Concerto night is a regular feature of the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for pianists, and on Sunday 19th August, we were treated to four concertos, performed in the magnificent Stoller Hall by members of the Chets teaching faculty, who also happen to be international concert pianists.

The concerto is one of the greatest corners of the pianist’s repertoire. A showcase for performer and instrument, it’s an opportunity for the composer to capitalise on the combined forces of soloist and orchestra, often with thrilling and highly expressive results. The concerto format inspires great music and is a spectacle for the audience and the genre continues to tempt composers today. The romantic image is of the soloist doing battle with the orchestra, but in most instances piano and orchestra are collaborators, creating wondrous musical conversations and exciting contrasts of sound, texture and mood – very much the case in the four works performed in this concert.

The soloists in these concerts were accompanied by the Stockport Symphony Orchestra, an amateur orchestra of considerable talent and stamina, conducted by Stephen Threlfall, who is a member of staff at Chetham’s School.

Seta Tanyel gave a committed and colourful account of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, a one-movement work of grand romantic gestures and post-Rachmaninov melodies. Written as part of the soundtrack for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight, the music has a dramatic narrative, rich in nostalgia and sweeping climaxes. This was followed by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, played by Leslie Howard, always a popular member of the Chets team (and a regular behind the bar during the piano summer school). Not as popular, nor as satisfying as Tchaikovsky’s first concerto, Leslie Howard nonetheless gave a masterful and enjoyable performance, at times pushing the orchestra to the limit with tempi. The Stockport Symphony Orchestra rose impressively to the challenge and one felt them begin to catch fire in this work.

In the second concerto concert of the evening, Dina Parakhina played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini with an exquisite sound, rhythmic vitality and musical imagination, matched by the orchestra who clearly enjoyed this piece.

This was followed by a highly imaginative rendering of Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Philip Fowke. The interaction between soloist, conductor and orchestra was clear throughout (and especially evident for those of us seated in the choir stalls with a view down to the pianist and conductor). Philip’s compelling and generous performance was rich in interesting voicings and a rare improvisatory quality, which brought renewed vigour and colour to this much-loved work.


 

Photographs by Martin Lijinsky

Today has been spent watching others play and being taught. Chets operates an “open door” policy which means you can go and observe other people’s lessons and attend workshops with any of the teaching faculty. From a teaching point of view, watching others being taught is highly informative; equally, as a player one gains useful insights from a teacher working with another student, and workshops/masterclasses like this are also a great way of discovering new repertoire. So, this morning I sat in on a workshop led by pianist and teacher Graham Caskie at which students played works by Liszt and Bach. While looking at the Aria and First Variation from Bach’s Goldbergs, we had an interesting discussion about reverence in music and how certain works are afforded a special elevated status (this is certainly true of the Goldbergs) which can make it harder for us to play them because we feel they must be treated in a particular way, when in fact we should simply take ownership of the music and make it ours. Graham also talked about breathing – both physical and metaphorical – in music. I enjoyed his commentary and advice to the students and found him a very thoughtful and considerate teacher.

After lunch I attended the daily Adult Amateur workshop. This runs every day for 2 hours and is led by Kathryn Page and Philip Fowke (whom I had hoped to see in action but he was rehearsing for the evening’s concerto concert). The Adult Amateur workshops give pianists of all levels an opportunity to play to an audience and receive feedback from the teacher. Kathryn is an enthusiastic, positive and highly supportive teacher who was able to give each participant some very useful nuggets of information with which to work when practising. There were some lovely performances of music by Janacek, Beethoven, Turina, Bach, and Sibelius. Once again, people’s love of the piano and its literature was really palpable.

Tonight’s concerts are all about concertos – four concertos in fact with pianists Seta Tanyel (Addinsell/Warsaw Concerto), Leslie Howard (Tchaikovsky 2), Dina Parakhina (Rachmaninoff/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) and Philip Fowke (Grieg Concerto in A). It promises to be a splendid evening and an excellent way to end my weekend at Chets.

My first evening at Chetham’s International Summer School ad Festival for Pianists – or Chets – as it is affectionately called, offered me the opportunity not only to meet piano friends, make new connections and experience the unique Chets vibe, but also to enjoy three fine recitals by professional pianists, who are all members of the teaching faculty at this year’s summer school.

Canadian pianists Megumi Masaki is a keen advocate of contemporary and new piano music, with a specialisation in exploring interactions between sound, image and movement. Her concert featured three works which used electronics and live video art to create a unique audio-visual and multi-sensory experience. Two works, ‘Corona’ and ‘Touch’, by Canadian composer Keith Hamel opened and closed the recital. Both utilise electronics, gesture tracking, interactive visuals and interactive computer processing and the live electronics and visuals react to one another so that each performance is unique. ‘Corona’ depends on the sound of the piano to create the visuals (an abstract sequence of shapes suggesting the planets) and because the video is generated by the piano and is completely interactive, each performance is unique. Musically, this piece had shimmering filigree passages redolent of Debussy and the processional quality of John Adams’ ‘China Gates’, but the additional layers of sound created by the electronics created mesmerising almost orchestral textures. Throughout, Megumi’s clarity and precision of touch and musical sense was clear, making this piece atmospheric and uplifting.

Keith Hamel’s ‘Touch’ utilised similar technology, with the addition of balletic gestures by the pianist to create wondrous shimmers of sound. The work is inspired by bells and all the harmonic material is derived from the analysis of bells and change-ringing patterns. Once again, the piano sound combined with the electronics offered beautiful haloes and extraordinary layers of sound.

These two works book-ended another piece by a Canadian composer. Douglas FINCH’s ‘Epiphanies’ is inspired by the short stories of Alice Munro in which a character has a moment of sudden inspiration or revelation which happens at unexpected times in the narrative. Compared to Keith Hamel’s pieces, this suite of four movements had a spare elegance and understated grace, and the interplay between piano and words, with live interactive visuals by artist Sigi Torinus, was engaging and at times unsettling, almost portentous.

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The second concert of the evening gave me my first experience of Stoller Hall, Chetham’s new multi-million pound concert venue. It’s a really beautiful contemporary shoebox hall, light and airy and finished with pale wood and stone, with an impressive acoustic. This was the setting for Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Neckleberg’s performance of Bach’s remarkable Goldberg Variations – one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and an epic journey for player and audience. This was a highly personal and romantic account, with each movement shaped to highlight its individual character. This had the effect of suggesting each movement was a stand-alone work in its own right, and was particularly effective in the G-minor variations, especially the last one, which had a poignant intimacy. When the Aria returned, it was as if it came from another place, yet was wholly familiar.

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The final concert of the evening given by Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch in repertoire for two pianos. I have heard this piano duo before and I was once impressed by their pitch perfect timing and precision and musical understanding, so much so that one forgets there are two pianists playing as the music is given absolute priority. Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 was lush, liquid and transparent, with elegant natural phrasing and a wonderful sense of ease, which I am sure comes from deep familiarity with the work and a special synergy between the two pianists. The second work was by the little known English composer Arnold Griller (look out for a new disc of his music on the Toccata Classics label for which Douglas Finch wrote the liner notes). His ‘Introduction, Cakewalk and Allegro’ opened with a rather sensuous section, redolent of 1920s cocktail jazz, before lively sections with rhythms reminiscent of ragtime and shifting moods, at times witty, then serious. It was vibrant and colourful and handled with understated panache by the performers. The final work, ‘Hapsburg Burlesques’ by Douglas Finch, was written at the time of the Brexit referendum and includes quotations and transcriptions of Rosenkavalier, Mahagonny, When You Wish Upon a Star, Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet, and even the British National Anthem. With its intricate weaving of recognisable themes and rather decadent character, this work was both stylish and slightly surreal, but without any sense of irony or pastiche. For an encore, Bobby and Douglas performed Rossignols, written as a wedding dedication, and based on Granados’ The Maiden and the Nightingale, from Goyescas, a delicate, intimate miniature.

I’m up in Manchester at Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists – or “Chets” as it’s affectionately called – for the weekend. It’s my first visit, though I have of course known about the summer school for some years and certain piano friends of mine are regulars here, some returning year after year (one is on his tenth visit!). Said piano friends have been urging me to attend, so it was serendipitous when I received an invitation from Murray McLachlan, who with his wife Kathryn Page runs the two-week event, to attend, primarily to review the public concerts which take place each evening, but also to observe some teaching and general get a flavour of the Chet’s experience.

I have written before about the attraction of attending a piano course or piano summer school and the reasons why people keep returning to Chets were quite clear from my arrival: after 5 hours travelling up from my home on the Dorset coast, I was met by smiling friendly staff at the school and shown to my room in (attendees are accommodated within the school – it’s basic but you don’t spend a lot of time in your room!). In the atrium next to the magnificent Stoller Hall (which opened in 2017), there were groups of people – pianists – talking and laughing, friends greeted one another and there was a palpable sense of excited anticipation about the days to come: the teaching, the workshops, the concerts and the socialising. This is what people come to Chets for.

The rather confusing walk to the accommodation block, the staircases and long corridors reminded me of my first day at university, navigating my way around the hall of residence where I lived, but I suspect within 24 hours I’ll have got the hang of it and it will soon seem very familiar.

A quick change and it was down to Whiteley Hall for the first concert of the evening, a very interesting programme of music with electronics and live visuals, performed Canadian pianist Megumi Masaki with composer Keith Hamel and visual artist Sigi Torinus – a full review will be posted separately. As I was making my way to a seat, I met my friend Noriko and I must say it was good to see a familiar face in the crowd. Afterwards, she, her companions and I went to supper in the school dining hall, another place which brought a rather Proustian rush of memory from university days. By the time we had queued for food, I had got to know Murray, a first-timer who is here for the new piano teachers’ course. He’s never attended a piano course of any kind before, so he’s really jumping in at the deep end having signed up for two weeks!

After supper we made our way back to the Atrium/bar at Stoller Hall for pre-concert chat and drinks before a performance of the Goldberg Variations, then more drinks and socialising ahead of the final concert of the evening, a performance of music for two pianos with Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch. Prior to this concert, I took the opportunity to chat to various people – some were Chets regulars, others were newcomers. All mentioned the quality of the teaching here as a main motivation for attending, plus the convivial atmosphere (the teaching faculty mingle with participants and take their meals in the same dining hall).

Stoller Hall

The final concert was stunning – as was the venue, a modern “shoebox” hall much like King’s Place or Milton Court, designed by Stephenson STUDIO and the recipient of a national RIBA Award, with wonderful acoustics.

I’ve been here less than half a day and already it’s clear that the Chets experience is pretty full-on. Each day has a full programme of activities from teaching and workshops to public concerts, so now I’m off to bed as I’m rather “piano-d out”!