Category Archives: Uncategorized

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

“I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians is to make it differently” – Glenn Gould

Whatever you may think about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – genius, nutcase, eccentric – his life remains fascinating, partly because he was at once both enigmatic and open. He was extremely articulate about his music, as well as many other subjects, including art, poetry and philosophy, yet his interior life remains clouded by his eccentricities: the pills,  the scarves, the funny chair his dad made for him. This new film attempts to go beyond all the myths and misconceptions, and, from what I can tell from the official trailer, will be as insightful, perhaps more so, as Bruno Monsaingeon’s wonderful 2006 film ‘Hereafter’.

For North American readers, you can access the film online until 11 January here. For the rest of us, for the time being there is the official trailer, and then the release of this award-winning and highly-praised film on DVD in the UK in late March (pre-order from Amazon).

Genius Within – official website of the film

Bruno Monsaingeon’s website

The 12 Days of Mozart

Radio 3 is currently revelling in a major Mozart-fest, by broadcasting “every note he wrote” between now and January 12th. It has been a pleasure to tune in intermittently during the day and hear excerpts from his operas, choral works, symphonies, piano music, chamber music, and much more, reminding us of his immense and varied output, and in yesterday’s Breakfast show (presented by Rob Cowan), listeners were treated to a truly wonderful live performance by the Heath Quartet of the Divertimento in D major, K.136, which surely is a first for the Breakfast programme. (You can find a full programme listing and listen again here)

Other delights include Play Mozart for Me, a late-night request programme presented by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch. Listeners are invited to send in their requests, and to write to Sarah with thoughts on their favourite Mozart pieces, or why Mozart is important to them, or indeed any other personal ‘Mozartiana’. There are lunchtime concerts, evening performances, blogs and forums – and there is even a Mozart Mash-up where you can download 20 Mozart fragments, and create your own 60 second “mash up” (I am downloading the material as I write – just for fun). The best clips will be broadcast (and if my own mash up is successful, I will add a soundclip to this blog).

All this Mozart-mania suggests that “Wolfie” remains perennially popular, and Radio 3’s plethora of programmes and related articles, videos, blogs, interviews seems a great way to encourage more people to discover him. Many of us had our first encounters with his music as young children or novice students. Some of his earliest, most youthful piano pieces (many of which were written before he’d reached his teens) appear in the syllabuses of the early graded music exams, and I am sure most of us can recall a Fantasia or Sonata or two which we learnt when we were more advanced pianists.

While Mozart may be master of the Classical period, Franz Liszt, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, is undoubtedly king of the Romantics. Let us hope Radio 3 finds a way to celebrate this all too-often misunderstood and under-represented composer with similar panache and enthusiasm.

For more on Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season click here.

The End of the Year

My teaching term finished at 4.45pm today as I saw the last student, Tom, out of my warm, cosy home into the cold, dark, snowy evening. I pressed a giant chocolate coin from M&S into his gloved hand, and cheerily wished him and his mother a Happy Christmas, while also reminding him to practice over the holiday. Officially, my teaching term (which runs for 12 weeks) ended last week, but I had to cancel some lessons and carry them over from last week.

Now, I am afforded an opportunity to review the term just ended and look forward to the spring term. As always, it has been a busy term: there has been much music made, new pieces learnt, old ones revised and finessed. I’ve sat through hours of scales and other technical work, done a fair amount of pre-exam hand-holding (mostly of anxious parents rather than students), and talked endlessly about “telling the story” and “painting pictures” in music. The hugely successful Christmas concert marked the culmination of the term and was a wonderful tribute to my students’ hard work this term – and mine too! Three students took the Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 “taster” exam, five are working towards Grade 1, including two of my adult students, and three are working on the Grade 2 syllabus. I am enjoying teaching the exam syllabuses, as the current crop of pieces are varied and interesting: why weren’t the exam lists this interesting when I was taking my music exams, way back when….?

Particular highlights include: Eli playing my adaptation of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’, a piece he chose himself, and which he played with real panache and surprising depth for an 8 year old; Claire, a student who has really blossomed this term, playing ‘Walking In The Air’ at the Christmas concert; Harrison’s improvised ‘Vampire Blues’ (“but please don’t do that in your exam!” I warned), Bella’s lovely, measured reading of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C; Tom’s ‘Chinese Crackers’, one of his Prep Test pieces which utilises the piano’s harmonics in a clever way; and Marianne’s ‘Snowdrifts’, a piece which seems particularly appropriate given the current weather!

As for my own music, I have put to bed, for the time being at least, Debussy’s Prelude ‘Voiles’, after performing it in my Christmas concert. Listening to the recording was a mixed experience: despite all the plaudits I received from friends, parents, students and family on the day, I feel there is plenty of room for improvement. A pause from this piece will help me reappraise it and think about what else I need to do with it. Meanwhile, I am making interesting inroads into Messiaen’s 4th Vingt Regard, a deeply arresting piece which requires a huge amount of emotional input (the notes themselves are not so difficult), and the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, which is cerebral and satisfying (the scores are in my suitcase to read in France, together with my fold-out keyboard to enable me to mark up the rest of the Messiaen properly). The Chopin Ballade continues to haunt me – in a good way – but it is on the backburner while I try to get as much Diploma repertoire into my fingers: 2011 could be the year I take the exam, or not, depending on how I get on….

The Spring term will see three students sit their Grade 1 exam, and at the end of the term I will attend my teacher’s advanced piano course again, where I hope present more of my diploma repertoire. I will also rise to my teacher’s challenge, and play Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 No. 3 at the end of course concert.

For the time being, I am looking forward to a couple of weeks “off” (though not off the piano, of course), and a chance to catch up on some reading and listening.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, some loyal and regular, others casual and occasional. The Cross-Eyed Pianist will return after the holiday.

Listen to This

Alex Ross’s new book. ‘Listen to This’, has been languishing on the floor by my bed since it dropped through my letterbox from Amazon a week or so ago. With an hour’s commute to work in prospect yesterday, I put the book in my briefcase, and read the first chapter on the way to Notting Hill, and the chapter on Schubert (‘Great Soul’) on the way back. I hardly noticed the commute – in either direction….

I did not read Ross’s previous book. ‘The Rest is Noise’, though I expect I will one day (too many books, not enough time – just like the piano repertoire!). I have read various articles by him, as well as the text of his Royal Phiharmonic Society Lecture, given at the Wigmore earlier this year (download the text here).

Alex Ross is no musicologist, nor is he a dry, ‘old school’ music critic, but his breadth of knowledge is clearly very wide, covering not just the world of classical music, but also that of jazz, rock and pop. His writing is lively and erudite, and his engaging style piqued my interest from the very first line.  The opening chapter debunks much of the mythology and traditions of Classical music, reminding us that concert conventions took a rather “anything goes” attitude until the mid- to late-19th century, when concert-goers and promoters took it upon themselves to impose a more formal etiquette on classical concerts, demanding reverential silence and no applauding between movements, a convention that continues to this day (he expands on this subject at length in his RPS lecture).

Likewise, the chapter on Schubert also attempts to unravel some of the traditionally-held views, and urban legends surrounding this composer (Was he homosexual? Did he have syphilis? Should we care?), reminding us of Schubert’s deep love of poetry, his ability to spin the agony (and ecstasy) of his desire in his extraordinary melodies and harmonic shifts, and his prolific output. The subject is sensitively handled by a writer who clearly loves this composer’s music. As Ross says, “[Schubert’s] music is another thing altogether. Its presence – its immediacy – is tremendous…..he could play the entire gamut of emotion as one ambiguous chord, dissolving differences between agony and joy……There were no limits whatsoever to his musical imagination.”

The book is a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip into, and I am looking forward to grazing my way through it over the weekend. It would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in music and culture.

What do I do?

At a party I attended recently, several guests, who I had not met before, asked me “What do you do?”, displaying that peculiarly English middle class need always to define one by one’s job.

Some years ago, before I reinvented myself as a piano teacher, when I was just beginning to emerge from the fog of being a first-time (and only time) parent, I was a freelance secretary, but my work was so peripatetic that it hardly constituted a “proper” job, so when asked the dread question, I would cast around for something that sounded convincing, eventually copping out by replying “Oh, I am a full-time mother” and then apologise for this, embarrassed, as if I was a skulking member of the grey economy. I am pleased to say I never subscribed to the tag “stay at home mother”, or, worse “schoolgate mum”, that particularly offensive term coined by Tony Blair and his cohorts which suggests women like myself spend all day hanging around the schoolgate with nothing better to do than chat inanely about panty pads and drink Starbucks takeaway coffee. Ugh!

Lately, when asked, I say I am a piano teacher. To say I am “a pianist” sounds a tad pretentious, though I can claim that role too: I am a pianist. As Charles Rosen says in his excellent book ‘Piano Notes’, anyone who plays the piano is a pianist (that’s what I tell my students!). Sometimes, when I’m feeling cheeky, I say I am “a gentleman’s companion” which usually elicits some raised eyebrows. It’s just a fancy of way of saying I am an assistant to an elderly gentleman writer, indeed no more than a glorified secretary, who has the good fortune to work in a smart house in Notting Hill half a day a week.

At the party, it was both gratifying and flattering to be introduced by the hostess, a friend and student of mine, as “Fran, my piano teacher” or “This is Fran. She’s a piano teacher”. What was even more enjoyable and ego-massaging was that several people had actually heard of me, either through the hostess, or via the grapevine that exists at the local primary school gate. The majority of my students attend this school, and my son is a recent graduate from it. It has been a wonderful source of pupils – and continues to be – and just goes to prove that “schoolgate mums” can be gainfully employed AND look after the kids at home! When they learned what I did, several guests expressed a keen interest, or said, slightly wistfully, “Oh I had piano lessons as a child. I wish I’d kept it up!”. Others told me they had wanted their children to come to me, but had been told – again, through the local grapevine – that I had a long waiting list (not true – it’s a small waiting list, but a waiting list nonetheless). They had heard about my termly concerts, my eccentric pets, and, indeed, my own slightly unorthodox teaching habits. One woman, whose children were learning with another local teacher, told me she reached Grade 7 in her teens and then gave up. She had tried to play the piano recently and “couldn’t remember anything!” and maybe I could help her? She asked me how I’d got back into playing seriously, and I explained that after a 15-year absence from the keyboard (apart from occasional visits to a friend with a grand piano), I had set myself the task of getting myself back up to post-Grade 8 standard by just putting the hours in. There had been a few hiccups on the way: a run-in with a very suspect teacher, who I later discovered was probably a pervert, put me off finding a teacher for a year; and a chronic injury to my right hand, which set me back three months. Otherwise, there’s no magic formula: just hard work, every day, if I can, for several hours, fitting in the piano practice and studying with the “reality tasks” of family life.

So, what do I do? Each day, when I sit down at the keyboard, or before I get there, I plot the day’s practising, going back over the previous day’s work and highlighting elements which need attention. Because I have limited time, I am very strict with myself to ensure that each of the pieces I am working on currently gets the right amount of attention. I do not keep a written practice diary – though I probably should. Like the information about my students, much of the detail about the music I am working on is retained in my head. I make notes on the score to remind me – my students seem fascinated by my annotations, my secret code, my arrows, stars, circles and exclamation marks. Some are even discovering their own: Saskia delighted me last week when she arrived with her own marked-up score of ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’.

When I am not physically practising, I try to read around the music I am working on. This helps my understanding of the structure and nature of the music – an A-level in music has given me basic proficiency in musical analysis, but there’s always more to be gained from reading around the subject. I am less interested in other people’s emotional and subjective responses: like the highly hypothetic discussions as to whether Schubert and Chopin were gay or not, I do not find such analyses helpful. A familiarity with the music, which comes from simply spending hours and hours with it – playing it and listening to it – offers far greater insights, in my view. I try not to listen to the pieces I am studying too often as one can be easily swayed by a particular interpretation and while one may admire Claudio Arrau’s Beethoven piano sonatas, or Mitsuko Uchida’s readings of Mozart, one does not wish to emulate or imitate these pianists. Recordings are a useful guide:  for example, I have been struggling with the pulse of Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ and a listen to Stephen Osborne’s ethereal rendering of this piece is helpful from time to time…

What else do I do? When not doing my own work, I teach other people’s children, and a handful of adults, how to play the piano. Again, many people have a misguided and simplistic view of the role of the piano teacher. A lesson may last half an hour (in reality, about 20 mins of actual work after pleasantries etc) but I spend a great deal of time when not physically teaching thinking about and planning lessons. While most of my students are at a similar stage in their learning, they are all individuals, and one of my specialities as a teacher, is to try and tailor my lessons to each student’s particular needs. I do not keep written records and rely on students to remember their practise notebooks each week to remind me of what everyone is doing, but I know each of my students pretty well now and have a notion of what needs to be done each week, in advance of their lessons. Towards the end of term, when the serious work is done, things get a little chaotic and sometimes we spend a lesson learning how to conduct, singing, or setting teacher scale marathons. Anything, as far as I’m concerned, to keep their interest!

There are times, of course, when it just doesn’t go the way I want it to. I can sit at the keyboard for an hour or more and my playing feels forced, wooden, my fingers stiff and unresponsive. I can practice the same phrase 20 times and still it is not right. Sometimes it can be so frustrating I bang my forehead on the music rack or hammer the keyboard with my fists. At times like these, the best antidote is to walk away from the piano and go and do something else, something completely different. I find running very therapeutic – it offers me precious head-clearing time. Ditto cooking. Writing about my activity/activities also helps – hence this blog. It can be lonely and cold in my conservatory/piano room, with just the cats for company, the same page of music confronting me day after day. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that, as a pianist, one can feel trapped in a gilded cage with music an omnipresent landscape. Yet, without my practising regime, my days can feel directionless, without focus. Most days, though, I enjoy it. It’s escapism, of a sort, it takes one out of oneself; it’s mentally and physically challenging; and, more often than not these days, rewarding. Yesterday, when I was working on the Prelude from Debussy’s Pour le Piano, a marvellous thing happened and all the elements I had been struggling with for weeks and weeks – the jagged, urgent opening bars, the Bachian motif in bars 1-42, the triumphant, climactic C major chordal section from bar 43 with its whole-tone scales – all came together, almost perfectly. It was deeply, deeply satisfying, and reminded me, if I need such a reminder, of what I have to do, and what I like to do…..

15 composers in 15 minutes

This is adapted from something a friend posted on Facebook (15 Authors in 15 Minutes).

The Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen composers and/or musicians who have always influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes, and they don’t have to be listed in order of relevance to you.












Brian Eno

David Byrne

Alison Goldfrapp

Claude Challe


Please feel free to post your own ’15 in 15′

And so farewell, Henryk Gorecki….

On Friday 12th November, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, died aged 76. Gorecki is perhaps best remembered for his Third Symphony, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, a work of sacred minimalism whose dominant themes are motherhood and separation through war. More often than not, this work is considered to be a meditation on the Holocaust, but it is more than that. Each movement is sung by a soprano: the first is a 15th century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, while the third is a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her child killed in the Silesian uprisings just after the First War. The second movement is a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the Second War, and has become a ‘soundtrack’ for the Holocaust after a canny film-maker picked it up and used it in the 1990s. Along with Part’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ and ‘Fratres’, this piece more than any other seems to express the inexpressible about this dreadful rupture in modern European history. Sadly, it has been given the “Classic FM treatment”, and its wonder and beauty has now been somewhat devalued through over-exposure.

The music is very approachable, perhaps surprisingly so, since Gorecki’s earlier music drew influences from the dissonant works of Stockhausen and Nono, and this has undoubtedly contributed to its popular appeal: it is not “difficult” music to listen to. It is reasonably straightforward in its construction and its harmonies, and makes use of Medieval musical modes. Premiered in 1977, it remained relatively unknown, except amongst  connoisseurs, until 1992, when a recording was released with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, with the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It topped the classical charts in the UK and US, and has sold over a million copies.

For me, its Medieval influences, the simplicity of the thematic material and, more than anything else, the soprano line which soars above the orchestra, are what make it so remarkable. It is “tingle factor” music par excellence, and I only need to hear a few bars to feel the hairs rise on the back on the neck. Admittedly,  the greater part of its power comes from its association with the Holocaust. Hear a few bars, and one is forced to pause and meditate on that genocide.

Dawn Upshaw’s clean soprano voice is has a wonderful translucence on the 1992 recording. She lacks the heavy vibrato of “old school” sopranos like Dame Janet Baker or Renée Fleming, and there is an innocence in her voice which reinforces the “story” of the music with an almost painful clarity. The rising, scalic motif in the second movement, sung by the soprano and supported by the orchestra, drives the music forward until the voice climaxes on a top A flat. According to the composer, the soprano voice should “tower” over the orchestra, and there are places in this movement where she almost seems to take flight, soaring ethereally above the orchestra. Beneath the voice, the music pulses and “breathes” with an almost audible “lub-dub” beat of the human heart.

It is a shame that the Third Symphony has largely eclipsed Gorecki’s other music, much of which is very fine indeed, and it would be a great pity if he were remembered only for this work, except amongst more esoteric music lovers and scholars. What is certain is that the Third Symphony, and all that it expresses, will continue to resonate with many people for years to come.

A new name for ‘Classical’ music?

In the opening chapter of his new book, Listen to This, Alex Ross declares that he “hates” ‘classical music’ – “not the thing, but the name”. He argues that it “traps a tenaciously living art in the theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living….”

So what else can we call it?

“Serious music” seems inappropriate, since there is a good deal of ‘classical music’ which is humorous, comical and witty.

“Intellectual music” smacks of elitism – and aren’t we supposed to be trying to dispel the elitist image of classical music?

“Great music”? By doing that, we exclude the greats of the jazz, rock and pop genres – and not forgetting World music…..

“Art music”? But some of the songs of Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins or Goldfrapp (who I heard last night) could be considered “art music”.

And some suggestions from Radio 3 listeners:

“the People’s Music” (since “so many people can participate in it”). Sounds a bit communist to me!

“Ephemeral music”

As Ross says, all these terms are useful, but are not its defining characteristics. Classical music can also be crazy, confused, stupid and vulgar.

Readers: can we find a new name for classical music?

Your thoughts, please – clever, witty, humorous, vulgar or just plain stupid!


Alex Ross

Goldfrapp at Hammersmith Apollo

In the tapas bar before the concert, there was much discussion amongst fellow diners as to what time She would be on. “I thought She was on at eight”, said my companion. “Oh no, She’s definitely on at nine – ’til eleven” said someone at the next table. This was confirmed by another couple. So we ordered more drinks and tapas, knowing that arriving at the venue too early would mean jostling for a place at the overcrowded bar or listening to a mediocre support band.

Inside the venue, the foyer was heaving with concert-goers, and upstairs in the circle bar, it was positively throbbing. We drank our drinks out of plastic cups and enjoyed half an hour of people-watching. More used to refined surroundings of the front bar at the Wigmore, and its largely superannuated clientele, I was fascinated by the demographic. Yet, there were similarities with the classical music crowd: we were all there to enjoy the music, and the shared experience of music-making.

She emerged, through smoke, from an Anish Kapoor-style soft sculpture, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the female anatomy, and pranced to the front of the stage, all sequins and spangles and feathers: in her shiny cape, tight leggings and platform shoes She looked like a rare, exotic bird. As the raw opening beats of the first song began, the crowd cheered and whooped in recognition of the song. Of her. The heavily amplified music vibrated in my chest and the pit of my stomach; my ears hurt. I was loving it.

Formed in 1999, a duo between singer Alison Goldfrapp and composer Will Gregory, Goldfrapp specialises in electronic music, but they are more than that because with the release of each new album (and there are five – I have them all), they have always cunningly reinvented themselves, while retaining their distinctive style and sound. Seventh Tree, the-last-but-one album (2007-8), is folksy, down-tempo and ambient, with a greater use of acoustic guitars than on previous albums. The latest release, Head First, is a nod back to the synthpop of the 1980s, while Black Cherry, their second album, shows the influence of glam rock.

Throughout the concert, I was struck by the many musical influences Alison Goldfrapp draws on, and, like the music of Schubert or Messiaen, her music ranges from a whisper to a scream. It’s redolent of early Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Portishead and the Cocteau Twins. Wider influences include Polish disco, and the cabaret music of Weimar Germany, and indeed Alison Goldfrapp’s on-stage presence owes much to burlesque and cabaret. Her music is dreamy, erotic (especially in the use of the Theremin), surreal, raunchy, hypnotic, quirky, while her lyrics are inspired by films, her childhood, her sexual fantasies. Most impressive is her voice, which croons one moment, growls the next, then switches to a high-pitched aria of almost heart-stopping beauty.  Around her, the band look like throwbacks to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, in their shiny catsuits and platform boots, and, as they play, she stomps and struts, prances and pirouettes, like Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger, her amazing costumes creating weird and wonderful shadows on the walls.

Are classical musicians “stuffy”?

This article, an interview with pianist James Rhodes, which appeared in The Independent today, was flagged up on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme this morning: the lovely Sarah Mohr-Pietsch invited listeners to comment on whether or not they felt concert soloists were “stuffy” people. I texted the following: “It’s not so much the stuffiness of the soloists as the stuffiness of the venue and audience. Classical music presented in more informal settings (such as the Red Hedgehog in Highgate) makes for a far more relaxed, shared experience for everyone.” It chimes with an ongoing discussion thread which has been exercising myself and fellow Musbook users: “Is classical music elitist?”.

Many people, who are not “in the know” – and even some who are! – regard classical music as elitist and its practitioners as either stuffy fuddy-duddies, or pretentious so-and-so’s who have set themselves up as demi-gods, garnering praise and adulation wherever they go, and never stooping to acknowledge their adoring public who queue patiently at the green rooms of the concert halls of the world to meet them. Classical music has, until recently, not helped its cause: many of the “traditional” venues are frequented by mostly elderly, mostly uber-middle class people, who exude pomposity, who sit through the performance in hushed reverential silence, and who tut and purse their lips if anyone dares to applaud in the wrong place (harumph! Such ignorance!). Being surrounded by such people can be very off-putting for the classical music ingenue. Then there is the venue itself: the Wigmore is all Edwardian gilded curlicues and red-velvet plushness, with its Constance Spry flower displays and that gold rail along the edge of the stage which serves to set the performers apart from the audience and further promotes the “us and them” attitude.

In reality, most professional musicians are fairly ordinary people who, admittedly, can do extraordinary things with a mechanical contraption of wood and wires, scrape beautifully on a stringed wooden box, or blow down a metal pipe with valves, and create magical and wonderful sounds. We tend to forget that these people are just doing their job: the difference is they do not spend hours at a desk in an office. Instead, they spend hours and hours and hours, often entirely alone, with only dead composers for companions, honing their art (and I have blogged previously about the life of the musician: the low pay, the unsociable working hours, the travelling). I have been fortunate to meet a few professional musicians in my time: the pianist Peter Donohoe was a neighbour of the mother of a friend of mine (who famously and amusingly said once, “he can’t be that good if he has to practice so much!). My friend, not musical, a quantum physicist by training, often used to go down the pub with Peter, and reported that he was a perfectly ordinary bloke – who played the piano, extremely well. He did not live in an ivory tower, nor some silent cloister, but in a normal house on an estate outside Birmingham. Many professional musicians have families, just like the rest of us, they live in ordinary homes, in ordinary streets. Some may have a special room set aside for their activity, but many do not. (My teacher, who is a busy concert pianist, has her piano in the family sitting room, surrounded by books and prints, mementos from family holidays, magazines and DVDs.)

Meet the soloist in the green room after the performance, and you generally find someone who is pleased to share your experience of the concert, and who would prefer the adoring public to be a little less awestruck. Many people, going backstage to meet the performer, often say silly, nervous, or irrelevant things; or their anxiety about meeting the performer makes them tongue-tied (not so, when I met Ian Bostridge – two glasses of Sauvignon had loosened my tongue considerably!). Sometimes people ask, with a weird, admiring light in their eyes, what it is like, being a concert soloist. Most performers will reply truthfully, downplaying the pleasures of a musical career, while emphasising the less glamorous aspects of the job. But more often than not, people coming to the green room are fresh, honest and spontaneous, and, for the performer, it must be gratifying to have one’s efforts measured against people’s responses.

Many performers are making conscious efforts to break down the barriers, real or imagined, that exist between performer and audience. The traditional concert attire of white tie and tails for the men is seen less often now (though the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses) as many, understandably, prefer comfort over formality. Quite a few performers like to introduce the music they are playing in advance of the performance, explaining its provenance and its meaning, or its special or personal connection to them. This can be very engaging, arousing the audience’s interest before a single note is heard, and reminding us that this is to be a shared experience. At smaller venues I have attended, the performers often come to mingle with the audience afterwards, sharing a glass of wine and conversation.

While I am not wholly convinced by James Rhodes’ entirely casual approach (though his attitude to his music is by no means “casual”: he is committed and diligent), I do think he is doing good things to further reduce the stuffiness that surrounds classical music. If dressing like a student, in jeans and Converse trainers, gets students, more used to “moshing” at a rock concert, into the classical concert hall, then I am all for it. However, playing with an iPad propped up on the music rack strikes me as pure, crowd-pleasing gimmickry, and has no place at the piano, as far as I am concerned. I am posting a video clip of James Rhodes performing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival to allow readers to form their own opinions on this: