Tag Archives: British pianist

Meet the Artist……Ian Pace, pianist

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

My parents bought a piano, at first just as a piece furniture, when I was aged 6, and (so I am told!) I asked them ‘When am I going to have lessons?’ They said ‘Oh, hadn’t thought about that’, but I went to lessons with the local piano teacher (in Hartlepool), Christopher Simmonds, who was great in many ways. Within a year he could see that I had the potential to go places, and I went to Chetham’s when I was 10.

But I got inspired to really go with it mostly through taking music out of my local library and bashing through it at the piano, as well as listening to lots of recordings. I bashed my way through the whole of the Ring cycle, and lots of other operas, and got absolutely hooked. And then at around age 10, I first heard music of Stockhausen, Cage and Messiaen, and was instantly transfixed (I also read the Richard Kostelanetz volume on Cage which was available then, in the late 1970s). I just found a world of the untethered imagination there which was unlike anything else I knew in life. I was equally interested in composing in those days, too. Nowadays, composing is very occasional, but I do have plans to do more at some point when time permits!

I was very inspired by listening to a few pianists at an early stage – Brendel, Barenboim (I still love Brendel in particular); later on I got to know a much wider range, and was transfixed by Horowitz, Cziffra, Rosenthal, Hofmann, Gieseking and various others. But listening to recordings of Furtwängler and Karajan conducting Beethoven, Wagner, Musorgsky, Strauss, and so on, was every bit as important.

I think I just naturally took to the piano as an instrument – I could do a lot on it without it being too difficult at an early stage, though it was later that I really refined all sorts of technical things.

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

Too many to mention! I would like to try and honestly say something about how humanistic and socialist values are the most important influences, right down to how I play music, but that might sound very loaded. In some sense which is very very important to me, I want as a musician to somehow expand, even if only a small amount, the range of experience, consciousness, thoughts, desires, feelings, ideas, available in the cultural realm, to as many people as possible. This is of course a huge ambition, only ever likely to be achievable with a relatively small few, but that is still valuable. I play, and play in what some would say is a relatively uncompromising manner, because I believe in humans, believe in listeners, believe in their potential. I despise elitism for its own sake, but equally despise dumbing-down, and those who claim to be on the left who think culture should be reduced to a lowest common denominator in the name of some pseudo-egalitarian notion of ‘accessibility’. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why a relatively average human being (if such a person exists!) could not engage with music of Lachenmann, or Ferneyhough, or Nono, or Finnissy – or late Bach, late Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman, or whoever – if they are open-minded and prepared to put a bit of effort in. I came to all this stuff for that reason – it certainly was not instilled in me through canonical education or anything like that. The same is true of the most advanced literature, film, theatre, painting or other artistic medium.

I am an academic and university lecturer as well as a pianist, teaching a range of musical areas, not just performance-related. I cannot express how rewarding it is to me when I read essays from students, many of whom have only had a relatively limited exposure to music and ideas thereof upon coming up to university, writing intelligent and incisive essays on musical subjects. I can be uncompromising as a teacher as well – I do not wish to provide pre-digested ideas to be parroted unthinkingly, nor to preach some credo in order to gain followers. There are unfortunately plenty in higher education today who primarily look to students for self-validation, rather than looking to bring out creative and critical thinking in students themselves and listen to what they have to say; and towards that former end some teach via spoon-feeding in a way that to which some will respond positively. I just want to expose students to a range of music and ideas that they might not otherwise have encountered (and, alas, in many cases still will not even after a university education), and let them arrive at their own conclusions, even if they are radically different to my own. And in some ways I feel the same way about giving a performance – I do not really feel any need or desire to win listeners round to my own perspective, I just offer it up for them to arrive at their own perspective.

To answer this question more directly, perhaps unsurprisingly I would say that the most important influence on my playing was my main piano teacher, György Sándor, with whom I studied in NYC in the early 1990s. I discovered his book On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound and Expression when I was about 18, and it completely transformed everything about how I play, at least in a physical sense. I knew then that this was who I wanted to study with, where I would find what I had not found with previous teachers. I had no teacher for the next four years as I prepared above all to study with Sándor, and I was not disappointed at all. He was also a tremendously generous, warm, human being, entirely void of any type of affected grandeur, preciousness, or anything like that. We disagreed violently about various things – he had no time for any atonal music, or much after Bartók, and also little time for historically-informed approaches to performance. I did and do disagree with him strongly on both those things, but still admired the coherence of his positions. As a teacher myself, I teach in a way based upon his pianistic methods, which I continue to believe are move valuable than any other systematic approach. Having spent a lot of time (not least in a scholarly context) studying other schools of playing, I see many of their limitations; some Russian schools preclude a pointed attack and to my mind rather restrict the range of articulations as a result, whilst some French schools (not all!) make a true legato impossible.

I could name any number of composers whose work has been an influence in one way or another, but that probably goes without saying; amongst performers, all of those mentioned above, and then very different ones including David Tudor, Frederic Rzewski, Andreas Staier, all sorts of singers, string players, conductors, and others, some pop and jazz musicians, lots of writers, film-makers, and so on. Overall – perhaps as a natural extrovert in some ways – I feel a natural empathy with all types of artists who I seem able to externalise somehow, and in whose work I find a type of honesty (a much maligned category, but which I continue to find meaningful – perhaps I might put it better by saying a quality of vulnerability?) rather than cynical calculation or preciousness. For those reasons I love the playing of Gieseking, or Charles Rosen, say, but have much less time for that of Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer or Samuel Feinberg.

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

There have been many. I like to think I am something of an idealist, though my ideals have changed or at least been modified over time (I’m 48 now, and think quite differently to how I did 20 years ago, say, though the underlying motivations are similar). I’ve always felt somewhat estranged from what I perceive as the rather precious and snobbish culture which surrounds classical music, and have sought approaches other from those which satisfy that culture’s concomitant expectations, but without this entailing musical compromise.

That has taken many forms, some of them hard-line to the point of belligerence, and sometimes led to some resistance. In some cases, deliberately avoiding a particular approach was interpreted by some as a simple inability to do it, which I don’t think was true, and I could get disappointed by this. I wouldn’t deny that I’m sensitive to criticism, though inwardly some of my own criticism can be as harsh – though not necessarily of the same nature – as that of anyone. Not that I expect everyone to like all I do (I don’t like everything I’ve ever done), by any means, but at least realise that this is a conscious choice rather than knowing no better. Towards the end of the 1990s, I moved towards more of an ‘anti-romantic’ position, with implications in terms of general approaches to articulation, voicing, pedalling, and so on (though with flexibility), at the same time becoming more deeply interested in historically-informed performance; in the mid-2000s I wanted to relax this more and more. Coming to terms with how one used to play, when things have changed, is not easy – and maybe my approach will change again?

Feeling truly at ease with concertising – at least as much as one can do (nerves never completely go away for me at least) – is not something I think I achieved regularly until the late 1990s, a little bit into my performing career. I made a lot of very significant technical adjustments when working with Sándor, and just sometimes, when very tense, I  found I might revert inadvertently to some of the bad old ways. In time, I came to see how this might come about, and which preventive steps to take in advance of a concert.

Overall, dealing with the internal politics of the profession, and some of the poison therein which exists, is very hard and wearing. The depths to which some people will sink shocks and upset me – for example when I heard one composer invent a story about another one’s father beating him up (definitively not true – that latter composer would have told me long before he told the other person) in order to portray him as mentally unstable. Certainly in the end the music we produce matters more than the musicians, but musicians are human beings, and it is far too easy to lose sight of this in the name of some elevated aesthetic ideals. Ultimately human interests do matter more than art.

In terms of academic music, I’m in many ways quite at odds with the dominant ideologies and approaches in a sizeable part of the Anglo-American world (perhaps less so with other schools from elsewhere). There is a good deal of musicology (though by no means all) which distrusts music and especially its particular quality of ambiguity, wanting instead to pin it down to firm, fixed meanings, or investigate anything except for the actual sounding music. And at the same time there is the strong presence of a market-based ideology, especially in the so-called ‘new musicology’, which is utterly dismissive of the idea that there could be any music with some degree of autonomy from commercialism, or that there could be any value in such a thing. As such, many academic musicians have put up little resistance to a lot of dumbing-down of wider education, not to mention cuts to public funding of classical music. Some will happily consign a good deal of Western art music to the dustbin when it seems fashionable to do so, and in the process deny a lot of students help with grappling with a repertoire which those academics themselves could take for granted (you can read more of my thoughts on some these subjects on pp. 28-29 of the following – http://www.sma.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/SMA_newsletter_2015.pdf ). In quite a bit of musicology, I see a bit of a cynical jostling for position, which privileges whatever are the ‘right’ conclusions in order to win favour with particular factions, as well as what are often quite simple arguments bathed jargon in order to impress. My models for academic writing (not ones I remotely think I could match!) are the likes of Charles Rosen, or Richard J. Evans – extremely clear and intelligent writers who convey complex ideas but have an ability to communicate to a wider public. At the same time, I do not accept what a ‘reductive’ view of music in terms of its social context; no music or other culture can probably be entirely autonomous of such a thing, but still, most fundamentally, I believe in the importance of culture which does more than simply reflect its conditions, but can reflect back critically upon them, in various ways, not least by offering up the possibility of other types of experience than those otherwise provided by its context. To deny that is really to deny creativity, I would say. This is an unfashionable view in academia today, but one which is vividly apparent to me coming first and foremost from the world of musical practice.

To make a more general point, one about which my thoughts have been influenced by regular conversations with many other academics in many institutions: I would say the corporate structures of much contemporary academia, and the ways in which power is distributed and exercise, can work against academic freedom and the possibilities for critical thinking. The very principles of independent rational and critical thought can be strongly at cross-purposes with hierarchical organisations which reward conformity and compliance. Some are unbothered by this, so long as they can derive personal gain and advancement. With this can come bullying, though attempts to ostracise scapegoat anyone who doesn’t go with the flow. I have seen, heard about, and experienced this sort of thing.

But nothing is more of a challenge than coming to terms with the extent of abuse, mistreatment and bullying in music education and the wider musical world. In early 2013, the former Director of Music at my old school, Chetham’s, was found guilty of sexually abusing a pupil, Frances Andrade, from when she was 14; she tragically took her own life during the trial. I and others knew that this was far from the only case at Chetham’s – in particular the atrocious way in which the case of Chris Ling (a serial abuser at the school, who fled the country (at first together with six girls from the school) to avoid prosecution, and who shot himself when facing extradition last year) had been hushed up.

Why did I get involved with all of this? I think that, as a musician and an educator, I have felt for a very long time (perhaps in part as a response to the toxic culture which existed in my time at Chetham’s) that there can be a hideous conflation of supposedly artistic, aestheticized values, and a culture of dehumanisation and brutalisation. I don’t want to exaggerate this parallel, but I was influenced by some of my academic research into aesthetics and fascism, seeing how a fundamentally aesthetic view of humankind can lead to an easy way to utterly dehumanise those who do not fit that aesthetic vision (see for example Frederic Spotts’ work on this subject). A lot started to make sense to me more clearly than ever, and my belief in the vital importance of working for a music world in which despicable behaviour was not excused by the veneer of artistry became hardened. Michael Brewer epitomised everything that was wrong, something I saw but maybe did not fully comprehend when at school.

Anyhow, after the verdict, I hosted on my blog (http://ianpace.wordpress.com ) a petition calling for a public inquiry into abuse in musical education in general (all types of abuse – sexual, physical, psychological). Within a couple of weeks, I had got thousands of signatures from the musical profession, including many former pupils from the five specialist music schools. But with this, a great many people wrote to me with testimony of their own awful experiences, glad that at last there was a climate where people might be prepared to believe this had happened. As a result of this, I had inadvertently become an expert on the subject, and there was no turning back (this was not information I could easily turn over to anyone else). I submitted the petition to the appropriate authorities, but didn’t get much positive response. I came to realise that if I was to be taken seriously on this subject, I needed to know more about the wider issues of abuse (which to politicians and others seemed more significant), especially if abuse in music might be connected to these. This led me to the case of Alan Doggett (a conductor associated with Lloyd Webber and Rice, based at Colet Court School and then elsewhere), and to the organisation PIE (I don’t want to go into detail on this now – you can look on my blog for more). It took over a significant part of my life for an extended period – I have pulled back a little now, but am still active, and have compiled many documents on the basis of my research.

You cannot imagine how upsetting and frightening this can become – I had heard people say so, but never really had the measure of it until I actually felt it first-hand. The personal toll this has taken has been immense, both in terms of state of mind, relationship, and many other things, and it has coincided with other difficulties (including some other academics exploiting the situation to try and undermine my work in general). It is also impossible to avoid getting caught up in the wider politics of this, which is complicated by the fact that there are clearly some involved with other agendas, some far from benign, and also simply the fact that there are inevitably some very damaged people there. This has been the biggest challenge of my life. But I don’t regret doing it at all.

Some might want to use this issue to undermine classical music in general. In no sense is that my agenda – I care about that music very deeply, but want to see it practised and taught in a more humane environment. This should not be impossible.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Performances: mostly I go away from them thinking of the things I was least happy with, but as time goes on I come to think a bit more positively. Not through listening to recordings (I rarely record live concerts from choice – live performance and recording are to me fundamentally differently mediums, as much so as theatre and film), but just having time to reflect and digest. I recall being quite pleased with a concert in Leeds in 2010 where I played Finnissy’s English Country-Tunes, probably the best I have played it. I also greatly enjoyed a concert the previous year as part of my leaving event at Dartington College of Arts, where I used to teach. This included the Fauré Nocturne No. 4, Janáček In the Mists, and Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrouchka and Rebecca Saunders’ Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall. There was a performance of Stockhausen Klavierstück X I gave at City University in 2014 which I think was not bad at all. What else? Radulescu’s Third Sonata in Leuven in 2007, in an extra concert after the main one (where I had given the premiere of the Sixth Sonata). And a performance of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus right back in 1997, within the context of a series of the music of Howard Skempton. And any number of performances of Christopher Fox’s More Light, which I adore. Also a performance of Lachenmann’s Serynade in Aberdeen last autumn. And a concert in the Festival d’automne in Paris in 2002 where I played all of the Dusapin Études (the premiere of the complete set) and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. One concert in my home town of Hartlepool in 2014, with Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Janáček, and Earl Wild’s Fantasy on Themes from Porgy and Bess. These are a handful of those about which I feel reasonably happy.

Recordings: harder to say, because soon after they are released, I stop listening to them. When you have dissected them in the process of preparation, you know all the things which didn’t quite turn out how you wanted them too, and those become more difficult to handle with every listening. My recording of Dusapin’s Études and piano concerto À Quia is not bad, also that of Walter Zimmermann’s piano works, at least some of them. And I’m not unhappy with my biggest recording project to date, that of Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound, a 5-CD set.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’m less and less convinced about how well a good deal of repertoire from before around the mid-19th century works on a modern piano, so can’t imagine that I play much of that particularly well now. Best? Some Liszt, Brahms, some Debussy and Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage, Feldman, Ligeti, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Kagel, Rzewski, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Sciarrino, Radulescu, Dusapin, Fox.

Chopin I adore (and above all I see as a contrapuntal composer), but I’m never really convinced that I can do what I want to on a modern instrument. The same is true of Schumann (all that thick passagework in the central registers is one reason his music is mistakenly assumed to be somewhat muddy). Scriabin I continue to try to negotiate (I find its exaggerated qualities can lead to banality, and have too much of an ironic sensibility to take all that mysticism and affected sensuousness at face value) with mixed results. Schoenberg is hard to bring off.

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

In many cases, depending upon what I get asked to play! But I like to expand what I do, as well as playing some of my well-ingrained repertoire. In the last few years I’ve been doing various new things – the transcriptions by Earl Wild of music of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, the amazing Piano Sonata of Sergei Zagny, more recent work of Christopher Fox, whilst on my own looking more at composers like Florent Schmitt and Frederic Mompou. I want to play more lesser-known Slavic music of various types. This year I played the Dukas Sonata for the first piece, and have been documenting the process for an article on practice-as-research.

I hope at whatever age I will continue to champion the works of younger composers. In many ways that is the most important thing to do. Of course not everything is fantastic, but if these people do not get a proper hearing, we will never know which stuff is.

I love playing new work. I’ve just premiered an incredible new piece by Finnissy called Beethoven’s Robin Adair, and later on in the year I will be playing new works by Lauren Redhead and Patrícia Almeida. I cannot say how excited I am about this.

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

Various ones I have enjoyed: the main radio concert hall at Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Berliner Konzerthaus, the Warehouse in London. In general, venues without tiered seats sound best!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To perform: many things mentioned above! Above all Liszt, Debussy, Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Finnissy, Radulescu, Dusapin, I think.

To listen to: then things get much broader. I can listen to any amount of medieval music of whatever type, though some music of the Renaissance leaves me cold (but I like Josquin, Ockeghem, and then later Marenzio (very much) and Gesualdo). After that, much of what I listen to is from the nineteenth and twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. I adore a great deal of opera (and teach a module on it). I also listen to a good deal of jazz of all periods, and have a real love for British jazz of the 1930s and 1940s – Henry Hall, Ambrose, and so on. A good deal of popular music – perhaps more British than American, though I go for 1940s and 1950s American music of many types, and then stuff of Hendrix, the Doors, and Zappa and Beefheart on one hand, and lots of Motown and Chicago funk on the other.

All sorts of music which I find somehow culturally significant, I suppose. My listening habits are extremely eclectic and catholic, but not undiscerning, I hope.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Again – see the above! I also am drawn to many historically-informed performers and groups: Harnoncourt (especially), Goebel, Europa Galante, Il Giardino Armonico, Music Antiqua Köln, Frieburger Barockorchester the ORR and Gardiner, countless medieval vocal groups (but not so much those in the British traditions). I love the work of Ensemble Organum under Marcel Pérès, and also that of my university colleague Alex Lingas’s group Cappella Romana.

Some other pianists as well as those mentioned before: Josef Lhevinne, Ignaz Friedman, Egon Petri, Grigory Ginsburg, Earl Wild, Julius Katchen, Paul Jacobs, Jörg Demus, Aldo Ciccolini, Lazar Berman, Friedrich Gulda, Samson François, Kristian Zimerman, Dezsö Ránki, Marc-André Hamelin, Janusz Olejniczak, Bart van Oort.

Some other composers beyond those listed above who are favourites: Adam de la Halle, Guillaume de Machaut, John Dunstable, Guillaume Dufay, Marenzio, Monteverdi, both Scarlattis, Frescobaldi, Biber, Purcell, J.S. Bach, Rameau, Couperin, Charpentier, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Bellini, Donizetti, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Fauré (cannot hear enough of his music), Albéniz, Ives, Debussy, Ravel (every work is worth hearing, many times), Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg up until the early 1920s, and then from the late 1930s, Varèse, Bartók, Kodály, Percy Grainger, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Dieter Schnebel, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Sylvano Bussotti, Franco Evangelisti, Josef Anton Riedl, Hans Otte, Galina Ustvolskaya, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Ivo Malec, Nicolaus A. Huber, and lots of others.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The final concert in my 1996 series of Michael Finnissy – the high I felt after that was really something. Various occasions where I have stepped in at the last minute to play things. I can do this, and sometimes it generates such a level of adrenalin that the performance has something particularly special, even if it feels knife-edge! A few occasions where I really didn’t know if it was going to be possible: the world premiere of Brian Ferneyhough’s Opus Contra Naturam in Leuven in 2000 (finished just three days before the concert), or of Wieland Hoban’s when the panting STARTS four years later in the same place.

Playing with lots of singers, having the chance to play operatic repertoire I love so much.

It is difficult to answer this question, really.

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

Find a really good technical approach as early as possible – remember there is loads of quackery around. For pianists, if anyone tells you to play with your elbows locked into the body, or with a fixed wrist, find someone else instead.

Listen to all types of music, you can never listen to too much. And listen to many types of performers, and really listen – when you find something really striking, see if you can see how that is brought about. And don’t just listen to your own instrument, or even your own musical genre. For pianists, listen in particular to singers, but also to orchestras. Listen to music from outside of Western traditions. Look for music you would not encounter otherwise.

Try and have some experience of all of the following: keyboard, singing, percussion. All vital skills. Learn at least basic harmony and counterpoint as early as possible, and develop aural skills as best as possible. Get used to being able to listen intently and mentally analyse many musical and aural phenomena you encounter. Read more widely about music, music history, music theory, and lots of critical questions surrounding music.

Do lots of sight reading from an early age – that is how the skill is developed (spending time bashing through opera scores and the like when I was young helped immensely here). I can’t stress enough how important a skill this is, and how much one needs to be able to absorb music and get into a performable state in a short amount of time in a professional career, and with all the other pressures and demands of life.

If any teachers or others try to dismiss the music you care about, on grounds of its being allegedly elitist, Eurocentric, or whatsoever, remember they almost invariably have a chip on their shoulder about it for other reasons. Stand up for what you believe in against such people, even if they are your teachers.

Become more widely conversant with many arts – literature, poetry, theatre, film, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc. and ideas, and the world in general. Understand what you can about the cultural, social and historical context of the music you play, but try and understand the context in which you are playing it too. Look outwards as well as inwards. Embrace the world and people with all their imperfections. Remember how much you can always learn from others. Try and imagine yourself inside the mind of someone who shares few of the same core assumptions about music and culture as yourself. Then you will have a clearer idea of how you might be able to communicate with them.

Take on board two bits of advice I heard from different pianists: Peter Donohoe once said that when young and starting out, do whatever you can that is to do with music, it will all benefit. John Lill once said that a musician has to be very sensitive to the music they play, but very insensitive to all the crap they will put up with because of the politics of the profession. Both of these are very good pieces of advice.

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

Mostly doing the same type of thing, perhaps a bit more recognition, feeling a more supportive general environment in society as a whole (with a different complexion of government) for what I believe. Having issued more recordings and writings. Maybe composing some more. Commissioning lots more new works. Remaining in good health as I approach 60!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Just spending time together with my wife Lindsay, in a nice place, such as in Italy.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano and my books.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing, reading, listening, eating and drinking well, cycling, teaching, and being with Lindsay. Seeing friends and people in general.

What is your present state of mind? 

Somewhat anxious, distrustful, ever-aware of how easily corruptible and awestruck by power so many people are. Concerned about the world is getting even more ruthless and inhuman all the time, and how fear is being stoked to breed prejudice. The US might elect Donald Trump President – that is terrifying, and speaks of a wider malaise in that society. Also concerned to see classical music and other forms of demanding artistic education get lost (or rather, become restricted to those privileged enough to have an elite education) in a mire of relativism and eschewal of value judgement. Preparing to go on strike tomorrow against real-terms cuts in pay for academics, casualization, and gender inequality. But still ultimately hopeful and optimistic, refusing to give in to complete cynicism.

I think I feel very internationalist in outlook. And as inspired as ever when encountering creativity. That’s why I remain an optimist, however jaded by experience.

And as I write this, I’m feeling exciting about reading a book I just received (Francis Booth, Amongst those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980). And looking forward (not without a little trepidation) to my concert this Friday, the third in my series this year of the piano music of Michael Finnissy, featuring his major cycle Folklore and a host of shorter pieces, including the fearsome all.fall.down. I would like to invite people to come to it if in London – this Friday, May 27th, beginning at 18:00 (early evening concert), then the main concert at 19:15. All at City University, Performance Space, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB. Full details are here: http://www.city.ac.uk/events/2016/may/michael-finnissy-at-70-the-piano-music-3-ian-pace

I would  also like to mention another project I am involved in, crowd-funding to make a recording of the piano music of Marc Yeats. This is something I so want to make happen, and has less than two more weeks to run. Full details, and ways of supporting the project, can be found here – https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/my-recording-of-marc-yeats-piano-music-please-support-this-project/ . Please do help!

 

Ian Pace is a pianist of long-established reputation, specialising in the farthest reaches of musical modernism and transcendental virtuosity, as well as a writer and musicologist focusing on issues of performance, music and society and the avant-garde. He was born in Hartlepool, England in 1968, and studied at Chetham’s School of Music, The Queen’s College, Oxford and, as a Fulbright Scholar, at the Juilliard School in New York. His main teacher, and a major influence upon his work, was the Hungarian pianist György Sándor, a student of Bartók.

Ian Pace’s website

Horae (pro clara) – Kenneth Hesketh

hesketh_coverThe latest release from pianist Clare Hammond is a disc for BIS Records of solo piano music by British composer Kenneth Hesketh –  Horae (pro clara) (2011/12), Notte Oscura (2002), Through Magic Casements (2008) and Three Japanese Miniatures (2002).

Horae (pro clara) was written for Clare Hammond following Kenneth Hesketh’s meeting with Clare at her debut recital at the Southbank Centre in 2010. They have subsequently developed a close artistic collaboration.

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Clare Hammond (photo: Julie Kim)
Clare says of Ken’s music that “it can seem overwhelming at times, yet if one engages with its textural intricacy, the scope of his extra-musical allusions, and volatile virtuosity, rich rewards lie in store”. Clare seems ideally suited to this type of repertoire. Her debut album, Piano Polytych, containing works by Kenneth Hesketh, Julian Anderson, Piers Hellawell, Giles Swayne and Philip Grange, revealed her to be a fine advocate for contemporary piano repertoire, combining flawless technique with a sharp intellect and musical sensitivity to bring such works to life with colour, vibrancy and rhythmic precision, and totally without the self-consciousness or affectation that sometimes accompanies performances of this type of repertoire.

Kenneth Hesketh’s musical language is drawn from a broad range of stimuli, including classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry, Bauhaus constructivism and existentialism, and these extra-musical references bring texture, structure and a wide range of moods, tempi, colour and piquancy to his music. The works presented on this disc are complex, both technically and musically, with dense textures and abrupt voltes faces between the macabre and grotesque and the delicate and poignant. What Clare Hammond does so well is to bring a sparkling clarity to the tightly-packed textures without comprising her sensitive musicality and her ability to shift seamlessly between the myriad moods and styles of the pieces.

The first work on this disc, Through Magic Casements, takes its title from Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale and much of its soundworld seems to echo the imagery of the poem with its urgent febrile passages which fade to nothing at the end.

The work which occupies most of the disc, Horae (pro clara), was premiered by Clare Hammond at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2013, and consists of twelve miniatures which as a whole form a ‘breviary’ or book of hours. The movements are not titled; instead they have evocative performance directions and some incorporate literary references. Thematic material, such as Hesketh’s fascination with machines and automata, is shared across the set, thus linking the pieces, though they can be performed in any order. Some contain dense thickets of notes and melodic lines, abrupt and plangent bass interruptions, and vibrant rhythms (VII: Capriccioso), while others comprise spare shards and delicate scurrying traceries (VI: Nervoso, ma dolce, for example).

The third work Notte Oscura (2002) is a piano transcription of the first interlude in Hesketh’s opera The Overcoat, after Nikolai Gogol, and in it Hesketh highlights Gogol’s description of St Petersburg’s powerful and all-pervasive cold. The opening bass chords are perfectly judged by Clare Hammond, lending a sense of foreboding before the music moves into a more melodic passage, though the mood of menace and anxiety is never far away. Repeated tremolo notes high in the register suggest shards of ice, while the bass sonorities conjure up the vastness of the Russian landscape.

The suite Three Japanese Miniatures concludes the disc. The works are drawn from fragments and paraphrases of a larger work by Hesketh inspired by Japanese folk tales and each movement portrays a story, from a nocturnal wanderer who finds himself amid the imposing grandeur of a ruined temple to a winter sprite who takes revenge on a broken promise by taking the lives of a man and his children and finally the story of Bumbuku, a daemon who takes the form of a badger and lives in a tea kettle. The works are expressive, haunting and humorous, and, as in the previous works on this disc, Clare highlights their distinctive narratives with precise articulation and a vivid palette of musical colour.

Horae (pro clara) is released on 27 May on the BIS label. Further information and sound clips here

An interview with composer Kenneth Hesketh will appear in the Meet the Artist series on 2 June

Clare Hammond is the recent recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society young artist award 

Pianist Christina McMaster St John’s Smith Square 2016/17 Young Artist

Ever since its reinvention as a concert hall, St John’s Smith Square has played a pivotal role in supporting the most promising young musicians. Simon Rattle, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy and Jacqueline du Pré are just a few of the musicians who performed at St John’s Smith Square before going on to begin internationally renowned careers.

St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme 2016/17

“The Young Artists’ Scheme at St John’s Smith Square is a vital part of our mission as one of the UK’s leading concert halls. By investing in the development and nurturing of exceptional talent we are helping to ensure that music making and creative opportunity is refreshed and renewed for future generations. It is also, of course, incredibly exciting simply to observe the young performers as they develop across the course of their involvement with the scheme and a real reward for our audiences to be able to share this process of development.” – Richard Heason: Director, St John’s Smith Square

Pianist Christina McMaster is amongst the line up of the 2016/17 Young Artists’ Scheme (which also includes the Minerva Piano Trio, harpist Oliver Wass and the Ferio Saxophone Quartet). A champion of contemporary repertoire, Christina has been praised for her innovative programming, and her collaborations with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. She also commissions and performs a wide range of new music, and has worked with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

christina2bmcmaster

Christina launched her debut album ‘Pinks & Blues’ in October 2015 on her own label to a sell-out audience at St James’ Theatre, the album is a fusion of jazz and blues influenced classical and contemporary music with two new commissions.

“Thanks to the St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme I am able to design and deliver my ambitious vision of an exciting ‘mini-festival’ across 2016/17 season with an array of concerts from solo piano music by Bartók, Scarlatti, Ligeti, Debussy, to a concert where 120 school children take over the galleries of SJSS! Responding to the building’s rich history I’ll perform music by Dowland, Shostakovich, Britten and Birtwistle with the Ligeti Quartet; and the brilliant sisters Kristine and Margarita Balanas will join me for piano trios by Schumann and Arvo Pärt. The scheme has also provided the wonderful opportunity to commission new music by Richard Bullen and Ayanna Witter-Johnson; Ayanna will pay homage to one of her heroines in celebration of International Women’s Day alongside some of my musical heroes including Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Charles Ives and Meredith Monk.”  –

Christina McMaster

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster

Review of Pinks & Blues

St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme

Intimacy and Control: Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square

The transfer of the International Piano Series to St John’s Smith Square while the Southbank Centre undergoes a facelift is proving successful and popular. An elegant venue with a fine acoustic and a beautiful Steinway piano, coupled with one of the UK’s most gifted pianists active today, made for an evening of music making of the highest calibre, in a diverse programme which opened with Schubert and closed with Rachmaninov.

Steven Osborne
(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Schubert’s second set of Impromptus D935 are less frequently performed than the first set, with the exception of the third of the set (a set of variations based on the Rosamunde theme). The first and the last, both in F minor but very contrasting, were presented in this concert. The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece or album leaf. Schubert’s Impromptus, composed in 1827, his post-Winterreise year of fervent creativity, are tightly-structured and highly cohesive works.

There is nothing “small scale” about the opening of the first of the D935, and Steven Osborne‘s account of this was brisk, almost terse, and bold, with a grandeur redolent of Beethoven at his most expansively gestural. But Schubert does not linger in this territory for long and soon the music moved into a far more introverted realm. The middle section, tender duetting fragments over an undulating accompaniment, was poetic, intimate and ethereal. By contrast, the other F minor Impromptu was infused with Hungarian flavours, with offbeat rhythms and twisting scalic figures. Osborne pulled it off with a modest bravado, alert always to Schubert’s miraculous harmonic shifts and fleeting moods.

Read my full review here

Stephen Hough premieres his new piano sonata 

  
Barbican. London, 28th October 2015
As befits this deep thinking musical polymath, the programme for Stephen Hough’s Barbican concert was carefully constructed to reveal every side of his personality – artistic, creative and philosophical. The concert showcased Hough’s new Piano Sonata III, written to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Tablet, which Hough intelligently linked to his choice of other composers. The spiritual preoccupations of Schubert, Franck and Liszt match Hough’s own, but there were motivic connections between the works in the programme too: for example, the final movement of Hough’s Piano Sonata mirrored the grandeur and hymn-like qualities of Franck’s Fugue. Liszt’s Valses oubliées looked forward to Schoenberg and his cohort in their unexpected harmonies and fragmentary melodies, while Hough’s own work looked back to the 12-tone compositional technique, originally conceived by Schoenberg. There was also virtuosity aplenty too – in his own work and in two of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, which closed the concert.

Read my full review here 
(Photo credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

Pianist Clare Hammond appears in a new Alan Bennett film adaptation, ‘The Lady in the Van’

A big screen adaptation of writer Alan Bennett’s celebrated memoir, directed by long-standing Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner.

The film tells the true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the singular Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. Their unique story is funny, poignant and life-affirming. What begins as a begrudged favor becomes a relationship that will change both their lives. Bennett’s play has echoes of the story of Anne Naysmith, former concert pianist, who lived in a car in Chiswick after falling on hard times and being evicted from her home.

British pianist Clare Hammond will appear as the younger version of Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Miss Shepherd. Clare performs in a number of flashback scenes recreating a Proms concert in the 1930s, and enacts Miss Shepherd’s experiences as a novice nun some years later.

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Clare’s recording of excerpts from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, is featured throughout the film. The slow movement of Chopin’s concerto and Clare’s performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major are included on the soundtrack alongside music specially composed for the film by George Fenton, due for release by Sony on the 6 November 2015.

Meet the Artist……Clare Hammond (interview)

Filmed on the street and in the house where Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived all those years, acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner reunites with Bennett (‘The Madness of King George’, ‘The History Boys’) to bring this touching, poignant, and life-affirming story to the screen. The film is due for release in the UK on 13 November 2015.

Official trailer

Meet the Artist…….Martin James Bartlett

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

At a very young age I was drawn to the music room where my mother would be teaching the piano some evenings. When I was six she started teaching me and a few years later took me to audition at the Royal College of Music. During my ten years at the Junior Department I studied with Emily Jeffrey, who cultivated my love of music and inspired me to pursue the career of a concert pianist.

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

The most influential years of my musical and personal development were when I studied with Emily Jeffrey. Over the many years she always challenged me to be more disciplined and strive for greater heights. Apart from the wealth of knowledge she imparted upon me I can remember the many laughs and fun we had together. Her unerring passion and all-consuming dedication to music were a constant source of inspiration for me.

I am also immensely grateful for the constant support and guidance that my parents have given me, and their unequivocal belief in me.

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

At a young age I was always a little agitated and anxious before a performance. I disliked the tense moments before walking onto the platform, however once I started to play those feelings dissipated and the enjoyment took over.

After a few successful concerts my confidence began to grow and it gradually became less challenging

Which performance are you most proud of? 

I am proud of my performances throughout BBC Young Musician, at the ‘BBC Proms in the Park’ in Belfast and also my recent debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I greatly enjoy performing and listening to so many works from totally different periods. Personally I feel a natural affinity to the works of Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff, however I also love the works of Schumann and Prokofiev.

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

I hope to offer fresh interpretation and convey the emotions from the repertoire that I perform, so I keep this in mind when I select certain pieces.

I also spend many hours deciding on programme length, balancing the stylistic aspects and contrasts.

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

I wouldn’t say I have a favourite hall, because there are many different aspects from every hall that I enjoy. I love the intimate atmosphere and acoustic of halls such as Cadogan Hall and Wigmore, however I also appreciate the immense space and grandeur of halls such as Usher Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I greatly enjoy listening to operas such as ‘Tosca’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and all the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. My current favourite pieces to perform are Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Prokofiev Sonata no. 7 and Mozart Concerto in D minor K466.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I hugely admire Leonard Bernstein, for his immense talent as a musician but also his dedication to musical education and inspiring younger generations. Maria Callas is another idol of mine, due to her unwavering, serious dedication to Opera.

Pianistically I am inspired by so many different artists, but Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich are amongst my favourites.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The final of BBC Young Musician is a performance I will never forget. The BBC team were so supportive and encouraging and on stage I was totally immersed in the atmosphere and the music.

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

Firstly, to embark on a musical career, one must absolutely love and enjoy music. Of course there is a huge amount of dedication and work to be done to succeed, but the most important aspect is to passionately devote yourself to it. Stay true to yourself, the composer and the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Watching the sunset with a glass of red wine, an excellent book and a recording of Dinu Lipatti performing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a collection of complete recordings from Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas and Shura Cherkassky that I could not live without!

What is your present state of mind?

Introspective, a little anxious and excited for the future.

Martin James Bartlett performs Gerhswin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in Prom 32 with Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Further details and tickets here

In May  2014, at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett was awarded the title of BBC Young Musician. His winning performance of Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, with conductor Kirill Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, received overwhelming acclaim from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall audience and from those tuning into the live recording broadcast on BBC4 and BBC Radio 3.

Martin began his piano studies with Emily Jeffrey at the Royal College of Music Junior Department when he was 8 years of age, and then at the Purcell School also some 5 years later. Last autumn, he commenced his undergraduate studies with Vanessa Latarche at the Royal College of Music, notably as a coveted Foundation Scholar. Martin also previously studied the bassoon and the recorder, achieving Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments by the age of 12.

Throughout these formative years, Martin enjoyed considerable success in numerous competitions and festivals. During his time at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, Martin won the Gordon Turner Competition, the Teresa Carreño Competition, the Angela Bull Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Prize. He was several years running a top prize winner also in the Jaques Samuel Junior Department Piano Festival. In 2012, Martin was granted a Tsukanov Scholarship, which generously supported his final years of study at the RCMJD. During his time at the Purcell School, Martin won the Middle School Concerto Competition, the Freddy Morgan Competition, the Wigmore Competition (both solo and chamber) and the Senior School Concerto Competition. At the end of his studies at both RCMJD and Purcell, Martin was honoured to be awarded the prestigious Leaver’s Prize for Outstanding Musical Contribution, the Esther Coleman Prize and the Rosemary Rapaport Prize.

Following his success in such competitions, Martin has given solo recital performances in the Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, Bolivar Hall and Novi Sad Town Hall, as well as the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, Steinway Hall and Moscow’s Multi-Media Arts Hall. He has also participated in masterclasses with Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Mikhail Petukhov, Kathryn Stott, Aaron Shorr and Alberto Portugheis. In addition, Martin has organised and performed in numerous charity concerts too, to date raising over thirty thousand pounds for a wide range of deserving causes.

In September 2014, Martin made his debut at the BBC Proms, performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Ulster Orchestra at the “Last Night” celebrations, which were broadcast live from Belfast on the internet as well as BBC Radio Ulster. Martin has also performed with the BSO in Bournemouth Pavilion as soloist in the opening concert of their 2014/15 Season.

Martin was one of 27 international artists, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Nicola Benedetti and Alison Balsom, to be chosen by the BBC to record a cover of the Beach Boys classic ‘God only Knows‘. The song was first aired on the 8th October 2014 on all BBC TV and Radio channels and later was released as the BBC Children in Need single with the first ever collaboration between Warner, Sony and Universal music.

www.martinjamesbartlett.com

Meet the Artist……Nick van Bloss

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

When I was 11, by chance, I saw a piano in a front garden in my street. It had a sign on it saying’ Good Home Wanted. I wanted it! We wheeled it home and I was instantly drawn to it. I somehow knew that it contained something life-changing. From then on it was just a matter of learning, studying, and finding a way to make the piano speak. I knew when I first touched the piano that it would become my life.

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

That warrants a multi-layered answer, I’m afraid, as there have been so many! One hugely important aspect has been my personal drive – not a ‘pushy’ drive, but more an absolute necessity to strive to play and communicate. A kind of influence from within…

Studying with Yonty Solomon when I was at the Royal College was life-changing. Up until then I’d never been taught – teachers had never nurtured or enhanced anything musical in me, and I now put this down to ego-driven, lazy, (non) teaching. Yonty was so generous and humble – I often worked every day with him. He opened up a whole new world of sound, expression and creativity. His ability to make me aware of things the piano could do was sheer genius.

Finally, although it sounds a bit downbeat, I have to admit that going through tremendous turmoil and difficulty in life has influenced and strengthened everything I do musically. From anguish comes understanding and creativity…

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

Although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I think making a ‘comeback’ concert after some 15 years of not even owning or touching a piano was a huge challenge, physically and emotionally. Not to mention musically! And I hadn’t played to an audience of any size for 18 years. So, a packed Cadogan Hall, plus critics, TV cameras and radio, and the English Chamber Orchestra on stage, and then playing two concertos (a Bach and Beethoven No. 5) could’ve been a recipe for disaster. I’m not quite sure how I did it, actually!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Along with the above performance, I have to say I’m incredibly proud of my recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was my first CD – released after the ‘comeback’, but recorded just before it – and it was sheer joy to finally connect with the piano after so many years away from it. It felt like ‘coming home’ and embracing something truly wonderful.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s such a hard question. I adore performing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann solo works and concertos. I can only leave it to others to decide which I perform best…

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

It’s not difficult: I re-learn works that are programmed each season, and then I usually decide to add some new works to the mix. But I’m very, VERY traditional – core Classical repertoire only for me: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and then Schumann and Brahms as the Romantics. I spent too many years thrashing away at Liszt, Prokofieff et al. Now I realise that there’s little room in that repertoire to stamp an absolute ideal, my own personality, or even something a bit different. It all pretty much sounds the same no matter who plays it – and so many do play it, and so well. But it still all sounds pretty much the same…

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

I have to make an admission here: I usually love each hall I play in, at the time, Then, on reflection, I usually end up thinking it wasn’t such a great hall to perform in after all! It’s probably more to do with the actual pianos. The perfect piano in the perfect hall is so hard to find. Each needs the other. Alas it’s the life of a pianist to have to adapt to so many differing instruments.

But, there is one hall I do absolutely adore. The Metropolitan Festival Hall (Bunka Kaikan) in Tokyo – playing there was a dream as I really did have a perfect piano in an utterly magnificent hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Gosh, that’s a hard one. In theory, I love every work I’m playing. But, there’s nothing quite like performing the Goldberg Variations – yes, it’s massive and very draining by force of sheer concentration, but the experience is indescribable and almost other-worldly.

As for listening, I don’t really do as much of it these days as I’d like. So much music is whirring through my brain when I’m away from the piano that to add to it, by listening to something else, gets a little overwhelming.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’m afraid they’re all dead. I am never unmoved by the commitment of Klemperer’s conducting. The effortless musicianship of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice. The power and pathos of Birgit Nilsson’s. Glenn Gould for the eccentric mind that drove his playing – and sometimes even for the odd giggle at what he does. Myra Hess’s piano playing, for the artistry. Youra Guller, a practically unheard of pianist now – but she was incredible. And so many more…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing/seeing ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in Munich a few years back – with the magnificent Waltraud Meier singing Isolde, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Earth-shattering!

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

To work on each piece as though your life depends on it. But always try, with or without a teacher, to find something ‘personal’ to put into the music – something uniquely ‘you’. Nothing distasteful or silly, I’m talking more about making each piece really mean something on an emotional level. Aspiring musicians are so often schooled to play for exams or competitions, or to please this or that teacher, that the music is lost sight of. If there’s going to be any hope for the future of Classical Music, then we have to get back to basics: music is about feeling. Those pieces, even if composed hundreds of years ago, contain emotions just as valid to us today as they were to the composer. These are not ‘elite’ feelings – they’re simple and real and available to everyone. We can all connect on this level. Let’s not lose sight of it!

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m juggling Beethoven and Schumann: Beethoven Concertos 1 and 4. And Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ and the ‘Etudes Symphoniques’. Next week I’ll add a Bach Partita to the mix. I think I need a holiday!

What is your most treasured possession?

A silver chain my late mother gave to me the night before I recorded the Goldberg Variations. She wore it every day for 40 years. I am never without it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time at home with my partner and my dog.

What is your present state of mind?

Focused. Yet still raring to go. And it’s 3am!

Nick van Bloss’s new CD of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available now

Nick van Bloss was born in London and began piano lessons at the age of 11. His musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey and he entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a Junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon and winning prizes for his playing. Further studies were with Benjamin Kaplan. In 1987, on hearing him play, the great Russian virtuoso, Tatiana Nikoleyeva, described van Bloss as the ‘finished article of a pianist’.

Read Nick’s full biography here

 

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster, pianist

christina2bmcmaster

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

I am the youngest of three girls and I always wanted to do everything my sisters did including piano – which I think they found quite annoying! I begged my Mum to allow me to have lessons too, and when I was finally allowed there was no stopping me! A few years on I remember listening to Ashkenazy play Beethoven’s ‘The Tempest’ Sonata in the car and feeling so excited about this fantastic piece and thinking how amazing it would be if I could play it one day. Forging a career as a pianist is not something I really thought about until I went to the Purcell School. Being surrounded by musicians already performing on the International circuit was slightly intimidating, but it motivated me to strive for a career as a performer.

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

There have been so many. More recently my mentor Joanna MacGregor has been an immensely important figure for me. Whilst at the Royal Academy of Music she taught me so much about programming, presentation, life skills, all in addition to playing the piano!  My parents have also been influential. They have been very supportive in a non-pushy way which has allowed me to find my own path and have a genuine passion and drive for what I do.

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

Maintaining balance and focus between my many musical projects, overcoming the post-concert come downs and performing Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks in front of the composer!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I have just recorded my debut album Pinks & Blues which will be released later this year. It’s a mix of classical and contemporary to jazz and blues and includes music by György Ligeti, Bill Evans, Gerswhin, Rzweski, Ravel as well as two new commissions. It took me a long time to decide on the content and order but am proud of it because as well as being my first album I think it takes the listeners on an excursion of familiar and unfamiliar sounds which I hope they’ll enjoy discovering!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel a strong affinity to American Music of the 20th Century. The American ‘can do’ attitude resonates strongly with me. I love a challenge and that is what is often presented by these composers. Charles Ives’s music can often be extremely complex – 13 note chords for example! Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and others pushed boundaries, proving that we are not limited by the piano or traditional techniques.

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

My concerts are often curated and informed by my interests – I like to keep adding new repertoire or presenting the old in new ways. For my next performance at St John’s Smith Square (June 25) I have programmed the Debussy Preludes interspersed with the lesser-known Ruth Crawford-Seeger Preludes for a new perspective. Other concerts coming up include an American programme with violinist Lizzie Ball, a two week residency at Dartington International Summer School performing Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with fantastic soprano Sarah Gabriel and a Film and Piano programme – so I like to keep it varied!

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

This year I performed at the Holders Season in Barbados; it was a grand outdoor venue and a beautiful place – I would definitely like to return there! I also recently performed in a private house concert in Holland Park; I loved the freedom of playing in this relaxed and intimate atmosphere, with some people sitting on the floor, others standing. Here I felt a real involvement and concentration from the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

This changes all the time and depending on the season or even what time of day. I go through phases: recently I had a Mozart Sonata period, listening repeatedly to the complete recordings by Maria João Pires – this is good before noon and it helps to clarify my thoughts. The Britten/Pears recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise are another favourite – I would love to work with a singer on this work. I also spend a lot of time of Spotify exploring new pieces and for when I go running I definitely need something with a beat!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have so many, but to name one of them: Radu Lupu. I adore his deep and warm sound and in particular his Schumann and Brahms recordings.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Martha Argerich at the Royal Festival Hall. I was just a few seats back from the front row watching her play Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and I could hear, feel and see everything – WOW!

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

Well, I am still learning myself, but I would say enjoy challenges, avoid imitation and explore other interests. There never seems enough time to practise at music college, but developing your character and having substance is absolutely crucial.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Practising (with a good coffee and high quality chocolate). When I first left Music College I found I had to do so much aside from practising in order to progress in my career. It was a basic yet incredible discovery for me that I am only happy if I have practised at least several hours a day. Without this I definitely notice a feeling of incompleteness and I’m probably not very pleasant to be around!

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

New York. It’s a city I’ve always been drawn to – it’s a City for dreamers and big ambitions – I love that it never stops – a bit like me and I guess that’s why I am so attracted to it!

Christina is a highly innovative pianist and curator with a continually growing reputation for bold and vivacious performances.  Christina has performed extensively in major venues including at the Southbank Centre, Kings Place, Aldeburgh Festival and The Holders Season, Barbados. She has won numerous prizes including the Jacob Barnes Award, The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Prize, The CAVATINA Chamber music trust prize and audience prize, and the audience prize in the Jacques Samuels Intercollegiate Competition.  

Christina attended the specialist music school Purcell School and achieved a first from the Royal Academy of Music in 2013, where she studied with her mentor Joanna MacGregor. Christina has continued her education and exploration of 20th Century French Music taking masterclasses with Maestro Bernard Flavigny who has a direct lineage to Debussy.

She has collaborated with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, Director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. Christina is a strong supporter of diversity within and outside of the arts and recently founded Ensemble WOW – an organisation dedicated to promoting equality through unique and imaginative programming.  

Christina is a dedicated performer and discoverer of new music working with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

Christina McMaster is a 2016/17 St John’s Smith Square Young Artist

A lunchtime premiere: Richard Uttley at St John’s Smith Square

There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.

Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.

More on Mazurkas here