A peaceful ostinato figure, grounded and tranquil, opens the work. After a few bars, a serenely beautiful yet simple melody is heard in the treble which melts into a series of increasingly complex variations, the initial theme dissolving into trills and grace notes, gossamer fiorituras and filigree passages. The curve of complexity turns full circle when the theme returns in its original form at the end.

This could quite easily be a description of Chopin’s lullaby, the Berceuse, Op 57, composed in 1845, but in fact the work in question was recorded some 100 years later for the jazz album ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ came out of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’ (from On The Town). Evans borrowed the ostinato bass figure and improvised an increasingly decorative treble line over the top of two chords which remain the same throughout, just as in Chopin’s Berceuse.

What happened was that I started to play the introduction, and it started to get some much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I’ll keep going

– Bill Evans

While Chopin’s Berceuse, with its sense of freely evolving improvisation and fresh decorative ideas, is the most obvious model for ‘Peace Piece’, the work is also redolent of Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies (that repeating bass figure again) and the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The trills and figurations in ‘Peace Piece’ are also reminiscent of birdsong; Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux was just appearing, but whether Evans actually knew this music is not known.

Evans, a jazz pianist by profession, was classically-trained at Southeastern University and Mannes School of Music, and his fondness for and mastery of classical repertoire (including by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Debussy) gave him extraordinary expressive freedom and inspired some of his greatest jazz innovations.

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned with feeling being the generating force

Bill Evans

‘Peace Piece’ has a wonderful static, meditative calm, and in both ‘Peace Piece’ and Chopin’s Berceuse, the ostinato serves as a unifying, grounding element from which ideas flower and evolve over an extended narrative arc, while the reprise of the opening melody creates a sense of departure and return. Evans’ music, like that of Chopin, and also Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, combines economy of musical statement with highly original melodic and harmonic concepts (in bars 47-49 of ‘Peace Piece’, for example, Evans uses a free tonal approach reminiscent of Prokofiev). He used oblique harmonies based on whole-tone scales, and abandoned functional or structural harmony, so that chords are specifically used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression. There is an introspective lyricism and intimacy in both his sensitive piano playing and his compositions which defies categorisation, proof that in great music creative influences transcend time and genre.

Evans refused to play ‘Peace Piece’ live, insisting it was the result of a unique moment in the recording studio, a moment which could not be recreated in concert (though he did eventually perform it just once, two years before he died).

Many classical pianists admire Bill Evans and ‘Peace Piece’ remains one of his most influential piano solos, some 40 years after his death. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet pays tribute to Evans’ genius in his ‘Conversations With Bill Evans’ album, and Russian pianist Igor Levit uses ‘Peace Piece’ as a fittingly consoling conclusion to his album ‘Life’. The British composer Gavin Bryars wrote ‘My First Homage’ (1978) as a homage to Bill Evans.

The score of ‘Peace Piece’ is published as a “written out improvisation”, offering the pianist the opportunity to either play it verbatim or to explore their own improvisations. Playing it can feel like a meditation, where time stands still – something an audience will sense too when the music is played well. It needs accuracy and attention to detail but also a willingness on the part of the performer to stand back and let the music just “be”, to exist in the moment of creation – as Evans insisted it should in that 1958 recording.

To me Bill was the Chopin of jazz. He was a great artist.

– Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996), American jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer

 


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Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez has been praised for her imaginative and engaging concert programmes which consistently contrast Western classical repertoire with the music of South American composers.

In this special concert on 22 November at St James’s Piccadilly, Clara is joined by violinst Stephen Bryant (Concertmaster of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1992) and cuatro player Arnoldo Cogorno in a programme which combines much-loved works from the classical repertoire with vibrant Venezuelan music. Actress Susan Porrett will read Beethoven’s ‘Letter to the immortal beloved’ as a complement to the Piano Sonata Op 27, No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’.

Tickets £13-£20

Booking link https://bpt.me/4254302

This celebration of shared music-making has a practical purpose and the aim of the concert is to support of young Venezuelan musicians who are in desperate need of essential accessories for their instruments. These talented young musicians need new and used violin, cello and double bass strings, and reeds for wind instruments. With this event, Clara Rodriguez hopes to raise awareness of the difficult situation these students face and this concert is a wonderfully appropriate way of collecting donations of these essential accessories and money to pay to have them couriered to Venezuela in order to support the education of many young musicians in Venezuela. Donations have already been received from leading violin maker and dealer Florian Leonhard, Adrian Warwick Stringed Instruments and violinist Pierre Frappier

New and second-hand strings for violins, violas, cellos, double-basses or reeds for wind instruments will be hugely welcomed. You can send donations to Clara Rodriguez by writing to claris97@hotmail.com. Fundraising in conjunction with Luis Miguel González and the Fundación para el Impulso de las Artes en Venezuela (FIDAV)

22nd November 2019 7.30pm

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL

Clara Rodriguez – piano

Stephen Bryant – violin

Arnoldo Cogorno – cuatro

Susan Porrett – reader

Programme

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Piano No 14 in C sharp minor, Quasi una fantasia’ (Moonlight) Op 27 No 2

Edvard Grieg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2 in G Op 13

Fritz Kreisler: Schon Rosmarin

Luisa Elena Paesano: Pajarillo for piano

Manuel de Falla: Nana from 7 canciones populares españolas

Johannes Brahms: Sonata movement in C minor (Scherzo from the FAE Sonata) WoO post 2

John Williams: Schindler’s List

 

 

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

I started my musical life as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. Exposure to the greats of choral music was the basis for becoming a composer and conductor, and was a great introduction to the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of music.

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

In my teens I corresponded quite a bit with Benjamin Britten in the later years of his life, and he gave me a lot of ideas and encouragement to become a composer. Studying music at Christ Church, Oxford as an undergraduate was also an important step on the road.

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

The greatest challenges revolve around presenting pieces to audiences which require active listening on their part. People are everywhere bombarded with noise, and commercial music of all kinds, which requires no active participation from the listener. This puts them off the idea of listening to something and being challenged to think about what the music is trying to say to them.

Of which works are you most proud?

The Sonata for Organ, which was premiered and recorded by Clive Driskill-Smith; Suite – King Richard III for Solo Violin, premiered and recorded by Rupert Marshall-Luck; the works I have written for Christ Church, Oxford (especially King Henry VIII’s Apologia); the setting of the Jubilate Deo (in Zulu) which I wrote for the 750th Anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford; and a number of choral pieces for choirs in Germany, especially the Frankfurt Canticles and Responses, and the Berlin Canticles and Responses. I have also had a number of commissions from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. My Sonata for Piano is just about to be premiered in London, and this is a major piece.

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

Making sure that we are all agreed at the outset as to what exactly is being requested, and the reason why the person is commissioning the piece. However, it is a very rewarding experience to deliver a new work to someone who has commissioned it. People are very generous in their appreciation of new works like that. It is very exciting to be writing for a distinguished performer or ensemble, in particular to write a work which fits their style of performance, their character, and their ethos. The challenge is to write something which is appropriate to the performer, and is a work that they will want to play frequently and be identified with. Of course, they can be very demanding (!), but that is also good, because it means they have thought a lot about what they are looking for and why.

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

Mainly this is a great pleasure, because the reason they will want to play your music is because they choose to. This enables one to develop a longer-term relationship with performers who are looking to include this type of music in their repertoire. Then a very fruitful discussion about new pieces can ensue, and trying new things which enhance the appeal of the performer to the audience.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

It varies from very simple tonal pieces (especially some of the pieces for church choirs), through to more complex works, like the larger Sonatas. Maybe it could be see as being a continuation of the English musical tradition, from VW, Howells, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, Leighton, Lutyens.

How do you work?

I do like things to be organised, because I really do not like missing deadlines! A lot of planning goes into each piece. They will have been forming in my mind for many months (sometimes even years) before the pencil even hits the paper. I tend to write things out long-hand, and then put them onto Sibelius. Then it’s off to the publishers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That people are interested enough to listen to the music, and that if they studied it in detail, they would appreciate the logic, structure, and meaning of the pieces I have written. Where listeners have done this, they tell me the music appeals to the ear, the heart, and the brain. It’s lovely when you get feedback like that.

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

To work hard, listen to the great music, and enjoy what you are doing. You have an individual voice as a composer or performer, and you need to find ways to express yourself. Others will guide you, but your voice is your own.

Richard Pantcheff’s Piano Sonata is premiered by Duncan Honeybourne on 6 November 2019 at the 1901 Arts Club, London. Introduction by Richard Pantcheff. More information


Richard Pantcheff is internationally renowned as a composer in many genres, and has established a prominent reputation as a composer of Choral, Organ, Chamber and instrumental music of the highest quality. His musical career commenced as Head Chorister at Ripon Cathedral, in England. During his five years as a Music Scholar at senior school, he corresponded regularly with Benjamin Britten, who acted as occasional mentor to him in composition. Thereafter, he graduated with Honours in Music at Christ Church, Oxford University, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier.

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You can see most of Richard’s music on his publisher’s website : www.musicaneo.com

Too often it seems that we view learning, studying, practising and performing music as a kind of fight. People talk about “doing battle with Beethoven” or “fighting the fear” (of performing) as if one must take up arms against unseen, powerful forces.

It’s true that learning new repertoire can be a Herculean task, and practising can feel like a form of captivity, the same page of music confronting one day after day, coupled with the sense that one has hardly moved forward from the previous day’s practising. It is also true that in order to learn any repertoire properly, and deeply, we must spend inordinate amounts of time sweating the small stuff – all the details in the score, the directions and signposts the composer gives us to navigate the keyboard and produce a coherent path of sound to take the listener on a unique journey into the composer’s own inner landscape, while also to enabling us to make our own interpretative choices about how we will perform the music.

There is no alternative to the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted and performed. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

Studying, practising performing and ultimately sharing music, the musician’s “work”, should not feel like a battle or a mountain summit that must be conquered. I know many musicians, professional and amateur, who have personal strategies to prevent this sense of struggle. Spending time with the score away from the instrument can be particularly helpful, familiarising the shape and architecture of the music on the page, and imagining the sound in one’s head, without the added distraction of the geography of the piano keyboard, for example. For very complex music, I like to leave the score, or copies of the score, around the house – on the dining table, by my bedside, so that I see the score regularly, often many times during the day. When I come to place it on the music desk, it already feels comfortable, even if I have yet to touch the piano’s keys

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. A positive, open minded approach to practising can remove the feelings of toil and travail. Making friends with the music brings joy, pleasure and excitement to practising. We should live and breathe our work, beginning every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”.

Our excitement and affection for our music is very palpable when we perform – audiences sense and appreciate it – and it brings the notes to life with vivid colour and imagination.


 

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

I trained initially as a cellist and although I had a number of other interests, it was clear to me from an early point that I would pursue a career in music and also do something with writing or language, perhaps as an avocation. As I was completing my Master of Music degree in performance, it became obvious that the chronic pain I experienced was not going go away, and that I wasn’t going to be able to practice and perform as I had hoped. It turned out that I have fibromyalgia and some related conditions – mostly invisible disabilities that precluded, in my case, being able to practice and rehearse several hours a day and other necessary activities for professional performers. I turned to musicology and theory instead, areas in which I’d always been interested but hadn’t to that point pursued with much depth, and have been very happy and successful working in those disciplines. My PhD work encompassed a number of multi- and interdisciplinary approaches that made me first think that I could expand my writing career into one that drew upon both scholarly and performative elements. Developing a creative practice in addition to my scholarly work has meant that I’m able to work with both music and language at the same time professionally as a musicologist and music theorist and as a librettist and lyricist.

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

Dealing with chronic, often debilitating illness means I have less energy and time available to work than I would like. I have to be careful about pacing myself and getting work done when I’m feeling well.

What led you to start writing libretti?

I had been writing poetry for about three years and had always had an idea that eventually I’d like to collaborate with composers. As a performing musician and later a scholar, I’ve always been interested in opera and the relationships between word and music. Then I read an anecdote about Marie Curie visiting the seaside with her grown daughters and asking them to teach her to swim, and it was immediately clear to me that this could become the basis for an opera – I saw and heard the text of the first scene right away. It became my first opera libretto, ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’.

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

One big challenge is to create a text that singers can perform effectively and well. Libretti need a good balance between language that is very poetic and language that is more prosaic. I’m always reading my text out loud to make sure that I have this balance. I also have to be constantly aware of how my words sound: whether they elide, if they are easy to enunciate clearly, if they require a certain pace or technique to reach the audience. It’s also crucial to have text that moves at different speeds and conveys different emotions. While I’m writing, I think about word length, patterns, breathing, and other aspects of speech and singing. And while all of this is a challenge, it is also one of the things I enjoy most about writing text that will be set to music. I love working with language and words and finding just the right way to phrase things.

How do you approach writing libretti?

I do a lot of research first. With ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’, I read biographies of Curie and her family and histories of science and materials about the work she did. I had to make sure words I wanted to use were in existence for the time period of the opera. I’m often doing research all the way through as I’m writing – I always find new things I want to look up or understand better as I’m working. Then I create an outline of acts and scenes and determine how the opera will move from a beginning through various points of tension and activity to a peak and then resolve. I usually start with the beginning of the libretto, but sometimes as I’m writing one section I’ll have ideas for later parts, so I’ll put those in a file to use as I get to the later scenes. I do a good bit of rewriting, sometimes as I go and sometimes after I section is finished and I’ve had some time away from it. The composer can also ask for rewrites or changes, and I’m always open to those.

Is it all about the text, or does the music influence you as you write?

I sometimes have an idea of the kind of soundscape I’d like as I’m working on a scene, but really the music is up to the composer. For a set of song lyrics, my ‘Four Songs for Lady Macbeth’, I did have certain song forms in mind as I wrote. The first song is a shout dirge, which combines a slow, funereal march with the shout-out aspects of gospel music; the last song text is based on the Coventry Carol and composer Jessica Rudman gave it a setting that is rhythmically similar to the traditional carol but melodically very different. In ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’, there’s an aria for Pierre Curie that I wanted to have the feel of a patter song—he’s extolling the (dubious) virtues of radium and gets carried away and should sound like a stereotypical used car salesman—and so my concept of the kind of music to which the aria would be set helped shape and color my text.

How do you work?

While I’ll sometimes write out ideas or make notes by hand, I mostly work in my home office using a laptop with an external keyboard and mouse and two monitors. My disability sometimes prevents me from typing easily, so I use dictation software at times. The dual monitor set-up lets me do research while I have documents open and makes working more efficient. If I’m writing free verse or working on scholarly projects, I can listen to music while I work, but if I’m working on something with a strict metrical form, I work in quiet. When you have an office at home like I do, it can be easy for work to spill over into the rest of life, so I keep to a regular schedule of working during the day on weekdays only.

In your creative process, which part do you enjoy the most? And the least?

I most enjoy the actual writing – working with words, finding the best ways of describing or communicating things – and the research. As part of the research process, I’m continually learning, and the new knowledge I acquire opens up new expanses of language for me, and I find that exciting. I suppose the aspect I like the least is feeling disorganized about projects. I like to have very well-organized work times and spaces, even in my mind, and when I have too many things going on at once or am over-committed, it’s an unpleasant feeling, like I’ll somehow lose ideas or phrases because I can’t put them down as they develop.

As someone who works in the sphere of music, what is your definition of success?

If a performer or audience member or reader tells me that my words have moved them, or affected them, or made them happy, or taught them something, or that they enjoyed reading or singing or hearing my words, that’s success.

How do you view the current position of women in music and academia, and what are your hopes for the future?

I think that while there is increasing awareness of the bias against women and the problematic ways women are treated in music and in academic music departments, we have a long way to go. I want to see a world in which women and non-binary people and composers of colour are represented on every concert program, in which both the academy and the concert world acknowledge the importance of inclusivity, in which everyone acknowledges the inequities of the past and is invested in changing the culture.

What is your present state of mind?

Optimistic. I’m seeing and involved in a number of projects that are addressing the problems of inequity in music, and am encouraged by the enthusiasm with which these initiatives are being met. I’m also working on scholarly and creative projects that seek to reframe our understanding of creative histories, and speak to audiences in fresh and, I hope, revelatory ways.

‘The Harbingers’ by Rossa Crean premieres in Chicago on 31 October 2019. The new work, which was written by Kendra Leonard, tells the story of different cultural figures of death who convene on Halloween Night to pass judgment on the fate of a recently deceased soul. More information and tickets


Kendra Preston Leonard is a musicologist and music theorist whose work focuses on women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and music and screen history, particularly music and adaptations of Shakespeare; and a librettist and poet.

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Schubert editionPublished in 1828, the year Schubert died, and written between 1823 and 1828, the six Moments Musicaux (literally “musical moments”) are amongst Schubert’s best-loved works for piano and are as accessible to the competent amateur pianist as they are to the concert artist. They are akin to Beethoven’s Bagatelles in their brevity and quixotic character. I first encountered these pieces in my early teens when my mother bought me an Edition Peters copy of the two sets of Impromptus with the Moments Musicaux sandwiched between them; they, and the Impromptus, have remained favourites of mine ever since.

These fleeting pieces, all lasting less than 10 minutes and one just over a minute, were written to satisfy the Viennese public’s growing appetite for Albumblätter – literally “album leaves” – short pieces which could be played and enjoyed at home. It is quite likely that Schubert played them himself at informal musical gatherings with his friends. They may be brief but they are rich in character and display Schubert’s many moods, the paradox of Schubert’s life and indeed of all human existence and the wonder of being alive – from happiness and hope to profound introspection and poignancy, intimacy and tenderness, terror, rage and desolation.

What I find so wonderful about the Moments Musicaux is that they encapsulate Schubert’s compositional style and musical personality in microcosm. The name “Moments Musicaux” suggests something improvisatory or unpremeditated, but like the piano sonatas and Impromptus these are carefully structured works (usually in ABA/Ternary form). Yet Schubert’s daring use of harmony, and unexpected or enigmatic modulations, combined with a subtly shifting dynamic palette, disrupt the usual established continuity of form, creating music which is intense, dramatic and emotionally profound. The Moments Musicaux are supreme examples of Schubert’s ability to suggest the subtlest nuances of emotion which shift and alter, literally in a moment. Even in their bigger, louder gestures, these pieces are intimate, almost confidential in tone, private and mysterious, their kaleidoscopic, fleeting yet profound emotions revealed in the apparent simplicity of the music.

The first Moment, in C major, opens with a sweetly bucolic but also rather haunting fanfare, and within three bars the mood has shifted with the introduction of c minor chords. It is these harmonic shifts which give the music a tender wistfulness, while the recurring triplets infuse a sense of playfulness, even in the minor key. The switch between tonalities creates emotional drama and often Schubert is at his most poignant when writing in the major key.

The second in seemingly serene A flat major is structured ABABA, with the A section varied each time it returns. Despite its Sicilienne rhythm, the A section is suffused with tragedy, reinforced by the circular form and repeating themes.  Again, unexpected harmonies and astonishing modulations give the music a dramatic intensity, and the f-sharp minor sections are painfully sad, especially the second one, the plaintive melody now magnified with accented chords. The return of the A-flat major section is a momentary consolation before the shadow of sadness descends again, though without any sense of regret.

The third (f minor) by contrast is a naive dance, originally published as an Air Russe, and in ABA (ternary) form with a coda. Its sprightly character, highlighted by accents, staccato and grace notes, is akin to the ballet music for Rosamunde and the Marche Militaire. The constant oscillation between minor and major confirms the folksy, playful nature of this music.

The fourth (c-sharp minor) is the longest of the set, again scored in ternary form with a coda. The A sections are a perpetuum mobile, with a flavour of a Baroque dance in the RH semi-quavers and stomping bass quavers. Although marked Moderato, its mood is restless. A single bar’s rest signals the B section. Dreamy, lilting and intimate, the sense of release is palpable in this rather Bohemian trio. The opening material returns at bar 114 but there is a 2-bar recollection of the middle section in the coda, like a fleeting memory.

The fifth (f minor) is the most energetic of the set. Like the previous piece, it is also in ABA form and is marked by an emphatic rhythmic motif of one long note (crotchet) and two short ones (two quavers), reinforced by accents on the first beat of the bar and abrupt dynamic shifts. There is no room for a consoling middle section in this galloping music.

The final moment (A flat major) is one of the pieces I learnt as a child without appreciating its emotional depth. Coming back to it in my 50s, and having spent several years immersed in one of Schubert’s late piano sonatas, this music encapsulates Schubert’s extraordinary soundworld in miniature form. Like the first moment it is a minuet and trio (in D flat), and once again daring, amibiguous harmonies, unexpected modulations and graduated dynamics,  together with the use of rests, create a dramatic intensity. Here tiny gestures speak eloquently, and a single line is freighted with emotion. The closing cadence is utterly desolate, its bleakness reinforced by the unharmonized A flat in double octaves.

Recommended recording: Maria Joao Pires (Deutsche Grammophon, 2014)

 

 


Header image:

Schubert at the Piano – Gustav Klimt (1899)