As part of the celebrations for my blog’s 10th anniversary, I asked people to submit recordings. Here are two very contrasting pieces by friends of mine, who are, like me, very keen amateur pianists and lovers of the piano and its literature. In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Neil and Julian at the very popular and enjoyable house concerts which Neil organises in his home in West Sussex.

 

 

Guest post by Julian on the piano course at Lot in France


 

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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists. We’re self-contained and unlike most other musicians, we can be a musical “island”. But while our ability to work without others is a gift during a pandemic, many of us yearn to return to the delight of making music with other people. I’ve had the privilege of performing with many musicians during my career as a pianist, but some of my favorite stage moments occurred when I was sharing the keyboard with another pianist. As half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, my long running collaboration with pianist Molly Wheeler taught me that there is an intimacy to 4-hand playing that can’t be found in any other form of collaborative playing. Performers breathe together, arms are entwined, and egos are sacrificed to the good of the ensemble. There is no individual glory in duet playing, just a melding of two players and four hands into one musical organism.

We may not be able to share the bench with our favorite duo partners right now, but we can use this time of forced separation to explore new repertoire. Much of the standard duet music is lovely but can also feel limited and overplayed. These 5 gems are ones I know intimately. They’re pieces that don’t show up on every 4-hand concert program. And because I love music with a tune and a beat, all these pieces are audience-accessible crowd pleasers, sit comfortably in the hands, and are rewarding to practice and perform.

3-Day Mix

Composer: Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949)

Description: In this rousing 9 minute party on a piano, Alberga draws on her Jamaican background to create a whirling celebration of color and cross-rhythms. 3-Day Mix requires the pianists to have a strong rhythmic sense and a fearless sense of bravura, but Alberga is a pianist and she knows how to make difficult passages feel accessible. Of all the 4-hand music I’ve performed, this piece may be the most fun two pianists can have on one keyboard, and its dramatic ending pulls an audience to its feet.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Eleanor Alberga


Gazebo Dances

Composer: John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Description: This 16 minute 4-movement suite is, in Corigliano’s description, “ a musical depiction of the pavilions often seen on village greens throughout the countryside where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. It consists of a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.” This suite is rhythmically challenging and (at times) melodically unpredictable but the humor, beauty, and exuberance make it a joy to play. The Tarantella is a rousing way to end a concert.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Musicroom


Legacies: Fantasy-Suite on American Folk Songs

Composer: Terry McQuilkin (b. 1955)

Description: American folk song favorites Wayfaring Stranger, Jack Went a-Sailing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Shenandoah, and Cindy are featured in this 14-minute 5-movement suite. McQuilkin walks the line between classical and jazz, requiring performers to possess both strong technique and the ability to swing and play a decent walking bass line. No folk song is presented in a straightforward manner; instead, these familiar tunes dart in and out of the texture, teasing performers and listeners with fragments of the familiar embedded in an unfamiliar landscape. In this way McQuilkin saves the folk songs emotional power; in the moments that the melodies emerge intact, they’re so powerful they’re like sun breaking through dark clouds.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Terry McQuilkin


Pièces Romantiques, Opus 55

Composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Description: This jewel-box collection of 6 elegant, Romantic pieces is 19th century 4-hand French piano music at its finest. Similar in style to Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, these pieces by Chaminade contain lyrical melodies and elegant harmonies but are more accessible than Fauré to the late intermediate or early advanced player. These are pieces to be shared by and with friends—perfect jewel-box musical moments.

Difficulty level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: IMSLP / Sheet Music Plus


3 Modal Tangos

Composer: Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985)

Description: Mix a handful of unfamiliar modes and catchy melodies with traditional tango rhythms and you get 3 Modal Tangos. This 10 minute suite is technically and rhythmically accessible to the early advanced player, but has the benefit of sounding a lot more difficult than it is to play. The rhythms, melodies and solid structure make it feel familiar, but the modes keep the music fresh and unexpected. Satie-like performance notes give the tangos a theatrical feel, allowing the performers to explore unexpected ideas on how to approach the score.

Difficulty Level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: Alexander LaFollett


Rhonda Rizzo is a pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs: Made in America,Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason,2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It. She has also released numerous articles and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, No Dead Guys, and she is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

I really didn’t expect to be writing this post…

When I started this blog in the summer of 2010, I did so without any expectation that it would be anything other than a place where I could write about the music I was listening to on CD and in concerts, the piano music I was learning and my experiences as a piano teacher. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read my musical ramblings! But read they did, and some readers left comments and so conversations and a sense of community developed across the internet.

Ten years ago, blogging was still a relatively new form of writing/journalism; today it is almost de rigueur to have a blog, and some have become very well known, often independent voices which provide a refreshing, sometimes non-mainstream, perspective. For many of us who blog, it is simply a way of sharing a passion – whether it is music, food, cycling or knitting – and a means to connect with other likeminded people.

My passion is classical music, and particularly the piano – the instrument, its literature and the exigencies of being perhaps the most solitary of musicians, a pianist. When I first started writing this blog, I had been playing the piano seriously for about four years, having returned to the instrument after an absence of some 20 years. Part of the motivation behind the blog was to share my experiences as an “adult returner”, the pleasures and frustrations, what it felt like to take lessons again as an adult, performing (in both exam and public settings), connecting with other pianists, attending piano courses, and more. Often after a piano lesson, I would rush home to write down what had happened, giving me an important opportunity to revisit the nuts and bolts of the lesson, and distill and share the knowledge with others. I also charted my progress through three performance diplomas via this site, an action which a concert pianist friend of mine described as “very brave”, whereas I just saw it as a way of sharing my learning outcomes in the hope that others might find my experiences helpful, and maybe even inspiring.

As the blog has evolved – and I have always felt that a blog needs to offer plenty of variety and regularly updated content – I have found myself drawn further into the world of British classical music (again, a place I never expected to be!), and in the last five years in particular, with my reputation more established, I realised that this was where I’d always wanted to be. I feel comfortable in the presence of other musicians, whether professional, student or amateur, music professionals, and fellow bloggers, reviewers and journalists in a way I never felt in my previous career, and I welcome and appreciate the opportunities the blog has given me to attend concerts, CD launches, music courses and many other events.

Launching the Meet the Artist interview series in 2012 has given an extraordinary insight into the creative lives of musicians and composers, offering a glimpse beyond the concert platform and the notes on the score into the day-to-day lives of these remarkable people, and debunking some of the traditional preconceptions surrounding classical music and musicians. The interviews are fascinating, honest (sometimes painfully so), entertaining and inspiring.

But for me the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the connections I have made and the wonderful interactions and conversations that regularly take place via this site and also on social media (where I probably spend far too much time!). I’ve made friends through this blog, in both the virtual and real worlds, and I really value these connections which have seemed even more significant during these long months of lockdown.

Just as a concert is not a concert without an audience, this blog would be nothing without its readers, of whom there are now some 25,000 per month (a figure which continually amazes me). So I must first thank everyone who reads, shares and comments on the articles contained here.

A huge debt of gratitude must also go to musicians and composers, not only those who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series, but also those whose music I have heard in concert and on disc, who engage in this remarkable activity in a profession which is tough, competitive and precarious (and never more so than now).

I would also like to thank all those people who contribute guest articles to the site. Your contributions keep the site fresh and give readers an opportunity to hear different voices and opinions.

Whether I will still be writing this blog in another 10 years’, or even 5 years’ time, remains to be seen, but while it continues to interest me to do so, and while there is the inspiration and motivation, I will keep writing.

 

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

Piano music by John Dante Previdini

This piece above all else summarizes my quarantine experience as a composer/pianist during COVID-19. It has been a time to reflect on the potentials of my own chosen medium, test what it is holistically capable of expressing, and explore new ways of putting oneself into the music, both figuratively and quite literally.

Best wishes from the USA, and here’s to another wonderful decade of the blog.

 


John Dante Prevedini (b. 1987) is a contemporary classical composer, educator, and public speaker based in New England. Drawing upon a variety of fields of knowledge, his overall work aims to examine unconventional facets of everyday life through a multidisciplinary lens. 

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Guest post by Lisa Davies

Having set up the office to be able to work from home, and been successfully working from home for a week or so, I receive a phone call to say that I have been furloughed with immediate effect. So what should an amateur pianist do to fill all these spare hours?

The answer is a no-brainer – PRACTICE!   So in line with Government restrictions, a routine soon built up: two hours in the morning followed by a walk (weather permitting) at lunchtime, another couple of hours in the afternoon, and then watch the ‘Rocky Horror Show’ from Downing Street at 5pm.

I am very lucky in as much as I have a brilliant piano teacher who foresaw exactly what was going to happen and helpfully suggested that perhaps it would be a good thing to abandon what I was currently looking at and learn a Beethoven piano sonata instead; he suggested Op 110 as it was a wonderful piece and had enough to keep me occupied and on the straight and narrow (if only he knew!) for the time being.  So I immediately ordered the Urtext edition, which duly arrived on my doorstep within 48 hours – and so the fun and games began.

After the initial read-through to get the overall feel for the piece and see how it was to be tackled, it was down to the nitty-gritty.  Out came the notes from the various piano courses I had attended with a view to putting all these different learning techniques in place – break it down, isolate the actual problem and get out the metronome, etc.,  and soon recognisable strains of Beethoven were emanating from the house.

So the ambitious plan was set – try and get through the whole sonata by the time I have my next lesson, whenever that would be.  The main reason I had avoided this piece like the plague was that it had a fugue or two in the last movement; however, with enough graft it should EVENTUALLY start to take shape and I was told that I couldn’t use the excuse that my hands were on the small side – so just get on with it.

Beethoven-Piano-Sonata-No.31-in-Ab-major-Op.110-Analysis-1
The opening bars of Beethoven’s piano sonata in A flat, Op 110

Now, having a practice regime is great but my husband and neighbours are not used to the constant aural bombardment.  So far they have been very polite about it and one has even provided my husband with a man-cave to retreat to.  I am sure they are all looking forward to me going back to work, whenever that might be, but in the meantime, I need to be considerate about the length of time that they have to put up with the noise and also the time of day it is inflicted on them.

As well as a superb grand piano, I am very lucky to own a Roland keyboard and this has really influenced the way in which I practice.  With a set of decent headphones, the sound is great but it also has a secret weapon – an internal electronic metronome which can’t be thrown at the wall when it doesn’t keep time with your constant internal clock!  So I can practice day or night without disturbing anyone (although I believe you know when I am playing as you can hear the noise of the keys being depressed over the top of the TV downstairs!)

Many hours of fun and bad language followed (particularly when tackling the fugues in the last movement) and then to prepare for a piano lesson with a difference – via Skype!  So a date was set and software tested with a neighbour, and come the day we couldn’t get a connection on the laptop.  But where there is a will, there’s a way. Abandon the laptop by the grand piano and use the keyboard with the mobile strapped to the top of the handle of the hoover!  I was more worried about our stack of towels by the keyboard being visible than Op 110….

Several weeks on and Skype has been mastered and the laptop is now behaving – shame about the pupil.  I am getting used to playing to a laptop balanced on a bar stool – shame there’s no bar! – and having my lesson at home with all the distractions that brings with it.  If anyone thinks piano lessons by Skype are a doddle – think again.  They work in a totally different way and are very productive, although I have yet to be convinced that pedalling is totally covered.  I still wonder if there is any possibility of rigging up YouTube and using a professional recording one week instead of me….nice thought!!!!!!

In the meantime, the horrendous disease that has been incarcerating us all seems to be receding and so, if all goes to plan, I will be attending piano masterclasses in France in late August.  Usually, I spend months preparing and memorising what I am going to take, but this year is different: the choice has been made for me – a certain Beethoven sonata.  Can I prepare it in time? Only time will tell, but due to an enforced lockdown routine, the notes are learned and it is now being memorised (slowly!).

So what have I learned over the lockdown?  On the surface the answer is very easy – Beethoven’s Op 110.

However, there is a deeper answer to that question. We have all been housebound for several months and there are people I know who have really found this period very difficult.  But at a time when the arts are suffering through lost performances, music is being cut from schools and rumours that it could be cut from curricula in the short term to make up for the loss in the Three Rs, music is a subject or way of life that gives you a code for living.

Music demands dedication – you have to practice. In order to practice you need patience, thoughtfulness and tolerance.  In the society in which we live, we need all of these in spades – particularly now.  Surely people must realise that music teaches you about life and not just the pieces for your next exam or performance?


Lisa started learning the piano at 10 and, having decided that riding professionally was not for her (or rather her parents!), she auditioned for a place on the GR Course at the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied the piano with Peter Uppard and Margaret Macdonald. On leaving the RAM, she did a short part-time stint at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama before going to work as a Director of Music at a prep school. However, the lure of the bright lights of the big city and her family relocating to the UK were too much of a draw and Lisa ended up moving back to London and working in the City for many years. She married and moved to the South West, competed in Endurance Horse Riding at the highest level both at home and abroad, and worked for a number of blue chip companies in various roles. She has recently come back to playing the piano after a gap of 30 years. Lisa is now making up for lost time and tackling all the repertoire she should have looked at years ago!  

Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

My father was an actor and singer so that was a big influence on my choice, but I think he always wanted me to be a visual artist rather than a performer. He was of course happy when I showed interest in singing, but he never pushed me down the path. I always loved singing and performing and did so at a good level but wasn’t sure it would work as a career, so I went to university get a science degree. I sang in the choir at Christchurch, Oxford, and as good as that was, I was still not decided. Towards the end of my degree I took part in a singing course, the AIMS course, and it reawoke something in me; made me believe I could make it as a solo singer rather than just singing in choirs, and that if making a career out of singing was actually possible it was what I wanted to do. Therefore, after university I applied to the Royal Academy of Music and was successful, and from that point on I’ve been lucky enough to keep going.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My father. My teachers at school, Jonathan and Sarah Holmes and Simon Gregory. My teachers David Lowe and Ryland Davies. Wonderful coaches Jonathan Papp and Audrey Hyland. John Copley directed my first full opera at the RAM and I learned so, so much from him. Richard Stokes and his infectious love of Lieder. Ludmilla Andrews and her Russian song.

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

Well, obviously number one is right now – Covid-19 is a terrible thing for the music world, and an awful time for everyone involved in the arts. Otherwise, I have many stories of difficult auditions – one where my flight was delayed for 12 hours and I had to sleep in the airport and got to the venue 30 minutes before my slot, or being dumped in a hot room with 12 other singers and nowhere to warm up or get a drink for 3 hours before the auditions started. It’s part of the job though – being able to perform as well as you can despite the circumstances is important, even if it can be very frustrating!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud to have my first CD being released. There are a few performances that spring to mind:

Stepping forward as a cover to sing Orpheus in Gluck’s Orphée when I was in Stuttgart Germany the year after college. A huge, huge role, not enough time to learn the staging, incredibly challenging but also incredibly fun.

Singing in the Wigmore song competition final as a 25 year old with Jocelyn, scared out of my mind but really loving the experience, managing to produce a good performance despite the adrenaline.

I love creating roles for the first time and doing that with Paul Curran with the Bartered Bride last year was really wonderful – working out how you feel about a character and what aspects of life to draw into them is incredibly rewarding.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why/what is your most memorable concert experience?

I love performing in all sorts of venues – some of my best memories are performing at the Wigmore Hall, as well as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Kölner Philharmonie. My two most memorable venues however were in the Sam Wanamaker theatre with Trevor Pinnock – an intimate and beautiful space in the round made of beautiful wood and lit with beeswax candles. A stunning space. The other memorable venue was in northern France, where I evangelised the Johannes Passion in a repurposed auction house from the auctioneer’s position above the rest of the singers & orchestra. Tremendously dramatic, and felt somehow completely right for the music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to list – I find that the vast majority of the people I work with are both lovely and fantastic performers and it would feel wrong to single anyone out. In terms of recordings, my lieder shelves are full of Fritz Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau recordings. In terms of operatic tenors, it’s usually Gedda, Pavarotti, Ford, Vickers, Corelli and Florez. In terms of non-classical music, its probably Thom Yorke, Miles Davies, Joanna Newsom and Janelle Monáe.

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

I’d tell any young musician to be as adventurous as possible – work with as many different people and different instrumentalists as you can, try songs in as many styles and languages as you can, try everything because it will let you work out what you enjoy and where your strengths lie. As for the realities of being a professional, I don’t think I realised when at college how difficult it would be to live on the road. There is a certain disconnect that comes from living out of a suitcase half the year and it is vital to keep as grounded and connected as you can.

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

Performing around the world, doing roles and concert programmes I want to in good venues with good people. I would say more, but given the realities of the moment, that feels like enough.

What is your most treasured possession?

One of my treasured possessions is a hard bound copy of the Messiah that I must have used 40 times. I was given it as a birthday gift about 10 years ago by my mother, and I’ve taken it with me around the world. It probably needs to be rebound by now – the red from the leather comes off a bit on my hands if they sweat and the gold leaf has become scuffed – but I’ve used it so much in so many different places that seeing it always makes me happy. I hope to use it again very soon.

‘Flax and Fire’ is the debut album of tenor Stuart Jackson and pianist Jocelyn Freeman, featuring works by Britten, Wolf, Liszt and Robert Schumann and released on the Orchid Classics label on 17 July.


The English tenor Stuart Jackson was a choral scholar at Christ Church Oxford, studying Biological Sciences, before completing his training at the Royal Academy of Music in 2013. In 2011, aged 25 and the youngest finalist, he won second prize at the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition performing with pianist Jocelyn Freeman, and the pair also won second prize at the International Hugo Wolf Lied competition. He has appeared as a recitalist at Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, St John’s Smith Square, London and at Oxford’s Holywell Room amongst many others. Stuart joined Stuttgart Opera Studio for the 2013/14 season. He is currently a Classical Opera Associate Artist with whom he has recorded the title role in Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione and Soliman in Zaide. He has performed all over the world in opera, including with the Royal Opera House, at English National Opera, Glyndebourne, Garsington, the Komische Oper Berlin, Stuttgart Opera, Opéra national du Rhin, Opera Australia, Opéra national de Lorraine and Aix en Provence. Some of his favourite performed roles include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Jupiter in Semele and High Priest in Saul.

He also performs frequently on the concert platform, performing Bach, Handel, Beethoven and much else all over Europe and the UK, including the Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.