To coincide with the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with soprano Katharine Dain, pianist Sam Armstrong shares insights into his influences and inspirations, significant teachers and the music he’d like to perform in concert in the future.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents are not musicians but my strong will to play the piano emerged quite clearly early on (at the age of 4 or 5). My first serious introduction to classical music was through the Great Composers LP series (I remember Beethoven Sonata recordings of Wilhelm Kempff and a Grieg Concerto by Stephen Kovacevich). I was also quite bowled over at a young age by the passionate music-making of Jacqueline du Pré in a TV documentary about her life.

The most important influences have been my two main piano teachers, Helen Krizos and Richard Goode. Helen was my teacher from the age of 12 and I stayed with her for a decade. I owe her everything in terms of learning to play the piano. She really ‘rescued’ me and helped me rebuild my technique with a much less tension and more ease and was wonderfully thorough and present every step of the way for the entire time I studied with her. She was demanding and exacting yet at the same time extremely supportive and warm. The very important things she instilled in me were the importance of beauty of sound, a deep sense of musical integrity and the necessity to adjust to whichever instrument I am playing on.

Studying with Richard Goode at Mannes College of Music in New York for four years blew open the ceiling for me in terms of sounds I thought it was possible to make on a piano, in terms of learning how to decipher a score with a combination of intelligence and instinct, the importance of getting to the emotional heart of a work and the necessity of specificity in communicating that. Also, very luckily the year I began studying with him he was featured artist in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series. I was able to hear him across 12 (I think!) concerts performing a huge range of repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven Concerti to Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens, Janacek’s the Diary of One Who Vanished, Brahms Piano Quartets, Bartok’s Third Concerto and Schubert Lieder amongst other things. Hearing those outstanding concerts and witnessing his artistic range was an education in itself.

More indirectly I have been influenced by many others: masterclasses I had with Leon Fleisher and Pierre-Laurent Aimard were particularly illuminating.

As a listener, I have been hugely inspired by the conducting of Antonio Pappano being an avid fan and regular attendee Royal Opera House performances. Also the artistry and boundary-less repertoire of soprano Sonya Yoncheva is very special indeed. I will never forget solo recitals I heard from pianists Earl Wild and Aldo Ciccolini as well as a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.

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

I think the one of the greatest challenges has been to maintain internal self-belief through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a career in music. In particular, to avoid feeling that how busy one is or not at a given moment is not necessarily reflective of how your career is going overall. It is important to acknowledge the role of circumstance and timing as well as work you have put in to constructing projects and laying the groundwork for things to happen. Also, it has been a challenge to learn not to expect a particular external result from a performance that you feel very happy with or hoped might take you forward in terms of career.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This is NOT because it has just been released, but my album ‘Regards sur l’Infini’ with soprano Katharine Dain is something I am proud of as we had a very unusual situation in terms of preparation because of the pandemic. We chose to quarantine together starting in March and we ended up having months to fully prepare the rather complicated programme with no limits on how much we rehearsed. Normally rehearsal time is very short in professional life, so this felt like a real luxury to be able to explore the songs and poems so deeply, change our minds and give the music space to settle and breathe. Also, to prepare Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (the main work on the album) with Pierre-Laurent Aimard was a huge privilege and totally game-changing in terms of understanding the codes to this complex music.

In terms of a performance I am proud of, my second Wigmore solo recital in 2012 is a performance I felt quite close to happy with – particularly in Schubert’s B flat sonata – a piece that is so vulnerable and hard to grasp and so much already in another world.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure that musicians are very objective at judging themselves, but I am told by others that I have a strong connection with Schubert and Brahms (composers whose music I love deeply).

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

Listening to inspiring performances, long discussions with friends and colleagues and reading (I just finished a wonderful biography of Debussy by Stephen Walsh). Also, time in nature.

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

I found the Kleine Zaal (small hall) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to be particularly magical. Perfect piano, perfect acoustic, presented with flowers by the hall as a matter of course. It doesn’t get better than that.

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

I think that a growing conversation between performers and public about composers as the vivid, colourful flawed humans they were/are rather than dusty abstract figures is going to be necessary to engage and grow audiences. Also that classical music is a beautiful mirror of all of the emotions and experiences of life.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience was my solo debut recital in New York at Weill Hall in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the very few concerts where circumstances meant that a large number of friends and supportive colleagues were able to turn out in force.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success as a musician is to maintain the will to get better, to improve and to get closer to get to the heart of this extraordinary music we are all lucky to play. On the other side, I think another type of success is to avoid becoming jaded by certain non-musical aspects of the music industry. Above all though is to keep searching for truth and equally to stay open to changing your mind and to other points of view.

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

That you never arrive. That we are always chasing something elusive. Also to learn to enjoy the process, as music will present new (and sometimes the same!) challenges every time you begin a new piece.

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

I hope still to be playing the piano for a living. I would like to have more autonomy over certain programming choices and to have the ability to convince promoters to get larger numbers of people together for certain repertoire (Janacek The Diary of One Who Vanished, Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Ravel Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé or the Chausson Concert for example). Also budgets that would to make it possible to bring people from different countries for fantasy football style chamber collaborations (which feels even more decadent and luxurious in these pandemic times) would be wonderful.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A small house on the Greek island of Hydra with a good piano and a excellent espresso machine.

What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

 

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ was released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information


Hailed as ‘a major new talent’ International Piano and a ‘pianist of splendid individuality’ Arts Desk English pianist Sam Armstrong has made solo recital debuts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York as well as at the Wigmore Hall in London, and as concerto soloist with the National Symphony of Ecuador.

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Ahead of the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with pianist Sam Armstrong, soprano Katharine Dain shares her influences and inspirations, and the experience of creating this album while in quarantine


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My decision to try singing professionally came relatively late – at the end of my university studies. But certain encounters before then were crucial, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I had a passionate and encouraging high school choir director and an unusually gifted first voice teacher. I was borderline obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, and a scratched LP of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. As a teenager, I heard, incredibly, one of Leontyne Price’s last recitals in my North Carolina hometown. In college, performances of the St Matthew Passion and Così fan tutte were utterly formative. (Fiordiligi was my first opera role—good thing I had no idea how tough it was when that plan was hatched in a practice room with the friend who conducted the shows!)

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

My instrument is my body, so it is always in flux, and my identity as a singer has gone through many transformations as a result. Think of the hugely different expectations (and stereotypes) of people who sing early consort music, or virtuosic operatic roles in staged productions, or avant-garde repertoire full of extended techniques, or intimate songs with piano. I’ve done all of these professionally. Each comes with its own physicality, jargon, social codes, areas of assumed knowledge, and musical and performative habits; shifts in my repertoire always seem to trigger a corresponding identity crisis. Also, singing is affected hugely by illness, grief, stress, travel. It’s tough not to equate your whole sense of self-worth and value with what your body is producing at any given moment. Repertoire, health, physicality – it all feels terribly personal, and I’ve had some difficult years when nothing seemed to be working and I didn’t know whether I would ever sort it out.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m exceptionally proud of the CD I am releasing this month, Regards sur l’Infini, a collection of French songs by Messiaen, Delbos, Dutilleux, Saariaho, and Debussy recorded with pianist and long-time friend Sam Armstrong. I’ve had the programme in mind for a long time, but our decision to quarantine together at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown gave us an unprecedented opportunity to rehearse and assimilate the music together over a long period.

One of my favourite live projects last year was singing Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ve known and loved the music for so long, but with a period orchestra and a deeply sympathetic conductor in Kenneth Montgomery, the shapes and shifts in that extraordinary score were as transparent and arresting as I’ve ever managed.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am endlessly fascinated by the explosion of idiosyncratic expression in vocal music from the first half of the 20th century – Schoenberg, Strauss, Messiaen, Britten, Barber, Stravinsky, Poulenc – and in more contemporary scores. But I also find that Handel and (especially) Mozart feel utterly like home to me, and more so with every passing year.

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

I write, I read, I cook, I knit, I walk, I make friends with strangers, and I ask too many questions!

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

I get strongly possessed by certain composers and styles. When that happens, I’ll expend a huge amount of energy (for years at a time, if I have to) seeking out ways of singing the music. Sometimes the game has to be very long indeed – I knew that there were certain roles that I would be perfectly suited to eventually (Konstanze, Donna Anna), but it took a decade to sing them how I wanted and to find the right opportunities. In the meantime, repertoire also finds me. I learn quickly, so I’m often called for jump-ins on scores I’ve never learned. I’ve discovered some incredible pieces this way: jewel-like Lieder of Marx and Korngold; an oratorio by Luigi Nono that is devastatingly powerful; perfectly balanced songs with chamber ensemble of Ravel and Zemlinsky and John Tavener. Other times, trusted colleagues recommend me for repertoire I wouldn’t necessarily choose, but their confidence makes me braver and the resulting work makes me stronger. This has happened in recent seasons with Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner.

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

One of my favourites is the Concertgebouw in Nijmegen, a glorious hall with a stunningly warm acoustic in the east of the Netherlands. I performed there as soloist with orchestra twice in the 2019-20 season before the pandemic shut everything down. This summer, while the hall stood empty, Sam and I recorded our album there over three days. After months of practicing in the boxy acoustic of my living room, it was a pleasure to lean into the generosity of the space. I was reminded just how much the venue contributes to the artistic and musical result; our CD feels like an equal collaboration between singer, pianist, producer, and the atmosphere of the hall.

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

I’ve performed a lot of concerts throughout the United States for an outreach organization called the Piatigorsky Foundation, including many concerts for school-age kids. That work has convinced me that any conversation about increasing classical music’s visibility must start with prioritizing education. Kids are the most open-minded audiences of all, if the music is presented in a thoughtful and charismatic way. The slashing of school culture budgets has done more harm to this art form than anything else, and I think any effort to improve the situation has to be focused there first.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There was that time I performed in a bar in Wyoming, and we were literally taping the upright piano back together until minutes before the performance began. I think a pencil and some rubber bands were involved.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Many years ago, an unusually wise teacher pitched this question out to an opera scenes class. Every student had to answer individually; most said they wanted to be working in top-level opera houses or represented by a prestigious management agency. When my turn came, I said, a bit hesitantly, that I wanted to be making great music with good and smart people. The teacher gave me a shrewd look and said: that’s achievable; you’ll do it. He was right. My understanding of that goal – making music at a high level, with people I like and respect – has become more nuanced over the years, but it’s still the guiding principle in how I make decisions about what work to accept or pursue, and it’s still how I know if I’m satisfied with the job I’m doing or not. It can be achieved in many situations and at many levels of development, so there have been moments all along when I’ve known I was getting what I wanted, whether the external markers of success (fancy contracts and management) were happening for me or not.

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

Patience; curiosity. The process of becoming a professional musician (whatever that means to you) will likely be long, vulnerable, and full of rejection. Your curiosity and love for the music is sometimes the only thing keeping you moving forward. If you lose that, you’ve lost the most precious thing you have, so keep that flame alive. Keep listening. Keep exploring. Keep your heart and mind open and vulnerable. Keep caring for yourself.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in mid-March 2020, Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong, long-time friends and collaborators, decided to quarantine together. The period of lockdown lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, and the enforced months of isolation at home allowed for unusually deep and slow exploration of repertoire for voice and piano.

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ is released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information here


American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain is a musician of insatiable curiosity, active in opera, orchestral repertoire, oratorio, and chamber music in Europe and North America. After taking the top prize in the Clermont-Ferrand Competition (in which Diapason called her a “revelation”), Dain debuted as Konstanze in a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the opera houses of Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, Rouen, Massy, and Reims. Other recent highlights include Mozart’s Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Kenneth Montgomery, orchestral song cycles of Dutilleux and Berlioz with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Bancroft, Brahms Requiem with Cappella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with LUDWIG, and songs of Berg and Zemlinsky with Het Collectief under Reinbert de Leeuw at Austria’s Osterfestival. A passionate promoter of chamber music and song, she is a co-founder of Damask Vocal Quartet, whose 2018 debut album “O schöne Nacht” won France’s Choc de Classica award and universal acclaim in the press. Dain holds degrees from Harvard University (Boston), Guildhall (London), and Mannes (New York), and she currently lives in the Netherlands.

katharinedain.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of which works are you most proud?

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

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

How would you characterise your compositional language?

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

How do you work?

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

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

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

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

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

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

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


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

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

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

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Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My biggest influences have been my piano teachers:

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

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

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

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

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

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

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

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

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

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

Meditation. Just before going on stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are too many.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Artist photo: Warner Classics

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have  been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

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

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

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

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

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

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, just one where people don’t cough!

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

Alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Playing for a friend and having a meal afterwards.

What is your most treasured possession?

My new Fazioli F278 concert grand piano.


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

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

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

They always say that you don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. From when I was about six years old I remember endlessly doodling  at the family piano, generally making up my own pieces rather than  learning how to play what was put before me by my piano teacher. I  couldn’t write down what I was making up until a few years later, but the impulse to compose something of my own was always there. I was fortunate to go to a school where music was an important part of the curriculum, I sang in the school choir, and by the time I was in my  teens I was showing up my little compositional efforts to our director of music Edward Chapman, who was always encouraging and never tried to  steer me into any particular style or genre. I was immensely enriched by  a friendship that developed between me and John Tavener, who was a year  ahead of me in school and streets ahead of me in compositional  technique and sophistication. It wasn’t until he left to go on to the Royal Academy of Music and I went to Cambridge that I came out from  under his shadow, but I owe him a great debt for the encouragement he gave and the example he offered. There was never any doubt that he would  become a professional composer, but I had no thought of that happening  to me, and in fact I was advised by my headmaster to go for an academic career (not in music), advice I’m very glad I didn’t take. 

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

This really follows on from my previous answer, and I’ll confine myself to  those I have known personally; I could give you a long list of composers  and other musicians from the past who have inspired me. My kindly college at Cambridge allowed me to do a music degree, even though I had applied to study modern languages, and I was fortunate again: I was assigned Patrick Gowers as a composition teacher, who was a considerably  gifted composer now remembered mainly for his atmospheric and finely-crafted music for a TV serialisation of Sherlock Holmes which ran  for many years, but who was open to all sorts of music (he was a very  good jazz pianist) and who let me go my own way. Also at Cambridge I met  and got to know Sir David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s  College Choir who believed in my compositional talent and took me under  his wing. It was thanks to him that my first little compositions (a  group of Christmas carols!) were published, and this led to my  association with Oxford University Press which has lasted for a very  long time. David continued to champion my work, and he remained a mentor  and friend to me for the rest of his life. I could list many other key  figures who have offered me opportunities, encouragement and support, I  have been so fortunate: no one I respect has ever told me ‘look, you’re  no good, retrain for another profession’. 

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

The greatest challenge is to keep yourself fresh, not repeat yourself too  much, and find a balance between exercising the skills you know you’ve  already got and learning new ones. Finding the will power and stamina to write when you’re tired and busy with other work is hard. Every day of my life I’m shamed by the quantity and quality of music that so many composers have succeeded in writing when there are only twenty-four hours in a day. I’m not prolific, but then I divide my energies: composition is the compulsion, I guess, but conducting is the pleasure, and being among musicians, sometimes in the role of recording producer,  is a great joy and privilege. My only frustration is that I don’t get  more done. 

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

It’s many years since I’ve undertaken commissioned work. In the 1980s I contracted a debilitating illness, ME (also known as post-viral fatigue syndrome), and, like malaria, it cycles on and off so you have good weeks and bad weeks. When you accept a commission there is a binding obligation to deliver on time, and I had to accept that I might not always be able to do that, so I stopped. After about seven years I made a  full recovery, but did not by then want to go back to what had become a  treadmill, so I continued in a pattern that I have stuck with ever since: from time to time I respond to invitations and suggestions from  the outside world, but then I also work on my own projects. I’m less  productive than in the years I was doing commissions, but I’m less  stressed. The challenge with a commission is to come up with something  that fits the required specification, the pleasure is to be told that it  does fit and that you have actually surpassed expectations. 

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

It always helps if you have the sound of a particular artist or ensemble in your head as you write: you’re writing specially for them. I always try to find out as much as I can in advance about who I’m writing for.  If it’s a group I’m thoroughly familiar with – King’s College Choir in the radiant acoustic of its chapel – I’m half way there before I start.  It’s a poor composer who can’t craft a piece well for its intended  performers. The problems can start when other groups, perhaps not as skilled as those you have written for, have difficulty and think your  music is unreasonably hard, or maybe they just don’t get it. 

Of which works are you most proud? 

That would be like admiring yourself in the mirror. I don’t think about my past work except when I find myself conducting it. I just want the next  piece I write to be the best yet. 

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Eclectic. Conservative. Accessible. But I hope recognisable as my own. 

How do you work? 

Hard, but not as hard as I used to. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Too many to list. There’s no reputable musician/composer from whom you can’t learn something. If I dislike what I’m hearing, I tend to blame myself.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

To have achieved at least part of what you set out to do. 

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

Be very, very good at what you do if you possibly can. Work harder and more perseveringly than anyone round you. Prepare thoroughly. If you are a performer, try to be true to the composer’s vision; if you are a composer, be true to yourself. If you have a spark of something, it will communicate, regardless of style. 

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

Still on this earth and working. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being too busy to think about it. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

I don’t rate possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Enjoying a meal with family and friends after a concert or recording has gone well. 

What is your present state of mind? 

Immersed in my current projects.


John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and studied music at Clare  College, Cambridge. His compositions embrace choral, orchestral, and  instrumental music, and he has co-edited various choral anthologies  including four Carols for Choirs volumes with Sir David Willcocks and the Oxford Choral Classics  series. From 1975-9 he was Director of Music at Clare College, and in  1981 formed his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, as a professional  chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording. 

Rutter’s choral works, including his Requiem and Gloria, are frequently performed around the world. In 2003 Mass of the Children, a major work for adult and children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra,  was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall conducted by the composer.

johnrutter.com