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

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)

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

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

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

My mother studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London and my dad loves classical music so they really wanted me to learn the violin. Sadly I was hoping for tap dancing lessons at six years old so I think the first few weeks with my violin were quite disappointing for me. I have had the last laugh though as I just started private tap tuition in January fulfilling my life long dream! Let’s just say I don’t think I was destined for Broadway but amazingly I’m still on good terms with my neighbours.

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

I had three amazing teachers who all worked in top orchestras which I think drew me to that area of music, Beryl Auty who taught me until I was 15 and sadly passed away last year. Belinda Bunt-Broughton who regaled many tales of life in London orchestras and the session world and then Erich Gruenberg at the Royal Academy who at one time led the LSO. But I would say meeting Iona Brown when she directed National Youth Chamber Orchestra was a turning point. She heard me lead the NYO in Mahler 3 at the Proms and invited me to tour with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra the following month in the USA. I missed the first five weeks as a student at the RAM but this invaluable opportunity shaped my love of orchestras, from the playing side, and just as importantly, the camaraderie. I really would say hand on heart that those experiences of music making as a teenager have stayed with me today. 

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

Working hard for my LSO audition. I had been playing in the orchestra firstly as part of their student string experience scheme, then as an extra player and I loved it so much but there was no vacancy. I freelanced for a couple of years until a job became available and of course by then I desperately wanted it so I really had to make the hard work and audition count. I can honestly say I was terrified. Working for auditions is such a tough thing, it’s an unreal situation hence I was really happy to write a post for the Strad magazine last year.  http://www.thestrad.com/cpt-latests/how-to-be-successful-in-an-orchestral-audition/

and last month I gave a talk with a colleague in the Barbican concert hall as part of the LSO’s international violin festival about how to prepare and get through auditions without a feeling of dread! http://www.thestrad.com/cpt-latests/strad-panel-discussion-surviving-orchestral-auditions/

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Three years ago the LSO asked me to perform a duo recital at LSO St Luke’s as they wanted to stream the concert live online having not used that technology before. That was immense fun performing with my friend and colleague Rhys Watkins and I was proud to think they trusted tutti players to do a good job. When you are playing full time in an orchestra, solo and chamber opportunities don’t come round very often and you do feel somewhat exposed in these situations. You can’t help but think, “where are the other 90 people I’m supposed to share the stage with?!” But I do like to challenge myself when I can to keep things ticking over. I have another opportunity on 26th June at LSO St Luke’s, this time with another LSO player Philip Nolte who will perform on violin and viola. The recital will also be streamed live over the internet so hopefully it’ll be a success.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I was always a big fan of virtuoso music as a student which means in the orchestra I prefer playing romantic and twentieth century music with fantastic violin writing such a Mahler, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. I guess I always liked to show off and that has stayed with me! I also love playing film music, I think the orchestra sounds fantastic recording and performing big soundtracks which is good as in my time in the orchestra we’ve recorded at least fifty at Abbey Road and Air studios. 

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

Being in an orchestra that area is all taken care of! I look in the schedule which stretches a couple of years in advance and I play what’s asked to the best of my ability, sometimes with great joy and sometimes I make a note to take off a particular piece next time it comes round if I haven’t enjoyed it so much.. 

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

Suntory hall In Tokyo is one of my favourite touring venues for various reasons including proximity to the hotel, backstage facilities (free wifi!), the hall itself, the warmth of the audiences and the fact that I love Japan. HK is always special as I have so many family members there. Closer to home I love the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms season. That is so special although very nerve-wracking too with such a line up of world class orchestras night after night. The Proms’ atmosphere is unlike any other I’ve experienced.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I don’t really listen to classical music on my down time. I don’t find it so relaxing as I find it hard to detach from the feeling of performing. My iPod is an eclectic collection of musicals, film soundtracks, pop and old Gershwin numbers I imagine myself tap dancing to. Mahler is hands down my favourite composer to perform. There is so much fantastic writing for the violins and I just find his music so incredibly moving, I love all his symphonies. Most people would groan when a Mahler cycle comes round but I’m like “bring it on!”

Who are your favourite musicians?

I admire so many soloists who come into the LSO to perform, especially ones who I have grown up idolising. I can’t help but be drawn to the violinists, Janine Jansen, James Ehnes, Nikolaij Znaider to list a few. On a personal level Sarah Chang is my best friend and I’m always in awe at how much work goes on behind the scenes at that level of performance and the endless travel. I’m a big fan of my friend Ray Chen too who is not only a stunning violinist but has really broken so many barriers between musicians and audience with his hilarious social media postings and humorous videos poking fun at the profession. I can’t wait for him to come and play with the LSO! 

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I felt pretty awed at the LSO centenary concert, realising I was a part of something so historic was special. The yearly open air Trafalgar Square concerts are also very memorable. I’m amazed 10,000 people can sit/stand so quietly through music (minus the car horns honking!) that is never obvious (Stravinsky and Shostakovich for example).

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

I’m a big fan of the “Quora” app and am always astounded how many people write questions such as, “How long does it take to become a virtuoso on the violin?” Or “If I start the violin at 16 will I get to be a concert soloist?’ If I reply I generally always say the same thing, you don’t get anywhere in life without hard work and a healthy dose of reality. I truly believe that working hard coupled with the right attitude can really take you far in life if you are realistic. A sprinkling of luck helps too!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Tough call between shopping and eating out! I will go with the latter, as so many of my happy memories are with friends and family around a table devouring wonderful food. Often when we are off on tour or reminiscing it’s not the concert hall we can instantly recall but the restaurants!

Maxine Kwok-Adams performs with Philip Nolte on Friday 26th June at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s. Further information here

As a teenager Maxine Kwok-Adams, ARAM, was heard by violinist Iona Brown leading the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain performing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall “Proms” concert and was promptly invited to tour the USA with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra the following month. Later in the year she took up her scholarship place as a student at the Royal Academy of Music but carried on touring with orchestras such as the Academy-of-St-Martin-in-the-Fields.

Before graduating with an Honours degree, Maxine was awarded a place on the London Symphony Orchestra’s coveted String experience scheme, and in 2001 achieved her dream by becoming a full-time member of the 1st violins. As a strong supporter of opportunities that give youngsters a chance to experience performing in professional concerts, Maxine nowauditions and mentors the violins of the LSO String experience scheme.

At the forefront of the LSO’s online presence, in 2010 Maxine was asked to play a duo recital for the orchestra which was streamed live over the internet, the first time the LSO used this technology. She can be seen on YouTube as the LSO violin representative for the series of master classes designed to help violinists prepare for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra auditions. She is currently preparing to host the LSO’s first “google-hangout” chat about life in the orchestra which will be streamed live through YouTube.

Playing in the LSO has taken Maxine regularly into Abbey  Road studios where she has participated in over 40 film recordings since joining the LSO, including soundtracks to Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Queen. The LSO records with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Jennifer Lopez to Joe Hisiashi and Lang Lang.In 2010 Maxine was invited to contribute a chapter to the book, “Soundtrack Nation” by Tom Hoover, which focuses on professionals in the film music recording industry