An episode from Alan Yentob’s ‘Imagine’ series for the BBC, in which Yentob traces the meteoric rise of Chinese poster-boy pianist Lang Lang from child prodigy to international superstar.

Despite my dislike of Lang Lang (his playing and his manner in general), this is an interesting programme, if only for the dreadful pushiness of Lang Lang’s father – a lesson, perhaps, for all over-ambitious parents of talented children.

In an interesting piece of parallel programming, the film ‘Shine’, biopic about Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose downward spiral into mental illness has been attributed to his father’s attitude, was broadcast after the feature on Lang Lang. A moving and insightful film.

‘Do – or Die: Lang Lang’s Story’ on the BBC iPlayer

What inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I loved the sound of the cembalo (harpsichord) very much when I was a child. Having no musical background whatsoever, my parents sent me to a local music school, where I was told that I would need to learn some piano before I could learn the cembalo. I fell in love with the piano immediately and quickly forgot about Bach’s harpsichord concertos!

In my teenage years, playing the piano was the activity I loved most. Nobody had to tell me that I should practice. As soon as I came home from school, I ran to my piano and played for hours. My time at the piano was quite evenly split between playing classical music and improvising or composing my own music. When I was discovered by a manager at age fifteen, I knew already that music would always be my main career, although my role as an interpreter of classical music – mainly of the romantic repertoire – was outweighing my activities as a composer at that time.

After two intensive years of touring and recording, I felt burned out. The growing success as a concert pianist had no positive impact on my happiness at all, quite to the contrary: I felt more and more isolated, and it became clear to me that I could not ignore my need to compose any longer. My manager considered my compositions as some kind of private hobby, but to me it was much more. As much as I love the music by the great masters, and as much as I enjoy playing it, composing (and performing) my own music had to come first. It was a difficult decision, since my possibilities as a soloist seemed to be endless and so many promising opportunities were at my fingertips. But I did what I had to do as an artist: I withdrew from the traditional career as concert pianist and immersed myself into the development of my musical language.

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

Being so well acquainted with the romantic repertoire, the music of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Scriabin definitely had a strong influence on my early style. But since I am a child of the 20th century, I have also drawn inspiration from pop and rock music, maybe also a little bit from jazz music. When I discovered Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts and Arvo Pärt’s music in the late nineties, I was deeply moved by the sheer beauty that was still “allowed” in our time. My educational background had suggested to me that contemporary music had to be disharmonic, to put it politely, and I never cared for serialism and all the cacophony that followed. So, essentially, I am in constant search for truth and beauty in my music. My love for Gregorian chant, religious choral music and my Catholic faith have a great influence not only on my compositional style, but also on my understanding of music as a whole.

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

When the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz asked me to compose piano accompaniments for the follow-up of their hugely successful album ‘Chant – Music for Paradise’, I did not want to mess up. They were putting “their” sacred chants into my hands and let me interpret them! In plainchant you have so much freedom and detachment from clearly definable emotions in the sense that have become so accustomed to over the last centuries. It is indeed the most universal and pure musical language on our planet. Putting a piano part underneath it would naturally interpret the chants in some direction. Through hard work and constant rewriting of many passages I found a very personal, yet worthy and unsentimental style for these pieces. The monks liked them so much that they commissioned another four chants for their latest album ‘Chant – Stabat Mater’, which was released  recently.

Which compositions are you most proud of?

Many of my choir pieces are very special to me. Unfortunately, not many of them have been performed so far, which makes me all the more excited that the wonderful Platinum Consort under the direction of Scott Inglis-Kidger will sing the world premiere of my ‘Consecration Prayer’ on 16th November, which is a very personal composition of mine. I am also very happy with my piano piece ‘Obsculta’ and the really beautiful video that my friend Vitùc created for it.

Who are your favorite musicians?

At the moment I am very fond of so many magnificent British choirs: Tenebrae, The Sixteen, Polyphony, Platinum Consort, to name a few. You really are blessed with a unique choral tradition in England!

