If you listen to one thing this week……

Two things, in fact…..

The first is Renée Reznek‘s new disc From My Beloved Country: New South African Piano Music, which features works by Neo Muyanga, Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Peter Klatzow, David Earl and David Kosviner. Some of the works were commissioned by Reznek, including ‘Hade Tata’ (Neo Muyanga, 2013), composed in honour of Nelson Mandela. It opens with a haunting 4- note dirge motif which provides the theme for this programmatic piece whose title translates as “sorry, father”. Written as a tribute to Mandela on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the music is suffused traditional Sesotho and Zulu music with Ethiopian melismatic style, jazz and western classical music idioms. It celebrates Mandela’s childhood, his release from prison, and the weight of expectations placed upon him following his release to create a new South Africa.

Kevin Volans’ ‘PMB Impromptu’ (2014) was written “as a little tribute to Renee Reznek’s amazing fingerwork”. It appears to reference the minimalism of composers such as Reich and Adams, but it also pays homage to Debussy in a reworked passage from l’Isle Joyeuse, and Sindling’s ‘Rustle of Spring’. Reznek’s clarity and tonal colour really brings this music to life.

Volans’ ‘A Garden of Forking Paths’ is taken from his Progressively Prickly Piano Pieces, part of a graded series for players of all ages. Here, tonal control and sensitive use of the piano’s resonance create a piece whose meditative mood contrasts perfectly with the previous work.

Two works by Michael Blake from his six-volume cycle Afrikosmos reference Eastern Cape uhadi music, and the connection between this and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, much of which draws on the folk music of his homeland. Meanwhile, Rob Fokkens’ ‘Five Miniatures’ also explores South African music, but in a concentrated form. These pieces offer ‘micro-studies’ in melody, rhythm, tonal palette and texture.

Partita Africana (Hendrik Hofmeyer) is one of the longer works on the disc. Darker in character, it merges the Baroque prelude and fugue with elements found in African music, including the pentatonic scale, repetitive melodic elements and irregular pulse. It’s an imposing work which evokes the vastness of the African plains.

Peter Klatzow’s ‘Barcarolle (Arnold Schoneberg in Venice)’ is a moody, atmospheric work which commemorates Schoenberg’s visit to Venice in 1925, and the piece includes motifs from the second of his Three Piano Pieces op 11. Reznek highlights the music’s inherent lyricism with a warm sound and sensitive pacing.

‘Song Without Words’ (David Earl) has a personal association for Reznek – it was composed as a wedding present for her daughter and was played during her wedding ceremony. It has the charm and lyricism of a song without words by Mendelssohn, with hymn-like elements in keeping with the ceremony. Earl’s ‘Barcarolle’ was also written in celebration of a family event: commissioned by Reznek on the occasion of her daughter’s engagement, the piece owes something to late Liszt in its haunting, rolling motifs and dramatic climaxes before the music settles into more peaceful waters. These works are played with great warmth and affection by Reznek.

The final work on the disc is ‘Mbira Melody’ (David Kosvner) which celebrates the African “thumb piano”, a instrument consisting of a wooden board with staggered metal keys, which are plucked with the thumbs. Redolent of Volan’s ‘PMB Impromptu’, it is also minimalist in style with its repeating figures and perpetuum mobile character. It ends with a witty chord.

This varied and imaginative collection of piano music reflects the influence of Western European music on South African composers, while also paying homage to the folk music and vernacular of the country. Reznek’s very personal affinity with the highly varied musical idioms presented in this collection is clear from the warmth and ease which is evident throughout, yet she is alert to the myriad moods and characters of each piece, creating an album which is both refreshing and revelatory.

Recommended.

From My Beloved Country is available on the Prima Facie label

https://soundcloud.com/ascrecords/renee-reznek?in=ascrecords/sets/prima-facie-records

5060113443885Scottish pianist Christopher Guild‘s second volume of piano music by Ronald Stevenson could equally be subtitled “From My Beloved Country….”. Although born in Blackburn in Lancashire, Stevenson’s father was a Scot, and the composer settled in the Scottish Border village of West Linton, south of Edinburgh. Scotland proved to be one of the profoundest influences on his life, and this album attests to that: it contains music directly influenced by or drawn from Scottish landscape, heritage and culture, together with works inspired by his creative friendships with other musicians. The album also contains several premiere recordings, including ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’ which reveal Stevenson’s concern to create attractive and enjoyable music for young piano students. Christopher Guild responds to this by playing the pieces not as simplistic children’s music but instead brings great charm to these miniatures, highlighting their musical sophistication – for example, ‘What the Fairy Harper Told Me’ has Debussyan idioms and offers practise in the use of the sustaining pedal over rolled chords, as well as developing a sweet tone.

