The Self-Compassionate Pianist

The life of the pianist is, by necessity, solitary (and I have written before about The Pianist’s Loneliness). For many of us, the solitude is not an issue: we crave a sense of apartness to enable us to do our work and to create special connections with audiences when we perform, and we need quietude to allow time for self-reflection and evaluation.

The sequestered nature of the pianist’s life also calls for great self-reliance: we must  be self-starting, motivated, driven and focused to ensure our work (practising and preparation) is done each day. Most of us draw pleasure and satisfaction from knowing our work is done and done well, but without other colleagues and musical companions to interact with, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in, for us to question our role or our value, to ask “am I good enough?”.

Such negativism can stem from a performance which didn’t go to plan, the disappointment (and anger) from failing an exam or audition, a less-than-favourable review or some ill-advised comments from a teacher or mentor. Alone with our thoughts, such things can fester and grow into bigger problems than they need to be, and while most of us know that these things should simply be put down to “experience”, reflected upon and then put to one side, it can sometimes be difficult to shrug off feelings of inadequacy.

In his book ‘The Mindful Pianist’, teacher and pianist Mark Tanner notes the importance for the pianist of exercising “self-compassion” as a protection from the feelings of failure that can develop from setbacks, in addition to negative self-talk, lack of self-esteem, or dismotivation which can plague us when we spend so much time alone.

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Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion for others: the ability to recognise or understand difficulties, pain or suffering, and to respond in a kind, humane and sympathetic way. Having compassion enables us to offer understanding and support when someone makes a mistake, and demonstrates that we appreciate that we are all human and that suffering, failure, and imperfection are all part of the shared human experience.

By exercising self-compassion, we simply turn these kind and sympathetic responses back on ourselves. It involves acting in the same way as we would towards others when we are having a difficult time, fail or notice something in ourselves which we don’t like.

Self-compassion can be defined in three elements – self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity – and can be applied to the pianist’s life and work as follows:

Self-kindness helps us cease the self-evaluation and critical assessment, the negative self-talk, asking “am I good enough”, comparing ourselves to others and the subsequent feelings inadequacy.

By exercising self-kindness we can recognize that perfection is an unattainable artificial construct, that when we fail, we need not beat ourselves up nor judge ourselves too harshly, but instead accept that we are human, that we “had a bad day at the office”, Self-kindness allows us be curious, open, and loving when it comes to how we regard ourselves.

Self-compassionate people appreciate that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties are inevitable. By being self-compassionate we can be more gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of our expectations or set ideals. This can lead us to greater emotional equanimity.

From the musician’s point of view, such an attitude enables us to work with curiosity and open-mindedness, to be more self-inquiring, to regard mistakes as tools for learning and self-improvement, and to be kind to ourselves when lack of time or motivation means we may not get as much practising in on a given day as we’d hoped.

Mindfulness helps us to be non-judgmental and to take a balanced approach to our emotions. Being mindful allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, and for the musician it encourages a positive attitude towards mistakes (learning tools) and setbacks.

Mindfulness also means “living in the moment” and being awake to experience: for the musician mindfulness encourages us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care.

In a performance situation, it encourages us to focus on creating the sound we hear on the spot, and to immerse ourselves in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, rather than over-thinking what we are doing or getting caught up in comparing the performance to the ideal one we have in our head. It also enables us to banish the destructive “inner critic”, to be less “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, and to be accepting of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Common humanity is about recognising that personal inadequacy, vulnerability and failure are part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. By recognising this, we accept that we don’t need to be singled out as the “most” or “least”, “best” or “worst” of anything, and we can become more objective about who we are in the world and how we choose to be. For the musician specifically, this includes not constantly comparing oneself to others but rather being accepting of who we are, and freeing oneself from the tyranny of perfectionism.

Self-compassion can protect us from the negative thoughts, self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that the life of the musician may provoke, but it can also encourage us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of our experience which is the starting point for truly compelling and mature musicianship.

Opera gains a new fan 

[Opera is] more than entertainment. Opera offers an insight into the complexities of the human psyche – it is a metaphor for, or an exposition, even, of our own personal dreams and nightmares…

– Kevin Volans, composer

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Lise Lindstrom as Turandot at the Royal Opera House

Last week my best friend went to the opera for the very first time. And not just any old opera, she went to see the final dress rehearsal of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ at the Royal Opera House (“the one with that aria they sing at the World Cup” as she put it). She texted during the interval to tell me about it – “It’s so beautiful!” and “OMG it’s incredible!“, and the next day, over lunch, she described the experience in detail to me – the venue, the music, the narrative. For someone who claims to “know nothing about classical music“, her descriptions of the music and the story-line were articulate, intelligent and heartfelt. She spoke of how the music swelled in passion, only to pull back from the brink, holding her in suspense; how the singers interacted on stage, the impressive tone of their voices, the incredible sound of the chorus; the magnificent setting, and many other details large and small which, for her (and many like her, myself included) make opera one of the most exciting and engaging art forms. She even expressed frustration at the intervals, which, for her, disrupted the flow of the performance. She admitted she had gone to the ROH with many preconceptions – that she would feel out of place in the audience (she didn’t), that the audience would be very highbrow (they weren’t), that she wouldn’t be able to understand the narrative (she did) and that she might find the experience boring (she didn’t). Instead, she found the experience immersive, emotional and exciting, echoing the quote at the beginning of this article, that “all human life is right there, in the opera!“.

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It is that magical combination of music, words, song, acting, setting, emotions that make opera so absorbing and exciting. Having returned to opera fairly recently myself, I fully identify with my friend’s comments: even the most far-fetched story-lines take on a sense of heightened realism and credibility in the special atmosphere of the opera house. In fact, far from being inaccessible, opera is full of memorable, hummable tunes. I bet most people could hum Bizet’s Toreador’s Song (from Carmen), or the magical duet from The Pearl Fishers, and of course my friend recognised ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Turandot), because it has been elevated to the rank of a sporting anthem. We hear excerpts from opera in film and tv soundtracks, and in adverts, so embedded is this art form in our Western cultural landscape. And as my friend discovered, to her surprise, opera is rather more relaxed than the “sitting in the dark in hushed reverence” atmosphere of, say, the Wigmore Hall, and  the etiquette of opera-going is looser. For example, you can applaud after a particularly fine aria or chorus set-piece and no one glares at you as if you have committed some major musical faux pas, and there is a very tangible sense of shared experience.

Please can we go to an opera together?” my friend asked and I assured her that as soon as the ENO new season opens, we will go. It will be fun to go with opera’s newest fan!

English National Opera

Royal Opera House

A playlist for ‘The Rest Is Noise’

First published in 2007 ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex Ross, music critic of the ‘New Yorker’, charts twentieth century Western classical music from the dying embers of “fin de siecle” Europe and the years prior to the devastation of the First World War to the present day. In many ways, the book is less a history of classical music than a history of the twentieth century as told through its remarkable, often shocking and epoch-making music.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

(This playlist is not available in the US and Canada)

Meet the Artist……Florian Mitrea, pianist

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

I suppose it was initially the fact that my father’s enjoyed playing a little jazz piano as a hobby, and as a toddler I couldn’t resist hitting the keys, rather too often for my Grandmother’s liking. It was this that meant I started having formal piano lessons, and it has grown from there. It was, however a long time until I thought that I might be able to play professionally. I think in the end it comes down to the fact that I love music and having the opportunity to share it, and there came a point where I just couldn’t conceive of doing anything else.

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

I have benefited very early on in my life from wonderfully committed teachers who cared about my personal development as well as my musical one. They gave me a through technical grounding, but they also showed me that technique is about freeing yourself to be able to communicate musically.

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

I think for any young pianist currently it is quite tough, there are so many exceptional musicians that it’s hard not to wonder sometimes whether you have something distinctive to bring. And balance is always something that’s hard to achieve – especially when navigating your early career. I hugely enjoy teaching and working with young musicians, and being able to share with them, but also take part in competitions, as well as performing. I have in the past struggled a great deal with nerves and perhaps for me that will be a lifetime process, but it is something that I have very actively worked on in the past few years, and am gradually overcoming.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I think the performances I am most proud of aren’t necessarily the ones in the most prestigious venues, but the ones where I feel a real connection with the audience. That can happen not just in a big concert hall, but sometimes when you play to children or people who don’t often attend classical music concerts, they aren’t constrained by learned behaviour. They experience music in a very immediate way. In terms of recordings, I have just been in the studio, recording my first CD project, in partnership with Kawai and German label Acousence, of pieces which are linked to folk music and the Danube – it was wonderful to have the opportunity to make the recording, and I am so excited for it to be released later in the year.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

It’s really hard to choose a favourite, when so much depends on the occasion, the audience and the mood. I feel a particular affinity with Mozart: the phrases are so natural, and I think as far as one can argue that classical music is somehow universal, then Mozart is the embodiment of this. But I also love the richness of the great Romantic repertoire, the sheer inventiveness of Prokofiev, and of course nearly all pianists want to explore the depths of Beethoven’s piano writing.

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

I’m not yet in a position where I make all the choices! Often I get offered a concert with particular repertoire in mind, so that’s always an excellent justification for broadening my repertoire. Otherwise I try to create interesting programmes which have overarching themes, or celebrate a particular composer, and I try to balance familiar repertoire with other pieces which may be fresh to the audience.

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

As a pianist I am always going to be thrilled if a venue has a great piano, as pianists have to try and adapt themselves to the temperament and qualities of the piano they find, rather than being able to bring a familiar instrument with them. But I don’t think it’s the building that makes a concert. It’s the audience, so it doesn’t matter if it’s an ornate concert hall, although they are obviously wonderful, or a more alternative and intimate setting. I’ve never played outdoors as an adult, so that’s one I hope to try one day!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

It’s so hard to choose but the Mozart concertos, some Liszt and Prokofiev would have to be included. I also enjoy listening to music I can’t play myself: Opera, symphonic repertoire and jazz being my favourites.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I believe there’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in the recordings of the old piano masters. I am personally most drawn to Gilels and Lipatti. The sincerity and depth of their performances is rarely matched. Also, we are very blessed to be able to experience live the performances of legendary musicians such as Argerich, Lupu and Barenboim. Away from the world of piano, my favourite musician is probably soprano Cecilia Bartoli. She sings so beautifully, and I find her art inspirational for my piano playing.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was a small boy when Gerhard Oppitz came to give a recital in Bucharest. I remember it was all sold out, but I managed to squeeze in the auditorium thanks to the kind ticket lady who let me in. I sat on the fire-escape stairs, but I will never forget the impact his rendition of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations had on me. It was music-making beyond any rational understanding.

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

I think that hard work and dedication can never be underestimated. But if you keep practicing and listening and being open to ideas you will always improve. Music is an art not a science, and so people will always have different ideas of what things should sound like, but this doesn’t have to be reductive. You have to be led by a desire to communicate, so educate yourself as broadly as you can, read literature, go to the theatre, as well as practise.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being on a remote island, with my wife and dogs, an amazing picnic, some wonderful recordings – and a boat to go back to the mainland on at the end of the day.

 

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Florian Mitrea’s early passion for the piano led him to a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In  2016 Florian was joint winner of the Verona International Piano Competition and was awarded second prize in the major biennial James Mottram International Piano Competition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK. This followed success in 2015 when he was a finalist (fourth prize and chamber music award) at the Hamamatsu Piano Competition and earlier was awarded second prizes at both the Santa Cecilia Competition in Porto, and the Premio Città di Imola at the Imola Academy. In 2014 Florian won third prize and the Classical Concerto Prize at the ARD International Competition in Munich, and first prize at Lagny-sur-Marne. Previous prizes include first prizes at the Panmusica 2010 Vienna International Piano Competition, the Beethoven 2010, and Sheepdrove 2011 Intercollegiate Competitions in the United Kingdom. Earlier prizes include several first prizes in the Romanian Music Olympics and the Ada Ulubeanu Piano Competition, and third prize in the Jeunesses Musicales International Competition.

Florian has performed recitals and concertos across Romania, and in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea and the USA. In the UK Florian has performed at venues including St John’s Smith Square, King’s Place, St. Martin-in-the Fields, St. James’ Piccadilly, Steinway Hall, Draper’s Hall, Colston Hall in Bristol, Dartington Hall and Bath Abbey.

Florian’s piano studies started in Bucharest as a student of Flavia Moldovan and Gabriela Enăşescu, ultimately at George Enescu Music High School. While studying at RAM with Diana Ketler he obtained his BMus with First Class Honours and the Regency Award for notable achievement. In the summer of 2014, he obtained his Master of Arts degree with Distinction and a DipRAM for his final recital, and received the Alumni Development Award for distinguished studentship. He held the Hodgson Memorial post-studentship Fellowship at RAM in 2014-2015 and continues to teach there within the piano department. Florian is currently studying with Boris Petrushansky at the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola, Italy.

 

Y is for…….

Why?A Pianist’s Alphabet has lain rather fallow for the past few months but it’s back again now to ponder the eternal question of Why? (Do we do it?). When this Alphabet is complete, it is my intention to continue the series, returning to the letter A. If you would like to contribute to A Pianist’s Alphabet, please contact me

So why do we do it? Why do we play the piano. Why do we choose to spend so much time with that big box of wood and wires?

cobs012768552As children, I suspect many of us didn’t really question “Why?”. Perhaps we were simply pushed, gently or otherwise, by parents. As I recall (and I was only about 5), I was encouraged to learn the piano. I liked the instrument – my grandfather played the piano and I used to enjoy sitting next to him as he played, as well as rummaging through the piano stool, which contained old Methodist hymn sheets, music hall songs and albums like ‘Hours With the Masters’ and ‘Step by Step to the Classics’ by Felix Swinstead. As I grew up, I developed a very strong attachment to the piano: as an only child it provided a place where I could escape and create my own fantasies and stories, losing myself in music and my imagination for hours at a time. In addition, I was a dedicated student, who practised regularly and carefully and who progressed through the grade exams with relative ease. Now, as an adult who has returned to the piano after a long absence (some 20 years), it is my life and I would be bereft without it.

So why do I play the piano?

  1. I like the sound of the instrument and the endless opportunities it provides to create myriad of timbres and colours
  2. I like the physical feel of playing the piano, the sensation of finger on key, the engagement of the whole body when playing
  3. I enjoy the solitariness of being a pianist
  4. There is a wonderful and vast, vast repertoire to be explored. Enough keep one occupied for several lifetimes and to satisfy all tastes
  5. I relish the personal challenge and intellectual stimulating of learning and studying music
  6. My piano is not only my work horse but also a beautiful addition to my living room

Of course, all of these points could be applied to many other instruments, but I chose the piano. There are many other Whys?, both prosaic and philosophical. Why not share your Whys? in the comment box below……

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Big City Concert-Going

“The only disappointment of the evening was that, on leaving the hall, the sounds of Elgar were immediately assailed by other events elsewhere in the building. The Southbank management should show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience”

This is a quote from a review in The Guardian of a performance of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall last weekend. It’s true that the foyer and “ballroom” area of the RFH were busy and noisy as we left the building after a deeply arresting two hours of very moving and profound music. Outside the venue, it was even noisier: this was a Saturday night in the Big Smoke after all. Pavement cafes spilled people, drinking, chatting, laughing; there were kids busking in the railway arches on the way to Waterloo station; and all around us were the sounds of a vibrant city enjoying itself. Yes, it did feel a little jarring to be plunged into a city having a night on the town after such an absorbing musical experience, but for me this is one of the great pleasures of concert-going in London – and it’s also a good reminder that London is an eclectic and culturally diverse city.

Back to the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and it’s important to consider what this building is actually for. True, it is largely associated with classical music, but that it only a part of what it does, and currently the Summertime festival is in full flow offering a range of activities from song and dance to workshops and talks. The foyer area and café are open all day for people to drop in, socialise or join in one of the many activities within the venue. There are spaces for meetings, lectures and exhibitions, a fine dining restaurant, a library and a gift shop. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this: the venue draws important revenue from food and beverage services and other add-ons (ticket sales alone cannot and do not cover the huge running costs of such a building).

To suggest that the RFH should “show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience” does several things, in my opinion. First, it reiterates the already very entrenched view that classical music is exclusive and special, the preserve of the few not the many, its gilded cage polished with regular doses of reverence. Why should the place in which this “special” music takes place be kept so sacred…..? Let’s not forget that people leaving church in the “olden days” would have been assailed by the noises and smells of life outside its hallowed walls – beggars, peddlers, whores and more.

Better if all concert halls/opera houses were built in parks, away from city throng. Wagner had the right idea

– MR via Facebook

Secondly, it ignores the fact that arts venues like the RFH, the Barbican et al have to function on several levels, offering a diverse range of concerts, events, lectures and other activities, and that they do not exist simply to serve classical music audiences. What we experienced on leaving the RFH after the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ was the reality of concert-going in an arts complex in a big city. If you want to savour the experience of the music a little longer, remain in your seat in the auditorium.

For me, the experience of live music – and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I absolutely love live music – is not just the music itself but the “complete experience”: traveling to the venue, meeting friends, having drinks and socialising beforehand, and, once inside the auditorium, the accompanying sounds of a living, breathing audience listening, engaging and responding to what they are hearing. Afterwards, the walk back to the station with friends, stepping out into that vast, noisy ecosystem of the living city, is also part of the live concert experience for me. Admittedly the late train home, replete with its swaying drunks, leering blokes, snogging couples and people eating smelly food can take the shine off the evening, but on balance the whole package is an experience which I cherish and enjoy. When I’ve heard something as profound as the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, or indeed any other performance which has moved me, I carry the memory of the music away with me. Yes, the noise of the street can jar, but it can’t really touch the music which continues to resonate in the memory for a long time afterwards.


The Dream of Gerontius – review in The Guardian

Murray Perahia – the paradox of maturity and jeunesse

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Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek

Programme:

J.S. Bach – French Suite in E, BWV 817

Schubert – Impromptus, D 935

Mozart – Rondo in a, KV 511

Beethoven – Sonata no. 32 in c, op. 111

 

Murray Perahia, piano

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

On June 18 Amsterdam was hit by a heat wave that brought everyone out into the parks, to enjoy the summery day, the sun shining in a perfect, cloudless sky. For me, it was a prelude to an evening concert in the Concertgebouw, which concluded the 2016/2017 Meesterpianisten (Master pianist) season. And what a cherry on the top that was! Maestro Murray Perahia presented a wonderful program consisting of Bach’s Sixth French Suite in E major, followed by Impromptus by Schubert (op. posth. 142) and Mozart’s Rondo in a minor K. 511, the evening closing with Beethoven’s last Sonata in c minor, op. 111.

The artist briskly descended the famous Concertgebouw steps to warm applause but, completely focused on the piano, immediately started with the music. From the very first notes I could not stop wondering how such a mature musician could play with such freshness, youthfulness and curiosity. “Jeunesse” was the word that immediately came to mind, while listening to Perahia cruising gently through the movements of the suite. The  clue that this was in fact not a 20-year-old piano enthusiast genuinely having much fun and pleasure at the keyboard was his deep understanding and connection with the instrument. This is a very intimate relationship, one that can only be built over many years….. It was proven that evening three more times, because the friendship that Murray Perahia developed with the piano allowed him a marvellous command of sound and colour, his touch adjusting to suit each piece’s mood and period, light and shade.

His Bach was clear, but not crystalline. Instead of bright crystals falling from the keyboard, I could hear gleaming pearls that fitted perfectly with the sublime elegance of the Bach’s writing. A thundering ovation allowed the artist catch a breath and he came back with the Impromptus by Schubert. The party continued: of course, the joy in the playing was toned down, giving space for other, deeper emotions. The first Impromptu in f minor was so unbelievably cantabile, I am almost certain that no one can make the piano sings in the way Murray Perahia does. The second he played majestically, with much grace, showcasing the full dynamic range of the Steinway grand, from the most sublime, yet somehow bold and confident pianissimos to powerful, full-bodied, but not ostentatious fortissimos. In the following Impromptu, an Andante and Variations, the artist hadthe opportunity to let his boyish nature come forward again. It was incredible how this carefree child-like spirit was released in the music from the fingers of a pianist, who has not only incomparable experience, but also incredibly deep-rooted musical knowledge. One might suspect that too much wisdom could exert weight on the performance, but this was not the case. This 70-year-old Maestro knows how to take care of his inner child and regularly releases it to influence his music. And for sure, he still has it in his fingers, which he demonstrated in impeccably performed fourth Impromptu in f minor.

After the interval, we heard Mozart’s Rondo in a minor. It was the least interesting piece of the evening; however, I let myself sink deeply into the poetic melodic flow, as a preparation for the Beethoven’s final Sonata. I still had in mind the transcendental rendition of Grigory Sokolov, from just over a month ago, so I was curious to hear how Perahia’s version would differ. And indeed, it differed a lot! It was not as pensive and intimate as Sokolov’s, but also not as dramatic as other pianists’ renditions. There was so much light and brightness in Perahia’s playing, which put a unique perspective on this rather dark piece. The mood of the first part of the Sonata varied significantly from all the previous pieces in the programme: the joyful boyishness was gone, and we could see and hear a more serious pianist – serious, but without heaviness. I really appreciated his gestures when he struck the accentuated chords at the beginning of the movement. He flung his arms down violently and with what would look like cheap trick for many showmen in this case evoked an almost a vision of the sound that was attached to his fingers and flung out to the hall, to resonate for a moment before dying. Perahia played the dark and tumultuous movement without a grain of aggression. The recurring motif A♭-C-G was executed clearly, boldly, but not overly dramatic and without overpowering the rest of music, which in my opinion made it ring even stronger. In the second movement, the artist brought back some of the youthful charm, however, this time he did not let it dominate the music. The dark and serious character of the piece was maintained. I loved how he gradually changed the tone of the piano, growing darker and darker, and approching the end, revealing more and more passion. The steadily flourishing expressiveness was evident with the growing force of the pedal. With the trills in high registers, I noticed a beautiful acoustic effect of the concert hall – in addition to the sound produced by the strings one could hear a shy echo of the hammers, which sounded a little like raindrops falling on the roof, enriching the overall experience.

I was grateful to everyone in the audience to allow the last sound to fill the hall and gracefully die before the noisy, very long standing ovation begun. We were not blessed with any encore – but would there be a better way to close such an emotional evening and, in fact, the whole successful Meesterpianisten season?

Meet the Artists…….Carducci Quartet

Completed by Michelle Fleming, 2nd Violin of the Carducci Quartet

The Carducci Quartet are

Matthew Denton, Violin

Michelle Fleming, Violin

Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Viola

Emma Denton, Cello

 

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

I think we were all inspired by family members really. 

Emma comes from a rather musical family and her grandmother, Anita Hewitt-Jones, who was a cellist, teacher and composer, began teaching Emma cello from the age of three. 

Eoin was inspired by his grandfather, who was an traditional Irish fiddler. 

I was inspired by my older siblings, who were all learning the violin – I think my parents got good value out of those little violins as all five children had their turn playing them!

Matthew’s parents were music teachers but he was particularly drawn to the violin when he heard the sound a busker was making on the street one day.

When it came to making a decision to make quartet playing our careers, Eoin and I were hugely influenced by the Vanbrugh Quartet, who were quartet-in-residence at University College Cork when we were growing up. We had, and still have immense admiration for them. For Matthew and Emma, studying in London and working closely with the Amadeus and Chilingirian Quartets while they studied in London was a very inspiring time. They had been playing in a quartet together since their early teens and those years in London really developed their love of the genre.

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

I think that the years immediately following graduation from music college are tough. We had come together from the Royal Academy, Royal College and Royal Northern College of Music and so we didn’t immediately have the strong support of any institution. Shortly afterwards, we became Bulldog Fellows and then Richard Carne Fellows at Trinity Laban and with the help of those managed to launch our career by winning the Kuhmo Chamber Music Competition in Finland and the Concert Artists Guild International Competition in New York. 

We had made a decision to only work as a quartet and avoid taking on freelance work individually and so the pressure was on to make a living as a quartet. As we are two married couples, we had no other income except for the quartet work so we were highly motivated!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

A particular highlight for us was our Shostakovich15 project, in which we performed 10 complete cycles of Shostakovich’s 15 Quartets all around the world in 2015. It was very rewarding and absolutely fascinating to have Shostakovich as such a focus throughout that year. We still love each and every one of the quartets and always relish the opportunity to perform them.

Aside from that, we have had some wonderful opportunities to perform at some of the best chamber music halls in Europe and further afield and those are always exciting events…Carnegie Hall, Concertgebouw, Wigmore Hall etc…each of them has a very special atmosphere.

Recordings wise, we have done some lovely recordings for Signum in the last few years. We are really proud of our Shostakovich disc and are looking forward to recording the next instalment soon. We have had a wonderful time recording with some amazing musicians too – Nicholas Daniel, Julian Bliss, Emma Johnson, Gordon Jones and others.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Because of our immersion into the Quartets of Shostakovich a couple of years ago, we do feel an affinity for that music. We also play a lot of British and contemporary music and have been lucky enough to have had some fantastic works commissioned on our behalf. We do feel lucky to play a huge variety of repertoire though. We enjoy all sorts. We have always held Beethoven’s cycle up as the pinnacle of the quartet repertoire and find the works endlessly fascinating.

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

We have our own wish list which we combine with special requests we receive from concert organisers. It means we end up with quite a diverse mix of repertoire, and we do enjoy that.

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

We have some favourites, but they are quite varied – Highnam Church in Gloucestershire has an interesting history as it was Parry’s family’s church and we hold our annual festival there. Matthew and Emma were married there almost 20 years ago so it holds particularly fond memories for them. We always enjoy Wigmore Hall…the acoustic there has to be our absolute favourite and the audience is so warm and enthusiastic about string quartets.

Who are your favourite musicians?

It is difficult to choose! We have been influenced by so many from the past and from the present! We do feel honoured to collaborate with some older musicians whom we use to listen to as students.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think it has to be 9 August 2015, the 40th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death, when we performed all 15 of his quartets at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe in London. We had four concerts with no more than an hour in between each and the same audience with us from 11am until we finished at about 9pm. It was indescribable really – the intensity, the special rapport the audience had with us, the support, the elation and the fatigue at the end of it all! I think it took us about a week to get over it! We will never forget it and even now, two years on, we meet people who say, “I was there, at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre for Shostakovich15!”, and there is a connection there, as if we are forever kindred spirits!

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

Like every other area, the arts are becoming increasingly competitive and it isn’t easy to know how to get where you want to be. I suppose our advice would be to look at your strengths and think about all the possible paths you can take in order to make your career a success. Think outside the box. You will quite likely end up including many different elements to be a good musician. For us, the combination of performing, recording and educating provides us with a wonderful variety.

What is your present state of mind?

Happy! I love early summer for many reasons. The weather is getting warmer, the evenings are longer, the summer festivals are approaching and the quartet always has a busy but lovely time travelling around to them, school holidays are coming so we will get more time with our children…life is good!

Carducci Quartet perform music by Shostakovich, Glass, Part and Ravel at Music at Paxton on 15th July. Further information here

Described by The Strad as presenting “a masterclass in unanimity of musical purpose, in which severity could melt seamlessly into charm, and drama into geniality″, the Carducci Quartet is recognised as one of today’s most successful string quartets. Performing over 90 concerts worldwide each year the quartet also run their own recording label Carducci Classics; an annual festival in Highnam, Gloucester; and in September 2014, curated their first Carducci Festival in Castagneto-Carducci: the town from which they took their name.

www.carducciquartet.com

‘Enjoyable and engaging’ – Philip Leslie at St Martin-in-the-Fields

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Tuesday 27th June 2017

Scarlatti – Sonata in E
Scarlatti – Sonata in B minor
John Ireland – London Pieces
Schumann – Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op 82

Phillip Leslie, piano

St Martin-in-the-Fields has been welcoming talented musicians for 67 years and its lunchtime concerts series provides a platform for young musicians who are embarking their professional careers. This concert showcased pianist Phillip Leslie, a student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance who studies with acclaimed teacher and pianist Philip Fowke.

The concert opened with Scarlatti’s regal sonata in E major K380, one of Scarlatti’s most popular keyboard works, to which Phillip brought a vibrant sound and sprightly articulation to reflect the festive dance inherent in this music. This was followed by the Sonata in B minor K27, altogether more melancholy in mood, with richer textures, greater lyricism and a rising sense of tension in the middle section. In both sonatas, Phillip displayed sensitivity in his choice of dynamics and tempo, with tasteful use of rubato to highlight details in the music.

John Ireland’s ‘London Pieces’, composed 1917-20, are musical evocations of London. Chelsea Reach is an impression of the river as it sweeps along Chelsea Embankment with “flickering gas-lamps reflected in the dark waters of the Thames,”.  Ragamuffin evokes the a small, carefree boy whistling along a Chelsea street, while the third piece, Soho Forenoons suggests a scene of good-natured street activity and bustle with a hint of barrel organ. I felt Phillip really caught the individual characters of these pieces while also responding to the virtuosic nature of this music with a full-bodied sound, transparent passagework and clarity of expression.

More evocations followed, this time of nature in Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), a suite of nine miniatures composed in 1848 and early 1849. The rather breezy title belies the true nature of these short pieces: there are “Einsame Blumen” (Lonely Flowers) and “Verrufene Stelle” (Haunted Places) in this particular forest, and the strange and ephemeral”Vogel als Prophet” (Bird as Prophet) is heard calling through the trees. This suite was beautifully presented by Phillip whose alertness to the contrasting moods and characters of each movement brought the music to life with great colour and rich expression. Tasteful pedalling and clear articulation combined with an acute sense of pacing to create a most enjoyable and engaging performance.

 

 

The Art of the Piano Etude – a playlist for IDAGIO

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing Études to provide material for perfecting a particular pianistic technique, such as playing octaves or rapid scalic passages, developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture