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Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

People think the Alexander Technique is about posture. Or about how to stand up and sit down. But actually it is about our use, or most often misuse of the self. In all walks of life this misuse is going to have a negative impact, both physically and mentally, but as a pianist it is at the piano where I most often have shown back to me what needs to change, both at the piano, and then emanating outwards into the rest of my life.

We often complain “I have a bad back” or “my shoulders are tight”, rather than accepting our role in their demise: “I have misused my back”, “I have tightened my shoulders”, or “I can’t play fast passages”. But “the workings of the mind are not separate from our the behaviour of the mind’s owner” (Pedro Alcantara – from his book ‘Indirect Procedures’ – aimed at all musicians, not just pianists, and highly recommended).

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The first step in our desiring to be different is to know that we have to do different. And do differently all the time; not to expect to find one ‘fix’ but to find a way of being that is organic and responds to each moment as it presents itself. This takes a lot of attention, as over years and years we become a mass of reactions to stimuli, reactions that might have been helpful at one point, but which on becoming habits, are now less so! Take playing a fast passage. If we try to do it before we have an understanding that we can let it happen,  ‘trying’ creates tension and then…we are lost. No amount of tension will make for fluidity.

Digging deep into our habitual nuances is challenging because they are very subtle and ones to which we are so used that they feel ‘comfortable’. Why would we try and change something that feels so?  One of the challenges of utilising the Alexander Technique is that we have to be constantly and acutely aware of what is going on and prepare to feel UNcomfortable and unfamiliar. We need to try different things, and/or do the same things but differently, often with a completely different mental as well as physical approach.

Another misconception of the Alexander Technique is that one has to be relaxed. On the contrary. We’d end up in a heap if we relaxed our muscles all over. What we need is the right tension, in the right place, for the right length of time that is necessary. The ‘wrong’ tension is usually compensating for the right tension elsewhere. Again, we feel we need to ‘try’, but trying mostly creates the tension of which we desire to let go. More accurately we need a very careful ‘undoing’ of our habitual response. It took me ages to figure that one out. Doing so little felt slightly ‘naughty’ in a time and with a personality that feels ‘trying hard’ is ‘good’. But learning over time to do less, my fingers are now able to create flowing passages, and not being in a fixed ‘position’ I can mould the music more than if I were constantly in rigid tension. Before I discovered these ideas, I used to play my scales, major and both minors, from C/C#/D/Eb etc etc until I felt tired, thinking the goal was to do more, or for longer, until I got tired. Now I know that being tired means I’m misusing myself. Depressing a note means letting go of energy into the key, so a constant letting go should not create an increase of tension…  At this point it should be said that one cannot ignore posture, but just that using oneself correctly is not just ABOUT posture. Sitting with, again, right tension and an ‘upward’ direction rather than a curve or slump is necessary, but just the beginning of a whole way of using the self.

I have written about being curious when practising, something that musicians often fail to recognise during their time at the piano. They are too keen to ‘fix’, rather than spend time working out quite which needs ‘fixing’. Exercises that aim to solve problems are played in a way that embeds those problems and which can be ultimately harmful.  Played with inattentiveness, overeagerness, a fear of forgetting, a fear of missing out, a fear of being wrong, preconceived ideas, hurrying, all prevent any real new outcome. Buddhists  talk of ‘beginners mind’. We too have to lose everything we THINK we know and start finding out what is true, i.e. necessary.  Daily practice is often used as a search for control but over repeating one thing means overworking one mechanism and underworking others. Intelligent practice and the whole use of self is a much more economic and valuable use of time.

One of the dangers we have is to get something ‘right’ (for instance a flowing run) and then try to recreate what we did to get it. To retain an organic and responsive technique at the piano, to use Alexander’s words, we need to ‘reproduce not the sensations but rather their co-ordinative processes. The experience you want is of getting it, not having it. If you have something give it up.’

This of course seems illogical and tiresome, but it is also engaging and exciting and keeps the music and our experiences at the instrument alive.

It is extremely hard to describe specifics in writing so all this short article can do is whet an appetite for what is possible. A good teacher hopefully will direct you to ask the right questions for yourself, and show you the possibilities of how to approach the text with a different perspective.  From then it is an ongoing but fascinating journey.


Alexandra Westcott, BA

Piano teacher/Accompanist
Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott

Guest post by Karine Hetherington

In early December, the beginning of the Christmas season, I attended a unique performance of Handel’s Messiah in the newly-refurbished Pillar Hall, Olympia. The modest red-brick building of Italianate design hugs the vast exhibition halls of Olympia. With a 250 seating capacity, it is an ideal venue for what was to be an intimate rendering of Handel’s masterpiece.

Pillar_Hall_Olympia_1

Ten professional singers step out onto a small raised platform: three basses, two tenors, two altos and three sopranos. They are framed by two marble pillars with the chamber musical ensemble in front, composed mostly of strings, a trumpet and harpsichord player. All the artists look a picture in evening attire.

Down the road, at the Albert Hall, the same work is being performed with full choir, solo artists, conductor and full orchestra. Sheer numbers are of course de rigueur in large concert venues such as the Albert Hall. How else can you vocally fill a vast auditorium of amphitheatre- type proportions?

Back in Olympia meanwhile, the harpsichord player, the heartbeat of the music ensemble, strikes up. The distinct baroque sound transports us back to the 13th April 1742, date when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the New Music Hall, Dublin. It was an extraordinary night. Dublin ladies had been told to arrive without hoops for their dresses and gentlemen without swords, to create more room. One hundred extra Dubliners were squeezed in to witness Handel’s magnificent Messiah. The small orchestra was borrowed from Dublin castle and a handful of singers plucked from the city’s theatres and cathedrals.

47161060_1893708670722933_3159876614410469376_nMiles Lallemant, harpsichord player and musical director of the Kensington and Olympia Festival of Music and the Arts, summed up this particular production at the Pillar Hall during my interview with him pre-performance: “This musical and singing ensemble would have been this size in Handel’s day, which makes our performance of the Messiah all the more authentic and exciting to play”.

Tenor Robin Bailey steps forward proudly and intones a robust ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’, the opening solo. Canadian baritone, Andrew Mahon, follows shortly with his rich and smooth interpretation of ‘Thus saith the Lord’. He mounts and descends the lower registers effortlessly. His blond neighbour, James Geidt, sporting a full Victorian beard has a wonderful bass too but the style is different, his voice is all about vigour.  The three sopranos are sweetness incarnate. In such a music space, each soloist comes into sharp relief, their outward appearance, their personality and of course their voice, with its unique timbre and inflexion.

When alto soloist, Laura Lamph comes to sing ‘He was despised,’ her mournful voice reminds us of a young Kathleen Ferrier. Each poignant word is a soft dagger to the heart.

This is where an intimate space really works. A powerful and moving libretto such as this needs to be heard, especially as it is sung in English. A large choir, no matter how professional, cannot deliver that so easily in an echoing auditorium or in a cathedral, where music and words so often disappear up into lofty vaults and crannies.

And so is it a case of less is more in the music world? Not always. Music originated in churches. Not all churches have good acoustics. London, indeed the UK, has a wealth of musical venues to choose from, but the concert each time can only be as good as its artists.

The Amen in Handel’s Messiah ends in a gradual swelling wave of divine loveliness. All ten soloists unite to create a sound of extraordinary beauty and power.

If you close your eyes you can imagine a choir three times the size.


Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. She is also an arts reviewer for ArtMuseLondon.com. When she is not writing about music, she likes to sing in her local choir or tackle piano sonatas, some of which are far too difficult for her.

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

A series of unfortunate accidents! As a fairly straightforwardly academic child I stumbled into an open evening given by the brass teachers of the local peripatetic service. I really can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea, but there was a tuba lying on a classroom table and it chose me there and then.

As a tuba player in youth orchestra I had a lot of bars rest – often whole movements or pieces. To relieve the boredom (and if I’m honest to try to stop myself being a nuisance to people with actual notes to play), I started bringing the scores to rehearsals and following those. It didn’t take long for me to start wanting to hear more of different sections of the orchestra, or wonder how it would work at a different tempo, it was then a short step to formal study, though I don’t think even then that I had any thought of doing it for a living.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

The two most significant early experiences were that of my youth orchestra, but possibly more importantly playing in a very high-level brass band. The culture of dedication, discipline and excellence there was something I shall never forget. Punctuality, alertness and concentration were taken absolutely for granted, and the precision of ensemble and intonation was astonishing. It set standards for me.

After that, three teachers had an enormous influence. My first conducting teacher was Michael Trowski, who was also the conductor of my youth orchestra. He is a wonderful all-round musician, and a very supportive friend who I learnt from as much playing under him as in our lessons. After university I studied with Alan Hazeldine, who pushed me hard to keep focused and to treat conducting as an all-round set of skills that encompassed not only physical technique and score-reading but also mastery of the psychology of orchestras and managements. He also arranged for me to watch and meet Sir Colin Davies who offered several gems of insight that I will always treasure.

But by far the most profound influence on my career in the past decade has been working with David Parry. As his assistant and colleague at Garsington, I was given the most incredible insights into the wonderful world of opera where I have spent much of the last decade. In particular, his peerless facility in the bel canto repertoire has led that to become something of a specialism for me, although I undoubtedly conduct it very differently from him and this ability to nurture conductors without turning out carbon copies of himself is what makes him such a great colleague and mentor.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

As the question implies, this is often the same thing. Every room is different and every person in that room is different. They all want and need something different from you and that will vary ensemble to ensemble, piece to piece and week to week. One of Colin Davis’ brilliant insights was that our job is not to conduct the piece, but to conduct the people who are playing the piece. The fact that the same gestures, explanations, ideas will communicate in one setting but not another is an endless challenge, but the satisfaction of finding a way to let a group of brilliant and talented people make music together to their maximum potential is one of the most fulfilling experiences imaginable.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Very simply! A wonderful colleague once advised me never to say anything in rehearsal that I couldn’t express in my third language. If I couldn’t say it in German or Italian it was probably too complicated. I think this is wonderful advice. Whilst I have complicated poetic and metaphysical ideas in my head, they are only allowed out through my hands, eyes and body. If you heard me speaking to an orchestra, 99% of the time it would be about the practicalities of note-lengths, balance, intonation, and tempo.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

I am definitely the composer’s representative in the room, and I feel very strongly that it’s my job to bring not only the composer’s ideas but their historical context, assumptions, faith, politics and personality to the rehearsal (though as per above, this generally stays in my head unless really interesting to anyone else!).

Following from that, I think that it is my job to have the whole picture in my mind, whether that be an opera or a symphony, and to be responsibility for the integrity of that. Each singer in an opera needs to be focused on their character, motivations, and emotional arc. My job is to make sure that these knit together into a story. This is why it is often a good sign if we disagree, or at the least have different emphases. Likewise in an orchestra, any given player (or section) has to concentrate on phrasing, articulation, intonation. To let them do that, and to mesh all of those individual lines into a coherent whole, I take charge of the balance, tempo and ensemble so that they focus on making music.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Too many! I’ve been very very lucky and been allowed to conduct a huge range of repertoire from the 13th century to the present so have no complaints. But having gained a reputation for English music and the Italian bel canto I wouldn’t protest if someone booked me to do Walküre…. or Boris….

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I am a huge fan of the various Frank Matcham theatres around the country. The Hackney Empire is my home turf and I feel a special affection for that space, but Buxton, Cheltenham and Wolverhampton are all glorious venues to make music in. That said, I’m looking forward to making my Bridgewater Hall debut next year which may change that…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

No favourites! Verboten!

Though more seriously I have never failed to fall in love with a piece I’m working on.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Cynically, it’s the moment when you’re spending more time and energy on doing the work that looking for it.

But fortunately success comes daily when we bring music off the page and through our performance into people’s lives. Every single audience member whose soul goes home lighter after a show is the reason that we’re here.

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

They need to have an absolute clarity of purpose. They need to have addressed the big questions: Why do we do what we do, who is it for? Why is it important? They need to have this core of confidence in order to develop resilience to the thousand natural shocks that anyone in the performing arts faces daily.

I think they need to come to these conclusions for themselves and we don’t need to agree. In fact for the continued development and evolution of our profession it’s better if we don’t! It’s very unclear to me what our world and profession will look like in ten years’ time, let alone twenty. Anyone entering now needs to know why and bring with them a readiness to make music in different ways and in different places, so that we continue to touch audiences.

Arthur Sullivan’s complete incidental music to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest with his concert overture, Marmion, performed by sopranos Mary Bevan and Fllur Wyn, Simon Callow (speaker), the BBC Singer and BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Andrews, is available now on the Dutton Epoch label


John Andrews is Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, Conductor-in-Assocation with the English Symphony Orchestra, whom he conducts regularly at the English Music Festival. He has conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and concerts in 2018-19 include the 2018 International Composers Festival, the Bridgewater Hall with the Manchester Concert Orchestra, and the London Handel Festival with the Brook Street Band, the Malcolm Arnold Festival and Baroquestock.

His performances of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei for English Touring Opera, were praised for his ‘highly cultured, shapely and pressing direction… ’ whilst Bachtrack described his interpretation of Lucia di Lammermoor as ‘faultless’. Recent credits include Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel with the Young Artists of Garsington Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Rostock Volkstheater, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Opera Holland Park. In 2018 and 2019 he returns to English Touring Opera for Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, and Il segreto di Susanna for Opera Holland Park.

John is currently making a series of world-premiere recordings with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and The Brook Street Band for Dutton Epoch and EM-Records. The first of these – Sullivan’s Music for Macbeth and The Tempest – was named a Disc of the Year in The Sunday Times, described by Hugh Canning as ‘pure delight’. Future releases include Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, and Sullivan’s Haddon Hall and The Martyr of Antioch.

His gift for combining empathy and feel for both music and musicians with an ability to directly and powerfully communicate his ideas, together with his passion for locating music in its social and historical context, brings dynamism and warmth to his interpretations of both rare and classic repertoire.

johnkandrews.com

  1. Reject prejudice. Select the concert based on the programme rather than the performer and don’t always be led by the artist’s biography/reputation
  2. Support local and regional music-making: there’s plenty of it and it’s important to remember that the metropolis is not the only place where great music can be heard
  3. If you’ve enjoyed a concert, tell others and share your enthusiasm, especially with people who may be new to classical music (see 4 below)
  4. Go to concerts with friends, especially those who haven’t sampled classical music before
  5. Online reviews and blogs have real value. Read them. Don’t think the mainstream media always has the last word
  6. If you know musicians, support them by attending their concerts and buy their CDs – don’t expect friends to supply free tickets. (see 7 below)
  7. Musicians tend to command low or even no fees. Buy the goddam tickets (and CDs)!
  8. If you’ve enjoyed a performance, or recording, tell the artist! At places like Wigmore Hall, it’s easy to go to the Green Room afterwards to meet the performer/s. Alternatively, contact them on social media or email via their website. Go on – we really appreciate it!
  9. Please don’t tell musicians how to do their job: we are sensitive people who work extremely hard. And don’t ask “what’s your day job?” or hint that being a musician is some kind of superannuated hobby. It’s not, it’s a profession.

 

(Inspired by author Joanna Harris on Twitter)

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

My grandmother owned an upright piano and used it to play simplified arrangements of jazz standards. As a young child, I used to live in the flat above and enjoyed visits during her morning ritual, which consisted of drinking Turkish/Arabic coffee, cigarette in hand, and listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Billie Holiday amongst other jazz artists from the Golden Era. She almost certainly passed on her pure love of music to my father, who had similar recordings playing on cassettes, LPs and CDs in our own flat most of the time.

I’m not sure that this led to me becoming a professional classical pianist though. I believe the joy experienced by amateurs while listening to or playing music is often lost on professionals (especially within the classical music industry) who often use music to serve rather personal goals in their lives, such as becoming the very best at something – a very questionable goal to aspire to in the subjective world of the fine arts, in my opinion. My family’s love of jazz certainly made me want to have music all around me and led to drum kit lessons with my father at the age of three and piano lessons at the age of five with Agnes Bashir-Dzodtsoeva – an exceptional teacher and composer who was based in Amman at the time. I moved to the UK as an eleven year old to pursue my professional training and education. This was probably what actually placed me on the path to becoming a professional, having received a solid technical foundation in the Russian School of piano playing from Agnes, a Georgian educated in Moscow.

My grandmother gave me her piano about a year after I started lessons because she felt that my electric keyboard had surpassed its usefulness. This will always be one of the most precious gifts anyone has ever offered me.

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

I’ve been very fortunate indeed to have received input from quite a few extraordinary musicians; I met Yo-Yo Ma as a ten year old during the first West Eastern Divan workshop, which was directed by Daniel Barenboim who has mentored me on many occasions since. He has also invited me to tour with him and the West Eastern Divan as a soloist, playing works that include Berg’s Chamber Concerto which certainly shaped my interest in the Second Viennese School. I am privileged to have been introduced to a genre by one of its top authorities.

I will certainly never forget the late Sir Colin Davis’ advice on how to start the angelic ‘Siciliana’ movement (II) as I prepared for our performance of Mozart’s Concerto no. 23 in A major with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican Centre. Furthermore, my lesson with the late Pierre Boulez on his own ‘12 Notations’ for solo piano at the Royal Academy will remain one of the most important and cherished musical experiences of my life, of course.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that my piano, theory, composition and conducting teachers had the biggest influences on my development, as they helped shape my musicianship very directly. Since leaving Jordan, I have studied piano with Tatiana Sarkissova (who was my main professor in the UK), Hinrich Alpers and Tessa Nicholson, composition with Jonathan Cole and Graham Williams, conducting with Paul Brough, Denise Ham, Quentin Poole and Peter Stark. Though I have had many fantastic theory teachers over the years, the Chicago-based conductor and arranger Cliff Colnot was one of the best pedagogues one could ask for, as I discovered during the many hours I spent analysing full scores of the symphonic repertoire with him. We met during summer West Eastern Divan workshops Seville, Spain and during visits that I made to Chicago for intensive courses as a teenager.

Since moving to Berlin, I have spent a lot of time learning about early music from the renowned scholar, viol player and director of Phantasm, Laurence Dreyfus. I remember attending one of his lectures during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and subsequently reading his essay ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music’ which, I can safely say, forced me to reconsider everything I had learned about studying and preparing repertoire of any genre.

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

Remaining moderately sane.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m quite concerned about the levels of narcissism within our industry – especially since the onset of social media – so I’m careful to avoid pride, as much as I can. For clarity, I do use social media but try my best to be as pragmatic about it as possible. Focusing on the experience of performing is more of a priority for me, rather than the many emotions and thoughts that follow. They are after all pretty useless unless they help me improve.

However, if I had to choose one memorable performance to discuss, I would say that it was particularly interesting to play Schoenberg’s op. 11 to a group of students at the Hind Al–Husseini College in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestine. It is very likely that some of these students had never been exposed to any classical music at all until then (within the frame of attending live concerts). So the discussion about ‘Drei Klavierstuecke op. 11’ that followed my performance was fascinating, particularly as they had the advantage, as listeners, of having no strong standard to compare atonality to.* I remember one student saying that she imagined a scene from a horror movie while I was playing. Considering the fact that Schoenberg moved to Hollywood in 1934, I thought that this was very perceptive indeed. After all he must have influenced a whole generation of film composers as one of the University of Southern California’s and University of California, Los Angeles’ most valued pedagogues.

I’m very pleased that this event took place.

*Arabic music is mainly monophonic, with intricacy and complexity in the melodic ornamentation and rhythm rather than the homophonic movement of parts – in other words it’s more of a horizontal tradition.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Not sure, tough one. Sorry!

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

I am naturally quite a curious person, so my approach to music has always been interest-driven. What I offer in recitals is usually linked to what I have been exploring as a listener, these days, now that I am no longer a studying in a traditional sense. Certainly my engagement with English Renaissance music developed because of my interest in Renaissance music in general. I was exposed to it at the Purcell School – we had to sing a fair amount of Palestrina, Lassus and Byrd in choir – and really enjoyed the counterpoint and modality back then, although I was probably too young to fully appreciate its beauty. However, it was a performance of Monteverdi’s ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ at the English National Opera (especially the final duet) that really got me hooked as a listener. So by the time I met Laurence Dreyfus, I was ready to start working on and studying the genre more extensively.

There is no rich tradition of performing Renaissance keyboard music on the modern piano, (Sokolov and Gould are both true heroes of mine, as different as they are, but there aren’t many others who venture out into this territory) so the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s survey of John Bull’s keyboard works was a very important and revelatory recording to listen to. Thankfully, he was very generous when I emailed him with questions, and invited me to Prague for some coaching. It was heart-warming to see how very encouraging he was about playing this music on the modern piano and using the instrument idiomatically to serve it. He had many suggestions for further keyboard repertoire that I should explore.

In general, I avoid chronological programming, so called well-balanced programming where one tries to tick boxes across genres that are limited to music written between about 1750 and 1950, exclusively nineteenth century programmes and single composer programmes (unless it’s a performance of the Goldberg Variations, which I sometimes play on it’s own, but usually start the concert with some Boulez or Schoenberg).

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

Not really, but playing at Luzern’s KKL and the new Philharmonie de Paris, both with Daniel Barenboim, were exceptional experiences – the acoustics really allow you to take risks with soft dynamics. Both halls were designed by the architect Jean Nouvel.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing Mozart’s K467 in Petra, Jordan as an 11 year old. Nothing quite beats Mozart in the middle of the desert, in front of a World Heritage Site as far as memorability goes!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Artistic fulfilment and paying all the bills simultaneously.

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

1) Constantly listening to and studying (not only practising) music with child-like curiosity.

2) Keeping a healthy check on one’s ego – it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to be the centre of attention (i.e on stage) and when it’s in one’s best interest to be a more generous spirit (backstage and everywhere outside the concert hall).

Karim Said’s new album ‘Legacy’ is available now on the Rubicon Classics label. Further information


Karim Said came to the public’s attention in 2009, playing concertos with the late Sir Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra in London’s Barbican Centre and at the BBC PROMS with Daniel Barenboim and his West Eastern Divan. Karim has regularly toured with the Divan orchestra as a soloist, under Maestro Barenboim’s baton, performing at such halls as the Philharmonie in Berlin, Musikverein in Vienna and the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Mostly recently, Karim appeared with the Maestro as a soloist in the opening night of the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, playing the Berg Chamber Concerto.

Karim’s debut album ‘Echoes from an Empire’ (Opus Arte – 2015) was one of Gramphone’s ‘Top Ten recordings of Janacek’ (2016). The repertoire on this album was inspired by his London recital debut series at the Southbank Centre in 2013, where he played the complete solo works by Arnold Schoenberg over three recitals as part of the ‘International Piano Series’ and ‘The Rest Is Noise’ festival. As a chamber musician and song accompanist, Karim has collaborated with artists including Waltraud Meier, Dorothea Röschmann, Gabriel Croitoru, Adrian Brendel, and the Utrecht String Quartet.

Earlier this year, Karim launched the Etihad String Orchestra in his native Jordan as its first Music Director and performed with the European Youth Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at the Dubai Opera House.

Born in Amman, Jordan in 1988, Karim commenced his piano with Agnes Bashir-Dzodtsoeva before moving to the UK in 2000, aged eleven. He studied piano, composition and conducting at the renowned Purcell School of Music and later at the Royal Academy of Music, both on full scholarships. At the Academy he studied with Prof Tatiana Sarkissova. In more recent years, Karim was coached by Hinrich Alpers in Berlin, where he is currently based. As a conductor, Karim attended masterclasses with Bernard Haitink at the Royal College of Music during his studies in the UK.

Karim Said was made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, London in 2017.

karimsaid.com


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

At 18 I was planning to go to Oxford to read history when I unexpectedly won a 3-year piano scholarship to the Royal Academy. On producing some ‘written work’ at my first interview, the Warden suggested I should also study composition

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

Everything I ever heard but all in different degrees and for different reasons. Schubert, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bach, Brubeck, Mozart. Handel, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Elgar, Delius , Warlock, Moeran, Butterworth, Franck, ,Orff, Prokofiev, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Bernard Herrmann, Bernstein, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gershwin, Malcom Arnold, Skryabin

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

In 1967 stopping my life as a pianist in order to take over composing/conducting ‘The Avengers’.

In 1971 abandoning a highly lucrative commercial career, not to mention a house in Knightsbridge and my first wife (!) in order to start again and learn to write much better music in the country (Sussex).

In 1981 abandoning a Hollywood contract in order to return to UK to finish my dramatic oratorio ‘Benedictus’, (which I consider my masterpiece) , although had I not done so I would not have then  been in London  to compose The Snowman!

Worst disaster for me professionally for me was in 1998 when my publishers issued a high court writ against me in an attempt to steal all of my music. It involved so many people I had trusted and been happy with and I was let down by them. This took me a very long time to recover from and the fact that they issued the writ on the day my son Robert was born was malicious! .In fact I fought the case and won, but it does illustrate ‘the price of fame in no uncertain way’. My frustrations and sadnesses have most often sprung from people’s envy of my success, which I find very difficult to deal with.

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

Everything one creates is a challenge whether one gets commissioned for it or not. I have 705 opuses listed but these include many false starts and rejects and disappointments. However a very great percentage were commissioned, sometimes quite handsomely, sometimes for nothing, but always because somebody really wanted me to write something for them. One needs to have a performance  to aim at and that won’t happen without an enthusiastic commissioner, nearly always just one person. For instance I remember the head of the Leeds Arts Council saying to me at a reception after the Paralympics: ‘Could you write the sort of violin concerto that would make everybody cheer at the end?’ I started immediately!

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

I always write with a soloist or a group or an orchestra in mind., because I ‘hear’ their sound as I write and often have a sort of ‘conversation’ with the player. For instance when Thea King commissioned a clarinet concerto I knew how much she  loved playing in the low chalumeau register but was not at all so keen on screechy high notes. I wrote for her accordingly and could always hear her playing it.. I would find myself murmuring during the composition process: ‘Oh, she’ll like that!’

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Benedictus’, The Snowman Stage Show, The Piano Quartet, ‘Diversions for cello’, ‘Speech after Long Silence’,  ‘Sleepwalking’,  ‘Elegia Stravagante’, ‘The Bear’, ‘Granpa’, The Flute Concerto,  The Clarinet Concerto,  The Violin Concerto, ‘The Duellists’  ‘A Month in the Country’.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Gapplegate Review USA 2015 wrote the following which  is very much how I’d like to be thought of, though am rather too embarrassed to express!

An English composer with a pronounced lyrical gift, In his latest album of works for cello and piano ‘Diversions’ the music is of a pronounced tonality but without anything in the way of a neo-classical glance at the past. The works hold their own as contemporary music with a pronounced Blakean signature affixed and the music is filled with inventive flourishes that evince a fertile creative mind at work. It is rousingly good music. It is not high modernist but it is thoroughly contemporary. It has a special quality to it that belongs very much to the musical personality of Howard Blake

How do you work?

I both live and work in a top-floor apartment consisting of two converted Victorian artist studios near Kensington Gardens. The studios are on two levels with balconies. In one there is a Steinway grand piano, a desk, a PC and audio equipment. This is my business office and Anna my PA sits opposite me when we do the accounts and correspondence on Tuesday mornings. Upstairs is a second PC housing a Sibelius music writing system attached to a Yamaha electric keyboard. These are linked to a state of the art Konica Minolta printer from which I can print and publish my own actual sheet music, or place it on my website to be downloaded by musician players or by the public. I write music when it comes into my head, which can be at 3.00am or 12 noon or midnight. I have to write ideas down as they come to me which I am told makes me a very difficult person to live with! But I shouldn’t exaggerate this too much. Mostly I wake early around 7am have breakfast and start working like everybody else. I usually work till about 3pm and then go and have some late lunch. I may have a nap and then start working again or in the evening go out to a concert.  Aside from travelling , I’ve lived like this more or less since 1981 when I bought the studio.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My cellist friend Benedict Kloeckner who now has his own International Music Festival in Coblenz. My great pianist and conductor friend Vladimir Ashkenazy who commissioned ‘Speech after long silence’ and recorded my piano music. My brilliant conductor friend John Wilson who was my protege in the nineties, currently conducting Porgy and Bess [at ENO]. Wayne Marshall with whom I performed concerts of my two –piano music with duo improvisations plus Rachmaninov. Fabulous Norwegian young violist Eivind Ringstad who is demanding a concerto from me. William Chen, professor of piano at Shanghai Conservatory, who made the first recording  of ‘Lifecycle’. Andrew Marriner, principal clarinet in LSO who introduced me to his father Sir Neville Marriner with whom we both recorded with the wonderful Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, not to mention Peter Auty, Aled Jones, Katherine Jenkins, Patricia Rozario, Madeleine Mitchell, Sasha Grynyuk and many many others

As a musician, what is your definition of success

When the public want to hear or  play your music

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

A musician must consider how he can most effectively serve the art of music, whether as a soloist or a member of an orchestra or a singer in a choir or a manager of music business. One should only go into a professional music life if one really loves music more than anything else in one’s life. Many become disgruntled when they cannot rise to the heights of virtuoso soloists, but many many others are happy to be one member in an orchestra, or a chamber group or play jazz or rock or electronic or who knows what?  There is a multitude of possibilities!  Every type of music has its own character and its own particular value in eternity. I often quote my name-sake William Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time

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

Here

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being well and healthy and able to work and create whilst still having time for friends and family

What is your most treasured possession?

My children and good health

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing and performing my music with people who love it.

What is your present state of mind?

I am greatly looking forward to continuing my busy 80th year and packing it even further with concerts, shows, events and composing! First stop a commission just received for a viola concerto!

 

‘The Snowman’ for which Howard Blake wrote the soundtrack, is in its 21st season in London and 25th season overall – the longest continuous-running Christmas show in stage history.

A concert to celebrate Howard Blake’s 80th year takes place in St Alban’s Catherdral on 13th July 2019 as part of the 2019 St Alban’s Festival. Programme includes Songs of Truth and Glory (Op 546), Benedictus (Op 282) and The Rise of the House of Usher (Op 532).

Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that ‘Howard Blake has achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer.’ He grew up in Brighton, at 18 winning a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. In the early part of an intensely active career he wrote numerous film scores, including ‘The Duellists’ with Ridley Scott which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival, ‘A Month in the Country’ which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence, and ‘The Snowman’, nominated for an Oscar after its first screening. His famous song ‘Walking in the Air’ was the chart success that launched Aled Jones in 1985, whilst the concert version for narrator and orchestra is performed world-wide and the full-length ballet for Sadler’s Wells runs for a season every year in London. Concert works include the Piano Concerto commissioned for Princess Diana, the Violin Concerto commissioned for the City of Leeds; the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Thea King and the English Chamber Orchestra and large-scale choral/orchestral works such as ‘Benedictus’ and ‘The Passion of Mary’ both recorded with the RPO. He is increasingly adding to his catalogue of CDs which includes Sir Neville Marriner conducting the woodwind concertos with The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and ‘Walking in the Air’ – the piano music of Howard Blake – recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1988 and received the OBE for services to music from the Queen in 1994.

Read Howard Blake’s full biography