As befits an up-and-coming young artist who draws inspiration from James Bond not just in his music but also his image, pianist Emmanuel Vass’s debut at London’s Steinway Hall was stylish and suave.  And the title of Emmanuel’s concert tour and debut CD, ‘From Bach to Bond’, reflected his varied musical tastes and repertoire.

He opened the “rush hour” recital (so-called because it started at 6pm) with Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude (1943), a work replete with classic foot-tapping boogie-woogie rhythms offset by traditional etude elements more commonly found in the music of Chopin and Liszt. The piece was a great opener, played with wit and energy. Placing it before Bach’s Italian Concerto was inspired: to hear Bach after Boogie-Woogie highlighted all the “jazz” idioms present in Bach’s music, some 300 years before the genre came to be – syncopation, counterpoint, and dynamic diversity. This was a lively and colourful account. The slow movement, which bears some relation to the Adagio of the Concerto in D minor after Marcello, was a study in restrained elegance. I was pleased too, that Emmanuel opted for a more reined in tempo in the final Presto, allowing us to enjoy all the elements of this movement. The entire concerto was convincing and proof that Emmanuel is equally at home in this type of repertoire.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 27 No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’, was pensive and mysterious, while the middle movement had a pleasing rusticity. There were a few anxious moments in the final movement, but despite this a strong sense of forward motion and purpose was retained.

Chopin’s Op 27 Nocturnes followed, with some sensitive handling of the melodic lines, the subtle shifts in mood and romantic sweep of these works. Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm reprised the humour and swagger of the Boogie-Woogie Etude. And another Etude closed the concert, the James Bond Concert Etude, Emmanuel’s own arrangement of classic Bond film themes, given a Lisztian treatment with vertiginous cadenzas and sparkling fiorituras. It could have been cheesey, but in Emmanuel’s hands it was classy and clever, and looks set to become a sophisticated virtuoso showpiece or encore.

Emmanuel’s debut CD includes more from his wide-ranging repertoire, including a sensuous Malaguena by Leuona, works by Debussy, and another of Emmanuel’s own arrangements, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, all stylishly rendered.

Further concerts in the ‘From Bach to Bond’ tour:

Friday 3rd May – St. Saviourgate Chapel, York YO1 8NQ

Saturday 4th May – St James’s Piccadilly, London W1

Saturday 11th May – Heswall Hall, the Wirral, CH60 0AF

My Meet the Artist interview with Emmanuel Vass

www.emmanuelvass.co.uk

James Bond Concert Etude for solo piano – Barry/Fleming, arr. Vass

A new book charts the development of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from its somewhat undistinguished origins in the latter part of the nineteeth-century to become what it is today – a highly influential, preeminent and internationally-renowned music examinations board.

The text, by David Wright (retired Reader in Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music, London), is the first extended history of the ABRSM, and follows a largely chronological course. The author examines the cultural and historical context of the development of the ABRSM, how it has shaped musical taste, habits and attitudes of students and teachers, and influenced the lives of millions of people since it conducted its first exams in 1890, and how it has adapted and responded to the changing landscape of music tuition and study, and the preferences of its customers.

Today the ABRSM has a ubiquitous presence in music education, yet few people know much about the institution and the criteria on which it determines syllabuses, and maintains standards, trains its examiners and manages its exams. The Board is an important legacy of Victorian Britain, an institution which grew out of that society’s concern to expand the technological and professional workface to run the Empire. The development of the Board’s exams represents a peculiarly Victorian ethos: that of combining education with entrepreneurship by providing an objective assessment of learning a musical instrument or voice on an industrial scale. During the 120 years of the ABRSM, its music exams have come to represent a significant rite of passage in musical study, from early beginnings at Grade 1 to the final pre-professional stage of Grade 8.

Music exams are an emotive subject, and I am sure many of us recall the dreaded, toe-curling moment when the examiner announces that it is time for the aural test section of the exam. Very few people relish the idea of singing a melody back to a stranger, or identifying an interval! Sight-reading is another element of the exam that can put the fear of God into candidates. Many teachers question the value of setting students on an “exam treadmill”, and in the course of my own teaching, I have met a number of music teachers who simply refuse to enter students for exams, because they believe the rigid discipline of the syllabus does not lend itself to developing musicianship and performance skills, and that the idea of being “examined” in music is unnatural, robbing the student of spontaneity and musical creativity. This issue is very much open to debate: whatever we may feel about music exams, they are now unquestionably part of everyday musical study, used not just as benchmarks for teachers and students, but also contributing “points” to GCSE, A-level and university entrance requirements. Many people who took and passed music exams as children carry their successes as a badge of honour into adulthood, the sign that one has had the staying power and commitment to study for something with tangible evidence (a certain level of attainment and the certificate to prove it). For teachers, the graded music exam system (not just ABRSM, but other boards such as Trinity Guildhall and the London College of Music) has had an important impact on the way they teach, and has enabled teachers to introduce their students to a wide variety of repertoire, from classic “standards” by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart to contemporary repertoire, some commissioned especially for the exam syllabuses.

***

For much of the earlier Victorian era, music teaching was not considered a respectable living, and certainly not a “professional” or middle-class occupation. Music teaching was largely unregulated, with no independent quality assurance in place (diplomas were later intended to provide this). The exam system was important in changing some of this, providing a common currency of professional and educational attainment, and was a crucial factor in transforming the standing of music teachers and music teaching. A new landscape for the professional training of teachers emerged out of this, and continues today, though with a rather bewildering array of diploma post-nominals (LRSM, LTCL, ALCM, LGSMD and so forth).

The development of a system of music exams also came about at a time when amateur music making at home was becoming increasingly popular. The number of pianos manufactured in the UK at this time confirms this, together with a huge increase in the availability of affordable sheet music,and the growth and popularity of music shops. Ancillary activities such as music festivals and competitions helped to fuel the enthusiasm for domestic music making.

Ultimately, however, the ABRSM came into existence to settle a damaging rivalry between the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM) When the RCM was granted its Royal Charter in 1883 it was tasked with “the advancement of the Art of Music” through teaching and examining, and awarding degrees and certificates to candidates, whether or not they were students at the College. Under the charter, the RCM was also charged with promoting and encouraging musical tuition in schools and elsewhere. The charter effectively made the RCM the “chartered institute” for music, which caused considerable resentment amongst other establishments, including the RAM and Trinity College, London (TCL).

Apart from the RCM, the RAM was the only other institution bestowed a royal charter, and the ABRSM partnership gave the RAM the appearance of a chartered institution. Exams promoted by these institutions became a way of testing teachers by examining their pupils, and thus the ABRSM, in a form recognisable to us today, was created. The exam system, with the support of the RAM and RCM, also enabled graduates from the RAM and RCM to set up teaching practices of their own by suggesting that the conservatoire system made for better-quality teaching. Finally, the fees gained from exams gave the two colleges more financial leverage and additional income.

In the years following the formation of the ABRSM, its method of examining candidates, with the requirement not just to play a selection of pieces but also technical exercises, sight-reading and aural training, was exported across the Empire, and the ABRSM developed into the prestigious body it is today. Over the course of its existence, the ABRSM has had to adapt to the changing musical and educational environment in which it operates: in recent years, the introduction of popular and jazz-inspired repertoire into syllabuses demonstrates the board’s determination to continue to attract candidates, together with the broader range of instruments covered, and the innovative Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 taster exam for early students. The computerisation of the exam entry system represented a significant modernisation, making the process more streamlined and simpler for teachers and candidates. Other offshoots from the Board’s main activities including publishing – not just exam books but teaching guides and its popular ‘Signature’ series of authoritative performing editions of standard keyboard works, prepared from original sources by leading scholars, the most recent of which is Professor Barry Cooper’s critical edition of The 35 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, which includes the three Elective sonatas. The value of these editions is open to discussion (see my earlier post on The Urtext Score), but they are attractively produced and are used by many students and teachers around the world.

The book is rich in detail – anecdotes, statistics, source references, quotations and a detailed bibliography and index – and offers a comprehensive history of the Board together with an examination of its continued significant place in British culture and musical life.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Boydell Press
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184383734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843837343
  • RRP: £50

An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. (Wikipedia)

The source materials for Urtext editions include the composer’s autograph (the manuscript produced in the composer’s hand), hand copies made by the composer’s students and assistants, the first published edition and other early editions. Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music, and interpretive editions, which offer the editor’s personal opinion on how to perform the work.

Urtext scores came into being as a reaction against the many (and often incorrect) editorial liberties which were taken when editing and publishing music. Phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and sometimes even the notes themselves were altered as the editor saw fit, and so long as it made musical sense, this kind of editing was considered acceptable. Editors guilty of this kind of tampering include Busoni (in Bach) and von Bülow, amongst many others. These days, the urtext score is a must-have for the serious student, teacher or performer, offering as it does a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful record of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

I still have my old ABRSM editions of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions and “the 48”. Heavily annotated by the ABRSM’s editors, the manuscript is distorted with the kind of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation markings which would probably horrify Bach.  And in my ABRSM edition of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511, I discovered a number of serious errors and inaccuracies which had crept into the music thanks to some heavy-handed editing. Soon after, I purchased a Wiener-Urtext edition of the work, which was far better to work from. Working from a heavily annotated score is now anathema to me: the editorial input seems unnecessarily didactic and presupposes a certain way of playing the music, without allowing the student to make their own judgements about crucial aspects such as articulation and phrasing. In an urtext score, particularly a Baroque urtext score, the absence of performance directions offers the performer choice, versatility and expression.

Urtext editions, in particular those produced by established publishers of such musical scores such as Henle, Wiener and Barenreiter, tend to be high-quality publications, with detailed and insightful prefaces and notes, descriptions of sources (usually in German, English and French), useful fingerings, and aesthetically-pleasing design values: durable bindings, heavy cream paper, and clear music engraving optimised for efficient page turns. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, resources such as Piano Street and IMSLP also offer urtext editions in their catalogues.

I also like the music editions published by Dover, in particular editions of Liszt, Debussy, and Chopin. Dover Publications offer good re-editions and reprints, usually from a first edition or other authoritative edition of the score. Dover editions are bound to stay flat on the music rack, but the paper quality is rather poor, and I have occasionally torn a page during a rather over-enthusiastic turn! I find the accurate reproduction of pedal markings in Chopin, Liszt and Debussy particularly useful in Dover editions. They are also relatively inexpensive, compared to the more upmarket editions from Henle or Wiener Urtext. Dover editions of Debussy also contain translations of Debussy’s dynamic and articulation directions.

Resources:

Henle Verlag

Wiener Urtext

Barenreiter

Edition Peters

Dover Publications

IMSLP

Described by composer, pianist and improviser Gregg Kallor as “a love letter to this incredible city”, ‘A Single Noon’ is a pianistic hommage to New York City. It presents a tableau of life in the city through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine evocative snapshots with titles such as ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’ and ‘Espresso Nirvana’.

Largely jazz-influenced, the music also takes inspiration from earlier American composers and musicians, such as Gershwin (in the fragmentary suggestions of the honking, dissonant New York traffic and bustling streets and cafés in ‘Broken Sentences’), and the toccata-like elements of Brubeck and Adams (most evident perhaps in ‘Espresso Nirvana’ and ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’, which was inspired by Gregg’s “stubborn refusal to hold onto the convenient handholds in the subway cars”). In slower movements, such as ‘Found’, ‘Here Now’ and ‘Giants’, there are nods to Feldman, Messiaen, Debussy and Takemitsu in both the use of chords for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression, and defined, atmospheric pauses and silences, which give the music a sense of repose, and anticipation. ‘Giants’ is, by Kallor’s own admission, his personal paean to “the musical titans I have been privileged to know, and to those who came before”, who, like the imposing skycrapers of the New York skyline, cast huge shadows across the musical landscape.

The entire album resonates with the contrasting energies and vibes of the city, from the sun breaking over the park in the morning, to subway journeys and sidewalk strolls, caffeine-fuelled conversations, and mellow evenings. Played with technical assurance, dramatic flair and sensitively nuanced shadings, Kallor subtly blurs the edges between improvisation and composed sections, classical and jazz, to provide a haunting and vivid portrait of “a life in the day” of the buzzing metropolis.

‘A Single Noon’ is available on CD or to download from iTunes

Listen to a sample here

Meet the Artist……Gregg Kallor

www.greggkallor.com

Described by composer, pianist and improviser Gregg Kallor as “a love letter to this incredible city”, ‘A Single Noon’ is a pianistic hommage to New York City. It presents a tableau of life in the city through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine evocative snapshots with titles such as ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’ and ‘Espresso Nirvana’.

Largely jazz-influenced, the music also takes inspiration from earlier American composers and musicians, such as Gershwin (in the fragmentary suggestions of the honking, dissonant New York traffic and bustling streets and cafés in ‘Broken Sentences’), and the toccata-like elements of Brubeck and Adams (most evident perhaps in ‘Espresso Nirvana’ and ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’, which was inspired by Gregg’s “stubborn refusal to hold onto the convenient handholds in the subway cars”). In slower movements, such as ‘Found’, ‘Here Now’ and ‘Giants’, there are nods to Feldman, Messiaen, Debussy and Takemitsu in both the use of chords for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression, and defined, atmospheric pauses and silences, which give the music a sense of repose, and anticipation. ‘Giants’ is, by Kallor’s own admission, his personal paean to “the musical titans I have been privileged to know, and to those who came before”, who, like the imposing skycrapers of the New York skyline, cast huge shadows across the musical landscape.

The entire album resonates with the contrasting energies and vibes of the city, from the sun breaking over the park in the morning, to subway journeys and sidewalk strolls, caffeine-fuelled conversations, and mellow evenings. Played with technical assurance, dramatic flair and sensitively nuanced shadings, Kallor subtly blurs the edges between improvisation and composed sections, classical and jazz, to provide a haunting and vivid portrait of “a life in the day” of the buzzing metropolis.

‘A Single Noon’ is available on CD or to download from iTunes

Listen to a sample here

Meet the Artist……Gregg Kallor

www.greggkallor.com

  1. People should never be made to feel bad about about what they are listening to. People who feel bad about their listening habits will stop listening altogether.
  2. Snobbery leads to pretension and pretension leads to exclusivity, clubs and cliques. Not helpful at a time when we should be encouraging people to come to classical concerts.
  3. Get over the whole “genre thing”: it’s ok to say you don’t like Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwistle, Ligetti, Glass et al
  4. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s all bad (though I would draw the line at anything by Einaudi or Karl Jenkins…..)
  5. Don’t blind the layman with obscure/incomprehensible classical music terminology. You want him to come to the next performance, right?
  6. You’re not the only person in the world who frequents the Wigmore Hall/Concertgebouw/Musikverein/Carnegie Hall
  7. Not everyone likes Wagner. Or Mahler. But the sky’s not going to fall in because of this. Get over it.
  8. Don’t moan about Radio Three being “better in the old days”.
  9. You don’t have to be serious about something to be serious about something.
  10. Don’t ever call a conductor ‘Maestro’

[this post was inspired by a longer article 30 things to tell a book snob]