157_elan_katharina_2011_crop_highresElan Sicroff is one of the leading interpreters of Thomas de Hartmann’s music and his extensive recording project with the Nimbus label brings de Hartmann’s chamber and solo piano music to a wider audience. Here he talks about the project as well as his own influences and inspirations and the experience of recording and performing de Hartmann’s music.


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

There were two people who influenced my decision to become a professional musician:

I met J.G. Bennett in December 1972. He directed an academy in Gloucestershire modelled after the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded by George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher and polymath. At the time I was ambivalent about my path as a musician, and he said to me “If you have talent, it is a gift. It doesn’t belong to you, and you have an obligation to share it.”

Bennett was particularly interested in Beethoven’s music, and we worked together on the late sonatas Op. 110 and 111. During this time I also came across the music of Thomas de Hartmann, beginning my lifelong involvement with his music.

A second important influence is the guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced my CD Journey to Inaccessible Places – the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Since 2006 he has helped me with a 21-year effort to bring de Hartmann’s classical music back to public awareness. In 2010 he introduced me to Gert-Jan Blom, Artistic Producer for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. We embarked on a five year recording project in 2011, resulting in six hours of music for solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble, now being released by Nimbus Alliance Records.

I would like to mention one other, overwhelmingly important influence on my pianistic and musical development. This was Jeaneane Dowis. When I first met her in 1964 when she was 32 years old: elegant, beautiful, and brilliant. In her early 20s she had become assistant to Rosina Lhevinne, on the strength of her ground-breaking discoveries in piano technique. Rosina had taught Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, and students flocked from around the world to study with her. She sent those with technical problems to Jeaneane, and soon she was teaching 70 hours a week. I was 14 years old at the time, and she agreed to teach me if I was accepted by the Juilliard Preparatory School. The four years I spent with her were consistently exhilarating. She had astonishing insights, not only in technique but also in musicianship and interpretation. I went back to her again in the 1980s for further study, and her teaching had moved to another level: her remarkable discoveries about ease of movement, related to skeletal anatomy and visualization, deserve to be more widely known.

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

After nearly 40 years teaching piano, I was thrust into the world of professional musicians in 2011, due to the needs of the Thomas de Hartmann Project. The recordings in the Netherlands that began in 2011 presented many firsts for me.

The repertoire was very demanding. Many of the pieces contained technical difficulties, and once those were surmounted the task of turning them into music could be challenging. This was especially true for the later works, like the Commentaries on Ulysses Op. 71 and Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77.

Accompanying vocal music was something I had never done before. Working with musicians of the calibre of Claron McFadden – a celebrated soprano in the Netherlands; and Nina Lejderman, a talented young opera singer, was quite a stretch.

Recording is an uncomfortable process and presents its own challenges. I have had to overcome my self-consciousness, which was magnified whenever the engineer said “You’re On!” After five years in the studio I have learned to trust the process. I now find myself looking forward to it: the birth pains are unavoidable, but the result is worth it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2016 the Thomas de Hartmann Project gave two memorable performances at Splendor in Amsterdam. The venue is quite special, founded in 2010 by a group of musicians, composers, and artists who needed a place to experiment and perform as they saw fit. When the de Hartmann recording project in Hilversum came to an end, many participants offered their services, pro bono, for the recitals. Music for saxophones, a trio for flute, violin and piano; sonatas for violin and cello, works for solo piano as well as de Hartmann’s songs were among the works featured. The response was very positive, confirming our belief that the listening audience was becoming ready to embrace de Hartmann’s music, after many years of neglect.

As for recordings: I have made 3 CDs of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. I like all of them, but my favourite is Laudamus…, released in 2010.

That said, the Thomas de Hartmann Project CDs, now being released by Nimbus, occupy a special place for me. They represent the first commercial recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s work, ever. I am so happy that this music is now available for the public to enjoy, and also to play. The contributions of Gert-Jan Blom, producer extraordinaire, and Guido Tichelman, one of the leading recording engineers in Europe, cannot be overstated. Gert-Jan brought his wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm to the project, and the sound quality that Guido captured is of the highest order.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I find myself attracted to composers who are able express deeper meaning in their music. In May 1970 I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was strongly affected by how Mozart expressed the meaning of the words through his music. It was a seminal moment, which lead me to look for more works by Mozart and other composers that had this power.

Beethoven’s struggles with deafness are well known – he even contemplated suicide in his thirties as a result, but decided to continue and compose for the benefit of mankind. His compositions became a chronicle of his inner life. The same can be said for Schubert – contracting syphilis was a death sentence, and his music often reflects his inner struggles, sometimes leading to defiance, at others to acceptance.

Thomas de Hartmann attempted to express psychological ideas that he encountered through his work with Kandinsky and Gurdjieff, in addition to wide-ranging literary influences. Along with the colour, vibrancy and beauty of his music, his attempts to insert meaning in his music continue to fascinate me.

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

I find that physical work of various kinds is essential to my feeling of well-being. These days I walk and have a vegetable garden. I also practice yoga and the Alexander Technique, which help to tune the whole body, before sitting down to the instrument.

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

Since 2011, there has been a flow that has made choices for repertoire fairly easy. The aim to present a body of representative works by de Hartmann for the public, resulted in our recording a substantial portion of his output for piano solo, voice, and chamber ensemble…though to be accurate, we’ve only scratched the surface of his vocal output.

A group of musicians has now come together to form the Thomas de Hartmann Consort. The aim for our programming has been to integrate de Hartmann’s work into the rest of the classical canon. The programming possibilities are almost endless:

— Music by de Hartmann’s composition teachers, Anton Arensky and Sergei Tanaieff.

— The music by Debussy and Ravel, to compare and contrast de Hartmann’s own work with Impressionism.

— Music that relates to de Hartmann’s quest for meaning: Beethoven and Schubert.

— De Hartmann’ Bach transcriptions for Pablo Casals provide the opportunity to perform them next to the originals.

— Music by contemporaneous Russian composers, from Rachmaninoff to Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc.

— Music by Bartok and Kodaly, delving into early attempts to bring World Music to the West.

As for recording, the Piano Concerto Op. 61 is next on the agenda, scheduled for this autumn. There are also a few solo piano pieces that need to be recorded, including a 25 page sonata written when de Hartmann was 17, and some very late works from the 1950s.

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

Most of my performances have taken place in small halls that seat several hundred people. I particularly like Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for its intimacy and acoustic. I’ve played at many universities and conservatories, including the University of Anchorage, Alaska, UCLA and UC Berkeley in California, and the Longy Conservatory in Boston. I always enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of these audiences. Young musicians represent the future, and if de Hartmann’s music is going to be established, it will be those people who will give it voice.

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

Quality education is the highest priority. Very young children should hear top-notch recordings and performances to develop an ear for music. This means that parents need to get involved. It also helps when elementary and high schools have good music programs: Zoltán Kodály brought solfège to the Hungarian school system, and Japanese schools also have a quality music program. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized violin teaching when he developed the “mother-tongue approach,” in which young children learn to play an instrument in the same way they learn to speak. He has been a major force in bringing youngsters to classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Following are two answers to this question, from opposite perspectives: first as performer, secondly as audience participant:

In 1975 Mme. de Hartmann had organized a recital of her husband’s music at McGill University in Montreal. I had been asked to play the Two Nocturnes Op. 84, written in de Hartmann’s late classical style.

This was my first meeting with her. Madame may have been diminutive in size, but she was truly a force of nature. She had been a member of the Russian aristocracy, close to the Tsarina before the Russian Revolution, and had strong ideas that sometimes ran contrary to the relaxed attitudes of young people in the later years of the hippy era. She didn’t approve of women wearing jeans, of young men with beards, or grand pianos on movable platforms being used in performances of her husband’s music. She told me to ignore the audience and play only for her, to look up at the ceiling before playing ‘the Music of the Stars,’ and that a musician must rest on the afternoon of a performance to conserve energy for the event. I was still impressionable at the age of 25, and took it all in.

When my performance was a success, it began a relationship that lasted for 4 years until her death in 1979. It opened the door for further recitals under her tutelage, as well as instruction in de Hartmann’s music.

One of the most memorable performances I ever saw took place in London in the mid 1970s, when I heard the cellist Paul Tortelier give a solo recital. I had not heard his name before, and had no idea what to expect. He came onto the stage, an elderly man, thin, with a shock of white hair. He seemed to float over the cello when he played. The first piece, a Boccherini sonata had 3 movements, but he was so pleased with himself after the first two that he stood up, took a bow and moved onto a Bach cello suite! Then he stopped, began speaking in French, and changed to English: “If you want to cough while I play, please leave the room!” The audience was noticeably taken aback.

In the second half he played the Franck Sonata and (if I remember correctly) also the Debussy cello sonata. By the end he had won the audience over, and began playing encores – without leaving the stage, he continued for another 45 minutes, even including the entire Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. By this time the audience was in a frenzy, with some people standing to watch him in amazement. Finally he stood up, closed the lid of the piano, and walked off the stage, not turning back….

In the programme notes I noticed that he had studied with Gerard Hekking. De Hartmann had dedicated his cello sonata to him, so I went backstage to ask Tortelier if he knew of the piece. “Yes,” he said, “it has a beautiful second movement, but the rest is not for the masses.”

I walked out of the hall feeling that I had witnessed an event that was a throwback to the Romantic Age, reminiscent of stories I’d read about Liszt and Paganini in performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I view my work in music as a process, with different stages, and it is necessary for some form of success to enter into each of them. First there is the functional work of learning the notes, understanding the structure, and overcoming technical challenges. Then another level comes: the music must begin to speak. In some ways it is the opposite of the functional work – activity ends and receptivity begins: one must listen, be still, be open, questioning. This stage is sometimes quite agonizing: the piece still is not music, and one cannot “make it happen.” When one completes this stage and is prepared, the final stage comes with performance. Here the audience becomes a participant, adding its listening to the music. There are then three aspects: the performer, the audience and the music. Occasionally there is an “event,” where something new and memorable occurs. Success!

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

In 1972 I went to see Nadia Boulanger in Paris, to inquire about becoming her student. One of the most memorable things she said to me was “If you can live without Music, do!”

This statement has resonated with me over the years. It covers a lot. Anyone considering a career in music should have an all-consuming love for it. If one is fortunate enough to realize that there is nothing one would rather do than make music, then there really isn’t a choice…!

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

Seven years remain until the end of the 21-year Thomas de Hartmann Project. For a long time I’ve an image of what completion would look like: I will be standing in front of Carnegie Hall, looking at the billboard announcing the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Thomas de Hartmann’s Symphonie-Poème. This would indicate that de Hartmann has finally “arrived.”

I’d be happy to substitute specific works in this visualization – it might be another symphony or concerto by Thomas de Hartmann. Another orchestral work by Beethoven might also be acceptable….!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I would say that true happiness results from a life well lived, in which one manages to achieve one’s goals. As a working musician, I find that self-satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles in learning the repertoire that I value, and performing it well. Each time this occurs, it gives a taste of happiness.

On 2 April, Nimbus release three volumes of the Music of Thomas de Hartmann. More information here.


Elan Sicroff is known as an interpreter of the music written by Thomas de Hartmann, both the classical works as well as the music from the East composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff . In the 1960s he studied with Jeaneane Dowis, protégée and assistant to Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. From 1973-75 he attended the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, England, as a student and later Director of Music. The Academy was directed by J. G. Bennett, a leading exponent of Gurdjieff’s teachings.  It was here that Elan was introduced to the music of Thomas de Hartmann. Between 1975 and 1979 he studied with Mme. Olga de Hartmann, widow of the composer, focusing on the music which de Hartmann composed in the classical idiom.  He performed many recitals under her auspices, and in 1982 toured the United States.

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(video credit: Victor McSurely )

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

My biggest influences have been my piano teachers:

• My first piano teacher in Toulouse’s conservatoire, Claudine Willoth, who understood I was different than the other kids and cultivated my curiosity for music in general, not only for the piano. At that time I wasn’t thinking of being a professional and was reluctant to practise scales or exercices. She didn’t insist and helped me to realise what I really wanted at that time : to compose music, to sightread some masterpieces ( too difficult for me at that time ), to improvise, to listen to all kinds of music.

• My second teacher in Paris’s conservatoire, Jean-François Heisser, who I met in Toulouse when I was only 13 and who convinced me I was could become a professional musician. From that point I started to practice seriously.

• My third teacher, in London, Maria Curcio, who convinced me I could go much further and become an international soloist. I was sometimes having 5 or 6 full days of lessons in a row. It was like that every month and she really prepared me to perform on stage, to open up and find my identity as a musician.

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

They have all been ultimately very positive challenges. For example, when I first played a solo recital at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, after which I realised I could probably consider myself as a soloist; when I played Bartok 2nd Concerto with Pierre Boulez, one of my biggest idols; all my big debuts in major venues and with major orchestras; and, more recently, creating my own festival (Festival et Académie Ravel) and Academy for young musicians, and, hopefully one day, a new concert hall, in one of my most beloved places, the French Basque Country.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Difficult to say, though I’m very proud of the last one, ‘Good Night!’,  I should say! Also the Saint-Saëns album which won the Gramophone 2019 Album of the Year Award. I could also mention an older recording, Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. But I’m quite happy with everything, even if I know I could do everything better.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It’s difficult for me to answer that. Probably music by Liszt, and generally-speaking music from the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m also quite at ease with the classical style and Beethoven’s music, though that’s one side my audience knows a little less, I think.

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

Meditation. Just before going on stage.

Elsewhere in my life, I enjoy being with friends, good food (I love to cook myself), travelling, and my relationship with all forms of art and all kinds of music, including pop. I also read a lot of books, articles, magazines, all kind of things, depending on my state of mind. This all probably goes someway in inspiring my interpretations but it is totally subconscious.

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

I built a very big repertoire and musical knowledge when I was a teenager. I continue to discover new things all the time but I mainly extract ideas from this big body of work. The question is more what’s next? To try to find a logical order. But I have ideas for the next 60 years at least! Regarding new repertoire, I’m mainly interested in contemporary compositions and discovering new composers. So I try to confirm some new commissions each year so that I can regularly give premieres. This stimulates me a lot.

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

There are so many. I could mention Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires for example, which gives me such an intense emotion each time I enter on stage and face the audience. Such an impressive and magnificent place.

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

I think that artists and promoters should work much more to promote contemporary music and to help the audience discover it gradually so they get used to it – like visual art, for example. The younger generation needs to feel that there are living artists and composers behind it. The most contemporary music should be absolutely central in my opinion. It’s fundamental to get out of this museum experience feeling. Or if not, it should at least be in the style of a modern art museum…!

We also need to destroy the existing frameworks. The look and format of a concert should not just depend on old habits.

Why should a recital consist of two halves of 45 minutes each? Why should a concerto be played at the same part of the concert each time? Why always this same ritual of encores? Why does the orchestra have more or less the same layout? Why are the (bright) lights always more or less the same in every concert hall across the world? We should innovate much more to make the whole experience more alive. It’s also essential we maintain – now more than ever – a standard of very high quality. The worst thing for me is levelling down.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are too many.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being happy. And proud to achieve what we can achieve. To continue to have dreams and to try to make them become reality.

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

To remember that success is not about having your name written in gold letters at the top of a poster.

It’s a long quest and a process of building. You need to build your repertoire, your personality… to try to learn who you are as an artist. That all takes time. Search inside yourself, as most of what you have to say is already inside you from very early on.

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

I don’t know exactly but certainly not where I am right now!

I like movement. I’d like to continue to travel, to develop my repertoire, to commission and premiere a lot of new works. To develop my Festival and Academy project and to create a real musical centre to experiment with new ideas. Maybe to teach again a bit. I’d like to be more linked to the younger generation and to today’s composers, as well as to other kinds of artists.

Bertrand Chamayou’s new album Good Night! is released on 9 October on the Warner Classics label.


Bertrand Chamayou is one of today’s most strikingly brilliant pianists, recognised for his revelatory performances at once powerfully virtuosic, imaginative and breathtakingly beautiful.

Heralded for his masterful conviction and insightful musicianship across a vast repertoire, the French pianist performs at the highest level on the international music scene. He is recognised as a leading interpreter of French repertoire, shining a new light on familiar as well as lesser known works, while possessing an equally driving curiosity and deep passion for new music. He has worked with composers including Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, György Kurtág, Thomas Adès and Michael Jarrell.

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Artist photo: Warner Classics

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

When I was 14 my violin teacher gave me the chance to conduct a string orchestra I was playing in. I remember vividly the experience standing there with the music flowing around and through me as I tried to communicate with the players. I didn’t have any technique at all and it was probably terrible! But in that moment I had a very strong sense that this was an extraordinary feeling and something I wanted to explore deeply.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

I’m not sure I can judge this myself fully. However, without a doubt conductor Sian Edwards who is the most wonderful human being and has taught me a huge amount about the relation between music and conducting technique. Michael Dussek, my piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, was also a strong influence in helping me develop my own artistic ethos in service of the music. Working as an assistant to several conductors provided opportunities to see at first hand what works, what doesn’t and what kind of musical leader I would like to be.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Mastering a huge range of repertoire in the depth required is a never-ending challenge, particularly as a young conductor starting out. There is almost no amount of preparation that will enable you to feel fully confident with a symphony when standing in front of a great orchestra that has played it hundreds of times before. How to deal with this is an important milestone. The most fulfilling thing is when everything clicks within the orchestra, and the music seems to unfold naturally. When I feel as if I have to do very little on the podium this is wonderfully satisfying.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

I try to show everything with my baton, and occasionally where appropriate use a mental image or piece of historical context to frame a particular sound world or effect. It’s important to realise quickly what works best with a certain orchestra: some players prefer to avoid verbal communication, others are drawn in by a bit more context or personal imagery.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

The position of the conductor is often anachronistic – it is only from the time of Beethoven onwards that musicians would have expected someone to direct the performance this way. In Mozart you need to get out of the way; in Mahler it almost seems as if the music was written for a single music interpreter to shape; in much contemporary repertoire you are akin to a sophisticated metronome. So the role varies, but the conductor must always bring his/her personal energy to the ensemble and a love for the letter and spirit of the music.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Elgar Symphony no. 2. I find Elgar’s English character combined with his Austro-Germanic style of composition irresistible.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I’ve only performed there once but the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre has the most exceptional acoustic: crystal clear yet warm enough to create any sound world you could possibly want.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My all-time No. 1 conductor would be Claudio Abbado, whose flair, intellectual rigour and versatility across all repertoire seem unparalleled to me. If I had to choose one composer it would be Beethoven. At the moment I’m realising what a limited picture we get of him as orchestral musicians if we don’t explore the piano sonatas and chamber music. His symphonies and concerti alone give a misleading sense of his musical personality.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Very, very rarely we feel we have done justice to the music. It is gratifying when this feeling is shared by respected colleagues and listeners, and of course sometimes this can lead to career progression which plays a part in ‘success’ too.

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

An ethos of constant self-sacrificing exploration. And a passion to learn why and in what situation a piece was composed as this can really help recapture its spirit in the present moment.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To maintain a fulfilling balance between desire and satisfaction over a lifetime.


Mark Austin’s performances of orchestral and operatic repertoire have been praised for their “eloquent intensity” (Guardian).

Recent highlights include Mark’s debut at Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, and the final of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Solti Conducting Competition. He has been shortlisted for the ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship 2020-22. In 2019 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music and worked in masterclass with Riccardo Muti. He collaborated with soloists including Guy Johnston, Kristine Balanas, Julien van Mellaerts and Siobhan Stagg. As assistant conductor he worked at Garsington Opera and with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. 2020 includes work at Folkoperan in Sweden, a return to Garsington and concerts at Oundle International Music Festival and Cambridge Summer Music Festival.

Other projects have included ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ (Dartington International Festival), ‘Goyescas’ (The Grange Festival), ‘Tosca’ (Musique Cordiale International Festival) and a two-concert Brahms residency with Guy Johnston and Faust Chamber Orchestra at Hatfield House. Mark was assistant conductor for the world première production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Coraline’ (Royal Opera). He has worked with figures including Vasily Petrenko, Sian Edwards, Marin Alsop, David Parry, David Hill, Steuart Bedford, and the late Sir Colin Davis, and conducted orchestras including Aurora, Britten Sinfonia, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Orchestra of St John’s and the Hangzhou Philharmonic, China. Mark was awarded a Bayreuth Festival Young Artist Bursary in 2018 and recorded the world première of Alex Woolf’s ‘NHS Symphony’ for BBC Radio 3, which won a Prix Europa. He studies with Sian Edwards and was awarded an International Opera Awards Bursary in 2017. 

An accomplished pianist, Mark has performed at venues including Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, St John’s Smith Square, Holywell Music Room, Opera Bastille (Paris) and the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre. He is musical assistant to The Bach Choir and regularly conducts the choir in concert and the recording studio, including live on BBC1 for the Andrew Marr Show.

Born in London, Mark had lessons in violin and piano from an early age. He played in the National Youth Orchestra, and studied at Cambridge University and Royal Academy of Music, where he received numerous prizes and was appointed a Junior Fellow. Mark contributed a chapter on Wagner, Beethoven and Faust to the recently published ‘Music in Goethe’s Faust’. You can read more about Mark on http://www.mark-austin.net and follow him on Twitter @mark_aus_tin.

mark-austin.net

 

 

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

The reason I started playing the guitar was John Denver. I loved his songs from the age of five and that put the idea of learning the guitar into my head. I started having lessons when I was seven. From my mid-teens I was set on studying music at university and then heading abroad for further study and to hopefully establish a career. I always loved making music both as a guitarist and on my second study instrument – percussion. I never seriously considered doing anything else.

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

My teachers John Casey (at home in Perth, Western Australia) and Gordon Crosskey (at the Royal Northern College of Music). John Williams and Julian Bream were the two guitarists I listened to the most when I was growing up. Many of my colleagues have been influential and inspirational as well: Paul Tanner (percussionist from Perth), David Juritz (violin), Roger Bigley (viola) and many more.

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

Just establishing a career is extremely challenging and involves some degree of luck. Capitalising on those moments of good fortune is an important skill too! Getting a foothold at the beginning of your career can be very difficult. I was very lucky to be offered a recording for Nimbus Records circuitously via Michael Tippett early in my career and that gave me a strong start.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Recording concertos is a huge privilege and was an opportunity I appreciated greatly. For Chandos Records I recorded all three solo Rodrigo guitar concertos with the BBC Phil and on another disc, three English concertos (Arnold, Berkeley and Walton) with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia. Recording with the very lovely, late Alison Stephens (mandolin) was a joy. I was proud of coming up with the idea behind the Chandos Records CD ‘Music from the Novels of Louis de Bernieres’ which sold really well when it came out in October 1999 at the height of the popularity of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I really don’t know how to answer that! I try to do my best with all of the repertoire that I play. I love playing Bach in particular but I enjoy all of the music, chamber, concerto and solo that I perform. The only piece I would absolutely avoid playing again is Kurze Schatten II by Brian Ferneyhough.

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

My solo repertoire evolves over time but I am always learning new chamber music. Having played percussion for many years as a second study, I really love playing with other people in groups of all sizes. I have regularly performed with strings, voices, percussion, mandolin, accordion, saxophone and flute over the years and have had shorter associations with the kanun (Middle-Eastern lap harp type of thing!) and other styles of guitar (metal, lap-slide). My repertoire choices are partially influenced by projects on the go or in development while my solo recital repertoire also develops depending on requirements of certain promoters, commissions and my own areas of interest.

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

The best and most rewarding venues to play in on the guitar tend to be small, resonant spaces such as small churches. I’ve played in exquisite college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford, comparable churches all over the UK and then of course stunning venues such as the Wigmore Hall. My favourite type of venue would be any beautiful space with a lovely, resonant acoustic, with absolute silence all around.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s tricky to single out one but playing in the Royal Albert Hall would have to be up there, performing Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being well prepared and giving something close to your best performance.

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

There are many different elements that go in to building a successful career. How to practice, thinking positively, relaxing while playing, the importance of pulse both in terms of shaping interpretations and also as the key tool in communicating with other musicians. Other issues include working effectively with colleagues, developing relationships with promoters, being imaginative and innovative with programme development and collaborative projects. Most of all, remembering to love what you are doing and to savour every moment.

What is your most treasured possession?

If I am thinking in terms of what to leave when I’m gone, it would have to be my 2011 Greg Smallman guitar. I was extremely fortunate to win my first Smallman in 1993 in Darwin, Australia and the current one is my third. They are beautiful, lyrical instruments. At a more personal level I absolutely treasure photos I have of my kids, and also photos of surfing holidays with some of my friends from Perth. Although I haven’t lived in Australia since 1990, some of my friends from school and university are my closest friends and the photos of our time together are some of the most precious things I have.

As part of the London Mozart Player’s “At home with LMP” series, Craig Ogden will launch the first of LMP’s ‘Saturday Sessions’ live-streamed from his home via the LMP’s Facebook page at 7pm on Saturday 28th March.  Ogden will bring the soothing sounds of the classical guitar right to your living room with a relaxing performance of much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, including Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major and excerpts from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez: www.londonmozartplayers.com/athome

 


Australian born guitarist Craig Ogden is one of the most exciting artists of his generation. He studied guitar from the age of seven and percussion from the age of thirteen. In 2004, he became the youngest instrumentalist to receive a Fellowship Award from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

One of the UK’s most recorded guitarists, his recordings for Virgin/EMI, Chandos, Nimbus, Hyperion, Sony and Classic FM have received wide acclaim.

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An interview with Wasfi Kani OBE, founder of Grange Park Opera


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music, and specifically opera?

I don’t think of myself as having a career. I’ve done lots of different things. Most humans can do lots of different things and they lumber themselves with a single track . . . a “career”.

Tell us a little more about your background. I understand you haven’t always worked in music?

I was born in 1956 in Cable Street in London’s East End, and I am the only opera impresario who spent their childhood in a house with an outside lavatory. My parents, from Delhi and Agra, had fled India at Partition to take refuge in the UK. I attended a state grammar school (Burlington Grammar School for Girls in White City), played the violin in the National Youth Orchestra and went on to study music at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

After 10 years in the city, programming and designing financial computer systems, I started a small computer consultancy which gave me the flexibility to spend more time conducting. I’ve always had this sense that the arts provide some kind of insight into the ultimate truth, whereas banking and computer systems don’t.

Who or what was the biggest influence in your career?

But I don’t have a career! The biggest influence is my mantra to work as hard as possible. And the fact that I don’t get tired. Then I jump into bed and fall straight asleep.

Grange Park Opera is your latest opera enterprise; how did you arrive at this point and what challenges did you encounter along the way?

It all began with Pimlico Opera and by 1992, I was made Chief Executive of Garsington Opera in Oxford. During my five years’ tenure, I more than quadrupled its turnover. In 1997, I founded my own opera company/charity, Grange Park Opera and built an opera house in Hampshire. I also started the operas at Nevill Holt, Leicestershire.

Wormwood Scrubs is very far removed from Grange Park: what motivated you to put on opera in a prison?

It was the Pimlico Opera days and we were performing for the National Trust, for private banks, in other big houses and I suddenly thought “Why not do a show for prisoners?”. I had gone to school behind Wormood Scrubs so around 1989 I wrote to the governor and he rang me. The rest, as they say, is history. Here I am 30+ years later…. we’re still in prison. That’s a long sentence!

You founded Grange Park Opera in 1997 and it has recently relocated to Surrey. Tell us about the process of securing the land and building the new opera house, known as the Theatre in the Woods.

In 2015 our Hampshire landlords terminated the charity’s lease and we had two years to find a new site, get planning permission, raise £10m and build a new opera house. Miraculously, we did it.

We found West Horsley Place in 2015, applied for planning permission in January 2016. It was granted in May 2016 and we had one year to build the five-tier opera house based on La Scala. It is in a magical wood behind the historic orchard and we named it the Theatre in the Woods.

Meanwhile…..we had to raise money to build it. I had assumed we would have to borrow cash at some point but people were very very generous. No loan was necessary.

The new location West Horsley Place, an estate in the Surrey Hills inherited by Bamber Gascoigne, is much closer to London, which is obviously a huge advantage. The audience usually, but not exclusively, dress in black tie/ long dresses and arrive two hours before the performance to wander, glass of champagne in hand, at leisure through this magical demi-Eden. A convivial atmosphere reigns – the city seems far away. A walk through the ancient Orchard – passing a 300-year-old mulberry tree, damson, pear and apple trees – takes you to the opera house for Act 1.

The long dining interval is an all-important part of the evening. There are two restaurants but some guests take a more bucolic approach and fling down a rug and picnic. When the opera ends, the audience walks out into the magical moonlit wood and through candlelit formal gardens.

The whole experience is beyond stylish. (There are even 47 vintage cars on offer (for a fee) to drive you from (and to) London or Horsley Station. Imagine arriving pre-War Rolls Royce . . .)

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of running your own opera company?

Pleasure: you can put on anything you like as long as you can pay for it! Challenges: every problem lands on my desk.

What are you particularly looking forward to in this season at Grange Park Opera?

The 2020 season combines mainstays and eyebrow-raisers: the traditional and the unexpected. We’ve possibly the biggest statement of the entire summer opera season: La Gioconda with superstar tenor Joseph Calleja fresh from the Met, New York, to play nobleman Enzo Grimaldo in this tragedy of Shakespearean scale. Ponchielli’s luscious musical palette tinges a Verdian richness with a biting acidity. The ribbon on the box is the Rambert School to perform the Dance of the Hours.

Then there is more acidity with a world premiere: The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko. Not to be missed.

Do you think opera is elitist?

This “elitist” tag is predicated on the idea that you need to know something to enjoy opera. You don’t. All you have to do is walk into the theatre and sit in a seat. A narrative is transmitted by 70 people in the orchestra, 50+ people on stage, all performing live, right in front of you. As the story unfolds you will feel lots of things. The people around you will feel different things. There is no right or wrong. Whatever you feel is an insight to your humanity. It makes you a better, bigger person.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring opera singers?

Work harder than everyone else. It’s a very competitive world.

How do you define “success”, in the world of opera and classical music in general?

Oddly, many of these questions use phrases that I shun! I don’t have a view on “success” and I don’t think about it. We are all the same. Me, the prisoners I work with, you, Bernard Haitink. We are all here to try to make the world a better place and learn about what it is to be a human in the world today.

Grange Park Opera’s summer season opens on 4 June

Visit the Grange Park Opera website


wasfi-kani-please-credit-robert-workman-700x455-1
Wasfi Kani

Grange Park Opera, founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani OBE, has staged more than 80 operas, performed to more than 300,000 audience, nurtured the careers of young singers and created a family of supporters that has helped me raise more than £22m in funds to support Grange Park Opera, which receives no subsidy from the government. Only 23 miles from London, Grange Park Opera is an integral part of the English summer season.

Wasfi Kani is an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA and St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2002 for her work in bringing her second opera company, Pimlico Opera, into prisons.

This annual initiative gives inmates the opportunity to work with professional directors and singers in creating a production which the public attend. The next show is Hairspray, 7-15 March 2020 at HMP Bronzefield. This is the 28thcollaboration and more than 60,000 public have ventured inside to witness remarkable talent. Besides the work in prison, Pimlico Opera gives a half hour singing class to 2,000 primary school every week of the school year a part of Primary Robins

 

(Image credit: Robert Workman)

 

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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net