Here is a beautifully written, informative and informed post about Debussy’s first book of Images, by pianist Christine Stevenson.

Christine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. I am working on Hommage à Rameau as part of my LTCL Diploma programme, and I found Christine’s notes on this piece particularly helpful and well-expressed.

I is for Images – Debussy’s Images I.

Debussy at the piano, with friends

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

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

I’ve always sung, since I was a little girl, and I’ve always loved music. So singing as a job seemed like a natural step. However, I didn’t follow a logical route, as I first became a Barrister, after reading Law at Cambridge University. But the lure of singing was too great in the end, and so I accepted a place at the Royal College of Music and I’ve never looked back.

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

My most important influence has been my wonderful teacher, Lillian Watson. She has brought me to where I am today and I owe her everything. I have also been very lucky and have come into contact with some amazing artists who have guided me: Sir Thomas Allen, who gave me my first role as Mrs Herring in his production of Albert Herring at the RCM; Christa Ludwig, who has given a number of masterclasses I was fortunate enough to participate in; the late great Philip Langridge, who coached me in song and presentation; and currently Dame Anne Evans, who is guiding me through all of the Wagner roles I am learning.

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

Balancing being a wife and mother with a career that often takes me far away from home.

Which performances / recordings are you most proud of?

Every performance or recording is a learning experience, and so as long as I’ve given my best I’m proud of all of them. But I suppose if I had to select one, I would say my debut at the Salzburg Festival in Mozart’s La Betulia Liberata.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Wigmore Hall. There’s no better acoustic to perform in – it’s a beautiful space.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

In oratorio, I love Mahler 2 and Das Lied von der Erde, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I also love song repertoire, especially by Schubert, Brahms Britten and Mahler, and in opera I love singing Wagner. My favourite pieces to listen to are Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Mozart’s Requiem and anything by Mumford and Sons!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Christa Ludwig, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Tomlinson, and Stephen Hough.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Singing Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Dallas Symphony under Van Zweden. It was simply wonderful.

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

Always be true to yourself, and work hard. Preparation is everything!

What is your most treasured possession?

My home. I spend a lot of my time away, so time at home with my family is precious.

Jennifer Pike (image credit Eric Richmond)

A dramatic and absorbing concert of “limitless possibilites”, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, given by three young performers who demonstrated great insight and maturity in their approach to the music. Read my full review here.

The Little Proms is an initiative to bring classical music to a wider audience, and, like Classical Revolution and various projects by the ever-innovative Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Little Proms presents classical music outside the traditional setting of the concert hall to make it more accessible, and to dispel the myths about classical music being elitist and exclusive.

The venue for The Little Proms is the basement of The Spice of Life, a pub on the edge of London’s Soho. There is a downstairs bar, and the audience sit around tables, rather than in serried ranks as at Wigmore Hall. People can come and go as they please, though they are asked to respect the music while it is being performed. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.

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I performed at The Little Proms for the first time on Sunday evening with my duo partner Liliana Schlaen. Lily has performed there before, but this was our debut in duo repertoire. We arrived early, as instructed, for a sound check which wasn’t really necessary. After a short warm up, we were able to sit back and wait for the event to start, while enjoying listening to the other performers warm up some of their programmes. The evening officially started at 7.30pm, with Jiva Housden and Dan Bovey, two young classical guitarists who presented a very enjoyable programme, including sonatas by Tedesca, and a suite of pieces by Couperin, originally for harpsichord.

Our set went very well, beginning with Kreisler’s dramatic Praeludium & Allegro and closing with Piazzolla’s haunting Milonga en Re, and it was great to see friends and family amongst the audience to cheer us on. As is often the way during a live performance, new things were revealed about our pieces, including a sense that we have perhaps performed the Kreisler enough for the time being and that we should turn our attention to some new repertoire. (I draw a veil over my getting lost during the first of Bartok’s Romanian Dances – an indication that it is important to run new repertoire by an informal audience ahead of a proper concert.) Afterwards we socialised with friends and the other musicians before trooping upstairs to watch Usain Bolt win the Olympic 100 metres.

The concert series is an excellent opportunity to showcase new talent, and for music students and aspiring professional musicians to perform in a more relaxed environment, perhaps ahead of a more serious performance.

The Little Proms is held on the first Sunday of every month at The Spice of Life, 6 Moor Street, Cambridge Circus, London W1 (nearest tube Leicester Square).

The Little Proms on Facebook

Liliana Schlaen & Frances Wilson – SW London-based violin & piano duo