There are countless pianists that I admire and love, but if I had to pick one, it would be Dinu Lipatti. I love his unpretentious and pure musicianship. I try to follow this role model, and I have never liked musicians who take themselves too seriously and want to be more important than the music. It is the musician’s duty to serve the music, not the opposite.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was crying from beginning to the end when I attended my first live performance of Bach’s B minor Mass in Luxembourg ten years ago. I have never been so moved by a piece of music. It was then that I realised that there is no such thing as old or new music. If music is true, it is timeless and will always reveal a glimpse of eternity to us mortal beings.

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

For the interpreter:

  • Never take yourself too seriously.
  • Always play with open ears and an open heart.
  • Look for the essence behind the notes and remain faithful to the text.
  • Find your personal sound by pursuing meaning rather than virtuosity.
  • Practice hard and value technical exercises and scales. They help you to become better servants of the music you love.

If you’re a composer:

  • Compose with open ears and an open heart.
  • Look for the essence inside your musical ideas and omit what can be left.
  • Let the music write itself by listening as deep as you can.
  • Always question your work. If it can still be improved, don’t shy away from the work.
  • Study the masters, again and again, but be yourself when you compose.

What are you working on at the moment?

I practice Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E minor for a performance with a very special young talent next week. After that I will orchestrate my children’s opera ‘The Little Gnome’ which will be premiered on 19th January in Luxembourg. And I expect the master CD of my new solo album ‘Prayers of Silence’ (which I recorded in August) to be ready any day soon, so I will definitely spend some time with listening and preparing the publication of my most important album so far. In December I will play Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, a piece that is not in my repertoire yet, so I’ll have to practice a lot in November.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness is a gift of the moment and it wouldn’t be special if it were a constant state of being. That being said, I can say that I suffer from failures and bad moments like everyone else, but I am also regularly blessed with happiness when I compose or when I play the piano. But the most blissful moments are those that I spend with my family and especially with my three little children. I should also mention that I find peace in prayer, and it is the hidden driving force of my life.

David Ianni’s ‘Consecration Prayer’ receives its world premiere in a concert by Platinum Consort, under the direction of Scott Inglis-Kidger, on Friday 16th November. Further information and booking here

David Ianni was born in Luxembourg in 1979. He was accepted in the piano class of Daniel Feis in the Conservatoire d’Esch-sur-Alzette at the age of nine. At fifteen, he completed his piano diploma in Luxembourg with a “Premier Prix avec grande distinction”. He continued his studies in London at the Purcell School and later with Tatiana Sarkissova, teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. He also studied with Dimitri Bashkirov, Anatol Ugorski, Radu Lupu and Dirk Joeres. In 2005, he completed his studies with Tonie Ehlen at the Maastricht Conservatory.

After winning a number of prizes in national and international competitions, the sixteen-year-old musician began a career as a concert pianist, performing solo recitals as well as with orchestras in many European countries, India and Japan. His debut CD, with works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, was released in 1997. In 1999, the recording ‘Theodor Kirchner: Piano Music’ followed.

Since 1998, David Ianni has increasingly dedicated himself to composing his own works. He has written about 100 works, including the oratorio ‘Abraham’s Children’, ‘Pater Noster’ for piano and orchestra, a children’s opera, a string quartet, chamber music as well as numerous choral and piano compositions, which have been performed in Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, India and Japan.

David Ianni’s album Night Prayers with his own piano compositions was published in 2011.

That same year he composed and recorded the piano accompaniments for the album Chant – Amor et Passio by the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, which was awarded a Platinum award in Austria. In 2012 the monks commissioned David to compose and play four chant accompaniments for their album Chant – Stabat Mater.

His new solo album ‘Prayers of Silence’ will be released by Obsculta Music.

The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between [Hardback]

Stuart Isacoff

Hardback/paperback: 382 pages
Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd
Language: English
ISBN: 9780285641129

Anyone who has read Charles Rosen’s intelligently-written Piano Notes will find plenty to enjoy in this new book on the “life and times” of the piano by Stewart Isacoff, writer, composer, pianist and lecturer, and founding editor of the magazine Piano Today.

This compact, well-designed book traces the history and evolution of the piano in a richly erudite and engaging narrative, from the unveiling of Mozart’s concertos through to Liszt’s fainting female fans, the rise of the modern travelling virtuoso pianist, to the ‘greats’ of the piano such as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Gould, Peterson, Evans, Tatum, and many more. The book examines why the instrument has had such a fascination for generations of listeners and practitioners, how it can be used as a vehicle for emotional expression and individuality of style, and how it developed into the sleek, beautifully-crafted modern instrument of today. There are numerous sidebars and byways in the text, offering the reader a comprehensive survey of all aspects of the instrument, with plenty of amusing anecdotes, essays, and entertaining rambles around the subject.

Following a schematic course through the chapters, Isacoff’s wide-ranging and accessible text covers subjects such as the groundbreaking music of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy to the breathtaking techniques of the great pianists, such as Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn. Asides to the main text serve to amplify and spotlight particular aspects: we have Murray Perahia on shaping the piano’s sounds, Brendel on the challenge of playing Mozart, a profile of Duke Ellington by Oscar Peterson, Garrick Ohlsson on playing Chopin, plus many other contributions by both contemporary commentators and pianists of today, including Piotr Anderszewski, Emmanuel Ax, Billy Joel, Yundi Li, Menahem Pressler and Gabriela Montero. (A section before the index gives further biographical details about all the contributors.)

Jazz, too often overlooked in more traditional histories of the piano and its music, is celebrated with great affection, and the author shows how it grew from the same sources of inspiration as classical repertoire. The text segues comfortably between subjects, enhanced by 100 black-and-white illustrations, and there are copious notes, bibliographical information and a comprehensive index.

This book will delight and enthrall pianists and pianophiles everywhere, and at c£20 is excellent value as a gift for the piano enthusiast.

The Arab Hall at Leighton House

Leighton House has to be one of my most favourite houses in London. Tucked away in a quiet, tree-lined residential road close to Holland Park and Kensington High Street, it is the former home and studio of leading Victorian painting, Frederic, Lord Leighton. Created as a “private palace of art” to showcase Leighton’s fine collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art, the house was also  a place where the artistic and cultural denizens of London, and beyond, could gather for soirées, lectures and other events. Read my full review for One Stop Arts here

My review of Victorian Visions at Leighton House

Bridget Cunningham

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

Being around other musicians and performing live music from childhood at home, in the church, at music schools and with good teachers inspired me to be a musician. Performing music has always been where I feel most comfortable, and the actual process of communicating with others through music lifts the spirits. When conducting from the harpsichord, the sound of the other instruments in the orchestra and singers around hits the soundboard of the harpsichord which becomes a melting pot where all these sounds go in and magic is made.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and conducting?

The most important influence is the music itself from the emotional and dramatic works of Handel, the energy of Vivaldi, the complexity of Bach and Palestrina, the freshness of Mozart, the complex rhythms of Messiaen, the richness of Wagner and much more, have always inspired and influenced me to learn more.

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

The biggest challenge has always been to get funding to put on undiscovered early operas, pasticcios, masses, and other works and material I have researched and to record this material which really deserves a hearing. It is also a learning curve to get the means to make documentaries and films about this music, the history of it and the whole process of music making, which are all fascinating aspect

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

I have just recently conducted a recording for a CD of stunning music, some unrecorded material too which I am pleased about, from the 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with London Early Opera, and fabulous producer Chris Alder, which I am eagerly waiting to hear. It was a wonderful process finding the music and putting it all together to recreate a magical night at the gardens.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I have many and love the variety I have performed in from large to the more intimate, including Southwark Cathedral, the Wigmore Hall, Handel House Museum, St George’s Basillica in Gozo, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, the Pieta in Venice and Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have always loved conducting Handel operas, Purcell masques, Vivaldi and Mozart operas.. they are all colourful with amazing text, word painting and harmonies. Conducting from the harpsichord centres me with the music in the very heart of the orchestra and the actual score of the work being performed. Again, I enjoy all the later repertoire I conduct from George Butterworth to Bernstein as it is all fabulous repertoire which I enjoy listening to as well.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Barenboim, McKerras, Brabbins, Hogwood, Alsop, Davies, Edwards, many conductors; also the historic Bernstein, and several baroque musicians… Catherine Mackintosh, Robert Woolley… where do we stop…the list goes on…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing Vivaldi in the Pieta in Venice… an amazing place and also listening to Jordi Savall playing French divisions in his viol concert at St Nicholas Church in Galway by candlelight was extremely inspiring

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

Every new day there is something new to learn and we are always students and must always be open to gaining new knowledge and to aspire to new things. Keep on focusing on where you are going and work hard and practice, practice….

What are you working on at the moment?

I am collating music, parts and scores and taking sectional rehearsals for the next recording project that I am conducting with London Early Opera and following concert tour next year.

What is your most treasured possession?

My glorious harpsichords: one is a double manual Franco Flemish Blanchet copy of a Ruckers – perfect for all kinds of repertoire with a lovely resonance in the bass – and the other is a single manual Italian harpsichord with a real brightness of sound and touch.

Bridget Cunningham is a prizewinning harpsichordist, conductor and early music specialist. Bridget is in demand to conduct choirs, orchestras, festivals and recordings throughout Europe and her performing experience includes conducting London Early Opera and Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi and she conducts regularlyfrom the harpsichord at venues such as St Martin-in-the Fields, Grosvenor Chapel, St James’s Piccadilly and Southwark Cathedral. She has recently recorded a harpsichord album ‘Handel in Ireland’ and performed as a solo harpsichordist to Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. She also regularly gives lecture recitals and broadcasts at Art Galleries and last year she opened the Watteau exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and gave a lecture recital on Handel and Watteau in 18thCentury London. She has recorded and presented BBC documentaries with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment and Vivaldi’s Women and the virginal and harpsichord music for the BBC 1 series ‘Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen’, How London Was Built and BBC’s ‘Messiah’. Radio broadcasts include Radio 3 and 4 King James’s Bible. Bridget has also just conducted London Early Opera’s CD Handel in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with producer Chris Alder.

In common with many leading figures in the arts and music world of this country, I am deeply concerned about Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to replace GCSE’s with the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which will not include ‘creative’ subjects such as art, design, drama and music.

Mr Gove has said that schools may still offer the arts as GCSE subjects alongside the EBacc, but the worry is that many schools simply will not have the resources to do this, and these subjects will become the preserve of independent schools and/or wealthy parents, who can afford private music, drama or art tuition for their children.

I was very fortunate at my secondary school (Rickmansworth School) to enjoy fantastic music and arts facilities, all free and in a state school. As well as enthusiastic and inspiring tuition by my music teacher (to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for encouraging my talent and excitement about the piano in particular, and music in general), I had the opportunity to play first desk clarinet in the school orchestra, harpsichord continuo in a Baroque group, and sing in the school choir. Thus, I experienced the great pleasure and joy that comes from shared music-making, the sense of satisfaction and self-fulfilment in progressing through my graded music exams (piano and clarinet), and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as regular trips to concerts, and opera dress-rehearsals at Covent Garden, all of which broadened my cultural horizons.

My musical education at school still resonates with me, as I attempt to share my passion and excitement about music with my students.

Please don’t deny our children the opportunity to experience the same excitement. Sign the petition to secure the future of creativity in our schools here

Arts leaders voice deep concern over lack of cultural subjects in EBacc – a recent article in The Guardian