One concert leads to another, or so it would appear based on recent events in my musical life….. Less than a month ago, at a super lunchtime concert given by the sparkling young British pianist Christina McMaster, we were chatting after her performance and she asked me if I was free in early December to play in a private house concert down in Sussex at the lovely country home of Neil Franks, Chairman of Petworth Festival. And so a couple of weeks and two rehearsals at Steinway Hall later, I found myself playing the Wilberg Carmen Fantasy with three other pianists, including Christina and Neil. To say it was great fun would be an understatement – it was possibly the most fun I have ever had at a piano: making lots of wonderful noise (music!) with like-minded people with a true passion for the piano to a very appreciative audience. Add in welcoming, generous hosts, plenty of Prosecco and wine, good food and good company, and one has the makings for a perfect evening.

The programme was eclectic (see pictures below) but it worked and I think the audience really appreciated the range and variety of music played, from Rachmaninov’s striking and vibrant Symphonic Dances (brilliantly performed by Neil and Julian) to miniatures by Satie and Etudes by Debussy (beautifully played by Christina), interspersed with works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Britten, William Grant Stiff and Prokofiev. A programme need not have a theme nor a common thread when performed by a mix of people who simply want to share their favourite music – and their love of playing that music – with others. And that sense of a shared experience, between musicians and audience, was very palpable, judging by the lovely comments from audience members during the interval and after the concert.

We are so used to hearing music in formal or very large concert venues, like the Wigmore or Royal Festival Hall, that it’s easy to forget that until about 1850, the majority of music was written for and performed in private salons and the home (and music for piano four- or six-hands was composed to satisfy a growing market in the 19th century for piano music to be played in the intimacy of one’s home). Neil Franks’ Pianos at Parkhurst (House) recreates the atmosphere of the rather less formal nineteenth-century salon or haus konzert – an atmosphere that allows for greater connection between audience and performers – and is a delightful and very positive reminder that, fundamentally, music is for sharing.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and hugely enjoyable evening of shared music making – for friends, with friends and amongst friends.


Petworth Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018. A preview of the 2018 Festival will be on this blog.

For further information about the Festival, please visit www.petworthfestival.org.uk

A concert is an occasion, an event, and as such has its own special etiquette and “rules of engagement”.

As the audience we have certain responsibilities, including arriving on time, sitting quietly during the performance, showing our appreciation for the performer and being courteous towards our fellow concert-goers and the performer, who has worked so hard to create this performance to share with us.

The age of the smartphone constantly threatens to disrupt these “rules” (coughing and the noises of living, breathing human beings are acceptable aspects of the live concert experience), and venues continually remind audiences to turn off their phones (and other electrical devices such as watches with alarms) prior to the start of the concert. It is, sadly, all too common for a phone or two to go off during a performance, but generally this is tolerated and met with a sigh or tut from audiences members (fortunately, I have never been party to the kind of reaction as described in this article).

But it’s not just a ringing phone which can disturb concert goers: I was forced to watch most of a concert by Yuja Wang at Queen Elizabeth Hall via the video function of an iPhone belonging to the person seated in front of me. Not only is it generally forbidden to film or photograph at concerts, it is also extremely distracting to have a phone screen glowing in the gloaming of the concert hall. And the other night at Wigmore Hall, where Igor Levit completed his Beethoven Sonatas odyssey, the young man seated on my right checked his phone every 10 minutes, presumably to check in with his Facebook chums. This was done silently but the lit up screen was an intrusion on my enjoyment of the concert. It does make me wonder why people bother going to concerts if they can’t do without their phone for a couple of hours. It is also discourteous to the performer: never mind that we were sitting in Row X – if you’re checking your phone, you’re clearly not concentrating on the performance.

In a programme of late Beethoven no less. Why would one even go if one isn’t prepared to put everything aside for those sonatas?

@Tmcguitars on Twitter

Of course performers have responsibilities to the audience as well. In creating a concert, the performer makes a virtual “contract” with the audience (and a formal one with the venue/promoter), and the audience are complicit in that by attending the concert and fulfilling their side of the arrangement, as noted above. In a recent blog post, music journalist and writer Jessica Duchen describes a concert where the performer seemed displeased that the hall was only half full and manifested his displeasure via his performance. Whatever was going on with the performer, it seems singularly unfair to the audience to treat them with antagonism. They have, after all, paid to hear you play (that “contract” again) and even if you’re tired or ill, you have made the commitment to perform.

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The green room at London’s Wigmore Hall

Then there are the responsibilities of the venue towards performer and audience. The vast majority of venues are very well run, with friendly, helpful staff and pleasant areas and bars where people can meet and socialise. Performers are well-looked after with proper facilities to warm up and get changed, important aspects which help make the performer feel comfortable and at ease (as far as possible) ahead of the concert. But I have come across stories of performers being told to change the programme at short notice, because the promoter demands it, and a recent case where the performer arrived at the venue and was not permitted a proper warm up on the piano, nor was the tuner given an appropriate amount of time to prepare the instrument. There was no green room, and no refreshments for her. Of course she gave the recital, because she is a professional, but I suspect the experience left a sour taste in her mouth and it is unlikely she will hurry to perform at the same venue again.

A concert is a shared experience, with shared responsibilities. When these coalesce in a virtuous circle of good practice, courtesy and commitment, we should all be guaranteed an enjoyable and engaging experience.

 


Hall half full, glass half empty – blog article by Jessica Duchen

Another music-filled year, many hits, a few misses, some new discoveries – musicians, venues, repertoire and people – and a couple of memorable performances of my own, solo and with colleagues…..

January

Pavel Kolesnikov (Wigmore Hall) – What impressed me in Pavel Kolesnikov’s performance was his clarity, control, lightness of touch and musical understanding which revealed the hidden nuances and subtle embroideries in Debussy’s writing. His elegant, sensitive pianism created a concert which was highly engaging and deeply intimate. Review here

The Pink Singers (Cadogan Hall) – a gloriously uplifting evening of fine singing and the premiere of a piece for choir written by a colleague of mine.

Deyan Sudjic (Wigmore Hall) – This was the pianist who asked the Washington Post to remove what he felt was an unfavourable review, and I admit I was curious to hear this pianist after reading about this furore….. Review here

Warren Mailley-Smith (St John’s Smith Square) – A concert in Warren’s series exploring Chopin’s complete piano music.

February

Steven Osborne (St John’s Smith Square) – The first of two wonderful concerts by this exceptional pianist which I enjoyed in 2016. Review here

Piotr Anderszewski (Wigmore Hall) – Always a pleasure to hear this thoughtful and sensitive pianist – and an added pleasure was meeting him briefly after the concert. Review here

Nikolai Demidenko (Cadogan Hall) – Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. Review here

Mark Swartzentruber (Kings Place) – music by Bach, Ravel and Schubert (D959- one of the may performances of this work which I have been studying)

Divine Fire – The Story of Chopin and Sand told in music and words, performed by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator). More about this 7 Star Arts mixed media concert here

Denis Kozhukin (Wigmore Hall) – “sweet sonorities and ravishingly spacious phrases, creating a sense of relaxed ecstasy” Review here

March

Akhenaten (ENO/Coliseum) – an enthralling new production of Philip Glass’s opera. Review here

Leif Ove Andsnes & Friends (Dulwich Picture Gallery) – an engaging and varied concert of music by Nordic composers to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by Nikolai Astrup. Review here

Francoise-Green Duo (St John’s Smith Square) – part of the FG Duo’s Viennese Salon residency, appropriately as I flew to Vienna the day after this concert. Review here

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Vienna Konzerthaus) – I couldn’t go to Vienna and not go to a concert! A romantic and uplifting performance of Beethoven’s 5th Concerto by PLA.

Nazrin Rashidova (violin) & Daniel Grimwood (piano) (St James’s Piccadilly) – lovely mixed programme of music by Mozart and Poulenc, plus Daniel’s Nocturne, which was, for me, redolent of Liszt and Ravel. Beautiful colourful playing by Nazrin, sensitively accompanied by Daniel. I was lucky enough to hear this fine duo again in November in Wimbledon.

Peter Jablonski (Cadogan Square) – Ravel’s glorious G major Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s exuberant hommage to New York, Rhapsody in Blue, performed by a pianist whom I had the pleasure to meet and interview shortly before the concert.

Beethoven Choral Fantasy Op 80 & Brahms German Requiem – a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy by my friend Elspeth Wyllie, followed by an absorbing German Requiem, at St Luke’s Balham

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s greatest Passion, on Good Friday.

April

Andras Schiff, The Final Sonatas (Wigmore Hall) – the penultimate piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert. My first encounter with Andras Schiff live in concert. Review here

Iphigénie en Tauride (Drayton Arms Theatre) – startling and immediate “opera in a pub”, by Euphonia Opera Co. Review here

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s

Rolf Hind (Wigmore Hall) – unusual and sometimes challenging contemporary music for piano by the pianist with the deepest, most elegant bow in London 🙂

Pierre-Laurent Aimard/Vingt Regards (Milton Court) – my first visit to Milton Court at Guildhall. A remarkable concert in a fine acoustic. Review here

May

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise with Ian Bostridge (Barbican Theatre) – a wonderfully quirky yet sensitive and highly atmospheric reworking of Schubert’s late great song cycle. Review here

Concert for North-West Music Trust (Altrincham) – me at the piano in this instance, playing music by Mendelssohn, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Schubert (D959). My first “proper” concert of my fellowship diploma programme to a very friendly audience and lovely welcoming hosts.

BBC Young Musician Final – an inspiring and uplifting final to the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition. Review here

Richard Goode – Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas (Royal Festival Hall) – a perfect evening of beautiful piano playing. The finest reading of the D959 for me….. More here

Steven Osborne/The Music of Silence (Milton Court) – back to Milton Court for music by George Crumb and Morton Feldman. Review here

June

The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre) – a delightfully dirty, louche, foul-mouthed and witty production with fine performances by Roy Kinnear and Haydn Gwynne

Piano 4-hands at Conchord Festival (St Mary’s Twickenham) – a new local music festival in Twickenham. Review here

July

Daniel Grimwood/Markson Pianos Series – Sonatas by Schubert, including the great G major, D894, performed on a magnificent Bosendorfer piano by a pianist who really understands this repertoire

August

Louis Lortie/Chamber Prom (Cadogan Hall) – my first live encounter with this pianist whose programme spoke of Italian holidays and sunshine. Review here

Scenes from the End (Camden Peoples Theatre) – one-woman opera with Heloise Werner. Review here

The Makropoulos Case/Proms

September

Proms in the Car Park – a very unusual concert experience: music by Steve Reich performed in a disused multi-storey carpark in Peckham. Review here

Music Marathon (St John’s SMith Square) – I was delighted to have the chance to perform at SJSS, albeit for 15 minutes (!) as part of the music marathon for London Open House weekend. Great to hear and meet other pianists and I made new friends too!

Nick van Bloss (Wigmore Hall) – intense and athletic Beethoven, and lovely to meet Nick in person afterwards

Igor Levit/Beethoven (Wigmore Hall) – the launch of Levit’s Beethoven sonatas cycle. Review here

October

Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen (Wigmore Hall) – a chance to catch up with a friend who used to be my most regular concert companion (now resident in Spain).

Liszt’s B minor Sonata – lecture & concert (Kings Place). An insightful and revealing talk by Alfred Brendel followed by a performance of a sonata which I have never liked! Review here

Two-Piano Extravaganza (Kings Place) – Part of the inaugural London Piano Festival, this concert was a feast of high-class pianism. Review here

Don Giovanni (ENO/Coliseum) – a splendidly raunchy production, made even better by our Secret Seats in the front row of the Dress Circle, plus interval champagne!

Quartet for the End of Time (SJSS) – a privilege to turn the pages for my friend the pianist Daniel Grimwood, and to enjoy the pianist’s perspective of this extraordinary work. Profound and moving.

Dina Duisen and Friends (1901 Arts Club) – music for piano and clarinet at my favourite small venue

The Prince Concert with Stephen Hough (Wigmore Hall) – atmospheric and varied songs by Stephen Hough, including the premiere of his ‘Dappled Things’. Review here

November

Steve Reich (Barbican Hall) – Electric Counterpoint amongst other minimalist wonders

Lulu (ENO) – a visually stunning new production by William Kentridge

Winterreise in English (Wigmore Hall) – revelatory performance by Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn, the English translation bringing a startling immediacy to the narrative of Schubert’s song cycle.

December

Concert for SPIN/Specialists in Pain International (St John’s Waterloo) – I performed in a fundraising concert with a pianist colleague and soprano Anna Cavaliero. A really wonderful evening of shared music making (www.spiners.org)

Melvyn Tan at Spitalfields Music (St Leonard’s Spitalfields) – fine pianism and three premieres. Review here

Helen Burford (St Nicholas, Brighton) – a typically eclectic and imaginative concert of “global exotica” including a Tarantella for Toy Piano by Stephen Montague. Atmospheric,  quirky and elegantly presented

Russian Winter Weekend Concert (Dorich House, Kingston) – Russian music arranged for flute and harp with Alena Lugobvkina (flute) and Anne Denholm (harp) and a chance to explore the Art Deco home of artist Dora Gordine. A delightful evening

In addition, I have also enjoyed….

Discovering the organ at St John’s Smith Square (more here)

Some fine concerts at my local music society by performers including Ben Socrates, Joseph Tong, Peter Murdock Saint and Jennifer Heslop, Jelena Makarova, amongst many others

The Magic Flute (directed by Simon Burney) at ENO. Magical, quirky and beguiling.

Fine performances at London Piano Meetup Group events by people who are not professional musicians but for whom the piano is a passion, an obsession and more….

Brave (and occasionally tearful!) performances by adult amateur pianists at my workshop at the 1901 Arts Club on 3 December

Accompanying one of my students who played Massenet’s ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs in a special retirement mass for her headmistress, and accompanying a friend at her Grade 5 French Horn exam (which she passed with distinction!).

Making new friends via social media who are proving enjoyable and stimulating concert companions.

The launch of the Music into Words project which explores writing about classical music today – next event is on 12 February 2017 with a great line-up of speakers (book tickets)

And I am very much lo0king forward to 2017 when I will hear

Martha Argerich (for the first time)

Daniil Trifonov

Anna Tsybuleva (winner of the Leeds Piano Competition)

Boris Berezovsky

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

And no doubt much more besides…..

 

 

 

 

British pianist Stephen Hough has sparked a lively debate by suggesting in an article that classical concerts could be “shorter” to attract younger or new audiences, or allow venues and musicians to offer two concerts in one evening. He has also hinted that intervals could be ditched in favour of a performance lasting around 70 minutes, and that concerts could start at different times (in the UK the standard start time for an evening concert is 7.30pm) perhaps to allow two performances in the same evening. Reactions online to these suggestions have ranged from outrage (at the thought of anyone messing around with the “traditional concert format”) to applause (for creative thinking).

In fact what Stephen Hough is suggesting is not that new. Many musicians, ensembles, orchestras and venues have been experimenting with different ways of presenting classical music for some time, from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals. Earlier this year I met and interviewed John Landor whose innovative Meet the Music concerts allow audience members to get right up close and personal with the musicians and the music, literally, while the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has for some time offered concerts in pubs and late-night “speed-dating” sessions where the audience can meet the musicians after the performance.

Trying to encourage “young people” to come to classical music concerts is an ongoing preoccupation of ………well, anyone with an opinion on the future of classical music, it would appear. There seems to be a current misconception about young people that because they are used to the instant gratification of the internet and platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Netflix et al, they are incapable of sitting through a concert or performance lasting more than 30 minutes, maximum, in one go. Personally, I think it is less to do with this and more to do with education – or lack thereof – that has inculcated in them the idea that classical music is “boring”.

Personally, I have never had a problem with the length of concerts. I think this is partly due to the fact that from a very young age I was taken to concerts and opera at which I was asked by my parents to sit quietly and attentively. In fact, my mother used to say to me that it was “very rude to yawn or fidget” during the performance “because the musicians can see you and will be offended if they think you’re not listening properly!”. Having been on the other side of the stage, so to speak, as a performer in recent years, I am not so sure she was right (I tend not to look at the audience, as a pianist, until I stand to bow), but I think her comments certainly taught me to be a well-mannered and attentive concert goer. In over 40 years of concert going I have only twice fallen asleep during a concert, once during a Prom which I had rushed up the M3 in the car to get to (and I also fell asleep momentarily at the wheel of the car during the journey). I also feel slightly embarrassed if I leave during the interval (again, something I rarely do).

The length of a concert is dictated by many factors, including the programme of music being performed, type of venue, and time of day. Sometimes performers like to run a whole 70-90-minute programme without a break (Pierre-Laurent Aimard did this a few year’s ago with his Liszt Project cycle at the Southbank), and certain works, such as Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, are best performed (in my humble opinion) without a break to allow listener, and performer, to appreciate the arc of the narrative. But some repertoire is very demanding for the soloist and an interval may be necessary not only for the performer/s to have a break, a pee and a drink, and regroup before going back on stage, but also for the audience to pause and reflect on what they have heard, have a break, chat with friends and go back for the second half with refreshed ears and mind.

And I think it’s easy to forget too that for many people going to a concert is very much a social experience: it’s not just about the music, though of course that is the greater part of the evening, but it is also about meeting friends, sharing the excitement of live music, the conversations afterwards about what you heard.

Other factors dictate how long one can last in the auditorium, such as comfort of seats (Cadogan Hall has the comfiest seats in London), climate (the Royal Albert Hall can sometimes be unbearably hot and airless), and quality of the “social areas” (bars, foyers etc).

So I think what Stephen Hough is really suggesting is that it’s important to keep thinking of creative and exciting ways to present classical music. Concerts may be short or long, with or without interval, or formal dress. Performers may speak to the audience beforehand, or be interviewed, or maybe there is a pre-concert talk, or a post-concert Q&A session. We don’t need “gimmicks” to sell classical music – and most young people can spot a gimmick which has been thought up by a focus group or a bunch of middle aged people trying (and failing) to get on down with the kids. The most important thing is not to patronise audiences or talk down to them.

This is a very interesting discussion – feel free to leave your thoughts on this subject in the comments box below.

Meet the Artist……Stephen Hough

Readers may be interested in the Music Marathon project at St John’s Smith Square, London which takes place over the weekend of 17 and 18 September as part of Open House London 2016. Soloists, choirs and ensembles will perform over a 24-hour period while the doors of St John’s will be open during the entire weekend to allow people to come in and explore the building, while also enjoying performances by a wide range of musicians (I will be performing there from 1.15-1.30pm on Saturday 17 September).

 

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”