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

My mother was a woodwind teacher, so music was always in the house. She used to sit me at the piano in my highchair and I’d happily play away to myself as a baby. When I was potty trained, I asked for a recorder as my reward which I then learnt to play the same day. I could read music before I could write. I chose the clarinet because my arms weren’t long enough to play flute and I didn’t like the look of the curved head flute! I was six when I started clarinet and never really looked back.

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

There have been a few major influences who have really influenced and supported my career development.

The late flautist Sebastien Bell was Head of Woodwind at the Royal Academy of Music when I was a student. He understood my developing passion for contemporary music and bass clarinet and gave me a huge amount of encouragement to go my own way. I can’t thank him enough for that and he taught me so much about playing new music.

Whilst a student at the Royal Academy, I wrote to Czech bass clarinettist Josef Horak who developed the bass clarinet into a solo instrument in the 1950s. At that time I had little repertoire or knowledge of the bass clarinet world. He would send me piles of music, CDs, past concert programmes and set me off on the journey I am on today.

And of course, we have our godfather of bass clarinet Harry Sparnaay who died last year. I regret never studying with him, but the help and support I got from him whilst doing my PhD was just incredible. His influence lives on today in myself and all of my bass clarinet colleagues.

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

Specialising in contemporary music means that the greatest challenges appear several times a year and never stop arriving! It may be in a new work written for you that you have to master or an existing work that pushes your technique. I’ve had many moments of opening a score and thinking that I’d never in a million years be able to play the piece. Luckily I’ve been determined and it’s a great feeling to overcome these challenges and see works all the way to performance and recordings!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am the clarinettist with Northern Ireland’s Hard Rain Solist Ensemble. I’m incredibly proud to be in this ensemble which specialises in performing core contemporary repertoire and commissioning and promoting Northern Irish and Irish composers. Every one of the concerts we do is a massive achievement and it’s like a second family to be with.

I also work with my bass clarinet and piano duo SCAW and rarescale. I’ve recorded with both and love my work with both ensembles.

I just have a new recording of Strauss, Beethoven and Glinka works out on the Hyperion label. I know it’s surprised people as I’m playing clarinet on the CD. Recorded three years ago, it was at a different part of my career, but pushed my playing skills in a different way.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love contemporary music where you have to discover the music as you learn a piece. If you can find the music, untraditional phases, melodies, thematic material in such a piece and engage an audience in your interpretation, then I think that is mission accomplished. I love the music of composers such as Franco Donatoni. You can live with his music for years and it still keeps revealing new exciting secrets each time you play his pieces.

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

As a contemporary music specialist, your programme choices are often influenced by who is writing for you at the time. I’m recently working with composers writing for contrabass clarinet and these pieces will feature in future programmes along with currently unwritten works.

I also like to perform core contemporary music within a programme of music writen for me and always have projects of existing repertoire on the stand. I currently have Monolog, by Isang Yun for solo bass clarinet, Ombra for solo contrabass clarinet, by Franco Donatoni and Bug for solo clarinet, by Bruno Mantovani on the go.

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

I don’t think I have a favourite, but I enjoy playing in small and intimate venues and also in rural places where there is limited access to live music. I’ve had some fantastic experiences playing on small Scottish islands over the years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Gosh – that’s a hard question, as there are so many! I love all types of music and there are players in all genres I appreciate. I like musicians who are able to express emotion and a sense of enjoyment with their music. Be it a player like Pat Methany who plays from the heart, the jazz playing of bass clarinet greats like Eric Dolphy and Bennie Maupin who make you appreciate the bass clarinet for where the contemporary side has partly come from. And then of course, the late Harry Sparnnay, our godfather of bass clarinet for all he achieved and for just being the greatest bass clarinettist ever to live!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My first solo bass clarinet recital in the Purcell Room was special because it was a defining moment for me when I was being accepted in the UK for being a bass clarinettist. It was also one of the scariest concerts I’ve ever done as the repertoire of Donatoni, Cardew and Marc Yeats was some of the most difficult repertoire I’d ever performed and on a prestigious stage.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you find yourself and your direction as a player. As a bass clarinet specialist, it’s nice to be respected for what I do and to have people from all over the world contact me to ask questions or to ask to study with me. Publishing my multiphonic book was a special moment for me, because it was the final step in a huge project and enabled me to contribute to an area of bass clarinet development that needed clarification.

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

Be yourself and follow your own ambition. Some players want to play in an orchestra, some want to play chamber music and some want to be soloists. Grab all the opportunities you can whilst studying and consider all the options. Being an orchestral player, a chamber musician, a soloist or a combination of all is great, but ultimately never be afraid to specialise if that is what you want to do.

Until around eighteen months ago, I was still under pressure to pursue orchestral auditions and yet, deep down I knew I didn’t want too. I love doing occasional orchestral work, but I love contemporary solo, chamber music and also my university and research work much more. At that recent point in my life, I dug my heels in and made some firm decisions about what I wanted and what was right for me, and have never been happier.

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

Hopefully still playing, premiering new works and teaching at university/conservatoire level. I teach at RNCM and am Director of Performance at Sheffield Univeristy, so I intend to work hard to develop both of these roles and courses. I’m also planning further research and want to write at least one more academic book.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting down somewhere on the Isle of Raasay, Scotland where I have a cottage and looking at the sea and views to Skye and appreciating the peace that comes with it. Sometimes the silence or simple sounds of nature is as great as music and is a very humbling experience that puts life into perspective.

What is your most treasured possession?

Two things! My cottage on Raasay. I purchased it ten years ago sight unseen on an island I’d never been too. It’s the best thing I ever did!

The other is my contrabass clarinet which is known as ‘the beast’. It’s been amazing to learn this instrument over the past year and to start to commission works for it.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m doing what I love to do which is playing contemporary music, teaching at Sheffield University and RNCM and preparing some research projects. I also have some fantastic contemporary music ensembles I play with. I’m very content knowing that I’ve achieved that.


Sarah Watts studied clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music with Angela Malsbury and Victoria Soames Samek (bass clarinet). Sarah then decided to specialise in the bass clarinet and continued her studies at the Rotterdam Conservatorium bass clarinet with Henri Bok, funded by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and a Leverhulme Trust Studentship. Sarah was awarded the Exxon prize for the best classical music student in Rotterdam.

Successes include: Winner, UK Howarth Clarinet Competition 2000; Winner, Hawkes Clarinet Prize (RAM) 2001; Winner, Sir Arthur Bliss Chamber Music Prize (RAM) 2000; Winner of wind section and Faber Prize, UK Performing Australian Music competition, 2001 (her clarinet and bass clarinet recital was broadcast on ABC radio); Finalist, Wind section, Royal Overseas League Competition 2000.   Sarah has performed clarinet concertos with the Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia, European Union Youth Wind Orchestra and the Nottingham Orchestra of the Restoration.

Sarah specialises on the bass clarinet and has gained an international reputation as an artist, teacher and researcher on the instrument. She has performed solo repertoire across the UK, Ireland, Asia, Europe and the Americas and has attracted composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Piers Hellawell and William Sweeney to write works for her. In January 2003, Sarah performed a solo bass clarinet recital in London’s Purcell Room as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artist Series.  

Sarah teaches bass clarinet at the Royal Northern College of Music and clarinet at Nottingham University. She is Associate in Music Performance and Director of MA Performance at Sheffield University. Sarah hosts bass clarinet and clarinet courses on the Isle of Raasay in Scotland and runs and tutors on other wind chamber music courses in the UK and France. Sarah has given workshops on bass clarinet technique at many establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College of Music, The Royal Welsh College of Music, The Royal Northern College of Music, The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Keele University and Edinburgh University.

Sarah performs with Hard Rain Ensemble, rarescale and SCAW.

Sarah has completed a PhD in bass clarinet multiphonic analysis at Keele University and has published ‘Spectral Immersions; A Comprehensive Guide to the Theory and Practice of Bass Clarinet Multiphonics’ via Metropolis publishers.

Sarah is a Selmer artist, a Vandoren UK artist and a Silverstein Ligature artist.

In 2016, she was made an assocaite of the Royal Academy of Music, London.

sarahkwatts.co.uk

 

 

(photo: David Carslaw)

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

I come from a musical family. All of my siblings learned an instrument when we were growing up, although I was the only one mad enough to have taken it up as a career. Myth also has it that my paternal grandfather (whom I never met) had a wonderful tenor voice, but he was too poor to have it trained. I was lucky in that from a very early age my parents took me along to all the concerts at our local music club. It happened to be one of the best in the country, which meant I regularly heard artists such as the Amadeus Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, Barenboim, du Pré, Brendel, Lupu, Menuhin, Perlman, Fischer-Dieskau, de los Angeles. The list goes on and on – I even heard Arthur Rubinstein a couple of times. How could I not want to be able to make music like these musicians?! It was subsequently one of my proudest moments when I stepped out onto that very same stage years later to do a recital myself.

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

I think that all of my teachers in turn helped to make me into the musician and person I am today – Cyril Smith, Angus Morrison, Vlado Perlemuter, Leon Fleisher. Even my very first teacher, a retired professor from the Royal Academy of Music, whom I remember as being quite strict and rather grumpy, but he ensured that I knew all the basics of harmony and counterpoint so that by the time I went to the RCM I already had almost half of Bach’s ’48’ under my belt. And I even managed to survive a few lessons from the legendary Adele Marcus (legendary for all the wrong reasons!), long enough to learn how to draw a beautiful cantabile out of the instrument. A massive inspiration for me was meeting and playing with Leonard Sorkin, the leader of the original Fine Arts Quartet in the USA. It was a formative time in my career when I was still in my early 20s, and I learned so much from working and performing with Leonard – he literally spoke from the heart through his playing, and his phrasing and articulation were so utterly natural and so ‘conversational’. I have always since tried to emulate that.

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

Combining motherhood with a performing career was definitely challenging as they are both so emotionally all-consuming. Undoubtedly though, the greatest difficulty for me was the decade I spent dealing with a seemingly endless succession of career-threatening physical problems. They were all apparently due to something my specialist told me was ‘dysautonomia’, a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system. I won’t go into the medical details here (otherwise it would be guaranteed to make my readers instantly click onto another page!), but I had to have operations on my shoulder and hand, as well as numerous cortisone injections in both arms. Thankfully that is now all several years behind me, and I am back playing again.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I remain particularly proud of the very first time I played at the Royal Festival Hall – Grieg Concerto with the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, and recorded by the BBC. I remember walking off the stage thinking: “Yes, I can do this!”.

I was also very proud of the live radio broadcast I did with Leonard Sorkin for WFMT Chicago. As I mentioned previously, I was at the beginning of my career while he was in the twilight of his. I remember the producer being visibly moved after we played the Brahms G major, saying it had reminded him of Bush/Serkin. As far as my recordings go, maybe they are are bit like children (or students) in that you’re not supposed to admit to any favourites! But if pushed, I do harbour a particular fondness my recording of the Russian Mighty Handful, such attractive repertoire and much of it still seldom played.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

That feels a bit like asking someone what they like/dislike most about their appearance, so I couldn’t possibly comment! My listeners might have their own views…

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

Obviously concerto repertoire gets discussed with orchestras/promoters – you have to fit in with their season. Solo recitals give one much more freedom of choice, and I have always loved to explore highways and byways, or to come up with some sort of theme or connecting thread in my programmes. I have always believed that you need to offer audiences something they wouldn’t normally just get listening at home.

You are performing in the London Piano Festival – tell us more about this?

I have known Charles Owen for a number of years and he has become a very dear friend. We used to live in the same neighbourhood and would meet each other for lunch or a walk in the woods and have a good old natter about life and the universe and all things music. So when he asked if I would like to take part in the two-piano gala at this year’s festival, the answer was of course a resounding yes!

Given my association with the music of Arnold Bax, it seemed obvious that we should choose something from the wealth of two-piano repertoire he wrote. We’ve picked two fabulous pieces: ‘The Poisoned Fountain’ which has a totally spooky atmosphere, and ‘Hardanger’, which is a light-hearted and infectious tribute to Grieg. I’m also playing a group of Poulenc pieces with Katya Apeshikeva which are sheer riotous fun!

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

My favourite concert hall is anywhere with a warm, supportive acoustic and a feeling of connection to the audience. Somewhere like the Wigmore Hall fits the bill perfectly, plus I have an extra fondness for the place as it was where my husband-to-be came into my life when he turned up backstage there a few years ago!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Where do I start? – it’s a long, long list! Pianists past include Rubinstein, Cortot, Lipatti, Curzon, Gilels, de Larrocha, Annie Fischer. Pianists present include Lupu, Perahia, Goode, Schiff, Kovacevich, Fleisher, Peter Frankel. And that’s just the pianists…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has to be the super-glam concert of film music I took part in at the Royal Albert Hall. The LSO was conducted by John (Star Wars) Williams and the evening was compered by Sir Richard Attenborough. I got to perform some wonderful pieces, and Michel Legrand had even made a special arrangement for me of his music from “The Go-Between”. There was a great deal of razzmatazz about the whole concert, although I have to say it did take me by surprise when they changed the colour of the lighting each time the music changed key!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The definition of success for me is when I manage to meet my own exacting standards – it could be a single phrase, or a movement, or maybe (but rarely!) even a whole concert.

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

When I was starting out, a friend of my parents who had been a professional violinist very helpfully advised me that if I loved music I shouldn’t take it up as a career! Of course I ignored his advice but, joking aside, his provocative words did make me realise how important it is never to lose sight of why we have chosen to do music in the first place. There will inevitably be times of struggle and disenchantment which could severely test one’s love of music. Whatever happens, we must try to keep our passion for music intact whether we are performing or teaching. On a practical level, in an over-saturated market, it is vital to be creative and flexible in the way one manages ones career. If we are still going to persuade people to come and hear live music, we have to find ways to make that experience more meaningful and relevant, be it collaborating with other genres such as dance, the visual arts or theatre, or working with living composers, or simply being able to talk to your audiences in an engaging manner.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

Still playing and teaching, please.

What is your present state of mind?

If we are talking about the way the world is heading, I am very worried. But if it’s on a personal level, then I am happy and contented, being surrounded as I am by a warm, loving family and many wonderful friends. On a professional level I am feeling really excited as I have a major recital project happening next year. It is based on an idea that is very close to my heart. As it is still in the process of being organised, I can’t talk about it just yet except to say: watch this space!

Margaret performs in the London Piano Festival’s Two-Piano Marathon on Saturday 6 October. Further information and tickets


Margaret Fingerhut is regarded as one of the UK’s most distinguished and poetic pianists, renowned for her exploration of the highways and byways of the repertoire. As a concerto soloist she has appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the London Mozart Players, in major venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican. She is often heard on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM and many radio stations worldwide.

Her extensive and eclectic discography on the Chandos label has received worldwide critical acclaim and won many accolades. Her numerous discs reflect her long-standing fascination with exploring lesser-known repertoire, including works by Bax, Berkeley, Bloch, Dukas, Falla, Grieg, Howells, Leighton, Novák, Stanford and Suk as well as several pioneering collections of 19th century Russian and early 20th century French piano music. She was the soloist in the première recording of Elgar’s sketches for his Piano Concerto slow movement, arranged by Percy Young. Other première recordings include Edgar Bainton’s Concerto Fantasia, Bax’s Octet and works by Howells, Leighton, Lennox Berkeley and Michael Berkeley. “Margaret Fingerhut deserves our most heartfelt admiration for her championship of the byways of the British repertoire twentieth century piano repertory.” (MusicWeb International). Margaret also made the first recording of a student piece by Rachmaninoff, as well as two solo piano pieces by Sergey Taneyev.

Two of her Bax recordings – the Octet with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble and the Concertante for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra with Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic – were short-listed for Gramophone awards. Her disc of solo piano music by the Polish/French composer Alexandre Tansman was awarded the accolade of “Diapason D’Or” in France and received high praise: “A triumph of piano playing” (Pianist). Her recent CD of encores, “Endless Song”, was Featured Album of the Week on Classic FM and was selected as “Editor’s Choice” in Pianist magazine as well as being awarded an “Outstanding” accolade in International Record Review.

Margaret also maintains a keen interest in working with contemporary composers and she has commissioned and performed works by Paul Spicer, James Francis Brown, Peter Copley and Tony Bridgewater, in venues such as the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room and at the Three Choirs Festival.

Margaret is a Professor of Piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and a Visiting Tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire where she was recently awarded an Honorary Fellowship. She is a regular guest at summer schools such as Chetham’s, Jackdaws and Dartington. Her teaching at Dartington was described by The Spectator magazine as demonstrating “enormous skill and sympathy”. She has given masterclasses in the USA, Canada, China, and Japan, and she has also been on the jury for many competitions including the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

Born in London of Polish, Ukrainian and Irish ancestry, Margaret went to the Royal College of Music where she studied with Cyril Smith and Angus Morrison. She subsequently studied with Vlado Perlemuter in Paris and Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Baltimore. Margaret lives in London and East Sussex.

margaretfingerhut.co.uk

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

I was born into a family of musicians: my mother is a pianist and she was my first teacher. She inspired me to take up the piano and supported me with my further studies.

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

Of course my teachers: my mother Liubov Chistiakova, Elena Khoven, Anatoly Ryabov, Mikhail Voskresensky, Boris Petrushansky. I was also very lucky to have wonderful teachers of chamber music and accompaniment: Guzal Karieva, Sergey Voronov, Galina Brykina. And my musical life, thoughts and way of playing changed a lot when I moved to Italy.

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

Life and music are inseparable: that’s the greatest challenge of my career.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am never happy with my performance! But I’m really proud of my second CD of French Music which was recorded in Germany thanks to the Shigeru Kawai team. Things are good when you work with professionals.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

There are some pieces that are always successful: Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Petroushka Suite by Stravinsky, Liszt’s Paraphrase “Don Juan”, La Valse by Ravel, several miniatures by Chopin.

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

There is always something or someone who inspires me to make a choice. I like it when a concert program makes sense for me and for the public.

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

It’s the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. I have the best memories from there and it’s always a dream to go back there.

Who are your favourite musicians?

A lot of names and not only from Classical, but Jazz, Rock and Popular music as well. I love musicians, people with a great culture, education and respect for the listeners.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s the first time I played with an orchestra at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. I played the 1st Chopin concerto there when I was 12.

I remember when there was an orchestral tutti I felt how the floor was vibrating under my feet and it was so thrilling and so exciting. It was the youth symphony orchestra of Moscow with lots of kids, but they were already professional musicians, like me, so for me it seemed to be very powerful and energising.

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

Practise with passion, never give up and never regret.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Peace and health of my family, well organised life, travels and concerts.

What is your present state of mind?

Fantastic! I became a mother one year ago and it’s an absolutely wonderful feeling.

Galina Chistiakova performs in Manchester Camerata UpClose: The Next Generation at Stoller Hall, Manchester on 4th October 2018. More information

Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K. 448

Schumann Andante and Variations in B flat major WoO 10

Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals

Piano Galla Chistiakova

Piano André Gallo

Manchester Camerata Principal Musicians


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

I was born into a family of musicians, all quite normal. I do not remember any particular choice but of course many of my ideas and beliefs on how to live with music come from mutual and significant experiences like the traditional band, which is very important in the south of Italy, or watching the day-to-day activities of my brothers (both brass players) of practicing and much music making with other musicians, and so a great deal of chamber music.

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

In the first instance my parents. Later on, having understood the meaning of the word “influence”, it was my guide to many choices. My enthusiasm, my curiosity and my views are a combination of continual searching and outside influences from people, books, events or encounters. That is why I think a young person should be more worried about the things that surround them; a choice that needs great care. The objectives are continually changing and will come naturally. I can only name my teacher Maestro Franco Scala as a major influence; also  the composer Marco Di Bari and the singer Alda Caiello, amongst many other artists.

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

I do not see my career as a game or a challenge. That does not mean I do not have goals to dedicate myself to or do not set myself challenges. I have many challenges with myself but not with others. For now, I must say that, having understood what I am not and having had to accept it can be very tiring. Where it will take me to is something still to be seen….

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I cannot really say but to have played the two Ravel Concertos in one evening was certainly something to remember.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have a particular penchant for French music of the last century – e.g. Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen etc.

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

No precise rule; it just happens that a programme is born from an idea or taking a specific line, but on many occasions it is also the exact opposite. Playing a lot of chamber music, it is easy to discover something new and to include those composers in my solo repertoire.

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

Not really. I have played many times in La Fenice Theatre in Venice. I love the city and I feel at home in its theatre.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are many and a lot are still performing today

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think my debut at 17 in the Konzerthaus in Berlin. I was very excited.

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

To feel your own dreams and your own music as an act of generosity. Not to feel yourself as a “son” or “daughter” of the music awaiting gifts and unconditional love, but on the contrary to be yourself the creator of that sincere love and insight of which music is in much need.

André Gallo performs in Manchester Camerata UpClose: The Next Generation at Stoller Hall, Manchester on 4th October 2018. More information

Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K. 448

Schumann Andante and Variations in B flat major WoO 10

Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals

Piano Galla Chistiakova

Piano André Gallo

Manchester Camerata Principal Musicians

 

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

I did not grow up in a musical family and so started playing the piano relatively late, shortly before I turned 10 years old. I was bought a battery-operated keyboard for Christmas – soon outgrown! – and was instantly gripped. I frequently had to be torn away to do my school homework. The real catalyst for my wanting to pursue a career in music was when I attended by first BBC Prom concert. I was so captivated by the atmosphere, the music, the sound of the orchestra and the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall!

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

My teachers have, without a shadow of doubt, been the greatest influences on my life as a musician. My first principle piano teacher during my formative years studying at the Purcell School and RCM Junior Department (2001-2007) was Emily Jeffrey, and she has had a remarkable and sustained influence on my life and music-making ever since. Ronan O’Hora, my subsequent teacher is a musician of the highest order whose teaching balances high demand on artistic integrity with a philosophical outlook that enables the individual within to find freedom. My current professor, Eliso Virsaladze, is an extraordinary person (not least because she can demonstrate any repertoire sublimely from memory at the drop of a hat, and that she can speak ten languages fluently!). Her artistry and teaching is legendary the world over, and justly so. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to work with her.

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

Maintaining the willpower to keep growing and developing all the time takes huge energy, but I suppose it gives a certain type of energy back. In real terms, I sometimes struggle with the public aspect of life as a performer – the need to be your best always, the business of “networking” and actively telling people about your work etc. It is sometimes at odds with my rather more introverted nature. Despite what people may see on the outside, or when I am on stage, I am, in principle, a private person and sensitive to my moods. Sometimes I really want to perform yet there is no concert until next week, and when there is a concert to perform, I just want to lock myself away practise late into the night by candlelight or read a wonderful book!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Certain performances stand out as more memorable and for different reasons. In 2007 I performed Rachmaninov’s 2nd Concerto with the RCM Junior Department Symphony Orchestra having won the concerto competition the year before. I would probably dislike many things about that performance were I to listen it now, but I remember feeling at the time that it really represented my work over six years with my first main teacher and was somehow my “graduating” performance. Last year I gave my second recital for the Chopin Society, that time on Chopin’s own Pleyel piano. I just felt a complete sense of abandonment of all physical or psychological inhibitions and felt so engaged with the beauty of the music on the piano Chopin himself had played. It was a magical experience. Also, my latest CD for Willowhayne Records is a source of pride, not least because it features the first recording of Thomas Adès’s Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face other that the composer’s own. It’s a monstrously difficult piece (he’s arranged it for two pianos in the hope of having it played more!).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Some pieces feel as though they come so much more naturally than others. I remember when I first started studying Chopin’s Barcarolle and his Andante Spianato et grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 they felt as though I had played them before. It usually depends on my affinity with the qualities of individual pieces and sometimes this can change from day to day. Repertoire is rather like people and friends in that sense.

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

Mostly this would be wish lists, but I try to find interesting themes, or tailor programmes to suit the requirements of certain organisations. I think being flexible and open to discovery is really important.

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

I have been fortunate to have played in some really amazing halls, but the Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna and the Philharmonie in Cologne were among the most heavenly experiences. Aesthetic beauty and superb acoustic made them particularly effortless joys. For a pianist, the instrument is every bit as important and, when I was on my ECHO Rising Stars tour, Kawai supplied me with a Shigeru Kawai concert grand (which I had chosen in Germany the year before) and a master piano artisan technician for the concerts. With every venue I could walk out on stage with absolute trust that the instrument would not only respond to my every demand but inspire me further still.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are too many! At least among the living pianists I would include (in no particular order) Martha Argerich, Richard Goode, Eliso Virsaladze, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu. If I were to talk singers, string players, conductors we’d be here forever! However, I could not fail to mention the likes of Arthur Rubinstein, Cortot, Arrau, Richter, Clara Haskil from the past, however…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Purely for the fun of it: when the pedal lyre fell off altogether during a Tchaikovsky Concerto and another time when the fire alarm went off during my encore after a Chopin Concerto in Germany. When I played in the same hall the following season I just had to play the same encore to finish it!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Better for other people to decide!

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

Also a difficult question to find a suitable response to, because everybody needs different advice to follow their own unique path. The most important thing may be to have the courage to keep searching for the truth in the music, whatever that may be. Keep your integrity as high as you can, but be flexible and open to discover. Never imitate anyone, least of all yourself. Read lots of books and see as many great paintings as you possibly can!

Ashley Fripp’s CD of music by J S Bach, Ades and Chopin is available now on the Willowhayne Records label.


British pianist Ashley Fripp frequently appears as solo recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist in many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, having performed extensively throughout Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Recent international highlights include the Carnegie Hall (New York), Musikverein (Vienna), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), the Philharmonie halls of Cologne, Paris, Luxembourg and Warsaw, the Bozar (Brussels), Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, the Royal Festival, Barbican and Wigmore Halls (London), the Megaron (Athens), Konserthuset (Stockholm) and the Gulbenkian Auditorium (Lisbon).

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Composer, musician, singer-songwriter, record producer and conductor, Mike Batt has teamed with record label Guild Music to release a special recording of Holst The Planets that he conducted in 1993. Here he shares his thoughts on why The Planets is such a significant work and the challenges of working on it with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, together with some insights into his musical and creative life…..

What it is about The Planets that makes it such an attractive piece to conduct?

It’s a seriously wonderful piece of orchestral composition. Maybe that’s obvious but The Planets has such melodic strength, and depth of orchestration and it ranges across the entire spectrum of emotions and dynamics. It’s not just “Programme music” like a piece “about” each particular planet. In Saturn – The Bringer Of Old Age, you feel the emotional weight of old age, in the dark, lumbering opening. Later in that movement you get a bit of feisty madness, maybe even confusion coming in, always in an original and musically striking way. It’s a real adventure for the listener just as it must have been for the composer.

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

For some reason, as soon as I heard orchestral music. I wanted to be a conductor. I didn’t grow up in a musical family. There was almost no music in the house. The junk mail leaflet from Concert Hall records dropped through the letterbox when I was about 11 and that was it. Once I heard Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, I wanted to conduct it. The fact that my granny sent me an LP called “Music for Frustrated Conductors” with little diagrams of a cartoon bloke diagrammatically conducting the basic rhythms, might have contributed! I read an interview a while ago where Simon Rattle said he had partly been influenced into conducting by that very same album!

Mike-Batt-conducting-Credit-Claire-Williams
Mike Batt conducting (photo: Claire Williams)

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

My love for music is almost too eclectic for my own good, to the extent that people might be confused by it. But I wouldn’t change the chameleonesque nature of my “theatres of operation” and my passions and influences, which range from from Mozart to Bartok and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones to Frank Zappa and Count Basie.

How exactly do you see your role as a conductor? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

An orchestra definitely gets a vibe from a conductor and vice versa. The conductor needs the orchestra to feel confident that he or she won’t let them down by screwing up, or make them play a piece in ways that they don’t feel appropriate (eg., tempi that they hate) – although that’s part and parcel of being an orchestral musician. If an orchestra “likes” a conductor and empathises with him, they will play better for him. If they can see it matters to him, they will try to deliver. A bit of an eye contact just before a woodwind or horn entry, for example, works wonders to make the player feel that you know where he or she is coming in and would like to share the moment. If you punch the air at the brass section just as they are breathing to come in fortissimo they actually do play fortissimo!

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

The best way is by body language. You should be able to walk in and just play, maybe with a little pre-explaining any particular ideas you have, but it should mostly come from your baton, body and face. You are sort of dancing with the band , and you are “leading” the dance. A great orchestra will observe a rubato moment that has never been discussed, just by what they see and feel from the conductor. They should and do follow that baton, far more than non-musicians could ever imagine. Conducting a great orchestra is like driving an F1 car. They respond completely to the slightest gesture.

This was your first time working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. What was the most challenging part of conducting them?

I’ve worked with them many times since – but this recording was 25 years ago. It’s always a thrill to meet a new orchestra and when you know you have top notch players, you know the job will get done, and to the standard you want. Call me an optimist! But “meeting” a new band is rather like a first date. There are a few nerves. It takes only a few seconds for the conductor to size up the orchestra, and crucially for me, vice versa! So the challenges are only psychological. If you have top players the challenges are shared, – you are all after the same thing, a brilliant performance. When I was younger I had an experience where an overseas orchestra decided they didn’t much like me after only a few seconds. You could just tell. You learn by such experiences. You still get the job done but it’s less comfortable.

And what is the most fulfilling aspect of conducting the RPO?

Somehow that day in 1993 when we recorded the Planets it was just a joy to do it. I could see they were enjoying it, and so was I. The room (Watford Town Hall) had wonderful acoustics and I can’t think of a panicky or unpleasant moment. I would cite that whole day of recording as one of the most fulfilling events of my musical life.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Schubert: 9th Symphony (The “Great” C major)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Royal Albert Hall. It’s intimate and cozy, strangely. Yet it has that special majesty and charisma. You also know the audience are taking in that wonderful atmosphere before you even play a note!

As a musician and composer, what is your definition of success?

It can be so many things, depending on how you look at it. The parameters of commercial success have changed so much that it’s hard to say what is a “hit” and what isn’t. But artistically, if a composition succeeds in moving the audience and conveying the feeling you had when you wrote it, that is success. If you felt tearful writing it, you can bet the audience will feel tearful listening. If you were writing a funny, witty piece and you chuckled or were amused, the audience will chuckle and be amused too. That’s success.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Partly answered above. But guitarists John Paracelli and Chris Spedding are “up there” as musicians. So many classical musicians to choose from. Nicola Benedetti is such a wonderful violinist, so I’ll choose her. The (sadly) late Douggie Cummings (former principal cellist of the LSO) was an astonishingly good “life force” to have in the room while working, a beautiful player. Composers? Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Brahms, Beethoven Schubert, Tchaikovsky. All possibly boring marquee names to choose, but that’s why they got there!

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

Don’t get into gangs and cliques. Seriously, snobbishness in music is necessary in getting everyone to feel special about their music, but leave the snobbishness (again, sadly) to the audiences. You as a practitioner should feel free to enjoy every genre and do what you like. Oh, and practice until you’re blue in the face. Be passionate. If you aren’t passionate don’t get into it full time. Do it as a hobby. Even then you’ll enjoy it more if you are passionate. Pretty obvious I guess.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Knowing that my family could be happy and secure and fulfilled

What is your present state of mind?

Restless, with so much more to do as time marches on and I get older. I wish I could live for a lot more musically capable, healthy years than will probably be the case. Does that mean there will always be a project that I’ve conceived that I will never see come to fruition? Probably. I’m not afraid to die, I’m just afraid of not being alive.

 

To mark the centenary of the first performance of Holst’s The Planets on 29th September 1918, Guild Music presents the first complete release of a recording that Mike Batt made in 1993 that has lain in the vaults for 25 years. Produced by Robert Matthew-Walker and engineered by Abbey Road’s Simon Rhodes. Further information


Michael Batt LVO is an English singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, director, conductor and former Deputy Chairman of the British Phonographic Industry. He is best known for creating The Wombles pop act, writing the chart-topping “Bright Eyes”, and discovering Katie Melua. He has also conducted many of the world’s great Orchestras, including the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony and Stuttgart Philharmonic in both classical and pop recordings and performances.