Friday 21st September, Church of St John the Divine, London SW9

Christina McMaster, piano

Lie down and Listen is a unique multi-sensory classical music experience created by pianist Christina McMaster and designed to bring the positive effects of classical music on body and mind to a wide audience in unusually relaxed settings. A pioneering combination of music, meditation, Virtual Reality technology and restorative yoga led by Will Wheeler create a deep sense of relaxation.

Neil Franks writes….

The event took place at the lovely St John the Divine Church in Kennington. It was the perfect venue as it has plenty of floor space to “lie down and listen”, with a magnificent Steinway Model D in the middle so that we could surround the piano on our yoga mats. The evening started with a gentle but very well-presented yoga session that even the novice could follow and with no pressure to manoeuvre feet behind ears or anything extreme. In fact the moves presented allowed the inexperienced to participate within their comfort levels. Of course there were plenty of very flexible friends there both to encourage and impress us, and create the atmosphere Christina was aiming for – the first success of the evening.

To the standard classical concert-goer, this appeared to be an ambitious programme and I might be as bold as to suggest that if this concert was planned in the standard format, the choice might limit its audience unless it were specifically targeted. On the other hand, this was a great success as it drew in a lot of young people (and other ages too!), largely because of the experimental interest, and there is no doubt everyone was pleasantly surprised as Christina’s programme was beautiful and absorbing – nowhere near as intimidating as many might fear, by the likes of Philip Glass, John Cage, Arvo Part etc. Taking my daughter Charlotte along was in itself an experiment for me, and we both enjoyed the evening. (She has grown up with me thumping away at the piano and having to sit through numerous piano recitals that she would rather not go to, but it was successful and enjoyable for her as it was with many other audience members who I’m sure will now seriously consider going to, and enjoying, a standard concert presentation of this sort of music.

In addition to the piano music, the programme featured two beautiful choral works, including The Fruits of Silence by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, a magnificent and absorbing finale from the choir with subtle accompaniment from Christina.

Of course I and any other old traditionalists went to hear Christina’s performance of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, and, as expected, we were immensely satisfied, considering Christina’s talent and empathy with this music. But to add to the expected was the unexpected bonus of the special environment: Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata wouldn’t work in this format, but Debussy flourishes.

It may be that, as mentioned in the programme, this concept was conceived in and amongst the thinking rooms at New York’s National Addiction Centre and studies related to their subject and efforts to improve the well-being of people under their care, study and attention. I gather that early experiments used the minimalist music of Terry Riley, but I don’t think I could categorise Christina’s programme as “minimalist”. I suppose it might been drier had we all been wearing shirts and ties at the South Bank, and if some of these pieces were in presented in a more traditional programme/concert setting, but I have to believe this audience were instantly converted and I know they will go to more. They will go to the South Bank and listen to a Debussy recital now, something they wouldn’t have dreamt of doing before.

The only traditional thing I had to do was to take the initiative of leading the applause as the audience didn’t quite know what to do at the end (the programme was presented so that there was no applause between pieces as that would have interfered with the atmosphere).

I wish Christina every success in this venture and in spreading the word in this way as it will draw much attention, and I very much hope that the good work in the thinking rooms I referred to will be hugely successful too.

 

The next Lie Down and Listen concert is on 16 November at St John the Divine church. Full details and tickets here

Meet the Artist interview with Christina McMaster


Neil Franks is Chairman of Petworth Festival, a regular concert-goer and a advanced amateur pianist.

Pianist Christina McMaster certainly does not lack ambition, nor innovation. She created her own record label MC|MASTER Records in order to release her debut album Pinks & Blues, the sold out launch of which at St James’s Theatre included a performance by a rapper. This reflects Christina’s eclectic approach, vision and energy in her music making (she has previously collaborated with London Fashion Week and is now joining forces with graduates of Central St Martin’s School of Art & Design).

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Pinks & Blues presents contrasting music from two key soundworlds in American music in the 20th century: the industrial, pioneering spirit and the rise of the teeming metropolis (demonstrated in works such as Samuel Barber’s ‘Excursions’ and Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’), and Negro spirituals, Southern blues, smoky jazz clubs and the foot-stomping dance scene of New York City. The album also includes new commissions by two exciting young British composers, Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen, and on two tracks Christina is joined by Jay Phelps (trumpet), Sami Tammilehto (percussion) and Mark Lewandowski (double bass).

The album opens with the first of Barber’s ‘Excursions’, a work whose frenetic “perpetuum mobile” ostinato bassline suggests the fast-moving big city, replete with rattling metro trains, honking taxis and bustling crowds. But by track three, ‘Peace Piece’ by Bill Evans, we’re transported somewhere altogether more calm – the shady deck of a southern villa perhaps. There is a lightness of touch here which suggests both repose and an urging forward. The work is bookended by two Études by Ligeti which contain motifs redolent of Evans, also deftly played.

Richard Bullen’s ‘Scenes from a Deserted Jazz Club’ is highly atmospheric, at once smoochy and unsettling. It is followed by Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’, another work of hypnotic, urgent energy immediately proceeded by the second of Barber’s Excursions, a languid blues number.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s ‘Southern Leaves’ opens with a figure reminiscent of a southern hymn tune which builds in intensity through increasingly plangent chords. It is meditative and dramatic, and provides a good foil for Gershwin’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ (from Porgy & Bess, which is of course set in the Deep South). Back to the urgency of the industrial city with Stephen Montague’s ‘Songs of Childhood’, while the album closes with another work by Montague’s, ‘Southern Lament: Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’, the traditional spiritual given a contemporary twist with fanfare-like repeated figures, strumming and plucking the piano’s strings directly, and a restful hymnlike section to close.

This imaginative selection neatly reflects Christina’s personal musical tastes and her eclectic approach to programming. The American theme ehich runs through the entire album ties together tracks which in another’s hands may seem disparate, but such is Christina’s expertise in moving seamlessly between the percussive and agitated and the meditative and soulful, she achieves a very satisfying and enjoyable whole. The more bluesy numbers have the requisite sense of time standing still with sensitive use of rubato and elastic tempi, while the upbeat, more mechanical works are precise, sprightly and crisply articulated. This album promises much more to come from this exciting and stylish young pianist.

www.christinamcmaster.com

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster