Guest interview by Michael Johnson

portrait of Irina Lankova by Michael Johnson

The Russian pianist Irina Lankova, based in Europe for the past 25 years, has kept her career moving despite the lockdowns and confinements of the covid pandemic. She performs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in May 2022, and has other engagements to the Salle Cortot in Paris, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, “and many concerts in between”, as she said in our interview.

Her new album Elégie, a “very personal selection” of her favourite emotional pieces by Rachmaninov, Schubert and Bach, has been critically acclaimed in Europe where she has built her career as a soloist. Her playing is notable for her erudite talks in French, English or Russian before recitals, and her expressive interpretations. It is not unusual, she says, to leave members of the audience in tears. “I also cry, at least internally, when I play,” she says.

She has issued six other albums featuring Rachmaninov, Scriabin,  Liszt, Schubert, Chopin and Bach.

In this YouTube clip she performs one of the selections from the album recorded during her recital at the Salle Gaveau, Paris

She reads voraciously and draws on the Russian masters – Dostoevsy, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Akhmatova and others “to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters”.

Her new album and her internet clips are illustrated with the work of the late photographer Peter Lindberg, who sought her out after absorbing the “strength and fragility” of her playing. She writes in her liner notes that “with all his kindness he was able to capture this duality and something more, invisible.”

Now raising a family while practicing long hours on her Steinway B, she balances her Russian origins with her European life, still playing with much of her Russian school training in evidence.

Ms. Lankova granted this telephone interview (below) from her home in Belgium and mine in Bordeaux covering her musical origins, what matters most to her continued development as a musician, and where she is headed next.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

You come from an unusual family of mechanical engineers? Are your parents music-lovers?

My parents were not musicians, but they were what we call intelligentsia, people who read, listen and think. There was a piano at home, so it was the most natural thing that I started to go to a music school at the age of 7.

When did the piano first become important to you? 

Almost immediately after I started. I was very shy, introverted, bored and sensitive, so music became all at once a friend, a shelter, a source of intellectual challenge and beauty.

Were you attracted to one of the big-name Russian pianists – Gilels, Richter Yudina, Kissin, Tatiana Nikolaeva, Lev Naumov? Did you or do you listen to their recordings? Do they influence you?

Sure, all of the above, but mostly Horowitz, Lipatti, Gould, Rubenstein, Rachmaninov and later Grigory Sokolov. Their recordings forged my musical taste, made the reference point for what is my commitment to music, the quality of work, the depth of the interpretations, and the attitude towards the performance – respect for the score, becoming a musician at the service of Music and not the opposite.

When were you first recognized as an exceptional talent?

Around 10 or 11 years old, I guess I was playing Liszt’s paraphrases and I wasn’t realizing that I was playing something difficult, so at some point my parents were told that I should consider this professional orientation. At the same time, I was also doing exceptionally well at school, so my parents were not inclined to let me choose music unless I entered the best college. At age of 13, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. This persisted until the day I pushed the door open to the Gnessin Musical College and from that moment there was no second option for me, that’s where I wanted to belong.

How many years did you study at the Gnessin Musical College? Was it very demanding? A wonderful experience? Or was it hell on earth?

I studied at Gnessin from the age of 14 to 18. My four years there were absolutely wonderful. I studied with Irina Temchenko, who was wonderful to me, and who taught me so much. I’m still in touch with her on a regular basis. And I also was taking occasional lessons with other great Moscow professors which broadened my outlook. These included Olga Tchernjak, Lev Naoumov, Vladimir Tropp.

How did the move to Belgium at age 19 affect your playing? Was Russian training removed and suppressed from your musicality?

No, not at all, maybe just the opposite. In Brussels I studied at the Royal Conservatory with Russian professor Evgeny Mogilevsky (himself a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus), so I totally continued with the Russian school. I also worked with Vladimir Viardo and Vladimir Ashkenazy. I was exposed to other influences by living in Europe and going to concerts. For example, Early Music that I loved ever since. But my taste for a specific piano sound was already formed by Russian teachers.

How would you describe the “Russian school”? Do you feel it in your bones? Is it more aggressive and expressive? Or is this a meaningless question?

I think it is real. The secret of Russian pianism is probably in the singing and depth of sound, in the rich scale of colours and nuances, and a special expressiveness. We really look for a large scale of colours, from pianissimo to fortissimo. Not being afraid of expressiveness. We avoid making it overly sugary.

In your stagecraft, you demonstrate an attractive grace, smooth movements of arms and hands, controlled emotions. Is this your natural demeanour or have you been trained for this image?

The movements come from the desire of a particular sound that I want to achieve: the singing sound, full and deep, without harshness, long melodic lines. So, whatever my arms and hands are doing in order to achieve that doesn’t matter to me.

Some pianists fill concert halls with their non-musical trickery – stunning gowns, exaggerated grimaces, bouncing on the piano bench… How have you resisted these temptations?

I need to be myself when I perform. I dress in the same style on stage and off stage — simple, classy and elegant. This means jeans and jackets off stage, long dresses and flared trousers on stage. I feel good in that way and I don’t need to eroticize my looks. And second, and the most important, I think classical music is not about the looks. It’s above all a spiritual and intellectual experience. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov aim to elevate the human being. When I perform, I’m very humble in front of these composers and the public. I’m not flirting with public, neither I try to impress. Instead I’m putting all my heart and soul into the performance, and I want to share the emotion.

Your playing in your new album “Elégie” creates moods by making the piano “work” for you. The listener feels your floating resonances, your sensitive pedalling, your tone, breathes with your pauses and silences.

I am not aware of that but if you hear it that way I am touched. Elégie is very personal selection of pieces that I love. That’s what I hope you sense while listening. Two thirds of that album is Rachmaninov, my favourite composer. I love his expressivity, the gravity, the drama, the spirit, the sincerity, the richness, the intelligence, the melodies, the harmonies, the unpredictability, the humour, the sadness — everything!

Evolution of your repertoire today will take you where – towards Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Contemporary?

Through the years, it seems that I have gone backward from Rachmaninov and Scriabin, to Chopin, then Schubert, then Bach. Today, I’m kind of turning back to Scriabin and Chopin in my next season’s program and CD. And I also want to perform Mozart concertos. If I feel the emotion, I will play it.

You are an avid reader of books. Who are your favourite Russian writers. How do you bring their poetry, philosophy or prose into your playing?

Totally, I read all the time in Russian, French and English. Right now I’m finishing the new book of my favourite Russian author Ludmila Ulitzkaya. Of course, I have read most of classics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Akhmatova. I think it’s important to read Russian literature to understand Russian music, to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov in order to feel the depth of Rachmaninov’s music. I also read a lot in French and English. For me, it’s important to go from contemporary writers to the classics and back.

You have written transcriptions and cadenzas. Do you foresee more ambitious composing objectives ?

No, I don’t think so. I’m not a composer. I’m very happy with my role as an interpreter. It’s an important role in music. We are sort of guardians of what the human race has been doing best — classical music.

You are not the same musician you were 30 years ago. As you reach maturity, how has your musical approach changed? Are you getting better and better?

I hope better and better. You develop as an individual and a human being as well as a musician, and your understanding of life and music become deeper and you have more to say in music when you are 40 than when you were 20, providing you continued to read, learn, play and grow.

How much practice do you need daily to maintain your technique? Do you spend all day at the keyboard?

No, no. If I did, my playing would be very boring. Four hours is ideal for me, but in real life is doesn’t work like that. Sometimes it’s one hour one day versus eight hours the next. The routine is very flexible. I practice on a Steinway B. It’s my friend. We know each other. I can rely on it. It responds to what I want to do.

How reliable is your musical memory? Is it changing as you become more mature? What is your technique for remembering? Do you visualize the score?

I think it’s not the memory that needs to be reliable, but the confidence. Few years ago, I had a very difficult period in my life that damaged my confidence and I had a blackout on stage. It was an important moment for me. It was very painful. After that experience, for a few years I was not able to play by heart. Even in recitals I played with the score before me. It took me a lot of effort, determination and help from various people to get the confidence back and to trust my memory again. Today, I play by heart again, I feel free and love it. But it’s not something I take for granted.

Where did the idea of delivering short music lectures at your recitals come from? Was it your personal concept or did a teacher guide you?

I started intuitively long ago with very short introductions to the pieces, with an idea to provide some key points. And gradually I felt more and  more comfortable in talking on stage and I found it helped me to relax and to establish a connection with the public. And the feedback was very good. I made some videos that I called Piano Unveiled and before I realized it, this became my signature.

What has been the impact of the Covid pandemic on your art and your career?

Despite the negative side of cancellations and change of plans, there was a positive side for me. I have had more time to reflect on many things, on my repertoire, on things I wanted to prioritize in the future. I also made recordings, including the new Elégie album.

How do you see your career evolving over the next five or ten years ?

I want to continue establishing myself internationally, playing on a variety of beautiful stages everywhere – Japan, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, North and South America.

Irina Lankova’s website


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson’s most recent book, in French and English, with drawings by Johnson: “Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianists, Composers” here.

This interview first appeared on the Facts and Arts website

Karen Gibson, MBE, director of The Kingdom Choir

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

Ultimately, I have to say that it was my mother who inspired me to pursue a career in music. It was her idea for my sister and I to start piano lessons, as a means of us staying out of trouble when she wasn’t around!

I doubt if we knew then that both my sister and I would go on to pursue various musical ventures throughout our youth and then end up as choir directors for our careers!

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

I would have to say that the biggest influences on my musical life and career would be the church that I grew up in, as well as the classical influences that I learned from my teachers of oboe and piano, and my music teachers at school.

What drew you to singing and conducting?

The Pentecostal church, in which I grew up, had a strong musical culture where singing accompanied everything. It would have been very hard not to have developed a love of music and singing in such an environment.

Whilst I loved the singing, I never wanted to be a performer intentionally. I think it is fair to say that I fell into it, alongside my sister and friends. We would gather around the piano at church, where my sister would play and the rest of us would stand her around singing in harmony. It all came about so naturally. After doing this for a while, we decided one day that we would perform at an upcoming concert, and that’s how I started singing.

Our particular denomination had choirs up and down the country – and they were very competitive! Soon, my singing extended to one of these choirs that was London wide. It wasn’t too long before I graduated from being a choir member, to helping out with the conducting, and finally to being a main conductor. My classical training meant that I had extra tools with which to teach and impart to others.

What are the special pleasures and challenges of conducting a gospel choir?

There is nothing like the sound of voices joined in singing to me. It’s a very spiritual experience in the broader sense of the word. The best choirs will always say that they are like family, and I believe that it is togetherness and connection that actually impacts the sound a choir makes.

What did it mean to you and the choir to perform at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?

It was a wonderful honour, and hugely exciting to be asked. It was completely unexpected, seemingly coming out of the blue. We knew that we would be setting a precedent, however, as there has been no other black Gospel choir that has sung at a royal wedding.

We didn’t understand at the time how much this would change things for us. It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride, thrilling, dizzying, and sometimes challenging. I don’t think we would have it any other way.

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

I think surviving through the lockdown and the pandemic has been the greatest challenge for the choir, and for the whole industry. It hasn’t just been a matter of being locked away in your house; I believe that so much was also locked away – creativity, connection, and the list goes on. I must say, though, we had some wonderful opportunities during the lockdown which helped to keep us hopeful, and connected.

I think it’s always important to remember your ‘why,’ and this is what we try to do. As people of faith this is quite important and we back that up with prayer and times of worship.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has got to be the whole of our US Tour in 2019. It was incredible as a gospel choir to be singing in the land where gospel music first came into being. We were so well received, it was an amazing and unforgettable time. 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally, success is always about the impact that one’s art has on other people. When I’m teaching my choirs I will often say to them that people should come to your performance one way and leave another. It’s about transformation that makes things better. I have been privileged to see the power of music do this so many times over my singing career. It’s always thrilling to me. This is what I call success.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important to love what you’re doing, but more, love the people that you are doing it with and doing it for. It makes all the difference. Fame will only last for so long, but real love is solid and true. I know that this sounds like a real cliché, but I believe it.

What is your present state of mind?

Anticipatory! I am hopeful and looking forward to great things coming to pass!

 

The Kingdom Choir’s new EP, Together Again, featuring Jake Isaac, is out now

 


Karen Gibson MBE is a choir conductor and workshop leader with London’s The Kingdom Choir, which she founded. She led the Kingdom Choir’s gospel performance of “Stand by Me” at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, after which she was described as “Britain’s godmother of gospel”.Gibson has previously provided backing vocals for acts such as Grace Kennedy and The Beautiful South. She has been involved with vocal groups and choirs since 1993, conducting gospel workshops all over the UK and Europe as well as Nigeria, Japan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and the United States.She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to music.

 

Ahead of the world premiere of his new piano work Sudden Memorials, written in response to the aftermath of 9/11, composer Kevin Malone shares insights into his creative life, his influences and inspirations and why he thinks we need to take more “time to think”….


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

Roger Mroz, my first serious saxophone teacher in Buffalo, New York, has left a positive, indelible influence on my teenage psyche regarding high levels of performance and serious repertoire. Ken Radnofsky at New England Conservatory offered wisdom by telling me to attend cello and voice masterclasses so that I wouldn’t be just a saxophonist, but instead like a musician who considers the context of interpretation.

When I stumbled upon the music of Rouse, Stravinsky, Weir, Reich, Beethoven, Crumb and Laurie Anderson, I realised that there are approaches to composition outside “the system,” yet their works contained logic, rigour and a strong sense of internally-established identity which made sense to me. Discovering the music of Ives at age 14 changed my life completely. His meticulous irrationality (an oxymoron, but an accurate description!) gets to the heart of what it’s like to be human: the visceral and philosophical self being one.

All of the above meld into how I think of what a composition is for me: a script for musicians to act upon, to interpret.

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

Without any doubt, it is time to think. Teaching at a university is about productivity, making it challenging to create anything truly unique to add important works to the repertoire or broaden musical expressivity. If we had time to think, then we could properly assess where we’ve come from and where we are in musical composition. For the past 60 years, the focus in the arts has been on manner, not substance, and manner (style) is highly marketable so it’s taken precedence. These mannerisms pretend to address the above questions, but instead they create a veneer to evade truly addressing and reevaluating compositional substance.

There’s also time wasted because, as a citizen, we have responsibilities to challenge oppression, injustice and maltreatment. When a government sets out to privilege its financial support base and offer promises specific to its voting base, then every musician and composer must join others to take action. That takes up much mental space and time. I’ve been shocked when some composer associates have told me that such activism is up to others, even though my associates will benefit, because they claim they are here to be composers.

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

I usually come up with ideas which I’m burning to compose into audience experiences; some of these become proper commissions, such as Sudden Memorials for Adam Swayne. When approached with a commission idea, then I like lots of discussion to ensure I honour the commissioner. For example, A Day in the Life is a violin concerto commissioned in 2018 by Andy Long, Associate Leader of the Orchestra of Opera North. He had a very specific brief that it should relate to Robert Blincoe, an indentured child forced to work in Northern textile mills in the late 18thC. I undertook massive amounts of research into Blincoe, indentured children and historic and current Northern mills. We discussed the proposed scenario at length, considered the audience, and after many coffees together, the music just flowed, since we had devised the vessel inside which the music would sail with many adventures along the way.

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

Oh my, that’s everything! With some close artistic associates, I actually want to completely let go of the piece when I give it to them, so that it’s entirely theirs. I want to wait until they perform it before I hear it! That level of trust and synchronised thinking is rare, but so very precious.

With others, I like to get into lots of conversations about what the piece should be doing for the listener, and how they may wish to change things here and there to achieve that. I want to hear and learn about their sound, timing, phrasing and articulation so that they and the music are speaking the same language, dialect and accent as to what I intended.

Of which works are you most proud?

Eighteen Minutes (concerto for double basses) and Requiem77 (cello and voices) for their simplicity and directness (both are on iTunes and Spotify)

Sudden Memorials (piano) and Opus opera (string quartet) for their scale which goes beyond structures, and variety of emotional unfolding.

A Day in the Life (violin concerto) and The Water Protectors for their thorough grounding in people’s experiences, tribulations and activism

And HerStories Unsung Vol.1 and The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe for the reaction they evoke from audiences: real audience participation! Check out the premiere by Diana Lopszyc of HerStories: Lilith:

and The People Protesting premiere by Adam Swayne:

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It is polystylistic in that each work is a heady brew of multiple styles and dialects, aimed at thwarting predictability as to what comes next, yet often imbued with familiar sounds in unusual gestures. For example, a series of triadic chords may appear – what I call “tonal artefacts” – and sometimes they might suggest a sort of archaeological dig revealing a tonal centre, but one which is seriously disjointed (not apologetically muddied or blurred). So it sounds familiar, but the syntax is wildly new.

I like what Beethoven said: good music should always have beauty and surprise. That’s a powerful combination when it’s understood and balanced. I would say my music is 20% music for music’s sake, and 80% music for listener’s emotional and psychological enlivenment. I like to experiment with new approaches in compositions for ensembles, and not to experiment with the musicians themselves. As a performer for many years, it was disheartening to have a composer ignore the many thousands of hours I put into a wide palette of solid technique, only to find that I had to develop an equally convincing technical range for just this one composer for just one piece (which most likely would be performed once). We are social beings, and it is important to respect what your musicians bring to the table. A medium-size orchestra offers 600,000 hours of high-level musicality to a composer, so to ignore that is quite arrogant!

How do you work?

I think of what the audience experience would be, then I make a structural diagram of that experience, as specific as 2” phrases in some places. The structure is drawn linearly, often stretching four meters left to right. While I create the structure, I hear musical ideas in my head to make that experience, writing them in notation and English and taping the bits of paper to where they will be most effective. Eventually, the structure suggests where new ideas and developed ideas should go to best create that experience. This is wildly different from what I was taught, which was to take an idea(s) and develop it to see where it goes. I don’t think an audience cares to hear what decisions a composer took (that’s composerly-orientated music). To my ears, that approach sounds like the minutes of a staff meeting or a logical proof being justified. I’d rather focus on giving the audience an experience instead of asking them to experience my music as a composition.

This may sound quite opinionated, but I think of it as my music having an opinion – and strong ones at that – so that its narrative is spicy, flavourful, sometimes contradictory, always provocative.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To attain a sustained high level of craft which produced provocative, original works that communicate to audiences. I am suspicious of celebrity artists; surely hearing their artistry without knowing who they are should have the same value as knowing their identity. But sadly, there’s so much emphasis on marketing the person and putting artists into gladiator-type situations like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, where artists are spontaneously judged with the goal of choosing one winner and many dozens of losers. I’d love to see a TV show called Comp Idol: composers writhing in ecstatic spasms of inspiration, trying to impress instead of express. (Channel 4: I have the treatment already drawn up.)

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

To work your ass off. To not underestimate the incalculable hours and years of work it takes to really say something artistically. To seek criticism from every quarter. To take risks. To not be defensive. To not try to be original, but instead to be genuinely the best of what’s inside you, which takes a lifetime. When these are achieved, you’ll be making a unique contribution to that life-force we call music.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

To teach the art-music of our diverse cultures from pre-school onward as compulsory in every school. To insist on accurate representations of art-music (it is for all people, not just certain social classes) and a vocabulary to talk about it (a perfect fifth is a perfect fifth in classical, hip-hop, reggae, ska, house, techno, jazz, folk, pop, etc.). To have a funded community orchestra/ensemble in every borough, and to make it accessible to everyone. Look at all the sports facilities in boroughs (wonderful!) but where is the funding for expressive arts? This mirrors the contempt that governments have for the power of the expressive arts: the mechanism which activates people to raise their voices and have their say.

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

I have no idea. I live mostly in the present, evaluating where I’ve come from.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I don’t believe people should try to achieve happiness (a goal, a thing); rather, people should be happy (action, doing). This means making happy feelings for ourselves: they are our responsibility and under our control, and can change as circumstances change. For me, that is to write music which is rich with emotions and psychological states (wit, humour, sadness, surprise) and rigorously structured.

Is music the most important thing to me? No, but it is the only portal through which I achieve clarity to find out.

What is your most treasured possession?

It’s my Soviet-issued ceramic bust of Lenin which was given to me by the Composers Union of Ukraine. In 1994, they were no longer required to keep it on display in their office. I keep Lenin’s head warm with a pink pussy hat I knitted 5 years ago.

What do you enjoy doing most?

For leisure, watching films, which is such a widely diverse art form. What I enjoy doing most is composing when I’m not relaxing.

What is your present state of mind?

Great anxiety for society and humanity due to the immense greed of politicians and wealth-extraction industries (i.e. most capitalist businesses). But day to day, I am enriched by my partner and our long-haired German Shepherd dog; they buoy my hope for the future.

Sudden Memorials by Kevin Malone receives its world premiere in a concert by pianist Adam Swayne at London’s Wigmore Hall on Saturday 11th September at 1pm, the exact hour in Britain twenty years on the from the beginning of 9/11. More information

The score of Sudden Memorials is available from Composers Edition


The work of Kevin Malone spans genres and media beyond conventional labelling. He is equally at home with electronics, multimedia and harpsichords to choirs and orchestras, embracing postmodernist and hybrid approaches across his work.

Abandoning high Modernism, Malone speaks with an open, personal expression, freeing his music from the baggage of serious high art music without actually throwing away the bags.

Read more www.opusmalone.com

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Coming from a moderately musical family as I do, there was no shortage of inspiration at home during my childhood. My father’s solo career was in full flight, and I loved attending his concerts and listening to the work process behind the scenes. It seemed to me that this was an elevated and endlessly interesting way to live one’s life. Later on, my lessons with William Pleeth were invaluable, as were my encounters with the extraordinary composer and pedagogue Gyorgy Kurtag. The cellist I listened to most was Pablo Casals, a great and pioneering artist whose unique way has always fascinated me. 

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

Without a doubt, bearing the surname of my father [Alfred Brendel], with whom I have always got on very well. It brought with it an expectation in others’ eyes that I wasn’t well equipped enough to deal with for quite some time. This has waned over the years, but not without leaving a clear psychological mark. Yet I wouldn’t change the past if I could! The flip side of this very private struggle was a rich immersion in culture in the widest sense. My father and I still meet regularly to discuss and listen to music, watch films and look at art together.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I was possibly a bit too young and green to record the Beethoven sonatas with my father in my late 20s. It was the one opportunity we had to do it, and I’m still pleased with it almost 20 years later. Many performances come to mind – perhaps the 20 years of directing the Plush festival in Dorset give me most satisfaction as a body of programmes that always tried to push boundaries and present music in a spirit of inspiration. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure…perhaps the audience should decide that! I feel a particular bond with Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, and with much contemporary repertoire. Combining old and new elements in a programme is so often mutually enhancing. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I listen to quite a lot of improvised music, something I like to do in private (and occasionally in public) as well. I teach a lot too and am becoming more and more aware of its importance in my own development. One can learn so much from one’s students. I play football, tennis and other sports with childish enthusiasm and this keeps me sane at times. Most of all, I spend time with my partner and two boys, who give everything so much more meaning.

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

There’s an element of chance here – you never know what you will encounter along the way. As a collaborative cellist, I have to be ready for anything! When planning my own recital programmes, I try to combine some new or unknown music with works from the canon. There is a huge amount of great repertoire to find that only increases the more you look..

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

As a member of the Nash ensemble, Wigmore Hall always feels like home as we are resident there every year. Other wonderful venues include Vienna Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and Berlin Philharmonie, amongst many.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think there is a case for completely rethinking the way we do our events, not to preclude the time-honoured format that we are all used to and enjoy, but to actively encourage new formats and ideas alongside the conventional model. These could include making our events more filmic in presentation or collaborative with other art forms such as dance (particularly with modern music); doing away with 2 x 40 minutes in most events; allowing other elements in such as improvisation and different genres, and using more unusual venues as concert spaces. All these things are starting to happen, but need to become more normal for young people to sit up and take notice. 

The awful situation performing artists find themselves in due to COVID-19 and, mainly, Brexit also provides an opportunity for young musicians to reinvent the wheel in the UK. With so little funding for the arts and such difficulties with touring in EU countries, we are just going to have to find new ways to connect with audiences here.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Too many to mention. Perhaps out of leftfield, being summoned on stage out of the blue while presenting a world music festival in Senegal for BBC Radio 4 to play with Baaba Maal in front of 10,000 people. That was an experience…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To find fulfilment in what you do, and to approach your work with a fresh, unbiased mind. And to be generous to your colleagues.

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

Learning how to listen, and how to take distance to one’s own ideas to allow others in. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

I’d like to live in a UK that is less divided, and has more respect for its artists and artistic institutions. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Time spent in nature with my family, decoding a complex new score of exciting contemporary music, watching Fulham at Craven Cottage (although not recently), attending a riveting concert, play or film, seeing progress in my students, curating unusual musical events: to name a few!

What is your present state of mind?

Stupefaction at the direction this country is taking. Excitement at the gradual opening up of things and the creative optimism that follows. And the fervent hope that we might leave the world in some kind of fit state for our children despite our current freefall. 

Adrian Brendel performs with pianist Alisdair Beatson at this year’s Petworth Festival which runs from Wednesday 14 July – Saturday 31 July. Further information here


One of the most versatile and original cellists of his generation, Adrian Brendel has travelled the world as soloist, collaborator and teacher. His early immersion in the core classical repertoire inspired an enduring fascination that has led to encounters with many fine musicians at the world’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls. His discovery of contemporary music through the works of Kurtag, Kagel and Ligeti in his teenage years opened a new and vital avenue that he continues to explore with huge enthusiasm alongside his passion for jazz and world music. In 2014 he became a member of the Nash Ensemble of London.

Projects with contemporary composers and conductors such as Kurtag, Thomas Adès and Peter Eötvös among others inspired him to cultivate new music in his concert programmes wherever possible. A three-year project with Sir Harrison Birtwistle led to premieres of his song cycle Bogenstrich and a piano trio released on the ECM label. He also premiered York Hoeller’s cello concerto Mouvements with NDR Hamburg alongside Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Canto di Speranza.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My parents foremost – there was music around the house at all times, and my mother had a beautiful voice and sang often with my father accompanying. Then my first teacher, from age 5, Barbara Boissard. Then Kathleen Long, a natural pianist and musician with a beautiful sound. I stayed with her until I was 12 when I went to study at the Paris Conservatoire for 6 years. By then my mind was firmly made up – but these people were good early influences who would have helped my resolve to be a musician grow. 

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

In my younger years, there was an injury or two which involved some important last minute cancellations, which I hated being obliged to do. You have to keep faith that you will heal completely, which of course I did. However emerging from the pandemic is really challenging – planning impossible and great flexibility needed, as well as zen-like qualities. 

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud? 

It depends on which period of my life. The Philips recordings of Lieder with Wolfgang Holzmair were very special for me. As were the Schubert Live recordings from South Bank Centre a little over a decade ago. They were tough days, the rehearsal was recorded, as was the concert, with a patch session until late into the night. Each was a real marathon. 

But my set of recordings for Chandos have been, still are, a wonderful journey – all done at the amazing Snape Maltings with an excellent team. I have a particular fondness for the Liszt/Wagner recording, as well as for the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and “Iberia y Francia” , a lovely mix of French and Spanish masterpieces, large and small. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best? 

It’s not really for me to say. I don’t take up any work if I am not 150% convinced by it, and feel that I have something really personal to express through a piece. I guess that Schubert and Schumann are particularly close to me. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage? 

Get away from music! Read, be in the great outdoors, preferably walking..

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

Dominated either by practicalities (recordings, requests from promoters, festival themes) or, simply by a movement of the heart that impels me to such and such a composer..

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

There are so many. The Wigmore Hall is particularly dear to me as to so many of us – but also Spivey Hall near Atlanta GA in the US, Severance Hall in Cleveland, the Recital Hall in Melbourne, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam…I hate to leave any out, but am obliged to!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I would like to think that the amount of filming of concerts on the web during the pandemic, and their easy availability, might entice new audience members when venues open up more. If only newly interested viewers could realise what an even richer experience it is sitting in a hall sharing an amazing musical experience with others – the synergy between platform and audience…There is honestly nothing like it.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One was certainly the first time I played the last three Schubert Sonatas together in one concert, a marathon if ever there was one. It was in the hall at Westminster School, on a freezing cold night – a packed audience sat huddled up in their coats and listening so attentively. It was a two hours-and-ten concert, and I was like a rag doll at the end, but proud to have stayed the course..

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

When I see that the music for which I have been a vessel has really reached the depths of people’s hearts and souls and that they are the better, or the wiser, for it. It is like speaking a message that has been clearly heard. If music-making is not about that, then for me it is not about anything. This has nothing to do with commercial success which is another story. 

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

Be humble about your ambition, whilst keeping your vision and goals clear. Be patient. And work work work – it is never enough. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years? 

Alive!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Walking in the Italian countryside in spring, with the prospect of a simple meal with friends at the end of the day. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My house and garden.

What is your present state of mind? 

Sane, mostly. 

Imogen Cooper performs at this year’s Petworth Festival on 24 July, playing music by Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. More information/tickets


Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism. Recent and future concerto performances include the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Sydney Symphony with Simone Young and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ryan Wigglesworth.

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(Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke/Askonas Holt)

Pianist, educator and mentor, Professor Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist is Artistic Director of Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, and founder of the IPC’s Artists-in-Residence scheme, where up to ten young pianists are rigorously selected to take a ‘deep dive’ into their artistic, career and personal development. Each residency is fully funded.

An accomplished pianist herself, Professor Mustonen-Dahlkvist’s training in Russia, Germany, France, and Spain informed what would later become her own methodology, which when combined with her nurturing and passionate nature, has resulted in a unique formula for success, mastery and excellence. Here she talks about her early influences and how she was inspired to develop the programme at IPC.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have multiple sources of inspiration. I have been consciously searching for musicians and pedagogues from whom I can learn something valuable. Everything started with my mother. She was a piano teacher at a music school working with kids, and wanted me to become a piano teacher too, simply because in the era of the USSR, this was a very good profession and a respected job to have. I grew up in communist Siberia at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s. It really was a different planet. My grandparents were deported to Siberia and despite a not very pleasant time during my childhood there, I was very lucky to meet Larissa and Valery Starodubrovsky in the early stages of my life. They were actual students of the great Heinrich Neuhaus and studied together with Sviatoslav Richter, and were deported to Siberia during Soviet times to “help to develop the culture” in Siberia. Larissa was an especially important teacher for me, and I stayed connected with her until the very last moments of her life. Even when I was already living in Finland and Germany, I still travelled to Moscow to play for her (where they returned to after the dissolution of the USSR). I also kept contact during the years of my master’s degree in Berlin.

Another very important teacher for me was Vitalii Berzon. He could really tell his students that playing piano was not difficult technically; he showed us exactly how to play and gave us students all the tools for it. Erik T. Tawaststjerna in Helsinki told me how I will exactly achieve my dreams to become a pedagogue and pianist and showed me the way. After that, and essentially the most important part for me as a musician and pedagogue was meeting and studying one year with Alicia de Larrocha. To be able to see and hear so closely the sound world of such a legendary pianist was very special. If you hear this once in your life, you can’t unhear it anymore and my whole life I have been searching for all possible methods just to get closer, bit by bit, to her amazing sound world. I feel like every year I come closer and closer in understanding her heritage, which I was fortunate enough to experience in person.

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

I think my whole life was built on challenges. It feels like I have gone through many problems like long term injuries, deep psychological problems with stage performances, a not very easy upbringing with lots of trauma, and difficulties with finding out how to deal with piano playing and psychological balance. It took me many years to find a way to be a confident performer and it took several years to establish any kind of stability in pedagogical process – even if I was always sure that it is my true calling to be a pedagogue. In the beginning of my pedagogical career, I found it very challenging to be a young professor and also a woman in this position.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Everything! I tend to learn from each special or new moment of my life and compare it to music, seeing how I can use it. Very often we can find inspiration in everyday situations in life, because the emotional content in music is unlimited, the same way as the emotional content in life.

Tell us more about the Ingesund Piano Foundation. What was the motivation for establishing this Foundation, how does it support young artists, and how do you choose the students?

The Artists-in-Residence idea stemmed from the growth of our class over the past years. As the class grew into a group of pianists of vastly different cultural experiences and personalities, it became a nurturing ground for those who are striving for the same goal – excellence and depth in music-making.

Our students decided to come to Ingesund in Sweden because of the compatibility we share. To us, what matters most is how well we may understand each other, and whether our style and approach fits best for the individual’s improvement in their current state. This created an absolutely fantastic environment of trust, openness and true musical exploration.

To decide to work together with a student is a very difficult and long process, because the whole professional life of this person will largely depend on the productivity and quality of our work. Personally, I get very attracted if I hear somebody with their own unique voice in their music making. Everybody has their own voice of course, but some are more intriguing than others. In my case I have to intuitively see “hundreds of steps” forward, regarding how I may help to bring this pianist to become what he or she is dreaming to sound like. Most of it is down to hearing, and executing correctly. How realistic the process may be, and what kind of particular steps I can do to make it happen. Sometimes I absolutely love the musician, but after some trial – it may just not fit. I am intuitively always searching for pianists who possess some quality or potential to be the “real deal”. However, often these talents may not be the simplest personalities to deal with, and not the easiest musicians to teach. I guess we are indeed learning a lot from each other in the process.

Learning at the same time while teaching and developing together with the students is something very important to me. I have striking realizations from time to time and they often change the whole direction of my teaching and music making. In this particular moment, I am actually finding myself in such a revelation. It feels like I have never understood what piano playing was about earlier, compared to what I know now.

You were inspired by the Netflix programme ‘Playbook’. Tell us how this has influenced your approach and your role at IPF?

Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, is a genius who is capable not only of understanding but also working with human nature, understanding the psychology of highest-level performance under tremendous pressure. His ability to see the talent and foresee the steps of creating world-class players is very inspiring. The connection was immediate when Patrick, in the very beginning of the episode, started by comparing the practicing process of difficult details and passages at the piano, to the polishing of moves in tennis. He says, “Piano can be beautiful, if you listen to the piece from the start to the end. But if you repeat the same thing all the time…it drives people crazy. Of course it’s tough, and that’s why not many people can be Number One”. He is a huge inspiration for me, and in the same way, the work that we do is an inspiration for him. He talks about how the greatest weaknesses can become the greatest strengths, how emotions are your worst advisers, and how mistakes should not define you. I could suddenly relate to every word he is saying and recognize every situation he described in the preparation for the big stages. How can it be so similar? The psychology of the elite sport and the art of the piano performance, especially in competitions.

It does not matter what we do professionally, we are all humans, and our conditions in top-level performances are strikingly similar. Patrick said that his goal in coaching is very simple: we are there to help people to achieve their dreams. This is exactly the whole purpose of my piano teaching too.

What are the challenges facing young classical artists today and what are you doing to support and encourage them in their professional careers?

The challenges have been and will be always the same. First of all, it’s generally very difficult to get to the point where young artists are able to be ready professionally for all challenges for the future, and afterwards, once you are ready, it’s very difficult to get on the stage and be heard.

I personally hope that I am the pedagogue who is able to help professional development in a rather distinct manner. But lately I started to feel that it was not enough – because the professional world out there is not easy to enter for a young soloist and it’s not easy to get the right exposure. At Ingesund Piano Center we are trying to establish a useful platform and trying to think and work differently – curating an education which does not only take care of exams and degrees, but an education which would help to make a difference in the pianists’ careers and success on stage.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think we just need to find, recognize, support and educate young musicians, who can play their instruments at the highest possible level, have an ability to captivate audiences and make a difference with their performances on stage.

Many musicians are nowadays very well-promoted, but not really giving this experience to the audience which would make them go back to the concert hall. It’s like going to a very well-designed restaurant, where the food is not good. You will not go back there.

But I have also experienced many times people becoming the biggest lovers of classical music when they get a revelation provoked by some very good performances, which could open up this whole world to the people. Good musicians and talented performers are our best ambassadors.

As a musician and pedagogue, what is your definition of “success” in the world of classical music?

The biggest success is the inner success in finding who you actually are and what you can contribute to this music world. And after you find the purpose, you also find the balance between the professional and personal lives. I guess success is something very personal, for some, they really need a completely full schedule to feel successful, for others, it is enough to have a few small events to feel this way. Generally, I think it’s very difficult to define success because it’s something very personal. The biggest success is if you can contribute exactly what you have dreamed about and that you know yourself well enough to place yourself rightfully with regards to your inner talent in the music world.

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

Never stop searching, evolving and developing. Never think that you have any limitations, try always to search for ways how to go above them. Do not be arrogant, but be aware of who you are. Be always clear in your mind, about your current situation, your possibilities and problems, and always have very clear goals and paths to go, search for help that exactly pinpoints and solves problems in the playing for example, and drop all delusions as soon as possible, do not try to give yourself too much international display and attention too early, before you are really ready, but never stop dreaming!

Led by Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist, Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers. The final concert in Ingesund Piano Center’s inaugural NORDIC STAGE Gala Concerts takes place online 10 June. The earlier concerts are to view via the IPC’s website

Read interviews with the participating pianists here