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

Initially my grandmother who played, though not to a professional level, and taught me how to read music when I was about 5 years old. Also I think for a large part I have been motivated by my love of music and have always enjoyed the challenge that learning a new work brings. I remember as a teenager learning progressively more challenging pieces and there was a certain thrill in challenging myself. As I have got older it has been the desire to share the music that I love with as many people as possible, especially the music of Scriabin and less well-known composers. In addition, music is endlessly fascinating and you never really ‘master’ anything; each performance brings new challenges and the more you perform a work, the more you discover about it.

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

I have been lucky enough to study with a number of fantastic teachers, including: John York, Charles Owen, Martin Roscoe and Ronan o’Hora, and have of course learnt a great deal from all of them. I have always been excited by discovering composers and works which are not so well known – from the age of around 19 I found myself being drawn away from what might be considered the ‘core’ repertoire. This curiosity has led me to the performance of a lot of contemporary music, which is an area I am still very interested in. Most importantly it led to my ongoing obsession with the music of Scriabin, and particularly Scriabin’s late music. My desire to understand this music, and to comprehend how it came about has really shaped my career in the past 5 years, leading to 2 recordings and the completion of my Doctorate (which was based on the performance of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 6).

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

At times, simply keeping going. There are always periods where things are quiet, or perhaps teaching has momentarily taken over. During these times I have always tried to challenge myself with something new – this is partly why I decided to work towards a Doctorate, and partly what led me to crowdfund 2 recordings. The music profession is changing and you have to make your own opportunities, which can be tough at times, as well as daunting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The two Scriabin discs I have recorded, which cover the complete ‘late’ piano music. Both records were organised by myself: everything from the crowdfunding, to the CD design. This is not easy music to record and the second disc (completed in January) was recorded in 18 hours over two days, which was very taxing, but completely exhilarating. The resulting recordings I have now heard and am quietly very proud of.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s difficult to say, but the works I enjoy performing best would certainly include the late music of Scriabin, Ravel and Debussy, Brahms and Schumann, as well as quite a lot of contemporary music – in particularly James Macmillan’s piano sonata and Thomas Adès’ ‘Traced Overhead’.

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

It’s important to play to your strengths, as well as to perform only works that you enjoy playing (where possible). I like varied programmes, particularly as I often include quite a lot of more unusual repertoire, so it’s nice to break this up with something more familiar.

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

I love the new Milton Court hall [near the Barbican]; it has a wonderful acoustic. I have also been very lucky to be able to participate in the ‘En Blanc et Noir’ festival in the south of France for a number of years now. Their concert venue is open air, in the main square of a little village called Lagrasse, under the covered medieval market. Despite the odd gust of wind, this is a really magical setting, especially when the sun is setting.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have become a very big fan of Stephen Hough’s playing, for me it encapsulates what I love about live performance; it is at once extremely exciting and passionate, and completely controlled. Having studied a lot of Scriabin, I have got to know the recordings of Norwegian pianist Hakon Austbo, and these have been a real inspiration to me throughout my preparation. I have been lucky enough to play to Hakon a couple of times and have always been struck by the reverence with which he treats the music, as well as his musical imagination. Finally I would have to add Martin Roscoe, who I studied with at Guildhall. He is one of the most exciting and versatile musicians I have ever met and I will never forget his performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata at Guildhall: it remains for me one of the most memorable concert experiences of all time.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have performed a couple of recitals of Scriabin by candlelight, which were both very special occasions. The first was in the monks’ dining room in an old monastery in France – it had a wonderful vaulted ceiling and was a perfect setting for the music. The second was in the Asylum chapel in Peckham, which was to launch my first Scriabin disc – it was extraordinarily cold, but no one seemed to care as the venue and music were so perfect together. It was this performance that convinced me that some works are simply better suited to certain locations – Scriabin in the concert hall works fine, but in the ruined chapel of the Asylum, it took on new dimensions.

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

The musical world changes and to survive you must be in touch with how this is happening. For instance Facebook is now arguably one of the most important methods of publicity, and artists must be able to engage with this form of promotion and communication. In addition, you have to make things happen for yourself, and cannot expect opportunities to be handed to you. This means being willing to put yourself on the line, as well as being forthcoming – not something I find easy. Constantly finding new and innovative ways of presenting yourself seems to be the way forward. I would also add that it is very important to know your strengths and play to them.

What is your present state of mind?

Determined.

James Kreiling has performed in most of the major London concert halls, as well as throughout Europe. His interest in contemporary and new music has led to performances in the Royal Albert and Barbican Halls – most notably in the summer of 2007 he performed solo in the BBC Proms’ composer portrait of David Matthews. In 2008 James was selected as one of the Park Lane Group’s young artists and this resulted in a solo recital in 2009 at the Purcell Room to great critical acclaim, as well as recitals in St Martin in the Fields and in the Little Missenden Festival. In addition James has broadcast regularly for BBC radio 3, including performances of the music of Jonathan Harvey, David Matthews and Peter Eotvos. Together with his wife Janneke Brits, James is a member of the Brits-Kreiling piano duo. They have performed together regularly since 2009 and have been regulars at the En Blanc et Noir piano festival in Lagrasse, France. They have performed in many of the major venues in London, and broadcast for BBC radio. They are both teaching assistants at Music at Albignac, a summer course based in the south of France run by pianist and French music specialist Paul Roberts. One of James’ biggest passions is the music of Alexander Scriabin and he is currently working towards a performance-based research doctorate at the Guildhall school of music, which is focused on the analysis and performance of Scriabin’s late piano sonatas. He gives regular lecture-recitals on Scriabin’s piano music and as part of the celebrations for Scriabin’s centenary in 2015, he will be making his first commercial recording in June of this year, which will centre around Scriabin’s late piano music.

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

The joy of discovering new things in music inspired me. I was self-taught, and I just found the notion of making music such a thrilling adventure.

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

I think a composer draws inspiration from all of the events in their lives. But looking back, I’m pretty sure some of the music I listened to when I was young provided some serious influence…the Beatles in particular. My flute teacher, Judith Bentley was also a huge influence. And then there are all of my colleagues…they continue to inspire me every day.

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

Starting out in my undergrad not knowing much of anything about classical music was an incredible challenge. For a long time I felt that I was climbing a huge mountain of knowledge, trying to pick up as many “pebbles” as I could manage to carry. But every step made me smarter and stronger. Along the way, I realized that one spends an entire lifetime learning.

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

Every piece is a challenge. To create something from nothing is a big thing. Sometimes I’m learning about a particular instrument’s needs (I just finished a tuba concerto…so I studied a lot of the repertoire and talked with various players to get a sense of what would be ideal in the piece). Other times, I’m trying to craft something that works for the performer(s). Then there is the challenge of getting notes on a page, which I hope the performer and listener will find interesting.

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

I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization about this (I’m so lucky to be able to work with such a huge assortment of performers)…each piece is different and the challenges and pleasures change daily and yearly.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be proud of one particular work. They all reflect so many things for me. But the one that feels very personal is “Blue Cathedral” … it seems to affect so many people. I’m sometimes surprised at how many instrumentalists and composers tell me this is the first piece of contemporary music that they encountered when they were younger. Even more surprising is how many people have performed it more than once. That’s one of the things that makes it special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I let other people decide that for themselves.

How do you work?

I try to work every day, composing 4-6 hours a day: consistently, persistently, and conscientiously.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Impossible to name as there are literally thousands!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m lucky to have had many incredible and memorable experiences. One of the most life changing was the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of my “Concerto for Orchestra” which took place at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference. My life changed over night after that performance. Suddenly I was known, and commissions started coming in.

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

Make sure you love what you’re doing, as you’ll spend so much of your waking time doing it. Work hard and do it to the best of your ability. Share the joy with as many other people as you can.

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

Composing in my studio

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing in my studio

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, NY, December 31, 1962) is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Higdon started late in music, teaching herself to play flute at the age of 15 and beginning formal musical studies at 18, with an even later start in composition at the age of 21. Despite this late beginning, she has become a major figure in contemporary Classical music and makes her living from commissions. These commissions represent a range of genres, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and wind ensemble.

Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit,” her works have been performed throughout the world, and are enjoyed by audiences at several hundred performances a year and on over sixty CDs. Higdon’s orchestral work, blue cathedral, is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral compositions by a living American with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.

Her list of commissioners and performing organizations is extensive and includes The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, The Atlanta Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic, The Melbourne Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Dallas Symphony, as well as such groups as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the President’s Own Marine Band. Higdon has worked with musicians that include Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Hilary Hahn, and Yuja Wang.

Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January, 2010. Higdon also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”

Among her national honors, Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. She was also honored by the Delaware Symphony with the A.I. DuPont Award for her contributions to the symphonic literature. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

Higdon has been a featured composer at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton, and Cabrillo. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with several orchestras across the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Higdon was also honored to serve as one of the Creative Directors of the Boundless Series for the Cincinnati Symphony.

One of Higdon’s most current project was an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. All performances in Santa Fe were sold out and Higdon’s opera became the third-highest grossing opera in the company’s history at Opera Philadelphia. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she has inspired a generation of young composers and musicians. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

For more information: www.jenniferhigdon.com

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

When I was three years old, my Dad came back after work one evening with a tiny little electronic keyboard for me and a little book of tunes. This thing was so small – smaller than a harmonica, I remember. I think my Dad got it at the local petrol station where he had been collecting loyalty stamps and this was one of the rewards (no doubt along with some kind of tankard and a Castrol GTX baseball cap). Anyway, I remember the keyboard didn’t have black and white keys but just a series of black buttons with do re mi etc. printed below. I learned all the tunes in the book that first night and I really enjoyed it. I still remember the feel of this little gadget in my hands – I have a very strong memory for how things feel. Some time soon after that evening, my parents and I visited my grandparents’ antiques shop in the Cotswolds and there was a piano in the showroom. I somehow managed to work out the tunes I’d learned on my little keyboard on that piano and was playing away. My grandparents asked if I could pick out a tune from the radio and work it out on the piano and I seemed to be able to do this. My Mum decided I should definitely have piano lessons and so we got a piano and she learned too, to begin with. As far as I can recall, all though primary school I knew that I wanted to be a pianist and had already formed that identity for myself. I had about four weeks when I was ten when I thought I might like to be a stockbroker: I think that was because I’d seen some footage of traders doing all those fascinating hand signals on the trading floor and I thought it looked cool. I love hands, and hands doing interesting things. Other than that brief interlude I’ve always been hellbent on being a pianist. I was very lucky to have such supportive and encouraging parents. They were never pushy – they just did whatever was possible to give me the best opportunities they could and I’m deeply appreciative for all they did for me.

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

I’ve had loads of teachers over my life – way more than most people, for some reason. I don’t know why this is. I’ve had some really brilliant teachers. I’ve had a few truly terrible ones too, and, actually, I learned a tremendous amount from those awful ones in terms of what I don’t want to be, how I don’t want to play and how I don’t ever want to treat a student. Enough of the bad ones though – the good ones were oh-so-good and they made a big impact on me. My most influential teacher, with whom I studied through most of my teenage years, was Caroline McWalter. She taught me at the Junior Birmingham Conservatoire and was the best possible fit for me – always so encouraging, and I hear her all the time when I’m teaching my own students. Other big influences on me were Alexander Kelly, Darla Crispin, Martin Butler and Peter Feuchtwanger. I’m really thankful to have had some fantastic teachers – all of them very interesting people. I like interesting people……. sounds like a dumb thing to say, doesn’t it? When does anyone ever say “I don’t like interesting people”? But what I mean is that I needed people with real personality to respond to when I was a student. Personality is key.

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

Ten years ago I was at a really exciting point in my career. I’d left music college and was getting really good gigs at high profile venues and I had recording opportunities. Things were going very well but I was starting to lose my hearing. It was sporadic – my hearing would just go for several hours each day. At that same time I noticed many changes to my hands and feet. The joints would often look a purple colour and they would swell, become stiff and very painful. After many tests and much monitoring I was diagnosed with an aggressive type of rheumatoid arthritis that went on a rampage through my body. I was told by my doctor that there was a good chance I would be wheelchair-bound within four years. I was told to give up playing piano. This was devastating to me. Losing my career was the worst news I could have been given and losing my greatest joy, passion, my raison d’être was just awful. I was given a lot of serious medication to take (15 pills a day) and the news from my medical team was pretty gloomy. As my mobility decreased, some days finding it difficult to walk even a few steps, I entered a deep personal crisis. I was scared of my own body – scared to be in my body, scared of how my body was changing and scared of what my body would be like in the future. On getting the diagnosis I was sent on a course to learn about my “condition”. I was shown slides of terrible deformities and was told that this is what I’ve got to look forward to. Frankly, it was a form of torture. I can’t quite believe I had to go through five weeks of attending this impending doom/gloom fest and be told to give up hope. Their advice was basically to sit at home, take loads of drugs, don’t do much, and spend hours each evening with my arms strapped into splints. It was grim, grim, grim.

Then after a few pretty darned depressing years something suddenly changed in me and I thought “well, I’m not having this – this is not what I want for my life.” I connected with this little, tiny fire deep in me that fuelled me and gave me the confidence to change my life. It was around the same time that my father died and so big change of course was bound to occur. I understood that I had the power to heal myself. I started doing yoga (Iyengar originally but now I do kundalini yoga), I developed a wonderful meditation practice and I totally cleaned up my diet. Things started to improve and I became more and more positive and capable. I started playing piano again (I had still been teaching whilst I was ill) but I was extremely tense and found everything very difficult. I found my way to the late, great piano teacher Peter Feuchtwanger and he helped me find a very natural, easy technique and put me back on track. He also sparked my interest in Asian musics and philosophies. He really changed my life and I will be eternally grateful.

My body is my greatest teacher. I wouldn’t change a thing about what I’ve gone through. I’ve learned so much. I don’t believe that I had rheumatoid arthritis – I believe I was in a state of “dis- ease” and my body was telling me that I had to change certain aspects of my life. It was a case of soul-sickness physically manifested, lack of connectedness, and it needn’t have been medicalised. In order to transform and move into another phase of one’s life often one has to experience some pain and there is a form of “death” to go through…….. the cycles of life within one’s own life. I had some pretty dark times and I’m all the better for them. The journey from being terrified of my body to now being totally in love with it and with all that it does has been so remarkable and so valuable. These days I run, I take no medication whatsoever, I wear high heels (didn’t think I’d be able to do that again!), I play for hours and am really happy, really well and feel connected and ‘in the right place.’ The little fire I re-discovered in me several years ago is now big, beautiful, creative and passionately burning.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my very first solo album which I’ve recently recorded. It’s called BHOOMA and is inspired by the Hindu goddess representing Mother Earth, she of infinite variety. It’s a collection centred around my own compositions alongside works from across Asia and America and is due for release in 2018. There are Indian textures and Persian rhythms and quite a lot of jazz. Although most of my career has been focused around contemporary classical music, in my heart I feel much greater affinity to jazz. I used to play a lot and am now steering myself back in that direction.

It’s difficult to categorise what I do these days so recently I’ve found myself opting for terms like “post-genre” and “polystylistic.” I don’t particularly like these descriptions but they can be useful.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Pretty obvious, I guess, but my own compositions are what I play best! I seem to be a good baroque player and I also gravitate to composers with rich, resonant soundworlds like Messiaen, Somei Satoh and my old teacher Peter Feuchtwanger. Huge generalisations about to come….. A lot of French stuff suits me. American too. Russian stuff doesn’t.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For some reason, my most memorable concert experiences are negative ones, but quite funny, some of them. For instance, I gave the opening concert of a new piano festival at a big venue in London a couple of years ago and only two people turned up. One of them was my best friend. Another time I was doing a gig at a venue, also in London, and arrived to discover that there was no middle C in the piano – caused me no end of bother having to move everything up and down an octave the whole bloody time. A few years ago in Manchester I was playing one of my very, very favourite pieces (Incarnation II by Somei Satoh) which is a hugely rich and resonant and intense work. I had built up so much sound in this small venue that it had really disturbed someone. She said to me afterwards that my playing made her feel physically sick. Charming, eh? She had to leave the room to puke.

I have also had many lovely memorable experiences too though. Having St. Paul’s Cathedral all to myself for a whole week of nightly concerts as musician-in-residence was rather marvellous. I’ve been lucky to have concerts in fabulous settings like French chateaus, candle-filled churches and once in an Italian cave. I love those wonderful concerts where you just hit the right flow and can hold everyone in a beautiful space together, in communion with sound.

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

1. Naturalness.

2. Personal authenticity.

3. You don’t have to be good at everything.

4. Don’t follow the crowd.

5. Take risks.

6. Don’t be an operative.

7. Make everything you do physically pleasurable.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Among my piano heroes are Bill Evans, Martha Argerich, Abdullah Ibrahim, Nina Simone, Rosalyn Tureck, Jeremy Denk, Nat King Cole…. there are more. Beyond the piano I love Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Handel, Monteverdi, Bach, Messiaen, Steve Reich, Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, Toumani Diabaté, Elton John (childhood hero), Stevie Wonder, Scott Walker, Roxy Music, David Bowie. I could go on forever……

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

I see myself in ten years’ time living in France running a cross-cultural music exchange centre in a beautiful location where musicians from all over the world can come and meet and collaborate with other musicians from across the globe. I intend to have a recording studio there and I want a venue where I can run candlelit festivals of ineffably gorgeous music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The bright silence of transcendence. There is perfect happiness in meditation.

What is your most treasured possession

My beloved piano.

I also have a small nineteenth-century bronze shrine to the goddess Lakshmi that I’m exceedingly fond of. If there was a fire in my flat there’s no way I’d be able to save my grand piano, of course, but I would make sure I took my Lakshmi shrine and my box of family photographs with me as I ran from the burning building.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing piano, writing music, kundalini yoga, transcendental meditation, dancing, singing, eating, drinking, going on road trips, and having as much fun as possible.

What is your present state of mind?

Full of wonder.

 

Critically acclaimed pianist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical explorer, Helen Anahita Wilson, debuts her latest solo project BHOOMA at the Shoreditch Treehouse on 6 December.

1. BHOOMA, NOUN = LIMITLESS FEMININE CREATIVITY

2. BHOOMA DEVI = HINDU GODDESS REPRESENTING MOTHER EARTH

Inspired by the Hindu goddess Bhooma – she of infinite creative variety – this project brings together Helen’s own compositions inspired by jazz and Asian musics alongside works by composers from across the globe. Expect Indian textures, Persian rhythms and Japanese minimalism with the intimacy of a late-night, low-light jazz club.This concert of exotica includes world premieres by Helen Anahita Wilson and Stephen Montague.

BOOK TICKETS

www.helenanahitawilson.com

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

My mother studied piano and has taught piano all of her adult life. Her father has also played the piano since childhood, and has a keen interest in music, so any musical inclination comes from my mother’s side. There was always a lot of music in our house. My brothers all played something, though none of them persevered past their early teens – unfortunately I missed out on the opportunity to play in any kind of family band. Past that point there were also the sounds of more modern genres coming from different parts of the house.  I was first introduced to the piano aged five but at first didn’t really take to it, even though it seems there were things I could do without needing much instruction.  About a year later, I found that some school friends had begun regular piano lessons.  I didn’t like the idea of their being better than me, so from that point I started to take it more seriously! As I moved onto more challenging works, and to those by the great composers, I really felt a strong connection to music, and it was only a few years later that I realised that I wanted to be a musician.

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

My mother was my first teacher. She realised quite early that I needed additional guidance and, age 9, I also began to have lessons with Hilary Coates, and then soon after with Hilary’s husband, Christopher Elton, who is professor of piano (and at the time Head of Keyboard) at the Royal Academy of Music.  Hilary helped to focus and fine tune my technical development in those early stages, and Christopher guided me musically through my teens and into adulthood.

My first inspirations among other artists were some of those whose recordings were in our collection – pianists like Horowitz, Argerich and Rubinstein. I recall at that time being particularly inspired by listening to Rubinstein playing Chopin – in particular his carrying of a cantabile melody mesmerised me. In my early teens, I became interested in the playing of other pianists born or active in the first half of the century – Cortot, Rosenthal, Friedman, Edwin Fischer, Feinberg, Schnabel amongst others – and found in their playing particular aesthetics, ideas and inspiration to inform and enrich my own approach.  I also became interested in other historical performers.  Wilhelm Furtwängler’s conducting was a particular inspiration – the wholly ‘organic’ way in which he applied often acute agogics, always maintaining fluidity, was remarkable, as was the depth of the sonority he drew from the string sections.

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

After the success in the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 11, there was some pressure to become a full-time performer, but I’m glad that my parents and I resisted this, retaining two periods of a month each year in which I’d give concerts, but with the majority of my time reserved for music lessons and my wider education.  However, the transition from this pattern to performing more or less the whole year round in my late teens was a challenge.  I’d been used to the luxury of having relatively long periods for preparation and only playing one or two concerti and one recital programme each season.  The need to have a good deal more repertoire on the go at any given time meant I needed to make changes to my preparation regime.  It was tough at the outset of having to make these adjustments, but I managed to soldier through this period and realised that this was very much part of being a concert pianist.

Which particular works do you feel you play best?

I can’t answer this directly because I don’t think about works in quite this way.  Rather, I look at repertoire to which I feel a genuine connection (above all on an emotional level).  This could be a work by Couperin from the early Baroque or, as with this coming season, the Berg Sonata.  The question of whether a particular performance is any good or not is a separate issue, but I don’t personally feel that I’m best in, say, a given composer or period.

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

I enjoy variety from one season to the next – while also striving to expand my musical horizons over time – and similarly within programmes. I can listen with pleasure to a recital of three Schubert sonatas, say, but I know that this kind of programming is not for me as a performer.  Perhaps I could flesh out my approach using this season’s programme as an example.  I enjoyed greatly playing Bach’s 4th Partita five years ago and wanted to play another of the suites, choosing the fifth French Suite which is one of my favourites.  I was considering programming Brahms op.119 – having performed a number of the chamber works and his 1st Piano Concerto I wanted now to explore some later works – when Brett Dean sent me his pieces Hommage à Brahms, written for Emmanuel Ax as interludes between each of the four Brahms Op.119 works. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the Dean pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.

I have felt close to Berg’s music since performing some of his songs during my Royal Academy days. I also relished getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism.   I think it is fascinating to consider that Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres midi d’un faune was written just a year after the Brahms op.119, and it is an ideal preface to the Berg sonata – Pierre Boulez called Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune the beginning of modern music.  Debussy had used whole-tone scales and also unstable tonality, evoking atmospheres in sound that had not been known in Western music until that time.  Of course, Debussy’s work is for orchestra… However, Debussy’s champion and friend George Copeland had made a transcription for piano, as had Leonard Borwick.  There is a telling quote from Copeland about his arrangement: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano — music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.” Everyone knows this work and the orchestral original is indelibly imprinted.  I suppose the wanton challenge of playing a piano transcription thus appealed to me all the more…  In the end, I felt that Borwick’s was more effective in many sections (Copeland could be somewhat sketchy), so what I’m playing is mostly Borwick, with some bars from Copeland and some of my own.  I’m ending the programme with Gaspard.  I’d played and recorded this in my late teens, but I love this music and felt it was time to return to it.

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

Although the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall is not a friendly one for piano (it is cavernous and projection will always be an issue), I particularly enjoy the atmosphere at the Proms. The audience is so responsive, yet they are so very quiet before you start playing. It’s hard to think of another venue where one can so immediately feel the response of audience members.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It would be difficult to pick out one…but if I had to I might pick out the Proms once again! I have been lucky enough to have played both on the First and Last nights, which are both unique events. Certainly for my first Proms experience as a performer, playing Liszt 2 on the first night was very memorable indeed.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m sure whole books could be written on the subject of how to define success in music!  For me, having given a performance that seems to have been genuinely appreciated by colleagues brings what most feels like ‘success’.  This is one of the reasons I am increasingly drawn to chamber music.  It’s lovely if a conductor or the leader of an orchestra says something truly complimentary after a concerto, for example, but playing with a handful of colleagues and finding during the performance and afterwards that we seemed all to be firing off one another’s imagination and involvement is a wonderful feeling.

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

I don’t feel qualified to give any general answer, not least as I sense that each person needs to find his or her way of connecting deeply to music.  It could be that a promising young musician listens to the most magical (to me) performance of a Chopin Nocturne and is not particularly moved, but is shaken to the core by the last movement of Mahler 6.  I don’t want to sound in the least didactic but I have the feeling that seeking that deep connection – via whichever route works best – is the necessary starting point.  After that, ideas and concepts will begin much more easily to fall into place.

 

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is internationally recognized for his electrifying performances and insightful interpretations. His virtuosic command over the most strenuous technical complexities underpins the remarkable depth and understanding of his musicianship. Benjamin is renowned for his distinctive sound, described as ‘poetic and gently ironic, brilliant yet clear-minded, intelligent but not without humour, all translated through a beautifully clear and singing touch’ (The Independent), and making him one of the most sought-after young pianists in the world.

Benjamin first came to prominence as the outstanding winner of the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of eleven, and he was invited to perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms at just nineteen. Since then, he has become an internationally regarded pianist and was announced in 2016 as the inaugural recipient of The Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize with the New York Philharmonic. As part of this he returns to New York in April 2018, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as chamber music with members of the orchestra at the Tisch Center for the Arts at 92nd Street Y.

Read more

(photo: Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia)

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

We had an upright piano in the corner of the dining room, which one of my older sisters was learning on. Aged about 6 I used to sit at it, crashing about on the keys and flailing my arms around as I imagined concert pianists did –  maybe I saw one on the TV. I think my parents realised my enthusiasm needed channelling and took me to a teacher who reminded me of Cruela de Vil – brown hair on one side and blonde on the other! I had a wonderful teacher at secondary school, Elaine Hugh-Jones, who was very inspiring and supportive. For a long while I toyed with becoming a solo pianist, but turned down the opportunity to study piano at the RNCM in preference to taking up an instrumental scholarship at Oxford. Over time I began to realise that my musical temperament did not lean towards life as a soloist, and there were many other ways to pursue a performing career. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) held those answers for me.

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

A chance conversation with Roger Vignoles prevented me from giving up altogether…I needed a teacher who knew about accompanying-he suggested some lessons with Paul Hamburger, and, as well as with him, at the GSMD I had the chance to work intensively with Graham Johnson, Martin Isepp and Iain Burnside, who were all hugely inspirational to me in their different ways. Playing for masterclasses at Snape for wonderful singers/teachers such as Elly Ameling, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Elizabeth Soderstrom were also fantastic learning opportunities. In latter years, especially after moving to Shropshire, I have Roddy (Roderick Williams) to thank for continuing to take me with him on his musical journey, whilst it may have seemed I disappeared off the musical world’s radar; and for his natural, intelligent, sublime interpretations. Oh, and his irrepressible sense of humour.

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

Trying to keep it going!! The move to Shropshire, having three children in close succession, and getting divorced made it particularly challenging to carry on playing at all.

Musically, I think some of the contemporary works I’ve performed have challenged me greatly, such as the four Songs by Torsten Rasch, commissioned for Gloucester Three Choirs Festival; and more recently getting out of my comfort zone and having to use an elbow in a new work called “The Rain is Coming” by Emily Levy.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Going way back, one which comes to mind is playing for Nathan Berg in the Gold Medal final at GSMD. He was singing Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder – trying to do these incredible songs justice for Nathan meant so much to me I was sick beforehand! Luckily it paid off – and he won. A recent performance of Die Schöne Mullerin with Roddy had a feeling of musical and emotional synchronicity – I was so glad to be part of that performance too. And I’m really proud to have been given the opportunity to record the new SOMM CD, songs that I have performed with Roddy many, many times over the years, all of which I adore.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

You may have to ask others about that!

Accompanists have to be like chameleons. It’s important to be able to feel comfortable in as many styles as possible. I like to think I can play best whatever I happen to be working on. Having said that, I have a particular penchant for the serious and intense, for example I think I can put across a pretty convincing “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” (Mahler)… I also feel I now have a more confident approach to playing Schubert – Die Schöne Mullerin is a personal favourite; although tomorrow it may be Schwanengesang, and the day after, Winterreise.

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

As an accompanist with many other demands made on my time, these choices are frequently not mine. Quite often my job is to fall in love with whatever repertoire I am tasked with – I enjoy that challenge.

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

Roddy and I did a tour of Schwanengesang in 2016. One of the venues was the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe in London. It was a very special place to play. It is an utterly beautiful bijou Jacobean-style space for starters, and as the performers, we were cocooned by the audience above us and around us, all of us bathed in the most atmospheric candlelight – a truly memorable experience.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A festival in 2013 – memorable for the wrong reasons! I was attempting to give my all in an exceptionally beautiful postlude of Richard Sisson’s “So Heavy Hangs the Sky”, when the city council rudely began to empty the huge glass-recycling bins outside the venue – the sound continued for a good ten seconds… The second half of the concert was accompanied by reversing vehicle noises, pretty much matching the pulse, but not the atmosphere of Britten’s “The Sunflower”. The audience were not happy!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The ability to be able to move an audience through musical communication.

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

Respect the composer’s intentions, whatever you perceive them to be; try to communicate the spirit of the piece; enjoy the practice journey; have fun. Respect and support your colleagues.

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

Back at the Wigmore Hall

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The Beach House Goa Retreat

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway piano, given to me when I was 14

What do you enjoy doing most?

Walking the dog in the Shropshire hills with my kids

What is your present state of mind?

Busy!

 

Roderick Williams’ new CD, with Susie Allan, piano, ‘Celebrating English Song’ is available now on the SOMM label. Further information here

Susie Allan studied Music at Worcester College, Oxford, as a Hadow Instrumental Scholar, and Piano Accompaniment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She won the GSMD Accompaniment Prize, the Gerald Moore Award, and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Award. Her teachers included Paul Hamburger, Graham Johnson and Iain Burnside. She has accompanied many masterclasses at the Britten-Pears School at Snape Maltings, Suffolk and elsewhere, and has been a Professor of Accompaniment at the RCM and the RWCMD.

 

 

 

573033393031_01Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My answer to this seems to change every time I answer it. My granddad was a massive influence on me musically. I come from a working class family. My granddad played jazz, and was mostly self-taught, but phenomenally gifted. He had an unbelievable ear. He regretted not being able to make more of his own talent, due to poverty and being drafted for WWII. So he was very encouraging of me in the early years, and remained so through my life. We sort of did our best to work things out together, by reading and listening together. But at the age of eight, I was dragged to Texas by a deranged father who had a fantasy of being a cowboy in the Wild West. He was an unemployed alcoholic almost the whole five years we were there, living his fantasy at the expense of his wife and kids. Apart from what we got at school, I was mostly self-taught until the age of 16. I taught myself the piano until that age.

Whilst in Texas I discovered classical music and Beethoven in particular. We had this percussion teacher at School who did these arrangements of classical music for the percussion group. It was very inspiring what he was doing, getting kids into listening to classical music that way. We played the arrangements, which would inspire us to go and listen to the originals – which many of us did. He sort of fostered this group of dedicated students around him, such that we would spend all our free periods hanging out in the music block. I heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and then I heard Beethoven and it was like – BAM!!! I’d previously been listening to the Beastie Boys and Iron Maiden. But when I heard Beethoven, all of that seemed so boring in comparison. So from then on, I just hoovered up classical music by looking for LPs in junk shops (there was nothing like BBC Radio 3 in Texas!). This music seemed all the more powerful at the time as my life was otherwise was so absolutely awful: I was being abused at home, bullied at School, we were living on food stamps and I thought nothing would save me. Then I heard Beethoven, and that was it! It seemed to contain the whole universe in it, and to speak to humanity at both its finest and most desperate. I get annoyed when I hear idiots these days saying classical music is elitist, and is only for the rich. That’s rubbish. I was a poor kid, in the most desperate of situations. And not only was that music speaking to me, it as the only thing speaking to me. Not only did it speak to me, it saved me. It saved my life…no two ways about it. From that moment on I discovered and that music had enormous potential to transform people in a way nothing else could, and decided that I would become a composer. Looking back that seems ludicrous: I had no access to proper musical education, and I was in the middle of a cultural void. But that didn’t matter. I decided that’s what I was going to do, so I did it. Moreover, I realized that if I was going to do it, I’d have to do it basically all on my own. And I think that was a good lesson because, to be a real composer, that’s basically what you do have to do anyway. Education can help you, but in the end you have to have something to say and be determined to see it through. I remember consciously thinking, ‘Right, I don’t have the access to the tuition those other kids have. So to be anywhere near as good as them, I’ll have to work twice as hard. But I want this to be my life…so I’ll work four times as hard as they do.’ And I did: I practised the piano at least seven hours a day, even on school days, by getting up very early. On weekends I practised the whole day. That in itself was hard, because the piano was from a charity shop that we got for free. Most of the strings were broken, so I would learn the fingering at home, and then take the music to school to play it on pianos with strings at lunchtime and break time. It sounds weird, but I think that did me good as it helped me to develop both an ear and an imagination. It helped me to hold pieces in my head, and to imagine what they might sound like rather than to hear what they did sound like. I may not have developed the composer’s imagination without that. I don’t know.

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

As I say above, my granddad, and my high school percussion teacher in Texas. The next piece of good fortune was ending up at the University of Exeter, and meeting the composer Philip Grange, who became my main teacher. I got in to university on a fluke, largely thanks to him seeing something in me in interview. I totally screwed up my A-levels. We were back in the UK then, and I did my A-levels whilst living in B&B emergency accommodation as registered homeless. I took my compositions to Phil in an interview, and he just saw what I was trying to do, so I got a silly low offer…so I just scraped in! Phil went on to become a life-long mentor and friend. He saw something in me, and was very inspiring, giving hours of his time. He also introduced me to Peter Maxwell Davies, who in turn became an advocate. At the same time at Exeter, there was the pianist James Clapperton and the musicologist Ken Gloag (both postgrads there). They similarly took me under their wings, and provided this combination of raw talent (James) and fierce intellect (Ken) such that they were the sort of musical Yin and Yang that shaped my approach. I think it also helped that they were both working class communists, and felt a need to protect me from all the Exeter posh kids. But that’s not fair on my fellow students: there was an inspiring crowd of undergrads around me there too: People like John Fosbrook, and James Mustard and Ellie Lane. Ken sadly passed away earlier this year. I miss Ken.

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

I have mostly found music inspiring and wonderful, rather than challenging or frustrating. The challenges and frustrations come with the stuff, and people, around music. I find the politics around classical music especially frustrating and, well ignorant, at present. But music is bigger and better than all that nonsense. I don’t really think of composition as a career: it’s a life choice: a decision to be part of something transcendent. If you want a career, become a banker or sell insurance. If you set out as a composer and expect it to be a career, you will be frustrated at every turn. If you think of it instead as being a process of having music in your head, a vision of what music can be, and writing it down and sharing that with people, it will work out better. There is nothing I abide more than ‘the professional composer’ – the sort of composer that swans around posing, more in love with the idea of *being* a composer than with actually composing. There is also the composer that is more interested in being talked about than listened to…but don’t get me on to that! Just watch Tony Hancock’s The Rebel if you want to get an idea of what I am talking about.

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

I don’t really care whether a piece is commissioned or not. I write what is in my head, irrespective of that. When I was younger, I used to think the worst thing you could do was miss a deadline. So I found that challenging. For me pieces need to grow for a long time inside me to be what I want them to be. I can see the reasoning in that way of thinking (not missing a deadline): no one wants to let people down. But as I have gotten older I realize there is something far worse than letting people down: letting music down (which ultimately amounts to a far worse form of letting people down). Music deserves the very best we can give it, no matter what. And if you compromise a piece by rushing to meet a deadline, no one remembers that you met the deadline or not, or at least they don’t remember that for very long. They do remember if you wrote a good piece or a crap one. And they remember that for a very long time. I only agree deadlines very far in the future. I write slowly; and I don’t take on many commissions.

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

I like to work with people that I like – as people and as musicians. Finding a performer that you really really click with is a real joy, and once I find those people, I tend to want to work with them again and again, because in working with them I feel that I learn more about music itself and about life and humanity. I don’t understand this obsession with ‘the professional composers’ of being commissioned by every ensemble under the sun. What’s that about? Being a composer is not so different than being in a band. It can take years to find the right drummer, the right guitarist or whatever. Once you’ve found the right drummer, why would you keep changing for the sake of it? Robert Plant was interviewed in 1975 and was asked if he would ever consider leaving Led Zeppelin and go solo. His response was total incomprehension, ‘But if I did that, who else would I have for a drummer, or a guitarist or a bassist than these guys? No, that just wouldn’t feel right.’ Unfortunately Bonham died in 1980, and then Plant went solo because as far as he was concerned that was the end of Led Zeppelin. Okay, I am not in a rock band, so I don’t need to stick to just three collaborators! But if I work with someone, it is always with a view to forming a long-term relationship that allows us both to learn and grow. I’ve had some wonderful collaborators: the Quatuor Danel (for whom I’ve written three quartets), The Lawson Trio, Richard Casey, Ignacio Lara Romero, the BBC Philharmonic… Mostly, I see working with someone as just forming an intimate human relationship. And I have never been into one-night stands!

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Starlight Squid’ was written in 1998. It’s had dozens of performances. I could lament that I only have one hit. But I’m completely glass half full on that one. I just think, ‘at least I have one hit!’ I like that piece very much as it is so fun. I suppose my Third Quartet is the greatest artistic achievement: a single movement 50-minute work that is one single shape. That took a lot of technique to accomplish. I also like my little ‘Scordatura Squid’ violin pieces, and my piano work ‘Notturno dalle fiamme del’inferno’.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Meticulous in detail whilst dramatic in structure. Music can have it all. I aim to write music that is optimistic, positive, direct and life affirming. When I was a student in the 1990s, I went to Huddersfield year after year and just seemed to be hearing this endless stream of dark, lugubrious, grey and pessimistic pieces; whilst on the other hand there was this facile post-minimalist thing going on that seemed like a timely shot of Prozac amidst all the depressiveness. I set out to reject all that: I wanted to create music that was direct, sincere, full of energy, made clear statements, and was not afraid to say what it wants to say – what I want to say.

How do you work?

In my head…almost entirely in my head. I used to make loads of sketches. With experience, and as my ear has improved, I have learnt to do most of that sketching in my head now. It had to happen as I was getting confused by all the paper, and losing stuff and getting all mixed up. It takes more time this way (in my head), but I think only because I am more thorough as a result. The advantage is the music is with me all the time, and I can work on it all the time – which is handy in boring meetings. I write everything down at the end in pencil sketch, and then go from there to Finale. I never ever do creative work at a computer, and discourage any student from doing that.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beethoven, Bach, Led Zeppelin, Ligeti and Bill Evans. There are hundreds of others, of course. But those are the ones I keep coming back to. My favourite songs are Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Dancing Queen – again, the optimism!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That’s easy! James Clapperton playing the complete piano works of Xenakis in Exeter in 1992. It was such a powerful experience because it was so completely out-of-place and, well, just plain weird that it was happening there of all places. There we were, in the middle of nowhere, in a music department that was basically a cupboard, and James just played this concert of the most hard-edged music you’d ever heard in your life. I have *never* heard anything like it. Remember, at that time Xenakis was not the cannoized figure he is now. In those days, it was still completely shocking music. I didn’t know or understand what the hell I was hearing. I couldn’t decide whether it was rubbish or genius or what, but I loved the way it challenged me and made me think. And of course, James’s playing was at its absolute peak and the most exciting thing you could hear anywhere in the world.

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

Integrity is crucial. You must have core values and hold on to those no matter what. You also must be prepared to work extremely hard – good enough is not good enough – and realize that it is mostly down to you. You can have composition lessons. You can have excellent composition lessons. But in the end, all the work must be done by you. The world owes you nothing. No matter how talented you are, the world owes your talent nothing. That was the lesson I learnt from having nothing to start with. Having nothing to start with isn’t much of a hindrance really; as, if you want to be an artist, everything is down to you anyway. If you are a composer, you are not competing against the other composers in your class, your age or whatever. The competition is Bach. It’s Beethoven. It’s Stravinsky. That’s the standard, and music demands that you offer the best you can. I say ‘competition’, but ‘competition’ is the wrong word. It’s not competition. It’s more like these guys are your colleagues, and you owe it to them, and all the hard work they have put in to getting music to where it was when you came to it, to try to give it the best you can in return.However good a teacher you have, chances are you won’t find the equivalent of a Bach to teach you. And even if you did, he’s not going to download his genius into your brain. Someone can give you a kick start, but then you have to do everything else…which is most of it.

What is your most treasured possession?

I guess my piano. I dreamt of having a grand piano as a kid, but couldn’t afford one. Being able to buy my Bluthner was a life-long dream come true.

 

Camden Reeves is a composer of contemporary classical music based in Manchester, England. Meticulous in detail whilst dramatic in structure, Reeves’ output encompasses many genres, ranging from large orchestral scores to chamber, vocal and solo instrumental works. In recent years he has been particularly associated with the piano through a series of solo works (pub. Edition Peters) and the colossal Piano Concerto of 2009.

Reeves is Lecturer in Composition at the University of Manchester, where he has taught since 2002.

www.camdenreeves.com