Jan Vriend

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

It grew as I made my way into the musical world. From early childhood composers inspired me – and still do. The ‘urge’ to create is not unlike feeling hungry or any other ‘needs’, part genetic (nature), part imparted (nurture). The rest is discipline and hard work as you keep learning (which is also an urge) and developing (which keeps the urge alive) – voilà, a virtuous circle. Out of all the things I have done in music, practical and theoretical, composing slowly began to take over.

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

‘Inspiration’ or ‘influence’ comes from many sources, from nature to books, from people to science and technology, from a musician’s special skills to the nature of a commission, from a problem to the search for a solution. In different stages of my career, different influences dominated. For example, when I was infatuated with Xenakis, his music and writings, his persona and reputation left noticeable traces in my music.

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

To stay alive and make a living out of a profession which has become ever harder to pursue in a musical world that tends to cling on to the familiar rather than to taking risks – especially in times of hardship, such as now.

Apart from that, the greatest challenge was to discover my strengths and weaknesses, to acknowledge that I cannot be Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky or Varėse, and find Jan Vriend.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

Huantan (1968), Heterostase (1981), Jets d’Orgue (1985-91), Hallelujah II (1988), Hymn to Ra (2002), Anatomy of Passion (2004), Echo 13.7 (2006), Meden Agan (2006)…

Who are your favourite musicians?

Young people, who are still full of curiosity and passionate in their commitment to the cause of the music they play, as opposed to the pursuit of fame and fortune or as a chore to making a living.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A concert in Amsterdam in the 1960s, when Yuji Takahashi performed Eonta by Xenakis with a brass ensemble from Paris conducted by Konstantin Simonovich. Details of that experience are in a book I am about to finish.

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

The question encompasses too many issues (ideas and concepts) for an easy answer. But here is a thought: whatever sounds you choose to work on in whatever combinations, the point of their interactions is to make musical sense. To find out what that means is a lifelong preoccupation, something we put to the test again and again in each new composition (project) we undertake.

What are you working on at the moment?

A work for string orchestra – a challenge, an ambition I have been harbouring for many years but never had the chance to concentrate on. The difficulty is that I haven’t yet been able to find an ensemble to take it on, which makes it a somewhat fortuitous (gratuitous?) enterprise and has given me my first ‘writer’s block’ in many years.

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

On holiday in a sunny resort by the sea.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being in love and in the closest possible proximity of the beloved.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano – since I cannot claim my two daughters among my ‘possessions’.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Work… when it goes well.

What is your present state of mind?

It’s in survival mode. But, overall, I look on the bright side.

More details are on my website and the real ‘story’ is, of course, in my music.

Jan Vriend’s ‘Degrees of Freedom’, written specially for Ensemble Matisse, receives its premiere on 3 November 2014 in music and media event ‘Interference Patterns’ at London’s Kings Place . The work aims to explore the provocative idea that freedom cannot exist without boundaries. Further information and tickets here

Jan Vriend on SoundCloud:

Interview first published May 2012

Recently, The Guardian published an article by Leo Benedictus on the subject of badly behaved audiences at theatre, film, concerts, and similar events. The article included a sort of ‘manifesto’ for audiences, with tips and advice on how not to behave. It is both amusing and true. I ran an informal poll amongst Twitter and Facebook followers, asking for people to submit their particular “audience irritations”. The best ones follow below:

People who sit behind and scratch their knees… An odd one I know, but sat in a tiered theatre their knees are at ear level!

Flash photography when one is performing – very distracting!

People talking through overtures is my worst bugbear. I was at South Pacific in Cardiff recently and it was so noisy throughout the overture, and the chap behind me constantly was singing and humming along to most of the songs and making comments….

At a Proms concert once, I saw a Prommer reading a John Grisham novel while Abbado conducting the Bruckner’s 9th symphony provided some no doubt pleasant background music.

Child unwrapping sweets during a Bach Suite… grrrrrr!

People who go to a concert with a cold! Sniffling every other minute. So distracting, inconsiderate and unhygienic!

Re. hummers, I remember childhood carol services at church where every year, without fail, one old man who couldn’t sing in tune to save his life would persist in joining in with the solo first verse of Once in Royal. Pity whichever poor child had been given that dubious privilege…

I was at a Chopin recital where the man next to me hummed tunelessly throughout Chopin’s last Piano Sonata (indeed, throughout the entire concert!). It reminded me of a sketch from ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ in which a certain concert-goer (Smith) hums throughout the performance. Another (Jones) becomes very irritated by this and starts shushing the hummer, only to be told by others around him: “Would you please be quiet? We have come here tonight specifically to hear Mr Smith humming!”

Because of the average age of its audience (very elderly), the Wigmore auditorium is often a cacophony of whistling hearing aids, snuffling, stentorian snoring, and – particularly at lunchtime recitals – satisfied, fruity farting (the sign of a good lunch in the Wigmore restaurant!)

My father’s first visit to Carnegie Hall was marred by a man in front of him who conducted, from his seat, with full score, throughout a Beethoven Symphony.

 

Please feel free to share your own particular “audience irritations” via the comments box!

Read Leo Benedictus’ article in The Guardian here

This afternoon is my annual student concert. On one level, this is simply a happy gathering of children, parents, family and friends, and an opportunity for my students to share and show off the music they have been studying recently. The programme, as always, is selected by my students, resulting in an eclectic mix of music, and an indication of the wide variety of repertoire we study. Each performer has chosen pieces which reflect his or her particular tastes and skills – surely the basis for any musician’s selection of repertoire?

On another level, the concert is about sharing music. A professional pianist, who I interviewed some years ago, described performing as “a cultural gift”: a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to hear the piano and its literature, a sharing of the music between soloist and audience. As a performer, one enjoys a huge responsibility, and privilege, rather like a conservator or curator, in presenting this wonderful music to others.

Performing is a very special experience, and one which I have come to relatively late in my musical career. As a pianist at school I was sidelined, encouraged to learn an orchestral instrument, and to recede into the relative anonymity of first desk clarinet. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, and I only played one festival in my teens (an excruciatingly awful experience). At the last school concert before I left to go to university, I was allowed to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata. Apart from that, ‘performing’ was limited to taking piano exams. My current teacher gave me the confidence and self-belief to perform, starting with the informal concerts which she hosts at the end of her twice-yearly piano courses. While not as nerve-wracking as playing in a ‘proper’ concert hall, these concerts have their own special atmosphere and attendant anxieties, but the nicest part is the sense that the audience is there because they love to hear piano music, and at every concert I’ve played at Penelope’s house, I’ve felt this important communication between performer and audience.

Of course, performing is not just about playing pretty pieces to other people. To be a performer, one needs to hone a stage personality which is different from the personality which encourages disciplined, focused practising day in, day out, to prepare repertoire for the performance (pianist and teacher Graham Fitch has blogged about this in detail – read his post here). While one’s onstage personality should never obscure the music, one should be able to present oneself convincingly to the audience – and not just through the medium of the music.

There are all sorts of ‘rituals’ involved in performing: travelling to the venue – by car, train or taxi; the clothes one wears; waiting in the green room (whether an elegant space such as at Wigmore Hall, or a dreary municipal cubicle); then waiting to go on stage, behind a door, or a plush velvet curtain, just offstage, pulse racing, real fear now passed, only excited anticipation, and enough adrenaline coursing through the veins to propel one onto the stage. Then the door opens, the curtain swings back, and the adventure of the performance has already begun as one crosses the stage. Applause: the audience’s way of greeting one, and, in return, a bow, one’s way of acknowledging the audience. And now, isolated at the keyboard, the full nine feet of concert grand stretched before one, ready to begin, the brief moment before starting a work resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, the performance cannot be withdrawn. It identifies the music, singles it out for scrutiny: it is irrevocable. All these things combined are the ‘adventure’ of performing.

Whether my students will have a sense of this ‘adventure’ this afternoon I am not sure. I know some are very nervous: one of my students has never performed in one of my concerts before, and to help with her anxiety, I have placed her near the start in the running order, so she can play her piece and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the occasion. Others, who have been learning with me almost as long as I’ve been teaching, betray no nerves and seem to actively enjoy the chance to ‘show off’ to family and friends. Some play with real chutzpah and flair, others prefer to simply play the notes, but each and every performance will be unique, special and memorable. I should probably remember to take some tissues!

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, where I hold my student concerts

 

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

An old friend of mine who is an accomplished amateur pianist was playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and I just absolutely fell in love with everything about the piano. It was at this time I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist. Every time I hear the Waldstein Sonata I have the same sense of excitement that I remember experiencing when I first heard my friend play it. It is one of the few pieces (along with Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1) that makes me wish I had two hands so I could play it.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

The greatest influences on my playing are the two teachers I feel I’ve learnt the most from over the years. I studied with acclaimed pianist Lucy Parham whilst I was at the Junior Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was then that I was introduced to left hand repertoire and my journey as a left hand pianist properly began. I gained so much from Lucy and I always hold her in high esteem as I feel that without her guidance and high expectations I would not have been awarded a place at the Royal College of Music where I’m currently in my graduation year.

My second greatest influence is my current teacher Nigel Clayton. I have found out so much about myself as a pianist since learning with him: he seems to be able to explain things to me in such a way that it instantly transfers into my playing. Aside from being a great teacher he is also very supportive of the things that I do outside of the Royal College. Whether I have a concert or a television interview he always calls or texts to see how it went or to wish me luck.

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of, and why?

One of the first classical CD’s that I bought and am still proud of owning is a box set of Bach and Chopin performed by Martha Argerich. A few of the pieces on the disc really astounded me, the English Suite in A Minor by Bach and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2. I couldn’t seem to stop listening to these two pieces in particular; in my opinion they are the perfect recordings of these works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I adore playing in St Martin in the Fields. The acoustic is great and I really love the piano they have there. I also think the central location gives any concert a bit more of a ‘grand’ feeling. It is exciting for a performer.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

My favorite piece that I perform a lot is the Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 by Scriabin. I have a lot of nostalgia over these beautiful pieces as they were the first pieces for the left hand that I learnt. Ever since I mastered them I have included them in every single recital that I have played and just adore performing them. I would play Scriabin all day long if I could.

Who are your favourite musicians?

As mentioned before, Martha Argerich is a real favorite of mine. Though I also enjoy listening to Stephen Hough, especially his Rachmaninoff. I also listen to the violinist Nicola Benedetti a lot, I think her musicianship and technique is unsurpassed.

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

I think that the most important concept for students is to always be musical. One could walk down the practice corridor of any conservatoire and hear perfect notes coming from all the students practicing, yet sometimes I think musicians easily forget about the music itself and worry far too much about correct notes. I personally would rather go to a recital and hear an exciting, atmospheric and electric recital with a few wrong notes thrown in as opposed to a note-perfect performance with no excitement. I always try to impress on my students that correct notes are very important but are certainly not the be all and end all.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness to me is being content and fulfilled in both work and personal life. I think that if you have problems in your work life or problems in your personal life you cannot be fully happy. For me it’s about finding a fine balance between both.

Nicholas’s new album Echoes is released on 20 October 2017. More information/order

Nicholas McCarthy was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after being inspired by a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Having once been told that he would never succeed as a concert pianist, Nicholas would not be discouraged and went on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. His graduation in July 2012 drew press headlines around the world, being the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas is a champion of the dynamic and brave world of left hand alone repertoire, a repertoire that first came into being in the early 19th century and developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the Battlefield. Paul Wittgenstein was responsible for its 20th century developments with his commissions with Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten amongst others.

www.nicholasmccarthy.co.uk

Interview originally published in May 2012

(Photo credit: Felix Broede)

In his recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s excellent International Piano Series, German-born pianist Lars Vogt combined the wit of late Haydn with the tenderness and yearning of Chopin, the delightful naivety of contemporary Tyrolean composer Thomas Larcher, and the virtuosity of Brahms.

Read my full review here

At my recent piano lesson, I worked on Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableaux Opus 33 No. 2 in C. In order to practice the tricky arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment, which includes many awkward extensions of more than an octave, my teacher asked me to imagine that my arms had no bones in them, no fulcrum at the elbow, and that they were made of “soft, uncooked pastry dough”. And the following day, while teaching an adult student who is studying George Nevada’s nostalgic Wenn Paris Traumt (When Paris Dreams) for her Grade 2 exam, I gave her the image of thick, warm, scented oil running down her arms and into her fingers to create the smoothest, most beautiful legato playing.

Such visual cues may seem odd, but they can be really helpful, as sometimes it is not possible to find the technical vocabulary to describe the sensation one wishes to create in the hand and arm. A metaphor is often better (see my teacher’s post on Playfulness in Piano Playing for more thoughts on this), and children, in particular, can be quick to pick up and act on such images.

A sense of both relaxation and connection in the arms and hands is essential for both the production of good tone and to avoid physical tension or, worse, an injury. Tightness and stiffness produces a tight, stiff, and sometimes very harsh sound. I ask students to listen to the difference in the sound they are producing once they have been encouraged to relax their arms and hands: my adult was certainly very surprised when she heard herself playing the other day!

A few months ago, I reviewed the French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a coruscating concert of very varied and physically demanding repertoire (Haydn, Stockhausen, Villa Lobos and Liszt). During the interval, my friend (who is also one of my adult students) commented on how floppy and loose Hamelin’s arms appeared to be. Even as he walked onto the stage, his arms swung loosely from his shoulders, as if attached by thick, stretchy ‘bungees’. This incredible freedom and relaxation allowed him to bring a huge variety of tonal colour, touch and balance to his performance, and even the most jagged passages of the Stockhausen and percussive sections of the Villa Lobos had an extraordinarily fine quality of sound.

My teacher advocates a series of arm and shoulder loosening exercises as a warm up before any practice session or performance (at her courses, we usually do these in the garden if the weather is fair, allowing us plenty of freedom to swing our arms around). You need only do them for about five minutes to begin to notice a difference in the arms, hands and shoulders. The arms feel looser, longer even! The fingers are light and warm, and the shoulders, back and chest are opened. Try to retain these sensations when you sit at the piano.

To soften the arms and hands further, let your arms rest loosely in your lap and start to roll your arms gently around on your thighs. Imagine there are no bones between your hands and your shoulders, and that everything is very soft and pliable (like uncooked pastry!). When you place your hands on the keyboard, check underneath the wrist and forearm to ensure that lightness remains. And keep checking during your practice session, particularly if you are working on a small technical passage: it is all to easy to allow tension to creep back into the arms, resulting in uncomfortable playing and an ugly sound.

Last week, I heard Leon McCawley in a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. He played Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano (the ‘Sarabande’ from which was one of my Diploma pieces) and I was fascinated by the playfulness and lightness in his hands and fingers as he played the outer movements of the piece (both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Toccata’ demand digital dexterity and fleetness). I observed a softness in his arms too, but it was very subtle, and, as my teacher pointed out when I was discussing it with her, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed it, because it was not something I was aware of at the time.

I find it quite hard to encourage students to let their arms move more freely: this is partly because far too many early piano students (and even more advanced ones!) sit too close to the piano, with elbows resolutely glued to the body. The image of a skipping rope is helpful here, to encourage more freedom and “swing” in the arm. One end of the skipping rope is the finger on the key, the other the shoulder, and whatever is between should swing freely.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the “soft dough” exercise, combined with a sweeping, eliptical movement in the hand (aided by using a middle digit – either the second or third finger – as a pivot), is enabling me to make progress with the Rachmaninov: it’s slow because I can only work on it for about 10 minutes before my arm gets tired, but, as with any technical exercise, it is worth the effort. The results come slowly at first, as the body adjusts to the new sensations, but eventually it becomes intuitive. Never push a technical exercise or overwork it: if your hands and arms feel tired, it is time to take a break.