Tag Archives: harpsichordist

Meet the Artist……Steven Devine, harpsichordist & director


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

I started as a pianist – we had a piano at home and I just enjoyed the sensation of interacting with it. Things seemed to go OK and I got a place at Chetham’s School of Music. While I was there I discovered the harpsichord and started to learn it with David Francis whose enthusiasm and approach to the instrument and music suited me perfectly.

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

I think it’s been everyone I’ve ever made music with; the harpsichord is such a collaborative instrument and as we spend so much of our time improvising, everyone has an influence on what we do. Two teachers played a big part in my thinking about the instrument – David Francis and the late John Toll.

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

Maintaining my own musical personality whilst needing to work and pay the bills.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It’s always hard listening to my own recordings – the music is always developing so often recordings feel like an earlier statement of a work. Performances are very much more satisfying and I’m proud of every one I’ve done – even the not very good ones!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think that depends what I’m working on and on what instrument at any moment. Each new project needs immersion in the musical language and also a different approach to the specific instrument. Every different harpsichord/clavichord/piano needs listening to as well to bring out what they offer so I play best what I’m working on at any moment.

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

I try and have an idea of things that I’d like to get under my fingers in the next few years, but working with a record company and concert promoters has to be more flexible than simply what I’d like to work on next season.

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

The nature of the instruments I play means that smaller is better. The Wigmore Hall is, of course, ideal. However, any venue where the instrument is balanced with the acoustic is great.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing the Goldberg Variations – it’s such a journey for performe and audience.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Anyone that makes me think about the music first, and the performance next.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

So many spring to mind: but the most memorable ones are nearly always collaborations. There’s something special about sharing the experiences with other people.

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

Practice, train and develop yourself to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. You never know what a concert situation or instrument is going to bring. Treat each new factor as an enhancement of the music, rather than a hurdle that must be overcome. There is no “perfect” musical situation.

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

Doing what I do now and working with as many musicians across the world as I can!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

At home in the garden with my family and a lovely glass of something.

 

Steven Devine enjoys a busy career as a music director and keyboard player working with some of the finest musicians.

Since 2007 Steven has been the harpsichordist with London Baroque in addition to his position as Co-Principal keyboard player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He is also the principal keyboard player for The Gonzaga Band, Apollo and Pan, The Classical Opera Company and performs regularly with many other groups around Europe. He has recorded over thirty discs with other artists and ensembles and made six solo recordings. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Chandos Records) has been received critical acclaim – including Gramophone magazine describing it as “among the best”. Volumes 1 and 2 of the complete harpsichord works of Rameau (Resonus) have both received five-star reviews from BBC Music Magazine and Steven’s new recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto has been voted Classic FM’s Connoisseur’s choice.

He made his London conducting debut in 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall and is now a regular performer there – including making his Proms directing debut in August 2007 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has conducted the Mozart Festival Orchestra in every major concert hall in the UK and also across Switzerland. Steven is Music Director for New Chamber Opera in Oxford and with them has performanced repertoire from Cavalli to Rossini. For the Dartington Festival Opera he has conducted Handel’s Orlando and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

From 2016 Steven will be Curator of Early Music for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble and will complete his complete Rameau solo recording for Resonus Classics.

Mahan Esfahani at Wigmore Hall

This is the year of CPE Bach, the tercentenary of the birth of the fifth son of JS, and this anniversary is being marked with performances, recordings and appreciations of his music worldwide.

This is also the year of Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian harpsichordist, now resident in the UK, who has been credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet” and making this instrument, the pre-eminent symbol of the Baroque period, accessible and exciting and proving that the harpsichord has an important position in contemporary music making.

I first encountered Mahan Esfahani via Norman Lebrect’s Slipped Disc blog and, my interest piqued, heard Mahan perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2011 Proms. This was a double first – Mahan’s Proms debut and the first solo harpsichord recital in the Proms history. The performance was fresh, thrilling and insightful, revealing many of the gems of Bach’s writing not always highlighted by other performers, either on harpsichord or piano.

Since then, Mahan’s star has been ascending rapidly, evidenced by a busy international concert diary, including participation in this yaer’s Aldeburgh Festival, appearances on BBC Radio 3, and an acclaimed recording of CPE Bach’s Wurttemberg Sonatas for Hyperion. In addition, Mahan is a sharply intellectual musician who is not afraid to challenge the dogmas of the early music movement and who likes to draw his own conclusions about aspects such as interpretation and performance practice from his studies of period sources, and collaborations with modern instrument players to recreate the sonic world of earlier music.

Mahan’s witty and relaxed stage manner combine with his intelligence and musical insight, resulting in recitals with a magnetic appeal which prove that far from an instrument capable of producing “one sound”, the harpsichord is vibrant, colourfully nuanced, expressive and highly textural. From the melancholic arabesques of Couperin to the dramatic bravura and declamatory statements of the young JS Bach’s Toccata in F# minor BWV910 to the graceful soundscape of Takemitsu (an inspired inclusion), this was a concert which fizzed and sparkled.

Those of us more used to hearing piano recitals at the Wigmore need a few moments to “tune in” to the sound of the harpsichord. It speaks more quietly, inevitably, because of its size, but the special acoustic of the Wigmore Hall seems just about ideal for this instrument. Add to this an audience which, by and large, listened most attentively, creating a highly engaging and absorbing concert.

In addition to the works by Couperin, JS Bach and Takemitsu, there were two Sonatas by CPE (“Emmanuel”) Bach, written while his father was still alive. Dedicated to Emmanuel’s employer, the newly-crowned Prussian King Frederick II, these sonatas reveal a composer working within a musical landscape which was poised on the cusp of change and display the remarkable forward-pull of Emmanuel’s creative impulse in the use of texture, dissonance, rapid changes of mood, rhetoric and wit, music which looks forward to Haydn and Beethoven. For the purposes of comparison, Mahan also included in his programme a sonata by Georg Anton Benda, a Bohemian disciple of Emmanuel. More sparely scored, it lacked the immediate “shock value” of Emmanuel’s writing, yet included many distinctive facets – drama and tension, a recitative-like slow movement and a spirited finale – and was performed with great elegance and sensitivity.

On first glance, Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu may seem an odd choice in a programme dedicated to Baroque and early classical music, but the piece worked well, providing an interesting contrast and a pause for reflection. There were echoes of Emmanuel’s unexpected dissonances and Couperin’s poetry within Takemitsu’s writing , yet the work is also highly lyrical in its explorations of tonality.

This was a concert of bravura playing, combined with wit and intelligence to create a thoroughly engaging concert, which challenged pre-conceived notions about the harpsichord and the music of the Baroque and Rococo periods. Mahan’s entertaining and informative introduction (given after the Couperin) and his interesting and quirky programme notes (in which he described Frederick II as an eighteenth-century “hipster”) undoubtedly contributed to a most enjoyable and imaginative evening of music making. Highly recommended.

Meet the Artist……Mahan Esfahani

www.mahanesfahani.com

 

(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Meet the Artist……Kenneth Weiss, harpsichordist

 

Photo Arthur Forjonel

Who or what inspired you to take up the harpsichord, and make it your career?

I was curious, and inspired as a child by the sound of the harpsichord after first hearing it accompany recitatives in Mozart operas on radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

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

I’d say moving to Europe and studying with Gustav Leonhardt was the most important influence on my musical life.

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

The necessary continuous ritual of practice.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The complete Well-Tempered Clavier.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

It’s difficult for me to judge – I hope that I can play in many styles convincingly.

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

It’s usually a mixture of personal choices and music festival criteria.

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

Right now, I enjoy the acoustic at the Abigail Adams house in New York City – it has a perfect acoustic for the harpsichord.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I enjoy performing – and sharing- pieces with emotional and psychological depth. I listen to all types of music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My favorite musicians are the ones that have the ability to fully embody and project the essence of the music that they are performing.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Usually the last concert performed.

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

Be yourself, keep at it and stay focused.

What are you working on at the moment?

Promotion of my new recording of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

Kenneth Weiss gives a harpsichord recital of transcriptions of Opera and Ballet by Rameauat the Institut français, South Kensington on Sunday 6 April, 11am as part of It’s all About Piano!

Kenneth Weiss was born in New York City where he attended the High School of Performing Arts. After studying with Lisa Goode Crawford at the Oberlin Conservatory he continued with Gustav Leonhardt at the Sweelinck Consertorium in Amsterdam.

From 1990-1993 he was Musical Assistant to William Christie at Les Arts Florissants for numerous opera productions and recordings. He later conducted Les Arts Florissants in ‘Doux Mensonges’ by the chreographer Jiri Kylian at the Paris Opera, and was co-director with William Christie of the first three editions of Les Arts Florissants’ ‘Jardin de Voix’ program.

Kenneth Weiss focuses on recitals, chamber music, teaching and conducting. His most recent recitals include Nuremburg, Montpellier, Barcelona, Dijon, Geneva, Antwerp, the Cite de la musique (Paris), Madrid, La Roque d’Anthéron, Santander, Lisbon, San Sebastian, Innsbruck, Santiago de Compostela, La Chaise-Dieu, La Chaud de Fonds, Bruges and New York. He performs in recital with the violinists Fabio Biondi, Daniel Hope, Monica Huggett and Lina Tur Bonet.

Full biography

Meet the Artist……Maggie Cole

Maggie Cole
Maggie Cole

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, fortepiano and harpsichord and make music your career?

We had a piano in my family home and it called out to me at an early age. My much older brother played a bit of jazz piano. This sounded great to my 4 year old ears and made me want to play. Much later, after years of playing “modern” piano, I became very intrigued and then passionate about the possibilities of sound and phrasing that the harpsichord and fortepiano suggest. The instruments themselves have somehow always been my main teachers and inspiration.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

I loved J S Bach as a child and happened to be growing up when Glenn Gould was making such an impact with his playing of Bach. Other huge influences came from non-Classical music. I was glued to the radio waiting to hear what people like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gay would do next. My first piano teacher was also a huge influence particularly for the degree of seriousness with which she took my young self!

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

Staying with it. There have been many moments when I’ve felt that perhaps I could be of more use in the world doing a different job. This has faded with age and I feel extraordinarily privileged to have music as my profession.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I particularly like the recording of Haydn trios that I made on fortepiano with my very dear colleagues in Trio Goya – Kati Debretzeni and Sebastian Comberti. It still sounds “right” to me and that is an unusual feeling.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I’m always happiest and most interested when I play in places that don’t get live music very often. Little islands in the very north of Norway stand out as a memory – the audience mostly arrived by boat. Also, the performances that I do in the States in facilities for young offenders are very dear to me. We (the Sarasa Ensemble) can be in a room with terrible acoustics and often, I will be playing a beat- up electric piano but the exchange of creativity with the young people that grows out of these performances is always moving and very exciting.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To play: The Goldberg Variations – always a journey, always rewarding.

To listen to: it’s still really jazz for me. Like many others in the world, I’ll always come back to “Kind of Blue” for sustenance. Also,Nigel North playing Bach on the lute.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

There are way too many to list. A very random and short list would include Tony Levin, Steven Isserlis, Michael Chance, Dionne Warwick……. I could fill many pages!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Playing Bach at midnight in the Court of Myrtles at the Alhambra. As I played, a black cat crossed the stage, bats swooped overhead and a pine martin rustled in the myrtle hedge looking for dead birds. Unforgettable.

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

Keep remembering to use all of your experience as food for what you create musically. Paintings, the natural world, cinema – whatever it is that touches you can inform what you play.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Schubert Trios, Bach Preludes and Fugues, Haydn Sonatas and Trios.

What is your most treasured possession? 

Good health. It isn’t to be taken for granted but at the moment, I feel full of energy and able to do all the things I love doing.

Maggie Cole enjoys a richly varied musical life with performances on harpsichord, fortepiano and piano. Born in the USA, she began playing the piano from an early age. A keen interest in early keyboards led her to England where she now makes her home. Maggie’s teachers were Jill Severs and Kenneth Gilbert and she is pleased to be part of this harpsichord “family tree” which began with Wanda Landowska. Best known in Britain through numerous recitals on BBC Radio 3 and appearances at leading festivals, abroad she has performed in venues from Seattle to Moscow, and from Finland to India. In addition to solo recitals – with Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ a speciality, given in London, Paris, Cologne, Basel, Mallorca and Chicago – she frequently performs in duos with partners including Nancy Argenta soprano, Michael Chance counter tenor, Philippa Davies flute, Catherine Mackintosh violin and Steven Isserlis cello. She is also particularly devoted to the Classical chamber music repertoire and explores this with her fortepiano trio, “Trio Goya” (Maggie, Kati Debretzeni, violin and Sebastian Comberti, cello).
 

www.maggiecole.net 

Concentu Mirabili! Mahan Esfahani at Wigmore Hall

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

It would be foolish of me to attempt to review harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s magical Wigmore Hall recital in detail, as I have neither the knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument nor familiarity with the repertoire to do justice his performance. I “dabbled” with the harpsichord while at school, playing continuo in a Baroque group, and now I occasionally play a friend’s instrument, more to attempt to understand some of Bach’s writing in pieces I am learning on the piano, than any serious commitment to the instrument. For years, I felt it was best left to early music and Baroque specialists.

I grew up listening to my parents’ LPs of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and believed these were the benchmark against which all other interpretations of this mighty work should be set. However, in 2011, after reading about the young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, I decided to take the plunge and review a harpsichord recital. In July 2011, at London’s elegant Cadogan Hall, a double debut took place: Mahan’s Proms debut and the first time ever a solo harpsichord recital was presented at the Proms. I called my review “Spellbound by Bach” because for the full hour of the concert that is the state in which Mahan’s playing put us. Credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet”, Mahan’s approach captivated and enthralled. He made the instrument – and the music – appear modern, newly-wrought.

So, when I and the friend who owns the harpsichord rocked up at the Wigmore on Friday night I knew we were in for an exceptional evening of music.

The pieces by Byrd drew inspiration from dances and songs, some toe-tapping and rousing, others stately and elegant, and religious texts, written by a composer living in a country poised on the cusp of change, as England sloughed off the Middle Ages and stepped confidently into the Renaissance. Some of the works were delicate, fleeting, poignant, others proud and courtly. All were beautifully presented, Mahan highlighting the subtleties of sound and touch possible on the instrument. During a pause in the performance, Mahan talked engagingly about Byrd’s importance in the canon of English music, and the forward-pull of his compositional vision. I was struck, not for the first time on hearing Mahan, at the range of tone, colours and moods he was able to achieve with the instrument.

After the interval, a selection works by Bach from the ‘Musical Offering’, a collection of canons and fugues and musical “riddles” which Bach composed in response to a challenge from Frederick the Great (and to whom they are dedicated). A three-part fugue and a six-part fugure (Ricercars) and a “Canon in tones” showed Bach at his most esoteric, teasing and “modern”, which set the scene nicely for, what was, for me, the highlight of the evening – the complete harpsichord music of Gyorgi Ligeti, which recalls Renaissance and Baroque models (the Passacaglia and Chaconne).

Again, Mahan introduced the works, explaining that in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the harpsichord and early music were considered dangerously reactionary and composers and musicians were not permitted to write for or play the harpsichord. (Interestingly, a number of key modern composers and champions of the harpsichord are from former Eastern Bloc countries.) Mahan then explained that the second harpsichord on the stage was a rather special instrument, a modern harpsichord with nine pedals, a kind of “prepared piano” of the harpsichord world, capable of some extraordinary, other-worldly, sounds – amply demonstrated by Mahan in his performance of the works by Ligeti.

The Passacaglia Ungherese was redolent of the falling figures and ground basses of the music of Bach and his contemporaries; by contrast, Continuum was a fleeting sonic flurry, its strange sound-world recalling an alarm, breaking glass, an angry mosquito. (Ligeti used the harpsichord for this piece because the rapid speed would be almost impossible to achieve on the heavier action of piano.) To close, Mahan played Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, a tour de force of rhythm and sonic textures suggesting the plucked sound of a modern guitar. The basis of the work is a Chaconne, a set of variations over a pounding, repeating chord pattern (the basis for much jazz and rock music). It was an energetic – and energising – close to a stunning and unusual programme.

For an encore, a short work by Purcell: simple, elegant, perfect. Afterwards, we queued up the stairs to the green room of the Wigmore to congratulate Mahan on a truly miraculous evening of music making.

Mahan argues the case for a modern appreciation of the harpischord and its repertoire far better than I can. Read his guest blog for Gramophone here

My Meet the Artist interview with Mahan Esfahani (from 2012)

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Prom’s debut

Meet the Artist……Bridget Cunningham

Bridget Cunningham

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and playing the harpsichord, and make it your career?

Being around other musicians and performing live music from childhood at home, in the church, at music schools and with good teachers inspired me to be a musician. Performing music has always been where I feel most comfortable, and the actual process of communicating with others through music lifts the spirits. When conducting from the harpsichord, the sound of the other instruments in the orchestra and singers around hits the soundboard of the harpsichord which becomes a melting pot where all these sounds go in and magic is made.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and conducting?

The most important influence is the music itself from the emotional and dramatic works of Handel, the energy of Vivaldi, the complexity of Bach and Palestrina, the freshness of Mozart, the complex rhythms of Messiaen, the richness of Wagner and much more, have always inspired and influenced me to learn more.

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

The biggest challenge has always been to get funding to put on undiscovered early operas, pasticcios, masses, and other works and material I have researched and to record this material which really deserves a hearing. It is also a learning curve to get the means to make documentaries and films about this music, the history of it and the whole process of music making, which are all fascinating aspect

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I have just recently conducted a recording for a CD of stunning music, some unrecorded material too which I am pleased about, from the 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with London Early Opera, and fabulous producer Chris Alder, which I am eagerly waiting to hear. It was a wonderful process finding the music and putting it all together to recreate a magical night at the gardens.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I have many and love the variety I have performed in from large to the more intimate, including Southwark Cathedral, the Wigmore Hall, Handel House Museum, St George’s Basillica in Gozo, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, the Pieta in Venice and Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have always loved conducting Handel operas, Purcell masques, Vivaldi and Mozart operas.. they are all colourful with amazing text, word painting and harmonies. Conducting from the harpsichord centres me with the music in the very heart of the orchestra and the actual score of the work being performed. Again, I enjoy all the later repertoire I conduct from George Butterworth to Bernstein as it is all fabulous repertoire which I enjoy listening to as well.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Barenboim, McKerras, Brabbins, Hogwood, Alsop, Davies, Edwards, many conductors; also the historic Bernstein, and several baroque musicians… Catherine Mackintosh, Robert Woolley… where do we stop…the list goes on…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing Vivaldi in the Pieta in Venice… an amazing place and also listening to Jordi Savall playing French divisions in his viol concert at St Nicholas Church in Galway by candlelight was extremely inspiring

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

Every new day there is something new to learn and we are always students and must always be open to gaining new knowledge and to aspire to new things. Keep on focusing on where you are going and work hard and practice, practice….

What are you working on at the moment?

I am collating music, parts and scores and taking sectional rehearsals for the next recording project that I am conducting with London Early Opera and following concert tour next year.

What is your most treasured possession?

My glorious harpsichords: one is a double manual Franco Flemish Blanchet copy of a Ruckers – perfect for all kinds of repertoire with a lovely resonance in the bass – and the other is a single manual Italian harpsichord with a real brightness of sound and touch.


Bridget Cunningham is a prizewinning harpsichordist, conductor and early music specialist. Bridget is in demand to conduct choirs, orchestras, festivals and recordings throughout Europe and her performing experience includes conducting London Early Opera and Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi and she conducts regularlyfrom the harpsichord at venues such as St Martin-in-the Fields, Grosvenor Chapel, St James’s Piccadilly and Southwark Cathedral. She has recently recorded a harpsichord album ‘Handel in Ireland’ and performed as a solo harpsichordist to Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. She also regularly gives lecture recitals and broadcasts at Art Galleries and last year she opened the Watteau exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and gave a lecture recital on Handel and Watteau in 18thCentury London. She has recorded and presented BBC documentaries with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment and Vivaldi’s Women and the virginal and harpsichord music for the BBC 1 series ‘Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen’, How London Was Built and BBC’s ‘Messiah’. Radio broadcasts include Radio 3 and 4 King James’s Bible. Bridget has also just conducted London Early Opera’s CD Handel in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with producer Chris Alder.

www.bridgetcunningham.org.uk