On April 20, 1993, sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground. A week later—far from Waco, TX and the Branch Davidean fire that claimed her family, friends, savior, and the only life she had ever known—Cassie enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality.

Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her. And only through Bach’s music can she dare to feel the loss of her parents.

When US authorities raided cult-leader David Khoresh’s compound in February 1993, it led to 10 deaths and a 51-day standoff that ended when a fire killed more than 70 men, women, and children. Those who survived Waco were forced to confront the dark things Khoresh did: narcissistic and abusive, he was deeply controlling yet charismatic and personable.

This well-crafted and sensitively-written novel by American pianist Rhonda Rizzo does not shy away from presenting Khoresh and his cult in unsentimental terms, but rather than offer long descriptions, small disturbing details are slipped into the narrative in the form of flashbacks by Cassie, the protagonist, as she tries to come to terms what has happened to her and her family, and comprehend her parents’ life choices. The complex story of Cassie’s struggle to process the trauma of Waco and resulting PTSD, and the extraordinarily closed world of a religious cult, is told in unsentimental, vividly realistic terms, and Rhonda Rizzo’s own musical background brings an authenticity and authority to the descriptions of the music, including the experience of studying and performing music, the hot house, competitive atmosphere of music college, and the special pleasures (and difficulties) of playing with other musicians.

This is as much a coming-of-age novel as a book about recovery and renewal, and Cassie’s naive, tentative entry into a normal teenage girl’s life of fashion, boys and alcohol is presented in bold, believable terms: her relationships are not always straightforward and her attempts to fit in, despite her unusual background, are familiar to anyone who has felt like an outsider.

In one of those serendipitous encounters which sometimes happen via my blog, the author contacted me out of the blue to ask if I would review her book. I’m so glad I agreed, as I found The Waco Variations a real page-turner, and, ultimately, a wonderful celebration of the restorative powers of music. The novel offers a universal message – that music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more…..

Recommended

The Waco Variations

Meet the Artist interview with Rhonda Rizzo

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Rhonda Rizzo

 

 

 

 

 

This musical and theatrical collaboration between multi-award-winning actress Dame Patricia Routledge and international concert pianist Piers Lane tells the extraordinary, inspiring story of Myra Hess and her famous wartime National Gallery concerts.

Compiled from her press and radio interviews during World War II by Myra’s great-nephew, composer Nigel Hess, ‘Admission: One Shilling’ is Myra in her own words: redoubtable, courageous and inspiring. This acclaimed show has toured for almost a decade yet these 17 November performances at Bishopsgate Institute will mark the first occasion that the pieces are played on Dame Myra Hess’s very own Steinway & Sons piano.

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Through spoken word performance taken from letters, books and interviews given by Myra, interspersed with short piano pieces by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven and JS Bach, hear, how the ‘great adventure’ of these lunchtime concerts began, and how they continued while bombs rained down on London.

It will be a powerful and poignant experience, for both Piers and myself, to be telling the story, through words and music, of Dame Myra Hess’s unique and inspired contribution to the nation, during the anxious years of the Second World War. That our performance is to take place at the Bishopsgate Institute in the company of one of the instruments Dame Myra Hess actually played will, I am sure, make for a significant experience for all of us.

– Dame Patricia Routledge

I am delighted that ‘Admission: One Shilling’, a piece about my great-aunt Dame Myra Hess is being performed at Bishopsgate Institute. These performances will be particularly special as Piers Lane will be playing on the piano given to Myra by Steinway which has been at the Institute for several years and has recently been extensively refurbished in Steinway’s Hamburg workshop. To hear Myra’s own piano telling her own story in this way will be an unique experience, both for her family and, I am sure, for the audience as well

– Nigel Hess

 

Admission: One Shilling
Sat 17 November | 14.00 & 19.00
Price: £21, no concessions
Address: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London. EC2M 4QH

Further information / book tickets


Photo: ©Gussie Welch

An initial approach via this blog in March 2017  led me this week to St George’s Bristol for a lunchtime concert by the sparkling Piano 4 Hands duo (Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong).

Last year Josie Dixon emailed me to ask if I might feature her mother, the composer Ailsa Dixon, in my Meet the Artist series. One of Ailsa’s choral works was receiving its premiere as part of the Oriana Choir’s Five15 project. This was rather special because, as Josie explained, her mother had rather “hidden her light under a bushel for the majority of her lifetime”. Ailsa’s interview was published on my Meet the Artist site in July 2017, to coincide with the premiere of her anthem These things shall be, a setting of verses by John Addington Symonds. Around the same time, Josie contacted me again to ask if I knew a piano duo who might be interested in giving Ailsa’s piano sonata ‘Airs of the Seasons’ its first performance. Knowing their fondness for contemporary repertoire for piano duo, I immediately suggested Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong (Piano 4 Hands), and was delighted to hear from Josie that they had enthusiastically taken up the piano sonata.

Sadly, Ailsa died in August 2017, just short of her 85th birthday.

In April this year, as I was in the throes of preparing to move from London to the West Country, Josie contacted me again to tell me that Waka and Joseph would be premiering Ailsa’s piano sonata in Bristol on 8 November. As I’d never visited St George’s (considered by many of my musician friends and colleagues to possess the UK’s finest acoustic), nor heard Waka and Joseph together as a duo, I was delighted to join Josie and her family and friends to celebrate the premiere of her mother’s piano sonata.

St George’s, a former church in the graceful, well-proportioned Greek Revival style of the early 1820s, is a really fine venue, and a handsome new extension has added a contemporary bar and social area which perfectly complements the building’s clean neo-classical lines. The concert hall itself retains the columns and balcony of the original church, together with a fine altarpiece. A small illuminated star in the ceiling indicates where a bomb fell through the roof during the Second World War but did not explode. At just shy of 600 seats, St George’s is about the same size as London’s Wigmore Hall.

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St George’s Bristol with its new extension

The purity of St George’s acoustic combined with Waka and Joseph’s split-second precision, supreme technical assuredness and musical sensitivity brought wonderful clarity and contrasting shading to Mozart’s Andante with Variations KV 501, which opened the concert. This linked neatly to David Matthews’ Variations on a theme by Haydn, which was written for Waka and Joseph. The unsually chromatic theme from the opening of Haydn’s last string quartet is the starting point for this set of 12 variations which initially remain close to the originally theme before moving into wider musical territory, including a tango (Var. 5), a blues variation (Var. 7) and a moto perpetuo (Var. 10). The work has a delightful sense of fantasy suffused with romanticism and musical wit, and ends with a humorous exchange between the two players which Haydn would surely have appreciated. It was evident from the performance that Waka and Joseph really relish this kind of repertoire, which proves that the piano duet is not confined to small-scale salon works.

Ailsa Dixon’s Airs of the Seasons was composed in the early 1990s and is her only substantial work for piano. Its four brief movements are each prefaced by a short poem, evoking in turn the magical stillness after a winter snowfall, the first stirrings of spring, a dragonfly darting over the water in summer, and finally amid the turning leaves of autumn, a retrospective mood which recalls the earlier seasons and ends with the hope of transcendence in ‘Man’s yearning to see beyond death’. The opening chords of the first movement are reminiscent of Debussy and Britten in their timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly impressionistic flavour. Ailsa’s admiration of Fauré for his “harmonic suppleness” is also evident in her harmonic language, while the idioms of English folksong and hymns, and melodic motifs redolent of John Ireland and the English Romantics remind us that this is most definitely a work by a British composer with an original musical vision. The entire work, although quite short, is really delightful and inventive. Rich in imagination, moods and expression, the musical evocation of each season is distinct and characterful – Summer, for example, is not all sunshine as a brief but dramatic storm interrupts the warmth and serenity, while Autumn contains flashes of music from earlier movements to underline its reflective, retrospective mood. From a pianistic point of view, the textures of the music are carefully conceived to bring a range of colours and voicings imaginatively shared between the two players.

Mme Debussy deemed her husband’s La Mer unplayable in its piano four-hands version, but Waka and Joseph made impressively light work of this masterful evocation of water, light and wind (and reminded me of my coastal home in Dorset, currently in the grip of gale force autumnal winds!). Their brilliant pianism complemented by total synergy at the keyboard brought this work to life with vivid drama and passion, and was a thrilling close to an absorbing and varied programme.

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back row: pianists Waka Hasegawa & Joseph Tong; front row from L to R – Brian Dixon (Ailsa’s husband), Josie Dixon (Ailsa’s daughter) and Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist interview with Ailsa Dixon

More about Ailsa Dixon

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

When I was really young my brother, who is older than me, played violin. I thought that looked like a lot of fun so I also started playing too. That is what got me interested in music to start with. In our home we had a very old upright piano, I think it cost £100. It was really terrible, almost untune-able. My brother and I would play around on it, making a terrible noise until my mum got so fed up with it that she found a local piano teacher to help tame us! I found that I enjoyed playing piano and would spend hours practising and trying out new things. My parents are not at all musical so they didn’t really know what to do with me when I began to become more and more interested in playing.

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

 I think that my first piano teacher, Claire Swainsbury, had a huge effect on me. She showed me how much fun I could have playing piano and introduced me to some beautiful pieces of music. Then later on Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a big influence along with the conductor Alexander Sladkovsky.

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

I think that in the UK Classical Music is sometimes difficult for people to understand, whereas in many other countries, Russia especially, it is more a part of everyday life. The education system in the UK doesn’t really help either. So I guess that is a pretty big challenge… for everyone involved in classical music in the UK.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

That would have to be Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2 with Alexander Sladkovsky in Kazan.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I enjoy performing a wide range of work but I do have my favourites, like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Liszt. I think that if you enjoy performing a piece of music you will usually play it well. I’ve always been fond of performing the great Russian romantic composers, although I’m never sure if I play these pieces the best. But I do know that I really enjoy this kind of repertoire.

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

I always have a list of pieces that I want to perform, I choose the ones that fit with the way I am feeling at the time when I am ready to begin a new piece.

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

I love performing in Russia and of course the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory has to be my favourite. Mainly because of the acoustics but also because of the long history behind this amazing concert hall and the many legendary artists who have performed there.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I think my all time favourite would have to be Horowitz, who, when he first started performing, was paid in butter and chocolate… sounds good to me!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing with Valery Gergiev and having a ten minute rehearsal for an entire concerto which ended five minutes before going on stage. That was interesting.

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

For me success in music isn’t something that you can ever really achieve or reach. Certainly I try to improve my understanding of a piece of music, but I am not sure if I will ever succeed in doing so completely.

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

Always remember that music is an art form, not a science. It comes from the heart. So be yourself when you perform no matter what the people around you are telling you.


Born in Hackney in the UK, British pianist George Harliono was invited to make his first one hour long, solo recital at the age of nine. Since then he has performed in numerous locations both in the UK, USA, Europe and Asia, appearing at venues such as Wigmore Hall, The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall and Chicago Symphony Centre.

In 2013 he was invited to record Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.2 No.1 at the Southbank Centre in London. In 2016 his performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 at the Great Hall of The Moscow Conservatory was broadcast live on Russian national TV and streamed live on Medici TV.

Since his concerto debut at the age of 12 he has been a regular performer with orchestras including the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, The Mariinsky Orchestra, Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra, New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago and Tyumen Philharmonic Orchestra. George also regularly performs alongside eminent artists such as Lang Lang and Denis Matsuev and has worked with many renowned conductors including Valery Gergiev, Alexander Sladkovsky, Evgeny Shestakov and Francesco Milioto

George has been awarded prizes in numerous competitions throughout the world including The Grand Piano Competition in Moscow, Royal Overseas League Music Competition in London, Gina Bachauer Piano Competition in Utah and Dinu Lipatti Piano Competition in Bucharest

Most recently he performed with The Mariinsky Orchestra in Vladivostok, Russia under the baton of Valery Gergiev and was also invited to perform a recital as part of the Scherzo Young Series in Madrid. Scherzo is the most important piano series in Madrid and has previously featured artists such as Yuja Wang and Mitsuko Uchida.

He studies with Professor Vanessa Latarche (Chair of International Keyboard Studies and Head of Keyboard, Royal College of Music in London) and travels to Switzerland to work with his mentor, renowned pianist professor Vovka Ashkenazy and also his father Vladimir Ashkenazy. He has taken masterclasses with Dmitri Bashkirov, Lang Lang and Vladimir Ovchinikov among others. George also works closely with Alexander Sladkovsky who has taken a personal interest in his development as an artist.

George began studying at The Royal College of Music for a BMUS Degree on a full four year scholarship in September of last year. He is one of the youngest students ever to be accepted onto this course.

Upcoming engagements for this year include performances with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev and Orquesta Sinfónica Provincial de Santa Fe conducted by Walter Hilgers. George will also be giving a concerto performance at the Berliner Philharmonie as well as a recital at the Minato Mirai Hall in Yokohama, Japan.

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(Photo: Alexander Von Busch and Kir Simakov)

In praise of street pianos

Tottering back through Canary Wharf after a boozy lunch with friends in Docklands, I came upon a street piano in a clinically-lit walkway in the Jubilee shopping centre. “Why don’t you play it?” my husband suggested and tanked up on too much lunchtime Prosecco, I pulled out the score of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece (which I just happened to have in my handbag) and sat down on the wonky piano stool. The corridor acoustic was rather good and about half way through my “performance”, I was aware of a passerby pausing to listen. Afterwards he said, “that was really beautiful. Thank you!“, and I continued on my way to the tube station.

Street or public pianos are now quite commonplace, often located in railways stations or public spaces for anyone to play. The first public piano was in Sheffield in 2003, with a friendly “Play me” sign on it. It proved hugely popular and in 2008 the Play Me I’m Yours project, created by artist Luke Jerram, was first commissioned in Birmingham, UK, with 15 street pianos located across the city. Within just a few weeks it was estimated that over 140,000 people played or listened to music from the pianos. The project has since gone from strength to strength, with more than 1900 street pianos located in 70 cities worldwide. In 2017 Transport for London (TfL), in partnership with Yamaha, launched  the #Platform88 scheme to make pianos available at stations for people to play. During the two-year run of #Platform88, the pianos will ‘travel’ around the TfL network to various stations, giving commuters, tourists et al the opportunity to exercise their musical talents. At the end of the scheme the pianos will be donated to charity.

A piano asks to be played and is a wonderful reminder of the nature of play and the pleasure of making music, regardless of genre. Most people passing by a piano can’t help but strike a few notes, improvise a riff, or play a whole piece. A street piano invites us to pause, do something spontaneous, bring pleasure to others and enjoy ourselves. Street pianos attract players of all ages and abilities – Elton John and the Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa* have both played the street piano at St Pancras Station, amongst countless others. Members of a piano club I’m connected with made a special club trip to the street piano at St Pancras to perform exam pieces and other repertoire, treating the experience as an important performance opportunity.

A rather grumpy article in The Times recently suggested that street pianos encourage “attention-seeking” and that “unless it’s a child, the sight of someone expertly playing a Mozart piano concerto next to a branch of Upper Crust” is a cringe-inducing experience. The many reactions to this article reveal that the author was way off the mark (and possibly even secretly envious of anyone who can simply sit down and play!), and that most people think street pianos are a thoroughly good thing, offering the opportunity to experience and share music, and adding a different dimension to the activity of “performance”. And in an age where music provision in our schools is being seriously eroded, surely we should encourage and celebrate this kind of participatory music making?

Never sat down at one, but still I love ‘em

– Marc-Andre Hamelin, concert pianist

Another commentator tweeted that for “a marginal group of people…..these pianos are a kind of aqualung”, implying that people are driven to play street pianos out of a desperate need, as if their lives depend upon it. And so what if they do? Music has known therapeutic benefits and if some people find comfort or distraction from the exigencies of life by playing the piano – or indeed any other instrument – who are we to criticise them?

For many people, street pianos offer a special kind of pleasure, an escape from the everyday, a chance share music with others, or simply to practise. Several people, including a number of professional pianists, who responded to the original Times article, highlighted the usefulness of street pianos for practising while waiting for a train, especially if one doesn’t have access to an acoustic piano at home.

I these endorsements from pianist friends and colleagues more than confirm the positives of street pianos:

For those of us of a very nervous performance disposition, these are GREAT. For attracting more people to music making rather than the commercialised electronic production and marketing the general public THINK is music, even better.

– David, advanced amateur pianist

I love them, for the simple fact that they are a wonderful pattern interrupt, particularly when they are placed in busy stations or clinical walkways. So many people are rushing from place to place in a hollow shell of a body, absorbed in their own worries, their ego and their misery, not even slowing down to notice someone else who may be struggling with their luggage……A piano unites and connects people and makes you question where you are, it takes you out of automatic mode and into a new fresh perspective.

– Christina Cooper, piano teacher and cognitive hynotherapist

I’ve found street pianos are a great way to connect with people who may never have come to a concert before

– Daniel Roberts, concert pianist

I have used these pianos sometimes for practice while waiting for a train traveling away or a warm up waiting for a train going straight to a concert.

– Ieva Dubova, pianist

I love street pianos because of the spontaneity of them: they go to the heart of making music as a social entity 

– David Barton, music teacher

I LOVE them and many of my students have really grown in confidence because of them. I feel they are a really great thing!

– Karen Marshall, music teacher and writer

Global map of street pianos


*Video by Geoff Cox