The most substantial work on the disc is ‘A Carlyle Suite’ (1995), written to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Carlyle. It’s a hommage to Carlyle from different viewpoints, and not only those which look directly at Carlyle himself. The second movement, for example, portrays an imaginary recital between Chopin and Jane Carlyle in Chelsea in 1848. Motifs and fragments drawn from Chopin’s mazurkas and a Valse Triste, all presented in a Bel Canto style, mingle with allusions to distinctly Scottish idioms. The seven movements of ‘A Carlyle Suite’ which follow are a ‘Study in historical styles on Frederick the Great’s theme’ (used to J S Bach in the ‘Musical Offering’), a set of variations which explore different musical devices and styles, from a French Baroque Overture (Var. 1) to a variation which evokes Debussy’s tonally ambiguous soundworld (the uninformed listener could easily mistake this for Debussy’s own music) with its whole tone scales and piquant, colourful harmonies.

One of the premiere recordings on the disc is of ‘Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book’ (1978), a group of eight pieces which Stevenson transcribed from the harp book of the blind harper, Rory Dall Morison (c.1676-c.1714), who was born on the isle of Skye. Stevenson brings striking harmonisations and textures, and a simple poignancy to these simple folk melodies, and Christopher Guild’s crisp articulation and attention to detail evoke the sound of a harp, while his warm cantabile sound reminds us that these pieces are undeniably piano works.

The disc opens with ‘Hebridean Seascape’, Stevenson’s skillful reworking of the slow movement of Frank Merrick’s second piano concerto. It’s an evocative work, Lisztian in its scale and virtuosity, with rich orchestral sonorities, swelling melodies and fleeting birdsong, but also imbued with Scottish musical vernacular (the middle section references a Skye fisherwoman’s chant).

Just as on his first disc of Stevenson’s music, Christopher Guild brings a keen sensitivity to the music’s varying idioms and moods – from sprightly dances to the spacious romance of the Hebridean Seascape, there is much to enjoy from Guild’s assured touch and colourful soundworld. Recorded at Turner Sims Hall in Southampton, the piano tone is bright with a warm, rounded bass which really suits this music. Comprehensive liners notes by Christopher Guild accompany the disc, which include touching reminiscences of his meetings with Stevenson. And if you choose to purchase the album as a download, Toccata Classics have helpfully included a download of the liner notes on their website.

Recommended

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music, volume two – Christopher Guild, piano

Toccata Classics, Catalogue No: TOCC0388
EAN/UPC: 5060113443885

 

 

 

 

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Dove, composer

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

Since my earliest years, I’ve had an impulse to make up pieces at the piano, and that hasn’t really changed – except that eventually I learned to write them down, and nowadays often play virtual instruments via a keyboard. When enough people started asking me to write them something, it turned into a career.

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

Musicians and theatre-makers who asked me to write music for them, including dancer/choreographer Clare Whistler and director Jonathan Kent; and who listened, encouraged and offered constructive criticism, notably composers Stephen Oliver and Julian Grant, conductors David Parry and Brad Cohen, opera-directors Graham Vick and Richard Jones. Probably the most significant of all were two people at Glyndebourne, Katie Tearle and Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who commissioned my first published piece (the wind serenade Figures in the Garden), three community operas, and my first main-stage (and most widely produced) opera – Flight.

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

Trying to get the current piece to be as good as I believe it can be.

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

With a commission comes a deadline, without which I never finish a piece. More exciting, there is a date when you know certain musicians will be performing your piece in a particular place. The idea of these wonderful singers or instrumentalists is, in itself, inspiring.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Pandiatonic, rhythmically driven, singable.

How do you work?

Dreamily and fitfully at first, as vague initial ideas start to emerge; then more continuously, as they gradually turn into stronger, more potent ideas. Mostly I work out pieces at the keyboard, but walking and cycling are also an important part of the process.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Mozart, Stravinsky, John Adams

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

Write the music you want to hear.

 

Renowned vocal ensemble VOCES8 will perform Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year (with the composer at the piano) in a special Holy Week concert at St John’s Smith Square on 11th April that brings together themes of beauty, hope, prayer and celebration. Repertoire includes Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV150 with French ensemble Les Inventions. Further details here

Born in 1959 to architect parents, Jonathan Dove’s early musical experience came from playing the piano, organ and viola. Later he studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge and, after graduation, worked as a freelance accompanist, repetiteur, animateur and arranger. His early professional experience gave him a deep understanding of singers and the complex mechanics of the opera house. Opera and the voice have been the central priorities in Dove’s output throughout his subsequent career.

Read Jonathan Dove’s full biography here

What do musicians do all day?

“What do you actually do?” and “What is your day job?” are all-too familiar questions to musicians. People are also endlessly fascinated about practising – “so how much practising do you actually do?” – and imagine we spend most of our days closeted inside grim practise rooms, cut off from the real world. Others believe we spend our days lying on a chaise-longue in a Lisztian salon, smoking cigars and pondering the higher things in life.

In reality, the musician’s life is busy, varied and by necessity very peripatetic. Musicians are masters of multi-tasking and the “portfolio career”, and many juggle several roles – performer, teacher, administrator, promoter….and some of us even have jobs outside the profession to supplement meagre teaching or performing fees. Few live by concertising alone and a very tiny handful enjoy celebrity status (deserved or otherwise) and the trappings and sponsorship deals which come with that.

Day-to-day, most of us follow a fairly similar regime of practising (which can occupy a large part of the day – four or five hours – but never done in a single session), teaching (and preparing for teaching), and admin, which can include the business of everyday life, contacting potential venues and promoters, marketing and social media, liaising with others, filling in forms to applying for funding and replying to fan mail. In addition, for those who work with ensembles and orchestras there is rehearsing and meetings with colleagues, publicists, promoters. In the evening there may be concerts or other rehearsals. Some teach in schools, universities and conservatoires, others run outreach and other educational programmes, courses and summer schools. All these activities need to be planned and prepared for, and therefore generate a lot of admin which consumes precious time. Email and the internet undoubtedly make these activities easier, but one still has to set aside time. Admin gets in the way of practising, which can set up feelings of resentment and frustration.

The sheer job of playing notes also tends to mitigate against further sitting at a [computer] keyboard – neither activity can be good for our health. 

The working hours can be very unsociable indeed: concerts generally take place in the evening and afterwards one may face a long trip home on a late night tube or train. More extensive traveling can be very tiring and interrupts both one’s normal working day and sleep pattern which can in turn have a detrimental effect on one’s health. To counteract this, most of the musicians I know make time to do exercise – from the pianist friend who regularly runs half-marathons to the bass player who meditates, this “time out” from the busy, sometimes punishing schedule is important for one’s physical and mental health.

What musicians certainly don’t do is exist in ivory towers, separated from real life. Many have families, mortgages or rent to pay, cars to be serviced and MOT’d, just like everyone else. But weekends are not like other people’s – many musicians work over the weekend, and there is often little differentiation between weekdays and Saturday and Sunday, when others may be enjoying time off.

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That we do something highly artistic or creative does not make us immune to the exigencies of real life – nor ignorant of them. Many of us feel frustrated that our work is often not properly respected nor understood – the “what is your real job?” question comes up all too frequently, and explaining or justifying what we do to people outside the profession can feel like a Sisyphean task: how can doing something we love be regarded as “a proper job”?

To justify our existence, I feel we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our colleagues and others in the industry to conduct ourselves with professionalism at all times. If we do not respect ourselves we cannot expect respect from others and our professionalism demonstrates to others that we believe our role has value and importance in society, whether teaching small people Bach’s first Kleine Prelude or playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall.

Meet the Artist……James Iman, pianist

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

Leonard Bernstein. I grew up with music; my mother was always singing or playing the piano, so it wasn’t until I was maybe 9 or 10 that I had my first revelatory experience with music. At the time Bernstein’s “Young Peoples’ Concerts” were being aired in syndication and it was through those concerts that I started to feel a passion for music.

Taking up the piano was more or less serendipity. We had a piano in the house and I would occasionally improvise little tone poems. Eventually, around age 11, my mother asked if I would want to take piano lessons. I said I did, and that was the start of it.

From the beginning I always saw it as a path to being a conductor. Then about half way through my undergraduate work I considered music history and even received a bachelor’s degree in it. Graduate school set my focus on piano, though not after much deliberation on other career paths.

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

This really comes down to the things that led to my decision to specialize, I think.

I visited a friend who was attending graduate school at Bowling Green University and had the opportunity to spend the weekend with composers and new music performers my own age (mid-twenties).

Around that time I also became friends with Paavali Jumppanen. In many ways he’s been a mentor throughout the years. He had a lot to do with my gravitating towards by niche, and he was the whole reason I first took up Boulez’s third piano sonata.

Reading John Cage’s “Silence” and engaging with the philosophy of aesthetics changed my understanding and the way I approach music generally.

This is, of course, at the exclusion of several professors, colleagues, and friends that have had no small part in me being who I am and doing what I’m doing. I owe a great deal to a great many people.

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

As a pianist who’s never played in a competition, I would say just getting noticed (I’m not interested in music-as-sport). The wonders of the internet are making this easier, of course, and I owe my fledgling career to it.

Having started studying piano relatively late I might also say that I went through a period of intense technical insecurity—not that my technique was poor, but I felt that it was to the extent that I spent the better part of two years working mostly on technique.

It’s also no easy thing to be a specialist in 20th and 21st century music. As a performer the music itself is taxing. It’s also difficult to overcome the intensely visceral reactions people can have (the invective that can be deployed is occasionally overwhelming!).

When people aren’t reacting negatively there’s a bit of a challenge to being taken seriously—I can’t tell you how many time I hear some version of “no one call tell if you make mistakes.” I usually confess to whomever is saying it that I played some wrong notes and assure them that people who study this sort of music can tell the difference.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

An audience member once told me that my performance of Brahms (op.117) made them cry—that’s pretty hard to top.

I’m proud of my debut album as it marks the culmination of some 6 years of work and research. I’m humbled that I had the privilege of being the first pianist to record Gilbert Amy’s rather obscure piano sonata and that I got to work (via correspondence) with the composer in preparation for the recording.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I would say Webern’s Variations op.27 and Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata. These are both works I play frequently and have recorded, more importantly I feel they’re works I connect with—I understand them—and I think that comes out in my performances of them.

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

It depends on what works I happen to be obsessed with at the time and whether I can build them around either continuity or contrast. That’s if I’m not playing a work that’s program-length like Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus.”

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

At this point it would have to be the Calderwood Hall in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It makes you hear the piano in a completely different way.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I’m crazy about Josquin. The motets are my Sunday listening. Also Hildegard von Bingen absolutely blows my mind.

One of my favourite pieces to perform is Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI—famous for its variable form. Playing it is like discovering it. I’m always fascinated by the differences between the readings I give of it.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Geza Anda, I don’t think I ever truly heard Chopin until I heard his recordings. Anatol Ugorsk’s Scriabin is an absolute revelation and the care he gives to the balance and counterpoint is unmatched. Samson Francois—especially his Ravel—I don’t always agree with his interpretive choices, but I’m always convinced.

Barbara Hannigan, she’s such a compelling performer. I admire her daring (and find myself somewhat frustrated that classical music is so conservative that what she does can be seen as daring). Yuja Wang, not only for being an incredible pianist, but also giving-no-fucks about the onslaught of sexism she faces.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Paavali Jumppanen play William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes at the composer’s retirement party is a concert I won’t soon forget.

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

Don’t take shortcuts. Playing the piano is hard, and shortcuts don’t make it any easier.

James Iman’s debut recording of music by works by Pierre Boulez, Gilbert Amy, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern is released on 1 April 2017 on the ZeD Classics label.

American pianist James W. Iman has distinguished himself as a specialist in 20th and 21st century repertoire and frequently performs music of the Second Viennese, Darmstadt, and New York schools. His playing has been called “direct,” “incisive,” “thoughtful,” and “compelling.”

In 2015 he joined the artist roster of ZeD Classics and 2016 will see the release of his debut album which includes the World Premier Recording of Amy’s Sonate pour Piano alongside Pierre Boulez’s Troisième Sonate, and works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.

Mr. Iman has given World and United States Premieres, including the recent United States Premiere of Gilbert Amy’s labyrinthine Sonate pour Piano, collaborating with the composer in preparation for recording the work. In 2015 he commissioned a large-scale solo work from American composer Lowell Fuchs, to be premiered in 2017.

In June of 2015 he participated in the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at Boston’s New England Conservatory where he studied with Steve Drury and performed in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum.

