The Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast invites three people who play, listen or otherwise work in classical music to sit and discuss the subject they love. They’re unplanned conversations recorded as live, very nearly unedited, and more often than not take unexpected twists and turns.

In this the second Thoroughly Good Podcast to which I’ve contributed, Adam Gatehouse, co-Artistic Director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, outlines the changes the competition has undergone since the retirement of Dame Fanny Waterman (the competition’s founder), in addition to more general conversation about communication in performance and why the core canon of the piano repertoire is special.

LISTEN HERE

anna-tcybuleva

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

I spent my childhood in a small scientific town in the south of Russia. I grew up in a creative family. My father is a radio physicist, my mother was a musician. She opened this fantastic world of music and art for me. She graduated from the College of Music as a pianist and also studied in Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg as an art historian. We had a lot of books about music and art at home. While I was a child my mother often played for me, or showed gramophone records of great musicians. When I was 6, my mother became my first piano teacher. Aside from that, I studied violin, but after two years I made the decision to play only the piano.

I remember one important moment in my life. I was 10 and I prepared for my first serious competition for young pianist in Moscow. At that time I already lived without parents, studied with another teacher in a town of Volgodonsk (approx. 700 km from my home). My mother also came to Moscow to support me. But everything was so difficult… I missed home, my parents missed me. My new teacher was very strict with me, forced me to practise more and more. When my mom saw how difficult the life of her 10-years-old daughter already was, she told me: “Let’s give up music and go back home?” To which I answered: “No, mommy, it is too late to go back”.

From that moment I never doubted that I was on the right way, and my mom always supported me.

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

For me there is no difference between musical and real life. Everything that happens to me affects my outlook. In other words, I learn from everything. My parents taught me to be always honest and analyze what is happening. I learn from my dear teachers, who are also teaching me to be honest and to listen to the sounds. They are the same important people for me as parents. By the way, my mountain skiing and swimming instructors taught me to be strong and always keep working, no matter what.

When I take the music scores, read them and play, I learn from composers. Some of them have greatly influenced me and my views. When I listen to great musicians, I get inspiration from their way of expression, but never try to copy them.

Life influences me every day and gives the most important lessons. And the music helps me to understand and express them.

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

There are a lot of creative challenges in the life of a musician: for example, to play something, what you wanted to play before, but weren’t ready for; how to analyze and understand, how to unite the form of the piece in your mind. Sometimes this kind of problem interrupt my sleep. But for me, the more harder the challenge is, the more interesting it is. I will never stop searching for new musical challenges.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It is very difficult for me to be satisfied with my playing. Every time after my performance I know how to make the piece better.

It is too early for me to be proud of something, which I played. The big and interesting endless searching is ahead. I hope I will be able to reach something genuine in the future. But I will start thinking about it no earlier than in 60 years.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The works which I love with all my heart I play well. If I open the score and don’t like the piece, it means that I didn’t looked at the score attentively. Then I try to find more interesting details (there are always a lot). I discover something new for me in the piece and attempt to better understand the intent of the composer. Step by step, I fall in love with the work and then I play the piece, which I love!

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

The choice of repertoire is a very serious thing. Sometimes I spend weeks choosing the programme for a concert. I often seek advice from my teachers who have more experience than me. We discuss each programme and decide together.

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

When I go to the stage, I get into a special private space, where I can imagine around me whatever  I want (big or small hall, empty or full audience and etc). There is no favourite concert venue for me. My feelings don’t depend on the external situation. I try not think about it while I’m on the stage.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I happy to play any kind of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

And I love to listen any musical genre in general.

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

The main thing in music for me is to listen and hear.

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

At home with my family, in front of a keyboard with scores and a pencil.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Fortunately, I don’t know yet. When the time comes and if I have a chance, I ask one man, who definitely knows about that.

What is your most treasured possession? 

Health and happiness of my family.

Anna Tsybuleva was born in 1990 and started piano studies at the age of six. Anna is currently a post-graduate student at the Moscow Conservatory, while also studying at the Basel Music Academy with professor Claudio Martinez Mehner.

In 2012, Anna took part in the International Gilels Piano competition in Odessa (Ukraine), where she has won the 1st prize. The same year Anna was one of the winners of the prestigious Hamamatsu Piano competition (Hamamatsu, Japan).

Anna has performed at a number of international music festivals in Russia, the United States, Europe and Japan.

In June 2015, Anna Tsybuleva won 1st Prize at the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition in the United-Kingdom, leading to many important invitations to perform in the UK and internationally.

 

 

about-sunwook

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

Since  I was a child, I have been struck by the beauty of classical music. Even though I explored many areas including playing piano and violin, painting, calligraphy, Taekwondo (Korean martial art) and so on, only music stimulated me to practise constantly. It is definitely not easy to practise 4-5 hours every day without passion for music.

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

To be honest, competitions gave me a great motivation. I participated in many national competitions in Korea from a very young age and successful results made me realise that this is what I have to continue to work on. From 2004, I went to international competitions and finally won the Leeds Competition in 2006 at which point I decided to stop participating in competitions as it gave me the opportunity to give concerts on a regular basis. Since then, I have been exploring a variety of repertoires, learning about many composers and their music in depth and earning valuable experiences on the stage.

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

Each and every concert is a great challenge to me like an audition. I always try to learn and develop from every concert.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I still vividly remember great experiences I had with many orchestras and conductors. Working with Sir Mark Elder (Halle Orchestra, Manchester), Kirill Karabits (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) and Myung-Whun Chung (former chief conductor of Seoul Philharmonic and Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra) were fantastic collaborations. Also I am very proud of my recording of Unsuk Chin’s Piano Concerto. It is an honour to play and record great works by highly respected living composers.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Beethoven and Brahms. I have been playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (all 32!!), Piano Concertos, Violin Sonatas, Cello Sonatas, and also studied all his symphonies when I was a conducting student at the Royal Academy of Music. For Brahms, I have explored all his piano works, chamber music and symphonies etc. However, I am more excited to learn new repertoire including works by Janacek, Prokofiev, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart and Bach. I sometimes think that my life is lucky because it gives me an infinite challenge.

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

I make my programmes based on pieces which I would like to play with confidence. I include no more than 4 composers in one programme and the relationship between them in terms of their harmonies are very important. For example, if I start Beethoven E major sonata op.109, I put c# minor, op.27 no,2 ‘Moonlight’ for the next piece because E major and c# minor are relative.

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

Wigmore hall in London, Philharmonie in Paris, Philharmonie in Berlin and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. They have the most distinguished acoustics and extremely high quality keyboard instruments. They have truly the top level pianos I have ever played.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

All Beethoven Sonatas, concertos and chamber music pieces by Brahms. It is quite interesting because most musicians in my generation love to play Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev as well as Ravel and Chopin. However, I have played Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 2nd concertos only once in my life on the stage but more than 20 times for Beethoven 3rd, 4th and 5th.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

My greatest mentor is Andras Schiff, especially for Beethoven. I have been greatly influenced by him through his intellectual ideas on the structure and sound of Beethoven’s music as well as keyboard techniques and understanding the essence of composers.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

In 2012, I played with London Symphony Orchestra for the first time as a replacement. I was so nervous because I was notified only 2 days before the concert but I think the concert was very successful with Maestro John Eliot Gardiner.

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

This is my philosophy of being musician: Don’t aim to get large amounts of concerts, but do try to achieve good quality concertds. It is a long term/life-time project, don’t expect to have rapid improvements, just practice constantly on the regular basis.

Sunwook Kim’s new album of music by Franck and Brahms is now available on the Accentus Music label.

London-based Sunwook Kim came to international recognition when he won the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, aged just 18, becoming the competition’s youngest winner for 40 years, as well as its first Asian winner. His performance of Brahms’s Concerto No.1 with the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder in the competition’s finals attracted unanimous praise from the press.

Full biography and website

 

Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chair and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition and grand elder stateswoman of piano teaching, has been in the news this week as she has announced that she will be standing down from the prestigious piano competition after next year’s event.

Dame Fanny is “a living institution of British music” (source: The Guardian) and her views and opinions command much respect in the piano world and music education community in the UK and beyond. In today’s Observer, she expresses her fears for the future of pianism in the UK. I read her article with interest and have enjoyed a lively discussion in response to it with members of my own pianistic and piano teaching community on social networks. Based on these discussions, I would like to offer some points in response to Dame Fanny’s view:

Electric pianos and keyboards

I don’t like these instruments either. They are not a patch on a “real” acoustic piano, upright or grand, but they do offer an affordable alternative and for beginning students, child or adult, I would not hesitate to recommend a digital piano. There are some excellent models on the market at the moment. Many people simply do not have the income nor the space to purchase an acoustic piano for their children when starting piano lessons. (And I have seen some truly awful pianos in the homes of some of music students – out of tune and badly maintained.) One of my students has recently acquired a piano, having been studying with me for c4 years. Her parents took the decision to upgrade to a proper instrument because they could see she was committed to her piano studies and they appreciate that a real piano will enable her to develop as a young pianist.

Starting young?

Some children show aptitude for a musical instrument from a very early age, some later. And some come to music in adulthood. What is important here is encouraging and supporting an interest in music. Sure, there are kids out there who “are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four”, but delve a little deeper and I think most of these proto-Lang Langs display exceptional technical facility without any proper insight or musical understanding. This comes with maturity, time spent with the  music, understanding the context in which the music was created, and listening around the music – and much more besides….

There are no great British pianists today?

Dame Fanny, I beg to differ. They may not be well known on the international circuit (yet), but I have encountered some extraordinarily talented British pianists through my concert reviewing and interviews on this blog. What about Benjamin Grosvenor, a young British artist who already shows tremendous maturity, beyond his tender years? Other artists I would cite include Danny Driver, Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Richard Uttley, Lara Melda, Cordelia Williams, Daniel Tong. There is a terrible tendency, especially amongst more senior members of our society, to continually hark back to an earlier “golden age”. But we should look to the future and nurture and encourage the talent we have.

British pianists are not entering the Leeds competition

As one contributor to the discussion on Facebook said, one needs a hefty amount of wherewithal to enter international competitions. Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK, and not many people have the financial support (including parents who will fund such ventures) to consider the risk of entering a competition. It’s not because British pianists aren’t good enough; it’s because many of them simply can’t afford it!

And competitions should never been seen as the be all and end all. Sure, winning a prestigious competition can launch one on a successful international career, but it’s not a dead cert.

Students today lack “a grounding in the instrument’s complexities”

Here I agree with Dame Fanny. In my experience as a regular concert-goer and reviewer, I come across too many young artists (of all nationalities) whose sound has become “dumbed down”, if you will. They aim for  middle of the road expression and dynamics which they believe will please audiences and critics, and (some) teachers. I think part of this is due to bad teaching – the teachers themselves do not understand the complexities of the instrument – and also the fault of exceptionally high-quality recordings whose sound artists feel they should replicate in live performances.

Young pianists have too narrow a repertoire

In fact, I think many young artists have too wide a repertoire, as they feel they must have the big warhorses of the standard piano repertoire in their fingers by a certain point in their career in order to gain recognition and respect. This goes back to my earlier point about maturity. But I agree with Dame Fanny’s point that piano students today do not spend enough time studying a composer’s complete oeuvre: one cannot study one piece in isolation. I teach context from the get go, encouraging students to understand where the music they are learning comes from and suggesting “further listening” and study to offer a broader picture.

Young people lack the discipline to study the piano seriously

In addition to the discipline that is required to practise and apply oneself to musical study, students also need encouragement and support from family and teachers. Parents also need to understand that genuine musical talent comes from day-in-day-out commitment – and on this point I agree with Dame Fanny. But children should not be pushed to the extent that they lose their childhood in the process.

Music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off

With poor provision for music education and instrumental teaching in many of our state schools, sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off.  The cost of learning an instrument is a major barrier for many. Only a relatively small sector of our society can afford to put students into specialist music schools or offer the necessary funding for their study, both at school and beyond.

Initiatives such as James Rhodes’ ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ are laudable, but I think a major shift in attitude towards music and the arts in general needs to take place, from the Department of Education down, in order for music education to be respected and accepted as a necessary part of our children’s education. My own recent research into attitudes towards private piano teaching in the UK reveal an alarming viewpoint: that music is regarded as a “soft”  subject, or simply a “hobby”. This view extends into the world of professional music making, where musicians are not properly valued and receive poor or no pay, because they are perceived as doing a job they love, or that music is not regarded as “a proper job”. This is part of a wider discussion, but it is touched upon in Dame Fanny’s article.

Another related aspect is the British attitude towards “achievement” and that peculiarly British dislike of “show offs”. Achievement and excellence have become dirty words in this country, and this dumbing down begins in primary school (at least in the state sector) where, for example, sports day has become some bland running about pointlessly with teachers cheering kids on and saying anodyne things like “everyone’s a winner!”. Culture, excellence and personal achievement need to be supported, nourished and encouraged. 

Future of piano playing in UK is in peril, veteran teacher warns

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion via my Facebook thread.

I was also interviewed by LBC in response to Dame Fanny’s article. Listen here

Readers who enjoyed Peter Donohoe’s lively and very well-observed diary of his participation in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, published on his website earlier this year, and his selection of ’50 Great Pianists‘ as part of the BBC’s Piano Season, will relish his account of his visit to the Leeds International Piano Competition this year. In it, he discusses, in part, the merits of not coming first (Peter was himself joint silver medallist at the Tchaikovsky Competition, and has subsequently gone on to enjoy an acclaimed international career). Like his Moscow diary, this is a detailed and insightful account, which will appeal to anyone who has followed the competition with keen interest.

You can access Peter’s blog here

Leeds International Piano Competition winner 2012 Federico Colli
(Photograph: VAUGHN RIDLEY/SWPIX.COM)