Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I guess I would have to credit my mother as the first inspiration to take-up the piano. She was a very fine pianist who earned her degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When I was an infant and young child (and even when I was in the womb!) she was regularly practising four hours a day, and playing a dozen or so concerts each year. So I heard all the big works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and so on, from the time I was born. She also had a record collection which I regularly availed myself of — I remember that it included a recording of La Traviata that I listened to so many times, that by the time I was five I had completely ruined the vinyl! So, I guess it was fairly natural given my ear and inclination for music and the piano, that I was begging for lessons, which she gave me, starting at age four. My mother also regularly took me to concerts, and I remember vividly going to hear Rubenstein, Horowitz, and Van Cliburn before I was even a teenager. I think this early exposure to hearing pianists in concert, along with listening to my mother practice, and the family friends who were also concert performers, gave me an early notion of what it meant to perform. So, I suppose this really lit the spark within me. I recall making a conscious decision when I was about twelve years old and watching the Finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition on the television. I remember listening and watching and thinking “I’m going to do that.” Well, I did win one international competition, but by 1989, which was the year I had always planed on entering the Cliburn, my right hand was already suffering from focal dystonia, so I was unable to compete.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences which have influenced my playing, but to narrow it down, besides what I discussed in the first question, I would have to credit two of my teachers in particular. At the University of Southern California, I was a student of John Perry for six years. His approach to teaching suited me so perfectly, and I trusted him completely. What I have always appreciated the most about how he taught me, was that he gave me the tools to do what I wanted to do, better — rather than trying to make me into a replica of Perry. I never had the feeling that he tried to change me; instead he was able to show me how to give my own voice wings, to have the freedom to play as I wanted.

As great a gift as Mr Perry’s teaching was to me, I must still credit my teacher before university, Maria Clodes Jaguaribe, as being the deepest, most profound influence on me as a pianist. I worked with Maria during the Summers I spent at the Tanglewood Music Festival, while I was a teenager. Musically and technically she is at the core of my approach: the sound I listen for, the way I make a line “speak”, rhythmic inflection, and the attention to harmonic movement as well as the inner life of each line in counterpoint. (I remember working with her on the Schubert Op. 90 No. 3, and she had me sing the tenor line as I played the whole piece!) From her I truly gained the understanding of weight transfer, the importance of a relaxed and flexible wrist, and the necessity of strong fingers and a stable bridge of the hand to support the weight of the arm. All of these things were hugely important parts of both my mother’s and Mr Perry’s teaching as well, but there was something particular in Maria’s teaching, and her own playing, that resonated with me most strongly. From the time I first worked with her, there has rarely been a moment when I have not felt her presence while at the piano.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

With out a doubt, the greatest challenge for me was the development of focal dystonia in my right hand. If you are unfamiliar with focal dystonia, here is a link where you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_dystonia. About a year and a half after I made my London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1984), and a year and a half before my return engagement at the Barbican Centre (1987), I began to notice something very subtle, but very deep, was going wrong in the 2nd finger of my right hand. The first thing that gave-way were scale passages, or anything which required individual finger movements. The gradual breakdown of control happened over the course of several years, not all at once. Not that it was easy, but I think this actually helped me adjust to the loss, rather than having it all taken at once. I do remember in 1988 when I had to cancel a Tchaikovsky concerto that I was engaged to play in California, I had a bit of a break-down. But, as I tend to do, I rallied and proceed to embrace the idea that when life deals you lemons, make lemonade! I focused more deeply on teaching (which I had already been doing since I was a teenager). My teaching eventually led me to ideas for educational products which got me stated in publishing. Later, I dug into the wonderful world of music that is available for the left hand alone, and have enjoyed playing this music in concert over the last decade. Despite the injury to my right hand, I have enjoyed a rich and wonderful career in music, and have come to believe that our greatest challenges often reap the greatest rewards.

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?

This is going back a bit, but I still feel such a thrill about the recording we made in 1987 of the Carnival of the Animals. The other pianist was Anton Nel, and we played with the Academy of London Orchestra under the direction of Richard Stamp. We recorded it for Virgin Classics. The disc also included Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and Mozart Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. This was all wonderful, and we did a good job and the disc sold well; but the things that still really thrill me are the fact that we recorded in Studio One at EMI Abbey Road Studios, and that the narrator was Sir John Gielgud. I mean, really, how do beat that for a thrilling life experience?! (I also recall that the Steinway D I used for the recording is still one of the finest pianos I have every played.)

www.arkivmusic.com

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I will speak first about music for left hand alone that I love to play most, since that is what I do now. Then, a little bit about favourite pieces from my life as a two-handed pianist.

The first piece the comes to mind is the great Chaconne, from the Violin Partita in D minor by Bach, transcribed for piano, left hand alone, by Johannes Brahms. I never get tired of practising or performing this incredible piece of music — there seems to be no bottom to the gratification of working with this monumental masterpiece. Of course the powerful concerto by Ravel for the left hand alone is another work that one never tires of playing. I also adore the Scriabin Op. 9 Prelude & Nocturne for the left hand alone — so very beautiful. These works I have mentioned are among the most known of left hand literature, but there are also a few lesser known gems that I cherish. One is the Etude in A-Flat, Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld. Pretty much a perfect piece that is lovely to play, and always the stand-out audience favourite when I include in a recital. There is a little piece by Godowsky, the fourth of his six “Waltz- Poems” which is a real juicy delight. He manages to create three and four voice textures that hold together incredibly well in one hand. I am also a big fan of the Concerto in C-sharp by Korngold. A fantastic piece, rarely heard. I’ve not had the opportunity to play it yet, but do hope to do so!

Looking back at my two-handed days, pretty much anything by Mozart was a favourite. I loved to play the Chopin Ballades, and especially the Barcarolle. I also loved to play the Schubert Op. 90 and the Wanderer Fantasy. The “Deux Legendes” by Liszt (one usually only hears the second) were favourites; and Mussorgsky Pictures from an Exhibition frequently found its way onto my my recital programmes. Oh, and I love the Schumann G minor Sonata — especially the second movement is so gorgeous. The D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms is my hands-down favourite concerto, but I do adore any Mozart concerto as well.

As far as what I like to listen to, any and all Mozart — he would be my desert island composer. I also love the symphonic and chamber works of both Beethoven and Brahms. But I could easily start to spin out of control with this question, so I will stop here — there is just so much wonderful music in the world, and and for me, favourites ebb and flow at different times of my life.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I will stick to pianists for this, even though that field is rather wide as well. I have always found Evgeny Kissin’s playing a realisation of my ideals about piano playing. Many times after listening to him, I have thought that he played something how I always thought it should go, but just did not know that it was actually possible! I love how, despite his apparently unimpeded technique, he always sounds completely engaged in the process, nothing ever sounds too easy or too tossed off. To my ears, he pushes levels of expression and excitement right to the edge of the precipice, sometimes narrowly escaping falling off. I have never understood those who find his playing “cold”. Those who do must listen for something very different than I do.

I am also very fond of Marc-Andre Hamelin. Partly, I must confess, because of the friendship that has developed between us; but even before that, because he plays and has recorded so much of the left hand literature. He is the only one to have recorded the Korngold piano concerto for the left hand, and his recording of the Godowsky Chopin Studies is definitive (22 of the 53 are for the left hand alone). On his Wigmore Hall debut, he included the Alkan Fantasy for left hand alone, and the Etude No 7, from his own set of 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, is for the left hand alone. Needless to say, he was my left hand “hero” long before we met. But, setting his enthusiasm for left hand piano music aside, I find that there seems to be no bottom to Marc’s musicianship, pianism, artistry, or intelligence. He is, I believe, one of the most remarkably brilliant musicians in the world today.

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

Play musically always. Listen, with a sense of responsibility, to every note. Say something; express something; find your own voice. I am so tired of listening to young pianists who play all the right notes of all the hardest pieces faster and faster and faster. It is a crashing bore! We take for granted that you will be accurate and have sufficient technical command, but that is all meaningless if the music is not about self- expression and revealing something of the human experience.

What are you working on at the moment?

My newest pet project is the Twelve Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op 92, by Moszkowski — a fabulous set of richly diverse pieces. I have also been looking a bit at the Seven Polyphonic Pieces for Left Hand Alone by Kapustin. The jury is still out on that one.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I love my morning tea ritual, and sitting for a bit staring at a beautiful view. Then, those first few minutes at the piano…and I always start my day playing Bach.

http://www.keithsnellpianist.com

Keith Snell’s album ‘Verbs, Book 2’, 24 Preludes for Piano by Kathleen Ryan, is  available now.

A delightful and informative small exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music which delves into Charles Dickens’ musical connections, the music of his time, his association with the Academy, and musical re-imaginings of his novels.

Read my full review here

 

The exhibition runs concurrently with other related events as part of the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, including lectures and concerts. More information here

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

British pianist Leon McCawley presented a programme of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann, all played with evident relish and enjoyment, at a charming lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley kindly participated in my ‘Meet the Artist….’ series. Read his interview here

by Madelaine Jones

20120506-084746.jpgCall me a philistine, but I have never liked Wagner. I tried watching Tristan and Isolde on DVD and gave up – the shrill of an over-bearingly loud soprano hovering somewhere between Romanticism and atonality almost sent me into convulsive fits. The thought of sitting through the entire ‘Ring Cycle’ made me shiver with boredom. I found his style over-indulgent and lacking substance, and since I never really understood the appeal of the composer or what he was trying to achieve, I never really got to understand or enjoy the compositions – that is, until I found his piano works.

Turns out Richard Wagner’s earlier exploits into composition were not as overly expansive and luxurious harmonically as we’ve grown to expect when we hear the name. His Opus 1, it turns out, was a piano sonata, and even more surprisingly, one you could well be forgiven for mistaking at first for early Beethoven/late Haydn, despite the odd Romantic turn of phrase in places. In fact, by the very nature of the key it is written in (B flat was a particularly favourable of Beethoven’s, the key of both his ‘Grand’ Sonata, op. 22, and the famous ‘Hammerklavier’, op. 106) and some tongue-in-cheek quotes from other works (within a few bars of the second movement, note the reference to the beginning of Beethoven’s Eb major sonata, Op. 31/3) show that Wagner clearly had a far deeper respect for the Classical era than most people credit him with.

This new side to Wagner got me interested: if he was not so outlandishly Romantic and over-expressive as I had first considered him, what other gems of his piano music were out there and why hadn’t we heard of them? Next, I stumbled across the Fantasia in F sharp Minor, written in the same year (1831). The opening ringing of the chords instantly struck a resemblance to the famous Mozart Fantasy in D Minor and so I was fascinated and continued listening. The lyrical and poignant recitative passages interspersed with expressive melodies and tormented chordal cries grabbed me as something incredibly beautiful, but also well-crafted and poised. I continued looking: the delightfully cheeky Polka, so full of character given its brevity, the stately Polonaises, the sentimental Albumblatt for E.B. Kietz (interestingly subtitled a ‘Lied Ohne Worte’ – maybe his respect was abundant towards Mendelssohn as well, though the more Romantic lilt to this piece might suggest otherwise!) all struck me as wonderful music that’s been brushed under the carpet.

So why, if this music is so fantastic, do we not play it or hear it anymore? Why is this side of Wagner kept hidden? The answer to that, I would hazard a guess, is that most of these piano works were fairly early in Wagner’s output – in his 70 years of life (1813-1883), the majority of his piano works were composed in the first half, and once his success in the world of opera kicked in, he seemed less inclined to compose piano music, instead favouring more expansive mediums of composition. Since his style then blossomed into a much more experimental breed of High Romanticism, the simplicity of his earlier works became unduly neglected by listeners. Despite being less outlandish, I think the pieces themselves are absolutely charming, and deserved to be remembered, if not only for their artistic merit, but also to give us an insight into the thinking of a clearly multi-faceted composer, who is most certainly not insensitive and over-indulgent as I first thought. Now I have a far better appreciation of his genius, I might even hazard giving Tristan another go…

Links:
Sonata in Bb, Op. 1, WWV 21 (1st movement)

Fantasia in F sharp minor, WWV 22

Albumblatt to E.B. Krietz

 

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

Thomas Hewitt Jones

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I have composed ever since I was a child. My maternal grandfather was a nuclear engineer, but the grandparents on my father’s side were both composers: Tony was a good craftsman; he studied with Nadia Boulanger and predominantly wrote choral music. His wife Anita was very adept at composing fantastic educational music. I suppose having composition in the family contributed to my experimentation with ‘finding sounds’ at a young age, originally writing purely on one’s own terms. I later learned that being able to fulfill a brief is a prerequisite to being professional composer.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
At 9 years old I was playing hymns at school assemblies and I think this taught me a lot about harmony, melody and basic structure – you have to learn the rules before you break them. My father, a cellist in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, took us to see dress rehearsals on Saturday mornings from a young age and I love the emotional depth of 19th Century orchestral music. I’m a lover of great melody, and I try to write music that speaks in a direct way but is underpinned by complex harmonic movement. This extension of a neo-romantic approach is very compatible with the cinema, which is probably why I’ve landed up doing that as well as standalone instrumental and choral music.

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

Getting commissioned as a composer is about diversity, and being able to turn one’s hand to whatever projects come in. You can’t afford to be choosy, especially at the beginning. I feel lucky to have had some great early commissions – from a carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ published by Oxford University Press and three ballet scores for Ballet Cymru, through to a piece for full orchestra at a Richard Stilgoe Concert at the Royal Festival Hall. On the commercial side, my first scores were very low-budget, written for children’s audiobooks. I did them under a pseudonym, and would recommend this approach to composers starting out; it enables you to gain writing experience and confidence before having to own up! If you go into any Waterstones there are rows and rows of them by someone with a silly name – but I’m not telling you who it is!

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I have very much enjoyed writing for ballet, and two out of my three ballet commissions for Ballet Cymru have been recorded and released on CD. Writing for dance is very refreshing because dancers think about music in a completely different way. Unlike composing for film where the musical narrative is tightly dictated by the picture, with ballet you can tell a story through a series of scenes or tableaux, and the narrative musical journey can be more fluid.

Alongside instrumental music, I particularly enjoy writing choral works. Recently I completed ‘The Same Flame’ for Boosey & Hawkes; an exciting new choral work written in collaboration with poet and lyricist Matt Harvey. It’s a positive song-cycle focused on humanist values that will receive its premiere in July in a concert conducted by choral director David Ogden.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?
For a small venue the Cadogan Hall isn’t bad. I’m going there on the 1st May when my old school will be premiering my ‘Psalm 150’. It’ll feel a bit like going full circle, because it was singing Benjamin Britten’s setting of the religious text that left a real impression on me and encouraged me to compose when I was a kid. I was delighted when my alma mater commissioned a new setting.

Who are your favourite musicians?
I couldn’t say; there are so many fantastic ones around. The best musicians are those who lift the music off the page, translating the mere dots into something with real shape. Like composers, they have to be able to understand emotion, and really be able to tell a story. Players with a good personality always convey this through the music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?
In December 2010, my carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ received two joint premieres within a few minutes of each other – by John Rutter and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, and over the road at the Royal College of Music by members of the Junior Department chamber choir and orchestra. There’s nothing as exciting as a first performance – especially when two happen at the same time!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
I was an organ scholar at university and enjoy playing Bach – counterpoint doesn’t get better. I was fortunate to be a member of the National Youth Orchestra in my teens, and Jill White, then Director of Music, was intent on offering us a rich palette of the very best of 19th-century orchestral music. The highlight of my 8 years as cellist and latterly principal composer with the NYO was playing Mahler 8 with Sir Simon Rattle, and the same year conducting a premiere live on Radio 3 with NYO players.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
I’m going to be blunt here. Music enjoyment/participation is for everyone at all levels, but don’t rely on making a living from the music profession unless you are so genuinely passionate about it that you would give up everything for it.

What are you working on at the moment?
Having just put the finishing touches to the score for the final animation of the 2012 Olympics Mascots film series, I am currently working on two further commissions. Hopefully they will be finished by 1 May, which is when I am scheduled to start work on a large-scale commission for choir and orchestra for Sloane Square Choral Society who are premièring it in December 2012.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In a composing hut somewhere remote by the sea. With a tolerant wife and kids, if I’m lucky.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The little things. Despite the emotional complexity of being a composer, I’m a simpleton really.

What do you enjoy doing most?
I think an exciting answer would be ideal here, but I am ashamed to say that I’m very happy when composing. When I was about 3 or 4, I remember being in a toy shop and looking up in awe at all the toys that were there to play with. For better or worse, composing feels the same, and I never get tired of it. Maybe I will one day.

What is your present state of mind?
Tired. I’ve recently delivered the masters for the score to the new 2012 Olympic Mascots film, ‘Rainbow to the Games’, which is being released in UK cinemas on 5th May.

Origonal interview date: April 2012

Thomas Hewitt Jones is an award-winning composer of both concert and commercial music. Winner of the 2003 BBC Young Composer Competition, he studied music at Cambridge University where he was also organ scholar of Gonville and Caius College.

His concert work has been heard on BBC Radio, Television and in many of the major concert halls in the UK, including the Royal Festival Hall, London’s South Bank centre and the Royal Albert Hall. Thomas has worked with numerous acclaimed ensembles such as the Britten Sinfonia, Sounds Positive, Members of the Royal Opera House orchestra and the Carducci Quartet. He has had pieces published by Faber Music, ABRSM, Novello & Co, Universal Music and Oxford University Press.

Thomas has worked in Hollywood assisting on the film scores for the films ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ (the Kung Fu epic featuring Jackie Chan & Jet Li, dir. Rob Minkoff) and ‘Town Creek’ (dir. Joel Schumacher), and has written music for radio and TV stations including BBC Radio 4 and ITV.

Thomas has written extensively for ballet, including the 2008 Welsh Independent Ballet commission ‘Under Milk Wood’, and an adaptation of Llewellyn’s novel ‘How Green was my Valley’ in 2009.

Thomas recently composed a new ballet, ‘The Lady of the Lake’, based on the Welsh folk tale for a UK tour of the Welsh national ballet company, ‘Ballet Cymru, that toured throughout 2010 including Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadlers Wells, London in November.

Other recent commissions include composing and recording the music for the London 2012 / LOCOG Mascot Animated Films for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games the latest instalment of which was ‘Adventures on a Rainbow’ (performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and conducted by Thomas).

www.thomashewittjones.com

Image credit: Yuja Wang © Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon

It’s hard to ignore Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, and sometimes for the wrong reasons (remember all the fuss last summer about That Dress?). So it was that I went to hear her in the Southbank Centre’s excellent international Concert Series with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. The programme was an ambitious mix of music which showed off more than just her technical prowess….. Read my full review here