elspeth_wyllie-320x439Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

I didn’t plan on becoming a pianist or a professional performer until studying with Raymond Fisher while at university; he gave me the technique and self-belief to give it a go. Before that, I got a huge buzz from being surrounded by other enthusiasts and immersed in music day in, day out at music school. I’d studied recorder and clarinet too, but gradually came to realise that the piano appealed the most – because of the wealth of repertoire and playing opportunities it offers. My family wasn’t particularly musical, but my mum could strum a guitar so we sang lots of songs when I was pretty small, and I loved listening to records.

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

Obviously my teachers – I’m very grateful for my time with Richard Beauchamp who is disarmingly modest, open-minded and curious. The quality and quantity of chamber music on offer at school has undoubtedly given me a passion for collaborative playing. I like to think I have a reasonably open-minded attitude and curiosity for all arts and music – growing up in Edinburgh with it’s annual festivals and inspiring live performances of music, dance, theatre and wealth of art exhibitions has helped that.

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

Staying focused and productive in personal practice, balancing commitments between different projects, being efficient with admin, and working out what’s next in a field that offers such huge flexibility for developing your career.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

The projects where there’s a shared attitude and natural understanding with the people I’m working with, or in new projects that involve an element of challenge or risk and stretch you further than you thought possible. Specific things I’m really proud of: solo performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, duo performances of Bowen’s Sonata for flute and piano with Claire Overbury, Amalie Trio’s school workshops about the drama and skills of chamber music, and my recent debut recording bringing together lots of colleagues, Enigmas.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Anywhere with a decent piano that’s not too cold, and an open-minded audience!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To listen to: Barber’s Violin Concerto, Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Schubert’s three last piano sonatas, any of Brahms’ violin sonatas… Mind you, I don’t often listen to classical music in my downtime. I dance and sing along to bands like Snarky Puppy, the Divine Comedy, Count Basie and Stornoway, or listen to Cerys Matthews and Craig Charles on Radio 6 Music. To perform, I love finding compelling repertoire that’s less well-known: trios by Nicolai Kapustin and William Bolcom, an Azerbaijani suite by Fikret Amirov, songs by Bernard Stevens. I love it when the audience hasn’t heard of a piece or composer but enjoys the discovery. It’s way more interesting to me than being the 3000th person to play Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, however good the piece is!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Those who find endless expressive nuance without distorting the overall shape of the music, and who prioritise the music and avoid any on-stage presence of ego. I’ve been blown away by concerts and recordings by Adrian Brendel, Imogen Cooper, Stephen Hough, Kathryn Stott and Steven Osborne, and outside the classical world by the creativity of Stornoway and Chick Corea, and the skill of Courtney Pine and Joshua Redman.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hmm. They’re often memorable for the wrong reason. Performing extremely badly but with total swagger aged 7, with two painfully-bandaged knees due to a pre-performance backyard incident! Nerve-wrackingly page-turning for Martha Argerich and Nelson Goerner in the Edinburgh Festival. Good ones: Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (from memory, which is unusual for me), Enesco’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in my final recital at music college, the rapport with new colleagues in our very first performance together of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor.

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

Play pieces you really believe in, and nothing beats being properly prepared.

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

Performing more frequently with my regular chamber music partners and doing more 1-1 coaching with adults – I enjoy accompanying and working with them to release potential musical expression and overcome frustrations. I also love working with choirs, so continuing to develop that alongside my performing work.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A productive days’ work, or being outside somewhere rural in good weather, or good food in relaxed company.

Elspeth Wyllie performs throughout the UK and abroad as a solo pianist, chamber musician and accompanist. She has appeared at the Purcell Room, Fairfield Halls, The Brunton, and on Classics Unwrapped for BBC Radio Scotland. She is a founder member of the Métier Ensemble (with flautist Claire Overbury and cellist Sophie Rivlin) and the Amalie Trio (with mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse and violist Alexa Beattie), performing regularly with them and in projects with other musicians from major ensembles, orchestras and opera companies.

In addition to chamber music, Elspeth rehearses and performs with choirs. Particular highlights have been a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and piano duo performances of Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem and Liebeslieder Walzer. Her experience includes engagements with the BBC Symphony Chorus, the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain, and animateur Gareth Malone, as well as regular work with Clapham’s Festival Chorus and several other amateur choirs. Elspeth also teaches, coaches and accompanies, both privately and for workshops and courses. In the studio, she has recorded sessions at Abbey Road, AIR and Dean Street Studios, and for Novello publications.

Elspeth studied piano with Richard Beauchamp and Audrey Innes at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, and continued with Raymond Fischer while reading music at the University of Oxford. She completed her professional training with a PGDip from the Royal Academy of Music, London, studying piano and accompaniment with Andrew West and Colin Stone and winning many prizes, including the RAM Club Prize for Accompaniment, the Vivien Langrish Prize, Evelyn German Prize and J E Reckitt Award. She was supported during her studies by the Oldhurst Charitable Trust and was shortlisted for the 2011 Park Lane Group Award with duo partner Claire Overbury. She has enjoyed lessons and masterclasses with many wonderful musicians, including Julius Drake, Susan Tomes, Adrian Brendel and Tasmin Little.

