If you listen to one thing this week…..

album_coverLucas Debargue: Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt Ravel (Sony)

Escape all the noise and fall out of Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership wrangling with this exquisite debut disc by Lucas Debargue, the young French pianist who came fourth in the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 2015.

Weightless elegant Scarlatti opens this album which was recorded live at the Salle Cortot in Paris, Debargue’s first concert in his hometown after the competition. His sense of pacing, evident in the Scarlatti sonatas, really comes to the fore in his reading of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, where he balances delicacy and poetry with drama to create a performance which is both intimate and expansive. The real impact comes when he holds the music in suspense: it feels natural and unpretentious. His performance of Gaspard de la Nuit, the work for which he received much enthusiastic acclaim during the competition, is equally impressive. His clarity of touch and tone combined with that wondrous pacing brings a silky sensuality to ‘Ondine”s watery arabesques while ‘Scarbo’ is less grotesque, more puckish and playful, though no less dark for it. In between these movements, ‘Le Gibet’ is seven minutes of restrained desolation. His Liszt is a proper waltz instead of the headlong frenzy some pianists give to this work. The Grieg is like an encore, a calming salve after Liszt’s twirling rhyhms. The Schubert is as intimate as you like, as if Debargue is playing just for you – and playful too, reminding us that Schubert was a composer of dances and Ländler. And in a neat piece of programming the album closes with Debargue’s variation on the Scarlatti Sonata in A which opens the album.

At the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Moscow Music Critics Association awarded him their prize for “the pianist whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience”, and his debut disc demonstrates these attributes in spades.

Highly recommended.

Lucas Debargue’s performances at the Tchaikovsky Competition are still available to view on the Medici TV site

If you would like to contribute a review to ‘If You Listen to One Thing This Week….’ please contact me here

‘Panzer’ Piano

Some years ago I heard two performances of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in the same day: the first was on an 1848 Pleyel from the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, a piano said to have been used by Chopin when he visited England in 1848. The second was at the Royal Festival Hall on a modern concert Steinway model D. It was almost as if I’d heard two completely different pieces of music. If I had to pick one performance, I would probably say I enjoyed the concert at Hatchlands more – the setting which harked back to Chopin’s Parisian salon and the culture of concerts amongst friends, and the more limited dynamic range of the instrument (without loss of pianistic colour), which seemed appropriate for the music. The performance on the modern Steinway seemed more seamless, the sound somehow “smoothed out”.

Chopin’s ‘own’ grand piano (photo: The Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands)

A few months ago I interviewed an international concert pianist who spoke of the difficulties of playing Chopin’s Piano Concertos with a modern orchestra, on a modern piano. “There’s a simplicity/naturalness/delicacy [in this music] which is bordering on impossible on a modern piano. You have to over-articulate and then it doesn’t feel like Chopin. It becomes “Panzer Chopin”. It shouldn’t be forceful. Very often today the pianos are voiced quite aggressively so that they carry to the back of the hall over the orchestra.”

Pianos are now bigger and louder than ever: the invention of the iron frame in the 1820s and the introduction of steel wire strings allowed manufacturers to create much stronger and therefore bigger and noisier pianos. Designed to project in the biggest venues, the largest grand pianos are now over 3 metres in length (the standard Steinway Model D – still the most popular piano in modern concert halls – is 2.74 metres) and modern manufacturing techniques and materials give these instruments immense power. In addition, contemporary taste and trends, in part driven by the wide availability of very high-quality recordings, mean that modern pianos are often voiced in such a way that the sound is very bright, particularly in the upper register.

Fazioli F308 model (3.08 metres long)


I have been lucky enough to play  Schubert and Chopin-era fortepianos and pianos (including the aforementioned 1848 Pleyel), an instructive experience for it tells one a great deal about the possibilities – and limitations – afforded by the instruments of the day and the kind of soundworld these composers might have known. I’m no period instrument crusader (nor do I buy into the theory that hearing music on period instruments allows us to “hear it as the composers heard it” because that is impossible, and changes in piano technique, performance practice etc influence the way pianists produce sound), but I do think it is important to understand that an 1826 Graf fortepiano, such as Schubert would have known and played, or a early twentieth-century Bechstein (such as the one I own), does not sound like a modern piano, and we should carry this appreciation into our playing and the sounds we strive to make. (It is reported by those who heard Chopin perform that he never played louder than mezzo-forte, even if he had written forte in the score.). Not all fortes are equal (nor all pianissimos for that matter!), and a forte or fortissimo in Schubert should not be played with the same volume as the equivalent dynamics in Rachmaninov or Stravinsky, for example. Schubert’s dynamics tend to be introspective and intimate, and his fortes generally lack the declamatory nature of Beethoven’s or Rachmaninov’s.

An appreciation of “psychological dynamics” is also important: dynamics should be nuanced to suit the genre, period, mood, key and character of the music. The word “dynamics” does not simply mean “loud or quiet”, and a whole host of adjectives and metaphors can be applied to suggest a particular sound and mood – vibrant, angry, energetic, lethargic, distant, lonely…. I have noticed a tendency amongst certain performers, who shall remain nameless, to offer very literal interpretations of dynamics. Add to this a very large grand piano in a medium-sized venue such as Wigmore Hall and one can feel as if one is being constantly hit over the head with sound, even in the back row of the hall where I usually sit. For someone who suffers from intermittent tinnitus as I do, this can be quite uncomfortable, verging on painful. It also feels “unmusical” to me.

And here is another issue concerning the sound of the modern piano – performers need to make adjustments to their sound according to the size of the venue. At a piano meetup event I attended last winter at a very small salon-style venue, a number of players pushed the fortes and fortissimos in their pieces as if they were playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall, quite inappropriate for the size of the venue. Earlier this year I gave a concert in a colleague’s home on a 1960s Steinway D. Fearful that my fortes might be too great for the size of the room, I considered playing with the piano’s lid on half-stick, but the instrument was so beautifully set up that it was not necessary. (I should add that this was a piano with a rather special heritage: it used to belong to the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli and has been played by such piano greats as Richter, Gilels, Barenboim and Ashkenazy.)

A skilled pianist playing a properly set up modern piano can adjust his or her sound according to venue, acoustic, genre of music. Thus, a pianist such as Richard Goode, whom I heard in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas recently, can bring a richness to the fortes and fortissimos without a loss of beauty of tone. His sound was warm and orchestral, rather than simply loud. Equally, in the piano and pianissimo passages he created an incredible sense of intimacy which seemed to shrink the Royal Festival Hall to the size of Schubert’s salon. Such skillful, controlled and sensitively nuanced playing is of course the result of many years of experience, an understanding of each composer’s distinct soundworld, and the ability to judge the volume of sound one is going to make before the finger reaches the key.

Paul Badura Skoda plays Schubert (on an 1826 Graf fortepiano, a 1923 Bösendorfer and a modern Steinway)

Chopin’s ‘own’ grand piano at the Cobbe Collection

Meet the Artist……Richard Fowles


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

I was obsessed with music as a teenager so I never really considered any other career. At that age I was very dedicated to my instrument and so chose to do a degree in music performance. However, by the end of it I had realised that it is the creative side of music that engages me more than performing.

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

The first person that comes to mind is Christopher Fox. He was a tutor of mine while I was doing my MMus. He encouraged me to focus on the music that I enjoyed and not worry about musical trends and what other musicians were doing. As my career has developed I have found myself becoming increasingly interested in small ensembles/solo instruments and sparse, understated music and this has been reflected in my compositions. I love delicate piano music so I really enjoy the work of the Impressionists. I also have a soft spot for the music of the film composer Thomas Newman. Shostakovich’s string quartets are particular favourites of mine but I have to be in the right mood to listen to them! The minimal textures he created with pedals have certainly influenced my own work. Of course there are endless composers I like but these are the ones that first come to mind. Lastly, I would say my father; he is a painter. Being someone who has worked in a creative industry, he has been able to give me some invaluable advice over the years.

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

Although occasionally inspiration strikes and I write a piece without too much effort, the vast majority of the time it takes a great deal of hard work. I would say the greatest challenge I have faced as a composer has been sticking at pieces when my creativity is at a low point. It is very frustrating when, after spending weeks struggling to develop a small musical idea, I decide to scrap 90% of it and take the remaining 10% in a completely different direction. Many times I have found that leaving the piece for a few months can help, but there have been some ideas that have been an uphill struggle all the way. Of course, it is worth it when they are finally finished.

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

I have done commissions where the brief has been extremely specific and it has taken many re-writes before I was able to even understand what the person who commissioned it wanted. This can be even more challenging when the individual doesn’t know what they want and the only feedback they give involves vague unmusical descriptions and a lot of hand waving. However, I have also had some really enjoyable experiences with commissions where I have been asked to combine several very different genres and have been able to do so successfully. French, flamenco, military jazz, anyone?

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

There are several musicians I work with who have a very particular sound. It is always a pleasure bringing a piece to them knowing that their input will not only make it sound as good as possible, but will also give me new insight into my own music.

Which works are you most proud of?

There are a few compositions on my new album of which I am particularly proud. My album celebrates the music of Erik Satie 150 years after his birth. My piece ‘Sea-Bird’ was inspired by Satie’s uncle; an eccentric man who had a profound influence on the composer as a child. Both Satie and his uncle were known to have had bad tempers, swift mood swings and a childlike innocence and I think I captured this very successfully. Although a simple piece, I am also particularly pleased with ‘Knossienne No.1’ as it came out exactly as I hoped it would. I would also say ‘A Walk to Le Chat Noir on a Snowy Day’ as I am pleased with my use of quartal harmony.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As well as the musicians I mentioned in question 2, I would also say Arvo Pärt, Charles Ives, John Tavener, Morton Feldman, Michael Nyman, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Holst … all sorts really. There are also some non-classical artists whose music I enjoy; I love the music of blues musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Tommy Emmanuel and BB King. I’m still discovering new music all the time; I have only just been introduced to the music of Stephen Montague.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That really is impossible to answer as I remember different concerts for different reasons. I have seen orchestras play at The Royal Albert Hall and been blown away by their power and the atmosphere of the venue. Likewise, I remember seeing the Borodin Quartet at the Southbank Centre and being very impressed by the delicacy of their playing and the intimacy of the experience. However, I have also seen many weird and wonderful performances that were memorable for other reasons. One of the most memorable performances I have seen in recent years was a comedy act called ‘Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer’. Although not ‘high art’, I have to say it was very funny and very memorable!

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

When you decide to be a professional musician it is because you want to do something you love. However, it is important that aspiring musicians learn early on in their careers that they will probably have to do some performing/composing/teaching that they’d rather not do in order to pay their bills. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the earlier it’s done the better.

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

I would like to be in a home that I own. I am a member of Generation Rent and I have to say that I am becoming increasingly concerned with the housing situation in London. It is starting to feel like a pipedream!

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra announces programme for their 2016 Oxford Piano Festival

“…an international forum to turn piano lessons into performance art”

The New York Times

30 July – 7 August

The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and founding Artistic Director Marios Papadopoulos announce the programme for the 2016 Oxford Piano Festival, which runs from 30 July to 7 August with a series of recitals, masterclasses and lectures. This year’s line-up includes recitals from pianists Tong-Il Han, Ferenc Rados, Nikolai Lugansky, Marc-André Hamelin, Menahem Pressler, Alexandre Tharaud, Julia Hsu and Peter Serkin.  The festival takes place within Oxford’s most atmospheric venues, including the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holywell Music Room, Merton College Chapel, Jacqueline du Pré Music Building and the orchestra’s home, the Sheldonian Theatre.

The 2016 Oxford Piano Festival opens with a recital by leading South Korean pianist Tong-Il Han, who will perform Schubert and Brahms at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on 30 July.  Hungarian pianist and teacher Ferenc Rados, whose notable students include Sir András Schiff and Barnabás Kelemen, will perform a recital of Mozart, Bartók and Schubert in Europe’s oldest purpose built concert hall – the Holywell Music Room – on 31 July.  Making his much-anticipated debut at the festival this year is Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky who will perform in Merton College Chapel on 1 August.  On 2 August, French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin will perform a recital of Haydn, Feinberg, Beethoven and Schumann in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.

“One of the most beautiful musical experiences of my life”

Dame Fanny Waterman

On 3 August Marios Papadopoulos conducts the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and beloved pianist Menahem Pressler for a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 at – the Sheldonian Theatre.  Following this, dynamic French pianist Alexandre Tharaud performs his critically-acclaimed interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Merton College Chapel on 4 August.  On 5 August the summer academy participants will be given the chance to showcase their talent in a recital in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building where they will have received guidance from the esteemed 2016 Faculty. The final recital of the festival on 6 August sees American pianist Peter Serkin join his regular duo partner Julia Hsu for a programme of Brahms, Bizet, Mozart and Schubert within Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.

The Festival also includes masterclasses throughout the week given by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra’s founder and Artistic Director, Marios Papadopoulos, in addition to Rita Wagner, Tong-Il Han, Ferenc Rados, Paul Badura-Skoda, Peter Bithell, Dame Fanny Waterman, Menahem Pressler and Peter Donohoe.  Paul Badura-Skoda will give a lecture on Interpreting Mozart on the Keyboard before joining Dame Fanny Waterman for a joint lecture on Piano Teaching and Performing. 

Since Marios Papadopoulos established the Orchestra in 1998, the Oxford Philharmonic has grown steadily in stature, now attracting some of the world’s leading musicians as soloists and conductors, such as Valery Gergiev, András Schiff, Lang Lang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nigel Kennedy and Maxim Vengerov who hold the Orchestra in high regard.   Performing regularly in the intimate surroundings of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, the musicians of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra include some of the UK’s finest players who are attracted to the flexibility, variety of work and artistic quality.

“What a privilege for me to play in this great majestic Sheldonian theatre and with such a fantastic orchestra.”
Maxim Vengerov

 Complete programme and further information here


(source: Nicky Thomas Media)

PRS for Music Foundation Announces Recipients of the Composers’ Fund

Nine talented composers receive grants of up to £10k to help them take more control of their careers

PRS for Music Foundation today (28 June 2016) announces the first nine composers that will be supported through the ground breaking Composers’ Fund established by PRS Foundation earlier this year to support the UK’s most talented composers to develop their work in the UK and overseas.

The nine composers receiving support are:

  • Cheryl Frances-Hoad – to promote her repertoire in North America with US orchestras, ensembles and choirs.
  • Gabriel Jackson – to develop his writing for instruments his compositions are not usually written for.
  • Gavin Higgins – to cover costs of using a studio space.
  • Joanna Lee – to cover costs of childcare, enabling her to compose full-time to write a new commission for BBC Proms and an opera for ENO.
  • Joe Cutler – to cover costs for sabbatical from full time university post, freeing up time for a major commission.
  • Ken Hesketh – to cover costs of recording his orchestral works spanning 12 years.
  • Laura Bowler – to cover costs for a commission and collaboration with Phil Venables.
  • Luke Bedford – to cover costs for research and development for a new opera and collaboration with playwright David Harrower
  • Luke Styles – to cover research and development for a Neo-Baroque opera.

The Composers’ Fund was created following PRS for Music Foundation’s research in 2014 exploring the challenges composers meet when controlling their career direction. The research highlighted that composers faced limited access to funding, low commission fees, lack of any support structure, pressurised working conditions and for established and mid- career composers in particular, a decrease in commissioning opportunities.

This first round revealed that composers require support for a broad range of needs, demonstrating the importance of an open and flexible fund like this. Across the applications received; 33% were looking for support to fund the writing of a new piece; 28% the research and development of new work; and 26% seeking support for work space, childcare, sabbatical cover, and equipment costs to give more time and space to aid composition.

Vanessa Reed, Executive Director for PRS for Music Foundation said, “Congratulations to the nine composers selected from this competitive first round of applications. We’re proud to be supporting these talented and distinctive composers, to take more control of their own destiny. I very much look forward to following their progress and seeing how this support enables them to develop their music and take their career to the next stage.”

Alison Holdom, Grants Manager Esmée Fairbairn Foundation said “We support the development of emerging artistic talent – usually through established arts organisations. Supporting composers directly is a new way of funding for us, and we’re grateful for the expert guidance of the PRS Foundation in directing our funding. We’re excited to see where this model takes us, and the composers themselves.”

Supported composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad said, “I am so thrilled and grateful to have been given this support by the PRS for Music Foundation’s Composers Fund. It will make a huge difference to my composing life.”

The PRS has partnered with up and coming classical music streaming service Grammofy to allow you to listen to a special playlist of works by the composers – find it here (create a free trial membership to access the playlist).



(Source: PRS)

O is for…..



No one ever became original by trying to be original. Besides, originality is highly overrated. It’s an ephemeral thing which only really exists as a by-product. If you try too hard to grasp it you may only be left, at best, with a passing style, at worst, with trite novelty.

Whilst “people watching” at a wedding recently I patronisingly noticed that each of the guests (myself included) could easily be slotted into a category of wedding guest that I’d seen at about every wedding I’d ever attended. Yet, as often happens, once I got chatting to people and sharing stories I realised how facile my shallow categories were. Each “type” of person had a story that was unique in the telling and my quick reference label told me very little about who they really were.

Being original has nothing to do with the external elements we present to the world and everything to do with our internal story. When our internal authentically becomes our external we are functioning as artists.

Which musician doesn’t start out copying? In composing we begin by aping a style we love (I wrote two pages of a bad pseudo “Brahms” Piano concerto when I was 12) In Jazz we learn a favourite solo from a player we want to emulate. As performers we either absorb or reject the sound and style of those we hear.

This is a natural and healthy way to develop as an artist, but surely imitation doesn’t bode well for originality? This is where an artist can take a wrong turn.

If you learn a language the next step isn’t to subvert or manipulate that language, but simply learn to tell your story with it: your unique story that only you can tell. Yes, it may be true that in the process you may have to develop that language, or even extend it, but that will only be because the story requires it in the telling.

Today we create and recreate our music in a world where almost any style or interpretation can be accessed at the click of the ubiquitous mouse. Maybe the originality of a Haydn or a Bach was easier to nurture when the field of play was so much narrower. Such composers had relatively very little to influence them, but far from creating parochial music of its time, they wrote universal music for all time. 300 years later we keep listening, not because they were different but because they were themselves.

We hear Charlie Parker or Jascha Heifetz and of course we hear originality, but I suspect neither of them was seeking that. Rather they were finding their voice and in the process the language had to be developed a little further. As Thelonious Monk (allegedly) said “A genius is the one most like himself”.

If we ever meet at a wedding and get chatting, don’t try to impress me with something new or novel, tell me your story; it’s the most original thing you possess.


Simon Hester, pianist & composer

Simon Hester was born in Sheffield and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Geoffrey Pratley and Jean Harvey winning many prizes for his performances both as a soloist and accompanist.

His career has covered a wide range of musical worlds, and his versatility is much admired in both classical and jazz repertoire. He gives recitals throughout Great Britain and has appeared at the Bath, Edinburgh and Exeter festivals and has toured throughout the UK and abroad with the highly successful show “All You Ever Wanted to Know about Opera”

Simon performs frequently with the violinist Carmine Lauri, and has also worked with the distinguished violinist Maurice Hasson having appeared with him in recitals throughout Europe.



ON ACQUIRING A PIANO. A question might be: “how long do you want a piano to last?” That suggests a new piano is a better choice than an old piano. But of course there is no definition of “a better choice.” A newer piano with its more recent manufacturing techniques will likely last longer than the gorgeous sounding antique with the hand-carved legs. But we buy pianos for their sound so that’s the important part of the equation.

About brand names: I’ve heard about pianos made, for example, by Blüthner and how special they are. I think Brahms and Schumann preferred them as the piano of choice. But every piano is an individual. So auditioning instruments raises a fundamental essential question which is how do you decide? One answer is you don’t decide. Or “you don’t pick the piano. The piano picks you.” Brand name is of secondary importance if it’s important at all. And of course Blüthner makes wonderful instruments.

Playing and assessing pianos are two different activities with some commonalty between them. Meaning knowledge in the one area doesn’t necessarily convert to the other. Therefore patience is a virtue when selecting a piano and choosing an instrument is a learning experience. The longer we learn the more we know.

A month before I acquired the piano I now have, I visited Steinway Hall in London because, well, “How could I not go there?” So I went and played six wonderful instruments, each one mind bending in tone and action. My metric on that visit was: Could I play without getting distracted by tone or touch that wasn’t to my taste? A few seconds with each piano was enough to believe any of them was the best of the lot.

These were the instruments–6 great pianos that I could play one after another–that led me to know “what’s what” – the qualities I wanted in a piano. Because after playing 6 excellent pianos I saw patterns and I could describe them. Previously I could “feel” the patterns–I “knew” what I wanted  but couldn’t put them into words.

My ideal piano has

  • strength and character to be summoned rather than faults to be hidden.
    an expressive action connecting to warm, round sound.
  • presence at soft dynamics.
  • pitches that sustain and taper with the ineffable proportion of “perfect.”
  • an una corda pedal with a pronounced timbral shift.
  • clarity at high and low extremes of the piano.
  • overall presence rather brightness
  • general character to inspire exploration of sound and artistry as the reason to have a piano.

Acquiring a piano, whether new or used is a learning experience. The more time we take in the selection the more we learn about the pianos from which we’re choosing.

Mark Polishook Known as a diversely talented artist with boundary-crossing projects, Mark Polishook is a pianist, a jazz improviser, a composer, and a music technologist. He teaches in those areas to individuals and groups in his Leicester studio and to students around the world through Skype. In addition to individual and group teaching, Mark’ also available for master classes and artists’ residencies and for consulting on music and art-related projects and initiatives.



A colleague of mine suggested that, as a concert reviewer, I should write an entry on Opinions….

Opinions are curious things. Personal and often highly subjective, commenting on a musical performance may simply be one person’s taste 636026058822784511-855769937_opinionsversus another’s. There was a time, not so long ago, when a critic’s or opinion-former’s comments could make or break a career, but in our social media-dominated age, now everyone can be a critic and offer their opinion on a concert. I really enjoy reading people’s tweets and Facebook posts immediately after a concert – there’s a wonderful immediacy as people share their reactions to what they’ve heard, and these opinions often feel natural and very spontaneous. Such people may not be “experts” or “professional journalists” but their opinions matter (in my humble opinion!) and they have as much right to express them as anyone else. When I write a review I do so with the conviction that my opinion is just one of many.

In the world of piano playing, people have opinions on everything – whether or not Bach played on the piano, whether Bach played on the piano should be pedalled, the correct use of tempo rubato in Chopin, which is the best Urtext score to use, what is the greatest make of piano – and opinions change with the times, drawing on performance practice, new scholarship, “traditional” ways of doing things and the wisdom (or otherwise) of teachers and mentors. We can form our own opinions about the music we are playing by listening to recordings, listening around the music (other works by the same composer, works by composers from the same period), going to concerts, reading about the music, talking to other pianists and musicians, and studying performance practice.  Learning to take on board or take with a pinch of salt a teacher’s opinion is an important part of our pianistic development: never be afraid to challenge a teacher’s view if you do not agree with it or do not understand it. Always bear in mind that there is often no absolutely “right way” of doing something: listen to the opinions of others and make your own judgement. If you play with conviction, your opinions about your music will come to the fore.

Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist……Lee Westwood, composer & guitarist

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

My mum is a huge fan of Rock and Metal. In the late ’80s she started playing Guns n’ Roses in the car, and once my ears had heard that, there was simply no unhearing it: all this swearing, and amazing guitar solos! I just wanted to be Slash from that point onwards, perhaps eclipsing my previous desire to be Indiana Jones. Only recently it occurred to me that there was a second, more important factor involved. My little sister had just the year before decided she wanted to learn classical piano, and had begun taking lessons. Without this, I don’t think it would have occurred to me that learning an instrument was a possibility. So credit (or blame?) is definitely due here.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career, as both guitarist and composer?

When I went to university I’d already been playing the guitar in bands and writing songs for about 10 years, and I felt pretty confident about my musical abilities. This American dude who lived in my halls very kindly lent me a cassette of Pierre Bensusan’s album ‘Intuite which, as a guitarist, was pretty much like a kick in the face. So I got to work putting a lot of things right about my approach to the instrument. Come to think of it, this is quite possibly why I messed up my Psychology degree…

In terms of composing, I was always more influenced by piano music than guitar, and often tried to emulate that expansiveness as best I could on 6 strings. Rachmaninov’s preludes were like a gateway. Soon after, I bought a fantastic double CD of Debussy’s piano works performed by Pascal Rogé, which I played interminably. But it was a few years later again that I went to see (and this is probably such a cliché) Ravel’s quartet performed by the Tokyo Quartet. I can’t explain how much that instantly changed everything, another massive kick in the face. I realised that for me it wasn’t really about the guitar, but the music I was writing.

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

Probably making that transition from what was becoming a very promising solo guitar career to starting from scratch as a composer. I’d always written music in one form or another since I was about 10 (in fact that’s all I really did), but leaving the guitar and myself as a performer out of the equation was at the same time incredibly liberating, and an enormous learning curve.

I’d also never formally studied music, so when I began to get private composition lessons to try and clear some things up, my head was suddenly filled with all those crippling doubts and questions that you probably get from going to music college (which is essentially what I was getting at in my article for Sound and Music). Overcoming all these questions – or at least to an extent: I think it’s important and healthy, in fact, to question what you do – was probably the next major challenge!

Which performances/recordings/compositions are you most proud of?

Although it’s now some years old, and in a style which is like an old musical version of me, my album ‘Nymph Suite & Other Stories is probably the recording which I’m most proud of. Every few years I come back to it, and I’m always pleased that it’s mine.

Otherwise, it’s generally my latest few pieces that I’m excited about, inevitably. I’m currently working on a piece called ‘…and the stars were like pinpricks in the black fabric of night…‘ for Ed Hughes’ New Music Players (premiered in September 2015). I also have a number of EPs containing some of my music from the past 5 years, which I’ll be releasing over the coming months, so this is quite a focal point for me at the moment.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Recently, the musical project which has been getting the most attention and outings is my trio Le Juki

It’s not necessarily very technical guitar work, but I really love the music we write, and we’ve put a lot into our live show, so this is probably where my heart currently lies, performance-wise.

How does your performing influence your composing, and vice versa?

As I was teaching myself to fingerpick, I would let the music I was writing dictate which skills I needed to develop in order to make this happen. So it was always this way round: rather than using the tools I had available to write some music, I would invent new tools to fulfil my musical ideas. Later, when I started composing for other instruments, I actually found that my playing began to influence my writing too much. I had to really abandon the guitar as I couldn’t help but think of music within the bounds of what was possible on the fretboard.

At the same time, some interesting things have come of it. In my guitar music I have a strong tendency to play melodies across the strings. By this I mean that each successive note is played on a different string, providing the greatest possible resonance, akin to the sustain pedal on a piano. When I write for more than one voice, I often find this tendency feeding into my work, with melodies sort of hocketed between the players… kind of a pointillistic approach to single line, perhaps.

What are the particular challenges and pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I’ve had the real pleasure of being involved with the organisation Sound and Music for the last three years, and through them I wrote for the London-based choir MusArc – here’s the piece I wrote them –

]. They’re an amateur experimental choir, so the real challenge posed here was trying to guage the overall ability of the singers, and to balance sections when you never knew how many people from each would turn up! At the end of the day though, as well as being an exciting choir, they’re really a fantastic group of people to work with, so this was an amazing experience. Currently I’m working on a new piece for vibraphonist Joby Burgess, so it’s a completely different game: solo, professional musician. There are still challenges, as there are in writing any piece, but in a way it’s much simpler. There are far fewer uncertainties.

Over the past few years I’ve been working with geometer Sama Mara on a project called A Hidden Order [http://musicalforms.com/]

In short, this involved exploring the relationship between music and geometry, through writing a suite of chamber works that directly translate into geometric forms. This collaborative compositional process meant that I would draft a score for a piece, and Sama (who isn’t a composer: he deals with shapes) would send back revisions like “could you change the second note of every bar, as it will improve the symmetry of the image”. So you can imagine this posed enormous compositional challenges! This was really a unique way to work, and not always easy, but I think what we ended up with is something really very special, and quite honestly unlike anything else I’m aware of.

But in general, when we talk about pleasure, I mean, I have to write music, it’s like an innate need, and if there’s not music going on in my life then pretty fast I become unhappy. So writing music, it’s more than a pleasure, it’s all I want to do.

What are the particular challenges and pleasures of working with other musicians, ensembles etc, as both composer and guitarist?

I come from a background of playing in bands, where we would rehearse the same material for 2 years, and gig it every night for another 2. Similarly, playing my own music on the guitar, I would rehearse it until I felt it was ready to perform. That’s just not even nearly the case in the world of new music, and I still find this lack of contact and rehearsal time very frustrating. But that aside, it’s (almost) always an enormous pleasure to witness your music come to life in the hands of others. When you’re in the act of playing it yourself, it’s impossible to hear it with the same ears.

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

I really don’t think it’s about the venue, but the audience. I’ve had the fortune to play some fairly big stages and some prestigious venues over the years, and these can be great fun, but probably my favourite to date was a solo guitar gig I gave to an audience of about 15 people in a small cafe in Folkestone some years back. It was so intimate and relaxed, by the end of the gig everybody knew everybody else. And someone even bought a whole box of my CDs for all their friends who couldn’t make it! So that was pretty cool too…

Favourite pieces to listen to?

I mean, how long have we got?! I listen very, very widely, and not always to things I like, which is a part of exploring what’s out there. But currently my favourites include Martin Suckling’s ‘Candlebird [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKQUiu_v8cA], Poppe’s ‘Welt [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QLGUDzpevI], some of GF Haas’s works [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YseRwBugmeU], early Britten [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-Szv5TEBhg&list=PLXIW-zGxtii0JxJW4UAYcSlgrW-u5H2lf], lots of music by Kit Downes [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWiDlVRQR5k], Nik Baertsch [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4jlBEGLtWw], Kurt Rosenwinkel [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucMGT3jvzZo] (a lot of Jazz, in fact), early Smashing Pumpkins [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SmOcvLBVoI], James Orr Complex [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8NqyfVbcJg], Meshuggah [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmpUNQYwxBg], Kate Bush [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWy8nONlh_Q], J Kriste Master Of Disguise [https://soundcloud.com/louvana/kindness], the Sutartines of Lithuania [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Byf4aZ1AdW0], Martin Butler’s ‘Songs & Dances From A Haunted Place [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nb77gx3K38]… Ravel’s chamber works are never too far away… I’m also really enjoying WQXR’s ‘Meet The Composer‘ podcasts [http://www.wqxr.org/#!/programs/meet-composer/], and Bob Gilmore’s ‘Tentative Affinities. [http://www.bobgilmore.co.uk/]

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, this could potentially be a big list… Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares (obviously that’s a whole choir, but they knock the socks off just about anyone else), Pierre Bensusan, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, McCoy Tyner, Yamandu Costa, Magic Malik… man, when I read this, I know I’m gonna be like, “why the hell didn’t you mention these guys?!”… In fact, there are a number of players more local to Brighton who have not just been hugely influential to me, but are also some of my all-time favourite musicians, including flautist Philippe Barnes and violinist Ben Sarfas.

What is your most memorable musical experience?

My recollection of my life to date is pretty much a long stream of musically-related experiences, so I’m not sure I can single one out like that…

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

I teach a lot of guitar. If I had to summarise what the number one goal was when I teach, I would say it is to develop musical independence in my students so that they no longer need me. Basically, doing myself out of a job. The most important skill, I believe, is being able to teach yourself what you need to know, because then really there are so many doors open to you. I also think learning this skill from someone is key, so I’m not advising people to just teach themselves from scratch – you can develop some pretty inhibitive playing habits that way.

I would also say that, alongside having some kind of specialisation, it’s very important to listen as widely, and play as much music of as many different styles, as you can. And that goes beyond music. I always remember this quote of Lichtenberg (I can see this sounds unavoidably nerdy) that goes “He who understands nothing but chemistry does not truly understand chemistry either”.

Finally, a friend once told me this very useful concept. To get by as a musician (or perhaps anything), you need to have any two of the following three things – you don’t necessarily need all three, but one on its own won’t do: a) be good at what you do; b) be a nice person; c) be reliable. You can work out the combinations yourself…

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

I’d like to still feel inspired, still be learning, and hopefully watching my kids get into music too.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Probably that point in the compositional process when everything’s like “YESSSS!!!!”, which usually occurs just before everything’s like “NOOOOOOO!!!!!”.

What do you enjoy doing most

I love riding my bike, it makes me feel like a kid in summer holidays again, and is synonymous in my mind with freedom. So riding my bike around town with my daughter Alma on the back singing songs to me is pretty high up there on the list of ‘Best Activities Of All Time’.

What is your present state of mind?

Mildly drunk, and in a dense mist of fatigue.


What to wear at the piano

Finding clothing to perform in which is stylish, flattering, and, above all, comfortable and practical can be tricky and high street stores tend not to cater that well for performers. We need clothes which allow freedom of movement, which do not distract us when we play (there is nothing worse than a tickly label or zip), which look good when we stand to take a bow and when we are seated at the piano. The type of venue and time of day also dictate what to wear: one does not need a full-length evening gown for a lunchtime concert, for example.

It’s much easier for the men. Now that the very formal attire of white tie and tails has largely disappeared, men can choose to wear a dark suit or dark shirt and trousers. Some favour a dark tee-shirt under a dark jacket, others tend towards the Nehru jacket. .

Women, on the other hand, are still expected to turn out in full-length gowns which hark back to the age of Dame Moura Lympany. There are of course exceptions: the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang has made a name for herself almost as much through her daring dresses and vertiginous stiletto heels (how on earth does she pedal in them?) as through her playing. She has been criticised for her risky hemlines, but as she herself says “I can wear long skirts when I’m 40”; she is a young woman who clearly loves fashion and has an enviably svelte figure.

Yuja Wang (photo: The Telegraph)

Sadly, I do not have the body and legs of Yuja wang, so I prefer concert clothes which cover my legs, draw attention away from the “lumpy, bumpy” parts of my middle-aged body, and which make me feel graceful and elegant and, importantly, comfortable when I perform. Tight bodices or restrictive sleeves are a no no, as are strapless dresses (and frankly I don’t have the gym-honed arms for such attire). The British women’s fashion chain PhaseEight creates elegant and affordable maxi dresses in a fluid silky jersey fabric which are flattering and comfortable to wear. They also offer more formal full-length gowns, embellished with sequins and beads, for special occasions. I have also worn long skirts by Ghost: their signature “bias cut” dresses and skirts suit most sizes and shapes, and their crepe fabric packs well for travelling – another consideration if you’re a musician who lives out of a suitcase.

‘Kathleen’ dress
Alert to the needs of musicians, a new clothing company called Black Dress Code has launched a collection especially for musicians. Those who play in orchestras or sing in choirs are well aware that a fairly plain black outfit is the dress code for such organisations and Black Dress Code has created stylish and practical clothes with this in mind. In addition to the very elegant full-length black ‘Kathleen’ dress, there are midi dresses, a jumpsuit and palazzo pants (especially useful for cellists and bass players), simple black tops with 3/4 sleeves and silky sashes to enhance skirts and trousers. The designers have clearly thought about what musicians do with their bodies when playing and how clothing “interacts” with gestures and movements. There is a small range of skirts for girls, and a men’s range is in preparation. My only criticism is that the largest size is a UK 16 (because, sadly, some of us do not have the slim proportions of Yuja Wang or Khatia Buniatishvilli). If you’re looking for something to wear for an audition or ensemble work, I would certainly recommend taking a look at Black Dress Code’s collection. When I posted a link to BDC’s site on Facebook, many of my female colleagues and friends reacted very positively and enthusiastically to the collection.

View the Black Dress Collection here

St John’s Smith Square announces its 2016/17 Season

On 20 June 2016 St John’s Smith Square announced its 2016/17 Season. With over 300 concerts and many individual series, workshops and strands, this season further strengthens St John’s Smith Square’s core mission: to be a centre of excellence for chamber orchestras, choral and vocal music and period instrument groups. St John’s Smith Square also plays a vital function in presenting new work (with over 30 world premieres already announced for 16/17) and supporting emerging artists (including an own-promoted Young Artists’ Series).

There is plenty to interest and excite lovers of piano music: the popular and excellent International Piano Series will continue at SJSS, its temporary home while the Southbank Centre undergoes refurbishment. IPS highlights include the outstanding young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor (4 October 2016), runner-up at the 2010 International Chopin Competition Ingolf Wunder (19 November 2016) and winner of the same competition Yulianna Avdeeva (29 March 2016). Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich perform music for 2 pianos as part of Southbank Centre’s year-long festival Belief and Beyond Belief in partnership with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (24 January 2017). This concert also forms part of Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Series.

In addition there will be performances by other pianists, including SJSS Young Artist Christina McMaster, Zubin Kanga, Geoffrey Saba, Rolf Hind, Howard Shelley and Martino Tirimo.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: 

“I am thrilled to be able to launch another season packed with exciting and stimulating concerts. It is particularly exciting to see international partnerships, with groups like Les Talens Lyriques and Stradivaria, starting to come to fruition. I am very keen to ensure that St John’s Smith Square presents a dynamic and individual programme and that we devote our energy to ensuring we present top quality artists. Alongside the distinctive baroque programme we offer it is also very rewarding to welcome artists presenting contemporary music and commissions. My sincere thanks go out to all those partners who have collaborated to make this programme possible. St John’s Smith Square receives no public subsidy and so we are reliant on the friendship and support of those who believe in our mission to be one of the UK’s leading concert halls.”

Peter Feuchtwanger 1939-2016 – pianist, composer, pedagogue

Pianist, composer and teacher Peter Feuchtwanger has died. I never met Peter, though I wanted to, but I felt a connection to him and his wisdom via my teachers who studied with him, and also via pianist friends and colleagues who were taught by him and spoke of his inspirational, sympathetic and experimental approach to piano technique and piano playing.

In addition to his own piano studies with Gerti Rainer (a pupil of Emil von Sauer), Max Egger, Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking, Peter Feuchtwanger also studied composition with Hans Heimler (a pupil of Alban Berg, Heinrich Schenker and Felix Weingartner) and Lennox Berkeley, as well as Indian and Arabic music and philosophy. His Studies in an Eastern Idiom (Tariqas) and Variations on an Eastern Folk Tune are inspired by Eastern folk and art music and demonstrate inventive use of the piano’s sonority, texture and pedal effects to suggest Arabic, Indian and other Eastern instruments, styles and motifs.

Largely self-taught, he formed his personal conclusions about technique through experimentation that was free from the dogma or narrow approach of “schools” of piano teaching or formal musical training. As a consequence, he was regarded by some within the profession with suspicion, while those who studied with him and absorbed his wisdom are full of praise for his ability to think outside the box of traditional piano technique and talk of the transformative power of his teaching.

Most people are slaves to technique. But technique is not about playing mechanically and quickly, it is also about tone-balance, colours…. – Peter Feuchtwanger

His piano exercises were developed to relax the hand without making it completely powerless. The specified fingerings encourage the smooth, elliptical, natural choreography of the hands and fingers, and allow the instrument to be played with the greatest relaxation of the body, resulting in tension-free playing and a beautiful sound.

Touching tributes from some of his former pupils

I will never forget the kindness shown me by Peter Feuchtwanger……..without his guidance and generosity of soul I doubt I would be a musician today. He criticised perpetually (with characteristic vibrancy and charm), strove to make me realise my finest self, instinctively understood me, was a considerate listener, was a fountain of naughty jokes, never doubted me and proved to be far more than merely my piano teacher.

You haven’t died, Peter; your legacy lives with the vitality of every string set into vibration by the many pianists who’s lives you touched.

….his vast knowledge of styles of playing, along with his unique technical approach, have been incredible for my development, and I’m constantly amazed at his generosity, and commitment to teaching. (DR)

He brought out the absolute best in his pupils by his unquestioning faith in his pupils’ abilities, and his loyal support and generosity of time. The universal truth in his technique will live on in his many hundreds of students. (WMS)

Great teachers never die: their wisdom and enduring legacy is passed down to their students, and continues through successive generations of pianists.

Bel Canto on a percussion instrument – article by Peter Feuchtwanger

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture


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