Piano Day was founded in 2015 by composer and pianist Nils Frahm, and a group of like-minded others, and it celebrates all things piano – the instrument and those who play it, its extensive repertoire, and other piano-related projects. It takes places each year on 29th March, the 88th day of the year, chosen because the piano has 88 keys.

“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” – Nils Frahm

In a year when pianos in concert halls have largely fallen silent, Piano Day seems even more significant to me. I have to admit a certain estrangement from my own piano – I have not felt much motivation to play over the past year, despite having more time to devote to an instrument which I love, but in spite of this, I have made some new musical discoveries which I would like to share here.

Woven Silver from Seven Traceries – William Grant Still

A chance hearing of this piece on BBC Radio 3 one morning led me to listen to the entire suite and order the sheet music direct from William Grant Still’s estate in the US.

Chaconne – Jean-Henri d’Anglebert

Another piece which I discovered via BBC Radio 3, listening late one evening to the Night Tracks programme which is broadcast after 11pm

Every Morning, Birds from The Book of Leaves – Rachel Grimes

I discovered Rachel Grimes’ piano music when I was invited to suggest music for the new London College of Music piano syllabus. This atmospheric miniature is from her Book of Leaves album.

Blue Air from Colour Suite – Madeleine Dring

In 2020 I was asked to contribute teaching and performance notes for Trinity College of London’s new piano syllabus, and this was one the pieces for which I wrote notes. I like its lazy swinging rhythms and piquant, jazz harmonies.

Quiet Rhythms: Prologue & Action No. 9 – William Susman

This piece appeared in one of those “if you liked that, you’ll like this” playlists which the Spotify algorithm creates based on one’s listening.

Some Other Time – by Leonard Bernstein, played by Bill Evans

This is very similar to Evans’ Peace Piece, which I play quite frequently, and it shares its tranquillity and ostinato bass.

Allegro Moderato from Gargoyles – Lowell Liebermann

Another chance discovery, the sheet music for this piece by American composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann was included in an issue of International Piano magazine. It’s been on my piano for awhile, but I haven’t yet got round to learning it properly, beyond a brief sight-read. (Read my review of Lowell Lierbermann’s Personal Demons here)

Film en miniature, H. 148: III. Berceuse – Martinu

Track 14 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=190295242428

I don’t know very much of Martinu’s piano music and I discovered this piece through French pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s wonderful ‘Good Night!’ album (one of my favourite recordings of 2020 – review here).

Elf Dance – Moondog

American composer Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin, May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) was blind from the age of 16 and wrote most of his music in Braille. I like the Baroque/folksy flavours of this miniature, which appears on Vanessa Wagner’s disc Inland.

Listening back through these selections, I notice that most have a rather meditative or ambient quality, perhaps reflecting my taste for quieter, more reflective music during the past year.

Guest post by Doug Thomas


I create in order to learn; there has not ever been a piece of music that I have composed without the wish to discover something and develop my artistry.

While it is, I believe, observable in all my works, it is most obvious in Portraits, and the soon to be released Landscapes

With both projects, I intend — through microscopic study — to portrait composers that I have found influential or with whom I have spent considerable musical time. My creative approach consists of identifying the subjective elements that define these composers and, through a process of translation, make them mine. 

Through a broad selection that spans over each main period of Western classical music, I have selected Couperin, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Glass and Stravinsky. Some influences are quite noticeable in my works already, some much less, and some will perhaps become more prominent as I evolve musically.

Let’s take “Vienna 2”, the first of the eight pieces of Landscapes that I have recorded and released, and examine how I have composed it and what the result has been. 

The first phase of creation for this piece is one of learning; through a selection of some of Schubert’s motifs, and rhythmic, melodic or harmonic cells, I analyse, transcribe and identify the elements that make the music so interesting to me. I immerse myself in the composer’s world in order to bring the personality traits out and understand his creative process. It is similar to the work of the archaeologist, who brushes the dust and reveals the keys and symbols. It is a process of listening, reading and copying. 

The second phase is then an opportunity for translation and creation. It is how I adapt Schubert’s vocabulary to mine, how I reappropriate his sentences and make them mine. 

This last phase is crucial for me as it is the one that decides whether the piece will sound like a simple pastiche, or whether it will have the flavours of Schubert’s music, while being truly my own musical DNA. It might translate into improvising over the elements until something emerges or an intellectual process of shuffling the pieces and structuring new elements together. 

What I find truly interesting with such an approach, aside from the enrichment, is the end result. What I see as being very much Schubert’s words out of my mouth has actually become my own expression. Had I not mentioned Schubert, “Vienna 2” might have been perceived very differently, and the secret would have been intact. 

When Richter wrote Infra, a large inspiration was also Schubert’s, and his Impromptus, yet although the musical material is very similar, it is no one else but Richter’s works. 

Hopefully, I can say the same about “Vienna 2”, Portraits and Landscapes. Ultimately, I feel richer. 


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London. He also publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a regular contributor to this site and its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Doug Thomas

Piano music commissioned and recorded during lockdown to support musicians struggling during the Covid-19 crisis

There have been many initiatives to keep the music playing and support musicians during these difficult times. What all of these initiatives demonstrate is that musicians are, despite straitened circumstances, determined to keep playing and to continue to share their music with audiences. It also sends a powerful message to government that the industry is determined to survive, to let the music play, come what may.

I have a personal interest in this wonderful project by pianist Duncan Honeybourne: Duncan and I are friends, and also colleagues – together we run a lunchtime concert series in Weymouth.

During the UK lockdown, Duncan decided to offer short video recitals from his home every day. He called them ‘Piano Soundbites’. The series proved very popular and within a few weeks, Duncan had the idea to approach composers to ask them to write new piano pieces for him, to be premiered as ‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ in his video recitals. Alongside this, Duncan set up a Just Giving page to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (formerly the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund). The response was incredible – the project, which was ranked in the top 10% of Just Giving fundraisers nationally during April 2020, has already raised well over £2000 for Help Musicians UK, supporting musician colleagues struggling in the current situation.

‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ celebrates the diversity of styles embraced by a broad cross-section of professional composers working today. Featured composers include Sadie Harrison, Graham Fitkin, John McLeod, David Lancaster, Francis Pott, Luke Whitlock and John Casken, as well as younger and emerging composers, and each piece is no more than 6 minutes long at the most. These piano miniatures represent an important contribution to the ever-expanding repertoire for the instrument, to be enjoyed by amateur, professional and student pianists alike.

pianist Duncan Honeybourne

“….it was an invigorating experience to record an entire disc of pieces which hadn’t existed less than four months earlier! Especially stimulating and exciting is the juxtaposition of several leading senior composers with some of their most gifted younger colleagues. Several young composers make their first appearances on disc.

My objective, as I stated in my invitation to composers, was fourfold: to imaginatively harness the zeitgeist of our present situation: to bring comfort and enjoyment to a large ready-made audience stuck at home, to aid musicians badly affected by the “cultural lockdown” and to add to the contemporary repertoire, creating an artistic keepsake of this extraordinary phase in our history.

My long term plan is that, as well as helping our colleagues at a time of need, the collection will provide a snapshot of reflections and musings by some of the finest and most distinctive composers of our time at a unique and unprecedented moment in our history. I hope the disc will make for a refreshing, enriching, stimulating and quirky listening experience too!”
Duncan Honeybourne, September 2020

The music was recorded in late July 2020 in the new Gransden Hall at Sherborne Girls School, Dorset.

The disc is released on the Prima Facie label and is available to order now

For review copies, sample tracks, interviews with Duncan and other press information please contact Frances Wilson


Meet the Artist interview with Duncan Honeybourne


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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists. We’re self-contained and unlike most other musicians, we can be a musical “island”. But while our ability to work without others is a gift during a pandemic, many of us yearn to return to the delight of making music with other people. I’ve had the privilege of performing with many musicians during my career as a pianist, but some of my favorite stage moments occurred when I was sharing the keyboard with another pianist. As half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, my long running collaboration with pianist Molly Wheeler taught me that there is an intimacy to 4-hand playing that can’t be found in any other form of collaborative playing. Performers breathe together, arms are entwined, and egos are sacrificed to the good of the ensemble. There is no individual glory in duet playing, just a melding of two players and four hands into one musical organism.

We may not be able to share the bench with our favorite duo partners right now, but we can use this time of forced separation to explore new repertoire. Much of the standard duet music is lovely but can also feel limited and overplayed. These 5 gems are ones I know intimately. They’re pieces that don’t show up on every 4-hand concert program. And because I love music with a tune and a beat, all these pieces are audience-accessible crowd pleasers, sit comfortably in the hands, and are rewarding to practice and perform.

3-Day Mix

Composer: Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949)

Description: In this rousing 9 minute party on a piano, Alberga draws on her Jamaican background to create a whirling celebration of color and cross-rhythms. 3-Day Mix requires the pianists to have a strong rhythmic sense and a fearless sense of bravura, but Alberga is a pianist and she knows how to make difficult passages feel accessible. Of all the 4-hand music I’ve performed, this piece may be the most fun two pianists can have on one keyboard, and its dramatic ending pulls an audience to its feet.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Eleanor Alberga


Gazebo Dances

Composer: John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Description: This 16 minute 4-movement suite is, in Corigliano’s description, “ a musical depiction of the pavilions often seen on village greens throughout the countryside where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. It consists of a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.” This suite is rhythmically challenging and (at times) melodically unpredictable but the humor, beauty, and exuberance make it a joy to play. The Tarantella is a rousing way to end a concert.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Musicroom


Legacies: Fantasy-Suite on American Folk Songs

Composer: Terry McQuilkin (b. 1955)

Description: American folk song favorites Wayfaring Stranger, Jack Went a-Sailing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Shenandoah, and Cindy are featured in this 14-minute 5-movement suite. McQuilkin walks the line between classical and jazz, requiring performers to possess both strong technique and the ability to swing and play a decent walking bass line. No folk song is presented in a straightforward manner; instead, these familiar tunes dart in and out of the texture, teasing performers and listeners with fragments of the familiar embedded in an unfamiliar landscape. In this way McQuilkin saves the folk songs emotional power; in the moments that the melodies emerge intact, they’re so powerful they’re like sun breaking through dark clouds.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Terry McQuilkin


Pièces Romantiques, Opus 55

Composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Description: This jewel-box collection of 6 elegant, Romantic pieces is 19th century 4-hand French piano music at its finest. Similar in style to Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, these pieces by Chaminade contain lyrical melodies and elegant harmonies but are more accessible than Fauré to the late intermediate or early advanced player. These are pieces to be shared by and with friends—perfect jewel-box musical moments.

Difficulty level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: IMSLP / Sheet Music Plus


3 Modal Tangos

Composer: Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985)

Description: Mix a handful of unfamiliar modes and catchy melodies with traditional tango rhythms and you get 3 Modal Tangos. This 10 minute suite is technically and rhythmically accessible to the early advanced player, but has the benefit of sounding a lot more difficult than it is to play. The rhythms, melodies and solid structure make it feel familiar, but the modes keep the music fresh and unexpected. Satie-like performance notes give the tangos a theatrical feel, allowing the performers to explore unexpected ideas on how to approach the score.

Difficulty Level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: Alexander LaFollett


Rhonda Rizzo is a pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs: Made in America,Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason,2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It. She has also released numerous articles and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, No Dead Guys, and she is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

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

I had this little toy keyboard-glock thing when I was little and, apparently, I would relentlessly play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on repeat on it…using only fingers 4 and 5. My parents weren’t musicians but suspected it would be sensible to find a teacher for me before I got into any strange habits!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents were incredibly supportive for which I will be eternally grateful. We also had a wide variety of musical genres playing in our home. I also had a primary school music teacher who encouraged me to be broad from the very start. He let me start an ensemble of children blowing across pen lids and he gave us a slot in a concert!

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

Self-doubt is my biggest enemy. I received some pretty damning assessments of my pianism and musicianship from some teachers along the way advising me to search for a career elsewhere and those comments still haunt me, regardless of any success I may enjoy. On a lighter note, as I like to keep myself varied and versatile, the constant “hat changing” from role to role takes a fair amount of concentration. There’s a reason people choose to specialise and I am endeavouring to match each person’s standard in each of their home territories! But I wouldn’t change it!!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a particular love for Debussy and French music. My very first piano teacher taught me that if I couldn’t get the sound I wanted out of a piano, that was down to me and I had to keep searching. This led to an endless thirst for finding sounds. I love contemporary music for the same reason. I also enjoy playing music which pulls on the breadth of styles I am familiar with.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I often don’t! I am often asked to play particular programmes based around certain themes. I recently performed a programme of works written for me for piano and various micro-computers!

Do you have a favourite concert venue and why?

I do love the Wigmore Hall. As well as the beautiful acoustic, there is something about its dimensions, the stage, the lighting, which makes you feel both near enough and far enough away from the audience while having a wonderful connection with any fellow performers on stage.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I love a good explosion like Martha Argerich. And Mitsuko Uchida just oozes generosity and sincerity.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Unfortunately, the one which springs to mind is where I had a wardrobe malfunction! I started my Scarlatti Sonata and one strap slipped down my shoulder, then the other… I could feel the audience holding their breath…for all the wrong reasons!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Finding the perfect connection between you, the composer and the audience (and the space and the piano) and balancing what needs to be communicated between all of these.

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

That you can only offer what you have to offer. Feed yourself in every way possible, work as hard as possible, and always give everything you can. You must not expect any less of yourself…but you also cannot expect any more.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

In 10 years time, I would like to have a life full of a whole range of musical things, some of which I don’t want to be able to guess! I’d also like to have redressed my work-life balance…!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness is the above and having person/people to share that with. Moments of absolute creative activity interspersed with thoughtless silliness and some complete stillness.

What is your present state of mind?

My present state of mind is currently noisy! I find it difficult to switch off; finding internal silence is a constant endeavour.


As a multi-genre chamber musician, orchestral pianist and music director, Yshani has performed at venues including Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Barbican Theatre and various West End Theatres. She has performed at events including the Oxford Lieder Festival, Kammer Klang and Live at the London Palladium and with such varied artists as City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mahogany Opera and Nina Conti.

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Guest article by William Howard

howardskempton_forwebsite
Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton is one of the UK’s most engaging and distinctive composers. Now in his seventies, he has produced a large and varied body of more than 300 works. Amongst these are over 100 pieces for solo piano, which he describes as the ‘central nervous system’ of his work. It is a treasure trove for both amateur and professional pianists, in which most of the pieces are very approachable from a technical point of view (in contrast to a great deal of contemporary piano music) whilst being at the same time hugely rewarding to explore and perform.

Almost all of Skempton’s piano pieces have been written for friends and colleagues or for special occasions. They are predominantly short, tonal and sparingly composed, with very few notes to the page. Many of them look very simple and are, in fact, quite easy to sight read, but, in my experience the only time these pieces are ever easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins. Their apparent simplicity is deceptive, a conclusion reached in an excellent programme on BBC radio 3 recently called The Simple Truth, in which Tom Service explored the subject of ‘Simplicity in Music’. Commenting on one of Howard Skempton’s short piano pieces, he said “Simple, isn’t it…well, you try composing it!”. I would add “try playing it!”.

One of my favourites is Solitary Highland Song, which he wrote in 2017 for a collection of love songs for solo piano that I commissioned. When the piece first arrived, I immediately read it through and found it deeply moving. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. It consists of a simple and haunting eight bar tune, repeated six times, each time slightly differently. The dynamics start at pp, progress to mp and return to pp. Nothing complicated here. And yet I remember practising the piece for hours and hours before I gave its first performance, and I still practise it a lot before a performance. Why? The simplest answer that I can give is that it takes time to really hear the music. Skempton’s musical language is so distilled and pared down that every note, chord and musical gesture must be perfectly calibrated. Quite apart from the question of mastering total control of touch and voicing, the performer must seek out the essential character of each piece by learning to be open to what is interesting within the music, rather than trying to make the music sound interesting. There are no short cuts in this process. Skempton deliberately gives only minimal performance instructions, so that performers are invited to participate in the music and develop their own awareness of subtle changes and shifting patterns. The more I play Solitary Highland Song, the more I become aware of the genius behind every choice the composer has made: the subtle changes of register, for example, or the distribution of notes in chords and unexpected changes of harmony and rhythm. For me the piece is an enduring delight, and, I think for others too, since it has recently achieved the wonderful landmark of being heard over a million times on streaming platforms.

An example of an even sparser piece would be the third of the Reflections, a collection of eleven pieces that Skempton wrote for me between 1999 and 2002. It consists of four two note chords, a ninth or tenth apart, which are repeated in a different order eight times. The only performance instructions given by the composer are that the chords should all be played approximately two seconds apart, ppp and pedalled throughout. Where is the challenge here? Well, for a start, it is not easy to sustain molto pianissimo playing with a consistent sound, even for just over a minute. The more you play the piece, the more your listening becomes tuned in to the slightest blemish, or bumped note. And the more you listen, the more you start to become aware of the harmonic resonance shifts in different ways as the order of the chords change. By the time I came to record this piece, my ears were highly sensitised to the point where the tiniest imbalance in a chord would sound like a catastrophe. But it became very clear in the recording sessions that what brings a performance to life for the composer are the tiny unexpected or unplanned things that happen and the way a performer responds to them. In his characteristically gentle and encouraging manner, Howard Skempton decided that what we might have called ‘blemishes’ should be referred to as ‘involuntary refinements’! For him, the most important thing is to keep the music alive at every moment rather than aim for clinical perfection.

I recommend this repertoire strongly to fellow pianists at every level of ability. You will find pieces that are hauntingly beautiful, others that are quirky and playful; they are always imaginative, beautifully crafted and unpredictable. As well as giving a huge amount of pleasure they can teach us a great deal about our relationship to the keyboard and about how we listen to ourselves. Having totally immersed myself in Skempton’s music recently, I find that all the other repertoire I am coming back to sounds new and refreshed to my ears.

Scores are easy to obtain. Oxford University Press have published three volumes of Skempton’s piano pieces, which are reasonably priced. Most recently Howard Skempton has taken on the challenge of writing 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intriguing cycle of miniatures covering all 24 major and minor keys, written last year and lasting barely 23 minutes. These will be published by OUP in the coming months.


William Howard’s recording of Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019), Nocturnes (1995), Reflections (1999-2002) and Images (1989) will be released on Orchid Classics (ORC100116) on 14th February. Pre-order here.:

Anyone who pre-orders the album can enter a prize draw to win one of five copies of Solitary Highland Song, signed by the composer. Please forward your order confirmation email to mail@williamhoward.co.uk before 14th February.

The album will be launched with a recital by William Howard at Kings Place on Wednesday 12th February at 7.30pm in which he will play works by Bach, Schubert and Howard Skempton. Tickets and further details here

Meet the Artist interview with William Howard

williamhoward.co.uk

orchidclassicsorc100116