The Arab Hall at Leighton House

Leighton House has to be one of my most favourite houses in London. Tucked away in a quiet, tree-lined residential road close to Holland Park and Kensington High Street, it is the former home and studio of leading Victorian painting, Frederic, Lord Leighton. Created as a “private palace of art” to showcase Leighton’s fine collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art, the house was also  a place where the artistic and cultural denizens of London, and beyond, could gather for soirées, lectures and other events. Read my full review for One Stop Arts here

My review of Victorian Visions at Leighton House

Bridget Cunningham

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and playing the harpsichord, and make it your career?

Being around other musicians and performing live music from childhood at home, in the church, at music schools and with good teachers inspired me to be a musician. Performing music has always been where I feel most comfortable, and the actual process of communicating with others through music lifts the spirits. When conducting from the harpsichord, the sound of the other instruments in the orchestra and singers around hits the soundboard of the harpsichord which becomes a melting pot where all these sounds go in and magic is made.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and conducting?

The most important influence is the music itself from the emotional and dramatic works of Handel, the energy of Vivaldi, the complexity of Bach and Palestrina, the freshness of Mozart, the complex rhythms of Messiaen, the richness of Wagner and much more, have always inspired and influenced me to learn more.

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

The biggest challenge has always been to get funding to put on undiscovered early operas, pasticcios, masses, and other works and material I have researched and to record this material which really deserves a hearing. It is also a learning curve to get the means to make documentaries and films about this music, the history of it and the whole process of music making, which are all fascinating aspect

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I have just recently conducted a recording for a CD of stunning music, some unrecorded material too which I am pleased about, from the 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with London Early Opera, and fabulous producer Chris Alder, which I am eagerly waiting to hear. It was a wonderful process finding the music and putting it all together to recreate a magical night at the gardens.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I have many and love the variety I have performed in from large to the more intimate, including Southwark Cathedral, the Wigmore Hall, Handel House Museum, St George’s Basillica in Gozo, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, the Pieta in Venice and Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have always loved conducting Handel operas, Purcell masques, Vivaldi and Mozart operas.. they are all colourful with amazing text, word painting and harmonies. Conducting from the harpsichord centres me with the music in the very heart of the orchestra and the actual score of the work being performed. Again, I enjoy all the later repertoire I conduct from George Butterworth to Bernstein as it is all fabulous repertoire which I enjoy listening to as well.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Barenboim, McKerras, Brabbins, Hogwood, Alsop, Davies, Edwards, many conductors; also the historic Bernstein, and several baroque musicians… Catherine Mackintosh, Robert Woolley… where do we stop…the list goes on…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing Vivaldi in the Pieta in Venice… an amazing place and also listening to Jordi Savall playing French divisions in his viol concert at St Nicholas Church in Galway by candlelight was extremely inspiring

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

Every new day there is something new to learn and we are always students and must always be open to gaining new knowledge and to aspire to new things. Keep on focusing on where you are going and work hard and practice, practice….

What are you working on at the moment?

I am collating music, parts and scores and taking sectional rehearsals for the next recording project that I am conducting with London Early Opera and following concert tour next year.

What is your most treasured possession?

My glorious harpsichords: one is a double manual Franco Flemish Blanchet copy of a Ruckers – perfect for all kinds of repertoire with a lovely resonance in the bass – and the other is a single manual Italian harpsichord with a real brightness of sound and touch.

Bridget Cunningham is a prizewinning harpsichordist, conductor and early music specialist. Bridget is in demand to conduct choirs, orchestras, festivals and recordings throughout Europe and her performing experience includes conducting London Early Opera and Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi and she conducts regularlyfrom the harpsichord at venues such as St Martin-in-the Fields, Grosvenor Chapel, St James’s Piccadilly and Southwark Cathedral. She has recently recorded a harpsichord album ‘Handel in Ireland’ and performed as a solo harpsichordist to Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. She also regularly gives lecture recitals and broadcasts at Art Galleries and last year she opened the Watteau exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and gave a lecture recital on Handel and Watteau in 18thCentury London. She has recorded and presented BBC documentaries with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment and Vivaldi’s Women and the virginal and harpsichord music for the BBC 1 series ‘Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen’, How London Was Built and BBC’s ‘Messiah’. Radio broadcasts include Radio 3 and 4 King James’s Bible. Bridget has also just conducted London Early Opera’s CD Handel in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with producer Chris Alder.

In common with many leading figures in the arts and music world of this country, I am deeply concerned about Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to replace GCSE’s with the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which will not include ‘creative’ subjects such as art, design, drama and music.

Mr Gove has said that schools may still offer the arts as GCSE subjects alongside the EBacc, but the worry is that many schools simply will not have the resources to do this, and these subjects will become the preserve of independent schools and/or wealthy parents, who can afford private music, drama or art tuition for their children.

I was very fortunate at my secondary school (Rickmansworth School) to enjoy fantastic music and arts facilities, all free and in a state school. As well as enthusiastic and inspiring tuition by my music teacher (to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for encouraging my talent and excitement about the piano in particular, and music in general), I had the opportunity to play first desk clarinet in the school orchestra, harpsichord continuo in a Baroque group, and sing in the school choir. Thus, I experienced the great pleasure and joy that comes from shared music-making, the sense of satisfaction and self-fulfilment in progressing through my graded music exams (piano and clarinet), and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as regular trips to concerts, and opera dress-rehearsals at Covent Garden, all of which broadened my cultural horizons.

My musical education at school still resonates with me, as I attempt to share my passion and excitement about music with my students.

Please don’t deny our children the opportunity to experience the same excitement. Sign the petition to secure the future of creativity in our schools here

Arts leaders voice deep concern over lack of cultural subjects in EBacc – a recent article in The Guardian

Readers who enjoyed Peter Donohoe’s lively and very well-observed diary of his participation in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, published on his website earlier this year, and his selection of ’50 Great Pianists‘ as part of the BBC’s Piano Season, will relish his account of his visit to the Leeds International Piano Competition this year. In it, he discusses, in part, the merits of not coming first (Peter was himself joint silver medallist at the Tchaikovsky Competition, and has subsequently gone on to enjoy an acclaimed international career). Like his Moscow diary, this is a detailed and insightful account, which will appeal to anyone who has followed the competition with keen interest.

You can access Peter’s blog here

Leeds International Piano Competition winner 2012 Federico Colli

Sarah Beth Briggs (image credit: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

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

My father was my initial inspiration. He was an English teacher, but he always had a few piano students coming to the house. I was intrigued and wanted to do what they were doing. So he started me off when I was four. Having someone to help me when I was in the mood, rather than being forced into playing was probably the greatest encouragement.

Career wise – I suppose there is a point when music just takes over. It was never an active choice. It happened fairly early for me. I was (at the time) the youngest ever finalist in BBC Young Musician at 11 and things went from there.

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

Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. I was very fortunate to be taught by him from the age of eight until his death. He was such a terrific all round musician. He made me understand that there was far more to being a good musician than playing the piano. Lessons would involve listening to Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets, Brahms symphonies etc and then making the piano ‘become’ a singer, a string quartet, a pair of horns – always looking way beyond the dots on any given page!

I was then lucky to study chamber music with the great violist, Bruno Giuranna and go on to work with Chilean concert pianist, Edith Fischer (an Arrau pupil) in Switzerland.

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

The path of a freelance musician is a rocky one and the route to success is never simple. My first huge challenge was to lose my mentor, Denis Matthews (who was a close personal friend in addition to being such a huge musical inspiration) at such an early age.

Poor instruments are always a challenge – battling with the impossible to some extent, but it is a pianist’s responsibility to achieve the very best possible from any given instrument.

Perhaps, however, the greatest challenge of all is to remain true to yourself (whatever external pressures try to dictate). The music business is fickle and it’s impossible to please everyone. A huge self awareness is constantly necessary and being as faithful to the score as possible is, to me, the single most important thing to aim for.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?  

There is something very satisfying about feeling that I have contributed towards a particularly exciting chamber music performance, so perhaps my happiest moments of performing to reflect on have been when I’ve been part of a really exhilarating musical collaboration. As far as recordings go, I suppose my latest disc (of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) is the one that I feel the most pride in looking back on.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Actually, no – so much depends on each individual occasion and, to some degree, the association that certain places hold. In terms of beauty, performing at the Mozarteum in Salzburg is special. Whilst it’s not aesthetically the most pleasing hall, I love the acoustic of Fairfield, Croydon (and I particularly like its new model D Steinway). Performing at Stern Grove in San Francisco to 20,000 people was exciting (in spite of the acoustic problems of playing outdoors) and at the other end of the scale, playing to something like 120 people in the delightfully intimate atmosphere of St Mary’s Church in Lastingham was just as special. So, it varies hugely for me and the most prestigious venues in which I’ve played haven’t necessarily been my preferred spaces. I do, however, long to play in the glorious acoustic of the Wigmore Hall – a particular favourite for concert going.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

The answer to the first question has to be whatever I am currently performing – otherwise the performance couldn’t be convincing.

One wonderful thing about being a pianist is the vast repertoire of superb music that we are so lucky to have to perform. Composers I couldn’t survive without performing are: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy and Chopin and on the next tier: Schumann, Bartok, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn. I have notably missed out JS Bach whose music I love but have decided (in the main) to save performance-wise until a few more years have elapsed.

When it comes to listening – anything that isn’t solo piano! My strong preferences lie in the symphonic and chamber fields – if I had to name just a handful of composers – orchestrally, I would again have to choose Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms but with a definite addition of Sibelius. Chamber wise – yet again Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn Brahms, Schubert (perhaps at the top of my chamber list) and Schumann. Oh – and the ‘wild card’ is Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine……six and a half minutes of pure, deeply moving beauty that always manages to de-stress me even in my most highly-charged moments!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Several of the musicians who I have the good fortune of playing chamber music with – perhaps unfair to single out! When it comes to other pianists, I suppose my very favourites would have to include Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Paul Lewis and the stunning Benjamin Grosvenor.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Being locked in the dressing room at Morpeth Town Hall (aged 10) with a load of alcohol ready for a wedding reception and not being able to get to the stage. I can still sense the anxiety of knocking on that door and being unable to get out!!!!!

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

To be able to develop an individual voice whilst trying to honour what we believe the composers’ wishes would have been as much as possible. I think the hardest thing to teach is not so much the sounds as the silences – the way notes are placed and the whole concept of how to breathe is something that really needs to be innate. And yet as teachers, we need to attempt to put our students on the right track. And finally – can anyone help to improve someone’s staying power? I guess that being able to impart the notion that any aspiring musician will need dogged determination is very necessary.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Away from the piano, I love good food and wine (both at home and discovering it on my travels) the theatre, exploring the countryside with my delightfully lively cocker spaniel and spending time with close friends and family.

Sarah Beth Briggs latest CD of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert is available now. Further details here

Newcastle born pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was (at that time) the youngest ever finalist in the history of BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11 and gained a Myra Hess Award at the same age. At 15, she jointly won the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. She studied in Newcastle, York and Birmingham with Denis Matthews and in Switzerland with Edith Fischer. A Hindemith scholarship also led to chamber music study in Switzerland with violist, Bruno Giuranna.

A soloist and chamber musician, she has broadcast and performed live in the UK, around Europe and the USA and has worked with many renowned orchestras including the Halle, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Ulster Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Northern Sinfonia and Vienna Chamber Orchestra. She has also given numerous masterclasses and chamber music coaching sessions in the UK and abroad.

She is the pianist in three chamber ensembles, The Anton Stadler Trio (with clarinettist Janet Hilton and violist Robin Ireland), Clarion³ (with Janet Hilton and bassoonist Laurence Perkins) and Trio Melzi (with violinist Richard Howarth and cellist Hannah Roberts).

Sarah has produced recordings of Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten (the world premiere of whose Three Character Pieces she gave in 1989) Chopin, Haydn, Mozart and Rawsthorne on the Semaphore label.

(image credit Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

Interview date: October 2012

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

Rika Zayasu plays Takemitsu Rain Tree Sketch II