Tag Archives: contemporary piano music

Meet the Artist……Tamara Stefanovich, pianist

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

My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so I was attending concerts at the Belgrade Philharmonic from the ripe age of three months with a milk bottle – thus food became an important part of my musical life later on.

My older brother and sister already played violin and cello respectively, but it was in one of the concerts that I heard the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto (as you see, a certain modernity was always a necessity for me) and I decided I was going to be a pianist, to the utter dismay of our neighbours who then had to endure the practicing of three instruments.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Boulez, Thomas Mann, Rembrandt, all sharing a strength of disciplined thought and lack of self-indulgence.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My country (former Yugoslavia) was in multiple wars in the 1990´s. Having moved from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to Cologne, I lost all concert bookings, the opportunity to travel freely and, most importantly, all financial help in the form of scholarships. Everything was annulled as sanctions were imposed on Serbia. My life subsisted on a couple of hundred Deutschmarks a month, working strange jobs, having not more then handful of concerts in almost a decade, eating once a day for prolonged moments of studying and traveling with considerable difficulties due to visa issues.I have never practiced as much as in those years.

But the question of changing the profession was a daily one. I worked but my work was not used – and for me not being useful is close to a sin.

Some years later I was offered series of concerts with Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, which I had to learn, and it became my inspiration, the re-start of a career and a source of energy for now more then 15 years – the mix of courageous, revolting, poetic and young energy in this piece transformed me and gave me the hope that my talent could be useful.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Playing all Boulez piano works in a series of recitals in the USA, and traveling with my husband and 6 month-old baby was a tour de force like none other. Performing all 6 Bach Partitas in one evening in Germany, or Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie 10 times on 10 consecutive days are high on my list of excitements. Seeing Maestro Brendel giving me a standing ovation in London still gives me shivers. Accompanying Matthias Goerne were experiences with an intensity and beauty that is unmatchable.

My CD of Bach/Bartok (available online) is where I have produced the truest portrait so far of what is close and true to me as an artist.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

The unpretentious ones that have a considerable complexity on all levels – emotional, structural, aural – and that represent a huge amount of challenge as well as surprise.

Bach, Boulez, Stockhausen, Ives, Szymanowski for the moment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
In constant dialogue with organisers as it shouldn’t be about me, but teamwork between my given curiosity, possibilities of the instrument, hall, timing of the season and openness of the public for a given evening. Thankfully I have a wise agent who after 17 different programmes does ask if it is not just maybe a little bit too much of repertoire for one season.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Kolarac in Belgrade, loved by Richter as well.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The uncompromising ones – John Eliott Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Boulez, Richter, Oistrakh, Annie Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Matthias Goerne, Salonen.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hopefully the next one…..but recently having Maestro Pollini come to my recital in La Scala.

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

Think about what the role of a musician is today and how you can be at best useful for today’s society – for me certainly not playing only older repertoire, but thinking how to link music of all times and span it to extraordinary creations of today. Challenge yourself by not copying someone else’s path, and be more open to creation of today then re-creating old career structures. In short, less image more substance.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Admiring my, then, teenage son, finishing a literature degree and gaining a driver’s licence, completing all ashtanga yoga series.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Health

What is your most treasured possession?

My son

What is your present state of mind?

Gratefulness

Known for captivating interpretations of a wide repertoire, Tamara Stefanovich performs at the world’s major concert venues including Carnegie Hall New York, Berlin Philharmonie, Suntory Hall Tokyo and London’s Royal Albert and Wigmore Halls. She features in international festivals such as Lucerne, La Roque d’Antheron, Ravenna, Aldeburgh, Salzburger Festspiele, Styriarte Graz, Klavier-Festival Ruhr and Beethovenfest Bonn.

Highlights of the current season include her return to the Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen, performances of Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante on tour with the National Youth Orchestra Great Britain and the presentation of Quasi una fantasia and the Double concerto with the Ensemble Asko|Schönberg and Reinbert de Leeuw at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw as part of ECM’S complete recording of Kurtág’s works. She will give recitals at International Piano Series London, Musikfest Berlin, Milano Musica, Vienna’s Konzerthaus and Antwerp’s De Singel performing Stockhausen’s Mantra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Tamara is cofounder and curator of the newly created festival “The Clearing” at Portland International Piano Series that will see her perform in recitals and work with young pianists and composers. Her appearance at the festival will be surrounded by recitals in Ithaca and Bellingham.

Recent engagements have included Tamara’s debut with the Sarasota Orchestra and performances with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, MDR Symphonieorchester Leipzig, WDR Symphonieorchester Köln, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Iceland Symphony Orchestra as well as an extensive US recital tour marking the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez garnering exultant reviews such as that of The New York Times: “Ms. Stefanovich’s performance of Boulez’ second piano sonata was staggeringly brilliant”.

Stefanovich has appeared with orchestras including The Cleveland and Chicago Symphonies, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Bamberger Symphoniker, Britten Sinfonia, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Swedish Chamber Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.

Tamara Stefanovich has collaborated with conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Pierre Boulez, Osmo Vänskä, Susanna Mälkki, Vladimir Jurowski as well as leading composers including Peter Eötvös and György Kurtág. She regularly leads educational projects at London’s Barbican Centre, Philharmonie Köln and at Klavier-Festival Ruhr such as innovative online project of interactive pedagogical analyses of Boulez’ Notations: www.explorethescore.org

Her discography includes the Grammy-nominated recording of Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. Stefanovich has also recorded for the AVI and harmonia mundi labels, featuring new piano solo works by Thomas Larcher. Her latest recording of Hans Abrahamsen’s concerto for piano and orchestra and 10 studies for piano with WDR Symphonieorchester Köln released by Winter & Winter. In 2015 she recorded Kurtág’s ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ and the Double Concerto with Asko | Schönberg Ensemble and Reinbert de Leeuw for ECM.

Taught by Lili Petrović, Tamara Stefanovich became the youngest student at the University of Belgrade at the age of 13. As well as music, her broad university education encompassed several other disciplines – psychology, education. She also studied at the Curtis Institute with Claude Frank, and subsequently with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Hochschule Köln.

(Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Let there be Love (Songs)

william-howard-plays-sixteen-love-songs-for-piano-lst198567

Love, in its infinite variety, was in the air at Hoxton Hall on Wednesday evening for a concert of newly-written love songs for solo piano, performed by British pianist William Howard. The event was the first of three marking the culmination of William’s Love Song Project, which began with the release of William’s album of romantic songs without words, Sixteen Love Songs, in June 2016. Having commissioned and performed music by living composers throughout his career, William wanted to explore the possibility of creating a contemporary version of his Sixteen Love Songs, modern songs without words on the theme of love which would connect to the composers featured on the Sixteen Love Songs disc. From an idea discussed while hill-walking with composer Piers Hellawell, the Love Song Project came to be and was met with great enthusiasm by the composers whom William initially approached.  Alongside the commissioned pieces by leading British composers including Robert Saxton, Judith Weir, Bernard Hughes, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Howard Skempton, William launched a composing competition which yielded 526 entries, of which we heard the first, second and third prize winners in the under 25 and over 25 categories.

The subject of love is, of course, the major preoccupation of pop songs and composers of the Romantic period, but has rather fallen out of favour amongst modern and contemporary composers whose focus seems to be more abstract or concerned with the big issues of the day such as climate change or political upheaval. In his introductory talk, William explained that this  “very indulgent” project had revealed a great variety of compositional languages, imagination, moods and character. Many of the works are very meaningful, or highly personal, are easy to relate to and travel far beyond the confines of the strictly defined genre of “classical music”. What the works share is their brevity, and “an overwhelming tenderness for the piano” (Piers Hellawell), and reveal the infinite lyricism and resonance of the piano.

Aside from the championing of contemporary composers, the project has produced a wonderful body of new repertoire for solo piano to suit all tastes.

The audience was invited to give feedback and select favourites from the programme of 12 pieces, but it would be hard to choose one stand-out piece from such a broad range of very fine music. The winning competition entries had clearly been selected with thought, the judges careful to avoid imposing their own stylistic agenda on the pieces, and these were interleaved with commissioned works to create a programme of great charm and variety. The works reflected the myriad facets of love – from tender pieces written for babies or children (‘Camille’ by Joby Talbot, ‘Daniel Josiah is Sleeping’ by Simon Mawhinney) or a partner (‘For Teresa’ by Robert Saxton, which quotes Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, another love song for piano, and is redolent of Schumann’s heartfelt outpourings to Clara in its melodic lines and rich textures). Other works focussed on more abstract aspects of love, or love other than the human kind (‘Arbophillia’ (love of trees) by Samuel Cho Lik Heng, third prize winner in the under 25 category). The programme ended with Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘Love Song for Dusty’, which pays homage to both Dusty Springfield (“a temporary obsession of mine when I discovered that other types of music existed other than ‘Classical’“) in its song structures (verses, choruses, bridges) and pop-infused harmonies, and also to the nineteenth century composers of sweepingly romantic piano solos and songs without words such as Mendelssohn and Liszt. It had a wonderful warmth suffused with wit and humour. William’s sensitive, graceful playing brought to the fore the individual characters of each piece, not an easy task when one is moving between very short pieces of contrasting mood and style.

This was a really delightful evening, made more so by the number of friends and supporters in the audience who together created a very friendly and convivial atmosphere: it felt like a concert for friends and amongst friends – the best kind of music making – and pianists can look forward to the opportunity to explore some wonderful new repertoire.

The Love Song Project concerts continues at Leighton House Museum and Cheltenham International Music Festival in May and June, and include music by Judith Weir, Howard Skempton and Nico Muhly. Details here

Steps Volume 1 – the journey begins

I first encountered the piano music of British composer Peter Seabourne in 2016 when he kindly sent me the scores and recordings of his Steps Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5. Conceived and organised as “a pianist’s Winterreise”, the music is remarkably varied yet highly accessible and recalls the piano music of Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev and Messiaen in its piquant harmonies, lyricism, and rhythmic adventurousness. Seabourne describes the series as “a compositional travelling companion” and the collection works more like a cycle rather than a progressional series such as Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

Although composed over ten years ago, the pieces which comprise Steps Volume 1 have now been released (on the Sheva label), performed by Korean pianist Minjeong Shin. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a set of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ or Janacek’s ‘On An Overgrown Path’,  for example, and the works have evocative titles, many of which are drawn from poetry by Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, Rilke and Swinburne. The range of expression, character and emotional power of these pieces is impressive, hinting at a lively, inquisitive and all-encompassing attitude to creating music (as the composer says himself, “I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life!“), and the broad scope of the music, together with its inherent expressivity, lyricism and romanticism, makes it immediately appealing. There are atmospheric etudes, aphoristic miniatures, expansive character pieces, and intimate, poetic preludes. Minjeong Shin’s sensitive response to the shifting moods and myriad soundscapes reveals the music’s astonishing variety and virtuosity.

The CD’s comprehensive booklet was written by the composer himself and contains detailed programme notes for each work, together with biographical information on performer and composer.

In Steps Volume 1, and indeed in the other volumes in the cycle, Peter Seabourne has created contemporary piano music which is accessible and appealing to professional and amateur pianists alike (he has also made the score readily available via his website), and it is most gratifying to have such a varied contribution to the ever-growing repertory of new music for piano.

Recommended.

 

Buy Steps Volume 1

Review of the other volumes in the Steps series

 

 

Meditative stillness: ‘Stations of the Cross’ by Simon Vincent

simon_vincent__stations_of_the_cross‘Stations of the Cross’, a new work for solo piano by British composer and pianist Simon Vincent, was inspired by a visit to Jerusalem in 2015 and by William Fairbanks’ installation in Lincoln Cathedral. Entitled Forest Stations, the installation is a series of sculptures in wood and reflects Fairbanks’ love of timber and his concern about the preservation of forests and trees. The sculptures tell the story of Christ’s death, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ being the places on the route to the place of Crucifixion where Christ is said to have stopped. For the faithful, each station, or stopping point, provides a point of prayer and meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Simon Vincent’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (2016) is a series of 17 short movements, depicting Christ’s spiritual, emotional and corporeal journey to his death on the cross.

It is intended that the work opens up reflection and discussion of the image of a sole human figure weighed down with burden, an image which for me raises issues of the relationship of the individual to both a society and state which are not only capable of looking away but also of allowing suffering: themes of truly vital relevance to us today

– Simon Vincent

The work is prefaced by an earlier piece, ‘Meditations on Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane’ (2013) whose sombre, reflective mood prepares the listener for the main work on the disc. Musically, ‘Stations of the Cross’ owes much to Morton Feldman, master of stillness and controlled, deliberate silences, while the concept of a cycle of devotional meditations connects this work to Messiaen’s epic ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’. 

Vincent’s carefully-placed chords are infused with jazz harmonies, while subtleties of tonal colour are achieved through long, sustained notes and the piano’s resonance. It’s the kind of music that demands to be heard live, preferably in an acoustic which allows the timbres and unexpected fleeting clusters of notes and rhythmic fragments to linger in the air like memories.

It was Claude Debussy who declared that “music is the space between the notes”, and the pauses and fermatas which colour ‘Stations of the Cross’ allow one to fully appreciate every single note and chord. Into this void, the sounds reverberate and resonate with a meditative stillness and restrained expressive gravity. The effect is powerfully cumulative, despite the brevity of each movement, with a sense of the music building inevitably towards its contemplative conclusion.

The work receives its world premiere on 18th April 2017 in a concert given by the composer in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. Further information

A Meet the Artist interview with Simon Vincent will be published shortly.

 

X is for……..

dantobinsmith-432-h1100-q90-rz3-b75Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) – composer, architect, boffin. Fearsomely experimental, he linked his disciplines by writing and designing co-dependent music and listening spaces. He arguably laid the foundations for modern electronica. And he was one of the first composers to use mathematical theory in creating music.

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(photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Why does Xenakis belong in a pianist’s alphabet? Because his first longer-form work for the instrument has been called ‘the most difficult piano piece ever written’. Clearly seeing this as underperformance of some sort, 12 years later he produced a second piece for solo piano that is, strictly speaking, ‘impossible’. What’s not to like?

In both pieces, Xenakis uses certain mathematical techniques or theories to shape and generate the music. When I heard about this kind of composition in my teenage years, I was suspicious in my ignorance. 1: If it was all down to maths, was it really composition at all, or just some kind of automated exercise? And contrarily, 2: Surely all music – including the really tuneful, harmonious stuff – has mathematical perfection at its root… so why does THIS have to sound so deranged?

I recently decided to go back to Xenakis’s piano music, purely as a listener. I wanted to satisfy myself that without considering ANY of the scientific background – deploying my ear over my brain – it still worked for me, had something non-clinical to offer.

Here is the earlier piece, ‘Herma’:

 

and the later one, ‘Evryali’:

 

I was genuinely surprised by some of my reactions.

* I found both pieces enjoyable and invigorating – but I wasn’t expecting to hear such a world of difference between the two. I think in ‘Herma’ you hear the maths, and in ‘Evryali’ you hear the music.

* The unpredictable dance to the extremes of the keyboard in ‘Herma’ make it feel like performance art – raindrops one minute, rubble the next. As a result, the piece attains a kind of spiky ambience.

* In ‘Evryali’, however, I think the sweeping curves in the structure are audible, the notes – however dissonant – seem to belong together, journey with each other. The images it conjures up in my head are geometric, symmetrical – spirals, waves.

There’s a twist in the tale, however. ‘Evryali’ is ‘impossible’ partly because in places it’s written using more than two staves (as you can see on the YouTube video). The pianist must create their own version based on which notes they want to cover and which they can live with leaving out.

Of all things, this reminds me of jazz. Jazz has very little to do with mayhem; rather it is (as the critic Whitney Balliett put it) ‘the sound of surprise’ – the unexpected choices players make within the established parameters. With ‘Evryali’, we seem to have a truly original hybrid: a composed framework through which the pianist can follow their own unique path. I love the idea that from mathematical principles, Xenakis has created a piece dependent, like so much other music, on flexibility, spontaneity and feel.

Adrian Ainsworth

Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

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(letter picture Dan Tobin Smith)

‘It May Have Been’ – the piano works of Paul Burnell

it20may20have20been20album20front20cover201500This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.

“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.

Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.

James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.

Recommended.

‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.

Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.