Claude Debussy – Images Books I & II, Images oubliées

Toru Takemitsu – Les yeux clos, Les yeux clos II, Rain Tree Sketch, Rain Tree Sketch II

Rika Zayasu, piano

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, pianist Rika Zayasu has released a CD of two books of Images and Images oubliées, and four pieces by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

Recorded at St Bartholomew’s, Brighton, this CD is produced and mastered by Claudio Records, using their new ‘Q-Lab Sound/192-Stereo High Definition Audio’, a technique which results in a remarkably pristine and natural quality of sound (undoubtedly helped by the fine acoustic of the recording venue and the quality Steinway instrument). CDs produced using this technique can be played on high-quality DVD-Audio equipment and Blu-Ray surround sound systems.

Rika plays with great sensitivity, displaying grace and precision in touch and use of pedal, and her understanding of Debussy’s music is clear from the range of musical shadings, nuances, colours, articulation and rhythmic vitality she brings to these works. The first Image from Book I, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, is supple and fluid, with a rippling, luminous treble over a rich bass, which never overpowers. The oriental elements of this music (as in the other pieces in this suite) are highlighted, reminding us of Debussy’s fascination for Japonisme and eastern gamelan music. ‘Hommage à Rameau’ is haunting, stately and antique, its tempo relaxed but not dragging, so we never lose a sense of its structure, underpinned by the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse, with some beautifully paced climaxes (again, evident in other works on the CD). ‘Mouvement’, in contrast, is sprightly and animated, with bright, joyful, bell-like sounds which continue into ‘Cloches a travers les feuilles’, in which Debussy evokes the sonorities of bells and carillons, and Far Eastern percussion. Here, there is some lovely, subtle highlighting of the internal melodic lines of this complex music. ‘Poissons d’or’ is vibrant and colourful, shimmering and characterful.

The Images oubliées are more introspective (Debussy described the pieces as “not for brilliantly lit salons … but rather conversations between the piano and oneself.”) . The ‘Lent’ is expressive and melancholy, while the ‘Sarabande’ (later reworked for the middle movement of Pour le Piano, with a few adjustments to harmony and phrasing) moves with a solemn, ancient elegance, with some lovely bright, clean fortes in the climaxes on the final page of the music. ‘Tres Vite’ is humourous, with toccata-like qualities which recall both the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Toccata’ from Pour le Piano, and ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Estampes.

The four pieces by Takemitsu perfectly complement the works by Debussy, and are related to them in the use of titles to stimulate the listener’s imagination. Les yeux clos (The Closed Eyes – three pieces in total) are inspired by a lithograph by the French symbolist artist Odilon Redon, which depicts a bust of a woman whose eyes are closed. It suggests a dream or inner world. Takemitsu’s music reflects this in the use of fragmented melodies over sustained pitches, with flexible durations, which freely connect to one another. Similarly, the Rain Tree Sketches were inspired by a poem by Japanese novelist, and friend to the composer, Kenzaburo Oe, which describes ‘the clever rain tree’, an ancient tree whose thousands of tiny leaves collect and store rain water, so that after the storm has passed, rain continues to fall from the tree. Precipitation is suggested through single droplets of quiet, lone sustained notes and sudden dissonant clusters of sounds, as if shaken from saturated branches.

All four pieces are played with immense control and insight. Soft, pastel-coloured sound showers and radiant trebles chime over rich bass sonorities and pedal points, while the silences are as carefully judged as the notes between them. These pieces are evocative and ethereal, their transcendental nature emphasised through the precise use of pedals, and the pianist’s ability to allow sounds to resonate and ring, or fade to nothing, which create an exquisite sense of stillness.

My Meet the Artist interview with Rika Zayasu

www.claudiorecords.com

Rika Zayasu plays Takemitsu Rain Tree Sketch II

Harry Bennett of Apollo5

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and make it your career?

