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

Mstislav Rostropovich

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

Rostropovich and, later, my husband Julian Lloyd Webber, who taught me a lot through his deep knowledge of music and repertoire.

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

Practising!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Vivaldi Concertos for 2 Cellos with my husband and the European Union Chamber Orchestra (Naxos). Apart from the well known existing concerto for 2 cellos, we arranged five other Vivaldi concertos for two instruments. I think they all work very well on two cellos. We also included an arrangement of a Piazzolla Milonga which is a beautiful piece.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Possibly the Bach solo suites

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

Depends on the venue/concert promoter and what we agree

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

The beautiful new Bradshaw Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – I played the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 cellos with Jian Wang, conducted by Julian.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For all the wrong reasons it would have to be Julian’s final performance as a cellist in Malvern on May 2nd 2014. It was a brilliant concert but with a very sad atmosphere.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To please my audience

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

Enthusiasm, a questing nature and a constant love for the music.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Bergonzi cello


Jiaxin Lloyd Webber graduated from Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1997. She was already giving performances with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra but left China for further studies in New Zealand where she received her Master Degree at Auckland University in 2001.

While in New Zealand Jiaxin was principal cello of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra, a founder member of the Aroha String Quartet and played regularly with both the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. With the Auckland Symphony Orchestra she performed cello concertos by Dvorak, Elgar and Lalo.

Now resident in the UK, Jiaxin is married to the world renowned cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and has performed with Julian for BBC Radio 3, Classic FM, CNN Global TV, and BBC TV. They have recorded for Universal Classics and Naxos. Their recordings have been chosen as Record of the Month by both Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine and as CD of the Week by both Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Their 2013 recording, ‘A Tale of Two Cellos’ was the Number One UK classical album for many weeks and is one of the Naxos label’s bestselling recordings of all time. Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber have played sell-out tours with such orchestra as the English Chamber Orchestra and the European Union Chamber Orchestra and have made many nationwide TV and Radio appearances on such high profile programmes as BBC Breakfast, The Andrew Marr Show and Radio 4 Midweek.

There’s a Twitter account called Richard Feynman, after the American theoretical physicist and Nobel prizewinner. He was also a renowned pedagogue and many of the tweets from this account are quotes from Feynman on teaching and learning. While his speciality may have been physics, his approach to teaching and learning is universal. For those of us who teach and study music, there are some wonderful Feynman nuggets to inspire and motivate. Here are just a selection:

As you would expect from someone with a mind like Feyman’s, he advocated curiosity and questioning, challenging perceived norms and standard ways of doing things. I particularly like this rejection of rote learning:

And this, which I feel is an excellent manifesto for musicians:

And finally this one, which for me really sums up how, as musicians, we should practice our craft on a daily basis (for “Mathematics” substitute Music):

Guest article by William Howard

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Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton is one of the UK’s most engaging and distinctive composers. Now in his seventies, he has produced a large and varied body of more than 300 works. Amongst these are over 100 pieces for solo piano, which he describes as the ‘central nervous system’ of his work. It is a treasure trove for both amateur and professional pianists, in which most of the pieces are very approachable from a technical point of view (in contrast to a great deal of contemporary piano music) whilst being at the same time hugely rewarding to explore and perform.

Almost all of Skempton’s piano pieces have been written for friends and colleagues or for special occasions. They are predominantly short, tonal and sparingly composed, with very few notes to the page. Many of them look very simple and are, in fact, quite easy to sight read, but, in my experience the only time these pieces are ever easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins. Their apparent simplicity is deceptive, a conclusion reached in an excellent programme on BBC radio 3 recently called The Simple Truth, in which Tom Service explored the subject of ‘Simplicity in Music’. Commenting on one of Howard Skempton’s short piano pieces, he said “Simple, isn’t it…well, you try composing it!”. I would add “try playing it!”.

One of my favourites is Solitary Highland Song, which he wrote in 2017 for a collection of love songs for solo piano that I commissioned. When the piece first arrived, I immediately read it through and found it deeply moving. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. It consists of a simple and haunting eight bar tune, repeated six times, each time slightly differently. The dynamics start at pp, progress to mp and return to pp. Nothing complicated here. And yet I remember practising the piece for hours and hours before I gave its first performance, and I still practise it a lot before a performance. Why? The simplest answer that I can give is that it takes time to really hear the music. Skempton’s musical language is so distilled and pared down that every note, chord and musical gesture must be perfectly calibrated. Quite apart from the question of mastering total control of touch and voicing, the performer must seek out the essential character of each piece by learning to be open to what is interesting within the music, rather than trying to make the music sound interesting. There are no short cuts in this process. Skempton deliberately gives only minimal performance instructions, so that performers are invited to participate in the music and develop their own awareness of subtle changes and shifting patterns. The more I play Solitary Highland Song, the more I become aware of the genius behind every choice the composer has made: the subtle changes of register, for example, or the distribution of notes in chords and unexpected changes of harmony and rhythm. For me the piece is an enduring delight, and, I think for others too, since it has recently achieved the wonderful landmark of being heard over a million times on streaming platforms.

An example of an even sparser piece would be the third of the Reflections, a collection of eleven pieces that Skempton wrote for me between 1999 and 2002. It consists of four two note chords, a ninth or tenth apart, which are repeated in a different order eight times. The only performance instructions given by the composer are that the chords should all be played approximately two seconds apart, ppp and pedalled throughout. Where is the challenge here? Well, for a start, it is not easy to sustain molto pianissimo playing with a consistent sound, even for just over a minute. The more you play the piece, the more your listening becomes tuned in to the slightest blemish, or bumped note. And the more you listen, the more you start to become aware of the harmonic resonance shifts in different ways as the order of the chords change. By the time I came to record this piece, my ears were highly sensitised to the point where the tiniest imbalance in a chord would sound like a catastrophe. But it became very clear in the recording sessions that what brings a performance to life for the composer are the tiny unexpected or unplanned things that happen and the way a performer responds to them. In his characteristically gentle and encouraging manner, Howard Skempton decided that what we might have called ‘blemishes’ should be referred to as ‘involuntary refinements’! For him, the most important thing is to keep the music alive at every moment rather than aim for clinical perfection.

I recommend this repertoire strongly to fellow pianists at every level of ability. You will find pieces that are hauntingly beautiful, others that are quirky and playful; they are always imaginative, beautifully crafted and unpredictable. As well as giving a huge amount of pleasure they can teach us a great deal about our relationship to the keyboard and about how we listen to ourselves. Having totally immersed myself in Skempton’s music recently, I find that all the other repertoire I am coming back to sounds new and refreshed to my ears.

Scores are easy to obtain. Oxford University Press have published three volumes of Skempton’s piano pieces, which are reasonably priced. Most recently Howard Skempton has taken on the challenge of writing 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intriguing cycle of miniatures covering all 24 major and minor keys, written last year and lasting barely 23 minutes. These will be published by OUP in the coming months.


William Howard’s recording of Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019), Nocturnes (1995), Reflections (1999-2002) and Images (1989) will be released on Orchid Classics (ORC100116) on 14th February. Pre-order here.:

Anyone who pre-orders the album can enter a prize draw to win one of five copies of Solitary Highland Song, signed by the composer. Please forward your order confirmation email to mail@williamhoward.co.uk before 14th February.

The album will be launched with a recital by William Howard at Kings Place on Wednesday 12th February at 7.30pm in which he will play works by Bach, Schubert and Howard Skempton. Tickets and further details here

Meet the Artist interview with William Howard

williamhoward.co.uk

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Two days before the UK exited the EU, the Orchestre National de Lille (ONL) performed a programme of European music at London’s Cadogan Hall. They were joined by Chinese-American prize-winning pianist Eric Lu for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the piece with which Lu secured his first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018.

The foyer and concert hall reverberated with bi-lingual conversations; unsurprisingly, there were many French people in the audience. In 2020, the ONL is the only French symphony orchestra touring the UK, and its presence here is part of a wider cultural and economic delegation to foster ongoing links with the UK and the Hauts-de-France region, and to further strengthen Anglo-French relations post-Brexit.

The charismatic Alexandre Bloch conducted without the score for the works by Ravel and Debussy, perhaps a sign of how intuitive this music is for him. Opening with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a perennial favourite and a gentle opener for this colourful programme, Bloch drew characterful watercolour washes of sound and textures from the orchestra, whose silky transparent strings, haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion elevated these children’s pieces to something far more subtle and sophisticated.

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Debussy’s La mer was illustrated in more vivid strokes and colour in an evocative and dramatic portrayal of the mercurial, capricious nature of the sea, from gently lapping waves on a summertime beach to a swelling, storm-tossed ocean. It’s a cliché to say that French musicians truly understand French music, but here one felt a profound appreciation by orchestra and conductor of Debussy’s kaleidoscopic, atmospheric soundworld – those shimmering agitated strings, bright brass and luminous woodwind which brought the music to life in myriad detail and brooding intensity, culminating in a thrilling climax.

Unusually, the concerto opened the second half. This was perhaps for practical reasons, given the amount of rearranging of the stage which was required. Beethoven began sketching his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1804, and unlike many other pieces from his middle period which have become associated with heroic struggle and his personal demons, this work is imbued with serenity and joy, though not without poignancy: this was the last of the composer’s five concertos which he was able to perform himself, due to his increasingly debilitating deafness.

I have been wanting to hear Eric Lu live since enjoying his Leeds competition performance, and I missed his Wigmore Hall solo debut last December due to illness. There are two things which immediately strike you about this young (he’s only just 22) pianist: his modest stage presence and elegant, poetic sound, most obviously demonstrated in his pianissimo touch and Mozartian clarity, especially in the upper register of the piano. There was an intimacy too, in his interactions with the orchestra, and when not playing he turned towards them and conductor, awaiting his next cue.

His quiet presence brought a very palpable tranquility to the second movement, the piano’s tender, hymn-like entries contrasting with the bold, pestering strings. In the finale there was a quiet strength and bravura from Lu in gleaming passages and crisply articulated rhythms, the orchestra matching him with energy and élan.

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Unfortunately, I had to leave after the Beethoven, and only heard Lu’s encore (Chopin’s Prelude in B-flat) via the live link the foyer, before dashing for my train. I also missed the final piece in the programme, Ravel’s La Valse, which I don’t doubt was played with the requisite passion and sensuality by the ONL.


Photos ©Ugo Ponte/ONL

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

My music teacher at school, Margaret Semple, instilled the habit of musical curiosity, and didn’t think it strange that I would want to write and perform my own music.

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

As a teenager, playing the oboe in all kinds of rep, from Bach to improv. The lively new musical culture in my youth, the 1960s, both pop and “classical”. Early inspirations included Cage, Stockhausen, Messiaen, John Tavener.

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

The frustration has always been, and remains, the huge amount of time it takes to compose a new piece of music. A perpetual challenge is to sense the right structure and timescale for musical ideas while struggling to write these ideas down for the first time.

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

Composing for friends or close colleagues is like spending time with them – they are constantly in my mind as I write. Conversely, the challenge is writing for people you don’t know – will they understand and sympathise with your intentions?

Of which works are you most proud?

I am usually thinking about recent work – it’s as if the music I wrote long ago can look after itself. Coming to mind immediately are In the Land of Uz (mini-oratorio), The Big Picture (site-specific cantata) and my Oboe Concerto.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Above all it is animated by line/melody and rhythm.

How do you work?

I brood for a long time. I’m trying to think of a concept which will be so irresistible and compelling that it writes itself. It doesn’t always work out that way…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

They change all the time, it’s impossible to say. To give some kind of answer, I’ve just looked at what is piled on my CD player today: We Go To Dream (a lovely album by Astrid Williamson); Not Now Bernard and Other Stories (composer Bernard Hughes, excellent); Brendel plays Bach, on the piano obviously; an organ album played by Konstantin Reymaier (more Bach, plus Handel, Marcello,etc).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When the work continues to flow in, of its own accord.

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

I wanted to study music because I was interested and curious about it – I still am, almost fifty years later. That has kept me going in difficult times. So my advice is: If you’re not really, really interested in music – the actual dots – don’t bother!

Judith Weir’s ‘Thread’, after a text from the upper horizontal border of the Bayeux Tapestr, receives its world premiere recording on Not Now Bernard and Other Stories, a collection of music for families narrated by Alexander Armstrong, released on the Orchid Classics label on 7 February.


Judith Weir was born into a Scottish family in 1954, but grew up near London. She was an oboe player, performing with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and studied composition with John Tavener during her schooldays. She went on to Cambridge University, where her composition teacher was Robin Holloway; and in 1975 attended summer school at Tanglewood, where she worked with Gunther Schuller. After this she spent several years working in schools and adult education in rural southern England; followed by a period based in Scotland, teaching at Glasgow University and RSAMD.
During this time she began to write a series of operas (including King Harald’s Saga, The Black Spider, A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom and Blond Eckbert) which have subsequently received many performances in the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. The most recent opera is Miss Fortune, premiered at Bregenz in 2011, and then staged at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012.
As resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, she wrote several works for orchestra and chorus (including Forest, Storm and We are Shadows) which were premiered by the orchestra’s then Music Director, Simon Rattle. She has been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Music Untangled and Natural History) the Minnesota Orchestra (The Welcome Arrival of Rain) and the London Sinfonietta (Tiger under the Table); and has written concert works for some notable singers, including Jane Manning, Dawn Upshaw, Jessye Norman and Alice Coote. Her latest vocal work is Good Morning, Midnight, premiered by Sarah Connolly and the Aurora Orchestra in May 2015.
She now lives in London, where she has had a long association with Spitalfields Music Festival; and in recent years has taught as a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. Honours for her work include the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Elise L Stoeger and Ivor Novello awards, a CBE (1995) and the Queen’s Medal for Music (2007). In 2014 she was appointed Master of The Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In January 2015 she became Associate Composer to the BBC Singers.
Much of her music has been recorded, and is available on the NMC, Delphian and Signum labels. In 2014-15 there were releases of The Vanishing Bridegroom  (NMC) and Storm (BBC Singers/Signum).  Judith Weir’s music is published by Chester Music and Novello & Co.  She blogs about her experiences of cultural life in the UK at judithweir.com.

 

Not Now Bernard and other stories is an irresistible album of music for all the family revelling in the magical colours of childhood memories, featuring world premiere recordings of pieces for narrator and chamber orchestra by British composers Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold, John Ireland and Bernard Hughes, performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, and narrated by leading actor, TV star, comedian and broadcaster Alexander Armstrong.

The album is the brainchild of composer Bernard Hughes and conductor Tom Hammond. Bernard and Tom have worked together on a number of projects since 2009, including Tom commissioning Bernard’s pieces on the album for two of his orchestras. The aim of this album was to bring together a diverse selection of pieces in high-quality performances, plugging holes in the recorded legacies of great British composers alongside Bernard’s pieces. It was also their ambition to bring a sense of fun to the music, celebrating works that are intentionally enjoyable and funny. Bernard Hughes’s settings of classic children’s stories are the most recent pieces, using vividly imaginative, witty and tuneful music to bring to life three wonderful stories by David McKee and James Mayhew. Alexander Armstrong gives a hilarious and touching performance as narrator, his distinctive voice characterising each piece brilliantly to explore humour and human nature. The result is an engaging, lively and thoroughly entertaining collection of music and words which all the family can enjoy together.

The album is produced by Bernard Hughes himself and is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of Britain’s leading classical labels.


The pieces and the composers

Malcolm Arnold – Toy Symphony. Arnold was one of the towering figures of British music in the twentieth century, whose prodigious output included nine symphonies and over 70 film scores. Composed in 1957 for a musicians’ fundraiser, the Toy Symphony pits a quintet of professional players against a battery panoply of novelty instruments, including a train guard’s whistle, a quail whistle and three parping toy trumpets, to hilarious but brilliantly musical effect. This is one of the few major Malcolm Arnold pieces in his ‘occasional’ style never previously commercially recorded, showing a combination of winning melodies with absurdity.

Judith Weir – Thread! Written in 1981 near the beginning of her stellar career, Thread! is a setting of texts sewn into the Bayeux Tapestry, and is a vivid re-telling of the Battle of Hastings, from the Norman perspective. This piece has also never been commercially recorded, although it is a personal favourite of the composer. An exciting and vibrant piece that deserves a wider audience.

John Ireland – Annabel Lee. A melodrama for piano and narrator in a new chamber arrangement by Bernard Hughes, setting a chilling, atmospheric poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Bernard Hughes – Not Now, Bernard, Isabel’s Noisy Tummy and The Knight Who Took All Day. These pieces are based on children’s books by David McKee (Mr Benn, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant) and James Mayhew. Originally scored for narrator and symphony orchestra, this recording features the versions for chamber orchestra. In Not Now, Bernard a young boy, neglected by his parents, meets a monster in his garden, with shocking results. Isabel’s Noisy Tummy tells of a girl who is troubled – but eventually redeemed – by a misbehaving stomach. The Knight Who Took All Day tells of a knight confronting a dragon – with the timely help of a princess. All three are enchanting stories told with humour and melodic, friendly music

Not Now Bernard and other stories is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of the UK’s leading classical labels. The album is available to pre-order now.


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