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

Well, mostly luck! A music teacher heard me attempting classical guitar at school, and put me in touch with Sasha Levtov, a Russian émigré who organises a small music school, a recital series, and a guitar club, in my hometown, Bognor Regis. And that was it – I was hooked!

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

When I took up lessons, I became a regular at the West Sussex Guitar Club. There were regular club nights, a mix of food, impromptu ensemble playing, and an informal stage to air the latest work. These evenings, and my lessons, entered the bloodstream – I saw music as a social art, a way to bring people together and participate in something positive. More recently I lived for a year (on a sofa) with two composers and a modern artist – that exposure to current ideas stretched the imagination quite wildly…

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

Arriving at the Royal College of Music came as a huge jolt to the system… in London I was painfully conscious of being a very little fish indeed. Changing tutor was hard, and being in the city, acclimatising to a new life, affected me profoundly. I had an extremely painful first year at the RCM.

I suppose the biggest technical challenge has simply been reconciling lute and guitar technique. I’m proud that most lutenists like the sound I make, even using fingernails!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The next one!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think that the most rewarding thing about music is that it invites you to enter the mindset of a composer – his world, imaginary and historical. Different composers have articulated so many things in wonderful ways. That said, I have a soft spot for John Dowland

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

It’s usually the case that I have a project on the go – a big performance or a concerto, or a specific project focusing on a composer. Simply, I have a very long to-play list!

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

In a sentimental mood, the Recital Hall in Bognor Regis. It’s a venue that has seen some world-renowned performers – for me, it’s the first stage I was acquainted with. I do still perform there very frequently.

I played some time ago at Bolivar Hall – the venue attached to the Embassy of Venezuela – in a series organised by Alberto Portugheis. Because of its size, sober tone, and impeccable acoustic, the atmosphere is just perfect for the guitar.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Bach’s Suite BWV 997 (the “second lute suite”) is a great honour to play – a huge journey. I’ve loved performing Rodrigo’s Aranjuez, too, it’s very exhilarating.  

My all-time favourite works are Schnittke’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 6th, the Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Some performers are magic: Fritz Wunderlich; Meredith d’Ambrosio, a Jazz singer with a dark, smoky voice; Pavel Steidl, wild-eyed Czech guitar genius with firework humour; and pianist Dinu Lipatti.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe performed Beethoven’s 6th this year at the Barbican… I danced in the street on the way home.

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

I can’t really say with something so individual… For me, a thirst for knowledge, making imaginative connections, and empathy. Music should be alive and exciting. And always necessary are a sense of humour – and patience!

What are you working on at the moment?

The next big project is putting together a concert and talk on Schubert on the guitar: Lieder, poetry and the Arpeggione Sonata!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness isn’t a state or an acquisition, it’s a process – it arises like steam from the way in which we live our lives. It isn’t something to be chased and nailed down: it comes from the way we act, the smiles we give, the work we do. So in this way, happiness is to live, to make the most of the challenge.

What do you enjoy doing most?

RCM guitarists have just established Fika, which is the Swedish verb to have a coffee, with some sort of sweet, with friends, and one or two idle hours. I think Schubert would approve!
Classical guitarist Sam Dixon Brown has earned a reputation for “flair, personality and confidence” with his performances in the UK and abroad.

Winner of the 2011 Chichester Festival Award, the 2012 West Sussex Youth Music Award, and the 2013 Worthing Concerto Competition, Sam studied at the Regis School of Music with Sasha Levtov, and at the Junior Royal College of Music, under full bursary. He is presently a pupil of Charles Ramirez (guitar) and Jakob Lindberg (lute) at the Royal College of Music in London, where he combines his studies with a burgeoning musical career.

www.sambrownguitar.com

francoise

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

As a kid, my parents asked if I wanted to play an instrument. I loved the saxophone but teachers said I was too small for it so I turned to the piano instead. I was six and I loved it. At the age of 13, I eventually took saxophone lessons and have enjoyed playing it since but piano always stayed my main instrument. It was definitely chamber music experiences that made me decide to become a professional. The idea of sharing the music not only with an audience but also with other performers on stage was the most beautiful thing I could imagine.

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

I’ll never forget as a kid listening to Murray Perahia playing Schubert on Sunday afternoons with my mother while eating chocolate, I realised then the power and beauty of classical music. I can easily say that the most important influences were the people I played with and still now every new musician I meet and perform with has an influence on me. I love discovering and sharing new ideas about music that will eventually change my own playing. From my very early chamber music experiences to my two groups formed as a student (Mercury Quartet and FranÇoise-Green piano duo) up until my current ensembles (NEC, Contrechamps, Nikel), every single person in those groups have challenged my playing and made me a better musician. And of course my teachers Paul Coker and Yonty Solomon that shared with me their knowledge and their passion for music. I also reserve a special place for the hungarian teacher and pianist Denes Varjon who opened a completely new world of understanding music for me.

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

Hard to say, I’d like to think that every project is a challenge, and the ones that aren’t, I try to forget about them quite quickly. I love challenges so they become a pleasure. My most intense and draining experience may have been to embark on the complete performance of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano four hands with Robin Green, 5 concerts in 3 weeks, never have I worked that hard in my life. I also played recently ‘Opus Contra Naturam’ by Brian Ferneyhough, if you don’t know his music, people label him as a ‘new complexity’ composer, just have a look at his scores and you’ll understand the word challenge. Six months of six hours a day on one 15min long piece. It was so worth it though.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Probably the Ferneyhough mentioned above, it was such a huge amount of work that I really became one with the piece. But I tend to love performances as they happen and the moment it is finished, I simply cannot wait for the next one, I don’t really like to think that one was better than the other, I simply hope that the next one will be even better.

Haven’t recorded many CDs but very proud of Mercury Acoustic, a free improvisation album with the Mercury Quartet, there was something very special in the studio and the quality of recording is unique. I also believe that the Bach, Schubert and Kurtag CD with the Françoise-Green piano duo (release planned for 2016) could be very special. We recorded music that was so dear to us and I hope people will hear this on the album.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Since a teenager, I have always loved performing new music, I feel like I understand the language of contemporary music and I love learning new pieces, especially if written for me or my groups. There are certain pieces that I have performed so many times like Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time or Schubert’s Fantasie in f minor that I know I can perform under any circumstances.

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

I play with many new music groups that have an artistic director and decide the repertoire for me, like an orchestra, but the difference with an orchestra is that the repertoire is always new. It is so exciting, sometimes, I may not like certain choices as much as others but it’s the risk to take when we want to discover new things, and I definitely stick to that choice. If I discover a piece or a composer and fall in love with it, then I simply do everything in my power to programme it, and if there is nothing written for piano solo or my ensembles, then I commission.

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

Hard to say, it depends on the repertoire and the context. An audience can easily make a venue good or bad, and of course a great piano will change my perception of it. Yet I remember amazing gigs on bad piano just because the atmosphere and the audience was incredible.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have always had a special place for Luigi Nono’s …sofferte onde serene…, it is a piece for piano and electronics and the electronic part is made of recordings Nono did with Maurizio Pollini. There is so much poetry in this piece and you can really feel the connection and friendship between the composer and the pianist. When you perform it, it may look as if you are alone on stage but it is really a duo with the sound technician. Even though the electronic part is completely fixed, every performance feels so different. A masterwork.

Who are your favourite musicians?

All the people I have mentioned in the previous questions, all the people that forced me to think about music and be a better musician. Some are performers, some composers. I always have huge admiration for people that really brought a brand new way of understanding music, Glenn Gould is one of them. Not only his playing but his thinking and his entire body of work.

Recently I have found those kind of artists more in the pop/electronica world. There are so many geniuses that are breaking new barriers and changing the pre-conceptions of music, that’s what I love.

And of course also all the great story tellers, we should all learn from singers that could take the stage and tell you the most incredible stories. Belgium singer Jacques Brel for example is a real hero.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As much as I love concerts and sharing music with audiences, I think my most memorable moments are often in rehearsals, when there isn’t so much pressure and you feel very free. I will never forget being in tears at the end of a play through of Beethoven 9th symphony with the piano duo, I had just realised for the first time how incredible this music was and simply couldn’t stop crying.

There are always wonderful moments shared with composers when a brand new piece finally comes to life for the first time, when you realise you’ve just created something together, those are my favourite moments.

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

Discover new things, always question yourself and learn from everyone around you. And never forget to tell stories. As a classical music interpreter, it can sometimes be a strange feeling to perform someone else’s music, so you have to feel like it’s your own story that you share with the audience.

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

Somewhere new

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness would be boring, happiness is about the journey towards something better. If it is perfect, where do you go?

What do you enjoy doing most?

Discovering new places

What is your present state of mind?

Tired – it was actually tough to answer all those questions…

Antoine Françoise is one half of the Françoise-Green Duo, who begin a residency at St John’s Smith Square, London on 21st January with the first in a series of concerts entitled The Viennese Salon.

After studying in Switzerland and United Kingdom with professors Paul Coker, Yonty Solomon, Andrew Ball, Ashley Wass (piano), Laurent Estoppey (saxophone) and Michael Oliva (composition), Antoine Françoise performs nowadays in Europe and further as a soloist, chamber musician, with ensembles and orchestras. At the term of his studies at the Royal College of Music in London, he was awarded the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal, for his outstanding talent and dedication to music. Antoine now is a professor of piano (contemporary specialism) at the RCM.

Fascinated by the chamber music of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as all new expressions of modern music, Antoine is founding member of the Mercury Quartet and the Francoise-Green piano duo, 2011 winners of Concours Nicati (Switzerland). He is also principal pianist of Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain (NEC, Switzerland) and London Contemporary Orchestra. He also played with the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Contrechamps, Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Philarmonic Orchestra. He played with conductors such as Diego Masson, Pierre-Alain Monot, Nicholas Collon or Vladimir Jurowski.

Antoine worked closely with composers such as Julian Anderson, Rebecca Saunders, Hans-Peter Kyburz (giving the uk premiere of his concerto) and Eric Gaudibert (who dedicated his last concerto GONG to him).

In the classical field, he has performed widely in Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom, including concerti by Grieg, Hindemith or Poulenc and is hugely in demand as an orchestral pianist and chamber musician.

www.francoise-green.com

Meet the Artist…..Robin Green

 

Who or what inspired you to take up piano and make it your career?

I don’t remember much about what made me decide to play the piano and make it my life’s dedication, I only know that I always knew that I wanted to become a concert pianist.

I do remember getting a cassette tape with Chopin ‘Heroic’ Polonaise played by Ashkenazy and couldn’t get around how somebody could write something so beautiful and full of life.

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

When I was in high school I met a classical guitarist who had a sensitivity and honesty as an artist which I had not seen. We would listen and discuss wonderful pieces of art in which he showed me delicacy in colour, shape and space which I didn’t think were possible. I was raised in a small coastal town in the Netherlands and in this seemingly non-artistic environment he was somebody who gave me the confidence to pursue the search for beauty.

Steven Osborne has been a big influence in the last years. He has helped me a lot, not only by his occasional mentoring but also seeing him perform and his work in seeking expression, character and technical confidence.

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

I think the greatest challenge is still to come in securing a career and being able to reach a large audience in a world where classical music is still understood by a small number of people and where the artist has to deal with big political and intercontinental power shifts.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have recently recorded my first disc. The things I have heard sound really good in terms of clarity and expression. But most proud am I to have been able to work with an incredible team – producer Andrew Keener and engineer Aleksandar Obradovic.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

This is very difficult to answer: as an artist I am constantly looking to understand style and the composer’s score more and more thoroughly. Sometimes I have a pretty clear feeling of a particular expression in a particular style but realise that it couldn’t be the composer’s intention. It is a long search in which we must take our own life and experiences into account.

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

Depending to what certain halls and concert series have programmed and wish to listen to, I try to build a program in which I feel confident and in which the pieces have common ground in terms of expression and character.

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

Not so long ago I performed in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The experience was truly wonderful because the hall and the acoustics worked together so beautifully. My concept of sound in certain passages was suddenly so much more achievable as the circumstances were perfect.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I very much enjoy performing Schumann Allegro Opus 8. I love the tremendous drive and power of this particular piece. It brings so many questions to me which I don’t always know how to answer, and this is the beauty of it.

I am constantly return to listening to Buckner symphonies, they give me such a sense of space and structure. There something about these works that gives me clarity of mind in times when I need it.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are a lot of musicians and artists in general whom I admire for their contribution to art and music. Each of them, in their personal view of music, has taught me things and changed or affected the way I see things nowadays.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was living in Rotterdam the first concert I attended was Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The experience of such an incredibly powerful piece in a setting of a beautiful concert hall was something which has stayed with me.

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

I think the most important thing for young artists is to have a very clear idea of how to reach the younger generation, and to be able to show why art is a necessity for the well being of our internal life.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Hopefully that is when mind, body and spirit become one and there is complete peace of mind.

What is your present state of mind?

At the moment I consider myself having a clear state of mind as I am able to make deeply-felt artistic decisions. In a world which is captured by an economical crisis, political shifts, and is in need of a new vision towards our perception of how we experience art, I find myself sometimes overwhelmed by all the possibilities on the one hand and doubts on the other.

Cyrill Ibrahim performs at St James’s Piccadilly, London on 11th January at 1pm

Born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, in 1984, Cyrill Ibrahim started playing the piano at the age of seven. One of his first mentors was Leonardo Palacios, a classical guitarist from Uruguay. He subsequently enrolled at the age of 18 at the Rotterdam Conservatory. He graduated as Bachelor of Music with Distinction.

During his studies, his tutors were Aquiles Delle Vigne, Barbara Grajewska and Marcus Baban. To his delight, Cyrill was loaned a grand piano by the Dutch Music Foundation during his studies in the Netherlands.

In 2009, the pianist Paolo Giacometti offered him a place at the Utrecht Conservatory to follow the Master of Music programme. He studied there for a year before moving to the United Kingdom.

Cyrill graduated from the Royal College of Music after undertaking the Master’s Degree in Performance under the tutelage of Professor Andrew Ball. The Dutch Government showed its faith in Cyrill’s skills as a pianist by offering him a full Huygen’s Scholarship for the entirety of his studies with the RCM.

He participated in the masterclass of the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires at the Karma Ling Institute in France. In addition to this, he studied at the Birmingham Piano Academy, Chetham’s Summer School, the Lucca Estate and the Orchestral Conducting Course that is run by Antonio Ros Marba in Spain. Over the years, he has received tuition from, among others, Philip Fowke, Peter Donohoe, Ruth Nye, Matthias Kirschnereit, Dr. Robert Markham, Malcolm Wilson, John Humpreys and Katarzyna Popowa-Zydron.

He has performed both as soloist and a chamber recitalist on the national and international stage for such halls as the Berliner Philharmonie and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Cyrill has had the privilege of working with the concert pianist Steven Osborne. In a magazine interview, he said of the pianist: “I recently met a talented young Dutch pianist called Cyrill Ibrahim, who has an intensity and openness that really impressed me. I think he could be someone really worth listening to.”

www.cyrillibrahim.com

 

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

Naomi Sullivan: Heather Sullivan (my mother). My family all play music, although I’m the only person who pursued it as a career. My mother gave us recorder lessons, then I played flute until I got irritated that it felt so quiet compared to the brass band playing we all did. I tried a friend’s tenor saxophone, which seemed more cathartic and I’ve stuck with it. I still uphold that my siblings are far more talented than me, but they are possibly a little wiser, (as to finances).

Neil McGovern: The sound of the saxophone was something that really struck me as a young child. It really drew me in and appealed to me though I hadn’t actually heard it very much. Pursuing a career in music felt like the right decision for a long time. Performing became very normal and pursuing excellence in this was always a great aim for me.

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

Naomi: Jim Muirhead taught me at Chetham’s and suggested auditioning at the Royal College of Music. Which is why I ended up studying with Kyle Horch who is still hugely influential in both my teaching and playing. I spent a year at Northwestern University and studied with Fred Hemke. His sense of fun, knowledge and presence is ever so powerful. I can’t imagine a better list of teachers, three very different but all brilliant, kind and inspiring musicians.

Also, all the music I listened to growing up has to be an important factor. I suppose it builds a strong sense of musical connection that becomes a lasting and positive part of your essence or sense of self, if that’s not too whimsical.

And as I get longer in the tooth, my students constantly surprise, challenge, motivate and amuse me. I’ve been very lucky.

Neil: All my teachers – Kyle Horch, Alistair Parnell, and those who gave me so much in the early years too. My parents provided the material and financial means to study music, but primarily they were relentless encouragers and supporters. The interests, and often the intensity of certain fellow students significantly shaped my own musical goals and directions.

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

Naomi: Other than paying the bills? Not giving up or running away from being so regularly out of one’s comfort zone. The unrealistic expectations you can put on yourself and the self-criticism that can go with that.

Neil: I feel very blessed to have been able to work in music since the day I finished Music College. Not everyone in life will like you or how you play, that’s fairly obvious. Sometimes fatigue or illness can hamper performances, other times it can strangely help them! I think learning to say no to certain things is hard, often musicians idolise the gig, the concert above anything else, no matter how poorly paid or uninspiring it actually is. Trying to maintain some values and purpose in what you’re doing is probably the hardest thing. There’s an awful lot of cynicism and jaded feeling around which is easy to slip into.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Naomi: I am quietly confident that the ultimate Syzygy performance is yet to come… Away from the quartet, I have really enjoyed playing with duo partner, Masahito Sugihara and am proud that we always managed to find energy to play despite always being on a demanding schedule. We’ve had some good adventures. I am grateful for his friendship, musicianship, generosity and patience.

Neil: I’ve come away from the majority of performances happy with the overall impact. Unusual performances stand out, such as Syzygy’s concert in a National Portrait Gallery room playing music specifically related to the artwork there. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was a wonderful surprise because we were on so early in the day and were expecting a couple of enthusiasts only in the audience, but the place was packed and the atmosphere buzzing. Recordings can be very difficult, with the tyrannical expectation of perfection looming over every session, but Syzygy’s Maslanka recording has been a really great experience for me personally, because of the exceptional talent of my friends in the quartet and the mastery of the producer, Simon Hall who made everything come together so well.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Naomi: Speaking for Syzygy, I think we all like playing extrovert, intense pieces and when we’re all on the same wavelength in regard to energy and enjoyment, I do think it makes for better chamber music.  But the saxophone is a remarkable instrument in it’s potential to create such an extreme range of sounds, colours and voices, it’s quite difficult to pick one genre or particular work.

Neil: Syzygy really is at its best with involved and cutting edge repertoire. The group really got its teeth into the Xenakis quartet (Xas) early on and this sort of set the precedent for playing difficult and substantial music. The concentration and connection involved when playing together is quite remarkable – I remember this feeling especially during intensive rehearsals of the Andriessen quartet ‘Facing Death’, but also with the Maslanka’s ‘Songs…’.

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

Naomi: It normally comes from either a new commission, or finding a theme we feel works. And can vary, depending on who has asked us to play. I like concerts or projects that have a theme or offer the chance to draw on and learn from other art forms – literature, art, architecture. This is particularly useful when playing so much contemporary music.

Neil: I think we’re always looking for something new and unusual, trying to contribute something of note to the canon. Hopefully over time there will be more and more great works for saxophone quartet. We make decisions based on the music we really feel is worthwhile.

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

Naomi: Performing in informal or unusual venues currently seems popular way of engaging with wider audiences. I definitely feel more at home in informal environments (especially those with a flattering acoustic), where people are free to listen or not. Such as the National Gallery or Royal Academy of Arts. Syzygy played at Proud in Camden once, that was an interesting night.

Neil: I think the soon to be demolished Adrian Boult Hall will always be a special place to me, it’s where Syzygy first performed live and where we recorded the Maslanka.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Naomi: I’m not sure I have a favourite as it depends on so many factors, i.e. what one is doing or if one needs to have a mood brightener or a good wallow. I suppose one of my favourite aspects of music (listening/performing) is its ability to trigger extremely powerful memories, emotions and connections through abstract sounds. Or performing when you feel fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. It makes things better. If you’re cooking, you cook better with Dr. John to listen to.

Neil: To perform: probably Joe Cutler’s ‘Screaming 229a’. To listen to I would say Alex Buess’ ‘ata-9’.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Naomi: Again, it’s very hard to be specific but the first musician’s that spring to mind include: Flaming Oh, John Cage, Robert Wyatt, Margaret Price, Nick Drake, Frans Brüggen, Archie Shepp, Horovitz and all my chamber music friends.

Neil: I love a German avant-garde jazz group called ‘Der Rote Bereich’, and also harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka, but really there are too many to name.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Naomi: With regard to Syzygy, a few years ago we played on the Southbank as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artist’s Series. The programme was challenging (Xennakis:Xas and DavidBedford’sFridiof Kennings) and called for us to use 13 saxophones and a tambourine. There was a full audience, which is always a refreshing surprise at saxophone concert. I remember feeling the best sort of nervous – when you feel as prepared as you can be and excited about the music you’re playing.

Neil: Having finished a soundcheck for a gig, walking out of the venue’s front door only to be greeted by Animal Rights protestors chanting “Blood, blood, blood on your hands,” at us. Quite bewildering.

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

Naomi: Find your own way and try to work out what part of the music industry suits you and how you can contribute something. However, try not to say ‘no’ to any opportunity as I suppose we find our own voice from our experiences. Be proactive, communicative, curious, don’t loose energy and don’t always take things too seriously. You really can’t please everyone; you can only do your best. But try to be honest with yourself as to what your ‘best’ is.

Neil: Work really hard and keep going. Develop good taste and play music that has some substance to it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Naomi: Finding my house keys when I believe they are lost. Especially if I think I’ve left the oven on.

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

Neil: As a group, I’d like Syzygy to have made a number of recordings and had some great new music written for saxophone quartet. I think we’ve scratched the surface of what the group is capable of, but there’s potentially so much more.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Naomi: Playing chamber music.

Naomi Sullivan is Soprano Saxophone in Syzygy Quartet.

Neil McGovern is Baritone Saxophone in Syzygy Quartet.

Syzygy Quartet’s album Songs for the Coming Day by David Maslanka is available to buy from Amazon now. Read a review here

Syzygy saxophone quartet were formed after playing together at the 2009 World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok with the London Saxophone Ensemble. The quartet was established with the aim to promote and perform established contemporary works, alongside new music written especially for the ensemble.
Syzygy’s debut performance was in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, as part of the Frontiers & Andriessen Festival, where they performed Louis Andriessen’s Facing Death. Since then the quartet have gone on to perform at major chamber concert venues across the UK, including performances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and at the Purcell Room as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series. They made their debut at St Martin-in-the-Fields in July 2012 and have performed at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of Art. They have also conducted workshops and performed at Chetham’s School of Music, Trinity College of Music, and Birmingham Conservatoire.

They recently recorded their debut CD, being the only ensemble in Europe to be awarded the performing and recording rights for David Maslanka’s ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, a captivating work which will be released in the near future. They were supported by the Help Musicians UK (formerly MBF) from whom they received an Emerging Excellence award.

http://syzygyquartet.co.uk/wp/

(photo: Martin Tompkins)
Who or what inspired you to take up the clarinet and pursue a career in music?

Hearing the sound of a clarinet in a live orchestral concert – I had been advised to take up a second instrument to complement my piano studies and the sound won me over!

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

My two most important teachers – firstly, my initial piano teacher, Bridget Christian, who above all encouraged me to love the music that I played. Secondly, my major clarinet teacher during my school years, Dr. Kevin Murphy. He was not just a teacher, but a friend and mentor in every respect, demanding excellence and dedication, fostering (and sometimes reining in) my enthusiasm, and giving me advice and principles which I use every day in developing my career.

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

Leaving full-time study and transitioning into the profession – occasionally staring at a worryingly bare diary, and having the confidence to continue.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Walking onto the stage at Snape Maltings aged 14, and summoning the courage to perform my first concerto (Weber’s 2nd, op. 74). I don’t remember much about the experience except overwhelming nerves before it, and overwhelming excitement and relief after it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know if I play them best, but the works that I enjoy performing the most are those which I truly can put my own interpretative stamp on, or collaborate with other musicians to create our own unique, musically considered approach. I am also – for better or worse – a bit of a showman, and I love to engage with that element in concertos, or lighten the tone of a recital with a fun and frothy showpiece.

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

At the moment, my main priorities are variety (to keep both myself and audiences engaged), stylistic balance, and originality through new works.

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

I’m sure that I haven’t performed in nearly enough venues to make a choice, but for sentimental reasons (certainly not for acoustics) it would have to be Wells Cathedral, Somerset, a place I associate wholly with my formative musical years.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To perform: undoubtably the Mozart Quintet K581 and the Copland Concerto.

To listen to: Jessye Norman’s 1982 recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Claudio Abbado’s Daphnis et Chloé with the London Symphony Orchestra, or Earth, Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Far too many to list – but three that spring immediately to mind are: Joyce Didonato, for her advocacy of an utterly healthy, positive and enthusiastic approach to the world of music; Mitsuko Uchida, for her unwavering musical integrity; and Edith Piaf, for the sheer authenticity of her expression.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

During my final course as principal of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – the principal’s ensemble played John Adam’s Chamber Symphony and Copland’s Appalachian Spring under Pablo Heras-Casado, and the full orchestra performed Copland’s monumental 3rd Symphony with Antonio Pappano live on BBC2 at the BBC Proms. It was an unforgettable and idyllic three weeks, with so many cherished memories. Rehearsing and performing the Weber Quintet op. 34 during my final year at university with the Endellion String Quartet was equally terrifying, thrilling, and enlightening.

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

Enthusiasm, enjoyment and dedication.

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

Settled, happy, and making a living out of what I love doing, while continuing to love doing it!

What is your present state of mind?

Incredibly excited, if a little apprehensive about what my career will bring.

Joseph Shiner’s biography

josephshiner.co.uk

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

I was on my way home from school aged 7 when I heard the oboe on the car radio. As soon as I heard it I knew that was the instrument I really wanted to play. I pestered my parents until they let me start lessons. I have always loved music and playing the oboe but it was probably the summer I turned 19 that I decided that life as an oboist was something I wanted to commit everything to. I had just finished my first year of university when I travelled on to Banff Arts Centre in Canada for an intensive masterclass course there. I spent much of that summer taking extra lessons and practising as much as possible. I felt by the time I went back to university I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an musician.

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

There have been so many influences to be honest. My teachers have always been fantastic to me and I feel lucky that I have been surrounded by such kind and generous mentors within the music world. I am hugely influenced from my time studying in Germany with Nicholas Daniel. He taught me repertoire I had never considered before and inspired me to work closely with composers. I remember asking him about why commissioning new oboe repertoire was important. The answer he gave me changed everything for me and working with composers to increase the oboe repertoire is something I care deeply about.

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

I found the period in my early twenties very tough going. I knew I wanted to play the oboe for a living but let a fear of failing get in the way sometimes. I’ve always felt I need to turn every experience into something I can draw on so now I look back and think how important that time was for me.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Back in 2010, I gave a recital at Wigmore Hall and that was a very important concert to me that meant a considerable amount to me. It coincided with me finishing my studies and also releasing my first solo disc ‘Fierce Tears’.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’ve found in the past few years I always end up gravitating towards contemporary British repertoire which I love performing. I think the feeling of discovering something new in the repertoire is something that always pushes me so this often informs my approach to programming. I want the audience to leave feeling like they’ve discovered some fantastic repertoire they never knew about before.

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

I always programme each concert separately and try not to think in terms of a focus for one season. Inevitably I find I go through times where I play a piece several times in a row but generally I try to put together a recital that balances out and suits the particular venue and audience. I always try to include a contemporary piece and also an older piece that may be very rare but an absolute gem.

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

I don’t have a favourite venue but I enjoy venues like churches were the acoustic adds something to the atmosphere of the concert. When performing pieces like the Howells Oboe Sonata, having an interesting space with a good acoustic can make a big difference.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a very strong affinity with Michael Berkeley’s Fierce Tears I & II. Every time I play that it feels very different and changes all the time for me. I also enjoy his Oboe Concerto as well as works like the Strauss Oboe Concerto which is a favourite of mine. I particularly love oboe repertoire by Rubbra, Bowen, Lutoslawski and Antal Dorati too. In terms of listening, I really enjoy lots of different things. Most recently I’m listening to a lot of electronic music but also love vocal recital discs. In particular Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s recording of ‘Silent Noon’ always has an incredible effect on me when I listen to it.

Who are your favourite musicians?

This is a tough question as I think there are so many to think of. For me, I tend to think in terms of favourite composers or favourite repertoire. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Sibelius and Prokofiev amongst other things.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It is a long time ago now but when I was 18 I performed in Mahler 8 with Simon Rattle at the Proms just before he started his post in Berlin. I’ve enjoyed plenty of memorable experiences in concert since but this contributed to me making the decision to become a musician so for that reason it is probably my most memorable.

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

The most important thing is to be very open to various opportunities. Take every experience as a positive one. There are inevitably times where you suffer what feels like a knock back but often these turn into catalysts for better things. My feeling is that you end up exactly where you want to be but usually by taking a completely unpredictable route to get there.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m just putting the final touches on a disc that Champs Hill Records is releasing later in 2015. It is full of fantastic repertoire that I’ve really enjoyed recording. My next big project is establishing a new series of chamber music events with my group Ensemble Perpetuo. It is going to be my busiest year yet but also one I’m incredibly excited about.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of happiness revolves around balance. It involves me being busy enough with music to feel fulfilled but also relaxed enough to spend time with my family.

What is your most treasured possession?

My answer should probably be my oboe but in reality is something far less poetic like my phone or laptop!

What do you enjoy doing most?

The thing that makes me tick is working on new projects. Sometimes it is a recording project, sometimes it is a new kind of recital programme. That feeling of limitless possibilities is what I find exciting and what makes me keep trying to move forward with my playing.

What is your present state of mind?

Really excited about the future but also slightly sleep deprived!

(Interview date: March 2015)

 

Described by The Independent as “a worthy champion” of contemporary oboe music, James has dedicated much of his performing life to promoting and extending the oboe repertoire. James has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe including a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2010. He has broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and appeared as a soloist  in numerous UK festivals including Oxford, Leicester, Cambridge, Thaxted, Ryedale, Machynlleth, Swaledale and, King’s Lynn. James has released solo recordings for Champs Hill Records, Quartz Music and the ABRSM as well as featuring on a disc of Thea Musgrave’s works for Harmonia Mundi USA. Gramophone Magazine described his debut recital disc, Fierce Tears, as a “notable debut” and it was selected as the Editor’s Choice Recording by Classical Music Magazine.

James was seven when he began his oboe studies, learning with Irene Pragnell, Melanie Ragge, Celia Nicklin, Tess Miller and Chris Cowie. After gaining a First Class degree in music from Christ Church, Oxford University, James continued his oboe studies at the Royal Academy of Music and under Nicholas Daniel at Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, where he was awarded First Class for both his Artist and Soloist Diplomas.

James is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. He worked closely with Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Jonathan Dove, John Woolrich, Thea Musgrave and Tansy Davies on their compositions for oboe. Composers including Patrick Hawes, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich have also written for him. James has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. In 2011 he worked closely with Christopher Hogwood on preparation for a new edition of Thomas Attwood Walmisley’s Sonatinas for oboe and piano.

James is an active chamber musician and is Artistic Director of Ensemble Perpetuo. Founded in 2013, Perpetuo is a chamber music collective that specialises in multi-art form collaborations and innovative ways of performing chamber music in new contexts. James has also performed with other chamber music ensembles including the Berkeley Ensemble and the Allegri String Quartet.

Aside from his performing interests, James is dedicated to broadening the appeal of the oboe and encouraging young people to learn the instrument. To this end, he has launched the website LearnToPlayTheOboe.com which now receives over a thousand new visitors every month from across the world. James also teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and gives masterclasses across the UK.

James plays a Lorée Royal Oboe and Cor Anglais supplied by Crowthers of Canterbury. For more information about James and his playing, visit www.james-turnbull.com.