquette, I don’t think, even in his most surreal musical fantasies, that he envisages an age where the internet and social media would be the only platform available for live performance. If Schiff ever does a live stream, at least he won’t be giving death stares to certain audience members when they do cough or shuffle, and audience members will now be able to press pause for a bathroom break, especially when the encore is Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.

In fairness to Schiff, he has since apologised for what he had said. However, there is no denying that the pianist’s initial remark will continue to leave a lingering taste on the tongues of many Classical music critics and bloggers.

 

2. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all…

When the Chinese government took the decision to lock down Wuhan in January 2020, no one else in the world envisaged that this would be the beginning of a new world order. Indeed, the rest of Asia swiftly implemented the Chinese lockdown model, followed by most of Europe (apart from Sweden) and it was only a matter of time before countries on the African continent did the same. However, whereas the lockdown was dutifully observed in China and Germany, the entire practice has less of a desirable effect in countries such as the Britain and South Africa. This is not because the Chinese and the Germans are necessarily better than the British or the Africans, but because the collective mindset of citizens in every country is different. Sweeping statement perhaps, but China and Germany are known to be nations of extraordinary discipline (I say this with a small pinch of salt because there will always be exceptions to any argument: even in the most disciplined nations there will also be a handful of free-spirited beings. Conversely, in nations where freedom of expression and an easy-going way of life are encouraged, there will always be a handful of very disciplined people). In musical performance, the Chinese (and Orientals in general) are known for their peerless technique and poise, often the fruit of countless hours of practice. (I have been told that, in China, a piano student must ‘earn’ his/hers right to any musical repertoire by first completing at least all the Hanon Exercises as well as the first two books of Czerny’s School of Velocity!). Such precision of  technical execution, combined with extraordinary agility, is what gives the Chinese pianist the ‘WOW’ factor: think of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, although a case can be made for Miss Wang that it is not only her playing that has the ‘WOW’ factor. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Germans are a nation of law-abiding citizens who enjoy a sense of order to their everyday live. (It is possible to argue that the Chinese’s respect for the authority comes from a place of fear, whereas the Germans actually seem to enjoy following rules). I will never forget listening to a discussion between two former housemates of mine, one German, the other Italian: the former could not understand why the latter is so keen on evading tax whereas the latter cannot understand why the former is keen on paying tax! Hence, a ‘Germanic’ musical performance can often translate into emphasis of the downbeat, as well as the awareness of the music’s symmetrical phrase length, thus giving the listener a sense of structure, of knowing where exactly you are in the music. In other words, German pianists have the tendency to play more ‘down the bar line’, and I name Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel as two exponents of this school. I have always felt that one of the challenges of playing any musical repertoire at the highest level, be it German or otherwise, is to ‘unsquare’ the so-called ‘square’ phrases, but once again, I must remind you that I am merely making a generalisation about German performers and German music. There will always be exceptions to the rule; Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff spring to mind.

I cannot speak for Britain, but the reason lockdown doesn’t have the effect it was supposed to have in South Africa has much to do with the country’s unstable infrastructures and volatile economy (South Africa’s state-owned enterprises have been surviving on state bailouts for years and the country has recently taken the decision to liquidated its national airline, the SAA, after years of mismanagement). As a result, South Africans have become very self-sufficient whilst making the most of their entrepreneurial abilities. When the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the sale of tobacco and alcohol would be prohibited during the national lockdown from the end of March, many South Africans decided that this was unconstitutional and ‘made another plan’ (the South African phrase for ‘Plan B’). The resulted in many smokers getting their supply of cigarettes from ‘unofficial’ sources as well as a spike (actually more akin to a wedge) in pineapple and yeast sales, as people brewed their own version of homemade pineapple beer. At the same time, there was also a gentleman across social media who subsidised his own income by delivering wine using an arial drone! When there was a clamp-down on these ‘illicit’ activities, some resorted to looting and burgling liquor stores, on a couple of occasions with the help of selected members of the South African Police force, who were meant to be enforcing the lockdown in the first place!

Any instrumental teacher worth their pedagogical salt will tell you just how important it is to address the basics such as rhythm, the reading of musical notation, posture and technique. At the same time, no two students are the same, and I have always felt that one of the hallmarks of a great teacher is the ability to successfully convey the same information to different individuals to achieve the desired result. Despite their differing styles of pianism and musical interpretation, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel all studied with Theodor Leschetizky. And even though Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter were the student of Heinrich Neuhaus, all three of them could not have been more different in terms of their musical temperament. However, all these great pianists have one thing in common (that is if we discount their massive technique and repertoire, which is taken for granted at the highest level), they are first and foremost, musicians of the highest order (I say this with a slight reservation, because some of Richter’s late performances can be slightly off the mark, to say the least). In short: Gilels, Lupu and Richter all put the composer before themselves. I have always got the impression while listening to Gilels and Lupu’s performances (of Beethoven and Brahms in particular) that this is what the composer themselves wanted to say, only now they are saying it through the performer, who acts as a kind of conduit. As we entered an age of remote teaching, one only has to look at the YouTube channel of Graham Fitch and Josh Wright, two outstanding pedagogues who often remind the viewers that there is no one way of playing the piano. Sweeping statement perhaps, but it is possible to say that the techniques introduced in both Fitch and Wright’s video tutorials have one primary function: the economy of physical movement through the release of tension, which make for more efficient interpretation of the musical score.

 

3. The narrative norm is not for everyone…

In general, there seems to be three school of thoughts on Covid-19. The mainstream narrative belongs to the billionaire philanthropists, politicians, national media and medical professionals on the front line fighting this ‘invisible enemy’. They will tell you how dangerous and easily transmittable the virus is and show you the ‘facts’: hospitals all over the world are over-crowded with Covid-19 patients, the virus completely annihilates the human respiratory system, and until a vaccine is found, we will have to keep our ‘social distance’. Finally, they will justify the world-wide lockdown by saying that human lives are much more important than the country’s economy. The second narrative seeks to challenge the first, these are put forward by investigative journalists, independent news broadcasters, regular doctors and medical professionals (who changed their practice from conventional medicine towards natural and alternative healing modalities commonly known as functional medicine). They will argue that Covid-19 is not as deadly as the media make it out to be. They will also argue that there is a difference between dying of Covid-19 and dying with Covid-19. They will point to a flaw in Professor Neil Ferguson’s model (which sparked the lockdown in the UK and the US) and question the merit of social distancing (especially when Ferguson himself was guilty of the violating the curfew during lockdown). Finally, they will argue against the world-wide lockdown as it is not only catastrophic to the country’s economy but also leads to long-term psychological and emotional impact on people. For those without a regular pay cheque (like the majority of South Africans), it is a matter of rolling the dice and going back to work or die of hunger, and many chose the former. Those who are in favour of the third and final narrative are often dubbed conspiracy theorists. Based on the argument put forward by the investigative journalists and independent news broadcasters, they believe that Covid-19 is manufactured in a science lab and that the current pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ masterminded by the billionaire philanthropists and the World Health Organisation in their quest to depopulate and conquer the earth.

Regardless of what your views on Covid-19 are, one will always be able to find the sources to support one’s arguments. However, what I found disappointing is how dismissive certain individuals have become. Arguments from those who embraced the dominant narrative include ‘I would be wary of anyone who doesn’t think Covid-19 is serious’, or ‘You obviously have not seen what I have seen’ (an unassailable medical argument), and ‘It is against the law to promote fake news about the epidemic, you should only get your information from trusted sources such as the national media’. Whereas the ‘conspiracy theorists’ will respond with answers such as, ‘There are far too many coincidences for this to be a pandemic’ (often quoting Event 201 and the Rockefeller ‘Lockstep’ document), and ‘The medical institutes and national media covering the Covid-19 pandemic have links with the philanthropist foundations.’ I will probably get a lot of flak for this but isn’t the human thing to do during these extremely traumatic times simply to listen to others no matter how ridiculous their thoughts are? All of us have our own demons to conquer, and what we are feeling right now is intrinsically linked with our own anxiety and past experiences, hence this is all deeply personal. I have colleagues who are terrified of going back to work when school resumes, and at the same time, I also know people who are not afraid of the virus. But I am not going to reprimand these individuals when they are two centimetres outside their social distancing perimeter when I am waiting in line to do my grocery shopping. At the same, I can only be supportive and continue to convey the message of hope and safety to everyone else during these uncertain times.

I have always found it interesting that what constitutes expertise as well as the clarity of thought is often directly linked with the reputation of an institute and its country of origin. For example, a medical doctor working for a first-world medical establishment will always be considered as better qualified than a doctor living in a third-world country with his/her own private practice. Western art music, due to its heritage and traditions, is full of what can be described as ‘gatekeepers’: musicians, teachers and critics (though not necessarily in that order) who are convinced that theirs is the definitive way of playing the piano and musical interpretation. I often get the impression that part of this has to do with privilege as well as pride: ‘I studied with A, who was the student of AB, who studied with ABC, who is the neighbour of ABCD, who was responsible for feeding the stray cat who wanders around Beethoven’s apartment, which in turn makes me a direct link to Ludwig himself!’ (Jokes aside, one often feels obliged to convey a worthwhile message learnt from one’s teacher to the next generation). Doubtless many of us will remember Wanda Landowska’s closing remarks to a talented young pianist, ‘Very well, my dear, you play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way!’. Without intending any form of disrespect towards Madame Landowska, I doubt even she had ‘the hotline to Bach’, as legendary South African piano teacher Laura Searle used to put it.

I came across an interview not so long ago by an eminent pianist of the twentieth century (another one of my musical idols) talking about the differences between Classical and Romantic music. The pianist went on to say the following:

There are certain devices that one uses in Romantic music that are appropriate only for Romantic or subsequent music. If you take those devices and apply them to earlier music, then it’s totally inappropriate, and it makes the Classical music sound silly. However, if you were to use what you might call ‘Classical devices’ on Romantic music, historically, that would be correct!

In my humble opinion the difference between the interpretation of Classical and Romantic music has much less to do with the ‘devices’ (in using such a term I suspect the pianist was talking about rhythmic organisation). I strongly feel that the difference between how we approach Classical and Romantic Music lies in our sense of musical objectivity. This is because the musical ideals of the Classical style were intrinsically linked with the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on logic and the rational. In Classical music this is translated into balance and structure, as well as the beauty and clarity of melodic line. Being a virtuoso during Mozart’s lifetime had little to do with thundering double octaves and brute fffs, but rather with beautifully shaped semiquavers passages. The Romantic movement is a reaction against the hegemony of reason central to the Enlightenment. In art and music, Romanticism shifts the emphasis from structural objectives to the realm of emotional subjectivity, at the same time placing the individual as a focal point in the creation of an artwork. In short, the performer now has more musical licence for rubato, as well as for injecting his/her personality into the performance. I recall one of my teachers telling me that rubato in Mozart is on ‘a knife edge’, you are either right or you are wrong, whereas rubato in Liszt is more of a ‘grey’ area. While I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more hideous than Mozart being played in the Romantic style: lots of Sturm und Drang, long pedals across bars, variation in tempi as well as the ‘splitting of the hands’ – a quintessential Romantic gesture found in the performance of Chopin, Schumann and the late Romantics. I also cannot imagine Liszt and Rachmaninoff performed ‘classically’: with little, if any, tempo fluctuation and understatement of all the dynamics, topped off with a hygienically precise execution. Music is a living, breathing entity, it is also a reflection of humanity, flawed, unique and unapologetically beautiful. I am not saying for one second that we should disrespect the stylistic parameters of musical performance that have been passed down for generations, but I find many of the mainstream musical narrative somewhat troubling because there will always be exceptions to the rules, just like there are exceptions when it comes to individual performances. While I am far from convinced with the musical interpretations of pianists such as Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelich (it must be said that some of the rationale behind some of Gould’s more eccentric recordings – such as the Mozart Sonata in A Major K331, has more to do with the pianist’s own sense of anxiety more than anything else), I also think it is unfair to dismiss them as charlatans or musical quacks. I may not be Pogorelich’s biggest fan with regards to the pianist’s comeback performances, but at the same time I pay him the compliment of treating him as a human being and a musician; the very least I can do is to listen. And even though I might not like what I hear, Pogorelich is still entitled to his musical opinions. By the same token, I don’t think Pogorelich himself will approve of many of my own performances! However, one sometimes comes across a musical interpretation that has absolutely no regards for the musical text or what the composer wants, and that is when I get immensely annoyed. I recently came across a YouTube performance of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy at [at least] a quarter of Schubert’s tempo marking. My initial reaction was that this must be a joke; sadly it wasn’t, and if it was, I have obviously missed the punchline. I will never forget my composition teacher telling me the following when I was a wide-eyed teenager: “Michael, if you want to be loved, don’t become a musician.” He is right of course, musical interpretation is full of subjectivity and no matter how competent you are, there will always be someone somewhere in the universe who will find fault with what you do. At the end of the day, I truly believe that if you are a trained musician, and you approach the music that you play with humility, intelligence and heart, then you will be able to do it justice. Whether or not your interpretation is ‘in line’ with the mainstream musical narrative, does it really matter if the gatekeepers don’t like what you have to say?

