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

I salute my late mother for insisting that I continue with my piano studies despite my pre-Grade 1 tantrums. Once I’d got through the tricky first stage, there was no stopping me. As an adult, I decided to make music my career after three years studying marketing. This time without music showed me that my life would be barren without it. I had a eureka moment, signed up for a music degree at Southampton University and never looked back.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

My father showed me that I could make anything from anything, and not to put up barriers in the creative process. This idea of creativity was inherent in my upbringing and has given me freedom in my songwriting to get across unique emotions and ideas in a powerful way. I have always been hooked on the craft of songwriting, using the millions of notes and words in my head and weaving them together. The process is much like conceiving and giving birth to a new life, spiritual and mechanical at the same time.

I was fortunate to be taught the piano by composer Debbi Parks. Debbi encouraged my creativity and I often played her my ideas in my lessons, learning the piano without pressure. Debbi has been a great source of inspiration to me and has also guided my career. We are both ISTD ballet pianists (Debbi wrote some of the ISTD music) and also improvise for the Royal Opera House’s ‘Chance to Dance’ education programme!

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

Balancing family life with creativity is always a challenge but my children are very grounding and balance is a good thing. Like most artists, I find it hard to self promote. I don’t have an agent and whilst I enjoy the freedom that brings, my ‘shy writer’ side is filled with dread when I have some new music to market.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I am very proud of my 2012 album, ‘My Garden’. The title song was written about my children and I dedicated the album to them. I was delighted when Code: Marla remixed two of my songs and it’s amazing to hear piano based songs with beats and bass. I particularly love The Big Freeze remix. This song means a lot to me as it is about my recovery after a head-on car crash I had three years ago.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I don’t perform extensively but every few months I sing at the Grey Lady in Tunbridge Wells. It’s a wonderful place and I have met many inspirational musicians there. The music scene in Tunbridge Wells is thriving and Paul Dunton has played a huge part in this, providing musicians like me with the opportunity to perform in a magical setting.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love playing Debussy and the second Arabesque is my signature piece. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are intriguing, beautiful and highly addictive. I have recently discovered a strange connection to the music of Shostakovich and am looking forward to trying out some of his piano works (any suggestions?). I listen to a wide range of music, from electronic, to classical, to folk. It’s all music!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

My favourite songwriters are Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy) and Martin Gore (Depeche Mode) and Trent Reznor. PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Kate Bush have influenced me greatly and I see them as women of musical integrity and emotional depth. I am also in awe of any musician who is self taught and has learnt everything by ear. Such musicians seem to have great musical insight and intuition as well as incredible determination.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

A charity piano recital I did to help me towards doing my diploma in 2011. As an unseasoned Classical performer I was well out of my comfort zone but I gained much from the experience. I find the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ is very true of Classical piano but joy of a great performance (even to yourself in your own living room) is exhilarating.

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

Be authentic, have integrity, listen, don’t compare yourself to others, don’t rush. Remember why you love music.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A song for a wedding; I love commissions!

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

An Ivor Novello would be nice! I plan to have to have several more albums under my belt. I hope to continue and grow my work as a ballet pianist and also develop my work in music education as a music practitioner and piano teacher.

Piano-wise, I aim to become adept in Blues piano and also nail a few of the Chopin Études, the last of which will probably take the most time!

Frances Yonge is a songwriter, pianist, singer and improviser. She is also a creative musician for Royal Opera House Education and music practitioner.

Frances’ album My Garden is available now. Listen to sample tracks:

See more at: www.francesyonge.co.uk

Download the free Sheet Music Direct App from iTunes

Many of us are lucky enough to own an iPad, and these devices are increasingly being used by musicians instead carrying around lots of heavy books of music. There is a great new free app from Sheet Music Direct which gives you access to thousands of scores of classical, jazz and pop music.

Whether you buy sheet music using the iPad app or directly from Sheet Music Direct‘s website, your library will be in sync everywhere — including all your previous purchases.

You can rehearse your scores by slowing down playback, using the in-built metronome or muting other parts so you can feel like part of the band.

If you who work with singers, or want to sing along with a piece you are playing, you can transpose scores to a different key, change instrument or note size — and, of course, you can revert back to your original settings anytime.

Sheet Music Direct are media partners of the South London Concert Series

pianist Helen Burford
pianist Helen Burford

While the famous south London parakeets squawked in the trees of Bushy Park outside, inside Bushy House, home to the National Physical Laboratory’s Musical Society, Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford gave a lunchtime recital of great imagination and musical colour, demonstrating the full tonal, percussive and emotional range the piano can offer.

Now in its 63rd season, the NPL Musical Society hosts regular concerts throughout the year featuring a varied range of artists, both established and up-and-coming, and provides useful performance experience for young musicians in conservatoires and music colleges who are preparing for end of year, or final recitals. (Indeed, my own piano teacher played at the NPL when she was a young woman.) The venue boasts a rather stately 1911 Steinway, and the audience is supportive, friendly and interested.

Helen trained at Birmingham Conservatoire, the University of Sussex and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has studied with a number of renowned teachers, including Heather Slade-Lipkin, Peter Feuchtwanger and Stephen Gutman. A champion of British and American new music, her NPL concert reflected her passion for this repertoire, with an eclectic programme of works by contemporary composers, including Martin Butler and David Rakowski.

Chick Corea’s ‘Three Improvisations’ offered a gentle entrée to the programme. The first and third pieces in the triptych, Where have I known you before and Where have I loved you before, were played with a wistful, sensuous sensitivity, while the middle movement was a lively, toe-tapping dance.

I have heard Helen perform Somei Satoh’s ‘Incantation II’ several times, and each time it has been slightly different, and always highly absorbing. The work, which has never been published, relies on the minimalist technique of prolonging a single unit of sound, while creating the sensation of a ‘rhythmic limbo’, a sense of stasis that is characteristically Japanese (cf the music of Toru Takemitsu). The music makes full use of the piano’s resonant qualities, creating a remarkable bloom of sound, which suggests a variety of instruments including cello, horn, bells, harp, drums. Building slowly from a simple opening, this music is hypnotic and meditative, and Helen’s controlled and intense performance made this an extraordinary and unusual musical experience.

Following this with a sonata by Scarlatti was inspired, for it highlighted not only the mannered elegance of the Baroque but also how revolutionary Scarlatti was, in his daring use of dissonance and unusual harmonies. It was performed with a lyrical simplicity.

The next work, a piece by composer Ester Mägi, named after an instrument called a kannel, a kind of plucked zither or psaltery, recalled the folk music of Mägi’s native Estonia with stamping off-beats and haunting melodies, to which Helen brought great colour, sensitive dynamic shading, and rhythmic vitality.

From the folk idioms of eastern Europe to the industrial western city in Martin Butler’s ‘Rumba Machine’, a celebratory fanfare-like piece, which suggests swiftly turning cogs and wheels of machines and the blaring sirens and honking horns of the city over a compelling rumba beat. This, together with David Rakowski’s witty Étude ‘A Gliss is Just a Gliss’, a study on glissandi, was played with an extrovert elan, bringing to a close a most enjoyable and refreshingly original lunchtime recital.

Helen will be performing a similar programme at the launch of the South London Concert Series on 29th November 2013 at the 1901 Arts Club. Further details here slcs1901.wordpress.com. Tickets southlondonconcerts@gmail.com


NPL Musical Society concerts take place in the Scientific Museum, Bushy House, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW. Tickets £3 on the door.

Upcoming concerts this season include: 23 October – Joseph Tong, piano; 1 November – Madelaine Jones, piano; 11 November – Alice Pinto, piano; 22 November – Kathron Sturrock, piano. Further details Stephen.Lea@npl.co.uk

Judith Bingham (photo credit: Patrick Douglas Hamilton)

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

I started when I was very small – my mother said I was 4, but I don’t think she really knew. The attraction was its secrecy I think – I was already playing the piano, and liked the fact I could have a secret world that no-one else could influence. I think the person who influenced me to make it my career was Berlioz, my teacher and friend during my teen years when no-one else took me seriously.

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

Apart from Berlioz, two people really encouraged me when I was young, Colin Davis and Hans Keller: both were very selfless with their time though, of course, I didn’t appreciate that until I was much older. I was very lucky to have Hans as a teacher, – his Viennese background with its rigors and psycho-analytical slant suited me very well. He had a hugely improving effect on my writing and was also very kind. Musical influences were The Fires of London, French Baroque music, and probably singing in big choirs.

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

Being a composer for a living is continuously challenging! But I think the biggest challenge is being truthful in a world that worships fashion. Inner voices make you doubt what you are doing but there is no Art without Truth. I think as I get older there is a challenge of being brave and fresh and not just doing what you know you’re good at.

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

I like the fact that every commission inhabits a separate world, it’s a totally different project from the last. As I was a performer myself for so many years I love working with musicians – I know that sounds obvious, but it is such a magical experience, the transformation from the page to the open air. Trying to get it right – the act of fulfilling the brief – while remaining uncompromised is the great challenge, especially in church music where there are so many restrictions.

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

Whether they can do what you’ve written! That’s the heaven and hell of life for composers. All composers get a lot of bad or inadequate performances either through their own fault, – having written something that’s miles too hard for the commissioners – or short rehearsal time – or lack of empathy, or all three. A piece has to be very banal for people to get it straightaway, but often there isn’t enough rehearsal time for people to get beyond the stage of getting the notes right. This is the English disease. Often it isn’t to do with money but with a British distaste for too much emotional involvement. There is an idea that repeated performances take the place of rehearsal. But it’s tragic when people commission a big piece, only do it once, and spend most of the rehearsal time doing the Beethoven. The pleasure is when people really engage and go the extra mile – of course, they get more out of it this way, and the experience for everyone becomes extremely uplifting. The real magic happens when people feel free from worry about the notes and start to bring themselves to the performance, then the piece can really travel.

Which works are you most proud of?  

That would be a variable thing, and pride isn’t quite the right word, more a transient sort of satisfaction. But I would choose ‘The Ivory Tree’, a kind of dance drama I did for the Cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds. It was a project that went on for years and had some extremely fraught moments, but ended it fantastic performances.  I like mixing dance and singing, and would love to write an opera-ballet.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I am really eclectic with composers, though I have stopped listening to any sort of pop music. This might sound snobby, but it is more that there is only so much time. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Prokofiev. He is a composer with enormous range, and I love the ambiguity of his music. I am trying listen more to women composers, as more and more music is being recorded now, alas, generally by women. I like the discovery of Italian baroque music by nuns, which is gorgeous. Favourite musicians: Roger Norrington, Philippe Herreweghe, Marc-André Hamelin, and people I’ve worked with – Stephen Farr, Tom Winpenny, Peter Skaerved Sheppard, Chamber Domaine, Andrew Carwood – too many to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are some terrible ones! But I can’t really do a league table of the good ones. When I was a student, performing in the Proms was overwhelming, especially Berlioz and Mahler. My first experience of the great roar of a full Albert Hall was extraordinary. Sometimes it is the small unrecorded events that stay with you, or a particular feeling of telepathy with other performers. You might expect big events, big names to be memorable. But it is often something more intimate where a transcendental kind of communication happens.

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

I like what Peter Maxwell Davies said to students: ‘my first piece of advice is – don’t listen to anything I say!’ or words to that effect. I think I would say that integrity matters: this is even more true in today’s world, where things are remembered for ever on the web. The more you dilute your ideas and your identity the less anyone will value what you do. In the (very) long run what people want from a composer is individuality, and truth. It doesn’t mean an easy life though. Develop your ideas – the music doesn’t think for you. Read and think, and develop ideas on the big mysteries of life. There’s a lot of junk out there: the world doesn’t need any more.

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

Still alive, please, and compos mentis.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

No such thing.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Thinking, starting a new project, researching pet subjects.

What is your present state of mind?

Stressed as usual.

Born in Nottingham in 1952, and raised in Mansfield and Sheffield, Judith Bingham began composing as a small child, and then studied composing and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was awarded the Principal’s prize in 1971, and 6 years later the BBC Young Composer award. Recent composition prizes include: the Barlow Prize for a cappella music in 2004, two British Composer Awards in 2004 (choral and liturgical) one in 2006 (choral) and the instrumental award in 2008.

Read Judith’s full biography here
Interview date: October 2013

Schubert_Beethoven_sonatas_SMLMP35Mozart – Fantasy in C minor, K475
Beethoven – Sonata in C minor, op 13 ‘Pathétique’
Schubert Sonata in B flat major, D960

Semaphore: SMLMP35, 1 CD
Sarah Beth Briggs, piano



Sarah Beth Briggs’s latest release is dedicated to her teacher, the renowned pianist and musicologist Dennis Matthews, who died 25 years ago this December. Sarah pays tribute to his memory with a selection of much-loved works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, pieces which were at the core of Matthews’ performing repertoire, and to which he introduced Sarah when she was still very young. The liner notes contain a touching tribute to Dennis Matthews by Sarah, recalling a concert when she heard him perform Schubert’s last sonata.

Mozart composed the C minor Fantasy in May 1785, shortly after the C minor Piano Sonata K457. Often a set piece for young piano students (I learnt the Fantasy, together with the C minor Sonata, when I was about 12 or 13, with little conception of how profound these works really are), the work is imbued with a gravity, drama and pathos more akin to Beethoven, and programming it before the great C minor ‘Pathètique’ Sonata allows the listener to make connections, both musical and emotional, between these two works. Sarah brings a sense of mystery to the opening motif,  with a spacious and suspenseful reading. This atmosphere of darkness and disquiet pervades the work, though there are sunnier episodes too.

Throughout Sarah plays with great clarity, sensitive to Mozart’s precise and dramatic articulation, dynamic ‘chiaroscuro’, and contrasting changes of mood, character, key and tempi. The major key interludes are warm and lyrical, while the Allegro sections are furious and agitated, the tremolando figure in the treble a brief but impassioned outburst. This is dramatic and highly satisfying reading shines a new light on this well-known work, and had me reaching for my (rather dog-eared) score from my teens, with a view to revisiting this Fantasy.

From the drama of Mozart’s C minor to Beethoven’s in the ‘Pathètique’ Sonata, Op 13. Like the Fantasy, the Sonata opens with a darkly dramatic and richly orchestral ascending broken chord figure. But this is more than an introduction, returning several times during the course of the movement. The succeeding Allegro is tight and energetic, played with a tempo which suggests the music bordering on unbridled frenzy, but never allowed to fully break free. This, coupled with the same careful articulation as in the Mozart, serves to further highlight the tension and dynamic contrasts of this movement. In the liner notes, Sarah gives her reasons for omitting the exposition repeat.

The slow movement is surely one of Beethoven’s best loved and most beautiful, a warm ‘cello-like cantabile over a gently moving bass line, suggesting a song without words. Unfussy pedalling, and sensitivity to the melody in the treble, and string articulation in the bass line, make this movement most satisfying, a delightful breathing space between the drama of the first and final movements.

The final movement has an elusive quality, and, despite its minor key, is wistful rather than dark. Sarah’s choice of tempo allows the passage work and cadenzas to shine. Like the Mozart, the movement ends defiantly.

Composed only a few months before his death in 1828, Schubert’s B-flat Sonata D960 was the result of a period of fervent compositional activity, and is considered to be his finest piano sonata. Compared to the Beethoven, it is expansive (indeed, the “heavenly length” of its opening movement is as long as an entire Beethoven Piano Sonata), and Sarah’s account offers a persuasive narrative, from the songful opening measures of the first subject, through the entire exposition (thankfully with repeat intact, to allow one to fully comprehend the drama of the trill before the reprise, and the extraordinary bridge into the development), to the gentle, prayer-like closing cadence. This is enhanced by the choice of tempo, a moderato that moves forward with a pleasing suppleness and fluency, and scrupulous attention to articulation.

Richly resonant bass notes underpin the meditative Andante sostenuto slow movement, while a sunny wamth pervades the central A major section, recalling the opening sentence of the first movement. The third movement sparkles, fresh and delicate, its playful Scherzo theme emerging gradually, as if from the mist of the previous movement. The essential sunniness is hardly obscured by the darker Trio; rather the shift of mood seems witty here, rather than gloomy.

The finale brings together many of the elements heard in the previous works on this disc: contrasting moods, tempi, dynamics, textures and colours, but always reinforced by Schubert’s melodic grace and poetry. Sarah is responsive to the shifting landscape of this movement, and the overall atmosphere is witty and positive, ending with a triumphant Presto.

Sarah Beth Briggs (image credit: © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)
Sarah Beth Briggs (image credit: © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

This is an extremely satisfying, characterful and thoughtful reading of three great works for the piano, underpinned by intelligent programme notes, and attractive design (the cover image is a painting of Sarah by Paul Martinez-Frias). The recording was made on a Steinway at Potton Hall, Suffolk, a venue famed for its clear acoustic. Combined with Sarah’s ever-responsive articulation, musical sensitivity, quality of sound and clarity of delivery, this is a splendid programme, and excellent value too.

Meet the Artist……Sarah Beth Briggs