Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?

My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for Sundays and special occasions. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or leaf through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.

There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to listen to him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!

I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th-century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.

My parents were keen concert-goers and my love of live classical music developed in childhood. We went to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a conductor with wild hair conducted the CBSO (this was Louis Fremaux, pre-Simon Rattle). I loved, and still do, the etiquette of concerts – the excited buzz of anticipation in the foyer beforehand, reading the programme, sinking in to the plush seats. Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill. I grew up thinking classical music was something everyone could enjoy and engage with (and music was readily available in state school in the early 1980s) – it felt entirely normal to me – and it was only when I went to secondary school, where my talent for music (I was tested for perfect pitch in front of my entire class, an excruciatingly embarrassing episode – and I don’t have perfect pitch!) marked me out as “different” in a school where being “a team player” was important. Music and the school music department became a place of escape and I threw myself into the school’s musical activities: I took up the clarinet so that I could play in the school orchestra, and joined the choir, recorder group and wind band.

I took all my ABRSM grade exams while still at school, and really wanted to apply for music college, but a rather throwaway comment by my music teacher that I perhaps “wasn’t good enough” to audition led to me to follow a different path into further education and I studied Medieval literature at university. I stopped playing the piano seriously at 19 and hardly touched the instrument until I was in my late 30s and my mother bought me a digital piano, urging me to start playing again. Not long after I turned 40 I had a brand new Yamaha acoustic piano and had begun teaching local school children and a handful of adults. By the time I was 50, I was preparing to take a Fellowship performance diploma, having passed my Licentiate and Associate diplomas with distinction.

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

My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch and particularly my music teacher at secondary school, an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic man who organised all sorts of wonderful musical activities in and outside of school, including trips to dress rehearsals at the Royal Opera House (where I saw Tosca, Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, La Bohème and Turandot, amongst others). In c1981, the school choir took part in a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with massed school choirs at the Royal Albert Hall, an unforgettable experience, which has stayed with me ever since.

Since I started blogging and writing about music, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my approach to the piano. My study with a number of master teachers and concert pianists while preparing for professional performance diplomas has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist, and the deep learning that is required to prepare for such qualifications enables me to pick up new repertoire without feeling daunted by its challenges.

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

Convincing people that being a musician and writer is “a proper job”.

Dealing with ongoing imposter syndrome, which I think comes from not having attended music college at 18. I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing, however, as I believe it keeps one humble.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my Associate performance diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.

In recent years, I have had the great pleasure of performing at a friend’s house concerts in his beautiful home in the Sussex countryside. A lovely setting, convivial atmosphere, friendly audience and a truly stunning Steinway B piano make these concerts the best I’ve ever experienced, and I was very pleased with my performance of the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17 at last winter’s house concert. I have yet to learn the other two movements of the Schumann…..!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I recently read an interview with the pianist Richard Goode, whom I much admire, in which he said he chooses to “perform only the pieces that will be best for you and the audience” and that one should understand one’s own limits. As pianists we have a vast repertoire and one should never feel under pressure to be able to “play everything”. I used to think I was somehow failing if I did not have the requisite number of Bach Preludes & Fugues, Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Etudes or Debussy Preludes in my fingers; now I just play what interests me and what I believe I can play well.

How do you make your repertoire choices?

I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. More and more I am choosing to play 20th-century and contemporary piano music, and the wilder shores of repertoire – I like oddities and lesser-known works. These are often easier to play than the core canon as one is not constantly up against the weight of history and perceived “right ways” to play this repertoire.

Having said all this, Schubert remains my favourite composer; I really should play more of his piano music!

I am currently working on a programme called A Sense of Place – piano music inspired by or evocative of real or imagined places and landscapes. The pieces include movements from Alan Hovhaness’ Visionary Landscapes, John Cage’s In A Landscape, Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land and Britten’s Night Piece.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To play, perhaps Bill Evans’ Peace Piece. I played it at a charity concert a few years ago and the audience loved its meditative atmosphere.

I get sent CDs to review all the time and listen fairly widely as a result, though I always tend towards piano music. If I had to pick a favourite recording, it would be Resonance de l’Originaire by Maria Joao Pires.

Most memorable concert experience?

It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – I have now heard him play this monument of 20th-century piano music twice, and on both occasions the experience has been transcendent, beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound. Talking to Steven in the bar afterwards, he simply said “one just has to go with this music”.

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

Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing. Don’t endlessly compare yourself to your peers or to others in the profession – this can lead to feelings of dismotivation, dissatisfaction and worse, depression. Navigate your own course to find your own musical identity and voice.

Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!

What is your definition of success?

Seeing people come out of a concert truly touched or moved by the music they’ve hard.

Witnessing a piano student’s “lightbulb moment”

Being able to play Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17 in its entirety! (one day!!)


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Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, described by concert pianist Peter Donohoe as “an important voice in the piano world”.

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franceswilson.co.uk

 

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

I was brought up by a musical mother who studied the piano with Moisés Moleiro, and sang in the choir in the premiere of the ‘Cantata Criolla’ by Antonio Estévez. Unfortunately she fell ill very young and had to abandon music. When I was 7 I was accepted as a student at the Conservatorio Juan José Landaeta in Caracas where I had the most wonderful and generous teachers. My piano teacher was Guiomar Narváez, strict and very artistic, with a great passion for the classical composers and Latin American music. At 16 I won a scholarship to come to the Royal College of Music in London, where I was assigned to Phyllis Sellick as the teacher who would carry on developing what Mrs. Barbara Boissard and Michael Gough Matthews saw in my style of playing when they heard me in the audition in Caracas. For that I am very grateful: Phyllis was an extraordinary human being who taught me the art of piano playing.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

My main teachers obviously, including Polish pianist Regina Smenzianka and Paul Badura-Skoda, and also the many concerts I went to as a child growing up in Caracas. I remember listening to Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, George Demus, Willhem Kempf, Yoyoma, Alicia De La Rocha, and conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Cuban Nicolás Guillén reciting his poetry, popular singers like Mercedes Sosa, the cinema of Carlos Saura, Stanley Kubrik, Herzog, Chaplin….all these wonderful true artists, giving us the best of their knowledge and gigantic talents, seeing, listening and receiving all the universal and most humane expression and energy.

Then in London I have enjoyed many concerts of classical music and jazz, plus all my friends who also play and are now the great musicians of our time.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Every concert you play, every CD you make is a challenge. To teach very gifted children is also a challenge. I think we face climbing Everest nearly every day! Nothing is easy. To play phrases in the most clear of ways, respecting the intentions of the composer is a challenge. When you decide that you are a pianist you understand that the challenge is what motives you, that’s what takes you out of bed.

A big challenge we face today is that classical music has been marginalised by the media, and by the idea that fashion, cookery and frivolous cinema or football stars are more important than profound thought, creativity and art. We have to keep going, as it is now up to us to make sure that this precious legacy we have acquired through centuries survives. It is a very hard and heavy burden!

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?

Although I have recorded about 9 hours of music from Venezuela, by Venezuelan composers, I consider them all to be very different from each other. I have also recorded one CD of music by Chopin and another one by Ernesto Lecuona, which will come out in the autumn. I am sensitive to the qualities of the piano, acoustics and sound engineer. I have produced most of my CDs and am in general satisfied with the results; perhaps sometimes I am over critical and cannot bear listening to something that is too slow (I can think of one piece that I let myself be influenced by the engineer and now I do not agree with the tempo…). I think each CD is a world of its own: they are “concepts” and represent moments of our lives.

Critics are not familiar with Venezuelan music and a few years ago those CDs represented a kind of “political statement”. What’s good now is that those critics are more receptive, less “Eurocentric” and are beginning to understand (after 500 years) that Latin America is part of western culture.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I love the Purcell Room, the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Invalides in Paris, and the Teatro Teresa Carreño and Municipal in Caracas. Any hall with a decent piano and lovely audience will be always great!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love every piece I play, and with each of them there really is a love affair. From Bach, Scarlatti, Mateo Albéniz, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, to Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Scriabin…the list is very long. Equally I have to constantly listen to classical music, salsa and Latin American popular music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

All the musicians that show passion, love, understanding, involvement, imagination… There are millions of fantastic musicians in our planet.

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

I think I have answered this above, but there is a concept I have discovered recently and it is to do with sharing with the young one’s knowledge, experiences and very importantly giving these young, very talented musicians the opportunities to perform and express their ideas and art. I think experienced, successful musicians should open the path for the young. Not many people in the “business” will do it for them now days.

What are you working on at the moment?

Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto, Mozart Sonatas, Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Piazzolla, exploring Colombian music…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness can be found anywhere, at any time, the thing is to be aware of this and enjoy it while it lasts.

‘Joropo’ by Moisés Moleiro

Caracas-born pianist, Clara Rodriguez studied with Phyllis Sellick after winning a scholarship from the Venezuelan Arts Council to train in London at the Royal College of Music. There she was the recipient of numerous prizes and performed as a soloist with the RCM orchestras including De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and the Ravel Concerto in G at St. John’s Smith Square.

In Caracas she made her debut playing Mozart’s last piano concerto with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under the baton of José Antonio Abreu at the age of sixteen; from then on Clara Rodriguez’s career as a concert pianist has taken her to perform all over the world. Her large and interesting repertoire covers works of the best known Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern composers; she has also intensely promoted the music of the Latin American continent.

Her discography includes CDs of the piano music of the Venezuelan composers Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz and Teresa Carreño; her catalogue also includes Popular Venezuelan Music Vol. 1; El Cuarteto con Clara Rodríguez en vivo as well as the piano works by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and of Frederic Chopin late works.

Her recordings are regularly played on BBC Radio3, Classic FM, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Radio France International, and networks from Argentina to the USA, Australia and China.

Clara Rodriguez teaches piano at the Junior Department of The Royal College of Music in London.

 

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look! Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly!

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very

difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players:

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/london-mozart-players-fairfield-halls-gala-opening-concert/