Clara Schumann Festival at St John’s Smith Square 22-24 February 2019

Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of her birth

On Fri 22 Feb – Sun 24 Feb 2019, St John’s Smith Square celebrates the 200th anniversary year of Clara Schumann’s birth. Born in Leipzig in 1819, Clara Schumann is remembered nowadays as the wife of Robert Schumann and close friend of Johannes Brahms. This three-day festival hopes to shed some light on the various facets of Clara’s life – her role as an international pianist, a mother, friend, and composer. Although a significant portion of her compositions are for solo piano, Clara did write 29 Lieder, most of which are not featured often enough in recital programmes.

On this note, the Clara Schumann Festival opens with a very rare opportunity to hear Clara’s complete published songs, 29 settings in total. Renowned Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser shares the programme with the rising English tenor Alessandro Fisher (Winner of 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Competion and BBC New Generation Artist), accompanied by Eugene Asti who recorded The Songs of Clara Schumann on the Hyperion label.

Continuing the Festival’s particular focus on Lieder, Saturday 23 Feb 2019 begins with a Lieder Masterclass led by Eugene Asti. St John’s Smith Square are delighted to welcome three emerging singer-pianist duos from Oxford Lieder Young Artists, each of whom will explore a work by Clara Schumann plus another piece associated with her.

In their early years of marriage, Robert and Clara devoted considerable time to the study of fugue and counterpoint, notably Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier which Robert referred to as his “daily bread”. Suitably titled “The Old Masters” (a term used by Clara to refer to the likes of Bach and Handel), Saturday’s afternoon recital juxtaposes Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp BWV848 (a staple piece from Clara’s recital repertoire) with three of Clara’s own works from 1845, all performed by Gamal Khamis (Winner of the accompaniment prizes at the 2017 Royal Overseas League and Ferrier Awards competitions). The concert ends with another piece that nods towards the Baroque – Brahms’ Handel Variations Op. 24 (dedicated to Clara), performed by Mishka Rushdie Momen whom Imogen Cooper has hailed as “a really compelling talent”, garnering high praise for her “rare ability to communicate the essential meaning of whatever she plays” (Richard Goode).

The second day of the Clara Schumann Festival concludes with familiar numbers from Robert’s Myrthen, which he presented to Clara as a gift on their wedding day, and some Rückert settings from Clara and Robert’s joint opus. Entitled “Clara & Robert”, this programme also includes Clara’s early Variations a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20. The second half of this concert follows a similar vein; Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte Op. 98, with its longing for a distant loved one, precedes Robert’s Fantasy in C which includes a brief quotation from the Beethoven cycle, undoubtedly penned with Clara in mind.

Considered one of her best works, Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (her only piano trio) opens the last day of the festival. This one-hour recital, “Clara & Brahms”, pairs Clara’s lyrical trio with one of her personal favourites – Brahms’ dramatic and turbulent Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101. Both works will be performed by the Busch Trio (Winner of 2012 Royal Overseas League Competition, and Prize Winner at the 2013 International Schumann Chamber Music Award), of whom The Times wrote: “what impressed most was the group’s effortless musicianship and unity of thought and attack. The threesome even seemed to be breathing in synch.”

Felix Mendelssohn and his close friendship with the Schumanns (and Brahms) is celebrated in “The Mendelssohn Connection” on Sun 24 Feb 2019 3.30pm. The tight-knit nature of this friendship group is reflected by the opening works – 2 Brahms settings of poetry by Felix Schumann (son of Clara and Robert, who they named after Felix Mendelssohn). The rest of the programme consists solely of works by Felix Mendelssohn – a selection of Lieder; his Lieder ohne Worte Book 5 Op. 62 for solo piano (dedicated to Clara), with its well-known Ein Frühlingslied; and, to conclude, the stunning Piano Four Hands in A MWV T 4 ‘Allegro Brilliant’ Op. 92, which Clara and Felix played together in Leipzig.

The final concert begins with two pieces as a memento of her friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim: firstly, Clara’s own 3 Romances, one of her more frequently performed works nowadays; and secondly, the F-A-E Sonata which the composers dedicated to Joseph. This piece was first played through at a friendly get together by Clara and Joseph at Clara’s home. Both works will be performed by members of the Busch Trio. The Clara Schumann Festival ends with Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, written towards the end of his life. The songs were first played to a group of close friends at a private gathering immediately after Clara’s funeral. After the cycle was published, Brahms sent a copy to Clara’s daughter Marie Schumann. Accompanying the score was a letter in which Brahms wrote: “…You will not be able to play through these songs just now because the words would be too affecting. But I beg you to regard them… as a true memorial to your beloved mother.” Brahms passed away 11 months after Clara.

Beverley Vong, Festival Curator said:

“Many will recognise Clara Schumann as the wife of Robert Schumann. However, in reality, she seems to have been so much more: not only did she juggle an international solo career with being a mother of eight (a feat in itself), Clara inspired a huge amount of music and this short festival features only a fraction of it. Selections of Clara’s own output are featured alongside works by household names to whom she was muse, friend, and colleague. In an age when women endured endless inequalities, Clara Schumann displayed remarkable resilience, determination, and devotion to music.”

Full Concert Listings

Festival Pass £45

Concert ticket: £18 (£15), YF

Masterclass ticket: £10

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7222 1061


(Source: press release)

An initial approach via this blog in March 2017  led me this week to St George’s Bristol for a lunchtime concert by the sparkling Piano 4 Hands duo (Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong).

Last year Josie Dixon emailed me to ask if I might feature her mother, the composer Ailsa Dixon, in my Meet the Artist series. One of Ailsa’s choral works was receiving its premiere as part of the Oriana Choir’s Five15 project. This was rather special because, as Josie explained, her mother had rather “hidden her light under a bushel for the majority of her lifetime”. Ailsa’s interview was published on my Meet the Artist site in July 2017, to coincide with the premiere of her anthem These things shall be, a setting of verses by John Addington Symonds. Around the same time, Josie contacted me again to ask if I knew a piano duo who might be interested in giving Ailsa’s piano sonata ‘Airs of the Seasons’ its first performance. Knowing their fondness for contemporary repertoire for piano duo, I immediately suggested Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong (Piano 4 Hands), and was delighted to hear from Josie that they had enthusiastically taken up the piano sonata.

Sadly, Ailsa died in August 2017, just short of her 85th birthday.

In April this year, as I was in the throes of preparing to move from London to the West Country, Josie contacted me again to tell me that Waka and Joseph would be premiering Ailsa’s piano sonata in Bristol on 8 November. As I’d never visited St George’s (considered by many of my musician friends and colleagues to possess the UK’s finest acoustic), nor heard Waka and Joseph together as a duo, I was delighted to join Josie and her family and friends to celebrate the premiere of her mother’s piano sonata.

St George’s, a former church in the graceful, well-proportioned Greek Revival style of the early 1820s, is a really fine venue, and a handsome new extension has added a contemporary bar and social area which perfectly complements the building’s clean neo-classical lines. The concert hall itself retains the columns and balcony of the original church, together with a fine altarpiece. A small illuminated star in the ceiling indicates where a bomb fell through the roof during the Second World War but did not explode. At just shy of 600 seats, St George’s is about the same size as London’s Wigmore Hall.

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St George’s Bristol with its new extension

The purity of St George’s acoustic combined with Waka and Joseph’s split-second precision, supreme technical assuredness and musical sensitivity brought wonderful clarity and contrasting shading to Mozart’s Andante with Variations KV 501, which opened the concert. This linked neatly to David Matthews’ Variations on a theme by Haydn, which was written for Waka and Joseph. The unsually chromatic theme from the opening of Haydn’s last string quartet is the starting point for this set of 12 variations which initially remain close to the originally theme before moving into wider musical territory, including a tango (Var. 5), a blues variation (Var. 7) and a moto perpetuo (Var. 10). The work has a delightful sense of fantasy suffused with romanticism and musical wit, and ends with a humorous exchange between the two players which Haydn would surely have appreciated. It was evident from the performance that Waka and Joseph really relish this kind of repertoire, which proves that the piano duet is not confined to small-scale salon works.

Ailsa Dixon’s Airs of the Seasons was composed in the early 1990s and is her only substantial work for piano. Its four brief movements are each prefaced by a short poem, evoking in turn the magical stillness after a winter snowfall, the first stirrings of spring, a dragonfly darting over the water in summer, and finally amid the turning leaves of autumn, a retrospective mood which recalls the earlier seasons and ends with the hope of transcendence in ‘Man’s yearning to see beyond death’. The opening chords of the first movement are reminiscent of Debussy and Britten in their timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly impressionistic flavour. Ailsa’s admiration of Fauré for his “harmonic suppleness” is also evident in her harmonic language, while the idioms of English folksong and hymns, and melodic motifs redolent of John Ireland and the English Romantics remind us that this is most definitely a work by a British composer with an original musical vision. The entire work, although quite short, is really delightful and inventive. Rich in imagination, moods and expression, the musical evocation of each season is distinct and characterful – Summer, for example, is not all sunshine as a brief but dramatic storm interrupts the warmth and serenity, while Autumn contains flashes of music from earlier movements to underline its reflective, retrospective mood. From a pianistic point of view, the textures of the music are carefully conceived to bring a range of colours and voicings imaginatively shared between the two players.

Mme Debussy deemed her husband’s La Mer unplayable in its piano four-hands version, but Waka and Joseph made impressively light work of this masterful evocation of water, light and wind (and reminded me of my coastal home in Dorset, currently in the grip of gale force autumnal winds!). Their brilliant pianism complemented by total synergy at the keyboard brought this work to life with vivid drama and passion, and was a thrilling close to an absorbing and varied programme.

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back row: pianists Waka Hasegawa & Joseph Tong; front row from L to R – Brian Dixon (Ailsa’s husband), Josie Dixon (Ailsa’s daughter) and Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist interview with Ailsa Dixon

More about Ailsa Dixon

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As a young child there was a lot of music around the house and I listened to Jacqueline du Pré play Bach’s Cello Suites every night before bed. I am not sure how attentive a listener I was – I believe the aim was for me to drop off to sleep! – but I refused to accept any other interpretation of that music! As for my decision to make cello my career, I became accustomed to the life of a touring artist on a series of cruises starting when I was five years old, during which I had fantastic experiences performing amongst top professionals, signing autographs and even being interviewed by Richard Baker before rushing back to the swimming pool!

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

I grew up attending my father’s concerts with cellist Alexander Baillie and listening through the door to their rehearsals at home. Musicians were often guests at our house and I remember discussing the finer points of ‘Lord of the Rings’ with Dame Emma Kirkby, whose individual approach to singing has always seemed the most natural to me. Lately, I have been influenced more by ideas and principles of making music than by specific performers: I am not aiming to emulate any cellist in particular but to reach my own personal sound in ways I am discovering myself. There are cellists whom I greatly admire such as Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker, but I have been more often inspired by musicians in other fields such as the conductors Claudio Abbado and Carlos Kleiber, the violinist Julia Fischer and pianists Claudio Arrau and Arthur Rubinstein.

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

The greatest challenges have been projects that I embarked upon with a view to expanding the repertoire of the cello. In 2014 I performed Jan Vriend’s ‘Anatomy of Passion’, a 30 minute work for cello and piano composed in 2004. It was a formidable challenge, not only because of great technical demands and complex rhythms to coordinate with the piano, but also because I decided to perform the piece from memory which I believe made my performance more convincing. More recently, I arranged and performed Bach’s iconic ‘Ciaccona’ from the Violin Partita No. 2 in venues including London’s Wigmore Hall and King’s College Chapel. This was an enormous statement, to take a piece which means so much to people and adapt it to another instrument which made it essential for me to transcend the substantial technical difficulties of performing this on the cello and create a performance which was musically worthwhile and not just an impressive show of technique.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I try to make every performance better than the last, but rather than pride, I experience enjoyment when I play. My performances of the two pieces mentioned above have been some of the most rewarding concert experiences of my life. I am also happy that the recording I made at nineteen years old of the Chopin Cello Sonata still seems relevant to me despite the six years of development I have had since then.

Which particular works do you think you play/conduct best?

I play a wide range of repertoire, from Bach through to brand new pieces and I try to approach every type of music with the same philosophy – to take a fresh look at the score and try to interpret what that particular composer means in their notation. I then put one hundred percent of myself into every moment of the music, no matter what the style. Having said that, I think music by Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich suits me well and I find the technical challenges of music from the 20th and 21st centuries to be the most fascinating. In terms of conducting my repertoire is smaller, but I have most enjoyed conducting 19th and 20th century music. In particular, I conducted Strauss’ Metamorphosen with the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in 2017 and since I felt a particular affinity with the piece I found it very natural to memorise and perform.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season as a performer and also as conductor?

My repertoire choices are often taken in collaboration with musicians I am working with and I am very lucky to perform regularly with my father, pianist James Lisney. We both enjoy crafting programmes with a unifying theme and have toured several of these ‘project’ concerts with titles such as the Beethoven Grand Tour (the five Cello Sonatas), Cello Song and Russian Connections. I enjoy playing contemporary music so I make a particular effort to fit some new music into most of my recital programmes. As for concerti and chamber music that is often a little more out of my control but I am eager to play all sorts of music!

You are also a composer and conductor. How do these disciplines impact on your performing career and vice versa?

My work as a composer impacts directly on my cello career as I often perform my own music. My conducting contributes less obviously to the rest of my career (though I have conducted my own music) but I believe that the experience of leading an orchestra through various types of music has improved my concerto playing and opened my eyes to particular considerations in composition. My experiences as a cellist are central to everything I do and it is almost impossible to separate it out. Of course, the technical knowledge is crucial to composing for string instruments but also the experience of performing gives me a certain empathy with musicians I am writing for; I take great care to ensure that the music I compose is rewarding both to perform and to hear.

As a composer, how would you describe your compositional language?

This is a question we composers are asked very regularly and I am still struggling for an answer! The aspects of my music which might constitute a style or language are by nature the ones that recur in many of my pieces and as such, they are the very elements it is difficult to identify in one’s own music. My orchestration is often detailed and delicate, but I am not adverse to thicker symphonic textures. I do not write in a strictly tonal idiom but I think it is clear to listeners that I have a background in western classical music, and tonal direction is central to my music. I am very motivically-led and this is often the focus of my compositional process. I begin with one or two ideas which I develop, combine and transform in the same way Beethoven, Wagner and so many others have done before.

How do you work, as a composer?

Since I have never had my own piano I have become accustomed to working in silence at a desk. I tend to start out on manuscript paper and when I begin writing I usually have a significant portion of the piece mostly if not fully composed in my head. At some point in the process I will ‘run out’ of music and at that point I look back at what I have written so far and examine the possibilities. Later on I type everything into Sibelius [music notation software] but I do not use the playback function except for checking mistakes – I am much more likely to hear a typo than see one!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, ensembles and orchestras?

I find it very rewarding to write specifically for certain players or ensembles. For example, in 2017 I composed ‘Thread of the Infinite’ for the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra in the knowledge that they would perform this piece unconducted, directed from the violin by Thomas Gould. In this case I made sure that the coordination between parts was clear enough not to require a visual cue from a conductor and inserted several soaring violin solos for the Leader. I have recently written a piece ‘Spiralen’ for Ensemble Recherche, who specialise in the highly complex music of composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann. My music is far removed from this idiom but I found it very rewarding to work out what new things these musicians were capable of and how I could absorb this into my own style.

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

Many of the most challenging aspects of being a conductor are administrative! At this stage in my career I am running my own orchestra which involves a lot of non-musical tasks such as organising parts, venues and marketing. This means however that I have autonomy over the artistic direction the orchestra takes which I find very exciting. I love rehearsing with musicians and find it very interesting to think about how different musicians respond to words and visual cues. I often have to say something in two or three different ways to get all the players in a section to respond in one way. If I want a particular quiet sound, for example, some of the violinists might pick that up from my beat, others would benefit from some metaphorical suggestion and the final group might respond best to a specific technical instruction such as bow position and speed of vibrato.

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

I see my role as a facilitator with a interpretative opinion… I wish to give the players both the framework and the freedom to perform, which involves bringing everyone together to a unified vision of the music. I hope that in a concert situation I can help inspire the players to find something magical and then very often as a conductor our work is done – less is more.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There are many works I would love to conduct, particularly some works by George Benjamin such as ‘At First Light’. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony totally captivated me and has filled my head since I first heard it. I am very excited that this dream is shortly to be fulfilled in a concert at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on 3rd March 2019.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I feel entirely free when I am performing and my main motivation in pursuing a career in music is to get the opportunities to show people the music that I love and believe in.

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

What I have learnt so far is to approach every work with humility and love; look at every work from a composer’s perspective, put one hundred per cent of yourself into it and value that input. I have also learnt that your understanding of something you take the time to discover by yourself is so much deeper than something given to you fully-formed. The journey is essential.

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

10 years sounds an unimaginably long time and I cannot immediately see where my current trajectory will take me. I suppose that my ultimate goal is to be able to perform the music I want to perform to a willing audience(!) and I hope that I can combine the three strands of my career – cello, composition and conducting – to have a fulfilling musical life.

Joy Lisney conducts the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in music by Alma and Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge on Saturday 10th November. Further information and tickets


Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years. Her early promise as a cellist was highlighted by Carlton Television when they chose her, at the age of six, as a possible high achiever of the twenty first century.

She has since fulfilled expectations with a distinguished international career, launched by a debut series of two concerts at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2012.

Joy has enjoyed collaborations with artists including Dame Emma Kirkby, Alexander Baillie, Howard Williams, Huw Watkins, the Allegri Quartet and the Wihan Quartet and also performs regularly in duo with her father James Lisney. Venues for duo recitals have included Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and St. John’s Smith Square. In 2014 she performed all five Beethoven cello sonatas in a single concert in a tour concluding with a sold-out performance at London’s Southbank Centre. Projects in 2017 have included a Schubert Quintet Tour with the Allegri Quartet, concerto performances by Prokofiev, Haydn and Turnage and the Cello Song recital tour.

As a passionate advocate of new music Joy has commissioned two new works from the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, the first of which she recorded on her debut CD in 2012. In 2014 she performed as a London Sinfonietta Emerging Artist at the BBC Proms in a concert broadcast on Radio 3 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies. In April 2017 Joy performed on the opening night of the Park Lane Group Recital Series at St. John’s Smith Square, giving a solo recital including two premieres, one of which was her own composition ScordaturA. Joy has also given European premieres of works by Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall.

As a composer, Joy has won the Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss Prizes and she was also Composer in Residence at Cambridge University Music Society for 2016-17. Joy is in the second year of her PhD in Composition at King’s College, Cambridge, supported by the AHRC, and is Honorary King’s College Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet and she has since had music performed at the King’s Lynn and Aldeburgh Festivals and the Park Lane Group Series.

Forthcoming performances this season include the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto (with Emma Lisney), the premiere of her new work for chamber ensemble, and concerts at Temple Music Foundation, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, St George’s Bristol, the Purcell Room, and St John’s Smith Square.

Joy is also the founder and conductor of the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, a string orchestra which combines the best players of Cambridge University with young professionals from the South of England.

joylisney.com

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My singing career started when I was three years old, when I sang at a church event. My parents realised that I enjoyed it and encouraged me to perform as much as possible; my performing career developed from there. I started playing the piano when I was five and writing songs in my early teens, although I would never sing them to anyone! That confidence to perform my own work took a while to develop and I didn’t publicly air that material until I was in my early twenties. I was playing in church bands and leading worship on my own which helped me to develop my own style and rapport with people. With songwriting, the story is as important as the song and that connection with audience is something that you learn over time.

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

Too many to mention! But probably Karen Carpenter, I do think her best work was her solo album which she recorded with Phil Ramone. We can hear the real Karen, an artist who has matured and found her own style. Unfortunately, it wasn’t released until 1997, fourteen years after her death so she never saw the public’s fantastic reaction to it.

A love of music by female singer-songwriters and finding that I had a voice of my own has greatly influenced my work. When I was 18, I fell in love with Alanis Morrisette’s lyric writing and that gave me the impetus and confidence to write my own songs. Her brutal honesty inspired me and her ability to make just about any word rhyme, makes laugh a lot!

Judith Owen is an amazing songwriter and musical interpreter. Some of her arrangements of well-known popular songs are incredible and she loves to take traditionally male genres and add a female spin to them. Julia Fordham is also an incredible performer and songwriter and knows how to take the listener on an emotional and musical journey. The two albums that she collaborated with Larry Klein are amazing and are well worth a listen.

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

Embracing my training and then letting go of my training… There’s great value in good musical training and as a singing and piano teacher, you’d expect me to say that! However, there comes a time when you have to park your training and musical education in order to find your own, personal technique that makes you unique. I had to find my voice and embrace it. From a creative stance, this is liberating but can also be painful. You have to be prepared make mistakes and find the find the value in them in order to progress. It’s not only a musical journey, but a personal one too.

I didn’t realise how much people’s attitudes towards me would change after I reached a certain age and had children. For women in the music industry, doors close and opportunities are sparse once you hit 40 and have a family. We’re often seen as unavailable or unreliable which isn’t the case. It seems so old fashioned and unnecessary, especially when other employment sectors came in line with the law years ago. A few colleagues and I have made it our mission to make our own opportunities and create new paths for others to follow.

Which works are you most proud of?

I released my first album Conversations With The Heart in 2004 on the smallest of budgets (ie. barely none). It was recorded in my friend’s dining room which he had converted into a studio and served with a lot of tea and biscuits. It’s the album I thought I would never make and was achieved under difficult circumstances.

Some works surprise you. I wrote Do You Seek An Answer and then put it in a draw and forgot about it. Eventually it landed up on the At Second Glance EP and went on to be number one in the New Christian Music Chart in the UK and Europe. I didn’t see that coming or the reaction to the song from the general public.

Close That Door was a real departure for me in terms of style and music maturity. After years of writing, I felt that I had composed something near the mark of what I had always hoped to achieve. For a lot of songwriters, composing is the Holy Grail, we have great ambitions of what we would like to produce but it can take decades to start writing material that is near that goal. Have I managed to write anything like that again? No! I guess creative people are never satisfied and that’s what keeps us searching for the ultimate composition.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I saw George Michael in November 2007 at Earls Court as part of the Twenty Five Live tour. His voice was out of this world and far better than any of recordings! A real loss to the musical world. He knew how to connect with the audience and despite his shyness, was a well-seasoned showman. The whole show was well crafted and he obviously picked his musicians carefully as there was a palpable intuition between all of them.

From my own performing career, the most memorable concerts are the ones where I’ve collaborated with other artists. A few years ago, I was a backing vocalist for Darren Hayman (formerly of the band Hefner) for his Chants For Socialists project. I hadn’t performed much folk material, so it was great to work with a band and quite a diverse group of vocalists, recapturing William Morris’ mission to improve life for the poor through these political chants.

Working with the saxophonist and composer, Rachael Forsyth is always amazing. We met at university and over the years, we have performed and written together. Our work has involved over time and these days is more about composition rather than performance, but who knows? This may change in the future.

As a composer, how do you work?

The way I work has changed over the years. I used to sit at the piano for hours fleshing out ideas but I began to feel restless with that way of working. Now I tend to work more “on the go” and add ideas to my phone or notebook which I can then work through later. You have to keep changing the way you do things to keep the creativity flowing and growing.

I’ve also find it helpful to have a set topic for a project. Recently I have been working with the Buckinghamshire County Archive, creating songs based on stories for the county’s World War One collection. It’s been fascinating and inspiring to bring history to life through song. It also led to some opportunities at performance events with a wide range of artists who told the stories of local people through different artistic media.

A few months ago, I decided to break away from songwriting and compose some instrumental pieces. I needed a new challenge and wanted to create music that didn’t rely on my voice. Over the years, I’ve been asked for the backing tracks for my songs as people have wanted to use them instrumentally, this gave me the confidence to start thinking about making non-vocal music and what it could be used for. I’ve also been creating short films to go with the pieces. I haven’t unleashed them on the public, but I think an instrumental project maybe something I produce in the future.

How would you describe your compositional/musical style?

That depends on the day! I never quite know how to answer this question as my style changes for each song but I definitely lean more towards a jazz, soul style of music. I’m always striving to improve and build on the previous work to see how far I can push my technique. In the past, one producer I worked with always wanted my work to have a commercial edge, but for me, I felt that it killed the music and some of my message was lost in the stylistic translation. But that’s the dilemma for all music artists, please the masses or please yourself? There’s no answer to that question…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think success is very hard to define in music, it’s different for everyone. I try to set small levels of success as in music they can be a moveable goal! If the goals and levels are small, they are far more achievable. That’s not to say that attaining success isn’t important, but you need a high amount of realism and flexibility to work in music. Having a varied career helps, when the teaching is going well, the performing might not be as lucrative and vice versa.

I mostly ignore what the industry claims is success as everyone’s path is so different, how could we even compare each other? I found that this has made me much happier as I’m working on a route that suits me. Having supportive colleagues is a great help: we all cheer each other on and listen to each other when it’s needed.

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

A flexible approach to a music career. My career has involved teaching, composing and performing which keeps things fresh but also widens the landscape for opportunities. Be prepared to take on non-music work in order to live, then you can pick and choose the projects you want to work on without the pressure of the mortgage looming over you. Do whatever you have to, to make it work. A few years ago, I went through a family crisis which pretty much brought everything to halt; I didn’t know if I would be able to continue in music, but I decided that I had to find a way that worked for me. I can’t say that I’ve recovered everything, but I made a conscious decision to not give up.

Tenacity and perseverance. You need to be steely-eyed and have a thick skin to be a musician. It’s a rollercoaster ride with many twists and turns. Some seasons you’ll be to support yourself financially through music and other seasons you’ll need to get other work. It’s part of being a troubadour and an artisan.

It also good to be inspired by other musicians, but at the same time you need to develop a musical character of your own as this is what moves an audience. I’ve seen too many acts trying to emulate someone else’s musical style – it never works. Be yourself: there’s a reason you are created as YOU. It’s also better to move the audience than to impress them; if you can take them on an emotional, musical journey they will remember that forever.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Mostly hanging out with friends and catching up. Being with people you love and make you laugh is better than therapy! I also like painting and over the last few years, I’ve been getting back into that after a break of more than 20 years. I enjoy being creative whether it’s music, art or writing a blog: it’s all cathartic.

Being active is also very important to me. I find that I can clear my mind when I’m running, swimming or walking. It’s good way to let my mind wander and begin to solve my problems, probably because I let my thoughts switch off and my mind can be calm. I’ve had some of best ideas while running on the treadmill!

What is your present state of mind?

Rather unusual for me, but I would say looking to the future. Over the last few years, my outlook has been “take one day at a time” but now, I’m starting to think more about what I want out of life and also music!

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

I have written music ever since I started playing the piano (around age 6 I think). I used to feel guilty for making up pieces when I felt I should have been practising ‘seriously’! I had a lot of encouragement from various instrumental teachers, and at school, and later at the RCM junior department. However, this encouragement was towards a career as a performer, not a composer. I never studied composition and it would never had occurred to me to do so. I’m not even sure that I knew you could! When I was doing GCSE music composition, my music teacher at school told me I should be concentrating on composition seriously and I should take lessons at junior RCM. I actually had a bit of an argument with her about this as I thought it was a crazy suggestion – I was going to be a viola player and most composers I’d heard of were dead!

Halfway through the undergrad course at the RCM, I injured my left hand quite badly and was told that was it basically, as far as a professional career playing the viola was concerned. I did my final year at a university, mainly by writing a huge dissertation on the Bartok viola concerto (!), but also taking the advanced composition module as I felt it was something I might have a chance of passing. After I graduated I just carried on writing and once I had three pieces I thought were fairly respectable I applied for a masters in composition at Goldsmith’s College. Starting there was a massive shock – I knew nothing about composition really and very little about contemporary music outside of the viola repertoire!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

There are so many great composers writing now, and I think it’s a very interesting time for women composers in particular. I am very conscious that my work is insignificant compared to many others, but this inspires me to carry on improving my writing. I am grateful to my first composition teacher, Judith Bingham, for helping me when I was first starting out and to Kenneth Hesketh for really challenging me in my writing.

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

I was incredibly lucky with my early compositional career. Up until I was about 30 or so, things really went along pretty nicely and easily. I was doing all the usual young composer stuff and getting some good commissions. Things then went downhill a bit as I was struggling a lot with the conflict between writing how I wanted to write and how I felt I ‘should’ write. There were some challenging things going in in my life as well at that point, and I didn’t write anything for about 3 years. I then had a baby and started writing again! This is probably not a recognised way to rejuvenate your composition, but it worked for me! The frustrations now are that I have very little time to devote to the business side of composition and living out of London makes it extremely hard (both time wise and financially) to travel in for concerts and networking. I also need to be a lot more practical in terms of making money as I have my son to support, so I spend most of my working time teaching.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Since the birth of Edward (now 3 years old), I have only written a few pieces and they have all been commissions. Even before then, I pretty much always wrote with a specific performance or performer in mind and I would find it very hard to write any other way. The challenge for me now, with a young son, is the deadline, but without it I would probably never write anything at all!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I have found that the stranger the compositional brief, the better the results can be! Sometimes, I find that too much freedom and choice can be a bit overwhelming and haven’t resulted in my best pieces. I have written a couple of pieces for Carla Rees (rarescale) and her quarter tone alto flute. This was a challenge for me, but one that was easily met as she was so generous with her time and advice during the early compositional stages. By the time I was half way through the piece what I was doing felt totally natural to me and the piece was written relatively easily.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of all my pieces in the sense that they all exist in their own time, for a specific purpose. Even the few which I would happily never hear again have played a part in my compositional journey. I know which works I think are ‘better’ in terms of compositional technique or which ones have been more successful, but this doesn’t mean I am any prouder of them.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m afraid I can’t answer this one!

How do you work?

I think a lot before starting the piece and usually have it sketched in my head before I start. Once I can hear bits of it reliably then I get to work with manuscript paper planning out the structure and what ideas will come where. If there’s a time limit (which there usually is) then this bit is very important, and I won’t move on from it until I am happy. It saves so much time in the long run. Then I just write the piece from beginning to end! I will sketch each section on manuscript paper until I am happy with it and only when I have a large chunk of ‘finished’ music will I go anywhere near Sibelius [score-writing programme]. Some of my composition pupils write directly onto Sibelius and I would find that extremely hard.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This is a hard one, but I never tire of listening to Mendelssohn, Schumann or Stravinsky. I love Bach but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I find Beethoven’s music a bit of a struggle to enjoy – even though I obviously admire his work a great deal.

Among more contemporary composers, long time favourites are Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Judith Weir and Oliver Knussen and from the younger generation I like what Ed Nesbit, Helen Grime and Charlotte Bray are doing very much.

I love listening to recordings of ‘old school’ string players such as Fritz Kreisler, Albert Sammons, William Primrose etc. The fact that the performances aren’t ‘perfect’ or anywhere near today’s sound quality somehow adds to the appeal for me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am making a living from music (a mixture of composition and teaching). I feel very lucky to be doing something I enjoy, so in that respect I feel successful.

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

Don’t expect to do everything at once and make the most of every opportunity while you can.

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

Alive – and still enjoying my writing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not sure that this exists other than for brief moments. I feel content if my family is healthy and happy and there aren’t too many outstanding bills to pay!

What is your most treasured possession?

My sanity.


Elizabeth Winters has established herself in the UK as one of the leading composers of the younger generation. Her music is regularly performed throughout the UK, by performers as diverse as the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Singers, Ensemble 10/10, Rarescale, The Orlando Consort, Aurora Nova and the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral. Her works have been programmed as part of LSO Discovery, the Presteigne Festival, the Royal Opera House ‘Exposure’ Series, the Leeds International Concert Season, the European Capital of Culture Concert Series, the Aldeburgh Festival and during services at St Paul’s and St Alban’s Cathedrals. Several works have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Elizabeth won a British Composer Award (2009, Making Music Category) for her orchestral piece The Serious Side of Madness. Other competition successes include first prize in the 2015 Orion Orchestra Composer Competition and first prize in the Liverpool Capital of Culture New Composer Competition. Elizabeth recently received funding from The Composers’ Fund to support the creation of a composition studio. The Composers’ Fund is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative in association with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Born in 1979, Elizabeth studied at the Royal College of Music and Goldsmith College, where she gained her MMus in Composition with Distinction. Her principal composition teachers were Judith Bingham and Kenneth Hesketh. She has also worked with Julian Anderson, John Casken (Lake District Summer Music Composer Residency) and Colin Matthews, Michael Gandolfi and Oliver Knussen (Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme). Elizabeth also enjoys working with young musicians and been commissioned by the National Youth Recorder Orchestra and the Farnham Festival.

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

At the time, I really didn’t think about it much. My family are scientists and doctors who love music and played LPs in the house most of the time. So I grew up surrounded by music, but never imagining that it could be such a big part of my life. My curiosity led me to find a piano teacher, and eventually my parents saw I was serious and supported me to take lessons in piano and solfege. The curiosity grew and I was improvising soon after I could play. So, the desire to create has been there all along, and I was surrounded by a supportive family.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I consider my surroundings very important to what I do. I write music which I’d like to share with my family and people I feel close to. it’s more than a profession, it’s part of my personality, part of my life. The fact that I grew up around non-musicians makes me appreciate the natural, life-long relationship which can develop between people and music, when one might not necessarily be part of a musical family. Having said that, if it were not for the music I listened to as a child, I might not have been inspired to make this my life, so Bach, Schubert, Brahms, are very important, eternal inspirations, as well as all the performers who I’ve worked, particularly those I’ve known since my student days – Maxim Rysanov, Kristina Blaumane, Roman Mints.

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

One of the aspects of this profession, which I’m constantly having to learn about, is the way you pace yourself. I need to find a peaceful state of concentration in order to create, it takes some time to slowly shut the world off and begin to work. Once the music is written, there is the complete opposite – talking to musicians, explaining your work, communicating what you’ve been working on for months in a few minutes during the tight rehearsal time. It’s a complete gear shift, and each time it takes some effort to be in either gear.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

There’s nothing like a deadline to help the creative process! The possibilities are so endless that having some guidelines, like instrumentation and duration, help some of the decision making. But I also really enjoy the research part of the project, so for example I chose to compile the text for my Immortal Shakespeare cantata. The research into the plays and choosing the right text which would fit the structure of the work took a considerable amount of time, which I enjoyed.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

For me, the best thing about working with musicians who you know and even more importantly, who have played your music, is that you don’t have to explain as much. There is only so much you can achieve with notation, one composer’s articulations (or lack of) might be interpreted differently to another. For example, much of my string music is played ‘on the string’ and to a musician who hasn’t played it before they might first read it and play off the string and not give it a second thought. Long phrases, nuances of dynamics, trusting the music to do what is there and not asserting too much on it- are all qualities which I value in musicians who I have worked with repeatedly.

Of which works are you most proud?

There is a story to each piece, and like many composers I feel there is a reason for each work and these works can take on almost human characteristics (like Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets, for example, which he famously called his ‘children’). So, I wouldn’t wish to have favourites, but I know which were difficult to create and took longer than I had planned. My double piano concerto ‘Together Remember to Dance’ is one such work. Just when I thought I had finished the first draft, I had a total change of direction for this work and had to start all over again, with just months before the musicians were due to get the parts. Instead of sticking with my first idea, I jumped straight into a new direction and I was extremely happy I did that. I feel it’s a powerful and uplifting work, and that’s what I needed to write and the soloists – Arthur and Lucas Jussen completely inhabited this idea and communicated and performed the work perfectly.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would like for my compositions to communicate, to be accessible, but also make you think. Music with a mind and heart, I hope!

How do you work?

Slowly.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This is, unsurprisingly, a long list which keeps growing and is often affected by who I’m working with or listening to at that moment. Certainly the composers I grew up listening to-  Bach, Schubert, later Ligeti, Britten and Messiaen… I get real pleasure from playing Rameau’s harpsichord works for myself (on the piano, though I’d love to one day have the space and chance to buy a harpsichord). Phrasing and timbre, nuance are performance aspects that my ear is always drawn to and there are just so many exceptional musicians. Some I have been lucky to work with, as I already mentioned, I’d add Janine Jansen and some very fine choirs too! Currently I’m enjoying (re-)listening to my recordings of Bill Evans, Andras Schiff, Nina Simone, Ibrahim Maalouf, Laura Marling…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success for me is to have the freedom to create what you wish, and be able to make a living.

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

Even if it means having a small circle of devoted friends who you talk to about your music, try to communicate and share your passion. It’s a difficult profession, so we need support from people around us, and finding those ambassadors will absolutely make life easier. Also, be kind- in choosing this life we often develop high levels of self criticism. Try to be kind to yourself and to those around you, as perfection is not art.

What do you enjoy doing most?

There are two moments which I adore: the moment when I know how the piece I’m working on will be shaped and it’s just a matter of writing it down; and sitting on the train/plane before travelling to a premiere/concert. And there’s everything in between…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Every situation can be perceived as complete happiness, I think in order to really savour that happiness you have to feel inner contentment and feel you are where you need to be. Then, even eating an apple on the sofa can be perfect happiness.

What is your present state of mind?

I have two deadlines at the moment, so my state of mind is far from ‘zen’.

Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for 2 pianos, percussion and strings, ‘Together Remember to Dance’,  receives its UK premiere on 10 October with pianists Arthur and Lucas Jussen and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey at Watford Colosseum. More information and tickets

The intense juxtaposition of the piano arpeggios and string clusters plunge us into the opening of this dramatic concerto. How to consolidate dissonance and harmony, passion and direction? Just like trying to exist alongside each other in society, the first movement presents layers made up of different ideas, which strive to find their place and ultimately reach a resolve. The second movement ‘Remember’ is a spiralling waltz, where we are never quite rooted, but instead float through harmonic modulations. Each time the theme appears it is in a new tonality and seen from another angle, as if trying to remember the past and each time finding something new in our memory. The final movement is a kaleidoscopic perpetuum mobile in constantly changing time signatures. The infectious pulse drives through some unexpected sparks and delivers a breathless finale.

The concerto was commissioned by Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ (supported by the AMMODO Foundation) and co-commissioned by the Istanbul Music Festival, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre de Picardie and BBC Concert Orchestra.


Born in the historic town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria to a music-loving family of doctors and scientists, Dobrinka Tabakova moved to London in 1991, where she has lived since. Here she studied at Alleyn’s School and the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department, specialising in composition, piano and conducting. Early on, the composer John Adams praised her music as being “extremely original and rare”. She attended summer courses at the renowned Centre Acanthes in France, as well as the Prague and Milan Conservatoire summer compositions courses, alongside her composition degree studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD) in London. On graduating with distinction BMus and MMus at the GSMD, Dobrinka was appointed Composition Fellow there, where she continued her activities as President of the Contemporary Music Society. In 2007 she was awarded a doctorate in composition from King’s College London (KCL). Her composition teachers have included Simon Bainbridge, Diana Burrell, Robert Keeley and Andrew Schultz as well as masterclasses with John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Alexander Goehr, Marek Kopelent, Philippe Manoury, Alessandro Solbiati, Olav Anton Thommessen and Iannis Xenakis.

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