Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

Whilst toddling around my house, aged 3, I banged my head on something and lashed out. To my surprise, it made a beautiful sound, and I’ve played the piano most days since.

Choosing music as a career took a bit longer. Despite feeling elated and richly fulfilled as a chorister touring the Eastern Seaboard with St David’s Cathedral Choir, many years ago, I expected to continue my pastoral life in Pembrokeshire and become an accountant… until I heard about music college auditions. I applied and have never looked back!

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

Such a tricky question! Being a former cathedral chorister was certainly the most important influence on my formative years and still influences me greatly. The training and performance opportunities I received were incredible and now inform the way I collaborate with singers. Working with Pascal Nemirovski during my undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music was a very important influence, and more recently being the Viola Tunnard Young Artist at Snape Maltings (where Flax and Fire was recorded) gave me the chance to explore new ideas and skills.

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

Lockdown! And secondly, having the courage to admit how dearly I wanted a family, and taking a leap of faith to start it. I was really afraid of losing work – and there were a few engagements I surrendered or postponed – but in retrospect it was the best thing I ever did. It has brought a sense of balance and practicality to my work that I’d only dreamed of before.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Curating ‘Flax and Fire’ was a pivotal moment for me: I developed holistically as an artist during the process, and it taught me a lot about my creative practice.

Building SongEasel from scratch and performing in the series has been a really affirming activity, and bringing it online this July is something I’ll remember for years to come.

I am also really proud to have performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto to a packed Oxford Proms audience several years ago – the emotional and physical stamina required meant that it was something of a personal triumph!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a particular affinity with dramatic, lyrical works, such as those by Liszt: romanticism is a period close to my heart. That said, many of Schubert’s Lieder are mini-dramas in themselves, and the clean slate of a new composition is always inspiring.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As a collaborative pianist, a lot of my repertoire choices are a joint venture. I will often be guided by a voice type as I construct a programme for singers. In parallel, I aim to curate and tour programmes that fascinate me – for example repertoire that I’ve loved since I was a child; or a little-known work that has captured my imagination. I feel lucky to be able to follow my curiosity a great deal of the time.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

There are so many lovely venues, it’s very difficult to pick one! I’ve had some really amazing experiences at Wigmore Hall, and also playing at home in Wales is always a pleasure.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Recently I’ve been listening to Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz. Their pianism is second to none. I also love the recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – he was an iconic interpreter of Lied, and Carlos Klieber’s discs with the Vienna Philharmonic are wonderfully emotional and energised. I’m also a fan of Bon Jovi!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are a few works which, when I perform them effect me deeply and leave me feeling hollow from the rawness of their emotion. These memories are frozen in my memory, like a very special place in time. The first was accompanying a production Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd as a student; the second performing James MacMillan’s Kiss on ‘Wood’; the third was Rhian Samuel’s The Gaze with Elin Manahan Thomas; and most recently, Shostakovich’s Four Pushkin Romances with Gareth Brynmor John.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It has to be loving what you do, above anything else, otherwise there’s really not much point!

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

Know and love your unique weaknesses – nobody else will be able to do this like you can, and others most frequently focus on your strengths.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I used to think that achieving the perfect work-life-family balance would bring me happiness. Now I believe that happiness is actually the process of aspiring to this perfect equilibrium, working towards it each day, and the hope brought by such a unachievable concept!

 

‘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.


Award-winning collaborative pianist Jocelyn Freeman is founder-director and curator of SongEasel, a new initiative established to provide a platform for song in South East London. Her artistry has been described as “outstanding”, “brilliant”, “sparkling” and “one to watch”, including accolades from The Observer and International Piano Magazine.

Jocelyn’s versatility ranges from Lieder to chamber music and concertos, often championing lesser-known composers alongside standard classical and contemporary repertoire. She has premiered and recorded works by John Brunning, Dilys Elwyn-Edwards and Rhian Samuel. Her imaginative approach to programming is evident in projects with award-winning artists including Jamal Aliyev, Gareth Brynmor John, Elin Manahan Thomas and Julien Van Mellaerts, and her discography includes releases for Kissan Records, Orchid Classics and Ty Cerdd.

Jocelyn is a prize-winning graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, Phoebe Benham Fellow 2012 at the Royal College of Music, a Samling Artist and Britten–Pears alumnus. Prizes include the Viola Tunnard Young Artist Award, Marlow International Concerto Competition and the Internationalen Wettbewerb für Liedkunst in Stuttgart with Stuart Jackson.

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

We had an upright piano in the corner of the dining room, which one of my older sisters was learning on. Aged about 6 I used to sit at it, crashing about on the keys and flailing my arms around as I imagined concert pianists did –  maybe I saw one on the TV. I think my parents realised my enthusiasm needed channelling and took me to a teacher who reminded me of Cruela de Vil – brown hair on one side and blonde on the other! I had a wonderful teacher at secondary school, Elaine Hugh-Jones, who was very inspiring and supportive. For a long while I toyed with becoming a solo pianist, but turned down the opportunity to study piano at the RNCM in preference to taking up an instrumental scholarship at Oxford. Over time I began to realise that my musical temperament did not lean towards life as a soloist, and there were many other ways to pursue a performing career. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) held those answers for me.

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

A chance conversation with Roger Vignoles prevented me from giving up altogether…I needed a teacher who knew about accompanying-he suggested some lessons with Paul Hamburger, and, as well as with him, at the GSMD I had the chance to work intensively with Graham Johnson, Martin Isepp and Iain Burnside, who were all hugely inspirational to me in their different ways. Playing for masterclasses at Snape for wonderful singers/teachers such as Elly Ameling, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Elizabeth Soderstrom were also fantastic learning opportunities. In latter years, especially after moving to Shropshire, I have Roddy (Roderick Williams) to thank for continuing to take me with him on his musical journey, whilst it may have seemed I disappeared off the musical world’s radar; and for his natural, intelligent, sublime interpretations. Oh, and his irrepressible sense of humour.

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

Trying to keep it going!! The move to Shropshire, having three children in close succession, and getting divorced made it particularly challenging to carry on playing at all.

Musically, I think some of the contemporary works I’ve performed have challenged me greatly, such as the four Songs by Torsten Rasch, commissioned for Gloucester Three Choirs Festival; and more recently getting out of my comfort zone and having to use an elbow in a new work called “The Rain is Coming” by Emily Levy.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Going way back, one which comes to mind is playing for Nathan Berg in the Gold Medal final at GSMD. He was singing Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder – trying to do these incredible songs justice for Nathan meant so much to me I was sick beforehand! Luckily it paid off – and he won. A recent performance of Die Schöne Mullerin with Roddy had a feeling of musical and emotional synchronicity – I was so glad to be part of that performance too. And I’m really proud to have been given the opportunity to record the new SOMM CD, songs that I have performed with Roddy many, many times over the years, all of which I adore.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

You may have to ask others about that!

Accompanists have to be like chameleons. It’s important to be able to feel comfortable in as many styles as possible. I like to think I can play best whatever I happen to be working on. Having said that, I have a particular penchant for the serious and intense, for example I think I can put across a pretty convincing “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” (Mahler)… I also feel I now have a more confident approach to playing Schubert – Die Schöne Mullerin is a personal favourite; although tomorrow it may be Schwanengesang, and the day after, Winterreise.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As an accompanist with many other demands made on my time, these choices are frequently not mine. Quite often my job is to fall in love with whatever repertoire I am tasked with – I enjoy that challenge.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Roddy and I did a tour of Schwanengesang in 2016. One of the venues was the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe in London. It was a very special place to play. It is an utterly beautiful bijou Jacobean-style space for starters, and as the performers, we were cocooned by the audience above us and around us, all of us bathed in the most atmospheric candlelight – a truly memorable experience.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A festival in 2013 – memorable for the wrong reasons! I was attempting to give my all in an exceptionally beautiful postlude of Richard Sisson’s “So Heavy Hangs the Sky”, when the city council rudely began to empty the huge glass-recycling bins outside the venue – the sound continued for a good ten seconds… The second half of the concert was accompanied by reversing vehicle noises, pretty much matching the pulse, but not the atmosphere of Britten’s “The Sunflower”. The audience were not happy!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The ability to be able to move an audience through musical communication.

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

Respect the composer’s intentions, whatever you perceive them to be; try to communicate the spirit of the piece; enjoy the practice journey; have fun. Respect and support your colleagues.

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

Back at the Wigmore Hall

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The Beach House Goa Retreat

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway piano, given to me when I was 14

What do you enjoy doing most?

Walking the dog in the Shropshire hills with my kids

What is your present state of mind?

Busy!

 

Roderick Williams’ new CD, with Susie Allan, piano, ‘Celebrating English Song’ is available now on the SOMM label. Further information here

Susie Allan studied Music at Worcester College, Oxford, as a Hadow Instrumental Scholar, and Piano Accompaniment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She won the GSMD Accompaniment Prize, the Gerald Moore Award, and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Award. Her teachers included Paul Hamburger, Graham Johnson and Iain Burnside. She has accompanied many masterclasses at the Britten-Pears School at Snape Maltings, Suffolk and elsewhere, and has been a Professor of Accompaniment at the RCM and the RWCMD.

 

 

 

Richard Black

Who or what inspired you to take up your chosen instrument and make it your career?

I can’t remember what inspired me to take up playing the piano. I remember asking my mother for a piano for my 7th birthday. She bought me one, then made sure I learned it.

As for the career, I pretty much stumbled into it. I studied physics for my degree and worked for 8 years in industrial electronics, but never gave up practising the piano and was doing various accompanying work (initially unpaid, of course) from student days. Eventually I found I had enough to live on, though to this day I have one or two other strings to my bow, which I keep up as much for sentimental reasons as financial ones. Making recordings is one which has a frequent practical use, with singers and instrumentalists being often asked to submit recordings as a preliminary for competitions or auditions.

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

I was lucky to have an excellent teacher, Bernard King, when I was in my teens, and also lucky to be at a school with a very good music department. Fellow-pupils gave me good advice which I forget in the specifics but remember receiving. One school-friend founded a record label and through him I met Ronald Stevenson, who has been a good friend for nearly 30 years: I’ve played a lot of his music, solo vocal and chamber. His playing was uniquely beautiful and passionate and his verbal advice no less inspiring. The latter is still true, though sadly his health prevents him performing these days. I met John Ogdon through the same record label and watching him play (I turned pages for him on many occasions) was an object lesson in achieving the (apparently) impossible.

I’ve also learned a lot from singers I’ve worked with, both seasoned professionals and those of my own generation. Sir Donald Macintyre has made me think a lot about effective sound production

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

Pianistically, the greatest challenge has been learning and performing Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’. I hardly ever play solo anyway, and that’s a fair-sized challenge for anyone, so it was some way out of my comfort zone. Immensely rewarding, though. I promised Ronald back in the early 1980s I would do it, and hate to break a promise.

As an accompanist, I’ve played plenty of music that takes a bit of learning. One of the most interesting challenges was getting to grips with the songs of Bernard van Dieren. It took me several months to get a proper feeling for them, though I could sense from the first that there was real beauty there. I haven’t performed any in a while, and miss them. Alan Bush’s song cycle ‘Voices of the Prophets’ was a headscratcher – I reckon it includes the most difficult, second most difficult and third most difficult song accompaniments I know of.

Accompanying auditions is always a challenge. The singer (or instrumentalist) relies on you, and the accompanist can basically make or break a career. It’s no stress at all when someone turns up with a bit of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ or ‘Carmen’, but sight-reading ‘Wozzeck’ or ‘Die Aegyptische Helene’ requires some concentration.

As an accompanist, you do sometimes get asked to do concerts at rather short notice, especially if you’ve a reputation as a reasonably handy sight-reader. That may be for no better reason than someone having forgotten to book anyone for the gig! But then there’s the situation where a soloist is flying in from another country and even if you have plenty of notice of the repertoire you may have very little time to rehearse together. One soon learns to work efficiently under such circumstances. Orchestral musicians of course are also all too familiar with the under-rehearsed scenario. When I got together with my two colleagues in the Pizzetti Trio, one of our main aims was to ensure we had adequate – plentiful! – rehearsal for every concert. It’s much more rewarding like that.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I don’t do a huge amount of orchestral piano work, but the big difference from anything else a pianist does is that you don’t have the score, only an orchestral part, so you actually have to count – just like everyone else does all the time, of course. Once you’ve disciplined yourself to do that it’s not too tricky, though some of the piano parts are surprisingly awkward and of course you have to follow the conductor, usually from the back of the band.

In a chamber ensemble, by contrast, the pianist does have the score and so is, if not by any means the leader, at least the referee – you need to keep an eye on the other parts and make sure everyone is in the right place. And of course in any kind of ensemble work you have to listen to the whole sound, not just your own. This is why Wilhelm Fürtwängler said that if you can’t be an accompanist you will never be a musician. True! If you can’t accompany you’re obviously not listening properly. Fitting the sound of a piano seamlessly with voice(s), strings and/or winds is great fun.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve done very few recordings for commercial sale (though certainly over 200 demo and private recordings), and I think my first is probably my favourite: three song cycles by Ronald Stevenson (initially on CD, now on iTunes, CDBaby and all the rest). Moira Harris, Wills Morgan and me. I think we did the music justice, and we organised it all ourselves, which was a useful lesson in musical practicalities. I did the technical stuff and editing too.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Wigmore Hall, as much for sentimental reasons as any others. I’ve played there a couple of times and it’s a lovely feeling, but I’ve been in the audience countless times, often listening to friends performing, and it’s great. I’m not sure it’s the ultimate acoustic for piano, but it’s as good as it gets for string quartet, which is a favourite genre of mine, and voices bloom in there too.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’ve already mentioned Ronald Stevenson and John Ogdon, and among pianists I could also mention Marc-André Hamelin, Marta Argerich, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Art Tatum, Percy Grainger… and lots more, of course. A rather random handful of other kinds of musicians might include Igor Markevitch, John Barbirolli, Furtwängler, Maxim Vengerov, Wissam Boustany, Alexander Ivashkin, Elizabeth Connell, Hans Hotter, Pavarotti and Dame Anne Evans.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing John Ogdon play Busoni’s ‘Fantasia Contrappuntistica’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the late 1980s. He was in a bad mood and played with the kind of intensity you just don’t forget. The opening of the Coda Stretta, where there’s a fortissimo bass ostinato, was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard from a piano, by a long way.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

For me, few things can match the pleasure of playing Brahms’s and Beethoven’s chamber music – trios and quartets and the sonatas for various instruments. I also love playing Wagner’s operas in rehearsals: some of the piano reductions are very ingenious transcriptions, done in many cases by Liszt pupils.

I couldn’t possibly single out one composer or genre as a favourite to listen to, but string quartets by anyone rank highly, alongside symphonies by all the usual suspects and a few more besides, Martinu for instance. Anything at all by van Dieren and Ildebrando Pizzetti, two of my favourites among less-well-known composers. Stevenson, Shostakovich, Alkan…

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

My work as a repetiteur is often very much about detail, and I do think that developing an eye and an ear for detail is crucial. But what I find myself missing most often in contemporary performances, by comparison with recordings from 50 or more years ago, is the sense that the music really means something to the performer. There’s no point at all in going after ‘individualism’ as an effect – that’s just a party trick. If you can work out for yourself what a piece means (which of course need not be verbal in the slightest), and transmit that through attention to the details, you’ll be individual all right.

What are you working on at the moment?

Untypically, a work for two pianos, ‘The Fortress of Illusion’ by Michael Maxwell Steer. It’s a marvellous piece in three movements which we’re playing at the Chetham’s Summer School in a few days from now. After that I’ve got a singer to accompany at the Leicester Square Theatre in a show based on Noel Coward, repetiteuring and coaching on operas of all kinds, accompanying auditions here there and everywhere and a handful of exams. This is why I enjoy my work: it’s practically never the same two days running.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Solving problems.

Richard Black is a highly versatile pianist whose work takes in opera, the symphony orchestra, chamber music and song recitals. He has worked for opera companies great and small in the UK, on operas ranging from half-forgotten gems of the late baroque (Opera Italiana) to the largest works of Wagner (Scottish Opera, Longborough Festival Opera) to new pieces composed in the 21st century (Royal Opera House, Tête à Tête Opera). His ability to play almost anything at sight and his wide knowledge of the opera repertoire have made him a familiar face at opera auditions, and he employs similar talents in accompanying students of every voice and instrument at Goldsmiths College.

As a recital accompanist, Richard has played for singers at Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square, as well as in New York, Paris and Luxembourg. He has accompanied a wide range of instrumental works and played in a variety of chamber ensembles: he recently gave what was almost certainly the first UK performance in some decades of the piano trio by Pizzetti. He has for over 20 years had a strong interest in music by the Scottish composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson, and has performed and recorded many songs by Stevenson as well as playing several of his chamber and solo piano works, including the large-scale Passacaglia on DSCH. Other recordings include songs by Alan Bush and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and he has broadcast several times on BBC Radio 3.

Apart from playing the piano, Richard is an experienced recording engineer, producer and editor and a consultant on audio technology.