My grandfather was the man that gave me the push to explore the full capacity of my voice. He was a keen musician and would organise music festivals in Kent where he lived while bringing up his young family. In his later years he was a committed member of his local choral society. Music was very important to him, and while he only heard me sing a few times, he clearly saw my passion for singing when I was very young. He saw an advert in the Telegraph for choristers at Rochester Cathedral and encouraged my mother and me to apply. Four years later, I bowed out of the choir as deputy head chorister, and I’d had the biggest head start to my singing career I could ever ask for.

Who or what were the most important influences on your singing?

Being in a cathedral choir, you’re repertoire is fine-tuned to a fairly specific genre. There’s no secular music at all, so the biggest influences were certainly the composers whose works I was singing, namely Byrd, Tallis, Stanford, Poulenc, Duruflé, Vaughan Williams to name a few. On the performance side of things, my director of music at Rochester, Roger Sayer, was a huge influence. I learnt all my foundations of singing from him. In more recent times, I’m now a member of the a cappella group Apollo5, and that has opened my eyes and ears to the previously undiscovered world of secular music! We sing a huge variety of genres and composers from Byrd to Broadway. I’ve loved singing the more current repertoire, like Jim Clements’ arrangement of Smooth Criminal. Jim arranges a lot of music for VOCES8 (whom Apollo5 work very closely with), and it’s a real treat to be able to sing such funky harmonies which I missed out on when I was singing in cathedral choirs!

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

There’s one which stands out: I started my undergraduate studies on a Biology BSc course, and while I enjoyed studying science at school, it took me a while to realise that I couldn’t leave music on the back burner. After 1 1/2 years into my biology degree I finally accepted that I wasn’t happy, so I started my undergrad from scratch, but this time I was working towards a Music BA. It was an incredibly tough decision to make because I’m probably the most stubborn person I know, but I was worried that I would be perceived as a failure. It’s now 3 years later, and I’m about to graduate and start working as a workshop leader for the charity which runs Apollo5 and VOCES8, Voces Cantabiles Music (VCM), and I can’t wait to start inspiring people through music. It’s definitely been the best decision of my life.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In chronological order, one of my favourite recordings was from my days in Rochester. We recorded a disc of Vaughan Williams’ choral works (A Choral Portrait of Vaughan Williams, Lantern Productions- 2000), and that definitely fuelled my love for his music. One of the prominent features on the disc was his Mass in G minor. My solo performance which I’m most proud of is certainly my final undergraduate recital. I chose a programme of Finzi, Fauré and Quilter. What I was most proud of was my delivery of the text; having sung in a cathedral for most of my singing career, I haven’t been used to “acting” my text because your job in a cathedral choir is primarily to aid worship, and the music should not distract the congregation from the main focus of the worship. My final recital was the first time I engaged with the text so much that I almost cried during The Clock of the Years (from Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain). My favourite performance with Apollo5 has to be last month’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall with Surrey Arts. We do a lot of education work with a variety of clients from businesses like Vodafone to help to further their team building, community choirs to strengthen their passion for singing, and all the way through to schools like Red Balloon centres for severely bullied children which aim to recover them and return them to mainstream education.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Apollo5 loved performing at the Royal Albert Hall with Surrey Arts and Westminster Palace with Red Balloon! But sadly we don’t get the opportunity to perform at these venues every day. We usually perform a series of Christmas concerts at Ham House in Richmond, and we love performing those. You certainly feel the Christmas spirit when you’re rehearsing for these towards the end of September!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

We are very lucky that one of our Tenors (Matt) happens to be a great arranger. One of our favourite arrangements of his is definitely The Andrews Sisters classic Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and this also looks great when our girls are wearing their fabulous Vivien of Holloway dresses!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Personally, I love to get into the Christmas spirit by listening to Bing Crosby. There’s nothing like having a bath with Bing! At other times of the year, I fill my iPhone with recordings by The Consort of Musicke and The Sixteen

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

If somebody gives you the opportunity to have more experience in something you love, you have to do it. It’s near impossible to improve if you don’t gain experience. Also, the more teachers you see, the better. You don’t have to visit them regularly, but it’s great to get a 2nd/3rd/4th (etc…) opinion on your technique/performance, because what might work for one person may not necessarily work for another. I think of seeing a variety of teachers as getting a pick-n-mix.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I’m preparing to work for VCM on a more permanent basis by observing the workshops that the organisation offers with a view to leading some of these on my own. As a group, Apollo5 are preparing for our appearance at the Tolosa Choral Competition.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love skiing, it’s something I’ve only recently discovered. I usually go to Alpe d’Huez with members of the choral foundation at Portsmouth Cathedral and we normally try to coincide our trip with a performance at Église Notre-Dame des Neiges.

Harry Bennett has just completed his studies at the University of Southampton and has been studying with David Owen Norris, Ian Caddy and Keith Davis over the last three years. Alongside his studies he is also a Bass Lay Clerk at Portsmouth Cathedral. His extensive choral background stretches back to 1997 when he was a chorister at Rochester Cathedral under the direction of Roger Sayer.

Harry began to explore workshop leading with the Portsmouth SingUp project, a government-led initiative which aims to help primary school children explore the idea of singing, and to consequently help boost their learning, confidence, health and social development. In 2010 he became a founding member of Apollo 5, the a cappella group which has been praised for their eye-catching performances under the Voces Cantabiles Music (VCM) umbrella and will be performing on various dates around Europe this year, and more notably at the Tolosa International Choral Competition. Apollo5 are Ensemble in residence with Surrey Arts and was honoured to headline the sold out celebration concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2012. From September this year, Harry will be implementing his skills gained from his SingUp experience in his appointment as a workshop leader for VCM.

As a soloist he has been gaining experience in oratorio and lieder performances, including Handel’s Messiah with Caroline Balding and Elizabeth Kenny in December 2010, and has appeared as Aeneas in Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas last June. Over the past year, Harry has been a member of Genesis Sixteen, the new training programme from The Sixteen which aims “to identify the next generation of ensemble choral singers and to give them the opportunity to train at the highest level”.

Apollo5

The stunning vocal quintet Apollo5 was formed in 2010 and has been praised for engaging and lively performances. The professional group has a wide repertoire of jazz, pop, classical and Christmas a cappella and will be touring across the UK and internationally for the first time in 2012.

www.apollo5.co

Claude Debussy

Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.

Explore Christine’s blog here

Twitter: @notesfromapiano

 

“spine-tingling beauty and conviction”

Platinum Consort will be performing at St Giles Cripplegate, in the heart of the City of London, on Friday 16th November, in a programme featuring three world premieres – two works by Platinum’s composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, and one by David Ianni. Following on from their stunning concert at King’s Place (which I had the great pleasure of reviewing), this promises to be a fabulous evening of choral music, in a beautiful setting. For a taster, Platinum Consort have released a short film:

To coincide with this concert, I will be publishing my Meet the Artist interview with David Ianni, composer of ‘Consecration Prayer’, together with a guest post by Scott on the excitement and challenges of working on new commissions.

Further details of the concert and tickets here

My review of Platinum Consort’s concert at King’s Place

Rika Zayasu (Image credit: Laura Cortes)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

My grandmother taught music at school and my aunt is a pianist, so I was familiar with the piano, but it was presented as something of importance and treated as such, so I didn’t have much access to it. And I didn’t even know what it was called! Then my mother asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I said ‘yes’ because the name sounded somehow pretty and magical to me and I expected something – I was 3 or 4. I’m glad I said yes then! And all followed accordingly as I continued playing. There were few moments of difficulties but I’m glad to be where I am now. Playing he piano is my job but it is also my way of life, a form of being musician.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing? 

I had truly great teachers who taught me how to be not only a better musician and pianist but also a better human being. But my greatest influences have been always of my fellow musician friends.

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

Everyday practice.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

It depends on the orchestras and ensemble, and also the pieces you are playing. Sometimes, the lack of rehearsal time, but this could also be an exciting factor.

Which recordings are you most proud of?  

Well, my first commercial CD featuring Debussy and Takemitsu will be released on Claudio Records at the end of October! Claudio developed their cutting edge new recording system especially for these two composers and the venue, St Bartholomew’s in Brighton, and we had a wonderful instrument to play on too. The result is quite amazing, and we are very proud.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I don’t know many prestigious venues, which I I’m sure I could have listed here. But so far, the Wigmore Hall and Salle Gaveau in Paris are two of my favourite venues to perform in. Both halls provide the right balance between intimacy and distance, which allows both audience and performers to concentrate on the musical communication. I think for a live concert, you don’t necessarily need the perfect acoustics or instruments to achieve this.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I am a big fan of the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen! I also admire the piano playing of the late Vlado Perlemuter. In fact it was he who encouraged me to come to Paris when I played Chopin’s 3rd Ballade for him when I was very young. I didn’t actually study with him, but stayed there in my formative years for nearly 7 years before settling in London, so it was important event and I have always liked his music since then.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I would like all my concerts to be memorable and I remember every single performance I have given so far, as most of performers do, I believe. There is no storage limit for this kind of memory.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

Debussy. I also love the sound of the oboe d’amore, so tend to get recordings which feature the instrument.

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

To inspire and get inspired. Because I think inspiration is one of the most powerful ways of communication. I wouldn’t say ‘there is no inspiration’ as some of the greatest composers used to say.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Scriabin Piano Sonatas for the next Claudio CD. Also Christian Mason’s ‘On Love and Death’ for soprano sax and piano.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

I have recently started pastel drawings, mainly the portraits of my musician friends. It makes you realise so many things and you learn so much from it.

 

Born in Tokyo in 1972, Rika began playing the piano at the age of five, inspired by her pianist aunt Yoshiko Ogimi and encouraged by her mother who was an amateur violinist. Following the completion of her study at the Tokyo Metropolitan High School of Music and Fine Arts, she moved to Paris and took private lessons with Michel Béroff and Denis Pascal for three years. She also studied with Louis-Claude Thirion and obtained a 1er prix à l’unanimité (piano) and a gold medal (chamber music) from the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt.

She moved to London in 1995 and studied with Maria Curcio, the legendary pupil of Artur Schnabel for more than five years. Rika continued her study with Joan Havill and the late Paul Hamburger at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and obtained her Postgraduate Diploma and Master’s Degree in music performance.

In 2006, she has completed her thesis on the music of Tōru Takemitsu entitled To the Edge of Sound: Tōru Takemitsu’s works for soloist and orchestra at the University of York. Her research interests broadly across the period of global musical exchange since the late 19th century. She is currently undertaking a research on the relation of music to the surrealism.

She is an advocate of new music and gave several world premieres in the UK and abroad. It is her great privilege to have worked with composers such as, Thomas Simaku and John Stringer – but also Evis Sammoutis, Ian Dickson, Christian Mason and many others.

She gave the first performance of her piano transcription of Takemitsu’s Requiem for string orchestra at St. Martin-in-the-fields in London to critical acclaim. Her new album featuring piano works by Debussy and Takemitsu is released on Claudio Records.

Rika Zayasu performs as a recitalist, soloist with orchestras, and chamber musician. Her recent appearances include London, Paris, and Tokyo. During the 2012/13 season, she will make several appearances in the UK, at the venues including St John’s Smith Square in London, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, and Sir Jack Lyon’s Concert Hall in York.

She currently lives in London with her husband and a Welsh springer spaniel.

Interview first published October 2012

www.rikazayasu.com

Thinking about studying at music college? This guest post by Madelaine Jones, a third-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, will give you a flavour of student life at a top London conservatoire…..

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in Greenwich

“So where do you study, then? What subject?”

“Oh, I’m a piano student. I study at a conservatoire.”

Cue either the hostile look of ‘that’s not actually a degree, is it?’ (unfortunately, I have experienced this), the confusion at the fact that I attend an alien type of institution that sounds shockingly similar to something you grow plants in (amusingly, I have also experienced this), or the look of sheer terror at the fact that I clearly must spend 14 hours a day chained to a piano and have no shred of a life away from a keyboard. To fellow musicians who’ve never experienced conservatoire life, there is this strange misconception that conservatoire musicians are work-machines who never do anything but practice, practice, practice – and while I’m sure there are some music students out there whose lives resemble something of the sort, the vast majority of conservatoire students have far more varied and interesting lives than you’d ever given them credit for.

Over the last three years of college, I have met people who work consistently throughout the year, putting a few hours in every day, come rain or shine. I have also met people who won’t touch a piano for weeks at a time and will wing their exams after cramming furiously at the last minute. Similarly, I’ve met people who study avidly, listening and reading as much as they possibly can. I’ve also met people who haven’t touched a book since they left school and who would far rather go to a Lady Gaga concert than a Wigmore Hall recital any day of the week. The spectrum of people, abilities and ambitions at a music college is simply staggering, and to cast a blanket over the average conservatoire student and their experience of college life would be absolutely impossible.

Personally speaking, the most important part of any conservatoire education is Principal Study time (or, to scrap the jargon, one-to-one instrumental lessons with a teacher). During your time at college, your teacher is your mentor and probably the biggest influence you’re going to have musically – I do even know some people who picked their college solely for their instrumental teacher. As with scary practice myths, there seems to be this misconception that all teachers at conservatoires are incredibly hard taskmasters who crack the whip incessantly and have ridiculous expectations. True, there are some teachers like that – and generally it’s the pupils who want to be pushed who opt for those teachers. But equally, there are plenty of empathetic teachers out there. My Principal Study teacher is quite simply one of the most understanding and patient teachers I have ever had (given my somewhat temperamental disposition, she’s got the patience of a saint!), and the lack of pushiness doesn’t in any way deter me or make me want to work less. If anything, it inspires me to work harder so that I can try and repay her for her kindness and understanding by becoming a better pianist. But there are some people I know who would hate to have a teacher that, frankly, didn’t kick them up the backside every five minutes, else they’d get complacent.

The freedom to do what you want at a conservatoire is, without any shadow of a doubt, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of timetabled activities, I don’t actually have a lot of classes: there are a few academic classes every week, a few optional ensemble classes, a performance tutorial, but in terms of compulsory lectures to attend, there’s really not much to pin your day around. This can be a blessing if you’re motivated enough to use it wisely: you can practice, read about music (or anything else), go to concerts, widen your view on the world, and still have time to get all your work for college done. You can also fill your time with extra-curricular projects and performances. Over the past two years, I’ve taken harpsichord lessons and occasionally participated in Early Music projects, which has been a great experience. Other people I know have signed up for various orchestral projects or completely saturated their timetable with chamber music. So, for people who really want to get involved, having a sparse timetable with access to practice facilities and a whole range of optional classes is a blessing. However, the question of motivation is always an issue. Let’s face it, if you had nothing but a couple of hours of classes on your timetable every day, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak more than the odd lie-in too? Wouldn’t that picnic in the park, mid-June and gorgeously sunny, sound more appealing than a day in a sweaty practice room to you? Where there is freedom, there is always the temptation to stray off the path of hard work. It’s just up to the individual how much they want to let themselves stray.

So when people ask me what a conservatoire is like, as you can see, there’s such a giant scope of different experiences that it’s difficult to pin down a single explanation. It will vary from person to person, conservatoire to conservatoire (experiences in other colleges may be different – those of you who attend ridiculously competitive institutions, berate me if you wish). To sum up the average experience, given those I know and see on a day-to-day basis, I would say this: a conservatoire is strange little bubble of a world where everybody talks about Schumann like they know him personally, drinks coffee incessantly, finds it normal to spend more than 10 hours in college and only have spent half of them actually practising and fills the rest of the time either frittering away their life in the café, avoiding work, or, if they’re one of the blessedly motivated few, reading and listening and broadening their mind. It really is a truly wonderful – if a little surreal – place to study, and even in the stressy exam periods, I am very happy to say I chose to come to a conservatoire and have enjoyed my time immensely so far (sadly, I’m now halfway through my degree). To me, the best part of it all is that since everyone is studying the same subject, and college is so small, there’s a great sense of camaraderie in a conservatoire which you don’t get in your average university. Everyone has a shared love, and everyone’s in the same boat – a boat which, with any luck, would have good sound-proofing.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time. She reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack,  and is a regular guest contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

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Music conservatoires in the UK

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Royal College of Music

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