Category Archives: Interview

Meet the Artist……Stephen Upshaw

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

Growing up, I was often the slightly withdrawn aesthete picking up beautifully coloured leaves on the football pitch rather than playing the game, so in a way I think I was just waiting to find the right creative outlet. The moment came when, aged 10, I decided to play the viola in my school orchestra. It became clear immediately that I had found the medium and instrument that sparked my imagination. Unusually, I never played the violin or indeed any other instrument before the viola – my first read notes of music were in the dreaded alto clef! It seemed that EVERYONE else wanted to play the violin, and my lanky limbs and desire to be different made the sultry viola a natural choice. My parents are not musicians but are great appreciators of music of all styles and so I always loved listening to (and dancing around to) music from an early age so was thrilled to finally be able to make it myself.

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

Throughout my musical development I have had a number of inspiring teachers and mentors. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, home of Marilyn Seelman, violist and pedagogue extraordinaire, and she completely changed the course of my musical life (and the flexibility of my bow hold), seeing a future brighter and bigger than I had ever envisioned for myself. I then went on to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where Carol Rodland taught me all about co-ordination, tension-free playing and musical abandon, Martha Katz guided me in the great art of chamber music playing and how to search for the perfect and most creative sound at any given moment, and Katarina Miljkovic opened my ears to and sparked my passion for the vast array of music written since 1950. I then finished my studies in London with the great David Takeno whose irrepressible enthusiasm about music and unbelievable work ethic continue to be a daily inspiration.

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

Confidently forging my own musical path, trusting my instincts and not being afraid to take musical and career-related risks.

You’ve recently joined the board of The Riot Ensemble, tell us about your work with them?

The Riot Ensemble is a wonderful group of virtuoso musicians from across Europe who I was excited to discover upon my arrival to London. Their focus on the newest and most exciting music from across the globe was an immediate draw and after playing a few projects with them over the years, I was thrilled to be invited to join as an artistic board member and regular player. We produce and commission new work across the UK and abroad from a diverse selection of composers and aim to present a wide array of musical styles in contexts both traditional an unusual. We’ve just selected 7 composers from our 279 Call for Scores applications and are always on the lookout for new and interesting compositional voices – it’s always so inspiring to see the wonderfully wide range of work that’s being created!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I particularly relate to anything which showcases the extreme, beautiful and huge emotional/ sonic range of the viola.

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

Often these choices are made based on a number of logistical factors such as commission schedules, artist availability, etc., but one strategy I love to employ is to construct a programme around a single work that is particularly special to me. For example, the recital I have coming up in June, centred around Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (with the wonderful Gabriella Dall’Olio and Anna Noakes). The Debussy has long been one of my favourite pieces of music and I’m particularly interested in placing canonical works of the past in dialogue with music of our time, in this case Saariaho’s stunning ‘Vent Nocturne’ for solo viola and electronics, Garth Knox’s duos with viola powerhouse and fellow Atlantan Jennifer Stumm and a new work for solo viola and sampled sounds by a student composer from Trinity Laban.

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

I’ve played in a wide variety of venues in recent years, from celebrated concert halls to clubs, basements and living rooms, and it would be hard to pick a favourite. Generally, I love playing anywhere with an excited and attentive audience. In terms of enthusiasm and energy, I remember being blown away by the audiences in Japan and Korea and for full houses of seasoned concert goers up for the most challenging of new music night after night, Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To perform: I love the quicksilver energy, vitality and youthful fearlessness of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, the beauty and power of Jonathan Harvey’s ensemble works and the primal pyrotechnics of Luciano Berio’s viola music (I’m looking at you, Sequenza!).

To listen to: Beethoven symphonies and violin concerto, Brahms chamber music (early Cleveland Quartet recordings particularly), Mozart Requiem

Who are your favourite musicians?

Gidon Kremer, Kim Kashkashian, Joseph Szigeti, Helmut Lachenmann, Whitney Houston, Little Dragon, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter

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

Try to understand why you are making music, what you want to say in your interpretations and to whom you want to say it. Without getting too fluffy, I really do think it’s also important to always remember what a privilege it is to make art professionally and to never take it for granted – the world needs more gratitude and we can start with being grateful for the enlightening task we as musicians have been set!

 

Stephen Upshaw and The Riot Ensemble present liturgical themed concert at Blackheath Concert Hall on Wednesday 3 May with premieres by Augusta Read Thomas and Scott Lygate as well as Jonathan Harvey’s rarely-performed Jubilus

Meet the Artist…..Ivana Gavric, pianist

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

I have been surrounded by music since birth. My mother is a pianist and teacher and I spent my childhood listening to her practice and being taken to concerts, the opera and ballet. I was particularly fascinated to hear and see ‘magic’ on stage, and then meet the artists afterwards, with their ‘mask’ off. I started attending the Sarajevo Junior Music School before I started main school. I do remember wanting to be an opera singer initially, but the piano somehow won, and I am very happy that it did! Although I loved being immersed in music, later, if anything, I almost tried to avoid it as a career.

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

My long-term teachers, Niel Immelman and Peter Bithell. Working with singers while I was a student – they taught me how to breathe, phrase and tell a story. Dmitry Bashkirov who taught me to listen and colour every note in a way I didn’t think possible before. Steven Kovacevich for instilling discipline in me!

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

Learning to say no.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut disc ‘In the mists’, because it had humble beginnings as an intended demo CD: As a coincidence, shortly after I recorded a few pieces at Champs Hill, Champs Hill Records was set up. They took my disc on, it was launched at my first Wigmore recital in 2010 and suddenly it started to receive wonderful reviews worldwide culminating in the Newcomer of the Year award from the BBC Music Magazine.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Usually what I’m playing at the time, especially if I am revisiting a work after some time away from it.

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

Mostly, there is a thread to my programming, a story. I try to bind together works I am drawn to play, and sometimes ones I have been asked to play, into a well-structured and balanced programme.

I have realised, somewhat retrospectively, that I have been especially drawn to composers who have sought to develop a sense of a national voice through their music. It all begun with my intrigue of the Russian Mighty Five while I was still at Cambridge. I then immersed myself in Janacek’s oeuvre, and afterwards in Grieg’s. More recently, I have loved spending time with Chopin Mazurkas. Although they are very stylised and sophisticated works, some, especially the early ones, are rather rustic and jagged, and I find this quite charming.

I’m also excited and honoured that one of the most interesting living composers, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, will be writing a Piano Concerto for me next year, in homage to the Haydn D major Concerto. It’s been long-in-planning but we’re very happy to make it happen. I wish promoters were not so afraid of commissioning new works.

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

The Wigmore Hall, of course! It’s a beautiful and intimate venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Favourite pieces to perform: in short, piano concertos. There is no greater feeling to me, than the thrill of playing concerti, and especially when it feels like you and the orchestra are making chamber music together, on a large scale. With listening, I usually go back to the same pieces: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Rachmaninov Songs and anything written for the Ballets Russes. I’m also very fond of Ivor Cutler’ quirky recordings. Most of the time though, I just love putting the radio on.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Annie Fischer, Ivan Fischer, Bernard Haitink, Teodor Currentzis.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Every concert experience is memorable in some way. Performing concerts is such an intense and intimate experience, and yet over in an instant, that nothing else I know comes close.

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

Grab every opportunity. Remember that we spend our days with beautiful things.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dancing!

 

Ivana Gavric will be performing at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 23rd April at 1130am, as part of the Coffee Concerts Series. Further information here

Her new album ‘Chopin’ will be released on Edition Classics on Friday 21st April and is available for pre-order now

 

British pianist Ivana Gavric created a sensation with her debut disc In the mists, winning BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year for ‘playing of an altogether extraordinary calibre’. Her third disc of works by Grieg, also on Champs Hill Records, was selected as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and noted for ‘an electrifying performance’ (BBC Music Magazine). The Grieg Society has voted the CD as its ‘Recording of the Year’. Ivana has performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Trondheim Soloists, Aurora Orchestra and South Denmark Philharmonie. She has collaborated with conductors including Rafael Payare, Nicholas Collon, Christian Kluxen and Ben Gernon.

Following her US solo debut, the Washington Post described Ivana’s playing as ‘impressive, insightful… a ravishing performance’. Ivana has been heard on the major concert platforms including The Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, KKL Lucerne, Gilmore Festival Rising Star Series, as well as across China, in Canada and Japan. Attracting considerable praise for her interpretations of Janacek’s music in particular, Ivana has curated festivals dedicated to the composer’s solo and chamber works. Also a dedicated chamber musician, Ivana performed with violinist Maxim Vengerov as part of Live Music Now, the outreach scheme established by the late Lord Menuhin.


She has partnered colleagues on the concert platform in festivals in the UK and Europe, taken part in the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music Sessions and is an alumna of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Outside the concert hall she is featured playing Chopin and Beethoven in BBC2’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, and Bach in Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering.

Born into a musical family in Sarajevo, and raised in the UK, Ivana studied at the University of Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music. Her teachers include Niel Immelman, Peter Bithell and James Gibb. Additionally, Ivana has had the opportunity to study with esteemed musicians such as Menahem Pressler, Ferenc Rados, Dmitry Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Stephen Kovacevich and Leif Ove Andsnes. Ivana is indebted to the support of many trusts, including the Frankopan Fund (Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts), the MBF, The Solti Foundation, The Nicholas Boas Trust, The Richard Carne Trust and the RVW Trust. Ivana is proud to be an Ambassador for the charity ‘Music Action International’.

www.ivanagavric.com

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Dove, composer

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

Since my earliest years, I’ve had an impulse to make up pieces at the piano, and that hasn’t really changed – except that eventually I learned to write them down, and nowadays often play virtual instruments via a keyboard. When enough people started asking me to write them something, it turned into a career.

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

Musicians and theatre-makers who asked me to write music for them, including dancer/choreographer Clare Whistler and director Jonathan Kent; and who listened, encouraged and offered constructive criticism, notably composers Stephen Oliver and Julian Grant, conductors David Parry and Brad Cohen, opera-directors Graham Vick and Richard Jones. Probably the most significant of all were two people at Glyndebourne, Katie Tearle and Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who commissioned my first published piece (the wind serenade Figures in the Garden), three community operas, and my first main-stage (and most widely produced) opera – Flight.

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

Trying to get the current piece to be as good as I believe it can be.

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

With a commission comes a deadline, without which I never finish a piece. More exciting, there is a date when you know certain musicians will be performing your piece in a particular place. The idea of these wonderful singers or instrumentalists is, in itself, inspiring.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Pandiatonic, rhythmically driven, singable.

How do you work?

Dreamily and fitfully at first, as vague initial ideas start to emerge; then more continuously, as they gradually turn into stronger, more potent ideas. Mostly I work out pieces at the keyboard, but walking and cycling are also an important part of the process.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Mozart, Stravinsky, John Adams

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

Write the music you want to hear.

 

Renowned vocal ensemble VOCES8 will perform Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year (with the composer at the piano) in a special Holy Week concert at St John’s Smith Square on 11th April that brings together themes of beauty, hope, prayer and celebration. Repertoire includes Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV150 with French ensemble Les Inventions. Further details here

Born in 1959 to architect parents, Jonathan Dove’s early musical experience came from playing the piano, organ and viola. Later he studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge and, after graduation, worked as a freelance accompanist, repetiteur, animateur and arranger. His early professional experience gave him a deep understanding of singers and the complex mechanics of the opera house. Opera and the voice have been the central priorities in Dove’s output throughout his subsequent career.

Read Jonathan Dove’s full biography here

Meet the Artist……Renée Reznek, pianist

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

When I was four years old, my parents went away on a long European holiday, leaving me and my younger brother in the care of our grandmother and a much loved adopted “auntie”, a retired piano teacher. To keep her happy, they rented a piano which she played every day. One evening, Auntie Bessie played Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18 and I vividly remember the overwhelming emotions which resulted in floods of tears! She responded by teaching me to play; by the time my parents returned I could perform simple pieces. It is my belief that from that time, music became an essential resource for me, filling the hole left by the absence of my parents. I didn’t envisage a performing career; that developed later on, but I knew there was no other path for me but to study music.

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

I grew up in South Africa where very little 20th century music was performed. However, when I was a B. Mus. student at the University of Cape Town, my Harmony and Counterpoint lecturer, now Professor Emeritus James May, asked me to play Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 and Webern’s Variations Opus 27 in a concert. Despite not knowing these pieces at all and initially finding them incomprehensible, I was determined to honour my commitment and in the process became “hooked”. What fascinated me in the Suite for instance,was recognising the phrasing of a Gavotte or Minuet despite the unfamiliarity of the serial language.This felt exhilarating, like learning a new language. So thanks to James May, this was the start of my journey into 20th century and new music.

The teachers who influenced me most for very different reasons were Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Susan Bradshaw in London. Sandor changed my piano technique with advice on arm weight and a flexible wrist; he was a pragmatic teacher, a problem solver. Lessons on the music of Bartok, who was his teacher, were revelatory, but his interest in 20th century music stopped there.

Susan Bradshaw was the perfect guide to performing 20th century classics and new repertoire. Her incisive intelligence simplified complex textures. She taught me how to articulate phrasing in unfamiliar contexts and to make new repertoire as accessible as possible at a first hearing. She introduced me to composers such as Robert Saxton who wrote a Sonata for me, which led to my giving my first London premiere in the Purcell Room. The experience of working together with a composer like Robert to produce a first performance was life changing.

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

I could say that performing the complete solo works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from memory in the Wigmore Hall was one of my most challenging concerts.

However the real challenge for me was returning to performing after a long break following the birth of our two children.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of my new CD of recent South African piano music which I hope will introduce some fantastic composers to those unfamiliar with South African contemporary music: Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Neo Muyanga, David Earl, Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr and David Kosviner. The majority of the pieces on the CD are rooted in traditional South African music though some are European in origin; this is diverse repertoire which reflects a rich and varied culture. With one exception, these works have never been recorded and many have been dedicated to me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Schoenberg’s piano music occupied me for years so thank goodness I am told I play it well! I treasure the review from Peter Stadlen, a pupil of Webern, who liked my performance of Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 : “Schoenberg has come of age” he wrote; thank you Peter Stadlen!

However, maybe what I do best is what I enjoy the most, which is trying to communicate unfamiliar music in as clear a way as possible.

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

Sometimes one is free to choose, or a festival or concert series may stipulate a particular work or composer. On the whole I have been able to perform the music I want to play. I enjoy creating programmes which are cohesive in some way, not merely a collection of disparate pieces.

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

It is the audience who create the atmosphere in a concert and an enthusiastic audience can transform any venue into somewhere special.

However, recently, I loved performing at the Turner Sims in Southampton; fabulous piano and intimate hall. I will be recording there again soon on the Fazioli.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I admire musicians who engage with the music of their own time as well as performing traditional repertoire. Maurizio Pollini comes to mind or Stephen Hough who is that rare musician in today’s world, a composer-performer. Both Pollini and Hough bring an illuminating intelligence to whatever they play. Having said that, I will go anywhere to hear Angela Hewitt play Bach

What is your most memorable concert experience?

At the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in 2015, I gave the first South African performance of Neo Muyanga’s Hade Tata (Sorry Father) composed in tribute to Nelson Mandela. That was a very special occasion for me.

One of the most memorable experiences was taking part in the Park Lane Group’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; 25 pianists playing 25 Steinway grand pianos on raked stages, conducted by Sir Colin Davis!

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

When I am asked to talk to young musicians, I advise them not to choose a career in music if they think it will make them rich or famous but only if music is their reason for getting out of bed in the morning! This is a difficult and unstable profession.

Being a professional musician requires hard work, humility, curiosity, passion and stubborn persistence! It requires an ability to “bounce back” from rejections.

Keeping fit and well in order to deal with the rigours of practice, performance and travel is vital; regular exercise, meditation and control of the breath also aid relaxation.

In practice, it is important to work from the inside out, from the notation, not outside in, imitating a favourite recording; it is essential to understand how the music is put together. Every performance should sound like a first performance even if the repertoire is very familiar.

I encourage young musicians to remember that while there is a vast legacy of repertoire from the past, we are living in the 21st century and there is a wealth of music being created right now which deserves some of their attention!

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

I hope I will still be excited about playing new music.

What is your most treasured possession?

Peace of mind.

Renée Reznek’s new disc ‘From My Beloved Country’, new piano music from South Africa is released on 31st March on the Prima Facie label
Renée Reznek was born in South Africa. As a child she studied with Adolf Hallis, who was a pupil of Tobias Mattay. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree. During these years Lamar Crowson was her teacher.
Read Renée’s full biography here

Meet the Artist……John Joubert, composer

A special Meet the Artist interview on the occasion of the 90th birthday of composer John Joubert

 

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

As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to do something creative. At first it was painting. I got quite far in this, partly because we had a marvellous art teacher at my preparatory school but also because my father was an accomplished draughtsman. In my early teens music began to take a more central part in my life largely because my mother, who had studied piano in London with Harriet Cohen, saw to it that music was integral to our domestic and educational background.

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

Two names occur to me – W.H. Bell and Claude Brown. Bell was a distinguished composer who had emigrated to South Africa in 1912 to become Head of the newly-formed Faculty of Music in the University of Cape Town. Having played an influential role in South Africa’s musical life he was living in retirement when I was first introduced to him by my mother. She had taken it upon herself to show him some of my first juvenile attempts at composition. What he saw in them I can’t imagine, but he must have recognised some potential as he offered there and then to take me on as a pupil. For the next three or four years until his sad death in 1946 we would meet as and when we could. During that time he gave me a thorough grounding in compositional technique which was to stand me in good stead as a basis for further development towards my then fixed goal to become a professional composer.

Claude Brown, my other main musical influence was the music master at my school. He came from an Anglican Cathedral background, having previously been Sir Ivor Atkins’s assistant at Worcester. The school had a strong musical tradition and it was here that I absorbed the influence of both Elgar and the the Anglican musical repertoire which Brown had experienced in England. Here again my mother played a part, as during a period of ‘straightened circumstances’ in our family, she insisted on keeping my brother and me at school despite strong pressure from other family sources for us to leave and get jobs to ease our financial situation.

Following my entry to the Royal Academy of Music in 1946 my ‘significant influences’ became the three composers I studied with there, namely Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Each had their own contribution to make on my development as a composer.

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

A big challenge was getting acclimatised to a new country (the terrible winter of 1947 was my first winter in England). I had no English relatives to turn to and for a long time my closest social contacts were the fellow South African students I had travelled over with on my 3-week voyage aboard the Winchester Castle (then still in its war-time adaptation as a troopship).

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

The pleasure of receiving a commission is having the sign that somebody out there likes your music and wants more of it. The pressure of meeting a deadline is of course a challenge, but challenges can be a stimulus that keeps you on your toes.

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

As a practising musician my principal activity apart from composing has been conducting whether choral or instrumental, professional or amateur. One of my most congenial tasks as a University Lecturer was to conduct the University of Birmingham Motet Choir. With such a group one could tackle quite demanding music, and we quite frequently did so, including some of my own.

Of which works are you most proud?

It is difficult from a catalogue of over 180 works to pick personal favourites but I think I would have to include the following: my Octet, the opera ‘Jane Eyr’e, song-cycle ‘Six Poems of Emily Bronte’, oratorio ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, Second Symphony, Sonata No 2 for piano, Pro Pace motets, String Quartet No 2, Temps Perdu (string orchestra), ‘South of the Line’, Piano Trio, ‘Landscapes’ (song cycle), oratorio ‘Wings of Faith’, ‘An English Requiem’, St Mark Passion and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I try to achieve a personal voice based on traditional classical principles and carrying as lucidly as possible a strong emotional message.

How do you work?

Most mornings I am at my desk – which doesn’t mean I compose only in the mornings. I compose most of the time away from my desk whether consciously or unconsciously. I don’t compose at the piano, but I need a piano in order to try out different ways of seeking the clarity of expression I always strive for.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love all the great classics up to and including Wagner. After him I love Mahler, Strauss and Elgar and after them, Stravinsky, Bartok, Walton, Britten and Shostakovich.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing (and hearing) Richard Strauss conducting his Sinfonia Domestica (a greatly underrated work) at the Albert Hall during the Strauss Festival of 1947.

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

I think it was Eliot who advised aspiring writers to ‘work out your salvation with diligence’. I reckon the same goes for composers too!

www.johnjoubert.org.uk

 

John Joubert was born in Cape Town in 1927. Aged 19 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has lived and worked in England ever since. Joubert’s long composing career encompasses all genres from symphonic, operatic and chamber works to the ever-popular choral miniatures, Torches and There is no rose. The two Symphonies, three String Quartets, Oboe Concerto and Cello Concerto are recent additions to a growing catalogue of recordings from across his work list. Commissions of the last few years include An English Requiem for the 2010 Three Choirs Festival and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Joubert was featured composer at the new music wells 73-13 festival in June 2013 which included a new mass setting and anthem for the choir of Wells Cathedral. 2016 saw two major premieres: Joubert’s substantial St Mark Passion at Wells Cathedral and his opera ‘Jane Eyre’ – recorded live for Somm as one of several new releases to mark his 90th birthday in 2017.

 

 

Meet the Artist……Julia Morneweg, cellist

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

Genetic predisposition! My dad was a cellist in the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne. I didn’t however start playing the cello until I was 12 years old. When I was younger I always had a natural interest in the piano and at about 7 or 8 we got an electronic keyboard which quickly became my favourite toy. However for some reason still unbeknown to me, my parents never arranged formal piano lessons for me so I was almost entirely self-taught and didn’t have a proper piano lesson until I got to the RCM, by which time I was playing Beethoven Sonatas and all sorts of repertoire with far more enthusiasm than proper training!

At around 10 or 11 my parents suggested I should take up another instrument and I distinctly remember not thinking very much at all of the idea at the time (I just wanted to play the piano!), so I didn’t really get going on the cello for quite some time. Gradually the interest grew, but it wasn’t really until I started having lessons with Raphael Wallfisch at 15 that something clicked and I decided that this was what I wanted to do. Of course by that point I was so far behind everyone else that I had to do what other people would do in 10 years in 2! I worked incredibly hard and got into music college at 17, first in Hannover and then in London at the RCM.

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

I think my time at the RCM was hugely influential in terms of opening my eyes to the huge range of possibilities one has as a musician. Growing up and studying in Germany that wasn’t high on the agenda – you were expected to get an orchestral job and that was certainly the done thing in my own family! (My dad worked in the same orchestra for 43 years!) I think I am temperamentally wholly unsuited to knowing my schedule 12 months in advance, so discovering that your career can encompass many different aspects of performing and teaching was great and I ran with it. There is certainly no lack of diversity in my career now and I rarely know my full schedule even one week in advance!

As a cellist I think I always have soaked up influences not only from my teachers but also from many fantastic players (of all instruments) I have had the privilege of working with and that’s very much an ongoing process. I think it’s hugely important to be able to look at any piece of music you play not just through the prism of your own instrument, but to have a much wider base of knowledge and inspiration to drawn upon.

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

At the moment my greatest challenge is trying to find the perfect cello. This is hugely complicated by the fact that I am quite tall, but have absolutely tiny hands! Trying to find an instrument with the right proportions that also has the power and the quality to project in a large hall and keep up with the amazing instruments I am regularly surrounded by, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So far I found one perfect match – regrettably about £200,000 above budget!

Apart from that, the never-ending challenge is trying to keep on top of all my commitments (concerts, rehearsals, practice, travelling, students, managing a concert series etc…) and still have some sort of home life and down-time. Especially when your partner leads exactly the same life, trying to arrange going out for lunch or dinner, let alone a proper holiday, becomes a major logistical task! (And the laundry basket is constantly overflowing…)

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Hmmm…tricky! I think playing Shostakovich’s second Piano Trio at the Purcell Room a few years ago would have to be up there. It’s such a scary piece for any cellist, so to do it well in a very pressurised environment was a huge relief.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think whatever I really get my teeth into, but very often that happens to be 20th century music.

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

Unfortunately I have found the choice to be less and less mine! In more than 10 years of touring the UK chamber music scene with my trio I found that, no matter what pieces we offered – and there were many, what promoters asked for remained largely unchanged. The repertoire favourites, sure to bring in a capacity audience, with only occasional forays into anything more adventurous.

So last year I took matters into my own hands and founded ChamberMusicBox, a London concert series where people only find out what’s on the programme as the concert unfolds! This year we have a pool of 25 fantastic players and each and every concert is a completely mixed bag of music for strings, woodwind, piano and occasionally even voice. I have had to learn phenomenal amounts of notes since the series began, but it is so satisfying!

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

I have been fortunate to perform in so many fantastic halls around the world, including some amazing brand new ones in Asia, but I think one of my favourite halls to play in would have to be Zurich’s Tonhalle. Both the small as well as the large hall have wonderful acoustics.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One piece I never get tired of playing is Schnittke’s Piano Trio. It was actually the first trio I played at the RCM, and what was supposed to be a one-off concert actually started off my chamber music career path. We were incredibly fortunate to work on the piece with the late Alexander Ivashkin, Schnittke’s close friend and biographer, who brought the story behind the piece to live so vividly that it has ever since remained one of my very favourite works to perform. Sadly Sasha Ivashkin died three years ago, but everything he shared with us goes on stage with me every time I get to play it. It’s the most emotionally draining piece, but I just love it.

As a listener I am absolutely addicted to opera and singing in general.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, singers feature very heavily in that list: Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, the great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, and many great singers of the 20th century such as Mirella Freni.

As a cellist growing up I have always had huge admiration for Leonard Rose. His playing was everything cello playing should be. But there are so many other players I love, too many to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think I would have to go with the most comical one of my career to date here! Several years ago I played at a festival in Sussex on a hot July day. At the time I was (yet again!) trying out a very nice Italian cello which I considered buying and this cello happened to be fitted with a certain type of mechanical metal pegs (they have largely gone out of fashion – thankfully!) which really didn’t seem to like going from a hot car into a cold church. Less than an hour before the concert the first peg started to slip. And the next. And another. No amount of tuning, pushing or shoving would keep these pegs in place and half an hour before the concert I had to admit my predicament to the organiser. He calmly told me not to worry and that he’d quickly nip home to fetch a cello he had. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a cello rather peculiar in colour and even more peculiar in sound. I had no choice but to play the concert on this cello. Only afterwards was I told its history: bought for £2 in an antique shop in Plymouth, it was completely stripped of its original varnish and repainted in a different colour – with fence paint!

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

Being a great player isn’t enough to guarantee you a great career! Today’s music profession demands so much more of those who enter it and I think as teachers we have a responsibility to be very open and honest about that. I would encourage aspiring musicians to be incredibly proactive and open-minded as to where their career path as performers may lead as, quite frequently, it will be somewhere totally different from where you thought it would lead when you entered college. Of course the reality is that, especially in London, you are eventually likely to be combining numerous different types of work, from chamber music to sessions, orchestral freelancing, teaching etc… You need to be extremely adaptable.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Cooking for those around me! I can regularly be found in the kitchen late at night after a concert cooking for whoever happens to be sat around our dining table at the time.

 

Since graduating with honours from the Royal College of Music in 2007, Julia Morneweg has quickly established a remarkably versatile career as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player.

The recipient of an EMI Music Foundation Award, she made her London concerto debut in 2006 performing the Elgar Concerto at St John’s Smith Square which immediately led to further engagements including a performance of Haydn’s C major Concerto with the International Mahler Orchestra at the same venue as well as Elgar with the Ternopol Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine. Other concerto performances have included Lalo in London and Vivaldi in Cologne. As a recitalist she has appeared around the UK, Belgium, Italy, Germany and at venues such as the Purcell Room, Oxford’s Holywell Music Rooms, Trieste Opera House, St. Martin in the Fields, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the 2007 Charterhouse Festival (by invitation of renowned flautist Susan Milan) and the Tacoma International Music Festival, USA when she was only 16. Most recent festival appearances have included the Leamington, Lower Machen, Uckfield and Shipley Arts Festivals. Julia has collaborated with many renowned artists including Shlomo Mintz, Anna Kandinskaya, Mikhail Bereznitsky, Joan Enric Lluna, Sergei Podobedov, Kathron Sturrock, and Oleg Poliansky to name a few.

Julia Morneweg’s full biography

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Biss, pianist

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

I have two musician parents and had a musician grandmother. I grew up in a house where music was quite literally everywhere, and I think that was probably the single most important influencing factor. I really do believe in this idea that music is a language and you feel comfortable in the language that you hear from the beginning of life. I heard music from the beginning of my life, and I think I just wanted to speak that language

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

You go through a musical life and you’re exposed to so many people and it’s not easy to narrow this down. But probably studying with Leon Fleischer was the most formative experience in my life, beyond growing up in the house I grew up in.

I had grown up hearing his recordings long before I met him, and he was a huge influence before I even knew what he looked like. And then I met him and spent four years studying with him. He’s one of those rare musicians who is equally eloquent as a player as a teacher – a musical philosopher. Hearing music described by him and seeing the unbelievable integrity with which he approached music, I think that really marked me.

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

It’s all hard! I don’t mean that in a negative way, but basically you spend every day touching these masterpieces but you never come to some end point where you can say “that is just the way I want it” because you’re always looking for more in them. That is exactly what is so wonderful about them too, but it is simultaneously what is very difficult. So I guess maybe the challenge is finding a balance between being very driven and determined and ambitious (and I don’t mean ambitious in a career sense), but to also take a real joy in playing these works.

There’s a wonderful quote from Schnabel that over the years he taught, relatively many students who could convey sorrow in their music making, but only a couple in all of those years could really convey joy. It’s a huge part of music’s expressive vocabulary and hugely important not to lose sight of that.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have certain love for Schumann’s music. Not that I love it more than other pieces, but I feel a kind of closeness to it, that it speaks to and for me in a way that it is different from other works.

And of course I feel unbelievably pulled towards Beethoven – who couldn’t be?! – so I can’t say I have any real favourites. But this is the music that is most important to me in my life at the moment.

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

The first thing is that I have to love the music that I play. I have to really want to play it. And then I start thinking about recital programmes, how a good programme would be to put together. What programmes work well, how much repertoire can I handle in a season without becoming overwhelmed, how much do I need to feel there’s enough variety

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

I have many. I have had a very long, very very happy association with the Wigmore Hall, which I think is a really very special place. I love playing at the Concertgebouw, in the big and small halls. I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years now so Carnegie Hall has a special resonance for me as well.

I played at Milton Court (London) in November (2016) and it was a fantastic pleasure. This is another small-ish hall in London which is totally different in vibe, has a different audience, with an excellent acoustic

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

The first thing is that as you work – and as a young musician you have to work hard – you must never lose sight of what made you fall in love with music in the first place. You have to find a way, and it’s a question of hours where you really strive to improve, but you never move away from that aspect of music which drew you to it. You should never let the work become a distraction or be dutiful. That I think is incredibly important and not easy to achieve.

I think the other main thing that you have an incredibly profound responsibility to try to understand the mentality of the composer. It’s very difficult and you will never do it perfectly: notation is so abstract, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility of trying. You have to really, really try to look for what this person is trying to communicate – if you choose to play music which is not your own music, you have a responsibility to do more than just play the notes.

How do you feel a musician should approach this?

I think a close interrogation of the music is necessary and it takes many forms. Even though in Beethoven piece to piece he changes enormously, you should not play the piano sonatas without knowing the quartets and symphonies. I really believe that

Understanding structure, the way the music is put together, the way it functions psychologically is unbelievably important – I don’t think it’s that important for the audience, but it’s especially important for anyone who wants to play music. This is abstract music, not a literal reflection of the life of the composer, but I do think especially when talking of the music of the past, because the world has changed so much, trying to understand the world these composers lived in – and it will only get you so far – remains a real responsibility.

Talking specifically of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959 (which Jonathan Biss will perform at his concert in London on 2nd May 2017) do you feel the slow movement of this sonata is a reflection of the composer’s mental and physical state?

All this is intensely subjective, but I would say yes. When I play the second movement I really do think it’s a composed hallucination. There’s no other piece by Schubert or anyone else that is like it. The are little moments in his earlier music, but in the late music alongside the lyricism, which is so incredibly beautiful, there is this sense of real terror, and I think when you know this is a person who was months away from death, it’s very difficult not to think there is a connection [in the second movement]. The warmth of the finale is really astonishing in contrast to that.

Tell me a little more about your Late Style project. What drew you to this examination of composers’ late music?

As with all my programming this is music which is important to me. Beyond that, it really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focussed so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Jonathan Biss performs late works by Schumann, Chopin, Kurtag and Brahms at Milton Court on 27 March, and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, and Schwanengesang, with Mark Padmore, on 2 May. Further information here

(Interview date 28 January 2017)

Jonathan Biss’ biography

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Meet the Artist……Kirill Gerstein, pianist

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

I think for me, music and the piano emerged from the fog of my earliest memories because the piano was always in the house for as long as I can remember. My mother was teaching in a music college but also at home, so in that sense the piano, and especially music, were always there. It started as a sort of game with my mother: that was the trigger.

As for this whole music “career” business, I didn’t know until I was about 10 or 11 that I adored the piano. I loved music more than the instrument to begin with and then the love of the instrument came at a later stage. So I knew I wanted to do something with music but not whether I would or could be a concert pianist. But from about the age of 10, I switched to a better teacher and all of a sudden I had this tremendous interest in the instrument. Then I won a children’s competition in Poland and one thing led to another…

I can’t point to an earth-shattering moment when I knew “this is what I want to do” – it was more of a gradual, organic process.

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

The most significant teachers (and this is not to do any disservice to other people from whom I received advice) and musical influences would be Dmitri Bashkirov with whom I studied in Madrid, and Ferenc Rados, who I studied with in Budapest, and wherever else we would meet. Those two are really the most significant musically speaking. But then I have received a lot of inspiration and ideas from Andras Schiff, for example, and Alexis Weissenberg, who, when he was still alive, gave me some very important impulses. Then there are conductors, like Semyon Bychkov, who have given me a lot of inspiration and advice, so I must say I feel very fortunate. It’s always been purposeful, because I seek out these people to learn something from them and that has been incredibly fruitful and stimulating. But when thinking about music and playing music, Bashkirov and Rados have been the most significant.

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

Well let’s start with the fact that music is difficult and the piano is a bloody difficult instrument to play! On the one hand it’s challenging, but on the other hand, it’s what keeps it so incredibly interesting and vital to continue, otherwise life would be terribly boring. Playing music on an instrument with one’s body is an extremely challenging occupation. Then there’s the fact that as an instrumentalist, you are forced to reflect on everything inside yourself – psychological limitations, fears, advantages, disadvantages. So staring at your reflection day in day out with such great intimacy and with the purpose of self-improving is also a challenge but is one that I nevertheless love and think is a great way of reaching a better understanding of oneself.

Other challenges include not allowing oneself to be distracted by the so-called “business” of a musical career and everything that that entails, to maintain a good level of mental and spiritual energy, trying to improve every day, learning new repertoire, getting better, and so on.

I think this balancing act is quite hard. And as everybody knows, the so-called “music business” is challenging because it comes with a lot of hurdles, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most significant thing in the world. To keep the soul in balance is a challenge, but generally balance is difficult to find in life! And what is important to know is that this balance is ever-changing.

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

Eclectically (!) which I think is important and also in some ways purposeful. It has to start with something that deeply interests me: for example, the Transcendental Études are an interesting challenge for myself but one that I hope I can make interesting for audiences too because it’s not just for me.

It also comes from particular personal interests. I hate programming that looks like “Oh here’s another piece I learnt so let me play that for you”, so eventually there needs to be some kind of coherence or connection or inner logic which isn’t necessarily musicological or historical. This then influences what I choose, what goes well with what, a bit like making a menu… Alexis Weissenberg once said to me, “nothing betrays the personality of the pianist better than the way he puts together his recital programmes and the height of his stool at the instrument” and I think there is some witty wisdom in that comment. Especially in the case of concertos, less so with recital repertoire, I’ve been quite open to external impulses or suggestions from a conductor. There are a number of concertos I would not necessarily have thought of learning but then you fall in love or become intimately associated with the piece. So I enjoy external influences in that sense. But essentially I don’t agree to do anything that I don’t like or can’t believe in.

What is the special fascination of Liszt’s Transcendental Études for you?

It’s multi-faceted: I think Liszt is a great fascination because as modern pianists we owe the majority of our musical and pianistic lives to him in the sense that he has shaped our hands through the pianistic advice he has created, and he influenced the majority of what is played since his time. Everything that came later – Busoni, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Prokofiev – is the result of everything that Liszt came up with during the 20-25 years he was occupied with the Transcendental Études in their various incarnations. So the Transcendental Études are the Everest of piano literature, but also a distillation of Liszt as a pianistic experience. But obviously we owe him far more than the pianistic experience: there are the musical inventions, without which we would not have Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Busoni etc. There’s also the whole business of performing recitals as a soloist which we owe largely to Liszt – as Busoni said, “Liszt is the tree and we are all branches of that tree.”

It’s also a personal project. I wanted to take the “Transcendental Études journey” in order to self-improve through working on it and pursuing it as a cycle as I don’t think it is a random collection of 12 studies. It’s also of course so much more than a technical journey. Arthur Friedheim, an important student of Liszt, said something like “I had the privilege and honour of walking in the footsteps of the great” and I think the sentiment relates to Liszt, and essentially all the other great composers that we play. We get to follow in the “finger steps” of these great minds and spirits that have walked the keyboard, and in that sense it’s really a tremendous experience to be in touch with history in this way. But it’s not just a question of digging archaeologically; it’s about making the music, and therefore history, alive again so it can be felt in the air until it dissipates. This is one of the great privileges of being a performer. When playing Liszt, it’s the most amazing experience when you let him take over your hands, body and mind.

Having said that though, this wasn’t the intended outcome. When I started studying the Transcendental Études a year before I recorded them, I wasn’t certain whether I would be able to play them let alone very well. Everything began to emerge as I went further along the journey.

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

There are very divergent styles of concert venues – old concert halls, such as the Musikverein, are incredible. Boston Symphony Hall is also of this kind. Those two could easily be named as favourites. Then there are the great American halls of the turn of 20th-century and the 1920s – Carnegie, Severance Hall (Cleveland), Orchestra Hall (Chicago). There are also some really excellent new venues, but they are hard to compare to the old ones because of the different mentality towards sound.

Symphony Hall in Birmingham is also wonderful, and I quite like the hall in Copenhagen and the KKL in Luzern … but it would be hard to say if I prefer a particular hall. They are all different animals and it’s wonderful to have the variety.

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

Generally, at the risk of sounding condescending, I do feel it’s important to share one’s experiences because they may resonate with a person who is on an earlier but similar path to yourself – and this is one of the reasons why I started teaching relatively early at the age of 26. I am not sure whether it’s possible to “impart” curiosity but it’s important to stimulate it along with a love of what we do. Love and curiosity are almost one and the same thing or at least are closely related.

The curiosity about the big and small aspects of we do – how your index finger may depress that one key, curiosity about the repertoire, the culture, what role music and art can play in our lives – these are all a big part of that. If someone is not curious, you cannot impart curiosity. But when someone is curious, I think it is our responsibility to nourish and stimulate it.

Kirill Gerstein performs Liszt’s Trancendental Etudes, together with music by Brahms and Bach on Sunday 12th February at St George’s Hall Concert Room in Liverpool. Further details here

The multifaceted pianist Kirill Gerstein has rapidly ascended into classical music’s highest ranks.  With a masterful technique, discerning intelligence, and a musical curiosity that has led him to explore repertoire spanning centuries and styles, he has proven to be one of today’s most intriguing and versatile musicians. His early training and experience in jazz has contributed an important element to his interpretive style, inspiring an energetic and expressive musical personality that distinguishes his playing.

Mr. Gerstein is the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, presented every four years to an exceptional pianist who, regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist. Since receiving the award in 2010, Mr. Gerstein has shared his prize through the commissioning of boundary-crossing works by Timo Andres, Chick Corea, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, and Brad Mehldau, with additional commissions scheduled for future seasons. Mr. Gerstein was awarded First Prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and a 2010 Avery Fisher Grant.

Kirill Gerstein’s full biography

 

(photo: Marco Borggreve)

Meet the Artist……Alice Sara Ott, pianist

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

My parents took me a to piano recital when I was three because they couldn’t find a babysitter that night. I don’t remember the pieces the pianist played but I was fascinated by the power of music that made the audience quiet for nearly two hours. I thought that if I learned this “language” people would also listen to what I want to say and so I went to my mother after the recital and told her that I wanted to become a pianist. She wasn’t happy about this and so it took me a year to convince her.

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

Definitely my teachers, but also each and every collaboration with an orchestra and a conductor has given me the opportunity to learn something new and develop myself.

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

Learning to say no and finding out my limits.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

All of my performances and recordings are fingerprints of certain stages in my life so far, but my recent album ‘Wonderland’ means a great deal to me. There is a lot of my heart’s blood in it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

None in particular. Of course there are days when I feel very comfortable with a work and think that I finally understand and own it – until the next day when I suddenly realise that I am still very green

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

There are so many wonderful works I want to play and programme, so I usually pick one bigger work and try to build a story around it. It also depends on what the programme of my next album is. I also of course ask colleagues and people around me for advice.

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

There are too many wonderful halls out there, so I can’t name just one or two. It’s not so much a matter of the country or hall I play in, it’s about the interaction between the audience and me. So wherever music unites me with the audience,  I feel “home”.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Always the ones I am playing at that moment.

When I am off, I don’t listen so much to classical music. I love Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Those who are honest and take risks in the music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Once I played a concert in Rio de Janeiro and there was a couple sitting in the first row, eating popcorn while listening to my performance. I LOVED that.

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

To know what happiness means to you. As long as one is not happy, he/she can not make others happy.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To appreciate the small things in life.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t own them, but I would say my family and my friends are the most essential things in my life. And I actually have quite a nice whisky collection that keeps growing

What is your present state of mind?

I just got out of a two month break. That was a wonderful thing and I am incredibly grateful to my friends who gave me so much energy and joy in this time. Now I am recharged and can’t wait to go back to work.

German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has gained critical acclaim for her performances at major concert halls worldwide and has established herself as one of the most exciting musical talents of today. The Guardian, commenting on her recent performance with the London Symphony Orchestra, said that she “gave the kind of gawp-inducing bravura performance of which legends are made”.

Alice has worked with the world’s leading conductors, including Lorin Maazel, Paavo Järvi, Neeme Järvi, James Gaffigan, Sakari Oramo, Osmo Vänskä, Vasily Petrenko, Myung-Whun Chung, Hannu Lintu and Robin Ticciati.

More about Alice Sara Ott

Meet the Artist……Tania Stavreva, pianist

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

I started to play the piano at a very early age (I was 4 years old). I can’t remember exact details but my parents were telling me that every time I saw a piano, I always wanted to play on it. It was even hard to pull me out of it once I started playing. Then they decided to buy me a real piano at home. My father was a professional musician, a teacher and a child prodigy. His name was Georgi Stavrev. He played the violin, the guitar and his big dream later was to be a symphony conductor but he got very sick. I remember listening to classical music at home all the time (especially Brahms, Beethoven, Bach) and always playing the piano. Sometimes my dad would play The Beatles, Queen, Aretha Franklin and jazz but it was mostly classical music that I was surrounded by at home and at school. Music was just a part of my life and I was born at the right musical family where I was lucky to have my parents support to pursue music as a career from early age. There was music at home, music at school, I was going all the time to the school’s concerts, the festivals concerts and the local Symphony concerts. I was in an intensive professional music program for children since the age of 4. When my parents moved to Plovdiv two years later, I started working with the renowned pedagogue Mrs. Rositsa Ivancheva at the National Music School “Dobrin Petkov”. She is a major influence and she was my piano teacher for 13 years. During my last 3-4 years of music school, I started lessons also with Prof. Krassimir Gatev at the National Conservatory in Sofia (while studying in Plovdiv with Mrs. Ivancheva). I miss both of these incredible teachers because they left the world just few years ago…

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

Important influences from the past: growing up I was very inspired to listen to the interpretations of Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Pogorelich, Van Cliburn, and Rubinstein. They all have influenced my musical life for years and here is an example how: after hearing Scriabin’s 3rd Sonata (performed by Horowitz) I immediately got inspired to learn it. I had big success with it at concerts and competitions. Later Horowitz inspired me to learn also Vers la Flamme and the Barber Sonata (my recordings of these works are all on YouTube).

New influences: 1) working with new composers (Mason Bates, Gil Shohat, Vasil Kazandjiev, Carl Vine, Penka Kouneva, Nikolai Kapustin etc.) – what is amazing about this, is that there are not that many recordings of these composers’ works. Often, there are even no recordings at all – which means that I have to learn the work on my own (can’t listen to another pianist to get inspired). This is a direction I would like to continue – to create from my inner self rather than get inspired by somebody else’s interpretation. 2) Contemporary pianists: I’ve had the pleasure to work with and share musical ideas with pianists such as Daniel Pollack and Frederick Chiu, whose unique program “Deeper Performance Studies” is a major influence on my musical life and career.

Acting: It might sound strange but acting had an important influence on me too. During my time in Bulgaria I also had 5 years of private acting training. I couldn’t do both – theater school and music school so I was taking acting lessons only privately and secretly (my parents didn’t allow me to study acting but I decided to do it anyway lol). Acting opened a special door in me as an artist and it helped me even further with music – being able to perform with imagination, to “speak”/connect to the audience, to transform into a different character depending on which composer/piece I am working on. These are classes musicians don’t learn at music conservatories and they help very much with interpretation and stage presence. In Bulgaria I was trained by the Stanislavski’s system and I am a similar performer when it comes to my piano works – I get very emotionally involved in the content. I feel that all the arts are connected within each other. They are like different languages we would like to learn or explore but only one is our mother language and in my case it is music.

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

Finances. When I first moved to the USA it was very difficult learning how to support myself, to rely on myself, to take care of myself all by myself. I was only 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved to Boston, I wasn’t used to the language too. I had $20 cash in my pocket, two suitcases, a full scholarship and lots of dreams. The full scholarship covered my tuition and school fees but I had to work the max hours possible in order to pay by myself for rent/dorm, living expenses, etc. There was a law that freshman must live on campus during the 1st year. I wasn’t informed about it while in Bulgaria. I found out about it when I arrived. International students on a student visa F-1 were allowed to work only on campus, no more than 20h per week for only $8h. Imagine if this is really enough to pay $1500 per month for dorm required by the school (basically 3 girls in one room) without living expenses and if that would allow the needed time to focus on practice, studies, go to classes, etc. The stress was incredible! To keep long story short – my college years were some of the most difficult times ever in my life where I faced some serious challenges.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Recordings: My upcoming debut album titled “Rhythmic Movement” to be released this coming fall, depending on finances. It features music by Bulgarian composers Pancho and Alexander Vladigerov, Mason Bates, Ginastera, Kapustin and I composed 2 works as well. A lot of the pieces on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club are also on the album.

Performances: it’s hard to point just one. I would say probably my Carnegie Hall/Weil debut. Harris Goldsmith was one of the critics reviewing the concert and this debut basically was the start of a real career. Another performance I will never forget was a multimedia at a modern space in NYC featuring music, live body painting and photography. I like to experiment with the idea of synesthesia and connect my art to other artists work.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The ones that I practice the most! Also the ones that I’m spiritually connected to and the ones I have something meaningful and something special to say. I also believe that music (art in general) is a reflection on personal life and that’s one of the reasons my programs are very unique. The program on July 25th features works that are very close to my hearth. Each piece is very special and very meaningful to me.

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

My repertoire ranges from Baroque to Contemporary. Sometimes concert presenters would ask me to play anything I would like to put on a program but sometimes they would specify if they have any specific preferences. For example when I performed at the French Cultural Center, the entire program had to focus on featuring French and French influenced composers. When I performed at the Bulgarian Center in New England, I performed works by all Bulgarian classical composers. New music concert series require all contemporary composers programs and other presenters prefer more traditional (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) type of programs and more well-known composers.

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

In New York: I just recently performed at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York – a beautiful and intimate concert venue and a gallery in West Village. I love the area (West Village in Manhattan), I also love art (the fact that it is a gallery) and that the setting is intimate (it allows a closer connection with the audience). There is a very good energy about the space and location and I just feel excited and comfortable performing there.

In Bulgaria: I was born in Sofia but my hometown is Plovdiv. There is a very unique amphitheater from Roman times in the center of the city that in the summer features film nights, concerts, dance performances, operas, etc. This would be a very magical place to perform – under the starts! The view from there is amazing too. I’ve never seen a piano on that stage but maybe one day soon… I started dreaming already

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To perform: Right now I’m really into Schumann, I’m working on the piano concerto. Last month I was into Vladigerov. My current favorite pieces are the ones on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club but I assure you that I’m going to have more new favorites soon since I keep searching for new inspirations all the time 🙂

To listen to: I love “Gaspard de la nuit” (performed by Pogorelich), Scriabin’s 5th sonata (performed by Horiwitz), Beethoven – “Appasionata” (performed by Richter), Brahms – the 1st Piano Concerto (performed by Claudio Arrau), Prokofiev – the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, works by Bach (especially when Glenn Gould performs them), Sonata for Violin and Piano (by composer Milcho Leviev). I love listening to orchestral music too: Daphne’s Cloe, Stravinsky – Firebird, Mason Bates – Alrernative energy. I also enjoy listening to jazz (Bill Evans, Miles Davis), some rock (a lot of British bands)

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Deceased favorite musicians: Bach, Richter, Horowitz, Gilels, Claudio Abbado, Evgeny Mravinsky, Rubinstein, Ginastera, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Anton Dikov, Krassimir Gatev, Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury,

Living/contemporary favorite musicians: Joshua Bell, Keith Lockhart, Ricardo Mutti, Mason Bates, Vasil Kazandjiev, Yo-Yo Ma, Frederic Chiu, Daniel Pollack, Evgeny Kissin, Martha Argerich, Penka Kuneva, Will Calhoun, Matthew Bellamy,

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Concert Hall: the Grammy Museum Auditorium (Clive Davis Theater) – I was a part of a great mix of artists and musical genres. I loved the red curtains at the back and the lightning.

Rock club: probably when I opened for Amanda Palmer at the Webster Hall in NYC. This is memorable since I got to play Ginastra in a rock club introducing the composer and a movement from his 1st sonata to several hundred fans of Amanda’s that never knew that classical music could sound like that. 😀 A lot of my friends from school were telling me that I was crazy and that this could affect my good reputation. It was fun. It’s a different type of energy on such stage. I like making classical music more accessible to untraditional audiences as well. Did you know that the British band ELP arranged the “Toccata” from the piano concerto by Ginastera and played it for Ginastera? He loved it and he said that this is how his music should be played

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

To be present in life and also when they perform on stage, to be very strong, not to be afraid to take risks and experiment with new ideas, to take a good care of themselves (eat well, sleep well, exercise, meditate, stay healthy), to know what they want and from there to know what they give and why, to perform live as much as possible, to stay always inspired and motivated, to never give up, even when they face difficulties.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

To travel the world while living in the present moment

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being present. You can tell that I am into meditation. Often the things we want are not the things that make us happy, even when we get what we want. There is something called “the wanting mind” that will never stop wanting no matter what we get. I feel happy the most when I do something to make somebody feel happy. I get happiness when I give happiness. Actually, when I give, sometimes I get even more than I expected.

What is your most treasured possession?

We don’t owe anything forever. We temporarily have things and people. We are even temporarily in our bodies. Greatest values in my life are my dearest friends, being surrounded by people who care about me and love me and people who made a difference in my life. But I don’t owe them, I’m just lucky to have them in my life…

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being on stage, collaborating with amazing artists, musicians, creating and sharing

Tania Stavreva performs in London at the 1901 Arts Club, 7 Exton Street, London SE1, on Saturday 25th July. The concert includes the UK premiere of her ‘Rhythmic Movement in 7/8’ as well as premieres of works by other composers. Further details and tickets here

More information about Tania here