Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist is interviewed by pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo for her blog No Dead Guys.
The Little Proms is an initiative to bring classical music to a wider audience, and, like Classical Revolution and various projects by the ever-innovative Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Little Proms presents classical music outside the traditional setting of the concert hall to make it more accessible, and to dispel the myths about classical music being elitist and exclusive.
The venue for The Little Proms is the basement of The Spice of Life, a pub on the edge of London’s Soho. There is a downstairs bar, and the audience sit around tables, rather than in serried ranks as at Wigmore Hall. People can come and go as they please, though they are asked to respect the music while it is being performed. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
I performed at The Little Proms for the first time on Sunday evening with my duo partner Liliana Schlaen. Lily has performed there before, but this was our debut in duo repertoire. We arrived early, as instructed, for a sound check which wasn’t really necessary. After a short warm up, we were able to sit back and wait for the event to start, while enjoying listening to the other performers warm up some of their programmes. The evening officially started at 7.30pm, with Jiva Housden and Dan Bovey, two young classical guitarists who presented a very enjoyable programme, including sonatas by Tedesca, and a suite of pieces by Couperin, originally for harpsichord.
Our set went very well, beginning with Kreisler’s dramatic Praeludium & Allegro and closing with Piazzolla’s haunting Milonga en Re, and it was great to see friends and family amongst the audience to cheer us on. As is often the way during a live performance, new things were revealed about our pieces, including a sense that we have perhaps performed the Kreisler enough for the time being and that we should turn our attention to some new repertoire. (I draw a veil over my getting lost during the first of Bartok’s Romanian Dances – an indication that it is important to run new repertoire by an informal audience ahead of a proper concert.) Afterwards we socialised with friends and the other musicians before trooping upstairs to watch Usain Bolt win the Olympic 100 metres.
The concert series is an excellent opportunity to showcase new talent, and for music students and aspiring professional musicians to perform in a more relaxed environment, perhaps ahead of a more serious performance.
The Little Proms is held on the first Sunday of every month at The Spice of Life, 6 Moor Street, Cambridge Circus, London W1 (nearest tube Leicester Square).
Several people have asked me to complete the ‘Meet the Artist’ questionnaire myself – so here is my version!
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
I was a very young child when I started playing the piano (around 5 or 6). There was always music in my home as I was growing up: my father played the clarinet in an amateur orchestra and with various ensembles, and my parents regularly attended classical music concerts and operas (the Welsh National Opera had a residency in Birmingham in the 1970s when we lived there). My paternal grandfather had a wonderful Victorian piano (complete with candelabra) on which he played Methodist hymns and bits of Beethoven (whom he adored) and Haydn. The piano stool was full of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, all speckled with age with that special musty smell. I used to sit next to my grandfather as he played.
The piano, or rather piano teaching, has only been my career for just over 5 years. I worked for 10 years in specialist art bookselling and publishing before I had my son. And I didn’t play the piano for a long time after I left university. Coming back to the piano as an adult was hard, and when I started having lessons again in 2008, I realised how much I hadn’t been taught in my teens. I’ve crammed a great deal of study of technique into the last three years: as a result my playing has improved hugely.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
My music teacher at school was enthusiastic and encouraging, and my friend Michael, owner of a magnificent Steinway Model B, has always supported my playing: he often leaves music on the rack of his piano for me to look at when I visit. Last time it was Schumann’s ‘Kriesleriana’. A few years ago, I would have looked at it and thought “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to play that!”. Now, when I pick up new music, I think “where shall I start?!”.
My current teacher is very supportive and encouraging, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. Through her courses, I have met other pianists and piano students who have helped to broaden my musical horizons.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Setting up my own piano teaching studio from scratch and learning “how to be a piano teacher”. I have no formal training as a teacher, but when I started teaching I knew how I didn’t want to do it! (remembering dull lessons as a child). Overcoming my lack of confidence about my own playing, trusting my musical instincts (I am horrendously self-critical), and learning how to become a performer have also been important, positive challenges.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
The Wigmore Hall is my spiritual home, but I also like Cadogan Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. St John’s Smith Square is a beautiful venue, but cold in the winter! Each has its own distinctive atmosphere.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I particularly admire musicians who are able to stand back from the music and allow it to speak, who do not place their personality/ego before the music, and who are able to get to the very heart of what the music is about. My pianistic heroes/heroines are Sviatoslav Richter, John Lill, Mitsuko Uchida (especially in Mozart and Schubert), Murray Perahia (Bach, Chopin and Brahms), Maria Joao Pires (Schubert), Claudio Arrau (Beethoven), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Messiaen and Liszt). Surface artifice, “look at me” antics, and flashy piano pyrotechnics do not interest me.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
British pianist John Lill playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank Centre in the early 1980s. Lill was in tears as he took his curtain calls, and members of the audience actually threw red roses onto the stage.
A concert of Baroque music in a tiny Byzantine church in Zadar, Croatia, c.1985.
As for my own performances (which are growing more frequent), my Diploma recital in December remains memorable: the setting (a lovely 18th-century room in Trinity College of Music), the pianos (both warm-up piano and concert instrument were fine Steinways), and the recital itself. I was surprised at the tricks one’s mind can play in such an intense and very concentrated situation like a performance: I had several “out of body” moments as I played, and at the end of the Schubert E-flat Impromptu, I recall thinking, “halfway through now – we can go to the pub soon!”. I enjoyed every minute of it, including the river bus trip to and from the college in Greenwich, but the actual performance was very special for me: it confirmed and endorsed all that I do at the piano, day in day out.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
At the moment, I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. As a pianist, I feel it is essential to always have some Bach somewhere in one’s repertoire as his music offers so much: instructional and intellectual. Liszt is a fairly recent discovery for me: I’d avoided learning him for years, fearing it would be just too difficult (not true!). I’ve stayed clear of the more flashy, popular, virtuosic works, preferring to explore his more intimate, spiritual and intellectual music. Likewise, Messiaen is very spiritual and intellectual, and his music puts us in touch with concepts that are far bigger than us. He was also a synaesthete (as I am) which interests me.
My tastes change quite frequently, and I am often inspired to learn something after hearing it in concert or on the radio. I listen to a wide range of music, and my reviewing role for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to enjoy even more fine live music. I feel it’s important to keep one’s ears open to as many musical influences as possible.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
A love of the instrument and its repertoire; that one should strive for accuracy and musicality at all times; that music is for sharing.
How has blogging informed your teaching/playing?
I started this blog originally as a place where I could set down ideas and thoughts I had while at the piano, but it has gradually expanded into something more wide-ranging. I enjoy the exchange of ideas that comes when people leave comments, and the opportunity to share thoughts about music and teaching with other pianists and teachers around the world. The ‘Meet the Artist’ series is proving fascinating, with so many varied, and sometimes very honest, responses.
What are you working on at the moment?
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Debussy – Images: ‘Hommage à Rameau’
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Messiaen – Prelude No. 2
Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33, nos. 2 and 7 (sometimes listed as No. 4 – in E flat)
Read my reviews for Bachtrack.com here
The ‘Meet the Artist’ series continues on this blog: the next interviewee is pianist Leon McCawley.