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”

Programme for Wieniawski’s concert, 26 June 1891 ©Cambridge University Library

The musician as promoter – by which I mean one who organises and promotes concerts – is nothing new and there are historical precedents in the activities of Handel and Mozart, for example, who both organised their own subscription concerts. As the musician became elevated to celebrity status so the role of the “impresario” became more important: one who talent-spotted, and organised and financed concerts. Famous impresarios have included Thomas Beecham, Richard d’Oyly Carte and Sol Hurok (who managed, amongst many others Ashkenazy, Gilels, Richter, Rostropovich, Pavlova and Segovia). But today the impresario has largely been superseded (with a few notable exceptions such as Simon Cowell whose role as a “creator” and promoter of new pop stars is, frankly, questionable…..) as musicians have taken over the responsibility of organising and promoting concerts themselves.

There are practical reasons for doing this, perhaps the most obvious being financial, as an independent promoter or impresario will take a percentage of the concert’s income. Musicians I spoke to in the course of researching this article also highlighted a need to remain in control of all aspects of the concert, from hiring the venue to deciding what should form the programme. Composer, singer and crossover musician Clio Em says “the positives include carrying out one’s artistic vision fully and collaborating with the musicians you yourself choose to worth with“, but she also cites social media, marketing and communication with the venue as potential admin headaches. A paid promoter or impresario will take on these administrative roles, liaise with and pay the venue hire, organise marketing and ticket sales and so forth, leaving the musician to concentrate on the music……But in return for this, the musician may be required to play a particular programme to please promoter/venue/audience.

Here is violinist Beatrice Philips who runs Lewes Chamber Music Festival, on the administrative aspects or creating and promoting concerts: “I find that it is important for me to separate my performing state of mind from my “organising a Festival” state of mind……………in the end, having created the programmes and chosen the performers, there comes a deluge of ‘non-musical’ things to deal with in order to make it happen which require a totally different part of the brain.”

Terry Lowry, composer, conductor and pianist, says: “Being responsible for concert promotion has been a strong positive for me.  Knowing how to promote an event myself makes it easier to help venues and presenters who are trying to promote a concert for me be effective.  It also forces me to stay in contact with my audience, which – while I enjoy this part very much – doesn’t come naturally to me.  I think pianists and composers become pianists and composers because they are very comfortable being alone.  Concert promotion forces me to interact in ways that are both effective and personally rewarding.”

Double-bassist Heather Bird says: If nothing else it has given me a greater insight and appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes in putting on gigs. And there’s nothing more satisfying than putting on a successful night that you’ve thought of, fixed, found the venue for, sorted out the tech specs, promoted and played in and watching people enjoying listening to and performing in the gig.”

Pianist Emmanuel Vass says: Art doesn’t pay my mortgage, unfortunately. If I want people to buy into what I do, it has to have an element of “consumer” or “product” orientation. Part of being a product = marketing. Otherwise, you’re just art on the shelf, which consumers will rarely want to automatically buy.

Today the world of classical music is extremely competitive which means one constantly needs to find new and creative ways to attract and engage audiences. Not many musicians, especially young musicians who are just embarking on a professional career, can afford to pay for a specialist promoter, and so putting on and promoting their own concerts, either singly or in collaboration with other colleagues, is the way forward. At London’s Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the BMus degree course includes a module called ‘Engaging Audiences’ which encourages students to consider how to market themselves, create effective promotional materials and think about their own ‘brand’ – i.e. who they are as an artist. This gets students thinking more commercially before they have left the relative comfort of the conservatoire, and a number of Trinity students who are friends of mine have been busy organising and performing in their own concerts in the years prior to graduation. As one student at Trinity-Laban said to me: “You can’t sit back and expect things to happen: musicians need to play an active role in promoting themselves and making things happen!”

A number of people whom I spoke to in the course of researching this article cite retaining control and giving free rein to their own artistic vision as important aspects of being one’s own promoter. Pianist Jeremy Young, artistic director of Alfriston Summer Music Festival, says: “I have a wonderful freedom to programme concerts that are intellectually stimulating and perhaps more daring than other concert promoters might be. Of course, my festival will not be successful if I don’t provide a broad scope of experience for the audience but now that I have built up a loyal audience I sense their hunger for new things and feel less need to consistently programme ‘classical favourites’. Of course, there is still an appetite for that too by both the artists and the audience…………I feel as intrinsically linked to artistic directorship as I do to playing the piano these days and my position as Head of Chamber Music at the RNCM also gives me opportunity to be educationally creative on behalf of the students.”.

The musician as promoter can also enjoy a special relationship with the audience, especially if one organises a regular series of concerts or an annual festival which gives one the opportunity to get to know one’s audience and build loyalty. This has several benefits: an element of familiarity and “trust” is established between performers and audience, which in turn can allow performers the artistic freedom to create more adventurous formats or experimental programmes which may include contemporary music or new commissions.

Pianist Daniel Tong, whose activities include Wye Valley Chamber Festival and a chamber festival based in Winchester, says: “I do see it as a natural extension of artistic directorship to come up with a concept and take ownership of it. To put one’s own stamp upon a concert, festival or series and help to shape it. Often these are the most personal and meaningful concert experiences. I think of my own festival in the Wye Valley, where we have built up a real rapport between artists and audience over the years…… That festival has always had a real family atmosphere, welcoming ambience and this, I am convinced, has in turn fostered a really creative and supportive spirit amongst the musicians. Some of the best performances I have heard have taken place down there……. Having musicians involved in the running of their events also means that some practical issues are understood more intimately. On the one hand, they know what it takes to create the right conditions and atmosphere for musicians and can pass this on to fellow organisers. Conversely, it introduces us to the kinds of details of which we are not always aware – how to publicise and promote, as well as how to look after an audience. We understand the business better and perhaps then sympathise and empathise more with those in administrative roles.”

For all musicians the desire to create, communicate and share music is (or should be) at the foundation of what we do, and organising concerts can be a wonderful way of expressing this desire while also controlling the environment and manner in which we present our music. Of course, practicalities include venue hire, marketing, ticket sales and front of house activities. When one retains responsibility for all these things, the admin and organisational aspects can be migraine-inducing, especially anxieties about selling enough tickets to cover one’s costs. In my experience of co-organsing the South London Concert Series we have had a couple of occasions when ticket sales have been very slow and this definitely creates stress. However, the satisfaction of organising our own concerts, working with musician friends and colleagues, and creating a friendly and convivial atmosphere in which to share music in some of London’s most beautiful and unusual venues outweighs the anxiety. This way of working makes our artform more democratic and, hopefully, brings classical music to a wider audience by making it more accessible. Ultimately, the music benefits – but also the musicians, the audience and the venue.

©Frances Wilson 2015

cons-inst-perf-mmusThe first Birmingham City University International Piano Academy (IPA) will run 14 July to 2 August 2014. This exciting three-week course is part of the Birmingham City University International Summer School. The IPA is designed to help pianists from across the world develop their interpretative, technical and platform skills.

There are concerts, masterclasses and lectures with leading international artists and renowned teachers, including Peter Donohoe and Julian Lloyd Webber, together with special interest events such as an exploration of playing Mozart’s music on different pianos, including the fortepiano and modern grand piano, allowing participants to discover the differences in phrasing, fingering and interpretation at different periods in history. Peter Donohoe will also give a lunchtime recital of works by Schumann, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. All events are free for those under 18 years of age.

Image credit: Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg
Image credit: Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg

In addition to this unique series of concerts, talks and other activities, the IPA offers a full programme of one-to-one tuition, group lessons and developmental activities.

The IPA is directed by Di Xiao, an international pianist, educator, writer and cultural ambassador.

Further details of the IPA here

Full programme of events brochure

http://www.dixiao.co.uk/

On 8 July I gave a joint concert with my pianist friend José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán for my local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington. It was Jose’s idea to present a joint concert and the result was a varied programme which reflected our personal and quite wide-ranging musical tastes. We closed the recital with the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite.

The complete programme:

Mozart – Fantasia in C minor K475 (Frances)
Shostakovich – Prelude & Fugue in C, Op 87 (José)
Part – Für Alina (Frances)
Haydn – Andante with variations in F minor, Hob XVII/6 (Frances)
Villa-Lobos – Cirandinhas W.210 nos. 6, 8, 12 & 11 (José)
Ginastera – Danza de la moza donosa (José)
Fauré – Berceuse from ‘Dolly Suite’ (duet)

Programme notes 8 July

Listen to the entire programme here

Ziyu Chen

A new series of concerts launches on 5th February 2014 at the Radcliffe Centre at the University of Buckingham with a concert by violist Ziyu Shen and pianist Anthony Hewitt.

Hot on the heels of their recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, these two world-class musicians bring a glorious, innovative programme of music by Bloch, Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel and Guan. Sixteen year old Ziyua Shen won the 11th Lionel Tertis International Festival and Competition in 2013, the youngest prize-winner of this prestigious competition.

Anthony Hewitt

 

 

 

Pianist Anthony Hewitt is founder of the Ulverston International Music Festival, now in its 11th year, and an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, whose communicative performances have won his high praise.

An intriguing addition to the programme is the inclusion of a specially commissioned poem by Artist in Residence, Graham Roos, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Cocklepickers’ disaster at Morecombe Bay. The event has resonances for both performers: Chinese born Ziyu and Cumbrian Hewitt, whose home town Ulverston overlooks the fated bay.
Further details and tickets

Future concerts in the series, which take place on the first Wednesday of each month, include:

5th March – Preludes and Promenades. The world premiere of a new words and music collaboration between Anthony Hewitt and actress Susan Porett, featuring selected Preludes by Scriabin and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with original artwork by Klara Smith.

2nd April – LePage/McLean Duo. Violinst David LePage and pianist Viv McLean in a programme of music by Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Monti.

Further information www.sevenstarconcerts.com

Prokofiev – Sarcasms

Ravel – Miroirs

Prokofiev – Visions fugitives Op. 22

Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor Op. 36

Steven Osborne, piano

Anyone requiring evidence of a thriving musical life outside of mainstream concert halls should look no further than local music societies, which offer varied concerts and busy seasons and attract top flight artists. St Luke’s Music Society, based at St Luke’s, a beautiful church in south-west London modeled on an Italian basilica and boasting a fine acoustic, was founded in 2003 and offers a popular season of concerts.  Artists this season include Nicola Benedetti and Michael Collins.

Appropriately for a concert held on Burns’ Night (25th January), the soloist was Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. But there the association ended, for the programme featured works by Russian and French composers – Prokofiev, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s rarely-performed Sarcasms (which Osborne has recorded for Hyperion). In these provocative miniatures, Prokofiev eschews the trend amongst late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers for writing salon pieces based on fairy tales and impressionistic evocations, and instead opts for biting mockery and the grotesque, much in the manner of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Op 11 or Bartok’s Burlesques and Allegro Barbaro. Alert to the idiosyncratic character of these brief pieces, Osborne’s imaginative approach gave the works the necessary snap and humour, with terse rhythms and a vivid percussive attack, though never at the expense of clarity and tonal quality.

In contrast, Ravel’s Miroirs are very much about impressionistic evocations, though they share Prokofiev’s desire to break free of formal confines. Steven Osborne has a deep affinity with the music of Ravel, and other French composers such as Debussy and Messiaen (his recording of the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus has received high praise, and his performance of the complete Vingt Regards at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last year was one of the most involving and profound musical events I have ever experienced). His unerring ability to fully comprehend the structure and meaning of this music was amply demonstrated in an evocative and colourful performance, from the limpid figures of ‘Noctuelle’ to the foam-flecked swell of ‘Un Barque sur l’ocean’, the sultry rhythms of the ‘Alborada del gracioso’ and the plaintive, distant chimes of ‘La vallée des cloches’. Clarity of sound, tonal shading, deftness of touch and musical understanding brought Ravel’s impressions to life with an atmospheric and shimmering palette of colours and sounds.

More Prokofiev after the interval, and snapshots of his most characteristic moods – grotesque, aggressive, assertive, poetic, mystical, delicate – in the Visions Fugitives, short pieces which shows the composer’s burgeoning talent in their contrasting moods, melodies, textures and rhythms. Osborne acute ability to move between the capricious individual characters of these short pieces – graceful melodies, moments of meditation and repose, violent virtuosity – made for a persuasive and engaging account.

The final work of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, was tautly managed, yet expansive, Osborne giving rein to the full romantic sweep of this work, at times redolent of the Third Piano Concerto. The rich hues and dense textures of the first movement contrasted with a beautifully nuanced second movement before a brilliant and vibrant final movement which had members of the audience on their feet applauding before the last notes had died in the hall. A single encore, one of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, brought to a close a superb evening of music making of the highest order.

Steven Osborne performs the same programme at Wigmore Hall on 14th February.

St Luke’s Music Society