‘Enigmas: solo piano and chamber works’ is released by Divine Art Records on 19 May 2017

www.elspethwyllie.co.uk

by Madelaine Jones

We all know the feeling – you’re sat on the stool, anxious before a first rehearsal with a singer. Doubtless you’ll have practised the piece, sorted the fingerings, and on meeting the culprit of your hours of toil, you’ll find them to be a perfectly human, ordinary musical being with whom you can get on splendidly, and the rehearsal will go swimmingly. That is, before the seven words that would send a shiver of dread down any aspiring pianist’s spine: “Can you put that down a tone?”

Indeed, transposition is rapidly becoming the Atlantis of pianism, with seemingly very few pianists left in the musical stratosphere that have a grip on the elusive art – and to those who think I am preaching, I am most certainly not one of the few. Last summer, I decided to sit a diploma in accompaniment in which one of the requirements was sight-transposition, and I can honestly say I have never been so thoroughly vexed over such a small component of an exam before. On the day, after preparing for months with a hymn book at the recommendation of a teacher (six hymns up and down a tone every day – healthy work but proved to be a winner in the end), I found it was nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. I’m certainly no master transposer, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so in front of another human being again, but with significant practice and preparation, it was no more difficult to learn than any other piano skill I’ve acquired.

So why on earth are we so scared of it?

It seems to me that there is an obvious answer, staring us in the face: unfamiliarity. How many of our teachers drilled scales into us as a child? I’m guessing practically all of them. Sight-reading? The vast majority (and how thankful we are, even if we hated it at the time!). Transposition? I expect not a single hand in the room will have gone up.

I am not launching a tirade against teachers, since they already bear the blame for far too many things as it is; given such a small amount of contact time, teachers simply cannot cover all the bases, and something which does not feature on exam syllabuses or even yet exist to a young learner given its ‘advanced skill’ status is understandably going to be swept under the rug. But why is this considered such a niche skill in the first place, and why are exam boards not bringing this in at a far earlier stage than diploma level?  Why are we not encouraging young children to go away and try to transpose fragments of music? It improves knowledge of keys  – if you don’t know the scales and chords for the keys you’ve played in properly, you can’t possibly transpose into them. It improves memory – if you understand the relationship of the chords inside out, you’re far less likely to forget the notes than a learn-by-rote ‘A B C’ approach. It improves aural skills – transposition is, to a very high degree, dependent on aural awareness and the ability to hear and anticipate what is coming next.

To those of you who think I’m asking too much of young learners, try it. Give a young pupil a small fragment of melody, and then ask them to play it on a different note. Talk about the differences, any ‘black notes’ that may have appeared, and you will find they pick it up a lot more quickly and less painfully than you expect. What you’ve just taught someone is how to transpose on a very basic level. In fact, you do it all the time when you teach children to play scales. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve mystified transposition so much that people think it impossibly difficult, learners and teachers alike. Just as with any other skill, you have to start somewhere. If you pick a Chopin Etude you can barely play in the correct key and try to put it up or down a tritone, of course you’re going to struggle. If you take a simple hymn and move it to a related key, you’re going to find you make far better progress.

Naturally, with every other skill under the sun to practise, I doubt we (or our pupils) will now all fall to religiously practising our hymns in every key every day. But next time you’re frustrated with a piece and can’t understand the ins-and-outs of it properly, why not try popping it up or down a tone? If nothing else, it could become a neat party trick…

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, reviewing for Bachtrack and posting on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

Pianist Peter Donohoe (picture credit Sussie Ahlburg)

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

I didn’t really make it my career. It kind of chose me, after many years of vacillating between instruments and other musical disciplines (like composition, musicology etc). Looking back to the beginning the most formative influences were countless people – in a kind of chronological order:

  1. My mother, who was an amateur pianist.
  2. My father, with whom I argued so much that it embarrasses me to remember, but he was right…. and I am still learning from his life lessons.
  3. Alan Taylor, who was the music teacher at my primary school.
  4. All my subsequent piano teachers (Alfred Williams, Donald Clarke, Derek Wyndham, Yvonne Loriod, Olivier Messiaen – more importantly than any pianistic or teaching qualities – they were all wonderful people.)
  5. My percussion teacher, Gilbert Webster – an extraordinary man, with enormous experience at the very highest level (amongst other things he had been the BBC SO’s principal percussionist during the Boulez era). He was the man who, more than any other, showed me how to practise – whatever the instrument.
  6. All my friends, who argued with me when I was convinced that a career as solo pianist was not for me, because I didn’t think I was good enough.
  7. My wife, Elaine, who is herself a professional pianist, critic and supporter.
  8. Martin Roscoe, my two-piano partner of 40 years, and our Best Man.
  9. All the conductors who invited me to work them in my early days, particularly James Loughran, Edward Downes, Charles Groves and Simon Rattle.

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

  1. The composers whose works I am trying to communicate to the public.
  2. The public itself.

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

  1. Taking the plunge in my early 20s and deciding after all to be a solo pianist.
  2. Maintaining the natural sense of British taste and reserve at the same as learning to be emotionally open, and keeping the balance between the two.
  3. Playing Bach.
  4. Standing in for Daniel Barenboim playing Bach.

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

Exploring the characters of everyone one works with, and making the most of those characters, rather than going in with a fixed ideal and trying to make everyone fit in with it.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I don’t know, because I don’t listen to them once I have swallowed my disappointments and approved them. I suspect that the live recording of the Busoni Concerto from the 1988 Proms might be the one I would be least disappointed with.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Many in diverse places and for diverse reasons. If I had to choose – the Bolshoisal in the Moscow Conservatory – a great hall, with a great atmosphere, and many wonderful memories.

 Who are your favourite musicians? 

The ones I am working with at the time. That might seem like a pretentious answer, but it is a good way to look at things. There have been several over the years whom I could name, but better if their identity is not revealed for the sake of the others.

What is your most memorable concert experience?  

That depends on the reason it is memorable….

The one that was the most thrilling to listen to was possibly Richter and the Borodin String Quartet playing Brahms 2nd Piano Quartet in Moscow in 1987. Other contenders would be Bernard Haitink and the LPO playing Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, Charles Groves and the BBC SO playing Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony with Jeanne Loriod and John Ogdon in the 1970 Proms, Emerson Lake and Palmer on tour in 1971, Reginald Goodall conducting Wagner at ENO in the 1970s, and a concert given by the Red Army Chorus in Moscow in 1983.

Of my own performances:

  1. The formative ones were Beethoven Piano Concerto 3 with the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra when I was 12, singing in Bach’s Mass in B minor in Manchester Cathedral when I was 17, my London debut at the 1979 Proms and my US debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1983.
  2. The most significant and life-changing was the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982.
  3. The most nerve-wracking was when I conducted Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007.
  4. The strangest, although very rewarding, was giving the first ever classical recital in Papua New Guinea in 2006.
  5. The one that went the least well is best left unmentioned, although there are many contenders!

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

Far too many composers and pieces to mention. Much easier to think of pieces of music that I don’t like to play or listen to, and I daren’t name them for the sake of those who disagree – although there are actually very few.

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

  1. That we are all part of a culture that is far bigger than we are.
  2. That the greatness of the music and sharing that greatness with the listeners are both far more important than our commercial success and our ego.
  3. That we need to identify in our own minds exactly why we really want to be performing musicians, and what we feel is the true role of music in modern society.

What are you working on at the moment?  

Bach’s complete 48 Preludes and Fugues has been my main project since 2005, but there are many other less all-emcompassing and to some degree more familiar ones.

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

Where I am now, but with more memories and experiences from which to draw.

In the years since his unprecedented success as Silver Medal winner of the 1982 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Peter Donohoe has built an extraordinary world-wide  career, encompassing a huge repertoire and over forty years’ experience as a pianist, as well as continually exploring many other avenues in music-making. He is acclaimed as one of the foremost pianists of our time, for his musicianship, stylistic versatility and commanding technique. Read Peter’s full biography here.

www.peter-donohoe.com

Peter Donohoe opens the autumn season at Sutton House Music Society with a concert on Sunday 21st October 2012.

www.shms.org.uk

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

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

I’ve always sung, since I was a little girl, and I’ve always loved music. So singing as a job seemed like a natural step. However, I didn’t follow a logical route, as I first became a Barrister, after reading Law at Cambridge University. But the lure of singing was too great in the end, and so I accepted a place at the Royal College of Music and I’ve never looked back.

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

My most important influence has been my wonderful teacher, Lillian Watson. She has brought me to where I am today and I owe her everything. I have also been very lucky and have come into contact with some amazing artists who have guided me: Sir Thomas Allen, who gave me my first role as Mrs Herring in his production of Albert Herring at the RCM; Christa Ludwig, who has given a number of masterclasses I was fortunate enough to participate in; the late great Philip Langridge, who coached me in song and presentation; and currently Dame Anne Evans, who is guiding me through all of the Wagner roles I am learning.

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

Balancing being a wife and mother with a career that often takes me far away from home.

Which performances / recordings are you most proud of?

Every performance or recording is a learning experience, and so as long as I’ve given my best I’m proud of all of them. But I suppose if I had to select one, I would say my debut at the Salzburg Festival in Mozart’s La Betulia Liberata.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Wigmore Hall. There’s no better acoustic to perform in – it’s a beautiful space.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

In oratorio, I love Mahler 2 and Das Lied von der Erde, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I also love song repertoire, especially by Schubert, Brahms Britten and Mahler, and in opera I love singing Wagner. My favourite pieces to listen to are Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Mozart’s Requiem and anything by Mumford and Sons!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Christa Ludwig, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Tomlinson, and Stephen Hough.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Singing Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Dallas Symphony under Van Zweden. It was simply wonderful.

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

Always be true to yourself, and work hard. Preparation is everything!

What is your most treasured possession?

My home. I spend a lot of my time away, so time at home with my family is precious.