Drugs and Drama: The Staging of ‘Dido and Aeneas’

Guest post by Karine Hetherington

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We are on the eve of our performance of Purcell’s baroque opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’. We’ve been in a dress rehearsal for hours and during a short break I close my eyes, wrap a thick woollen scarf about my neck, and play dead while other members of the choir stare at their mobile phones. Am I nervous? Yes! We all are. Up until now the chorus has had the benefit of numbers. On the night however, there will be no hiding – each and every one of us has been working on this challenging opera for months!

This project is the brainchild of Laura Lamph, our mezzo-soprano, who sang the title role of Dido touring with Sestina, the early music ensemble, in Ireland last year. She, together with our exacting Music Meister, Miles Lallemant, head up our three-year-old choir, Aves Cantantes. Songbirds! We are a mish-mash of twenty individuals of different ages and levels of singing experience. But no matter how different we may appear to the outside world, inside the church we sing as one.

When Father Richard Bastable, who is directing, put it to us nine months ago that we were not only going to sing the opera but to stage it in 1980s drug-fuelled New York, I was astonished. I am not averse to challenges, however I had doubts about the project.

One particular choir practice comes to mind. It was raining heavily one September night and there was a thin turn-out of sopranos. Altos were missing their tricky entries in ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’. Our smooth-voiced tenor went spectacularly wrong singing Belinda’s part not once but three times! Frustrated, he got up, went to the back of the church to pour himself a beaker of pinot noir. He was no doubt getting himself in character for the song ‘Come Away Fellow Sailors’ which follows. As the drunken sailor in Act three, he leads brilliantly.

The basses – well, the basses just looked a bit bemused that evening. And if that wasn’t enough, our Music Meister despairing with our enunciation and phrasing, also had a leaky church roof to contend with. Raindrops plopped into buckets around the piano, which had almost lost a leg. It was being held together with packing tape!

And then into the church bounced fresh-faced Ashley Stafford our musical director ‘number two’. We have already benefited from his singing training in previous concerts. Now his breathing, yoga-inspired exercises and infectious enthusiasm for the score did much to open up our voices and raise our spirits. With sweeping arms he carried us to the next level, allowing Miles, Music Meister one, to concentrate on the details of the score.

Just a few days ago our morale was boosted by the influx of young professionals. These are mostly post grad music students to join us older songbirds. Tall, broad-shouldered Aeneas, Edward Kay, is the perfect romantic lead with a powerful, sensitive, high baritone. His voice melds beautifully with Laura’s controlled, strong, sweet, sad mezzo-soprano. I defy anyone not to shed a tear during a rendering of a drug-induced ‘When I am laid’.

In this transposition of the classical tale of ‘Dido and Aeneas’, her enemy number one is her own self-inflicted drink and drug addiction. Our adaptation however has retained the witches, who in true Shakespeare fashion, wreak havoc and cast spells on Aeneas. Our own red-haired Bonnie O’Callaghan is excellent in her witch-like malevolence, and so is witch number two, Heidi Jost. The Sorceress played by counter-tenor, Alexander Pullinger, is equally arresting and impressive. All the soloists are strong and it is their star presence and vocal brilliance which raises our game.

So here we are with just one day to go. The strings are tuning up around Miles’s harpsichord. Father Richard, director, takes one last look at the New York skyline on stage and then hastily reviews his notes. The pressure is on, for him and for all the performers. We have only had two rehearsals in the magnificent gothic-style, Church of the Holy Innocents near Ravenscourt Park.

I adjust my shoulder pads just wondering whether we can pull it off. Can our amateur/professional collaboration make the impact we hope it will? Yes! I believe we’ve conjured something out of thin air and the gods are smiling on us tonight…

‘Dido & Aeneas’ by Henry Purcell is on Friday 6th October at 8pm at Holy Innocents Church, Paddenswick Road, London W6 0UB. Book tickets

 

 

Meet Laura Lamph, who sings Dido…..

img_0860-683x1024Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

I think it must have been my competitive streak. An opportunity arose in school and I thought, I can do that (despite having never sung before) and so began my love of singing and music.

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

My music teacher in school, Ruth McCartney was definitely very important. As well as inspiring me to become a singer, she also taught me the importance of professionalism (I was a little bit wild back then.)

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

Moving to London from Northern Ireland was certainly a challenge but it was also the best thing that I could have done for my career. I sing a lot of choral music and there really is no better place to start than London. Because I was a bit of a random Irish person I was not in the inner circle (everyone knows each other) but I managed to audition and get work and have had the opportunity to work with and meet some amazing people.

I also work abroad quite a lot which means spending a lot of time living out of a suitcase, packing has been a real challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It is hard to say. When I was about 16 I sang as a soloist with my school choir on Last Night of the Proms (live from Belfast) It was viewed by millions of people but when I look back on it I was so calm and cool and just relishing every moment, I am not sure I will ever feel that again. I suppose it is the joy of youth.

More recently, I played the role of Dido last year for Sestina, the early music ensemble. I made it onto BBC Radio 3’s “ In Tune” programme to sing the Lament. This was quite scary given how many world class recordings there are of this particular piece and how many musicians listen to radio 3 but I reckon I did myself proud.

Which particular works do you think you sing best?

I am a huge fan of Bach, although I am not sure it is what I sing best yet.

I sing English song quite well, a fact that amuses some of my colleagues because of my broad Belfast accent when I talk.

I also do a pretty good Irish folk song.

As a singer, what is your definition of success?

Being able to live is definitely a realistic measure of a success and I have managed so far, although there have been a few scary moments over the years. However, I think the real success is having a job that you love and find fulfilling. It is not always glamorous but it is usually fun and when you sing amazing music with excellent musicians it makes it all worthwhile.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I really enjoy going on holiday funnily enough. I obviously like working but I love having a well-deserved break when I can actually switch off. I have realised how much the whole having a phone and internet really mean that we are rarely switched off from work!

What is your present state of mind?

I think my housemate would say stressed but I think mostly determined. I am excited about lots of things including my singing the part of Dido again for the Brook Green Festival. This time however we have transposed the baroque opera of ‘Dido and Aeneas’ to 80s Manhattan! As the festival organiser too I am anxious for it to be a success. I definitely think organising something and performing in it is quite a lot to take on!
And now meet baritone Edward Kay 

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

I started singing as a boy at the age of seven at Clifton Lodge School in Ealing which had a very impressive choir setup at the time. I remember one day coming back home from school and announcing to my parents that I wanted to audition – nothing much more to it than that!

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

Tenor Ben Johnson with whom I recently started studying.

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

Changing technique in a rather drastic way in December 2016. It involved pulling out of a large amount of work and much soul-searching.

Which performance are you most proud of?

I performed ‘Abschied’ from Schubert’s Schwangengesang a week or so ago with not much notice. It is particularly tricky as you have so many words to learn….!

Which particular works do you think you sing best?

I am focussing mainly on Italian songs and arias at the moment while I concentrate on learning how to sing. Tosti writes beautiful melodies and, in my opinion, you can’t beat the antique arias like ‘Caro mio ben’ or ‘Per la gloria d’adorarvi’.

As a singer, what is your definition of success?

Being able to convey the emotions, themes and messages that composers create with their music in the most convincing manner and truly understanding how to sing.

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

As an aspiring singer myself I feel uncomfortable ‘imparting’ too much but I would say that you need to have a technique that will last your entire life; you need to listen to your instincts; you need to have a core support network around you and, above all, don’t compare your own journey to anyone else’s

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

Performing around the world singing a mixture of repertoire in various opera houses and concert venues and working with interesting, passionate and inspiring people. And still have time to watch the Formula 1 and the Sunday newspaper on the weekend.

What is your present state of mind?

Positive and excited about the future. Concentrating on practising and have a number of concerts coming up to look forward to. Having the chance to perform a staged work like Dido and Aeneas throws up all sorts of difficulties and with the rather limited rehearsal schedule it presents new hurdles to overcome but it is an opportunity I am relishing and am very much looking forward to the performance.

Laura Lamph sings Dido and Edward Kay sings Aeneas and in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ Friday 6th October 8pm at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Ravenscourt Park. The opera will open the Brook Green Music Festival 6th-Friday 13th October 2017

 

Belfast-born mezzo-soprano Laura Lamph recently moved to London and enjoys performing with various ensembles there including, Britten Sinfonia Voices, London Voices, Philharmonia Voices and Polyphony. Laura performs regularly with her accompanist Miles Lallemant (another Chamber Choir Ireland alto) in recitals in London and abroad.

As an oratorio soloist, Laura has worked with various directors including Judy Martin and David Hill; she is a featured soloist on discs directed by Eamonn Dougan, Nigel McClintock and Paul Hillier, and has appeared as a soloist on Last Night of the Proms and BBC Radio Ulster Sounds Classical.

Recent solo engagements include Rossini’s Messe Solennelle with Axminster Choral Society, Verdi’s Requiem with Dublin University Choral Society, Dvorak Mass in D and Kodály: Missa Brevis with Ealing Choral Society, and Mozart’s Requiem with Armagh City Choir.

Edward Kay sings Aeneas in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ opening the Brook Green Music Festival. He is currently studying with the tenor Ben Johnson having recently finished the Vocal Studies MA at the Royal Academy of Music.

Future performances include Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Reading Festival Chorus, Beethoven’s Mass in C in Barnet and Handel’s Messiah with Worcester College Oxford. This August Edward was a Young Artist at the Southrepps Classical Music Festival.

Meet the Artist……Ilya Itin

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

I don’t remember myself NOT playing piano.  As I was told by my parents (non-musicians but avid music lovers) I was drawn to the piano from a very young age. I was not that interested in toys – the piano was my toy. Pursuing a career in music must have been my first teacher’s idea: Natalia Litvinova was and has been a very important influence in my life (musical and not).  My conservatory professor, Lev Naumov, remains to this very day an inspiration and a driving force for my musical endeavors.

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

Can’t put challenges on the scale. Everything becomes a challenge and a reward when done with utmost dedication.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I believe they are to come. There is a light at the end of the tunnel….

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I try to play works that I play best. 

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

I choose whatever fascinates me hoping my audience doesn’t mind my whims.

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

There are many and they change. I suspect it has nothing to do with geography.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Once I was scheduled to perform a concerto in Santiago, Chile. At the rehearsal ( fortunately not at the performance itself) I found out that the conductor and the orchestra were playing a different version of the piece. I had to change the concerto on the spot. Will never forget that.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t have one. I just want to do my job well.

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

To be a musician is a privilege. 

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

I hope I am still around in 10 years ( roviding the world is still there as well)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Would not be perfect happiness if I were able to explain it.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t treasure my possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most?

I enjoy non-doing most

What is your present state of mind?

Ambivalent

 

Ilya Itin performs sonatas in D by Schubert and Rachmaninov on Saturday 7th October, part of the London Piano Festival at King’s Place. Further information here

ilyaitin.com

Piano Notes: Alistair McGowan

To coincide with the release of his debut CD of piano music, acclaimed impressionist, comic and actor Alistair McGowan shares his passion for the piano and reveals how he prepared for his recording.


What are you first memories of the piano?

My mother had and still has a very good Chappell upright – ‘from Corporation St in Birmingham’. She was always playing the piano when I was young. She was the accompanist at the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society for years and was always playing and practising the score for the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan show they did. She also played a few classical pieces which I would often ask her to play to send me to sleep. She was a fabulous sight-reader and could play almost anything. It breaks my heart that she no longer plays.

My older sister, Kay, learnt to Grade Eight and so was constantly practising. My father and I would listen to her pieces again and again and again as we tried to watch ‘Star Soccer’ in the room next door. It’s the only way to practise but it gave me a very good idea of how hard it is to live with or next door to a pianist. She didn’t touch the piano after her final exam. She is making noises about playing again after all the interest I have shown and I really hope she does go back to it. She was very good!

Did you have piano lessons as a child?

I did two years and passed two grades but stopped when I was 9. I regretted it for the rest of my life and finally took up the piano again for a couple of years in my 30s and then TV stardom got in the way. So, I have only really, finally, finally thrown myself at it again over the last 2-3 years and particularly since being involved in my debut recording project.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

Nothing too ‘bangy’ and anything marked ‘lento’! Over the years, I’ve also loved piano music that I can work to and I think the album reflects that. The music is reflective and romantic, spanning everything from Bach and Field via Satie to Philip Glass. I hope it’s good to revise to, to work to, eat to and even to fall asleep to, too.

How do you make the time to practise? 

At first, it was a struggle fitting things in around other work and I had to cut a lot of things out of my life, but I began to love playing and improving so much that I soon didn’t miss reading about and watching endless football or even playing tennis. I watched less television in general with no regret and played less snooker too. I changed a few habits but have simply acquired new ones and made a lot of new friends through it too. Through it all, I kept on swimming as a wonderful release for mind and body!

Do you enjoy practising? 

I have to force myself to do scales and arpeggios and Hanon but otherwise, yes. I had some very good advice from lots of people. Fellow comic, Rainer Hersch, suggested putting a stop-watch by the music and making sure that every fifteen minutes you change your practise to a different piece or a different exercise to keep the brain active and receptive. I tried to do that. James Lisney [concert pianist and teacher at piano summer schools] is very keen on pianists getting up and stretching regularly, which is also very important (though not a good idea in a concert!). I am a little troubled with a sore right thigh and foot from all the pedalling though.

Have you participated in any masterclasses or piano courses? 

The person who got me playing again, the fabulous accompanist Lucy Colquhoun, suggested that I attend a weekend course with Paul Roberts in Sussex. I learnt a huge amount there in three days and realised above all how much I had to learn and that the learning is never done. Paul was just inspirational and in 2015 I went on his week-long piano course in France and then attended two courses in subsequent years at the delightful La Balie (run by Fiona Page in south-west France).

I also returned to Paul in 2016 for another woodsmoke-filled weekend. As well as learning from such inspirational players and teachers (James and Paul), who both have such a huge knowledge of piano history, it was great to meet other amateur pianists who shared my passion – most of whom were way ahead of where I was – all willing to play and share and talk about this fantastic repertoire that has been left to us by these amazing composers. I also performed in a number of practise concerts in Barnes with my teacher, Anthony Hewitt, and watching Anthony play live was a masterclass in itself.

What have you gained/learnt from this experience? 

Well, obviously, how much I enjoy playing the piano, but also the importance of goals and patience. I’ve gained even more respect for professional pianists and feel I’ve enriched my life and my soul. I have been a little surprised by how much I have enjoyed regularly turning my back on the modern world.

As an adult amateur pianist, what are the special challenges of preparing for a performance? 

Believing that the sound you are about to make is worth listening to. Believing that you know the music and not letting the occasion distract you from listening to the sound you are making with every note. I had moments of being very focused (reading ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ was a big help), but often heard myself saying ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?” If you can keep that voice out of your head, you will generally be fine!

How did you prepare the pieces featured on your new disc? 

I worked very hard, bringing each of them to the boil in turn. I did a lot of note-bashing on the electric piano at home but there is no substitute for a real piano for the touch. I was lucky enough to have some sessions in St Mary’s Church in Barnes on their excellent Steinway, which got me used to the touch and sound of the best big pianos. I also went to listen to a good few pianists in concert and learnt a lot from hearing James Lisney, Lucy Parham, Viv McLean and, of course, Anthony Hewitt.

I also listened to and registered recordings of the pieces I was playing – to get to know them intimately – on trains and even, especially, peacefully, in bed.

And how did you find the experience of recording the music?

It was like a lesson, an exam, a recital and the greatest pleasure all at the same time – immensely draining and yet utterly thrilling to hear the music I had learnt and loved coming out of the best pianos in the world !

It was also terrifying knowing that this was the one chance to get each piece recorded. I read a wonderful book called ‘Piano Notes’ by Charles Rosen which has a very helpful chapter on the challenge of recording and refers especially to the need to not to worry about mistakes. They can be covered. My teacher/mentor, Anthony Hewitt, was wonderfully helpful at and about the recordings. My producer, Chris Hazel, was unbelievably supportive, helpful and strict!

I had to pinch myself after each recording. I couldn’t believe what I was being allowed to do. I had been to drama school at The Guildhall and worked at The Barbican Centre tearing tickets as a student. So, to be recording in St Giles Cripplegate, just opposite these two important buildings in my life, felt like some sort of karma. And after the eight-hour sessions, I felt like some sort of korma!

What was your motivation for making the disc?

It was principally the challenge of seeing if I could get to a level somewhere near good enough that people would want to listen to the music I was playing. We all need an incentive and knowing that my playing was potentially going to heard by thousands was a real carrot.

I also hope that the album encourages people to play by showing them the beauty of some well-known and some much lesser-known pieces. I have often felt that virtuoso playing (impressive as it is) can just as easily put people off playing as it can inspire them. I know I heard myself say for many years, “Well, I could never play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto like that so, what’s the point…?” I really, above all, hope that people who hear the album will say, “I think I could play that” and do so

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming piano lessons? 

Do it! It has brought me so much pleasure. There are moments of frustration, of course, but, with patience and a lot of hard work, it is just wonderful to be able to play pieces that you’ve loved listening to all your life. I think learning how to learn is as important as learning how to play ; it’s important to get the most from your playing time. Setting goals is also important. Perhaps organise small recitals at home, before friends, in order to give yourself a deadline.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Ah! That changes all the time as I hear more and more piano music that I want to play and as I am improving. Currently, I am in love with Madeleine Dring’s ‘Blue Air’ but find even the opening few bars very challenging. It’s a wonderful evocation of ‘cool’ and sounds like a theme from any 1960s Michael Caine film. It’s unlike anything else I play. I also have an eye on Debussy’s ‘Ballade’ – but that’s a good few years away, I fear !

‘Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album’ is available now on the Sony Classical label and is the impressionist’s debut album

 


Further reading

Review of Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album

Why go on a piano course?

Courses for pianists

 

(Photo: usefulvoices.com)

Please do not reproduce this article without prior permission from the author of this blog

©Frances Wilson 2017

The piano at Borough New Music

As Borough New Music‘s new season begins on 3 October 2017, Artistic Director Clare Simmonds surveys the exciting new piano music on offer from October 2017 to June 2018.

Borough New Music sets out to share music by living composers and the music of today. In each of the eight Series of concerts this season, we feature a different instrument. For Series 2 – which is five free concerts every Tuesday in October 2017 at 1pm at St George the Martyr SE1 1JA – it’s the piano.

In fact, the piano became the featured instrument for this second Series simply because of the preponderance of piano premieres that month. These include a fascinating new piano sonata by Ben Gaunt, based around the architectural principles of light, written for the wonderful pianist Christopher Guild (24 October 2017); eight miniature ‘cryptograms’ by Patrick Nunn, each inspired by composers who have in some way influenced his output; and two works written specially for the virtuoso José Menor: a mighty five-movement cycle by Sam Hayden and a sparkling Toccata by fellow Catalan Tomas Peire Serrate (all on 3 October 2017). Plus there is a selection of new works written specifically for the pianists who will perform them, by composers Michael Worboys , Harry Palmer, Rotem Sherman and Toby Ingram – all outcomes of the 2017 Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition, a little-known public event held every April, which deserves high praise for its innovation.

But that’s just Series 2 – the tip of the iceberg. One of the most fascinating things about the piano is that every player makes it sound different. Over the 2017-18 season, we have the opportunity to hear the voices of 14 very different pianists. That includes established contemporary pianists such as Philip Mead (1 May 2018), who gave the UK premiere of George Crumb’s ‘Makrokosmos’ at the Southbank in 1977, and the first London performance of Henry Cowell’s piano concerto in 2013.

 

 

Plus, there is the master improviser Douglas Finch (17 April 2018), toy piano specialist Kate Ryder (20 March 2018), as well as Matthew Schellhorn  (30 January 2018), Aleksander Szram (26 June 2018), Christopher Guild (24 October 2017) and José Menor  (3 October 2017); and young artists such as Joe Howson, Ieva Dubova, Mahsa Salali, Rotem Sherman and Neus Peris Ferrer (31 October 2017). The pianist Ben Smith  deserves special mention not only for his repertoire for piano and electronics (14 November 2017), but also for appearances in six different concerts (November 2017 and February 2018)! Here he is performing Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘Serynade’:

 

 

It is always interesting to hear what a composer chooses to give a pianist to play – and what pianists write or improvise for themselves to play. With compelling musical material in hand, what else is important to them: the listener’s impression, the player’s strengths, or the instrument’s potential? When pianists compose, do they opt for an easy life, and write what they find straightforward, or do they demand the (almost) impossible, to show their superhuman virtuosity? (Sometimes I think that’s the equivalent of those gourmets who go for the hottest vindaloo on offer!) It is not hard to be mesmerised by the multifaceted capabilities of the piano, and the programme this season certainly explores that. From a world premiere by Joseph Horovitz (even though he is over 90!) on 30 January 2018, to Edward Henderson’s refreshingly alternative look at piano performance (10 April 2018), the bluesy, frantic etudes of Nancarrow (21 November 2017) to the works of Janet Graham, Haris Kittos, Daryl Runswick and Simon Katan, there is a compelling range of piano works to discover.

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Douglas Finch

Borough New Music concerts take place every Tuesday at 1pm from 3 October 2017 to 26 June 2018 at St George the Martyr Church, Borough High Street, London SE1 1JA (just a short walk from London Bridge and Borough tube stations). Admission is free to all events, and light refreshments are served afterwards.

For a full programme, visit www.boroughnewmusic.co.uk.

Here is a selection of concerts in the 2017-18 season involving the piano (note the impressive number of premieres):

Series 2

Tuesday 3 October 2017, 1pm ‘Resonate’

José Menor (piano)

· Patrick Nunn (b. 1969) – Cryptograms I-VIII (2011-15) (PERFORMANCE PREMIERE)

· Sam Hayden (b. 1968) – Becomings (Complete) (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· György Ligeti (1923-2006) – Piano Etude Book 2 No 9 Vertige (1994)

· Tomas Peire Serrate (b. 1979) – Toccata (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

Tuesday 24 October 2017, 1pm ‘Reverberate’

Christopher Guild (piano)

· Ben Gaunt (b. 1984) – Piano Sonata No. 1 (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Poul Ruders (b. 1949) – Piano Sonata No. 2 (1982)

Tuesday 31 October 2017, 1pm ‘Reward’

Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition Prizewinning Recital

Pianists: Joe Howson (winner), Ieva Dubova, Mahsa Salali (commended), Marisa Munoz Lopez (commended), Neus Peris Ferrer. Composers: Harry Palmer, Michael Worboys (winner), Rotem Sherman (commended), Toby Ingram

· Harry Palmer (b. 1994) – Birthday Song for Erwin (2017)

· Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) – Transcendental Etude 20 ‘con fantasia’ (1944)

· Thomas Ades (b. 1971) – Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) (Movts I & IV)

· Michael Worboys – Bone Memories (2017)

· Toby Ingram (b. 1998)- Into the Unknown (2017)

· Rotem Sherman – Home (2017)

· Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) – Präludien zu Tristan (2003)

· Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) – Piano Piece IV (1977)

Series 3

Tuesday 7 November 2017, 1pm ‘Last Words’

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Antonia Berg (flute), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) – Due melodie per soprano e pianoforte (1978)

· Ben Smith (b. 1991) – New Work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Kate Soper (b. 1981) – Only the words themselves mean what they say (2010-11) (UK PREMIERE)

· Salvatore Sciarrino – Ultime rose (from Vanitas) (1981)

Tuesday 14 November 2017, 1pm ‘Babbitt-Haas-Emmerson’

Ben Smith (piano), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano)

· Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) – Philomel (1964)

· Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953) – Ein Schattenspiel (2004)

· Simon Emmerson (b. 1950) – Time Past IV (1985)

Tuesday 21 November 2017, 1pm ‘Sensations’

PERFORMER: Ben Smith (piano)

· Robert Reid Allan (b. 1991) – The Palace of Light (2016) (LONDON PREMIERE)

· Colon Nancarrow (1912-1997) – Three Canons for Ursula (1988)

· Julian Anderson (b. 1967) – Sensation (2015-16)

Tuesday 28 November 2017, 1pm ‘Haikus’

FEATURED COMPOSER: Eva-Maria Houben

Antonia Berg (flute), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

· Eva-Maria Houben (b. 1955) – Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04) (UK PREMIERE)

Series 4

Tuesday 16 January 2018, 1pm ‘Islands’

Carla Rees (flutes), Ian Mitchell (clarinets), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Touching the Void (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Dan Kessner (b. 1946) – Genera

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Tom Ingoldsby (b. 1957) – The Cathedral (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Beacons (version for piano, flute and clarinet)

Tuesday 30 January 2018, 1pm ‘Muscle Memory’

Matthew Schellhorn (piano)

· Roger Briggs (b. 1952) – Jitterbug

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Chopsticks

· Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) – Prelude and Toccata

· Colin Riley (b. 1963) – Joplin Jigsaws

· Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926) – Pierrot’s Hornpipe (WORLD PREMIERE)

Series 5

Tuesday 6 February 2018, 1pm

Ben Smith (piano), Kirsty Clark (viola), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano)

· Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) – Got Lost (2008)

· Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) – The Door of the Sun (1975)

· Martin Lodge (b. 1954) – Pacific Rock (1999)

Tuesday 20 February 2018, 1pm ‘Songwriters of 2018’

Robert Reid Allan (glockenspiel/melodica), Ben Smith (piano, glockenspiel/melodica), Siân Dicker (soprano), Mimi Doulton (soprano), Delphine Mégret (soprano), Krystal Tunnicliffe (piano)

· Jake Dorfman (b. 1993) – Short Songs on Liberty (2016)

· Clare Elton (b. 1993) – Escape (2017)

· James Garner (b. 1992) – Emily Dickinson Settings (2015)

· Jules Pegram (b. 1991) – Valentines (2015)

· Mo Zhao (b. 1993) – Just Watching (2017)

· Rasmus Zwicki (b. 1979) – Fly Little Birdy (2017)

Tuesday 27 February 2018, 1pm ‘Two Sopranos, a Cello & a Piano’

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Mimi Doulton (soprano), Urška Horvat (cello), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Harrison Birtwistle (b 1934) – Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998-2000)

· André Previn (b 1929) – Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano (1994)

· John Tavener (1944-2013) – Akhmatova Songs (selection) (1993)

Series 6

Tuesday 13 March 2018, 1pm

The Durufle Trio: Henrietta Hill (viola), Rosie Bowker (flute), Clare Simmonds (piano), Janet Oates (soprano)

· Rob Keeley (b. 1960) – Trio in One Movement (2017)

· Tom Armstrong – From Consort Music (2016): Monody & Concertino (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Janet Oates – Singings and Sayings (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Colin Riley (b. 1963) – New Work (2018) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Rhiannon Randle (b. 1993) – New Work (2018)

Tuesday 20 March 2018, 1pm ‘Ear ring’

In collaboration with World Toy Piano Week

Kate Ryder, piano/toy piano

· John Cage – Suite for Toy Piano (1948)

· Stace Constantinou (b. 1971) – Cactus Prelude 6 for Toy Piano and Fixed Media(2014)

· Christian Banasik (b. 1963) – TRIMER for Toy Piano and Fixed Media (2001)

· Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) – Earring (2000); East Broadway for Toy Piano and Boombox (1996)

· Brian Inglis – New work for Toy Piano (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Yumi Hara – Farouche (2008)

· Katharine Norman (b. 1960) – Fuga Interna (begin) (2011)

· Meredith Monk (b. 1942) – Rail Road (travel song) for Solo Piano (1981); St Petersburg Waltz(1994)

· Stephen Montague (b.1943) – Mirabella – A Tarantella for Toy Piano (1995)

Tuesday 27 March 2018, 1pm

Loré Lixenberg (voice), Chris Brannick (marimba), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Gregory Rose – Birdsongs for Loré, Volume 1 (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Quelques gouttes d’eau sur une surface (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Aphrodite and Adonis (UK PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Music for a Kytherian Amphitheatre (WORLD PREMIERE)

Series 7

Tuesday 3 April 2018, 1pm

Elisabeth Swedlund (soprano), Jean-Max Lattemann (counter-tenor), Clare Simmonds (piano)

George Crumb (b. 1929) – Apparition: Elegiac Songs for Soprano and Amplified Piano

· HK Gruber (b. 1943) – Three Single Songs

· Ross Edwards (b. 1943) – The Hermit of Green Light

· Julian Grant (b. 1960) – The Owl and the Pussycat

Tuesday 10 April 2018, 1pm

Clare Simmonds, piano

· Edward Henderson – Black Box Flight Recorder (2012)

· Edward Henderson – Hold (2017)

· Edward Henderson – Tape Piece (2014)

Tuesday 17 April 2018, 1pm ‘Sound Clouds’

Douglas Finch (piano), Martin Speake (saxophone)

· Improvisations

Series 8

Tuesday 1 May 2018, 1pm

Philip Mead, Piano

· Tim Raymond (b. 1953) – Orbit of Venus (2014)

· Richard Blackford (b. 1954) – Sonata (2016) (LONDON PREMIERE)

· Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) – Purgatory from 4 Images After Yeats (1969)

· Edward Cowie (b. 1943) – Preludes 1 and 2 from 24 Preludes (2004-2005)

· Lisa Reim – Pebbles (2004)

Tuesday 22 May 2018, 1pm ‘Cello, Electric Guitar & Piano’

Audrey Riley (cello), James Woodrow (electric guitar), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Tom Armstrong – Diversions 3

· Stuart Beatch (b. 1991) – Three movements

· Joel Järventausta (b. 1995) – Elegy for Solo Piano (WORLD PREMIERE)

· David Ryan – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

Tuesday 29 May 2018, 1pm

Joseph Spooner (cello) and Rebeca Omordia (piano)

· Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) – Sonata No. 1 (op. 29)

· Sally Beamish (b. 1956) – Gala Water (1994)

· Sally Beamish – The Wise Maid (1998)

· Matthew Taylor – Fantasy Pieces (op. 30)

Series 9

Tuesday 19 June 2018, 1pm

Janet Oates (soprano, flute), Clare Simmonds (piano), Jill House (mezzo soprano),

Nancy Johnston (cor anglais) Olivia Moss (soprano)

· Janet Oates – Atomic songs and fancies

· Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012)- Ah Sunflower (2008)

· Janet Oates – Blind Fool Love

· Tansy Davies (b. 1973) – Destroying Beauty (2008)

· Janet Oates – Arse-elbow (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Joel Järventausta (b. 1995) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Janet Oates – A Lover (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Frederick Viner (b. 1994) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Dai Fujikura (b. 1977) – Away we play

Tuesday 26 June 2018, 1pm

Aleksander Szram (piano)

· Hollie Harding – Suite P

· Janet Graham (b. 1948) – Sonata for Piano (2016) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Daryl Runswick (b. 1946) – Scafra Preludes Book 2

· Haris Kittos – Athrós (2001)


 

Clare Simmonds performs regularly as a soloist and ensemble pianist, and enjoys presenting unconventional programmes. From 2016-17 she was a staff accompanist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for Jane Manning’s contemporary song classes, as well as performing in several chamber groups. She also provides online marketing services to promote contemporary music and is a publicity consultant for Prima Facie Records.

The Exquisitely Breathing Bow

An interview with Ruth Phillips, cellist, teacher and creator of Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshops for cellists and other musicians

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

My mother is a music teacher and my father a painter. I started the cello at the age of 4 and had to get up every morning to practice before school. To be honest I remember it being excruciating. I was so uncomfortable in my body for so much of my childhood and early teens that I was unable to feel much connection to the instrument. To this day, I do not know how much the hours of practice on the instrument during those and even some of the subsequent years served me. However, singing and being immersed in music as a language from so early, having it be a source of community and communication, at first in the family and, later, on music courses, in chamber music and orchestras, was something from which I could not, initially, turn away and which, ultimately, I chose as a way of life. Career is a funny word…At the time I would have been ‘choosing a career’ I simply followed my heart and did that which I loved. Both my parents did that. My husband and I do it. I suppose, fortunately, I have never known anything else.

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

I was a friend (and fan) of Steven Isserlis from a very early age – way before he was famous – and I attended the Cello Centre run by his teacher Jane Cowan both in London and at Edrom. If anyone breathes through their instrument in my opinion, it is Steven. That pretty much set the bar for me, though playing so effortlessly and with such apparent joy was an alien concept for a long time to come. Other inspiration was largely drawn from the extraordinary experiences I had year after year at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, with Sandor Vegh, Andras Schiff, Daniel Phillips and Johannes Goritzki, and later my wonderful teacher in the US, Timothy Eddy. What touches me is that every one of these people goes back in some way to one person whom I sadly never met or heard play, but the great grand teacher of so many of us – Pablo Casals. I was incredibly lucky to play in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for eight years under conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and there are other things too, … standing on a street corner in Bamako (where my son was born) singing and dancing, African drumming, looking at the waves, writing a poem, watching my husband paint….it’s all connected.

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

For musicians, a sense of belonging is important and yet as a freelance musician, that sense can be elusive. One is so easily replaceable, indeed so often replaced, and usually without explanation or a chance to evolve. It is hard not to take this personally (and of course sometimes it is personal) and thus become less and less confident even as one gains experience and ease on the instrument. The challenge seems to be to develop an inner confidence and be true to one’s voice. Now, approaching my mid-fifties, I, along with many of my colleagues I believe, am facing the challenge of moving gracefully into the latter part of my life as a musician. For me, this is about continuing to play whilst allowing the world of concert touring to flourish largely without me, turning my energy instead towards holding and passing on something of that which I have been so lucky to have been given. Happily this period coincides with having a young child late in life so it’s quite a relief on all fronts!

How did you develop your Breathing Bow technique?

I mentioned Steven Isserlis and most of my life has been spent trying to understand how his exquisitely breathing bow worked (because I don’t think he really understands it himself, it’s so natural!). His teacher Jane always spoke about winged bowing which was an important key, but learning how turn the lock and open the door took the next two decades and I am of course still learning.

When my beautiful Banks cello on which I had played all my life was smashed into a hundred pieces on tour with COE in 1989, I was forced to face the fact that it is not the cello but my body (and heart and spirit if you like) that is the instrument through which to express the music. The trouble was, I wasn’t in any way connected to my body. That was a point of breakdown, my starting point, and the point at which I went to study in America.

Since that fateful day, there have been several moments and elements that have come together to influence my approach. The first was my teacher Tim Eddy saying to me in my first lesson ‘Ruthie, something has to move inside you for you to be moved to play‘. It took me the next four years to understand and experience the truth of this, but that phrase changed my direction completely. Initially I became interested in Alexander technique and had a teacher come out to Stony Brook to work with all the string players. Then, on my return to the UK, having developed a frozen shoulder and been told I would never play again (doctors should get some counselling on how to deal with such situations!), I started practicing yoga and was lucky to find a teacher, Peter Blackaby, who revealed to me how movement happens in release, and how that release is connected to the breath. This, itself a mindful practice, led to practicing meditation.

Though I work happily alone, I am lucky to have two dear friends, also cellists, with whom I collaborate, one an Alexander teacher (Dale Culliford) and another a yoga teacher (Jane Fenton). I love working alongside them and increasing my own awareness at the same time, keeping my approach alive and changing rather than fossilizing into a technique. I hope to enjoy other collaborations in the future. For example, I’d love to work with a Feldenkrais teacher.

How has this technique helped you as a musician, performer and a teacher?

At university in America where I performed solo for the first time (having sneakily avoided it until then!) I suffered terribly from stage fright. Before my degree recital I actually thought I was going to die. I have since found out of course that I am not alone with having had these feelings. It’s helpful as a teacher to know that place first hand and, also, to know that it is not something one needs to suffer at all, let alone in silence. Having come through that myself I know that stage presence is something one can practice, just as one practices vibrato. I am now happier on stage than anywhere else. (Well, apart from watching my six year old son make fresh tagliatelle for 25 people!.)

How does your Breathing Bow technique support and help string players?

I suppose wind players have the greatest advantage in uniting their musical phrasing and their technique through the breath, because they can’t play otherwise. As string players, however, the breath is rarely mentioned other than something we have to catch occasionally between phrases. But, there is hope! We have this incredible curved extra limb called a bow which, when connected through the arm to the expanding and contracting rib-cage, can express all the qualities that the breath has – tension, release, expansion, contraction, expression, inspiration, control, letting go, strong, weak – and of course on which the music is based. Rather than the effort involved in sustaining an even bow pressure or speed or contact point resulting from a thought about the music and having to control every millisecond, the breath becomes a sort of limousine in which we can ride, uniting the body, the instrument and the music. Playing becomes such a pleasure!

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Do you think Breathing Bow has relevance to other instrumentalists and how might it help them?

I call it the Breathing Bow, but of course it’s not just about the bow. There are so many aspects to this approach that can help performers on all instruments, though I have of course developed it on the cello so I can apply things more easily to that instrument. For example, on the cello, when one releases from an impulse and the elbow drops (as in the release after bouncing a ball) the bow naturally rides up towards the fingerboard which creates exactly the release in the sound that the music demands. However, for a violinist, this is the opposite. Releasing the elbow brings the bow nearer the bridge. I have worked with quite a few violinists and violists and they are helping me with this. But yes, I believe anyone can benefit. I get everyone I work with to watch Andras Schiff play the piano, for example (as well as watching Roger Federer play tennis), and I do think he could do a mean line in the Breathing Keyboard…

How does Breathing Bow help in performance and can it counter the effects of performance anxiety?

I love to think about developing stage presence as opposed to countering the effects of performance anxiety or dealing with stage fright. The language we use is already so negative and I think one of our largest obstacles is that negative thinking and the fact that the subject has been taboo (it’s changing now, happily). Another is that I believe we are taught and therefore we practice being constantly in control – of every split second of every note, or every bit of every phrase. What we do not practice and therefore that with which we are uncomfortable is the aspect of the movement and the music that we do not control. We call this being ‘out of control’ and it terrifies us. No wonder we fall apart on stage when we lose some of our ability to be in constant control. However, we do not need to be in control all the time! In fact, I would say we need to be in control more like 30% of the time. I try and show people how to practice that aspect of letting go, allowing what we have set in motion to live its own life without our constant interference, knowing when to rest and simply listen. This takes a different kind of practice which is very enjoyable, like practicing being on holiday! Developing a quiet non-judgemental mind and knowing how to come into the present moment is naturally a huge part of this, and I would say one of the best things to do before going on stage, rather than running up and down the instrument, is to meditate.

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

When I was playing under Harnoncourt in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, I will never forget the experience of the 4th cello, the second oboe, the soloist, the person in the back row of the audience, the conductor, even the space itself, being an equal part of this magical moment-to-moment unfolding. I am still not sure how Harnoncourt created this other than by being a true ‘conductor’, but I know that a search for this humility, this sense of simplicity and common humanity is the most important thing for me. We get so knotted up in ‘my performance’ ‘my technique’ ‘my interpretation’, and that ‘my’ implies a ‘your’ which creates duality. Sometimes the ‘you’ is a voice with whom we are at war within ourselves. If we can find a way to open ourselves and allow the music to flow through us as it is in the present moment then we can be at peace in a non-dualistic world which, especially in this current climate, feels like an urgent need. We are so privileged as musicians to be able to share this. I would encourage all musicians do find whatever way they can to make music not with fear but with joy.

 

Ruth Phillips is running a Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshop in Cornwall from 21-24 November 2017 with Jane Fenton, and one in London on 21 January 2018 with Dale Culliford. For more information and booking, please contact Ruth Phillips at ruth@wintermane.com

Details can also be found on the London Cello Society website

http://www.londoncellos.org/cello-events/

Ruth runs Breathing Bow retreats from her home in Provence

http://thebreathingbow.com

 

Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album

This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination.

-Alistair McGowan

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The debut album from Alistair McGowan sees the BAFTA-winning impressionist, comedian and actor in a new role, that of concert pianist. Called simply ‘The Piano Album’, it contains 18 short pieces of roughly Grade 5-6 standard, including works by McGowan’s beloved Erik Satie, mostly romantic or flowing music, and is intended to encourage others to play the piano by offering attractive well-known and lesser-known pieces which are accessible to intermediate level amateur pianists. McGowan feels that hearing someone like him, who returned to the piano as an adult having had only a couple of years of lessons as a child, is perhaps more inspiring than a recording or performance by a top professional playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, which many amateurs “could never play” (AG). Having spent the last few weeks listening obsessively to Krystian Zimerman’s exquisite new recording of Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, which have provided me with much food for thought and yes, inspiration, I am not sure I would agree. But as someone who goes to and reviews many piano concerts by top  international artists (Aimard, Perahia, Osborne, Levit, Hough…..), maybe I am not the ideal audience for this disc….

The pieces are played nicely with some good production values, but there is nothing striking about the playing, no moments of insight nor real wonder. Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis No. 5, for example, is pleasant enough. It flows, it’s in time, but it has neither the spaciousness nor relaxed sense of breathing space that a more experienced player or someone who has spent a long time living with and in the music would bring to it. In short, it is rather too “notey” and somewhat laboured. Most of the pieces lack real expressive depth or subtleties of musical colour, and the result is a rather bland trawl through some nice piano miniatures. As a pianist friend of mine remarked, “people with a vague interest in classical piano music who want a “first album” would probably love it. Those of us more used to Perahia, Brendel et al will be less enamoured“.

Having said that, kudos to Alistair McGowan for taking on the challenge of learning, finessing and recording the pieces for this album. Integral to this process were lessons with concert pianists Anthony Hewitt, Lucy Parham and James Lisney, and quality time spent at piano courses run by Paul Roberts and at luxurious La Balie in SW France. He has not taken on this project lightly, and his dedication to, and passion for, the piano is to be commended. That alone should be an inspiration to other adult amateur pianists.

Read an interview with Alistair McGowan on this site on 2 October.

The Piano Album is available now on the Sony Classical label

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture