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?

I was exposed to music from a very early age, in a very natural, instinctive way. I simply responded to when my grandmother sang, or when my parents were listening to something on television, or if a song that I liked came on the radio. We had no formal classical music knowledge or education in my family. In Montenegro at that time, there was very little classical music, but somehow I was instinctively drawn to any sort of music.

Then, when I was 8 years old, I heard that it was possible to go to music school and that it was free, my parents didn’t have to pay for it, that I just had to go there and they would check whether you were musical or not. They thought that I was very musical. Originally, they wanted me to play the violin or the piano, but at home we had an old guitar that nobody played and that was much easier because my parents didn’t have to buy an instrument. It was a very challenging time in Montenegro in the 1990s and money was not abundant. So that was it, I ended up playing the guitar – and the rest is history!

The most important influences have been the people that I met on the way – my colleagues, mentors, teachers. I guess the first big inspiration was Segovia, because at the time when I was bored with the guitar at the age of 9, my father played me an old LP with his recording on it. That was the first time I heard what the classical guitar sounded like and I was completely mesmerised by what I heard. I said “I will one day played Asturias like that”, and I think that was a crucial, critical moment of inspiration. And then when I met David Russell when I was at the point between primary and secondary school (4 years before university in Montenegro) – that is when you decide what to specialise in – and I was torn because I was a very good student in school as well, and pursuing a career in music in Montenegro at that time wasn’t exactly a popular choice. But meeting David Russell in a masterclass in Italy really opened the doors for me, broadened my thinking and made me believe it was possible. He encouraged my career in music and said that if I was really serious about it, if I wanted to study and become the best musician I could possibly be, that I should come to London to the Royal Academy of Music. They have an amazing programme there and that when I was ready I should apply. From that moment on, that was all I could think about, and I made it happen a couple of years later.

Then when I came to London I took huge inspiration from the presence of John Williams and Julian Bream, and what they meant and represented in London. Having the chance to meet them both, to win the Julian Bream prize when I was a student, and to have his feedback was a huge inspiration. And John Williams through all his recordings and repertoire and his incredible way of playing that is, aesthetically, second to none. Other inspirations include great conductors, colleagues, musicians from different walks of life. I was very lucky to build a rich career of different influences and inspirations, and I always say “I am the luckiest plucker in the world!”.

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

I feel that we only go forward when we are challenged, and my life in music really happened against all the odds. The first was for me to find a way to go from Montenegro to London and study at the Royal Academy of Music. It was a kind of “mission impossible” to do that because we had completely different ways and systems in Montenegro. There was hardly any money, and suddenly I got a scholarship and I had to be in London. So being there was incredibly challenging. And then finding my way and learning and forgetting everything I knew and almost starting from scratch again; that too was a huge challenge.

The second one came when I finished my formal studies, when I developed this way of playing and when I felt ready to have an international career, and to realise that the world out there was not open to the guitar and guitarists in the same way it was 30 years ago, or that it is now, 12 years later. And pushing through that and breaking that glass ceiling was a huge challenge, but I was blessed with incredible stubbornness and determination. I had this one goal, and no plan B.

When I signed with a major recording label and got a wonderful manager, then I really started living the life of an international musician in a way I had always dreamt of. But then that life also comes with huge stresses and responsibilities: hardly any free time, everything that you do suddenly matters, knowing that all the eyes are on you, so that’s also a huge challenge for every young artist who is part of this industry. Then 7 years ago from working too hard and from being emotionally exhausted and burnt out, I wasn’t able to play for over a year and faced the possibility of never playing again because my hands were really acting up and nobody really knew what was wrong. But again I found my way out through my love of music, and I think that allowed me to come out of that huge crisis. In order to come out of that crisis, I had to rekindle my relationship with the guitar, to rediscover the love that I felt, and the purity of that love for music, and why I did what I did. And I think by doing my best and by achieving this sort of success, that I was perhaps trying to prove something to the industry, to people, to everyone around me. That really chipped away at that purity of connection I had with music when I was younger, and I think I had to rediscover that. The injury to my hand was a catalyst for that rediscovery.

The pandemic was of course a huge challenge for everyone because I think it also allowed everyone to re-evaluate, and to understand that what we do [as musicians] is a huge blessing and a huge privilege, and we do it because we love it. There are maybe 100 other things we could have done, but we chose to be musicians. That realisation in itself is incredible, and it was so formative for me personally, now I finally feel, through all those challenges of my life, my career and my musicianship, that my relationship with guitar is finally complete.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I have been, shall I say, blessed with a very vivid imagination and ever since I was a child, whenever I heard or played something, I always created pictures and visual images in my mind. So anything that is very programmatic, very exciting and emotional, usually allows me to express myself in this open, free and honest way. So I find great inspiration in modern works, especially those written especially for me because when I work with composers I think that they pick up on that idea. The Guitar Concerto that Joby Talbot wrote for me at the Proms a couple of years ago is an example of that – a sort of programmatic Ink Dark Moon, as he called it.

https://youtu.be/gDqNkdYfOJw

Then some modern contemporary compositions written by guitar players who really know the instrument and what it can achieve and create, a sort of drama in sound, and inspire an audience – I love those because they allow me to have direct access to each and every person in the audience. That has been great – pieces like Coimbra or works by Leo Brouwer. Even when I think of Villa Lobos and the strength of his writing for the guitar, it’s just something that I enjoy tremendously.

But equally, I enjoy the opposite of that energy in the music of Bach, because I think in Bach everybody can find themselves. Bach is a mirror of our personality and our musicianship; it’s the beginning and the end. We go on so many musical journeys and always come back to Bach, and the purity and perfection that his music offers. When I perform Bach I really feel that is when I arrive and achieve the deepest levels of exploration and of my musicianship.

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

I love to live a very varied life. I love being surrounded by people from different walks of life. I like to be inspired by talking to artists in different fields, to writers and philosophers, to business people, to people who do regular jobs. I often look at the barista who makes my favourite coffee at the café near to where I live and I just think whenever you do something with love, you are really giving something beautiful to the world, and it doesn’t really matter what you are doing. So I’m inspired by all those small and big things, and all the people and influences that I have in my life. So creating experiences with them brings me inspiration. It gives me space when I am inside my music to allow the music to really “live” in its full capacity. I’ve always felt that when you are too focussed on just one thing and exclude other things, then the pressure on what you’re doing is too great. And you create this fake ideal of responsibility, that in the end only damages the free flow of your music making. I’ve been very lucky to understand this through the challenges of my career and I’m very grateful for that.

When it comes to things that I like to do, I walk everywhere and I love travelling, without going to give a concert. So sometimes I just take a train and go down to Paris in the morning and leave in the evening, and I just breathe in a different city, different culture, different food, different smells. I read a lot. I write quite a bit and I’m so inspired by that because it clarifies my thoughts. And anything to do with the hands: I’m very good at cooking. Being curious and discovering new things – that really keeps me sane.

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

Somehow from the beginning, my career was connected with recording because at the same time I started touring, I signed a major record label contract. So for every album that’s released, comes a different angle and a different theme for the repertoire that I’m recording. My recital programmes very often reflect that because it’s so important to tour at a time when the album comes out. So, from season to season, I make decisions very closely based on whatever I am doing in the studio,

With concertos, there aren’t so many concertos in the guitar repertoire, so in my fingers I always have the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, and a couple of others. But every season or two I made it my mission to collaborate with composers and to do a different premiere. Focussing on the repertoire for guitar and orchestra in particular, because of the lack of really well known repertoire for guitar and orchestra, has from the beginning been my mission and something that I took very, very seriously. With each season I set up these goals very clearly.

When it comes to chamber music, I wish I had more time to do more interesting projects in chamber music, but whenever I do them, I do them for all the right reasons, with a composer or musicians that I love, or someone who is very a close friend and whose musicianship I admire. It just gives you a chance to really connect on so many different levels and that has been in the case in the last couple of years, with dear colleagues. Festivals in the summer are a great opportunity for this kind of sharing and I always look forward to that. In the summer I think I am most flexible in my repertoire choices because summer festivals often give you an opportunity to have a couple of days to really work on things and really challenge yourself.

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

Over the years I have experienced so many concert halls, and they are not always amazing, but when they are, it’s incredibly inspirational and it really changes how you play. Especially with an instrument like guitar, which by default is quite intimate, when you are getting that feedback from the room and when the wooden box that the guitar is extends to the hall and becomes another soundbox that just envelopes the sound in the room with so many people; it’s just an incredible feeling.

If I think of the venues that have given me most inspiration when I perform solo, I would say that the Wigmore Hall does have a very magical acoustic when it comes to the guitar; also the small hall at the Concertgebouw, and there are couple of beautiful places in America that are perhaps not so well known. In Japan, every second concert hall is extraordinary. But with the big halls, I have often experienced places where I just couldn’t believe it was possible to play a concerto without amplification, or where I would play a recital to an audience of 2500 people, but possible to hear the smallest sound. What really stands out for me in this way is the Symphony Hall in Osaka. It’s just such a privilege to go from one place to another and take in the energy of the room and really transfer it to the audience through your instrument and your musicianship.

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

This is a big one. I feel that there is a real misconception when it comes to classical music. We have this label of being elitist and exclusive, and at the same time we live in a world where buying a Chanel bag for thousands of pounds, or everyone wanting to on holiday to the Maldives and everyone feeling that they deserve it, has, on one hand, become acceptable and not elitist. And on the other hand, going to a classical music concert, especially in the UK where ticket prices are lower than in Europe or America, is somehow considered elitist.

There have been so many efforts to make classical music more relevant and I think some of those have been remarkably successful when it comes to equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion, but at the same time I feel that there have been so many attempts to bring classical music closer by actually going away from what it really is and putting the centuries of tradition, excellence and effort in the background. I think reformulating those values and what they represent is incredible opportunity for all of us to really allow classical music to continue to exist as a part of the whole ecosystem and to not carry that exclusive label. People don’t even really know what that means any more, but it has become almost like the subtitle for classical music. And that’s something where I feel we have a huge responsibility to make a difference, in this crazy world that we live in that is overpowering us with too much information, where we are constantly manipulated on social media, and all media in general, to follow one bandwagon of thought and completely cancel the others. I think people today are so confused and it’s never been more important to actually present something that is so deep and excellent, and there for all the right reasons and all the right values [as classical music]. Because in all that confusion, what people crave is a profound connection, and there is no artform on the planet that is able to do this in a more direct or more instant way than classical music – or music in general.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have to say that the first time I performed at the Royal Albert Hall was probably the stand out moment of my whole life. I was playing a solo recital in the round to a completely full hall, pieces from Bach all the way to the romantic guitar repertoire in the purest, most classical form, and at that time there were a lot of sceptics, people who didn’t think a solo guitar recital was possible because it hadn’t been done before. That really was the moment that made my life and career, because it was extraordinary to shrink that great space of Albert Hall into such a small, pinpointed place with just me and the guitar. The energy and the feeling that experience gave me really gave me the wings to fly and to believe that nothing is impossible.

That is the single most memorable concert experience I had, and every subsequent concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall in recital or in a concert has been built on that experience. I did a concert there on 1 June, just after the pandemic, and it was a major moment for me because it was the return of the audience and I was very nervous to see if people would come, and if everything would feel good again. And it did; it was just remarkable to see so many people and to once again share with them this thing that 10 years ago broke certain boundaries and that now, after the pandemic and 10 years later, I was able to do the same thing on different foundations, perhaps in a more grown up way.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

The one thing I always say to young musicians is never compare yourself to anyone else. Always know that your voice is unique and that there is nobody in this world who can play the guitar, or piano or violin, or sing like you can. And once you understand that, you start to seek the best of the version of yourself rather than look to be better than someone whom you admire or who is artificially imposed on you as some sort of competition. I think that advice cancels all the negative energy and inspires you at once to achieve success through finding your deepest and purest and most honest self. That is the most important advice that I can give to anybody and I always try do this whenever I have the opportunity.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I feel that we live in a world where our society and our industries have never been more open and inclusive, and we have really progressed so far in that. And of course there is still work to be done and we have to continue on the right path. But what I feel is not being talked about in the music industry is the idea that musicians are not some sort of extra-terrestrial fairy creatures. I think my experience with injury and having to deal with that in secret, even though I tried not to make it a secret (I thought that by talking about it, I would actually create an open conversation and save a lot of musicians from future injury) was to realise that it remained taboo, and that was extraordinary to think about. At times almost it felt as if talking about was somehow making me weaker; luckily I didn’t suffer from thinking that was the case, but it was just a realisation that there isn’t enough talk or conversation about what it really means, in practical terms, to be a musician. What it means to be able to perform such an extraordinary thing, every time you’re on stage to work at this level, which is almost superhuman, while at the same time you might be incredibly jet-lagged or tired, and then you push your body and when your body is not happy, then you hurt yourself. In the sports world, and other industries, the conversation about this is such much more open. If we could create a conversation about this topic it would be much, much easier for future generations of musicians to protect themselves and to have concrete tools through the experience of colleagues to safeguard themselves from injury. I know that so many orchestral musicians are silently suffering. I know many professional soloists at the highest level are silently suffering from these issues, simply because being a musician is physically incredibly exhausting and when something is also emotionally so challenging, then it can create such an imbalance and can be very, very hard. So many people have left the industry because of this, because there hasn’t been an open conversation. I feel there has been a lot of talk about mental health and I think that’s incredibly helpful as long as it doesn’t go to an extreme. But I think that if we talked more about concrete issues that go hand in hand with mental health, such as physical injury, then we would be creating an atmosphere of greater inclusion and support, that I don’t really feel exists right now.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A very important question to ask every musician, because we all work in different ways and we all get a kick from different things. I feel that as you progress in your life, into adulthood, the driving force behind your success changes a lot. It hasn’t been any different for me. I decided to be a musician because of this incredible love and connection which I had with the guitar, and then what drove my success was to reach out to a very wide audience, and that meant everything to me because my happiness and my music making depended on that. I’ve always felt that music only comes alive when you are in front of an audience, so I wanted to have an audience and that drove my need for success.

When I reached that level, I wanted to prove success through how many concerts I was playing, which orchestras I played with, how important and relevant I was in the classical music world because as a guitarist that was very important. I was carrying the flag for the instrument, and I took that very, very seriously. Then after the pandemic, and all the problems I had with my hand, I completely redefined what success means for me. For me now success means finding that deepest and purest connection in my music making: playing concerts and playing for people and each time having an opportunity, without any unnecessary ‘noise’ around me, without the pressures of the industry and the environment in which we exist as international concert artists, each and every time to enjoy this extraordinary privilege of talking to people all around the world through the language of music. If I am able to do that for many years to come, then I feel I have achieved the biggest success that I possibly can.

MILOŠ performs Rodriguez’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Friday 13 January. The programme also includes the world premiere of ‘The Peacock Pavane’, written especially for MILOŠ by David Bruce. Details/tickets

MILOŠ is signed exclusively to Sony Classical and his debut recording for the label is expected later this year. 


MILOŠ is one of the world’s most celebrated classical guitarists. His career began its meteoric rise in 2011, with the release of his international best-selling Deutsche Grammophon debut album ‘Mediterraneo’. Since then, he has earned legions of fans, awards, and acclaim around the world through his extensive touring, six chart topping recordings and television appearances.

Now exclusive to SONY Classical, MILOŠ is committed to expanding the repertoire for the classical guitar through commissioning of new works. His latest release ‘The Moon and the Forest’ features two world premiere concertos, by Howard Shore and Joby Talbot. His new solo album is due for a released in 2023 and will explore the theme of baroque and its guitar repertoire treasures.

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To coincide with the release of her new recording of Mozart Piano Sonatas Vols 2 and 3, I caught up with pianist Orli Shaham to find out more about her influences and inspirations and why one of her most treasured possessions features Snoopy the dog…..

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?

It was my parents and my older brothers who inspired me to start music more than anybody else. My parents listened to a lot of music, and my older brothers were just enough older that they were beginning to be accomplished at instruments when I was coming into consciousness. I just really wanted to be part of that and be able to play with them and do the same sort of things that they were doing. That was very much the source of the initial inspiration. I also went to an untold number of conservatory concerts to listen to my brothers perform, and then also heard the 49 other pianists or violinists who were on the same program. That was hugely inspirational too.

A big part of my influences are the people in my life who also love music and who also play music. For me, that’s changed over time from being my elders to being my children and my students. I find them all incredibly inspiring.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Ultimately, it’s always the last project you just finished that you’re most proud of, because on some level you feel like it’s better than everything you’ve done before. I have certain highlights throughout my career that I think back on quite fondly. At the moment, I’m riding high on recording the complete Mozart sonatas. That was a monumental mountain to climb. I loved every minute of it, and I learned so much from doing it.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I would say whatever I’m doing at the moment, which this year has included a lot of Mozart, and a lot of Clara Schumann and her compatriots. With any luck, we keep getting better at all of them – that’s the hope.

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

That’s a really tough one because you have to choose repertoire quite far in advance. I have to project what I think I will feel like playing 18 months from today. Eighteen months is a long way to plan for your emotional state. These days, 18 minutes is a pretty long way.

I’m so lucky to be a pianist; I have so much repertoire to choose from. I have a list that I haven’t even begun to skim the surface of, of pieces that I would like to play. So I just go down that list based on what I think would work best next.

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

I have a favorite concert venue to record in, but I’ve never actually performed there. It’s Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. I love recording there because there’s something about the atmosphere of the building that makes me feel like it’s all about whatever I’m creating on stage (and also there’s an enormous painting of George Washington and the rear end of his horse looking down on me from high above the stage). The hall has an incredible sound. For pianists, performing or recording at a venue is intricately tied up with the venue’s piano. I really love the instrument at Mechanics Hall, as well as the technician who takes care of it. Any time I sit down at that keyboard, I’m inspired to experiment.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That’s a very long list. One that I happen to be thinking about recently was with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. I played John Adams’ Century Rolls in Carnegie Hall. The way schedules worked out, the composer couldn’t come to hear any of our performances before that; the first time he could come and hear it was at the Carnegie concert. I was only the second pianist to play that concerto at the time, and there was a great deal of nervous energy.

The orchestra did a magnificent job, and David was incredible. Everything worked, and it was fabulous. When John came on stage for his composer’s bow, he leaned in to me and said, “You got it, you really got it.” There’s really no better feeling as a performer, than for the composer to say, “You got it.” That’s what it’s all about.

I should add that I’m very much looking forward to playing John Adams’ second piano concerto, Why Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? in Finland next season, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the self-same David Robertson conducting.

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

Being a mother of infant twins was a big challenge. We’ve made it through to the other side – those twins are about to turn 15. Things are a lot a lot less intense than they were 15 years ago around this time. I think it’s true for many parents, certainly for a lot of mothers, that it’s tricky figuring out how to keep your commitment to music while also juggling a commitment to family, both of which are all-consuming.

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

I do things that have to do with music, like teaching and listening to repertoire other than what I’m working on, which is very inspiring. I also specifically do things that don’t have to do with music. I’m inspired by books I am reading, or TV shows I am watching, or meditation or cooking, that really allow me to get inside my own head in a different way than when I’m getting inside a composer’s head.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The not so trite answer is that we musicians don’t have such a definition, because we never think that what we’re doing is good enough, so it can’t possibly be considered a success. Knowing that there will never be a feeling of complete and total success, I set very specific goals for myself, and if I can make those work for an entire performance, then I feel it’s been a success.

Those are often really small things. I had a shoulder injury a few years ago and one of the things that I’ve been working on is maintaining a certain level of muscle relaxation in my upper back, even in performance, from the beginning to the end. That’s no small feat. It has nothing to do with the actual music making, and it has everything to do with the actual music making. When I achieve that, I feel a huge sense of pride, because I know that’s something I wasn’t able to do before.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

My biggest piece of advice is that whether other people give you the opportunities you’re hoping for is completely out of your control. But whether you feel that you are constantly improving is entirely in your control, and that way of approaching things will sustain you through the lulls and heartbreaks of a career.

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

There are really two sides to that question. One, how do we get the next generation to understand that classical music is for them? That’s in part why I started Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard, to get to children at the ripe old age of three or four years old. The other side of it is making sure that what you’re presenting to the audience is relevant to their lives in some way. That may have to do with repertoire choices, it might have to do with venue choices, perhaps programme lengths, and the way that you introduce a programme to an audience and explain to them how it connects to them. It’s all about humanizing the musicians and the composers and making people feel that this is something that is actually designed for them and that they can partake of whether they’re three or 30 or 99 years old.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

It’s the question of what’s in it for them: What’s in it for your audience? What’s in it for the students? What are they going to get out of that and through their lives? What’s in it for a subscriber or a single ticket buyer? Why are we actually doing this? Because we in the industry get so caught up in the fact that we love it so much, we see what it’s doing for us that we forget to think about the perspective of the people we’re trying to offer it to.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have two favourite possessions. One of them is the Steinway B that’s been with me since 1997, 25 years. I don’t know how I would get it out of the apartment if there’s a fire.

My other favourite possession is the cartoon that Charles Schulz made for me in 1997 – also 25 years ago. It’s a one-panel strip where Schroeder is playing the Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata and the final bar line is missing, so the notes are all falling on the ground with their stems up. Poor Snoopy is trying to walk across the floor and the note stems are pricking his little feet, and he’s saying, “Ouch!”

 

Volumes 2 and 3 of Orli Shaham’s recording of the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas are available now on the Canary Classics label.


A consummate musician recognized for her grace, subtlety, and brilliance, the pianist Orli Shaham is hailed by critics on four continents. The New York Times called her a “brilliant pianist,” The Chicago Tribune referred to her as “a first-rate Mozartean,” and London’s Guardian said Ms. Shaham’s playing at the Proms was “perfection.”

Orli Shaham has performed with many of the major orchestras around the world, and has appeared in recital internationally, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. She is Artistic Director of Pacific Symphony’s chamber series Café Ludwig in California since 2007, and Artistic Director of the interactive children’s concert series, Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard, which she founded in 2010.

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Image credit: Karjaka Studios

 

Frances Wilson in conversation with Maxim Vengerov

I’ve admired world-renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov ever since I first heard him at the Proms in 1999, when he played a fabulous, varied programme which included Brahms’ Violin Sonata No 3, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Ravel’s Tzigane, and a selection of glittering concert showpieces, including a spellbinding performance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. It was just him and pianist Vag Papian, on a special stage set up in the arena (promenading) area of the Royal Albert Hall, playing to a packed house.

In September this year he returns to the Albert Hall, for a special concert celebrating 40 years on stage – or rather 42 years on stage as this concert, originally scheduled for June 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic. In addition to a celebration of his remarkable performing career, it is, for him, also a celebration of his connection with British audiences. “I’ve been here from right at the start of my career. This is like my second home.” As well as giving many concerts in the UK, since 2016 Maxim Vengerov has been a visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Music.

London was also where he studied with Mstislav ‘Slava’ Rostropovich, an adored mentor and friend, whose name comes up frequently during our conversation.

I have great memories with Slava, of visiting his home in Maida Vale. Without him I would be a different musician today. He opened my vision for music and he inspired me also to continue and to share music. Not just to be a performer, but to share it. That’s why I became a teacher at the age of 26. I always wanted to make space for teaching, in spite of my busy schedule.”

The two years of the pandemic and lockdowns, and the shutdown of live music, have had a profound impact on the lives of musicians, and for Vengerov, like many others, it was a time to reflect on the demands of the profession. With an empty concert diary, confined to his home with his family and parents-in-law, the first month of lockdown was an “amazing time with family. I’ve never stayed so long with my family…. But after a month, my elder daughter Lisa says, ‘Daddy, aren’t you going away?’. It was the biggest shock of my life! I realised that for my family, I was the father who was always travelling and sometimes coming back. Today it is different; despite my heavy schedule….in my family’s mind and my own, I am the father who is at home and sometimes on tour.

During lockdown, Vengerov was keen to do something for other people. “It was horrific that we weren’t able to make music, and people weren’t able to listen.” So, as Artist in Residence at ClassicFM, he gathered together a trio and organised a livestreamed concert, an hour of live music, broadcast to some quarter of a million listeners worldwide. This inspired him to continue, to communicate to the world and to share his experience, this time via the medium of interactive online lessons. With the help of a brilliant tech team, he built a platform, created a website and held in excess of 150 free live online lessons with optimal sound and high-quality visuals. These remain in the archive of his website, available to all, while new material is regularly added.

Of this particular lockdown project he says “It was so traumatic to see so many people leaving the profession, but so understandable, because nobody cancelled paying mortgages or bills! But we needed to continue what we feel passionately about and we needed to give some hope. And I did that in my own little modest way.

Now live music is back and audiences are thrilled to have concerts again “Every venue was full – Elbphilharmonie, Salzburg festival, Carnegie Hall, all amazing experiences! People were crying.”

With such a long performing career, how does he maintain the interest, the excitement and the inspiration? “I am never bored!” Vengerov replies immediately, and then goes on to illustrate this point further:

“How many things are involved in the process of making a concert? It requires great preparation, great delivery on stage, great spirit, great instrument [he plays a 1727 ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivari], great hall, acoustically – a wonderful acoustic together with my instrument is always a different experience because my instrument reacts differently to every concert hall and I always play differently in every hall. Then of course partners that I work with, chamber music…. And audiences…they don’t necessarily have to be educated, but they have to be open, and they have to be there for the right reasons, to discover music. And if you’re not in love with the composition you’re performing you should better not do it! There is not a moment when you can be bored….it’s pure enjoyment and pure challenge.”

Away from the concert stage, he draws inspiration from his family and friends, good food and socialising, playing tennis, and walks with his Shiba Inu dog, Toto. And of course the music.

Returning to his forthcoming London concert, we talk about the Shostakovich Violin Concerto, the centrepiece of this concert, and a work which he has played many, many times. The challenge here is keeping the music, and the performance, fresh, and once again the conversation turns back to Slava, and his advice to always play the work as if performing it for the very first time – or “perhaps the last time”. Deep knowledge of the music is important too, and this is where training to become a conductor has helped Vengerov gain crucial insights into the score which inform his performances and lend greater enjoyment and fulfilment. “Once you know the full score, it adds a new dimension to your performance. It’s no longer a violin piece with orchestral accompaniment… you can refer to one or another line in the orchestra and that’s where you draw your inspiration….The impact that the orchestra has on the soloist is vast. And if you’re not part of it, then it’s a different piece.”

The other major work in this concert is Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, for which Vengerov will be joined by cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Simon Trpčeski. Too often regarded as a “party piece”, Vengerov asserts that the Triple Concerto is “a most profound work” that requires a very particular relationship between each member of the orchestra and the soloists. The orchestra in this instance is the Oxford Philharmonic, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, with whom Vengerov has a long-standing association, having shared “so many wonderful things” during his residencies with them. “They are like family members.” Orchestra and soloists will also be joined by students from the RCM for a special arrangement of Sarasate’s Navarra, to celebrate the joy of music-making and music education.

How does it feel to play in such a large venue as the Royal Albert Hall, I ask him, and he replies that it’s important to make the venue “feel cosy”, regardless of its size. He tells me that he encourages students to “play to the last row” when performing at a hall like RAH, to encourage them to think less about volume of sound and more about projection and vibration.

It’s evident from our conversation that for Maxim Vengerov the ongoing pleasure comes from performing and sharing his music to impact people emotionally.

At the age of 5 I didn’t understand why, but when I played in front of an audience, I understood. It gave it [the music] purpose. I’m the lucky one that can bring it alive – and this is the greatest joy.”


Maxim Vengerov celebrates 40 years on stage in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 19th September, with Mischa Maisky, Simon Trpčeski, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and Marios Papadopoulos, and students from the Royal College of Music.

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

I didn’t begin to compose until I was sixteen. At that time I had given up piano lessons (I learned the piano between seven and thirteen) and attended a school where there was no music teacher, so composing was something I had to teach myself, or rather with the collaboration of my younger brother Colin, who also began to compose shortly after me. What made me start to compose was hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, and thinking that this was the most wonderful music I’d ever heard and that I must write a symphony of my own – so I did, and spent the next two years writing one, and when I’d finished, writing another. Beethoven is still my favourite composer, the ideal of everything I believe in. Meanwhile Mahler, all of whose works I’d got to know, became a huge influence, not just the music itself, but also what he stood for as a composer in Beethoven’s succession. Many other composers too were influential, Sibelius and Stravinsky pre-eminently, as I spent all my spare time listening to music and studying scores.

When I left university – where I read Classics as Music wasn’t possible as I hadn’t got music A level), I had the great good fortune to have got to know Deryck Cooke, who had made the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and whom Colin and I later helped with a comprehensive revision. Deryck introduced me to a number of significant people in the musical world, among them Donald Mitchell, who had just founded Faber Music, mainly to publish Britten’s music. I began working freelance for Faber Music and quite soon Britten needed someone to help him with editorial work. Donald suggested me, and I then worked part time for Britten for four years. As the greatest living composer in this country, he was probably the most important influence in my life. He didn’t give composition lessons but I learned from him how to be a composer – see your later question, how do you work?

Other important influences were Michael Tippett, whom I also got to know and on whose music I wrote a short book – I liked his music even more than I liked Britten’s; Nicholas Maw, who became a friend and an unofficial teacher – I thought him the best of the younger composers; and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom I met in England in 1974 and who became a close friend until his death in 2014. I visited many him many times in Australia and we collaborated on three film scores. Peter said that the music of the whole world was tonal, so why we should we pay attention to a few central European composers who said tonality was no longer possible? From Australia I saw music in a new light.

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

The greatest challenge was getting my music played when I was young. As I hadn’t been to a music college I knew virtually no musicians. But I did send the score of a string quartet to the BBC when I was about 23 – they then had a reading panel – and it was played and broadcast; and when I was 26 I sent two orchestral songs to the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which sadly no longer exists) and they were performed at the Royal Festival Hall by Jane Manning with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar (who became a friend and who commissioned my Symphony No.1 – I’d withdrawn my three earlier ones). That was a big step forward. However, I didn’t get a full publishing contract from Faber until 1982.

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

It’s easier, I find, to write a piece if you are given some limitations – i.e. how long it should be, the instrumentation, etc. I wouldn’t want too precise instructions, but that rarely happens. I’ve just written a flute piece for Emma Halnan for the Hertfordshire Festival of Music and what was ideally wanted was a solo piece rather than flute and piano, and a duration of about two and a half minutes. I’ve been able to compose a piece of exactly that length.

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

Well, to carry on with Emma Halnan, I know her and know how she plays, and she’s performed two of my pieces before. So I could imagine her playing it as I was writing. I much prefer writing for musicians I know (as Britten almost always did). I’ve recently written an Oboe Sonata for Nicholas Daniel, someone I know well and for whom I wrote a Concerto. He has a very individual sound, a wonderful ability to play long sustained passages without taking breath, and extraordinary virtuosity. It was a real pleasure writing for him and hearing his special sound in my head.

The same with singers, of course, and with string players. I’ve written two CDs worth of solo violin music for my violinist friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved, and his Kreutzer Quartet are recording all fifteen (so far) of my string quartets, of which five were written especially for them. They know exactly what to do with my music as they’ve played so much of it. I’m not a string player but Peter has taught me so much about string technique. And with orchestras, I have a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic, for whom I’ve written three of the last four of my ten symphonies. I can write for them knowing just how they will sound, and I’m also careful not to write anything that they won’t enjoy playing.

Of which works are you most proud?

I enjoy listening to my own music – well, if the composer doesn’t like his own music he shouldn’t expect anyone else to! There are quite a few pieces I’m proud of; for instance among my symphonies, No.8, several of my string quartets; also my Cello Concerto, Concerto in Azzurro, written for Steven Isserlis and recorded on CD by Guy Johnston. The piece I’m most proud of is my choral and orchestral piece Vespers, of which there is a splendid recording by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. And in the last two years I’ve composed my first opera, which hasn’t yet had a stage performance, only a run-through with piano, but I hope I’ll be proud of it if and when I hear it with orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It’s tonal, though usually not in a traditional way. I use very wide-ranging harmony. I use counterpoint modelled on the way the great masters of the past used it, and above all I try to write memorable melodies. I think the loss of memorable melody in most contemporary music is very sad.

How do you work?

When I’m composing, I like to work every day from after breakfast until lunch. I may go back for a while in the late afternoon. I learned regular hours from Britten. But I’m always thinking about the piece I’m writing, and I quite often wake up at night with ideas.

I try to start a piece well in advance of the deadline (another thing I learned from Britten: always meet deadlines). I think a lot about what character the piece will have, and its shape, and then I have the first musical idea, generally a melodic idea, and after that I may leave the piece to grow inside my head for some while before I start it properly. Once I’ve started, I don’t often get stuck – just for a day or two perhaps. I revise a lot while I’m writing, and don’t usually write more than ten to twenty bars a day, though sometimes more when I’ve almost reached the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My music is concerned with my feelings about life, expressed to the best of my ability in melody, harmony and counterpoint, and in a form that I hope conveys what I intended. I’m happy if I think I’ve done my best with these aims. I also hope that the musicians, who work so hard to bring my pieces to life, will enjoy playing what I have written.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Don’t write pieces that present impossible difficulties to players. Also, be patient, it may take a long time before you can get your pieces played regularly. And find your own voice, don’t get led astray by fashion.

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

Of course it worries me that a lot of people who are brought up on a constant diet of pop music find classical music difficult, and especially modern classical music. Because of this, audiences for contemporary music are almost always small. It’s this that worries me most: I feel that a lot of new music today supplies very little to move audiences, if it’s written in a virtually incomprehensible language, and often a very aggressive, off-putting one. And then, except (rightly) for the Kanneh-Mason family, none of the brilliant young musicians around now are being praised by the mass media, which now largely ignores classical music. Their extraordinary talent should be widely celebrated.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you really think we should be?

I’m worried that decisions about what new music to programme, by the BBC for instance, are no longer based purely on quality, which I think they should, but on other criteria. I’m very happy to hear music by women composers, but it must be good music. To play it just because it’s by a woman is in fact insulting.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Still alive – as long as I can keep my current good health, and still composing reasonably well, if I’m still able to.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sharing a meal at home with my wife.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from composing: reading, drinking good wine, walking in the countryside, and watching and listening to birds.

British composer David Matthews is this year’s Featured Living Composer at Hertfordshire Festival of Music (2-11 June). David’s music will be performed throughout the festival, by flautist Emma Halnan and guitarist Jack Hancher, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and the Maggini Quartet. David will also be in conversation with fellow composer and HFoM Artistic Director James Francis Brown. Full details on the HFoM website.


With a singular body of work spanning almost 60 years, David Matthews has established an international reputation as one of the leading symphonists of our time. Born in London in 1943, he began composing at the age of sixteen. He read Classics at the University of Nottingham – where he has more recently been made an Honorary Doctor of Music – and afterwards studied composition privately with Anthony Milner. He was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw and spent three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a friendship with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (leading to collaboration and numerous trips to Sydney) helped Matthews find his own distinctive voice.

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David Matthews’ website

One Sunday afternoon I was idly leafing through a copy of Vanity Fair, which I found lying around at the country home of my parents-in-law. On the back page was a revealing interview with A Famous Person, based on the Proust Questionnaire, a set of questions which the French author Marcel Proust answered at different times in his life. Later that day, I thought this might make an interesting addition to my blog – a weekly interview where each respondent answers the same questions. And thus, in April 2012 the Meet the Artist interview series was born.

At this time, I’d been writing this blog for nearly two years. Originally intended as a place where I could record my thoughts about returning to the piano after an absence of some 20-odd years, it had quickly become a kind of online classical music ‘magazine’ with varied content: concert reviews interspersed with articles on piano technique, teaching, and repertoire, and more esoteric ‘think pieces’ on music. More importantly, it now had the beginnings of an established, regular readership, albeit still quite small (today it enjoys c30,000 visitors per month). A series of interviews with musicians seemed a good addition. Classical musicians have an aura of mystique (usually created by audiences and others, rather than the musicians themselves) and there is, I find, a great curiosity about what classical musicians do; not just the exigencies of life on the concert platform – the visible, public aspect of the profession – but, in effect, ‘what musicians do all day’. The Meet the Artist interviews offer a snapshot of other facets of the profession, giving readers a chance to get “beyond the notes”, as it were, and in doing so reveal some fascinating insights.

The willingness and openness with which people respond is refreshing, often unexpected, and largely free of ego. In addition, the interviewees give advice and inspiration for those considering a career in music, and attempt to define “success” in a profession where one’s ability to communicate with and move an audience is placed considerably higher than monetary returns.

Tamara Stefanovich

I never sought out the “big name” international performers like Angela Hewitt, Ivo Pogorelich, Tamara Stefanovich or Marc-André Hamelin (or indeed prog rock legend Rick Wakeman!), but as the series grew in reputation, so I found these people were happy to be interviewed, either directly (usually by email, occasionally in person) or via their publicists and agents. The series has become not only a valuable compendium of surprising, insightful, honest, humorous and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists, but also a platform for young and lesser-known artists in particular to gain exposure in an industry which is highly competitive. Others use the series as a means to promote upcoming concerts, recordings or other events, while also leaving an enduring contribution to audience’s and others’ understanding of how the music industry “works” and what makes musicians tick. It has received praise from the likes of pianists Stephen Hough and Peter Donohoe, both of whom are featured in the series.

James MacMillan, composer & conductor

From strictly classical artists such as harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani or composer and conductor James MacMillan, two of the earliest interviewees, the series has broadened in its scope over the years and now includes musicians from the world of crossover classical music, folk and jazz. Yet regardless of genre, what these interviews often reveal is how one’s chosen instrument and its literature exert a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals from a young age and continuing to bewitch and delight, frustrate and excite.

To date, the series features over 1600 interviews from some of our greatest living musicians to young artists poised on the cusp of a professional career. Every single interview has value, and I am immensely grateful to the many musicians who have freely offered their insights, reflections and advice in their interviews.

To all of you who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series to date, THANK YOU.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, April 2022


The Meet the Artist series is ongoing – if you would like to take part, please click here for more information

Critically acclaimed British pianist Brenda Lucas Ogdon returns with her new album ‘Ravel que J’Aime’ (released 1 October 2021).

The album marks only the most recent chapter of Brenda’s rich musical history. Having been awarded the Gold Medal from the Associated Board for the highest marks in any Practical Subject throughout the British Isles, Northern Ireland, and Eire, Brenda has since gone on to perform amongst the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Scottish Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and across the US, Australia, the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and more.

Brenda Ogdon has announced that her royalties from the album will be donated to Shelter – the UK homeless charity. This act follows in the spirit of the artist’s previous charity work. In 1993, Brenda established the John Ogdon Foundation – a foundation which completely funded three scholarships for gifted young musicians allowing them to pursue romantic and contemporary piano to a post graduate standing. The initiative was founded in honour of Brenda’s late husband concert pianist John Ogdon who died in 1989.

[source: press release]

In this Meet the Artist interview, Brenda Lucas Ogdon talks about her influences and inspirations and the experience of travelling and performing with her husband when he was still alive.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was inspired by the lovely, glamorous pianist Eileen Joyce. Not only by her amazing pianism but by her elegant changes of beautiful dresses during her recitals. I was also inspired by the recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas/Concerti by the great pianist Artur Schnabel.

What has been the greatest challenge of your career?

The sudden, unexpected death of my husband, John Ogdon. I was a widow at the age of 53 and my life was turned around. After performing the duo piano works with John for at least 12 years, I had to revive my solo career. It took some time but eventually it happened.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am very proud of the send recording we made of the two Rachmaninov Suites for 2 pianos. EMI amalgamated these with other recordings we made for them of Debussy, Bizet, Arensky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, in a two-CD set, still available on the Warner label. I am also proud of my solo discs of The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2 by J. S. Bach, released in 2018 on Sterling Records.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I really do not have a view on that question. At the moment I am releasing a double album of Ravel “Ravel Que J’Aime”, so I am hoping that it is Ravel.

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

I am always listening to other musicians which gives me a lot of inspiration. My daughter Annabel and I listen frequently to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra via their website.

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

I do not tour or give live concert performances anymore as I am 85 years old and those glory days are not possible for me physically. I have always loved recording so that is what I am happy to do now. The Ravel is for the charity Shelter – I am donating all my royalties to this charity, which I feel passionate about.

What is you favourite concert venue and why?

The Wigmore Hall in London. It is just such a perfect recital hall.

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

More funding for primary education in instrumental tuition in state schools. The rest will follow.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Difficult to pin down one experience against another: several memorable Promenade [Proms] concerts with John; a travel nightmare to give a concert in Spain when the French air traffic controllers were on strike so we missed the date. We eventually travelled and arrived in Malaga in the middle of the night. We played the concert a day late and when we walked on stage the audience erupted in the loudest applause I have ever heard! It was quite memorable and great fun.

As musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when everything that you have worked and prepared for clicks into place at the right moment.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

For performing musicians it is a tough world at the moment. Competition is strong and standards are very high – for example, the recent Leeds International Piano Competition where really amazing pianism was evident. Young musicians should listen to performances by major artists. They should try to accept the fact that there will be disappointments as well as triumphs in the life ahead of them and deal with that in a calm manner.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Yamaha Model C6 Piano

Brenda Lucas Ogdon’s latest album ‘Ravel que J’Aime’ is released on 1 October 2021, preceded by two singles of Miroirs: II. Oiseaux Tristes and À la manière de Borodine. All royalties from the album will donated to the homeless charity Shelter. 


Brenda Lucas Ogdon graduated with honours from the Royal Northern College of Music, where she met her future husband, John Ogdon.  She embarked on a world-wide solo career and a piano duo partnership with John.  This took them to almost anywhere in the world where grand pianos existed.  Brenda has appeared at the Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals, and also Sintra in Portugal and Maine in the U.S.A.  She has recorded for several major labels including EMI & Decca and her work has frequently been broadcast.  She has appeared with major orchestras throughout the UK, Australia and the U.S.A.

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