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

Music was a very gradual and natural progression for me. As a child I began to play more and more music until I was eventually spending every spare minute at school rushing off to a practice room, to a rehearsal, to a music tech studio, to a lesson, to a chamber group. I was filling my holidays and weekends with orchestra courses, jazz rehearsals in London, and on and on and on. Finally it dawned on me that music was clearly the focus in my life, and it would be a rather natural next step to try to make a living out of it.

Likewise the conducting was a transition. There came a point in my early twenties when I realised that I’d caught the conducting bug. I was playing in orchestras of such varying standards, from the flimsiest of amateur setups to the highest professional level, that I was constantly watching the whole spectrum of conductors in front of me. The lesser mortals gave me the confidence that I could do better than them, but more importantly the better conductors inspired me hugely, fascinated me, and got me hooked on the idea that a conducting profession could be a compelling journey.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

In my earlier days the strongest influences were my teachers – and I was certainly lucky to have superb teachers, more than I can mention. I owe a lot to Neil Thomson, who first set me off on a path towards understanding the process of conducting, and understanding how to learn. From that point I had so many different conducting influences. Two names that stand out are Sir Mark Elder and Claudio Abbado. Mark gave me two years of astonishing support, guidance and inspiration whilst I was his assistant at the Hallé orchestra; Claudio gave me his mindblowingly high-class conducting to feed off whilst I was playing in the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

Nowadays my primary influences are the scores in front of me, but my instincts are surely still heavily influenced by all the people who led me where I am today.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Perhaps the greatest challenge is wrestling with the question of what a composer intended at a certain point in a score when his or her vision is absolutely unclear on the page. If it’s a work that’s close to your heart, this struggle is intense and consuming, but always interesting. On a more mundane note, there is a huge organisational and logistical focus to my work as a conductor that wasn’t present when I was a player. This is especially true in my role as a Music Director. Fortunately I’m rather neurotic in terms of organisation, so I get by.

Putting aside all the challenges, though, at the very heart is the fact that I feel totally at home on a podium in front of an orchestra. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than the concert experience of performing music that you have rehearsed intensely and spent months preparing for. When things are going well, it’s the most satisfying possible way to conclude a project.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Any player will tell you that the holy grail is for conductors to communicate everything in gestures. That’s certainly the dream. Of course it’s not possible 100% of the time. Some things need to be said, but perhaps the secret is knowing when to stop… Players don’t need to know all your ideas. There’s often a great deal of extra contingency preparation or historical context that doesn’t need to be shared. In the case of, say, Also Sprach Zarathustra, there’s even a gigantic layer of philosophy. The players don’t need to know everything you’re thinking, but having all these extra layers as a base can add so much to the conviction with which you’re conducting.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

Absolutely the latter. Surely that has to be the primary role of a conductor, to take on full responsibility to enable the audience to experience what the composer intended. If you happen to inspire the musicians along the way, that’s a bonus – an orchestra is more likely to play well and work hard if they’re inspired.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Although I’m lucky to be able to programme and perform orchestral music of my choosing a lot of the time, there are a few sacred cows… The piece that most comes to mind is Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. I have unusually powerful memories of rehearsing and performing it under Claudio Abbado, so the music means a lot to me and I feel as though I know it inside out. But I’m wary of experiencing it from the podium, in case those memories are affected.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

There are so many tremendous buildings devoted to classical music! I’m so fortunate to be Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León – we both rehearse and perform in the spectacular concert hall of the Auditorio Miguel Delibes. It’s hard to beat the Royal Albert Hall – what a space – plus I used to walk past it every day so it feels like coming home. As a player I adored the glamour of the Musikverein, and was totally blown away by the concert hall in São Paolo with its mix of wood§ and stone. I’m particularly fond of Snape Maltings – apart from the beautiful concert hall there’s that wonderful view across the marshes. And now I’m in danger of opening up the entire genre of concert halls with views-to-die-for from the conductor’s dressing room….. Gran Canaria with its sweeping view of the beach, Granada looking out over the Sierra Nevada from its hilltop position next to the Alhambra… Perhaps there’s a coffee table book in this.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

In general terms, my favourite musicians are those who respect the music on the page and the intentions of the composer. Obviously it helps if they can transmit it to the audience with jaw-dropping skill and style… but I’m never a fan of style over substance.

As for composers, in order to connect with me they need to have something to say in their music, rather than just searching for the next note for composing’s sake. This probably isn’t tangible and might translate into different things depending on the era in which the composer was writing, but there’s always a depth supporting it, which keeps me interested when looking deeper and deeper into a score. You might have guessed I’m trying to remain generic instead of naming names(!)

It’s worth adding, though, that I listen to very little classical music for pleasure. I feel the need to escape it to make sure that it stays fresh. Many of my favourite musicians are in other genres; pop (in every sense), jazz, and so on.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To earn the respect of both musicians and non-musicians over the longterm course of a career.

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

If only I had something of value to offer! It’s tricky to pin these things down when you’re continuously searching for the answers yourself. I’ll try to suggest a few…

Garner and absorb as many influences as possible. Otherwise you’ll never acquire the broad view with which to find out if you’ve been heading down the wrong track.



It’s important to have occasional bouts of fanaticism and all-consuming obsession in your music- making. It can take you to the next level.

Those in music who achieve the most are, more often than not, those who put in the most work. Yes there are exceptions, but you’re taking a gamble if you test the norm.

Remember there’s more to life than your chosen profession. Despite all the hard work, keep it in context and maintain a balance in your life – you’ll be a healthier person.

There will be ups and downs. Enjoy the ride.


Andrew Gourlay is Music Director of the The Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, which has just announced the launch of its own record label. The first recording will be released on 9 January 2019, and feature Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

Watch the album trailer:

Born in Jamaica, with Russian ancestry, Andrew Gourlay grew up in the Bahamas, Philippines, Japan and England. A trombonist and pianist by training, he studied conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he prepared Bruckner symphonies for Bernard Haitink and Mozart symphonies for Sir Roger Norrington. He was selected by Gramophone magazine as their ‘One to Watch’, and by BBC Music Magazine as their ‘Rising Star: great artists of tomorrow’.

Andrew Gourlay won First Prize at the 2010 Cadaques International Conducting Competition, securing concerts with 29 orchestras around the world. For the next two years he was Assistant Conductor to Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. In January 2016 Gourlay took up the position of Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León (OSCYL), having been their Principal Guest Conductor since the 2014/15 season, and celebrated the orchestra’s 25th anniversary in 2016/17.

Read more

Every year, around the time of the start of the BBC Proms, that wonderful 2-month long festival of music, the thorny issue of when to applaud rears its head. In fact, the debate over the appropriateness of applause is ongoing, but it seems to become more vociferous during the Proms season. And why? Because at Proms concerts clapping may be audible between movements! This year there seems to be more applause between movements than ever before – and more entrenched  and noisy views expressing an extreme dislike of this practice……

In a way, the Prom concerts are not like other classical music concerts in the UK. Originally conceived by Robert Newman and Henry Wood to introduce classical music to a wider audience, the atmosphere at Prom concerts tends to be rather more relaxed, though often no less reverent, and the audience demographic far broader than at, say, London’s pre-eminent chamber music venue, the Wigmore Hall. The Proms attracts the classical music newbie and the committed classical music geek, who goes to every single concert in the season, and in between a whole host of other people who enjoy the Proms experience. The etiquette of the classical concert is less rigid at the Proms – it’s much more “come as you are and enjoy yourself”, but in spite of this, the issue of applause remains a tricky one.

“I’ve never experienced anything more embarrassing. After the first movement the hall was silent.”

– Herman Levi, on conducting Brahms’ second symphony, 1878

The custom of not applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto or other multi-movement work developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann made attempts to prevent audiences from applauding between movements. Mendelssohn asked that his ‘Scottish’ Symphony, premiered in 1842, should be played without a break to avoid “the usual lengthy interruptions” and Schumann took charge of the matter in a similar way in his piano and cello concerti as well as his Fourth Symphony, but it was Richard Wagner who really instigated the custom as we know it today during the premiere of his opera ‘Parsifal’. By the turn of the twentieth century the concert hall had become the hallowed place it is today, and the conductor Leopold Stokowski even went so far as to suggest clapping be banned altogether lest it interrupt the “divinity” of a performance. Now if one dares to applaud between movements one may be met with angry hisses of opprobrium, shushing, tutting or very stern looks.

Music evokes emotions and people should be able to express them freely – with respect to the performers of course

– Kirill Karabits, conductor

Some concert-goers regard applauding between movements as ignorant or boorish behaviour, an indication that you do not know the music properly (while the aforementioned concert-goers clearly do!). For some it is downright sacrilegious. Others regard it as disrespectful to the performers or disruptive because it can interrupt the flow of the performance. The curious thing is that this attitude would have been totally alien to Mozart or Beethoven, Brahms or Grieg. In an earlier age, concerts were noisy affairs, the music played to the accompaniment of people talking and laughing, eating and drinking, and wandering in and out of the venue. Applause was given freely and spontaneously, indicating appreciation and enthusiasm for the performers and the music. There was numerous applause during the premiere of Grieg’s piano concerto, while Brahms concluded his first piano concerto was a flop because there was so little audience response (except for the hissing, that is). Today the pauses between movements are often filled with the sound of people coughing or unwrapping cough sweets, and applause is reserved for the end of the work being performed.

For the ingenue concert goer, knowing when to applaud can be stressful. I attended an all-Brahms Prom a couple of years ago, conducted by Marin Alsop, and shared a box with a family who were attending the Proms for the very first time. We got chatting and after some pleasantries about the programme and the performers (the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), one of the party said “We’re really worried about clapping in the wrong place!”. I assured him that it didn’t matter at the Proms, and that he could clap when I did if that helped. I thought it was rather sad that these people, who really enjoyed the concert, felt so anxious about something so trivial, and it is this anxiety about how to behave, and specifically when to applaud, which inhibits some people from attending classical music concerts.

applause_sign

The current director of the Proms, David Pickard, declares that he “loves” hearing spontaneous applause at concerts, while some die-hard concert goers are horrified by his attitude, regarding such behaviour as “barbarous” on the part of other audience members. The curious thing is that at opera no one gets upset if you applaud after a particularly beautiful aria or chorus set piece, and it is almost de rigeur to do so. Ditto in jazz concerts, after some sparkling improvisation or a fine solo by one of the musicians. And conductors and musicians can of course control when applause occurs through their body language: a conductor may keep the baton raised aloft for a period of time after the last notes have faded away, or a pianist may keep his or her hands “in play” over the keyboard, defying anyone to break the spell with premature applause.

In addition to the issue of when to applaud, there is also the how of applauding. Some people seem desperate to applaud almost before the final notes have sounded (this is common at Prom concerts) and it does lead one to wonder whether this is in fact a form of attention-seeking, a “look at me! I know this piece so well I know exactly when to applaud!”. For some this can be really intrusive, especially at the end of the very intense or profound work. Sometimes, as if collectively impelled by an unseen force (in fact, the power of the music), there is a period of silence after the music has ended, and a sense of the audience holding its collective breath, savouring what has gone before. And occasionally (especially in contemporary repertoire in my experience), no one is really sure when to applaud and the impulse to clap is led by a discreet member of venue staff.

I am more bothered by those rare times when people feel the need to rush in to applaud at the final note of a piece without regard for the mood if it is a quiet ending

– Marin Alsop, conductor

applause-chart

At the Proms this year, it seems that the “applaud between movements” faction is gaining more currency. I attended a Prom performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Mahler’s tenth symphony and there was applause – spontaneous and appreciative (to my mind) – between every single movement of both works (though as some wag suggested since both works were unfinished, perhaps members of the audience applauded because they didn’t know when the work had ended!), and other Prommers have mentioned there is noticeably more applause between movements this year. For some this is not an issue, but for others it clearly is a problem. Whatever your view, the most important thing is to show appropriate appreciation for the musical performance and those who created it, rather than worrying what the person sitting next to you might be thinking about your concert etiquette! The music, after all, belongs to us, the audience, the listeners – not to the snobs and critics.

Why not go the whole hog and bring back smoking, talking, eating and all the other disruptions that progress has excised – MR via Twitter

I think it will become noteworthy when there isn’t applause between movements at the Proms – HJ via Facebook

If given a choice between people coughing like bastards, the rustling of sweet papers, mobile phones beeping, and talking (!) during quiet movements (when did that become a thing?) or a rapturous applause in appreciation of the music I choose applause… every time – DO via Facebook

 

 

https://open.spotify.com/track/5Rty8OPVOnqIpJN8ZD1cpy

 

https://open.spotify.com/track/6U70qJA6gRi8ZrH1Bm7e8k

 

 

“The only disappointment of the evening was that, on leaving the hall, the sounds of Elgar were immediately assailed by other events elsewhere in the building. The Southbank management should show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience”

This is a quote from a review in The Guardian of a performance of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall last weekend. It’s true that the foyer and “ballroom” area of the RFH were busy and noisy as we left the building after a deeply arresting two hours of very moving and profound music. Outside the venue, it was even noisier: this was a Saturday night in the Big Smoke after all. Pavement cafes spilled people, drinking, chatting, laughing; there were kids busking in the railway arches on the way to Waterloo station; and all around us were the sounds of a vibrant city enjoying itself. Yes, it did feel a little jarring to be plunged into a city having a night on the town after such an absorbing musical experience, but for me this is one of the great pleasures of concert-going in London – and it’s also a good reminder that London is an eclectic and culturally diverse city.

Back to the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and it’s important to consider what this building is actually for. True, it is largely associated with classical music, but that is only a part of what it does, and currently the Summertime festival is in full flow offering a range of activities from song and dance to workshops and talks. The foyer area and café are open all day for people to drop in, socialise or join in one of the many activities within the venue. There are spaces for meetings, lectures and exhibitions, a fine dining restaurant, a library and a gift shop. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this: the venue draws important revenue from food and beverage services and other add-ons (ticket sales alone cannot and do not cover the huge running costs of such a building).

To suggest that the RFH should “show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience” does several things, in my opinion. First, it reiterates the already very entrenched view that classical music is exclusive and special, the preserve of the few not the many, its gilded cage polished with regular doses of reverence. Why should the place in which this “special” music takes place be kept so sacred…..? Let’s not forget that people leaving church in the “olden days” would have been assailed by the noises and smells of life outside its hallowed walls – beggars, peddlers, whores and more.

Better if all concert halls/opera houses were built in parks, away from city throng. Wagner had the right idea

– MR via Facebook

Secondly, it ignores the fact that arts venues like the RFH, the Barbican et al have to function on several levels, offering a diverse range of concerts, events, lectures and other activities, and that they do not exist simply to serve classical music audiences. What we experienced on leaving the RFH after the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ was the reality of concert-going in an arts complex in a big city. If you want to savour the experience of the music a little longer, remain in your seat in the auditorium.

For me, the experience of live music – and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I absolutely love live music – is not just the music itself but the “complete experience”: traveling to the venue, meeting friends, having drinks and socialising beforehand, and, once inside the auditorium, the accompanying sounds of a living, breathing audience listening, engaging and responding to what they are hearing. Afterwards, the walk back to the station with friends, stepping out into that vast, noisy ecosystem of the living city, is also part of the live concert experience for me. Admittedly the late train home, replete with its swaying drunks, leering blokes, snogging couples and people eating smelly food can take the shine off the evening, but on balance the whole package is an experience which I cherish and enjoy. When I’ve heard something as profound as the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, or indeed any other performance which has moved me, I carry the memory of the music away with me. Yes, the noise of the street can jar, but it can’t really touch the music which continues to resonate in the memory for a long time afterwards.


The Dream of Gerontius – review in The Guardian

elite
noun
noun: elite; plural noun: elite
a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society

The word “elite” has been frequently heard during the fortnight of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Athletes and sportspeople at the top of their game are regularly described as “elite”, and afforded an elevated status. And rightly so: these people are at the peak of their fitness, they’ve trained long, hard and meticulously to prepare for the games, and the medals and approbation are the visible badges of their great achievements. They are truly “elite”. We have no problem in applying this word to our sporting champions and when we use it it is replete with respect, admiration and awe.

It’s a rather different scenario when the word is used in relation to classical music. In this case it suggests exclusivity, inaccessibility, snobbery, and describes an art form which is regarded as the preserve of the few not the many whose practitioners are aloof, stuffy and out of touch.

You wouldn’t say that about Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins would you?

But of course classical musicians are elite. Look at how they train, the meticulous way they approach preparation, fitness, mental attitude. The mindset and physical preparation of the musician is very similar to that of the athlete, and many comparisons can – and should – be drawn between sporting elite and musicians.

Multiple gold medal-winning British track cyclists Laura Trott & Jason Kenny (source: BritishCycling.org.uk)

These days many musicians look to sport and more specifically sports psychology to inform their musical training and preparation (cf The Inner Game of Music which came from “inner game” sports training which has been used successfully by top tennis players). Musicians, like sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to put in the many long hours of training to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this. And just like elite athletes, musicians undergo a very rigorous training which includes much repetitive physical activity (practising) and psychological conditioning. We admire our elite athletes for their physical prowess, their stamina, their grace and strength – and we praise them for their dedicated, meticulous training. And we should admire the same attributes in our musicians.

Musicians, unlike sportspeople, last longer: those who’ve been elevated to the dizzy heights of “elite” (aka “world class”, “internationally renowned”, “legendary” etc) can continue a career well into their 80s (Paul Badura Skoda, for example).  A few know when it’s time to step back to let the younger players through (notably, Alfred Brendel). Others cling on determinedly, even if their playing does not match their revered status.

Sportspeople, meanwhile, are judged more objectively by their results and they usually know when it’s the right time to quit. They retain their special status and enter the hall of fame for others to aspire to and emulate. The greatest sportspeople go out at the top of their career (Bradley Wiggins, for example, who eschewed the big salary to concentrate what he enjoys and does well – track cycling; also Sir Chris Hoy, Boris Becker and Victoria Pendleton). These people know that they have reached a point in their professional career where there is nothing left to add and that now is the time to stand down. This is partly because of the physical demands on the body, motivation, the punishing lifestyle, and the recognition that better, younger people are coming through. Many turn their attention to coaching, sharing their wisdom and experience to support and inspire the next generation of elites.

An elite pianist - Daniil Trifonov (source: Intermusica)
An elite musician – pianist Daniil Trifonov (source: Intermusica)
We want our musicians to be elite: by adopting a mindset and training regime akin to that of the elite athlete, musicians are able to produce performances which are consistently impressive, technically assured, absorbing, moving, exhilarating, inspiring…… These are the traits we admire in our elite musicians and for this reason we should celebrate their superhuman talents, in just the same way that we lionise our medal-winning athletes.

 

 

Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.

It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.

As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.

The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.

But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:

Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive

We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.

It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……

I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..

Further reading

No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)

Stephen Hough: no more loo breaks? – Article by Andrew Eales/Piano Dao

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music

 

 

Concert

noun

1. a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate.

2. a public performance, usually by an individual singer, instrumentalist, or the like; recital:

As regular readers of this blog, and friends and colleagues will know, I go to a lot of concerts, at least one a week, and sometimes two or three. I also occasionally give my own concerts or perform in recitals organised by others.

Earlier this year, I took part in a concert for a medical charity. It was held at the intimate and convivial 1901 Arts Club close to London’s Waterloo station. I’ve performed there are couple of times, and it is also where the South London Concert Series events usually take place. On this occasion, the audience was almost entirely comprised of medics. Plied with champagne before the concert, when people came down to the music salon for the concert, one had the sense of them relaxing into their seats, happy to enjoy whatever we presented to them. The programme was varied with performances by a soprano, a violinist, piano solo and piano 4-hands, and included works by Debussy, Gershwin, Saint-Saens, Rachmaninov, Grainger and Ravel. During the interval and after the concert, members of the audience expressed their delight at the music making and congratulated us on our performances. Throughout the evening, there was a very palpable sense of a shared experience and that the audience had really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment.

Which set me thinking……. Are concerts purely for “entertainment” or do they serve another more serious or different purpose or purposes?

Of course, “entertainment” needn’t be something amusing or funny (though the word is more commonly associated with humour). Entertainment is a form of diversion, an agreeable occupation for the mind, or something affording pleasure. People (including me) gain enormous pleasure from live concerts, and for many concerts offer a wonderful escape from the humdrum, the every day and the mundane. Take this a step further, and for some a concert offers something more transcendent, a near-religious experience (even for the non-religious). A concert can take the listener on a journey outside themselves, it can uplift and even heal.

Since time immemorial, people have got together to make and share music. That sense of community, of belonging, of a shared experience remains very important today. There’s a feeling of collaboration between performer, music and audience which is infectious and absorbing: witness people at the Proms – you can see the sense of engagement and absorption in their faces as they listen to the music (and of course without an audience, a “concert” would cease to be).

Live music can be really really exciting: a live concert is a “one-off”, and that excitement, spontaneity and sense of risk is what makes concerts so compelling – and something one can never truly get from a recording. I love the sense of the music being created “in the moment” (of course, I understand that the performer has in fact spent many careful hours preparing the music). The composer Helmut Lachenmann says of concerts: “Some people go bungee-jumping or climb a mountain to have an existential experience – an adventure. People should have this same experience in the concert hall.” How performers create this sense of “adventure” is discussed later in this article.

Nor do I do believe there is such a thing as a truly “bad concert”, for we each take from the performance something personal and unique, and while I may not have enjoyed a certain performance, others have and who I am to tell them they are wrong? The meaning of music is different for each individual listener, and whether it merely “entertains” or offers something deeper, it is the way music “speaks” and communicates that makes it so magical. This sense of magic is heightened when one hears live music.

For musicians, concerts are in integral part of their raison d’etre and an opportunity for them to share their musical vision with the audience. (One pianist friend of mine describes giving concerts as “a compulsion and a rather beautiful narcotic”.) Music was written to be shared and the audience share their appreciation of what is coming from the performer, thus making a concert a collaborative experience. Performing should have less to do with ego and more the musician’s desire to share the music with others.

Bringing spontaneity to one’s performance can be tricky, especially if one is playing the same programme over a series of concerts. As the British pianist Stephen Hough put it in a programme about practising for the BBC, one needs to be a “perfectionist” in the practise room to allow one to be “bohemian” on stage. By which he means if one is very well-prepared, one has the confidence to “let go” when one performs. Often the best and most memorable performances are from performers who understand the balance between being perfectionist and bohemian. At other times, it is the sense of intense concentration and profound understanding and affinity with the music which can create a moving and memorable performance. I have occasionally been moved to tears on such occasions, crying quite spontaneously at the end of the piece (notably in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a complete performance of the Vingt Regards. On both occasions, the pianist was Steven Osborne.)

On a more prosaic/commercial level, concerts can be used to promote a new CD or related material, or launch of a recording label or similar. And for composers, concerts provide a means of getting their music out there, heard, appreciated and reviewed.

Finally, the late great Claudio Arrau on the subject of concerts:

“I don’t know what will happen, but I trust it will be wonderful”