This week I attended my very first ‘happening’ at the somewhat unlikely venue of London’s St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the 70th birthday of American-British composer Stephen Montague. A ‘happening’ is generally defined as a spontaneous event where musicians and performers come together, and usually involves audience participation. The friend who joined me at the St John’s event has been to many happenings (at music festivals such as Supernormal) and was able to confirm after the event that it was indeed a “proper” happening. We retired to a greasy spoon caff off Horseferry Road, where, over mugs of steaming, brick-red tea and egg and chips, we discussed the event, which moved into a wider discussion about what makes a concert or performance.

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‘A Dinner Party for John Cage’ at St John’s Smith Square

What I loved about the Stephen Montague event was its sense of spontaneity, how it began without fanfare or announcement (no applause for conductor, leader of the orchestra, etc, for there were none), and seemed to evolve over the space of around 50 minutes (in fact, a very clearly defined time-frame). It was as interesting watching the audience’s reaction as it was observing the performers (singers, string players, three pianists and an organist). There was the sense of several things going on at once, working on several layers and in different time frames, and yet at times, the seemingly disparate groups of musicians and performers came together to form a cohesive whole. The seating was arranged randomly; the audience was integral to the performance, and we were invited to wander around the space and actively participate.

Was it a concert? I thought so, because there was most definitely an audience and performers, and music, and these elements must co-exist to create that perfect circle (music-performer-audience) that is a concert.

The formal concert as we know it today, with all its etiquette and particular modes of behaviour – sitting in silence, knowing when to applaud, dressing up etc – did not really come into existence until the nineteenth century. Before that time people enjoyed music in many different settings, and performances were often a sideline or accompaniment to some other event such as a royal audience, religious ceremony, or banquet. In many ways, the Stephen Montague happening harked back to that earlier time, before we all got so het up about how we should behave at concerts. It was a liberating and instructive experience.

Read my Bachtrack review of A Birthday Happening for Stephen Montague

Supernormal Festival trailer, made by my concert companion, Andy Moore, of Little Matey Productions

Nimrod Borenstein

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

My parents tell me that I started to learn music when I was 3 years old, so I had no choice but to become a musician! Apparently, when my parents and I were on holiday in France, one late afternoon we heard one of the “Orchestra in the Park” concerts. I stayed hypnotised for more than an hour and then announced that I wanted to play the violin. Soon after that I began to learn music and started to compose a few years later. I still have a clear memory of wanting to be like Beethoven when I was eight years old!

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

I have been inspired by many great composers from the past (including Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and many others) but can say that my greatest influence has been my father, who is an artist. We often discussed all aspects of creation and tried to find parallels between painting and music. Our discussions were immensely pleasing and challenging and I find that these abstract exchanges have helped me being the composer I am now.

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

The white empty page always has and always will be the greatest challenge of all. Maybe composing would not be such a great passion if it weren’t for the white page!

Which compositions are you most proud of?

I feel proud of having written pieces for many genres including orchestral, vocal, chamber music and solo instruments. But the first time I heard my orchestral piece The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe premiered at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford I felt really proud to have written what I felt was my first symphony. I am very attached, in particular, to the second movement, Peace, which has a natural flow and evokes so many deep human feelings and longings.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

As long as I love the music and the musicians, it can be anywhere!

Favourite pieces to listen to?

It varies. At the moment I am very interested in writing concertos, so I have been listening to the Beethoven Piano Concertos a lot.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are many great musicians I admire and am lucky to work with. During my formative years I spent a considerable amount of my time listening to some special recordings, which included the Menuhin/Furtwangler’s Beethoven Violin Concerto, the Oistrakh/Rostropovich Brahms’ Double Concerto, Rubinstein’s Chopin Ballades and Richter performing Schumann’s Fantasie opus 17. Having heard them so many times I can replay them in my head whenever I want to!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I would have to say that this must be the concert, which made me want to become a musician when I was three years old. It must be lodged somewhere in my subconscious….!

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

Two ideas that complement each other: work on making yourself more than you are every day of your creative life (in other words, the artistic life is passionate Sisyphean work), and secondly trust your judgement and do not believe anyone else!

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently writing a violin concerto for Dmitry Sitkovetsky to be premiered in February 2014.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Blue sky, beautiful music and my wife and daughters with me!

Interview date: March 2013

The picturesque town of Hebden Bridge, nestled in the Calder Valley and flanked by the magnificent South Pennine Hills, is host to a new piano festival over the weekend of 19-21 April this year.

Conceived by pianist and teacher David Nelson, who has a plethora of experience of booking music for Hebden Bridge Arts festival, the three-day piano festival offers a fantastic selection of concerts with international performers, including Martin Roscoe, Anthony Goldstone and Jessica Zhu, and featuring music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Messiaen, and Ades. But the programmes are not confined to classical music: jazz pianist Henry Botham offers programmes exploring New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, and works by Harlem Stride masters of the 1920s, such as Fats Waller. There are concerts for children, student performances, Afternoon Tea recitals, and free events, all presented in the newly-refurbished town hall.

This promises to be a fabulous and inspiring weekend of music-making. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Hebden Bridge Piano Festival website. And if you enjoy hill-walking, why not combine it with some piano music for the weekend?

My At the Piano interview with David Nelson

Nazareno Ferruggio

Domenico ScarlattiAllegro from Sonata # 21/X
Domenico Scarlatti – Allegro from Sonata # 18/XIII
Cesar Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op.22
Frank Martin – Prelude, no. 7

Nazareno Ferruggio, piano

Two sprightly and typically brief sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti open this new CD from Italian pianist Nazareno Ferruggio. Neatly executed by Ferruggio, they provide a pleasantly energetic introduction to the bigger works which form the substance of this recording – Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin.

In his Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Franck was harking back to his Baroque antecedents, specifically J S Bach. The work is profound, earnest and searching, and – like Bach at his most intense and spiritual – is simple in its intent, eschewing theatrical tricks and pretension to emphasise its universal messages of doubt and faith, darkness and light, and a final ecstatic resolution through the ingenious counterpoint of the fugue and joyous peals of bells at the end.

Ferruggio’s performance is sensitive to the structure, scope and seriousness of this music, and the darkly textured and dramatic Prelude is an essay in restrained emotion. He finds more freedom of expression in the great harped Chorale, whose gently rolled chords (which require the left hand to reach over into the treble to sound the theme), heard at first as if from a distance, grow in richness and depth. The Fugue, while displaying all the traditional features of a fugue, goes beyond the strictly academic to become a grand psychological statement of faith and hope. Ferruggio offers an imposing and powerful culmination, highlighting the polyphony and recalling the earlier motifs from the Prelude and Chorale.

The same intensity is evident in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (the theme being Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op 28, no. 20), a set of 22 variations which is often overshadowed by the more well-known and frequently performed sets of variations on themes by Corelli and Paganini. The variations develop in complexity and length, with a wide variety of moods and pianistic invention. Ferruggio is adept at handling the rapid shifts in mood and technique, and as in the Franck, his sensitivity to the structure and his ability to hold the music just in check lends added dramatic effect. Delicate lyricism is contrasted with filigree textures and rich chordal passages. Like the Franck, this work is played with commitment and insight.

The title of the CD, ‘Themes & Variations’, is carried through to the concluding work, a Prelude by Swiss composer Frank Martin, which, in a controlled and thoughtful performance, recalls the sweeping dramatic statements, dark intensity, and bell-like climaxes of the Franck.

The CD includes brief programme notes and biography of the artist in Italian, with a slightly uncertain English translation.

For more information about Nazareno Ferruggio, please visit his website www.nazarenoferruggio.it

I met Jack Thompson at the Dulwich Piano Festival in 2012, at which he gave an atmospheric performance of Godowsky’s transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s sensuous ‘Tango’.

I have been playing the piano for (too) many years – say, 70. I enjoy playing Ravel, Debussy, J.S. Bach, and the Spaniards – Albeniz and Granados. I rarely try Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin – I have decided they are just too difficult to play and therefore to enjoy. But I have returned to Brahms recently and took pleasure from the ‘Intermezzi’.

I enjoy practising but find it hard to timetable it. In my younger days, I played a lot of jazz and wrote music for songs and revues. I also earned a bob or two playing in working people’s clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Latterly, I attended The Oldie magazine piano weekends for many years until the death of its much loved director, Raymond Banning, in December 2012. I had some lessons from him and they opened my eyes to the possibility of tackling material I otherwise thought too difficult.

Playing the piano is all part of an attempt to understand life and art in general. It is almost a religion. Together with reading and the writing I indulge in, plus attending theatre, film and art exhibitions (like the current Murillo at Dulwich Gallery), playing the piano persuades you to think through intellectual problems.

To adults considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons, I would say, in one word – “Patience”! But persist.

As for the one piece I would love to play perfectly it would be Ravel’s ‘Sonatine;, not least the third movement. I might swap that for ‘Evocacion’ in Albeniz’s Iberia suite. Hard to choose.

Jack Thompson was born in the north of England and studied Law at Trinity College, Cambridge. After a series of jobs – teacher, bus conductor, industrial spy and pianist in working men’s clubs –  he joined the BBC and eventually landed the post of foreign correspondent for the World Service. He reported from South East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He followed the Vietnamese army into Cambodia as it overthrew the Khmer Rouge and saw the grisly aftermath of Pol Pot’s killing fields. He was nearly blown to bits by militiamen in Lebanon and verbally pilloried by Saddam Hussein’s information ministry for a report on human rights abuses in Iraq. His bosses at the BBC described him as “curmudgeonly and subversive”, a badge he wears with pride.

Jack left the BBC in 1995 and became a newscaster for Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin. Since 2002, he’s written books and articles for a variety of periodicals. He’s played the piano again and tried to help with the upbringing of his grandchildren. In March 2006 Jack Thompson won the Scottish Association of Writers Pitlochry Award for Crime-writing with his first thriller ‘A Wicked Device’. That was followed two years later with another thriller ‘Breaking The Cross’.

Visit Jack’s website: politicalthrillers.co.uk

Entries are now open for this year’s Dulwich Piano Festival. See the website for further details, syllabus and entry form dulwichpianofestival.co.uk

(photo: Richard Avedon)

I am a great admirer of Japanese pianist, Mitsuko Uchida. Not just her exquisite touch, and sensitivity to the score, but also her ability to bring intimacy even to the biggest performance spaces – as she did in her concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 7 March, part of the Southbank Centre’s excellent International Piano Series.

Read my review of her magical performance of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann here