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Between 20th – 23rd November this year, the brand new building at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will be alive with the sound of chamber music, all involving the piano. An array of leading international artists will share the platform with talented young musicians in a brand new event, directed by Daniel Tong (pianist and Head of Piano Chamber Music at the Conservatoire). Musical friends will be joining Daniel from across Europe for concerts, masterclasses and also a competition for young ensembles, more about which below. Given the wealth of such events for piano or string quartet, for instance, a celebration of chamber music with piano is overdue, especially given the keyboard’s place at the heart of so many great composers’ musical personality. Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many more were all musicians with consummate mastery of the piano, speaking freely through their wonderful instrument.

The festival line-up is headlined by pianists Katya Apekisheva and John Thwaites, cellists Christoph Richter and Alice Neary, violinist Esther Hoppe and violist Robin Ireland, who are lined up to take part in concerts alongside the Gould Trio and London Bridge Trio. Together they will explore the chamber music of Brahms, Schumann, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and present new works by Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Concerts take place in two magnificent new performance spaces at the Conservatoire, opened this year: the larger Concert Hall for evening events and the more intimate Recital Hall for daytime performances. The same artists will work with students from Birmingham and beyond, as well as providing the jury for the competition.

Daniel Tong says: “Chamber music is a multi-layered medium, in the wealth and depth of its repertoire as well as the skills and characteristics required to realise it. It is music for sharing, both with one’s performing colleagues and the audience, and is therefore somewhat confessional. It is open to wide-ranging interpretation, despite often being put together by composers with great intellectual rigour. A competition in this discipline may therefore seem like a paradox, which is why our festival is as collegiate and inclusive as possible. We will make music together. Each competing ensemble will give a recital and take part in masterclasses. All jury members will also perform as part of the festival programme. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has put chamber music at its heart with inspiring results.

The competition is set up to offer maximum benefit to the young competitors. After preliminary audition (all applicants will be heard, either live or by video if entering from outside the UK), eight ensembles will be invited to join the festival in November. Each will present their recital as part of the festival programme, take part in masterclasses, and three groups will progress to the final concert. The winning ensemble will be offered mentorship and a commercial recording with Resonus Classics, as well as engagements including London’s Wigmore Hall.

For more details about this unique and inspiring event, visit the festival website

Or email keyboard@bcu.ac.uk

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Recital Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Launched in May with a fine performance by noted fortepianist and academic John Irving, the first tranche of Kingston Chamber Concerts (KCC) closed last night with a recital by the Armorel Piano Trio, who performed works by Beethoven, Schumann and Dvorak.

The KCC formula is quite simple: quality chamber music performed by young professional artists and local musicians in the convivial setting of the East End Café at All Saints’ Church, right in the heart of Kingston-upon-Thames and its historic market place. Tables are set out salon style and the bar serves good wine at a fraction of the cost of a glass of house white at the Wigmore Hall. You can take your drinks to your table and share a bottle with friends, as I did last night.

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The Armorel Piano Trio comprises Kathy Chow (piano), Lucia Veintimilla (violin) and Sebastian Kolin (cello). Their programme, opening with Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, Op 70/1 and closing with Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op 90, B 166, with Schumann’s Op 80/2 the middle of the triptych, demonstrated the development of the piano trio genre, from the strictly classical three-movement structure of Beethoven, though already showing the forward-pull of Beethoven’s vision in its eerily dramatic middle movement which connected it, in this concert, to Schumann’s sweeping romanticism, to the freedom of Dvorak’s six-movement ‘Dumky’ which feels more like a suite than a trio in its organisation highly  contrasting moods and textures.

This was a very committed performance by all three musicians, and extra credit must go to the young players who had had their final recitals for their post-graduate studies at conservatoire the same day: they must have been shattered but they hardly betrayed this, and their playing really came alive in the Dvorak which was replete with folk idioms and fine solos from cello and violin, with vivid colouration from the piano, in particular in the third and final movements. The Schumann was genial, laced with a bitter-sweet poignancy (the work was written in 1847, the year of the deaths of the Schumanns’ son Emil and Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn), and Armorel really caught the fleeting mercurial moods of this music.

The Beethoven, meanwhile, provided drama of a different kind, with much boisterous dialogue between violin and cello in the first and final movements, and colourful interplay between the piano and the other instruments. The slow movement was freighted with Gothic gloom, with its fragmented themes, uncertain harmonies and eerie tremolos in the bass of the piano. This was a movement of great tension, rich in quasi-orchestral textures.

This was a fine end to the first three concerts in KCC’s six-concert first season and the sizeable audience prove the series is already off to a very good start. The series resumes on Saturday 16 September with Ceruleo, an early music ensemble, whose concert entitled ‘Love and Betryal in the music of Handel and Barbara Strozzi’ includes performances on harpsichord, theorbo and Viola de Gamba.

For further information about Kingston Chamber Concerts/join their mailing list, please contact kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com, or telephone 020 8549 1960

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John Irving, fortepianist

A new chamber music series launches in Kingston-upon-Thames on Thursday 18 May at All Saints Church, Kingston Marketplace.

The opening concert features keyboard music by Haydn, Bach and Mozart performed on a replica fortepiano very like the type of instrument Haydn and Mozart would have known and played. The concert is given by John Irving, Professor of Historical Performance at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich.

Future concerts in the series include the Piatti String Quartet in music by Debussy, Britten and Beethoven, and the Armorel Piano Trio, who will perform Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio together with works by Schumann and Dvorak.

The concerts will have a relaxed format, with audience seated salon style around small tables to create a convivial atmosphere and as a reminder that chamber music was written to be enjoyed in this way.

Tickets cost £15 (students £5) for a single concert or £40 for the whole series.

Further information and booking via kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com / tel. 020 8549 1960

Venue: All Saints Church, Kingston Marketplace, Kingston-upon-Thames KT1 1JP

Joseph Haydn: ‘London’ Trio in F Hob XV no 17

Bohuslav Martinů: Trio

Josef Suk: Elegie, Op 23

Jean-Michel Damase: Sonate en concert

Just five minutes’ walk from Camden Town tube station, tucked up a side street off Camden High Street, is the relatively new arts venue of The Forge. Custom-designed as a flexible arts space, bar and restaurant, The Forge squeezes a lot into its small site: the airy recital space can accommodate around 100 people, and has a good reverberating acoustic, thanks to hard and reflective surfaces. The Steinway Model B grand piano is just right in this size of venue. The Forge is run by a husband and wife team who juggle their baby daughter while welcoming guests. The atmosphere within the venue is friendly and relaxed, and if you come to a Sunday morning ‘Keys and Coffee’ concert, as we did, you can take your coffee into the recital space.

Metier Ensemble is a flute, piano and ‘cello trio, comprising Claire Overbury (flute), Elspeth Wyllie (piano) and Sophie Rivlin (‘cello). They met while studying at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Oxford, and all three have won prizes and awards for their playing. They perform solos, duos and trios, and this mix of instrumentation allows them to explore a wide range of repertoire, as was evident from the programme for their concert at The Forge. The musicians introduced each piece, engaging our interest before they had played a single note.

The concert opened, appropriately, with one of Haydn’s ‘London’ Trios (Hob. XV, 17). This is unusual amongst Haydn’s trios of the time as it has only two movements (in fact, Haydn originally billed it as a sonata for piano with flute or violin). The first movement Allegro is sprightly and, after the opening piano solo, the flute takes prominence, with the ‘cello in a supporting role. Claire Overbury played with a sweet, bright tone, combined with crisp articulation. The development section is dramatic, foreshadowing Beethoven, with some unusual modulations, before the cheerful opening motifs return. There were some lovely ‘conversations’ between piano and flute in this first movement, underpinned by some rich ‘cello support from Sophie Rivlin. The second movement is marked ‘tempo di Minuetto’, though it feels more like a proper finale, and was, like the opening movement, executed with humour, grace and evident enjoyment on the part of the musicians.

Martinů composed his Trio for flute, piano and ‘cello in 1944, a highly productive year for the composer, who was by now resident in America. It is a largely extrovert work, full of Eastern European folk motifs and nostalgic resonances of his homeland (former Czechoslovakia). The outer movements are imbued with boisterous, holiday moods, while the middle Adagio reveals the composer’s homesickness in a yearning hymn-like theme, expressively played by Elspeth Wyllie. As in the Haydn, the interplay between all three instruments was colourful, precise and lyrical.

Suk wrote his Elegie, op 23, in memory of the Czech poet Julius Zeyer, and the subtitle to the work, “Under the Impression of Zeyer’s Vysehrad,” is a reference to the writer’s epic poem based on elements of Czech mythology. The music is nostalgic rather than elegiac, full of rich, warm melodies, striking chromaticism and harmonic shifts, and an aching passion, all sensitively executed by Metier Ensemble.

The concert closed with an effervescent trio by Jean-Michael Damase (b. 1928). Damase chose not to follow his contemporaries Messiaen and Boulez into new, experimental realms of composing, and instead continued to explore the possibilities of the kind of elegant French musical language set out by Debussy and Ravel, and later Poulenc. The Sonate en Concert is organised in the manner of a Baroque suite, with contrasting movements based on different dance rhythms. The music is uplifting in mood, melodic and tonal, though containing some unusual harmonic complexities. The flute and piano carry the main interest in the work, with the ‘cello providing a Baroque ‘basso continuo’. There are several recapitulations based on the stately, expressive opening motifs, including a beautiful ‘Aria’, interspersed with livelier movements. The ‘Sicilienne’ had a delightfully relaxed lilt, while the presto ‘Gigue’ crackled with excitement, the sparkling glissandi in the piano accompanied by the happy gurgling of The Forge owners’ baby daughter. The entire work was pulled off with elan, humour and yet more obvious enjoyment by the musicians.

This was a really charming concert: a programme guaranteed to refresh and delight everyone, combined with the relaxed, convivial atmosphere at The Forge made for a thoroughly enjoyable morning.

www:metierensemble.co.uk

Pianist Elspeth Wyllie featured in my Meet the Artist series. Read her interview here

More about The Forge here: www.forgevenue.org