I want to finish this article by referencing a movie my wife and I enjoyed during the lockdown, Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi’s and based on Christine Leunens’s 2008 book Caging Skies, the film is set towards the end of World War II and centres around the everyday lives and the imaginary world of Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, an innocent but heavily indoctrinated ten-year-old German boy who dreams of becoming a Nazi and fighting for the Third Reich (Jojo’s make-believe world is symbolised by his interactions with an extremely supportive and immensely entertaining ‘Adolf Hitler’, played by the director himself). Jojo’s world starts to fall apart when he discovers that a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr, has been secretly living within the walls of his house and it doesn’t take the two protagonists long to strike up a friendship. As Jojo develops feelings for Elsa, he begins to question his own beliefs before realising that ultimately, it is love and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ that prevail, especially during traumatic and uncertain times. As the world slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to think that this momentary pause in time gave all of us a chance to reassess our lives and how we go about doing certain things. The world may not be a perfect, yet it is the only one that we have. Life can often be a struggle, but all of us who are here on earth have been given a wonderful opportunity to make something of it: live it, embrace it, love it, and if you can, play some music on the way, and perhaps take a leaf from Jojo and Elsa’s book –  dance to it.


Dr Michael Low, May 2020

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.

An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.

In 2013, Michael started a project in Singapore collaborating with The Kawai School Elite in a series of masterclasses and workshops for teachers and students. Having grown up in the East and lived his life in the West, Michael believes that both cultures has much to offer and envisage an exchange between Singapore and Cape Town in the future. In 2019 Michael was also invited to Taipei for a series of Masterclasses and workshops.

Michael is also the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, one of South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.

Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

www.michaellow.co.za

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

The Ondes Martenot is a very sensual instrument, with an incredible sonic palette. I discovered it when I was studying piano at the Strasbourg Conservatory; I entered in the Ondes Martenot class at the age of eighteen. It was a paper score that caught my attention: “Son-Relief” by Jean-Marc Morin. I told to the teacher there, Françoise Cochet, that I wanted to work on it, but she replied that it was much too hard. But I insisted. Today, I tell myself that it was not trivial: the waves, for me, is really sound sculpture. After Strasbourg, I also studied the Ondes Martenot at Paris Conservatory, this time with Jeanne Loriod, Olivier Messiaen’s sister-in-law. And in 1997, I returned to the Strasbourg Conservatory to share this knowledge with students from all over the world.

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

It depends of what we are considering. If you mean my musical life as an artist, for my solo work, I think not someone, but the creation of sounds itself. Often as improvisations, and linked to the physical contact I have to different instruments, the Ondes Martenot, the Piano, synths as Jupiter 8, percussions…

In terms of my career, it is Yann Tiersen, with whom I was on stage for almost ten years.

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

I think following Yann and its crew in his tourbus, as I had never played in a rock band before, was that kind of challenge. Before I was just performing Ondes Martenot for classical orchestras or opera. It was really a jump in something else.

Then, drawing my personal line ten years after was also another kind of challenge. My first solo album called “Solitude Nomade” was quite ambitious for me, and the organisation of concerts in collective around my music, with people like Tiersen, Jean-Marc Butty (PJ Harvey) or Raphelson was also another kind of challenge I’m happy to have managed.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Certainly “Only Silence Remains”, my second album, released on Gizeh Records in 2016.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Ask listeners.

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

I’m more and more focused on my own music for concerts, so this question is not really relevant to me. But when I’m playing a serious classical recital with Ondes Martenot, I’m trying to cross over different styles from old repertoire to contemporary and avant-garde. A few years ago, I was happy to have in the same evening compositions by Edouard Michael, Olivier Messiaen, Karen Tanaka, and other things more avant-garde. My forthcoming album, “Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot)” is definitely an even more contemporary and experimental approach.

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

Recently, I really enjoyed playing in Berlin at Silent Green – an old crematorium restructured in a concert hall, with a strange acoustic and goods vibes despite its past.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Balanescu Quartet, Thom Yorke, Mark Hollis, Rachel Grimes…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a performer, maybe the concert with Syd Matters in Paris.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Keep the freedom to think and create and find an echo in the life of others

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

Listen, in every sense; and think about what you’re listening to.

What is your present state of mind?

Preoccupied by the world situation. I hope I and my beloved ones will cross this Covid19 tempest without any damage, but I’m rather afraid I have to say.  So I dive into music which has a real healing energy. For now…

Christine Ott’s latest album “Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot)” is released on 22 May 2020. More information


http://www.christineott.fr/

Guest post by Raffaelo Morales, Director of Fidelio Orchestra and Fidelio Orchestra Café


Classical music is not an easy enterprise. Both musicians and non-musicians know it. From those who have no idea of what it is about to those who know its challenges inside-out, the discipline is no doubt perceived as one with high barriers to entry as well as huge maintenance costs. To complicate things even further, the recent events, that have shaken the world like nothing else I can think of in my life so far, have plunged the world of classical music into a crisis, one it could never have imagined even in its worst nightmare: an industry resting for its largest part on live performances all of a sudden saw the disappearance of any possibility to get in front of an audience, for an unlimited time. 

The world has shown a variety of actions to such emergency, with certain countries responding better than others, according to their resources. Most European countries have by now made a plan on how to get things going again and there is hope, and a growing sense of confidence, that by the end of 2020 things will be on track to a new normality.

I was quite puzzled by the way the UK government has handled the whole crisis from the start and back in March, I made the decision to shut down operations even before a proper lockdown was enforced. Fidelio Orchestra Café was created with the mission of bringing people together around music and in those troubled days such a plan was simply not viable.

While things seems be incredibly slow to get into motion and very little is expected to be going on over the summer, I thought a good idea to help kickstart live music again – and hopefully “give the A”, to use a musical metaphor, for other institutions to put on similar initiatives – would be that of presenting a small live concert series, planned in such a way as to make the safety of the audience and the performers a priority. Our Fidelio Orchestra Café can perfectly meet the challenge, taking the due precautions.

We have been lucky enough to find enthusiastic responses from some of the most accomplished musicians in London to be part of such initiative. The line up will include the following people: Steven Isserlis playing two Bach cello suites and Walton’s Passacaglia; Samson Tsoy and Alina Ibragimova in duo for piano and violin; Pavel Kolesnikov playing an all-Chopin recital; Louis Schwizgebel presenting Debussy Estampes and Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition; Charles Owen in a romantic piano recital including works by Liszt, Schumann and Chopin and actor Simon Callow reading Shakespeare sonnets.

All concerts will be followed by a dinner prepared by chef Alan Rosenthal. These evenings are meant to be a way of returning to live performances in a very intimate context (a maximum of 25 people will be admitted to each concert, in order to guarantee distancing), providing something to look forward to in a summer whose cultural offerings currently look rather poor.

A performance at Fidelio Orchestra Café

With this project I want, first of all, to give an opportunity to those musicians involved to share their art with a real audience after many months of silence. In order to admit more than those that one evening alone can accommodate, the artists will repeat their concerts on up to five consecutive evenings. Secondly, I think it’s really important at this stage to be pro-active in getting things going. Things can be done in a safe manner and it is of critical importance that musicians re-establish a connection with the audience as soon as possible. Both need it.

There is also a third aim for this project, one that is perhaps even more ambitious than the others, and it is that this model can be deployed over the months ahead to give performing opportunities to as many as possible from those young musicians who will be struggling to find engagements and performing platforms due to reduced demand. The music industry should take care of these people as they represent the next generation to come onstage and more often than not they have a great talent to showcase.

The idea is therefore that the big names part of the opening series will be the front-runners of a broader project aimed at bringing lesser-known musicians onstage over the coming months.

The music community needs to stay united through these difficult times and I am glad to be able to make a contribution to help the classical music community restart. I hope that other music institutions in London will also be encouraged to produce similar projects over the coming months.

Concerts at Fidelio Orchestra Café begin on 7 July with a performance by cellist Steven Isserlis

Full details and booking


Raffaello Morales is founder and director of the Fidelio Orchestra and director of the Fidelio Orchestra Café in Clerkenwell, London, entirely dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of classical music.

More information

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

I’m 17 years old, starting my first year of university, and I have strong opinions about music. I embrace the music of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt—revelling in the tumultuous emotions, lyrical lines, and flashy virtuosity. I love the mysticism of Scriabin, the drama of Prokofiev, and the accessibility of Gershwin. I walk into my college professor’s studio and inform him (with all the arrogance of an outspoken 17-year-old) that I don’t like the Classical era. He councils me to withhold judgment, and then assigns me Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31, no. 2, commonly known as the Tempest Sonata. He reads me perfectly. I rush headlong into the sonata with all the passion I brought to the Romantics. The mercurial shifts match my dramatic mood swings, the sudden changes keep me from “zoning out” in the development, and the sheer masculine energy of it assures me that it doesn’t sound easy. With this one piece, Beethoven becomes “mine”—music where all the drama of college romance, artistic dreams, and growing up find an auditory home. And through Beethoven, I learn to love an era of piano music I’d ignorantly dismissed as “boring.”

I’m 23 years old and am sitting in my apartment watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony a month and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A child of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had felt as permanent as the Great Wall of China until it wasn’t, and when the unbelievable happened, the world got a little smaller and a little more hopeful. In this televised concert, Bernstein, the orchestra, the choir, and most importantly, Beethoven embodies an irrepressible joy and optimism that sweeps me—an American—into a celebration that transcends borders. It’s a party—one that by being a member of humanity I’m invited to join. The music and the celebration goes on and on, as if the joy can’t be contained to a few minutes in time and must erupt over and over again before the Symphony reaches its rousing conclusion and the crowd erupts. I weep through the final notes.

I’m 28 years old, standing backstage, waiting to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra is playing Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture. As the piece progresses, so do my pre-performance jitters. A woman I don’t know stands beside me and wants to massage my hands in preparation for my performance. Both my nerves and the bizarre hand massage imprint themselves on Beethoven’s Overture, guaranteeing that listening to that piece gives me anxiety for the rest of my life.

I’m 35 years old and working as a piano instructor. At certain stages of their development, most students wants to learn Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and the Pathetique. I shepherd them through the inevitable problem spots and I commiserate with colleagues about how fatigued we all get teaching these chestnuts. Through my students I find new things to appreciate in music I know well—subtle nuances that reflect the interests and enthusiasms of each performer. Through my students’ ears, I learn to hear Beethoven anew.

I’m 39 years old and have been asked to perform Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with a small chamber orchestra. A conductor-less chamber orchestra. A chamber orchestra who’s concertmaster/artistic director assures me he will conduct from his position in the orchestra. Everything goes well until dress rehearsal when the 2nd movement falls apart because the strings are in one place and the winds are in another. I go home in a panic, am awake half the night with worry, and then call a friend the next day for advice. She tells me to play with the score, color code the orchestra’s parts so I can cue entrances with my head as I perform. I do so vigorously—my concert up-do tossing curls around with every emphatic nod. The orchestra and I make it through the concerto intact. Afterward, many audience members tell me that they enjoyed how passionate my performance was—an assessment made solely on the basis of my head movements and not from the panicked notes that accompanied the unintended theatrics.

I’m 53 years old, looking back over a lifetime’s relationship with Beethoven’s music. I specialize in playing the music of living composers and as such, it has been years since I’ve performed any Beethoven. But I see traces of him everywhere—in the bass lines of some pieces, the melodies of another. Most of all, I find him in my own struggles, personal and musical. Beethoven is so completely and utterly human. Like the old Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Beethoven struggled. He worked for every note he wrote. He wrestled with infirmity and loss. Yet somehow, he emerged from these battles and his late compositions transcend notes, form, and perhaps time itself. In Beethoven I find a snapshot of life, purified in the crucible of art, offering a glimpse of the best of humanity.


4200DC39-5E3C-4868-8678-4E894B0C1D9F_1_201_aRhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist and author. She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations. She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, http://www.nodeadguys.comnodeadguys.com.