Why would a talented leading British composer include a document called a Failure CV on her website, alongside details of her extensive oeuvre and the many plaudits for her work?

British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad is not alone in including such a document on her website. She prefaces it with the comment that “for every success I have, there are usually a LOT more failures that nobody ever gets to hear about”, and each entry on this Failure CV includes a note of how each project or submission turned out. On one level, it’s sobering reading – proof that composers (and musicians in general) must work hard and that success is often hard won. But it’s also rather inspiring and positive. Its honesty shows that Cheryl, and others like her, accept that a successful career trajectory is paved with many setbacks and failures, and it reveals a certain confidence which seems far more genuine than a list of accolades, prizes and press reviews.

The more usual kind of CV lists successes only, but this does not represent the bulk of one’s efforts. Nor does it acknowledge that failure is a necessary part of progress and without it, one cannot reflect on nor learn from those failures.

A composer can “hide” their failures. They need not mention the rejected funding applications nor the works which never got commissioned. A performing musician, however, exposes themselves to criticism in the very public forum of a live concert and errors will be remarked upon by audiences and critics. As musicians, failure can have a very profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. It can create feelings of personal humiliation which in turn may stifle our ability to learn and develop. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset lead us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings

In fact, mistakes and slips in concert are a very tiny part of the “setback-reflect-progress” habit of the serious musician, who regards mistakes as positive learning opportunities rather than unresolved failures. Failure is part of creativity and mastery, and without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress

It also fosters resilience and equips one with the tools to cope with the exigencies of one’s creative life. Being honest about failure is empowering, for oneself and for others, as it can help them deal with their own shortcomings and career setbacks, and encourage them to stick to the task.

What Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Failure CV so neatly proves is that failure – and a willingness to learn from it – is a fundamental part of success: without those setbacks, Cheryl may never have reached the pre-eminent position she now holds in classical music in the UK and beyond.

Meet the Artist – Cheryl Frances-Hoad

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

The piano was the biggest and loudest thing in the house so I turned to playing the piano and never looked back. Both my mum and dad worked on their own projects in life and so the concept of working for another was alien to me. A life in music was always on the cards and I just kept doing what I loved and after a few twists and turns, here I am.

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

I know it sounds cheesy but it’s just all and everything that’s going on in my life at the time. Who I meet. I don’t listen to music anywhere near as much as people may think but fill my days going down various rabbit holes usually around technology or some collaboration. Recently working on the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,  I learned a LOT from Gareth Fry, the sound FX designer, that I found as a constant source of inspiration for the music. Growing up I loved going to raves and have always loved the energy but equally would the next evening go to hear a performance of some Arvo Paert. I’ve not really been someone so into lyrics. Perhaps the biggest influence on my lyrics was working with Guy Sigsworth when I was in the duo Frou Frou. Here I learned not just what it’s like to sing my lyrics, but actually more importantly what it’s like to listen to them. I’ve never just let anything go as as result since!

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

The music industry, the slowness of payments (if at all), not knowing what’s going to come in or how when I was signed to various labels over my first 10 years of my career. Later in life, with the development of the Mi.Mu gloves, it was funding and lack of resource to good advice in growing small businesses. All my creative endeavours I would never change but the business side is 90% tiresome when it comes to recorded music and flow of rights. I am actively hoping to help this shift toward a music industry that makes sense for music makers in the emergence of a music maker database via a decentralised Identity tool we call The Creative Passport.

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

The new set of limitations in each collaboration I find is actually that which drives my creativity the most, or learning a new subject matter. Time is also one of those limitations when you’re working with others but this is equally welcome. It’s the art of letting go and just sometimes being happy with being good enough rather than always going that extra last mile at 5 in the morning for a month. The diversity is what keeps me feeling alive and if there’s one constancy in my creative life, it’s that I’m always take on projects I literally know nothing about at first because I want to be taken to new places in my mind.

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

In my career I’ve always been able to choose the people I work with so I can honestly say I have had no real challenges, the pleasures are endless and if I find someone I really love to work with, I try my best to have an excuse to work with them again as the best combo is when you get to work with people you love to be with, not just find the collaborations challenging or interesting.

Of which works are you most proud?

It’s not just coz it’s my latest but I am very happy with the album of music from the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play. It’s given me a real chance to share so much of my musicality in one body of work. It tested my theory skills in the many transitions between so many different tempos, key and time signatures as a result of weaving together 100 cues into a hopefully enjoyable album. I’ll probably never have another excuse quite like it to share so much past work in a new context. Also for many people they consider me a song writer yet here there is only a minute’s worth of lyrics amongst 78 minutes of music, so I get to shine a light on all the other parts of music making I so enjoy.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m finding answering this question quite hard! I’ve never had to try and describe it before. A sound for me often has precedence in the studio above a chord structure and I tend to write and produce at the same time. I do seem to have lot of arpeggios in my work and for pop music, or whatever it is I write, it’s pretty dynamic. I do play with patterns and layers as I like to get a lot out of a motif. I get a bit tired of my old tricks and so actively seek out projects to help me move on, this could be working in a different country or taking on writing music for a different format or media.

How do you work?

I generally work alone on the music in my studio though enjoy collaboration with others greatly.  I work long hours at a stretch If I’m lucky and get into a flow. I’ve always done this in the small hours though with a child and so many projects outside of making music, I’ve had to get better and finding that flow on tap whenever I have half a moment spare! To be honest though, how I work or approach a song is often wildly different each time I start as usually the distance between pieces is months these days, I feel I almost have to learn how to do it all over again! The Harry Potter & The Cursed Child play is the first time in my life I’ve ever reused old work. I’ve always started from scratch, as I’ve never really got around to having a particular way of writing as even when something really works I am so forgetful I’d not remember to try it again.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I find it quite exhausting and upsetting to know there’s so much music out there that I’d love but may never get to know. My friend told me the other day that it’d take 170 years of constant listening to everything on Spotify once and that’s nowhere even near all the music in the world to be discovered. To add to this I don’t make time to listen to music amongst everything else. I am lucky to know many incredible musicians and composers and just their creations alone sustains and enable me to enjoy the time I get to listen to music. Jon Hopkins always has me revelling in awe of his sound works and attention to detail, Improvisationally with live electronic music has to be the genius that is Tim Exile. Mica Levi I love as she’s written both film and pop music I’ve loved and I’m just discovering the tech prowess of Emilie Simon, so after I’ve listened to her music, I may add her to the list too!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be sustained by your creative output but to never have to repeat yourself musically to generate more income.

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

Find things that interest you and see where it takes you. Say yes to things you feel are slightly out of your comfort zone often. Always complete a project if others are depending on you.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I would like to be in a place where there is little to no admin in my life around getting work discovered and paid for. The inefficiency of the music industry and how little it really supports music makers irritates me so much. I hope in 10 years time The Creative Passport or something else will be helping to solve these issues. If there’s any musicians reading this and curious to know more, please go to myceliaformusic.org/creative-passport. And so with that, I long and live for flow in my creative, family, social and business lives, so they seamlessly coexist as often and effortlessly as possible.


Imogen Heap is a self-produced British recording artist. She has written and produced four solo albums, one as one half of Frou Frou, and has collaborated with countless and varied artists including Jeff Beck, Taylor Swift, Mika and Josh Groban. She has two Grammys, one for engineering and another for her contribution to Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’, and is also the recipient of the Ivor Novello Award, The Artist and Manager Pioneer award, the MPG Inspiration Award and an honorary Doctorate of Technology for her MI.MU Gloves work. Earlier this year she won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, out now on Sony Classical.  In 2014 she envisioned a music industry ecosystem through Mycelia and released ‘Tiny Human’, the first song to use smart contracts on a blockchain. This month, Heap embarks on a year-long music and technology world tour.

imogenheap.com

(Photo: Emilio Madrid-Kruser)

 

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.

view-from-great-george-street-for-webbanner
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.

img_2202
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 averse 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 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!

WWW.HELENSANDERSONWHITE.COM