Composer Sally Beamish has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to music. Here she shares some insights into her influences and inspirations, the pleasure of working on commissioned pieces, and how talking to audiences can help explain the creative processes involved in making music.


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

My mother, a professional violinist, taught me to read and write notes when I was four – before learning to read and write letters. As soon as I grasped the relationship between the dots on the staves and the sound from her violin, I began to create my own music. It is something I still recognise in myself – the compulsion to ‘do it myself’ – to make, to draw, to write stories.

I don’t think I ever doubted that I would be a musician, and I was lucky that the professional musicians in my family were all female, so there didn’t seem to be any problem with that. My father’s sisters were both musicians, as was my paternal grandmother – though she had been discouraged from a professional career.

However, none of them composed, and I was not aware of any woman who did, apart from Clara Schumann, whom I adopted as my role model from an early age – even though I didn’t have the opportunity to hear much of her music. It was enough for me that she existed.

But, like her, I didn’t consider composition as a possible career, and decided to study viola to achieve a level whereby I could support myself, in order to be able to compose.

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

My mother and paternal grandmother were hugely important. Granny would play piano duets with me, teaching me to sight-read by refusing to wait for me, or slow down, when we played piano duets together. I had to keep going, even if it meant playing one of two notes per bar.

We gave many family concerts – my brother is an excellent trumpeter, and my father was a good amateur flautist and singer. Only my mother and I were shy about singing. Everyone else was happy to perform lieder, show songs and parlour duets, and I was the house accompanist.

Later, as a violin/viola student at the RNCM, I found myself in demand as accompanist and chamber pianist in lessons and master classes, and was able to learn first hand about the instruments I didn’t play myself.

But maybe the biggest influence was my father’s record collection. He worked for Phillips, and was often responsible for taking first-edit records home to check for faults. They were in brown paper sleeves: Ravel’s La Valse, Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony, Schubert’s piano trios. Through his collection I discovered Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter, Walton’s viola concerto, and the classics – such as Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Arnold and Walton, in particular, had a profound affect on my orchestration and musical language.

When I was 15, a friend introduced me to Lennox Berkeley, and he became a mentor – encouraging me by telling me that I was ‘a composer, and must not forget it’.

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

During my time studying viola at the RNCM I was quite often asked to write for friends, and also for my teachers – writing a violin sonata for Bronislaw Gimpel and a viola piece for Atar Arad. Several pieces were performed by students who went on to have solo careers. I gained confidence through these opportunities, and applied to study composition as a post-graduate at several institutions. I was turned down for all of them, one of them citing my tonal language as a barrier. This was a blow, and it was hard to keep my confidence. In those days, it simply wasn’t acceptable to write tonally, but I was baffled by the sounds I was hearing from the well respected composers of the time. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have to try and fit in with something that was alien to me, when I was still developing my own voice.

Later, as a viola player in London, I played a great deal of contemporary music, often with the composers conducting, and I became more comfortable with different languages to my own.

Many of these composers were extremely generous with their time and advice, and this was my period of study – with Oliver Knussen, Nigel Osborne, John Woolrich, Luciano Berio, Peter Mawell Davies and others, who kindly agreed to look at my scores.

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

I love the boundaries that come with a commission. I love having the scoring, length, and sometimes an extra-musical theme set out, so that I have parameters to work within. And it is always inspiring to listen to the players I’m writing for – to imagine the occasion of the premiere, and what I would like to hear them playing. I even, in a way, love the deadline – because it takes away a lot of the agonising. Like playing Sheep May Safely Graze with my granny, I just have to keep going. As the deadline approaches, there’s no time to look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s ‘any good’, or what people will say/think.

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

Each musician brings something individual, and the alchemy between composer and performer is very important to me. Often a performer has their own idea of what the piece might be about, or of filling a particular gap in the repertoire – for instance Håkan Hardenberger, who wanted a lyrical trumpet concerto, and Evelyn Glennie, who asked for marimba plus ‘handbag-sized’ percussion; and Robert Cohen, who wanted a cello concerto to draw on his family roots in Poland and South Africa. These are the things that immediately start making sounds in my mind. My three piano concertos were all written within a year, and the inspirational starting points suggested by the three soloists (Ronald Brautigam, Martin Roscoe and Jonathan Biss) made it possible to find a fresh world for each work. The Cairngorm Mountains. The whirlpool at Corrievreckan. Beethoven’s first concerto/the 2016 US election…

Of which works are you most proud?

In 1993, violinist Anthony Marwood asked me to write him a concerto. I knew his playing well – having played for several years with him in the Raphael Ensemble. He sent me Remarque’s book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. I had never read it, but as soon as I did, I knew what he meant about it being a fantastic starting point for a concerto. The violinist as the protagonist – the lone soldier, pitted against the horrors and futility of war. It chimed in with my own pacifist convictions, and I think produced one of my strongest works. I was still very inexperienced at writing for orchestra, but almost for that reason, was bold and sometimes rash in my instrumental choices, which makes the work one of my most daring for orchestra.

The concerto Seavaigers is one of the few pieces I decided to write and then looked for performance opportunities. I knew I wanted to write for Scottish harpist Catriona McKay and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, and to put them together with the Scottish Ensemble. The solo parts are mostly notated, but the idea was that Catriona and Chris took them off the page in their own direction, so their recorded version is in places quite different from what I originally wrote. The piece can be performed by non-improvising soloists, and even by soloists on different instruments – which have included nyckelharpa, accordion and recorder – but I loved that original conception of the piece, with the soloists responding freely and spontaneously to my music by extending, ornamenting and expanding.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I find myself speaking different languages, and sometimes become quite a different composer for different projects. My music is very often informed by other genres – for instance jazz, and folk music. Increasingly, I let go of any anxiety about being ‘original’, and try to think of how I can use musical language and idiom to express the broadest range of emotion and ideas.

How do you work?

When I first started composing full-time, I was limited by the 4 hours a day that I had child care, and this worked extremely well. Once I no longer had this limitation, I struggled for years to regain that self-discipline. In 2013, a friend recommended the Pomodoro Technique. I have used it ever since – planning eight 25-minute composing sessions per day. One advantage is that I know when I have finished for the day! Another is that I never have the excuse of it not being worth starting, thinking I have too little time. One pomodoro can be crossed off the list in a spare half hour.

I work straight into Sibelius software, having made notes and planned a structure. Sometimes I start drafting the programme note before writing any notes at all. Now that I’m playing the viola again I do occasionally try out ideas, and I have a keyboard next to me which is useful.

But I tend to start by listening in silence, and waiting. Sometimes 25 minutes is simply a silent preparation. Showing up at my desk is vitally important.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The folk musicians who’ve inspired me, such as Chris Stout, Catriona Mckay, and Donald Grant (member of the Elias Quartet, for whom I wrote a folk inspired fiddle part in Reed Stanzas). The American saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who I met in 2016, has become very important to my work and inspiration, and I’ve written several classical pieces for him, while planning a jazz collaboration which we hope will come to fruition in the next 10 years or so..! Composers I return to again and again are Knussen, Turnage, Bartok and Gubaidulina.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communication. If I can express something through a score, via performers, to an audience. If someone in that audience is changed, moved or affirmed in some way by hearing the music.

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

I think it’s important for composers to be in touch with performing. Whether they sing, conduct, or play an instrument, they should be aware of how it feels to be onstage, and to be the direct transmitter of sound and emotion.

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

It’s important to share the creative process – to talk to audiences. The pre-concert talk is good up to a point, but it tends to be talking to the converted. Much better for the composer to come onstage just before the new work, and talk about their process, their inspirations – preferably with examples. It is very difficult for a listener to assimilate a work on one hearing, and therefore to get something from it beyond a vague impression. This applies to the historical repertoire too, and in fact I think the language of the classical canon is very hard to identify with, if it is outside your experience. All the more reason to break down the 4th wall and chat to the audience, being careful not to use exclusive language (such as pizzicato, fugue, sonata form etc etc).

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Collaborating on joint projects. My work with choreographers David Bintley and David Nixon on full-length ballets was transformative, and when I met my husband, a playwright, in 2016, I realised this was the way I wanted to continue to work. He is very often a ‘dramaturg’ in my work, suggesting stories, structures and dramatic trajectory. Our discussions are my idea of perfect happiness.

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

The viola made for me by my daughter in 2014. Having had a beloved instrument stolen in 1989, and then to have sold all my instruments in 1995 because I decided I simply didn’t have time to play any more, this viola has brought me back to a communion with performers, and reminded me what an important part of my life it is to perform.


Sally Beamish was born in London. She studied viola at the RNCM with Patrick Ireland, and in Detmold with Bruno Giuranna, and was a founder member of the Raphael Ensemble. She also performed regularly with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Sinfonietta, and was principal viola in the London Mozart Players and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

She moved from London to Scotland in 1990 to develop her career as a composer. Her music embraces many influences: particularly jazz and Scottish traditional music.

She has recently moved to Brighton, and is married to writer Peter Thomson. She still performs regularly as violist, pianist and narrator.

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Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

As clarinettist Michael Collins takes over as Artistic Director in Residence of the London Mozart Players for the 2021-23 seasons, he talks about his influences and inspirations, challenges and hopes for the future of classical music.


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 was inspired by my primary school to enjoy classical music. The headmistress took a group of us the the Royal Festival Hall once a month to the Sir Robert Mayer concerts. I heard a piece involving the clarinet and it inspired me to start learning. One of the biggest influences in my musical life has been the great pianist Martha Argerich whom I have had the privilege of working with many times.

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

I have faced many challenges in life but the biggest one was three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. I was and am extremely proud that during all the treatment I was able to continue working and didn’t cancel one engagement. This was quite a challenge.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

It’s difficult to pin point any performance that I am proud of because I find something in every concert to be proud or critical about. Recordings are different; I have made so many recordings over the years but the one which really stands out is a very recent one of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony and the Finzi Clarinet Concerto with my old Orchestra, the Philharmonia

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I feel very “in tune” with the Classical period and Mozart in particular. I feel that I have something to say about this composer; his life and musical growth really intrigues me.

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

I enjoy fine wine and nice cars. These keep me busy in otherwise a very hectic world. As far as getting inspiration on stage, the excitement of each and every concert is inspiration enough, I feel.

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

Unlike other solo instruments such as piano and violin, I don’t have the luxury of a vast repertoire. Therefore I don’t usually choose repertoire season to season. I simply accept whichever work comes my way as and when, which means I can have several works and programmes on the go during any one season.

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

I love the Wigmore Hall. It is intimate, with a great acoustic, and it always feels very special when one walks onto the platform. In fact, most of my memorable concerts are from the Wigmore Hall.

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

Classic FM is doing a sterling job in encouraging a wider audience. I do think it is now up to the musicians to take a very active role in encouraging the younger audience to really enjoy classical music. This can be done by breaking down barriers which I feel have been a big stumbling block in encouraging the young audience into accepting and enjoying classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences was as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms. Walking out to such a huge crowd all waving flags, shouting and cheering and then total silence once I started to play will stay with me forever

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success is to be happy and content with the present. Not to worry about the future but to always look and search to find a way of keeping ones performance fresh, alive and never routine.

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

I think it is very important to take both the good things from one’s performance, the not so good things and learn from them. Take and accept good reviews and don’t take to heart not so good ones; the most important thing is to be yourself on the platform and never try to copy others. It will shine through if young musicians can be true to themselves and individual. In the long term, this will prove to be a very important part of music-making.

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

I would like to be a better musician, introducing new works to the public and bringing the old ones with a fresh approach. This is something which really excites me for the future.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting quietly with a lovely glass of wine listening to a Schubert String Quartet.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think, without reservation, my two children!

What is your present state of mind?

After coming out the other side of cancer, I am in a very positive and upbeat state of mind, even if we are experiencing a terrible moment in all our lives. Music really does help our state of mind; it’s calming, uplifting and can fill us with hope and optimism.

Michael Collins will be London Mozart Players’ Artistic Director in Residence for the 2021–2023 seasons.

His concert as part of LMP’s new online ‘Classical Club’ concert series playing Mozart and Weber clarinet quintets, filmed at the Tower Room in the St Pancras’s iconic gothic revival Clock Tower is available to watch here.


Michael Collins’ dazzling virtuosity and sensitive musicianship have earned him recognition as one of today’s most distinguished artists and a leading exponent of his instrument. At 16 he won the woodwind prize in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, going on to make his US debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall at the age of 22. He has since performed as soloist with many of the world’s most significant orchestras and formed strong links with leading conductors. Collins also has the distinction of being the most frequently invited wind soloist to the BBC Proms, including several appearances at the renowned Last Night of the Proms.

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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 biggest influences have been my piano teachers:

• My first piano teacher in Toulouse’s conservatoire, Claudine Willoth, who understood I was different than the other kids and cultivated my curiosity for music in general, not only for the piano. At that time I wasn’t thinking of being a professional and was reluctant to practise scales or exercices. She didn’t insist and helped me to realise what I really wanted at that time : to compose music, to sightread some masterpieces ( too difficult for me at that time ), to improvise, to listen to all kinds of music.

• My second teacher in Paris’s conservatoire, Jean-François Heisser, who I met in Toulouse when I was only 13 and who convinced me I was could become a professional musician. From that point I started to practice seriously.

• My third teacher, in London, Maria Curcio, who convinced me I could go much further and become an international soloist. I was sometimes having 5 or 6 full days of lessons in a row. It was like that every month and she really prepared me to perform on stage, to open up and find my identity as a musician.

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

They have all been ultimately very positive challenges. For example, when I first played a solo recital at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, after which I realised I could probably consider myself as a soloist; when I played Bartok 2nd Concerto with Pierre Boulez, one of my biggest idols; all my big debuts in major venues and with major orchestras; and, more recently, creating my own festival (Festival et Académie Ravel) and Academy for young musicians, and, hopefully one day, a new concert hall, in one of my most beloved places, the French Basque Country.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Difficult to say, though I’m very proud of the last one, ‘Good Night!’,  I should say! Also the Saint-Saëns album which won the Gramophone 2019 Album of the Year Award. I could also mention an older recording, Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. But I’m quite happy with everything, even if I know I could do everything better.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It’s difficult for me to answer that. Probably music by Liszt, and generally-speaking music from the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m also quite at ease with the classical style and Beethoven’s music, though that’s one side my audience knows a little less, I think.

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

Meditation. Just before going on stage.

Elsewhere in my life, I enjoy being with friends, good food (I love to cook myself), travelling, and my relationship with all forms of art and all kinds of music, including pop. I also read a lot of books, articles, magazines, all kind of things, depending on my state of mind. This all probably goes someway in inspiring my interpretations but it is totally subconscious.

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

I built a very big repertoire and musical knowledge when I was a teenager. I continue to discover new things all the time but I mainly extract ideas from this big body of work. The question is more what’s next? To try to find a logical order. But I have ideas for the next 60 years at least! Regarding new repertoire, I’m mainly interested in contemporary compositions and discovering new composers. So I try to confirm some new commissions each year so that I can regularly give premieres. This stimulates me a lot.

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

There are so many. I could mention Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires for example, which gives me such an intense emotion each time I enter on stage and face the audience. Such an impressive and magnificent place.

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

I think that artists and promoters should work much more to promote contemporary music and to help the audience discover it gradually so they get used to it – like visual art, for example. The younger generation needs to feel that there are living artists and composers behind it. The most contemporary music should be absolutely central in my opinion. It’s fundamental to get out of this museum experience feeling. Or if not, it should at least be in the style of a modern art museum…!

We also need to destroy the existing frameworks. The look and format of a concert should not just depend on old habits.

Why should a recital consist of two halves of 45 minutes each? Why should a concerto be played at the same part of the concert each time? Why always this same ritual of encores? Why does the orchestra have more or less the same layout? Why are the (bright) lights always more or less the same in every concert hall across the world? We should innovate much more to make the whole experience more alive. It’s also essential we maintain – now more than ever – a standard of very high quality. The worst thing for me is levelling down.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are too many.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being happy. And proud to achieve what we can achieve. To continue to have dreams and to try to make them become reality.

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

To remember that success is not about having your name written in gold letters at the top of a poster.

It’s a long quest and a process of building. You need to build your repertoire, your personality… to try to learn who you are as an artist. That all takes time. Search inside yourself, as most of what you have to say is already inside you from very early on.

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

I don’t know exactly but certainly not where I am right now!

I like movement. I’d like to continue to travel, to develop my repertoire, to commission and premiere a lot of new works. To develop my Festival and Academy project and to create a real musical centre to experiment with new ideas. Maybe to teach again a bit. I’d like to be more linked to the younger generation and to today’s composers, as well as to other kinds of artists.

Bertrand Chamayou’s new album Good Night! is released on 9 October on the Warner Classics label.


Bertrand Chamayou is one of today’s most strikingly brilliant pianists, recognised for his revelatory performances at once powerfully virtuosic, imaginative and breathtakingly beautiful.

Heralded for his masterful conviction and insightful musicianship across a vast repertoire, the French pianist performs at the highest level on the international music scene. He is recognised as a leading interpreter of French repertoire, shining a new light on familiar as well as lesser known works, while possessing an equally driving curiosity and deep passion for new music. He has worked with composers including Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, György Kurtág, Thomas Adès and Michael Jarrell.

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Artist photo: Warner Classics

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?

Music was part of the house in which I grew up as both my parents were  wonderful musicians: my father was the Cathedral organist in Ottawa, Canada for 50 years, and my mother a piano (and English) teacher. She started  me off when I was three years old, though I was already playing some toy  instruments before that. So they were the biggest influences of course.  I always had excellent teachers: Earle Moss and Myrtle Guerrero at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (I never lived in Toronto, only  went there for lessons); and especially the French pianist Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa. He was a huge influence, being a marvellous player himself, especially of the Romantic and French repertoire. But he was also the first person I heard perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which he did magnificently. I also studied classical ballet for 20 years from the age of 3 to 23, and that was a huge influence on me in every way, and very beneficial for playing the piano.  I also sang in my father’s choir, played violin for 10 years, and also the recorder. All of those things made me the musician I am today.

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

The whole thing has been a challenge. From beginning to end. Even if you have the talent, it’s nothing without the work. I’ve sacrificed a lot to be where I am today, but that’s OK. I struggled to get known as a young  pianist. I did many competitions. I won some, got thrown out in others.  When I did win a big prize (the 1985 Toronto Bach Competition), at least that meant I didn’t have to do any more. But then it was up to me  to keep the momentum going. I’ve had good and bad experiences with agents. I’ve always done a lot for my own career. An enormous amount, actually. It was a challenge to come to London in 1985 when I was totally unknown and make a name for myself here. I worked hard at that.  It took me 15 years of renting Wigmore Hall myself before I started selling it out and being promoted by the hall instead. The recording contract with Hyperion I got myself. That was one of the best things ever, also thanks to the great integrity that label has. Artists of my  generation have also had to adapt to the social media world and work with that in a good way. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to stay sane and healthy when you are doing a job that demands the utmost of you, both physically and emotionally.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve been happy with every recording I’ve done for Hyperion in the past 26  years. I never leave the studio unless I feel we have the best possible  versions. Of course things change over the years—that’s only natural.  But each CD is a document of how I best played the works at that time.  Apart from my Bach cycle, I am happy that I’ve recorded so much French music (Ravel, Chabrier, Fauré , Debussy, Messiaen, Rameau, Couperin) and  also the more recent Scarlatti CDs. Great stuff! I’m almost finished my Beethoven Sonata cycle which has taken me 15 years, and that gives me enormous satisfaction.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’ve always done a very wide repertoire. People think I only play Bach, but no. In my teenage years I was more known for the big romantic works like the Liszt Sonata and the Schumann Sonatas, though of course everybody knew that I played Bach. I think it’s important for a good musician to play in many different styles. On the whole I like to take complicated works and make them sound easy (like Bach’s Art of Fugue).

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

Everything you experience in life goes into your music and your interpretations. Talking with friends, reading books, going to the theatre, travelling,  seeing a movie, reading the news, experiencing the tragedy of this awful  pandemic….all of that ends up in what you produce later on at the  piano.

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

Often it follows recording projects because I like to perform what I am going  to record, of course. But also it depends on what people ask you to do.  It’s a very difficult thing, choosing programmes for a whole year, and I’ve never been one to play the same programme all season. I can change  several times a month.

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

Oh, just one where people don’t cough!

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

Just go out and perform each time in a way that makes people want to hear you again. Then you build an audience. If a concert is boring, nobody is  going to return. You have to make people really want to go to hear you.  Of course there’s all the stuff about developing a younger audience, and that’s extremely important. I support a project in my home town of Ottawa, Canada called ORKIDSTRA which gives free music lessons to children in under-served areas of the city. It’s wonderful to see how  much learning an instrument adds to their lives and to their general  development and sense of community.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I don’t know about most memorable, but certainly playing the Turangalila  Symphony at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in July 2018 was a night to remember. Fantastic performance, conducted by Sakari Oramo.  Very moving. Great audience. That’s the right hall for that piece. If I never play it again it doesn’t matter—I had that experience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success?  Well, playing a piece you have worked very hard on, and finally  memorising it and performing it well in public. That gives great satisfaction. Material success, as we have seen with this pandemic, can vanish in an instant. I suppose success is when concert promoters think of you when they are putting together their season. You have to have something they want to sell. When you have that something and have totally kept your integrity and got there because you’re good and worked  hard, then I think that’s success. But I don’t really like to think of  “success”. It’s very fragile.

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

To play their instrument with joy and not to be stiff and tense when they play. They must easily communicate with their audience and show that every part of their body is feeling the music.

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

Alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Playing for a friend and having a meal afterwards.

What is your most treasured possession?

My new Fazioli F278 concert grand piano.


One of the world’s leading pianists, Angela Hewitt appears in recital and as soloist with major orchestras throughout Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia. Her interpretations of the music of J.S. Bach have established her as one of the composer’s foremost interpreters of our  time.

Born in 1958 into a musical family (the daughter of the Cathedral organist and choirmaster in Ottawa, Canada), Angela began her piano  studies age three, performed in public at four and a year later won her  first scholarship. In her formative years, she also studied classical ballet, violin, and recorder. From 1963-73 she studied at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music with Earle Moss and Myrtle Guerrero, after which she completed her Bachelor of Music in Performance at the  University of Ottawa in the class of French pianist Jean-Paul Sévilla, graduating at the age of 18. She was a prizewinner in numerous piano  competitions in Europe, Canada, and the USA, but it was her triumph in the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, held in memory of Glenn Gould, that truly launched her international career.

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An interview with pianist Beth Levin by Gil Reavill

I assume you’re in quarantine along with the rest of us. How have the months of isolation influenced your creativity, or, on a more commonplace level, changed your practice routines?

I’m not sure. Everything is different—that much I know. I’ve been working on music that I would have performed in the spring and summer- specifically Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven and Yehudi Wyner. But I notice that I’m approaching it in ways that match the longer road we’re on—taking time to pull things apart, to muse, to examine voices and phrasing and only then putting the pieces back together. Even in the most “presto” passages now there seems to be an inherent slowness. I was always saying things like, “I wish I had a year to learn that concerto,” or, “I wish I had two years for that set of variations.”

“The pandemic is a portal,” states novelist/activist Arundhati Roy. Do you find it so?

Perhaps it is an inward portal. One’s creativity really can be nurtured right now because we are in a blank state, with nothing pressing, nothing other than music and time. I’m amazed at how much emotion rises up as I practice—nothing is there to stop it. Also I’m looking back, perhaps too much. I’ve put many old performances on Soundcloud and listening has been cathartic. This passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets came to mind:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite

Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation

You seem to be attracted to tremendously challenging works, and have recorded The Goldberg Variations and The Diabelli Variations, with your recording of the Hammerklavier sonata forthcoming.

Well, first, that’s a tradition from my teachers, particularly Shure and Serkin. And I like works that are made up of variations such as the Goldbergs, Davidsbundlertanze, The Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Diabelli, etc. I have never let not being able to play something stop me from learning a new work—ha-ha! Honestly, I have friends who won’t play this or that because of a large stretch or a fiendish page or two. If a work has a great and true expressive quality (practically anything of Schumann, say), but is technically challenging, expression wins out.

I’m interested to know the ways in which the emotional tenor of a work such as the Hammerklavier might change in the run-up to performing it in concert or preparing for a recording, shifting with the player’s increasing facility, familiarity, or understanding.

I find closer to a performance that the whole endeavor seems utterly impossible. I felt that way with the Hammerklavier even after months working on it. I mean you have good days when you feel that there is hope and everything is coming together. Just that fact of making Op. 106 feel like one piece is quite a challenge. Thinking in the longest lines possible helped and not being afraid of glacially slow or impossibly fast. The dynamic range asked for was also exciting in its scope. There is an ecstatic aspect to the sonata that may only be truly realized on stage. I think you can understand aspects of the Hammerklavier, be familiar with it and even have the facility to play it well—but the work has its secrets. I think in the end you play it to see where it will take you and take the audience.

You write poetry. What sort of cross-fertilization do you detect between language and music?

The ear and one’s sense of pulse has so much to do with both language and music. Especially if you read a poem aloud—you can hear how the pure sound of the words has a musical and rhythmic basis. I’m quite an amateur poet and never feel I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty seasoned as a pianist, and a novice at poetry writing. But my musicianship does help me as I write a poem. This strange pandemic seems perfect for using time in creative ways and in ways we might not try otherwise.

You’ve had a long association with the works of Robert Schumann, recording Kreisleriania and performing other works, and have also written about him recently. How do you engage with Schumann as a composer and creative force?

I probably have an affinity for composers who don’t want to be tied down, completely understood or caught. When I think of Schumann I think of someone reaching upward, yearning, seeking and with an ardent intensity. And I think of ultimate contrast. As soon as you meet Florestan and Eusebius in his writing, you experience Schumann’s own extreme dual nature. Schumann loved words as well—see his writings in Neue Zeitschift für Musik. I was given the music of Schumann as a child and am still discovering it. Most recently I performed the Piano Trio in D minor with Roberta Cooper and Eugene Drucker and currently I’m working on the Symphonic Etudes for piano. His music is uncannily intimate and so on that level it is very easy to engage with it. On the other hand Schumann strove to write orchestrally for the piano and wound up writing some deliciously hard music for the instrument. Schumann wrote fondly of Clara’s performance: “The way you played my Etudes—I won’t ever forget that; they were absolute masterpieces the way you presented them—the public can’t appreciate such playing—but one person was sitting there, no matter how much his heart was pounding with other feelings, my entire being at that instant bowed down before you as an artist.

There’s been some back and forth of late about whether Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written for harpsichord or clavichord. With cellist Samuel Magill, you’ve performed preludes from the piece, arranged by the virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. Any thoughts on period instruments versus their modern offspring?

The music of Bach has that ability to survive just about any treatment and still emerge as Bach. When I first saw the Moscheles transcription the word “schlock” may have crossed my mind. But Sam won me over with his gorgeous playing and love of Romanticism. I believe we began the programme with the Bach and after the concert it was one of the most remarked upon works.

You often perform and record contemporary composers. Do you seek out connections, comparisons, commonality, or inheritances in earlier works of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic or Modern canon?

Some of the contemporary music I’ve played seems to spring very naturally from earlier periods—say, the music of David del Tredici, Yehudi Wyner or Scott Wheeler. Other works break off from tradition completely; Bunita Marcus comes to mind. Lately I’ve been sending little music notebooks to composer friends and one, Frank Brickle, has begun writing me pieces for piano. I can’t wait to see the result. I think as in more traditional music you have to find the voice of the work itself and not make comparison studies.

Beth Levin, Brooklyn, NY, August, 2020


Beth Levin’s recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata and other works mentioned in this interview will be released by Aldila Records

Blurb:

When Beth Levin released her third live album seven years ago, she summed up Ludwig van Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas under the motto ‘A Single Breath’. At the time, a critic called her a titan and wrote that she played as if she was a contemporary of Eduard Erdmann, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus and Walter Gieseking. This has not changed. Since then, colleagues, admirers and connoisseurs have repeatedly asked her to present her interpretation of the Hammerklavier Sonata. She has now complied with this request, also with a ‘Live in Concert’ recording. And again she plays in a highly explosive manner, spontaneously as in an improvisation and at the same time with an incorruptible inner logic, with inexhaustible power and an immense dynamic spectrum of expression.

The Hammerklavier Sonata forms the symphonic climax of Beethoven’s piano work with its final fugue that transcends all boundaries. This concert program is introduced with a suite of George Frideric Handel, including a set of wonderful variations. Handel was Beethoven’s favorite composer, and the motto “All power to the dominant” could stand above both composers. Between the works of the two old masters is the 3rd Disegno by the great Swedish composer Anders Eliasson, who died in 2013, entitled ‘Carosello’. This free-tonal cantabile study in 5/4 time creates a sphere of weightlessness in contrast to the cadential purposefulness of Handel and Beethoven.

“One may agree with it or not. No one plays Beethoven like Beth Levin.” (Christoph Schlüren, 2013)

https://www.bethlevinpiano.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?

I grew up surrounded by music.  We always had the radio playing at home and my older sister played the violin and piano. I wanted to be just like her so was more than happy to start playing those instruments at a young age, but I pestered my parents for years to start learning the harp!

I remember getting my first CD of harp music when I was young and it was all played by the incredible Marisa Robles; the ‘Impromptu-Caprice’ completely mesmerised me. I have been so fortunate to have lessons with Marisa and consider her a friend, thanks to my amazing teacher Daphne Boden.

There are so many wonderful harpists and nowadays it is so much easier to discover new (and old!) music through social media and online platforms. One of the most inspiring harpists I discovered in recent years has to be Dorothy Ashby.  She broke stereotypes in all walks of life, especially in harp playing, and her music is very special.

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

When I was younger I struggled with stage fright, so although I was busy performing on a regular basis, it was a challenge for me once I was on stage. I can still remember the day I was fortunate enough to turn this around and it made me very aware that I was pursuing the right career path. I now enjoy nothing more than sharing my music with others.

The last few months have been tough to say the least, not just for me but for all those who work in the arts. When the country pretty much closed overnight due to COVID-19, freelance musicians lost everything and it is still very uncertain when we will be able to return in full force. I was very fortunate to have some teaching I could do online, however the loss of income and opportunities to make music with others has been a real challenge.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am so pleased with the singles I recently recorded as part of my new contract with Sony Music Masterworks.  With the wonderful team at Sony and my incredible producer Anna Barry,  we recorded some of my favourite harp pieces and also some exciting new material.  Ronan Phelan at Masterchord Studios is a brilliant sound engineer and I hope everyone will enjoy the tracks as much as I did recording them!

Baroque Flamenco (opens in Spotify)

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have always enjoyed playing uplifting and rousing music! That’s why ‘Baroque Flamenco’ was a piece I really wanted to record for my first single. It has so many exciting and unusual elements to it. That being said, I’ve also always enjoyed the French-Romantic genre.  Harp music is spoilt for choice when it comes to French composers and there is some incredible music for us to play.

I am always open to new musical suggestions, genres and styles. I have often been asked by audience members to play some Metallica or Led Zeppelin, usually as a joke, because the majority of people would presume you can only play classical music on the harp.  I took on the challenge and it really diversified my play list so that I could show that the harp is incredibly versatile and the possibilities are endless!

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

I love being surrounded by nature.  My favourite places in the world are the Lake District and Malta and I have been so fortunate to enjoy both, being of Maltese heritage and growing up in the UK. I could not be happier than when I am swimming in the Mediterranean or when I turn off my phone and go for a hike with my husband in the Lake District.  I think cutting yourself off from technology and enjoying the simple things around you is so important and grounding.

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

I try to listen to as large a range of music as possible. I don’t tend to stick to traditional harp repertoire all the time and I have started exploring a lot more piano music recently as that was how I originally started my musical journey. There is so much that can be arranged for the harp and I enjoy  challenging myself technically as well as musically.

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

There are so many wonderful venues but in terms of acoustics, I think Wigmore Hall is very special.  It provides an intimate and unique setting for recitals.

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

I really do feel that a love of and interest in music has to be developed at a young age whilst still at school. Music is a vital part of every child’s education and it is so important overall development. It can increase self-confidence and there are many studies which suggest that music helps brain development which can help in the learning of many other subjects.

I am incredibly fortunate to have grown up listening to classical music and having the chance to have music lessons from a young age. I think it is important to remember that classical music is a huge part of all our lives whether we realise it or not. Many film scores are based on classical music and many current pop singers use classical music for samples.

To this end, I think that the Senbla Concert Orchestra’s performances of popular movies with live orchestra is a brilliant idea.  Although people are going to watch the film, speaking to audience members after the concerts showed up how many people do not quite realise what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in terms of the music and were blown away by the sound a live orchestra could make.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My debut concerto at the Barbican when I was eighteen really stands out for me.  It was such an honour to be given this massive opportunity and I worked so hard to make it as brilliant a performance as possible. I was so nervous before going on stage but can still remember the joy I felt once I finished.

In an orchestral setting, playing under Sir Roger Norrington’s baton when I was leading six harps in ‘Symphonie Fantastique’  was so inspiring and a really enjoyable experience. His humour and musical expertise are unrivalled in my opinion and it’s an experience I will never forget!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t think there is one way to define success as a musician. We are always striving for better, hence why you can never stop practising as there is always room for improvement. I am so very fortunate to have been given a platform to share my music and I think success for me is being able to continue making music and sharing it with others.

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

Keep an open mind. Explore all avenues of music, even the ones you might think you do not like. Do not compare yourselves to other people, just keep working hard and have confidence in yourself and your choices. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by others on social media but if you are making yourself or another person feel something through your playing, then you are doing something right.  Also, keep up the practise!  Watching other musicians performing, whether at a live gig or on a recording or online can also be very inspiring. There is so much that can be learnt from musicians all over the world, playing in all kinds of genres and styles.

What is your most treasured possession?

My harp really is my most treasured possession. I try not to get too attached to material objects in general but my beautiful harp is something I have had for twenty years now.  It has travelled the world with me and been there for all my auditions, exams, high and low points.

What is your present state of mind?

I am excited to see what the future holds. This has been an interesting year to say the least but I am determined that musicians will be back, stronger than ever and with even more to share than before.

Cecilia Da Maria’s second single is released on 4th September on the Sony label


Born in the UK to Maltese parents, Cecilia recently completed her Masters degree with distinction at the Royal College of Music where she was an ABRSM scholar, studying with Daphne Boden. Prior to this she graduated from the same institution with a First Class (Honours) undergraduate degree.

Cecilia originally started her musical life as a pianist before starting the harp at the age of eleven. A year later she was accepted into The Purcell School of Music and later joined The Royal College of Music, Junior Department.

Cecilia has been fortunate enough to travel extensively with her harp to countries including; Italy, Spain, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia and The Baltic States.

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