A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Music, Mr. Iman holds an MA in Piano Performance and a BA in Music History and Piano Performance from the university. While at IUP he studied piano with Judith Radell and James Staples.

www.jameswiman.net

(Photo: Christopher Ruth)

Daniel Trifonov in Chicago

Guest review by Patrick, a musicologist residing in the Midwest

img_0058Daniil Trifonov was annoyed. He walked out on stage with a pained expression, the cheery look of his youth victim of the trials, presumably, of a professional career. After two cursorily rude bows to the audience (which wrapped around the stage entirely), he jumped straight onto the bench, staring – grimacing – at the keys. Kinderszenen contained all of his trademark complexity of line and texture brought about by Trifonov’s utterly unique use of microdislocations – employed continuously throughout the whole set. This technique is the heart of his genius, allowing him to achieve extreme contrasts in texture, voicing, and phrasing of line. Can you think of any other pianist that developed the dislocation to such a degree? While it may seem like a product of his Russian education, is there another Russian pianist today that pursues the same innovation in performance technique? I doubt Trifonov learned in America either – I was certainly never allowed by my teacher to engage in such excesses. Neither can it be said that he is reviving some past performance practice – older Soviet pianists certainly employed dislocation to add emphasis to moments of arrival, but not in the pervasive manner employed here. Furthermore, the traditional type of dislocation – pressing the bass notes before the treble to create a sense of arrival – is decidedly not what one typically hears at a Trifonov concert. He must be taking a lesson from chamber music and vocal accompanying practice. After all, it is somewhat common among good accompanists to delay the bass arrivals until after the attack of the vocal notes fades into resonance. And this type of dislocation, with the bass (and also middle voices) delayed until after the treble, is what makes Trifonov’s artistry so special.

Back to the program: Kinderszenen was a feast to the ears of line and color. Dramatic passages were dispatched with great energy and aplomb. It must be said, however, that Trifonov’s typical lyricism seemed to be dulled this evening – perhaps a result of whatever annoyance was bothering him. The slower passages did not quite have that feeling of magical cessation of time, often miraculously whipped up by the pianist through an ingenious combination of tempo manipulation and textural contrasts. While these techniques were still very much present, there was the deadly feeling of impatience imposed over them. Notwithstanding, I cannot register a complaint, as what may have been lacking in the slower passages were more than made up for by the fire and drama brought to the climactic passages, especially as the recital progressed. The next piece, Schumann’s Toccata, testifies to Trifonov’s brilliance in program construction – after the lapidary miniatures of Kinderszenen, the audience was ready to be whipped into a frenzy, and the ploy worked – numerous people gave a standing ovation to the second piece on the program. The sound world of the Toccata (and of the Schumann in general) is very interesting. It seems to me that Trifonov has entered into a new phase of his career where he is exploring the mid-range of the piano. The Toccata was a great illustration of this, as the soprano and bass voices were hardly ever brought out in favor of a gritty voicing of the middle voice chords filling out the texture (another thing I would never have been allowed to do). This technique robs the Toccata of its flair as a dramatic showpiece with a thundering bass, but gives it a new lease on life by revealing its wacky side (I cannot help but now see a connection to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, occupying the place of finale in the other half of the program). As for the Kreisleriana, the masterwork of the first half, I can firmly declare that Trifonov is peerless in this work. No one other recording or performance that I have ever heard contains even half of his kaleidoscopic conception and range of texture, timbre, and tempo: my companion at the concert (a violinist herself) said that at several points she forgot that she was listening to the piano (an instrument she never took to that much) and instead thought there was a chamber ensemble on stage! Can you think of higher praise for a pianist than that?

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Cartoon of Trifonov by @pianistswkitten

After a massive standing ovation for the first half and the pause, Trifonov sprints back out the bench and dives into his selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. These selections were not chosen in their original order, but arranged for maximum effect – the creepily gorgeous opening prelude leads us through a luscious set of figural fragrances and fabrics before ending with a fugue containing a stormy finish. After this piece, the audience not only stood up to clap, but starting to yell bravos as well – something I have never heard before in the middle of a program – obscuring even the start of the Stravinsky! Even more so than the Schumann works, Shostakovich provided a canvas for Trifonov’s deeply original creativity – the range of sounds coming from the piano was tremendous, but equally matched by a phenomenal sense of dramatic pacing and climactic energy. The metaphor of Trifonov as a chamber ensemble with independent-minded players never seemed more apt. The final work on the program – Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the highlight of the concert – must be heard to be believed. No longer can Petrushka be considered an empty virtuoso vehicle, indeed so much life was added to it that many parts simply did not resemble what we are used to hearing. On top of all the qualities emphasized above (including some marvelously voiced chords and textures), it was Trifonov’s undeniable genius at rhythmic shaping that brought the piece to life. In short, the rhythms were so powerful, the syncopations so strong, the polyrhythms so present, that one could hardly avoid falling out of your seat – indeed Trifonov seemed perilously close falling off the bench has he was what could only be called dancing on the bench. And the music was dancing too, in every nook and cranny of the piece Stravinsky’s vision of the Russian countryside came to life. For the first time, that old wild smile began to appear on Trifonov’s face.

After tremendous applause that began before the piece even finished, the audience was treated to two encores (desperate attempts to garner a third through yelling at the pianist proved unsuccessful). The first was Nikolay Medtner’s Op. 38/8 “Alla Reminiscenza” played at a breakneck speed, building up to a tremendous flourish. Let it be known that I would graciously donate an arm and a leg to hear Trifonov perform the whole set. The second encore was a delightful piece by Prokofiev bringing the nearly 3-hour concert to a close. The concert showed once again that Trifonov is the premier recitalist of the age – it was only marred by a phone endlessly ringing during the Kreisleriana, which, after being supposedly shut off, went on to ring again exactly 30 seconds later.

Concert date: 26 March 2017, CSO Chicago

PROGRAM

Schumann – Kinderszenen

Schumann – Toccata, Op. 7

Schumann – Kreisleriana

Shostakovich – Selections from 24 Preludes and Fugues

Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka

Medtner – Alla Reminiscenza from Forgotten Melodies [ENCORE]

Prokofiev – Gavotte from Cinderella [ENCORE]

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeper into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.
Perfection is not very communicative

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist 
The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation and the assimilation of knowledge – all crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

‘A Little Night Music’ – a playlist for IDAGIO

Launched in August 2015, IDAGIO is a music streaming platform where musicians can share their recordings and connect with a growing global classical community.

I’ve recently joined the IDAGIO team as a creator/curator of playlists, compiled from their archive of both new and vintage recordings. My first playlist for IDAGIO explores the ‘Nocturne’ – music evocative of the evening and night-time, generally calm, mellifluous, expressive and rather languid in character, perfect for evening or late-night listening.

Listen to the playlist

Read more about IDAGIO here

 

Meet the Artist……Renée Reznek, pianist

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

When I was four years old, my parents went away on a long European holiday, leaving me and my younger brother in the care of our grandmother and a much loved adopted “auntie”, a retired piano teacher. To keep her happy, they rented a piano which she played every day. One evening, Auntie Bessie played Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18 and I vividly remember the overwhelming emotions which resulted in floods of tears! She responded by teaching me to play; by the time my parents returned I could perform simple pieces. It is my belief that from that time, music became an essential resource for me, filling the hole left by the absence of my parents. I didn’t envisage a performing career; that developed later on, but I knew there was no other path for me but to study music.

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

I grew up in South Africa where very little 20th century music was performed. However, when I was a B. Mus. student at the University of Cape Town, my Harmony and Counterpoint lecturer, now Professor Emeritus James May, asked me to play Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 and Webern’s Variations Opus 27 in a concert. Despite not knowing these pieces at all and initially finding them incomprehensible, I was determined to honour my commitment and in the process became “hooked”. What fascinated me in the Suite for instance,was recognising the phrasing of a Gavotte or Minuet despite the unfamiliarity of the serial language.This felt exhilarating, like learning a new language. So thanks to James May, this was the start of my journey into 20th century and new music.

The teachers who influenced me most for very different reasons were Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Susan Bradshaw in London. Sandor changed my piano technique with advice on arm weight and a flexible wrist; he was a pragmatic teacher, a problem solver. Lessons on the music of Bartok, who was his teacher, were revelatory, but his interest in 20th century music stopped there.

Susan Bradshaw was the perfect guide to performing 20th century classics and new repertoire. Her incisive intelligence simplified complex textures. She taught me how to articulate phrasing in unfamiliar contexts and to make new repertoire as accessible as possible at a first hearing. She introduced me to composers such as Robert Saxton who wrote a Sonata for me, which led to my giving my first London premiere in the Purcell Room. The experience of working together with a composer like Robert to produce a first performance was life changing.

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

I could say that performing the complete solo works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from memory in the Wigmore Hall was one of my most challenging concerts.

However the real challenge for me was returning to performing after a long break following the birth of our two children.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of my new CD of recent South African piano music which I hope will introduce some fantastic composers to those unfamiliar with South African contemporary music: Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Neo Muyanga, David Earl, Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr and David Kosviner. The majority of the pieces on the CD are rooted in traditional South African music though some are European in origin; this is diverse repertoire which reflects a rich and varied culture. With one exception, these works have never been recorded and many have been dedicated to me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Schoenberg’s piano music occupied me for years so thank goodness I am told I play it well! I treasure the review from Peter Stadlen, a pupil of Webern, who liked my performance of Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 : “Schoenberg has come of age” he wrote; thank you Peter Stadlen!

However, maybe what I do best is what I enjoy the most, which is trying to communicate unfamiliar music in as clear a way as possible.

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

Sometimes one is free to choose, or a festival or concert series may stipulate a particular work or composer. On the whole I have been able to perform the music I want to play. I enjoy creating programmes which are cohesive in some way, not merely a collection of disparate pieces.

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

It is the audience who create the atmosphere in a concert and an enthusiastic audience can transform any venue into somewhere special.

However, recently, I loved performing at the Turner Sims in Southampton; fabulous piano and intimate hall. I will be recording there again soon on the Fazioli.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I admire musicians who engage with the music of their own time as well as performing traditional repertoire. Maurizio Pollini comes to mind or Stephen Hough who is that rare musician in today’s world, a composer-performer. Both Pollini and Hough bring an illuminating intelligence to whatever they play. Having said that, I will go anywhere to hear Angela Hewitt play Bach

What is your most memorable concert experience?

At the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in 2015, I gave the first South African performance of Neo Muyanga’s Hade Tata (Sorry Father) composed in tribute to Nelson Mandela. That was a very special occasion for me.

One of the most memorable experiences was taking part in the Park Lane Group’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; 25 pianists playing 25 Steinway grand pianos on raked stages, conducted by Sir Colin Davis!

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

When I am asked to talk to young musicians, I advise them not to choose a career in music if they think it will make them rich or famous but only if music is their reason for getting out of bed in the morning! This is a difficult and unstable profession.

Being a professional musician requires hard work, humility, curiosity, passion and stubborn persistence! It requires an ability to “bounce back” from rejections.

Keeping fit and well in order to deal with the rigours of practice, performance and travel is vital; regular exercise, meditation and control of the breath also aid relaxation.

In practice, it is important to work from the inside out, from the notation, not outside in, imitating a favourite recording; it is essential to understand how the music is put together. Every performance should sound like a first performance even if the repertoire is very familiar.

I encourage young musicians to remember that while there is a vast legacy of repertoire from the past, we are living in the 21st century and there is a wealth of music being created right now which deserves some of their attention!

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

I hope I will still be excited about playing new music.

What is your most treasured possession?

Peace of mind.

Renée Reznek’s new disc ‘From My Beloved Country’, new piano music from South Africa is released on 31st March on the Prima Facie label
Renée Reznek was born in South Africa. As a child she studied with Adolf Hallis, who was a pupil of Tobias Mattay. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree. During these years Lamar Crowson was her teacher.
Read Renée’s full biography here

Learning from Listening

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There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example. You are unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall – you’re often too far away from the stage to see details – but listening attentively is helpful. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. We should never seek to imitate what we hear, but there is much to be learned from this kind of focused listening and I regularly come away from concerts of music I am working on with new ideas and insights.

Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, and continue to work on, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this has really informed my practising.

In broader terms, hearing a group of pieces in performance is instructive in demonstrating how a good (or bad!) programme is put together. At one time, performers were concerned with things like key relationships between pieces, but now a programme that “works” tends to be one which contains a variety of contrasting moods, tempi and characters which help to create flow from the start of the concert to the end, or which focuses on a particular theme. Audiences – and performers – enjoy different levels of energy within a programme, while a programme with too many longeurs of tempo and mood can seem overly long or dull.

Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too. Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly offer ideas and inspiration, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing. It is important that we form our own special relationship with our music, and in order to do that we must investment time and effort in our study, while remaining open-minded and receptive to new ideas or approaches.

The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it more distinctively their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.

So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.

Meet the Artist……John Joubert, composer

A special Meet the Artist interview on the occasion of the 90th birthday of composer John Joubert

 

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

As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to do something creative. At first it was painting. I got quite far in this, partly because we had a marvellous art teacher at my preparatory school but also because my father was an accomplished draughtsman. In my early teens music began to take a more central part in my life largely because my mother, who had studied piano in London with Harriet Cohen, saw to it that music was integral to our domestic and educational background.

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

Two names occur to me – W.H. Bell and Claude Brown. Bell was a distinguished composer who had emigrated to South Africa in 1912 to become Head of the newly-formed Faculty of Music in the University of Cape Town. Having played an influential role in South Africa’s musical life he was living in retirement when I was first introduced to him by my mother. She had taken it upon herself to show him some of my first juvenile attempts at composition. What he saw in them I can’t imagine, but he must have recognised some potential as he offered there and then to take me on as a pupil. For the next three or four years until his sad death in 1946 we would meet as and when we could. During that time he gave me a thorough grounding in compositional technique which was to stand me in good stead as a basis for further development towards my then fixed goal to become a professional composer.

Claude Brown, my other main musical influence was the music master at my school. He came from an Anglican Cathedral background, having previously been Sir Ivor Atkins’s assistant at Worcester. The school had a strong musical tradition and it was here that I absorbed the influence of both Elgar and the the Anglican musical repertoire which Brown had experienced in England. Here again my mother played a part, as during a period of ‘straightened circumstances’ in our family, she insisted on keeping my brother and me at school despite strong pressure from other family sources for us to leave and get jobs to ease our financial situation.

Following my entry to the Royal Academy of Music in 1946 my ‘significant influences’ became the three composers I studied with there, namely Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Each had their own contribution to make on my development as a composer.

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

A big challenge was getting acclimatised to a new country (the terrible winter of 1947 was my first winter in England). I had no English relatives to turn to and for a long time my closest social contacts were the fellow South African students I had travelled over with on my 3-week voyage aboard the Winchester Castle (then still in its war-time adaptation as a troopship).

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

The pleasure of receiving a commission is having the sign that somebody out there likes your music and wants more of it. The pressure of meeting a deadline is of course a challenge, but challenges can be a stimulus that keeps you on your toes.

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

As a practising musician my principal activity apart from composing has been conducting whether choral or instrumental, professional or amateur. One of my most congenial tasks as a University Lecturer was to conduct the University of Birmingham Motet Choir. With such a group one could tackle quite demanding music, and we quite frequently did so, including some of my own.

Of which works are you most proud?

It is difficult from a catalogue of over 180 works to pick personal favourites but I think I would have to include the following: my Octet, the opera ‘Jane Eyr’e, song-cycle ‘Six Poems of Emily Bronte’, oratorio ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, Second Symphony, Sonata No 2 for piano, Pro Pace motets, String Quartet No 2, Temps Perdu (string orchestra), ‘South of the Line’, Piano Trio, ‘Landscapes’ (song cycle), oratorio ‘Wings of Faith’, ‘An English Requiem’, St Mark Passion and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I try to achieve a personal voice based on traditional classical principles and carrying as lucidly as possible a strong emotional message.

How do you work?

Most mornings I am at my desk – which doesn’t mean I compose only in the mornings. I compose most of the time away from my desk whether consciously or unconsciously. I don’t compose at the piano, but I need a piano in order to try out different ways of seeking the clarity of expression I always strive for.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love all the great classics up to and including Wagner. After him I love Mahler, Strauss and Elgar and after them, Stravinsky, Bartok, Walton, Britten and Shostakovich.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing (and hearing) Richard Strauss conducting his Sinfonia Domestica (a greatly underrated work) at the Albert Hall during the Strauss Festival of 1947.

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

I think it was Eliot who advised aspiring writers to ‘work out your salvation with diligence’. I reckon the same goes for composers too!

www.johnjoubert.org.uk

 

John Joubert was born in Cape Town in 1927. Aged 19 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has lived and worked in England ever since. Joubert’s long composing career encompasses all genres from symphonic, operatic and chamber works to the ever-popular choral miniatures, Torches and There is no rose. The two Symphonies, three String Quartets, Oboe Concerto and Cello Concerto are recent additions to a growing catalogue of recordings from across his work list. Commissions of the last few years include An English Requiem for the 2010 Three Choirs Festival and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Joubert was featured composer at the new music wells 73-13 festival in June 2013 which included a new mass setting and anthem for the choir of Wells Cathedral. 2016 saw two major premieres: Joubert’s substantial St Mark Passion at Wells Cathedral and his opera ‘Jane Eyre’ – recorded live for Somm as one of several new releases to mark his 90th birthday in 2017.

 

 

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture