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

I was brought up in a small seaside town, and was extremely lucky to find there an excellent teacher, who had studied with Tobias Matthay at the Royal College of Music. I loved piano playing from day one. Later, I joined the junior college at the Royal Northern College of Music, and it was then that I decided to pursue a playing career.

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

Each of my teachers has influenced me in their own way. Sir William Glock (a Schnabel student) worked a lot on phrasing. George Hadjinikos was a very philosophical musician and Guido Agosti was the pinnacle of refinement. Perlemuter gave me a direct line to Ravel (he studied all Ravel’s works with the composer himself). I have also learnt a great deal from working with other instrumentalists and singers.

I am also very grateful to some key musicians who have helped shape my career, for instance Carola Grindea who encouraged me to become involved with EPTA (the European Piano Teachers Association), and BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) where I now advise injured musicians.

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

There were two main turning points in my career. As a young pianist, I thought I was invincible. I was working with a teacher who pushed me very hard technically, and in my third year at music college, I developed tenosynovitis (severe pain in my right thumb). This forced me to reconsider my whole approach to technique, and led to my life-long research into healthy piano playing.

I continued focussing primarily on performance for many years, until I had several years of bad health, followed by the birth of my children. This resulted in a second change of direction, in which I reduced my touring and focused more on teaching, which I have found very fulfilling.

I keep having to remind students who have major challenges or setbacks of one kind or another, that if one door closes, we can look for a different door.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Impossible to say! I love performing and have been fortunate to play in both major concert venues and very intimate settings – I enjoy both. Sometimes one plays one’s best in the least expected places. When I was in my twenties, I played a lot of concerts abroad for the British Council, sometimes playing to audiences who had rarely heard classical music played live before. In those circumstances, I felt a huge responsibility to bring across the music’s message very strongly, over and above any technical concerns. This proved very liberating and I think that it is very valuable training for any young pianist to gain experience of a wide range of audiences and venues – it also helps you develop resilience and adaptability.

In addition to performing, you have a distinguished career as a teacher. Who or what inspired to you start teaching?

I started teaching while still at school, teaching some of my fellow students and helping them prepare for their piano exams. I partly funded myself through college by teaching, and then was lucky to be offered a teaching post at Keele University in my postgraduate year. I am eternally grateful to Sir William Glock for recommending me to the post at Keele which later led to conservatoire teaching posts. I have been teaching at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for twenty years now, alongside work at other colleges and a private practice.

Who/what have been the most significant influences on your teaching?

I was fortunate to experience a range of dedicated and inspiring teachers from an early age. Each had a very different approach, (and at times I even worked with two very contradictory teachers simultaneously). This worked well for me as the contradictions stimulated me to question everything and to try to work out the best solutions for myself. However, I do not recommend this for everyone – I think every pianist needs a regular, committed teacher who can oversee their longer-term development.

My experience of other movement techniques including yoga, Tai Chi and Alexander technique, my collaboration with an osteopath, and my research into anatomy have also been invaluable. However, it took many years of research and experimentation before I could work out how to apply all this knowledge directly to piano playing.

Having come across many pianists who missed out on a thorough grounding in their early years, I feel passionate about the need to train a new generation of enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable teachers. Music colleges still tend to focus predominantly on performance, yet so many pianists would enjoy teaching more if they knew how to do it really well. Confident and knowledgeable teachers nurture enthusiastic students, who in turn inspire the teacher’s work further. There are some good piano teaching courses available, but in order to fill a perceived gap in the understanding of teaching technique, I am starting up a teacher training course next winter, in which teachers can explore new methods of teaching technique, based on the exercises in The Complete Pianist.

What are your views on music exams, festivals and competitions?

I think this depends very much on the individual. Some thrive and feel motivated by exams and competitions, others prefer to play concerts, or just to play piano for their own pleasure. I think there is a role for everyone in music. As a young pianist, I much preferred playing concerts to competitions, as I played better in front of a real audience. Having said which, I now very much enjoy being a member of competition juries, especially those that support and nurture young musicians. It’s a major challenge and a huge responsibility to have to judge one talented student against another.

Your new book ‘The Complete Pianist’ is published on 20 February. Tell us more about the motivation for producing this and what you hope pianists will gain from it.

Over my lifetime, I have acquired an enormous amount of experience and understanding on all aspects of playing and teaching, and about fifteen years ago, I finally decided that I was ready to share this for the benefit of future generations. I started by writing magazine articles, mainly in Piano Professional magazine, which I always intended to build into a book eventually. A friend introduced me to Peters Edition, who said they ‘had been looking for this book for ten years’ so it was an ideal match! They encouraged me to be more and more ambitious, and once we had settled on the title of ‘The Complete Pianist’, it became clear that the book had to be as comprehensive as possible. (It now includes more than 500 pages of text, 250 exercises of my own devising and access to 300 videos in which I demonstrate all the main points myself). This posed an interesting challenge: it forced me to think in depth about some aspects of playing that I had not yet fully clarified in my own mind (a process which has, incidentally, also greatly enhanced my own teaching.) Several years on, the book is finally finished.

I think The Complete Pianist has much to offer every pianist, whether professional or amateur, teacher or student, and I have included musical examples which range from elementary to concert repertoire. I have also tried to recognise and address the differing needs of a wide range of pianists (for instance, I may recommend different exercises for pianists with weak hands to those with strong but rather inflexible hands). I think it is true to say that it’s one of the few major books on piano playing which has seriously addressed the additional challenges that pianists with smaller-than-average hands face.

For me, it is never enough just to tell a student what to do – I feel that it is incumbent on me as a teacher to explain very precisely and simply how to achieve that pianistically. In the book, therefore, each new aspect of playing is addressed through a series of practical exercises which guide the readers step-by-step towards healthy, inspired playing. The book covers all aspects of playing, from a whole-body approach, through every aspect of piano technique to informed interpretation. I also delve into the way we think about music: from mental preparation, effective practising and motivation to developing confidence for inspired performance.

I have tested all the exercises repeatedly on my own students. Many of my students are teachers themselves who have also used the exercises for their own students at different levels and given very valuable feedback.

I hope that the book will help many pianists overcome obstacles and realise their full potential at the piano.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Good question – what is success? I think success is doing whatever you do with absolute commitment and to the best of your abilities. There is still a tendency amongst musicians to relate success to prestigious venues, fame and money. It is quite natural for young pianists to aspire to that, but that kind of celebrity status only comes to a small number of pianists per generation. I think that success, and achieving a real sense of job satisfaction, is much more complex than that. Although external appreciation is encouraging, it can be fickle, and it is unwise to build our self-esteem mainly on the recognition of other people. Ultimately it is the knowledge that you are doing good work that is the most important thing. Musicians should take pride in their own and their students’ successes, whether that be playing a major concerto or just encouraging a new student to play a simple piece beautifully. Success is about genuine sharing of music making in a way that touches others, through playing or through teaching.

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

That the music comes first! Still I hear of many pianists who have been taught to focus on technical ability above all else. This suppresses natural artistry and is more, not less, likely to lead to injury and disillusion. Cultivate your imagination and your humanity and it will shine through in your music and sustain you through a lifetime of playing.

The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry by Penelope Roskell is published on 20 February by Edition Peters and is available from shops and online: www.editionpeters/roskell


Penelope Roskell is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As a soloist she has played in major concert halls in more than thirty countries. She is the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing, and Piano Advisor to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries.

peneloperoskell.co.uk

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

I was born into a family of a conductors, so it was my father.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

There have been many influential musicians along the way who have been important influences for me – my father, my teacher Max Rudolf at the Curtis Institute of Music and Leonard Bernstein as far as conductors go. But there have been also influential instrumentalists and composers who have been important in my life, for example Radu Lupu and Arvo Pärt.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Every part of conductor’s life is challenging. From the enormity of the repertoire to the geography and travel.

The most fulfilling aspect is that a conductor can spend his or her life with talented human beings and explore music of geniuses like Mahler and Beethoven, for example  

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

One communicates ideas through various methods – with the eyes, verbally, with gestures and body language.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

I see my role as a medium between the composer and the musicians. The role is to formulate a point of view about the piece through study of the score and to convey this to the musicians. 

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There are many works I would love to conduct but one lifetime is not enough to get close to all the masterpieces in the repertoire.

Do you have a favourite concert venue in which to perform?

The Zürich Tonhalle, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Musikverein in Vienna, just to name a few.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Hard to name a favourite composer but I do have a soft spot for music of Sibelius and Bruckner.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when you can make music on the highest possible level with like-minded musicians.

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

Make sure you love music enough to make it your profession and then be prepared to work very hard.

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

On the planet Earth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think it would be the balance between personal and professional life.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m looking forward to the upcoming tour to Europe with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Paavo Järvi conducts the NHK Symphony Orchestra in music by Takemitsu, Rachmaninov and Schumann at London’s Royal Festive val Hall on 24 February. Full details

(Artist photo: Julia Baier)

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

The natural long-term choice for me would have been the violin, or at least a string instrument, as my father was a violinist with the Orchestre de Paris and my grandfather was the Principal Violist of the same and of the Paris Opera Orchestra before that. And naturally, violin was my first instrument, but one I abandoned within just months of starting it. I am not entirely certain why – perhaps I should ask my father about it actually – but a new, shiny black lacquered piano appeared in our house one day and I immediately felt pulled to it. I found a world richer than any other I had known until then, one which gave my imagination free rein and which completely absorbed my attention. Piano just felt natural to me, an extension of my own physical and spiritual being, and still does, although I am far from chained to it or obsessive about it. Of course, learning to play the piano while growing up was not always a smooth road, and I was not always disciplined or desirous of playing, especially as the pressure mounted (I did play many hours each day, usually). But I never questioned my choice of instrument, and I feel like it was always the right one for me. And when adults inevitably asked me what I wanted to do later in life, I always said that I wanted to be a pianist. It seemed like a perfectly natural answer and one which was easy for me to imagine, as I already had experience regularly attending concerts and seeing professional pianists solo with the orchestra. With that said, as a teenager and young adult I did question my choice of career, and tried a number of different things before finally making music my life…

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

My parents, of course, who supported and guided me all along. And some of my teachers, some of whose influence was particularly important, of which I can cite Aïda Barenboïm, my first real teacher (Daniel Baremboïm’s mother) who gave me my musical foundations; Elena Varvarova, with whom I massively improved my technique and discipline; Brigitte Engerer, who guided me in a period of uncertainty; Rena Shereshevskaya and Vladimir Krainev, who gave me confidence and brought me to a truly professional level; and Earl Wild, who encouraged me to go where the music took me. I also have to acknowledge Ursula Oppens and James Giles who exposed me to America’s rich musical world which I did not know much about. I was also lucky to learn bits and pieces from, and be supported by, Carlo-Maria Giulini, Maria Curcio, Charles Rosen, and Kurt Masur, all of whom added something important to my musical journey. But then, my life has also been filled by books, films, museums, travel, and people near and far. It is one thing to learn how to play and how to be a good musician, and it is another to experience life and learn about oneself and one’s humanity, which then should come through in the expression of music.

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

My career has been unusual, and I have always been out of the system. I have never liked the idea of competition in music, whether in formal or informal terms. Either music is an art or it is a sport, and I don’t believe a sport-like competition is how you hone and find the best artists, even if on occasion you do in a sort of coincidence (although without a doubt, true artists will be true artists no matter how they build their career). The reality is that there is a selection process that occurs anywhere you are, whether formally through a competition or a conservatory entrance audition, or through the acclamation or lack thereof of a public and the press. I don’t personally like to participate in something that to me seems antithetical to the development of the artist and the meaning of music. I say this only because my refusal to play that game has probably penalized me in some ways, and made it harder for me to find my place in the so-called music business.

I have also allowed myself to live life and take the time to learn life from a wide-array of experiences, to find where my truth lies and why I even bother being a musician. And then I also have been active as a teacher, as a concert and festival organizer, and as a recording and film producer of sorts, learning along the way many skills that help me express my personal artistic vision more fully and effectively. I am also quite certain of the joy I feel when sharing something I love with an audience: indeed, music is both uniquely personal and also uniquely communal. For this reason, I hope I will have the chance to share my love of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with as many people as possible, both through the album as well as through performances down the road.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

While I began my musical life at the very tender age of three, four years old, and began my performance career at ten, I never rushed into making recordings until I felt sure enough of what I had to say, knowing that there was no absolute need to engrave music permanently that had already been recorded by others before, unless there was another compelling reason to do so. Perhaps surprisingly at this stage of life, my recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is my first solo release, but I am not shy of saying that I am exceedingly proud of it and happy to have made it just that way. And while my playing of Bach has already changed since I made the recording, I feel that it is a very accurate representation of who I am as a musician.

I am also still proud and honoured to have given the World Premiere performances and recording of Beethoven’s Piano Trio Hess 47 with my Beethoven Project Trio back in 2009 in Chicago and New York, an adventure forever engraved in my memory.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I like to get under the skin of the composers whose music I play. When I begin to explore a sound world, I want to go deep and feel the sensitivities and emotions of the composer who wrote that music, which is one of the reasons I like to isolate a composer and focus very intensely on that one artist, usually making pilgrimages to the places where that composer lived and worked and reading a lot, along with exploring as much of his or her music as possible. For big composers, I do think it’s a very valuable experience to really go deep, which is what I did with Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier, and is what I am doing now with Beethoven as I prepare to record his complete sonatas. Those two composers will always be very close to my musical heart, as well as Rameau, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. I also love Brahms, but am taking my time to take a full dive into his world. More importantly, life is usually circular, and I approach these composers many times, over time and in due time, and until the time I feel ready to go straight to the heart of what they mean to me. As far as specific works that I play best, I don’t think that is as relevant as just feeling close to a composer’s musical language and being free to express my own sensitivity through that adopted language.

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

I don’t play the seasons game. Music and a musical life have to remain organic, natural, flowing. I cannot force myself to think in terms of seasons. I simply go where my passion takes me and let things fall into place as they will. I am human, and more importantly a musician, not a bureaucrat. As long as I have joy to play a program, I will do so. If for any reason I lose that joy, the program will change. What I do guarantee is that I will show up, barring any impossible situation, where I said I would, and I am always game for a challenge. But I will never do anything that will threaten the joy of music making, and the desire to share something that rings true to me at a specific moment. The idea that I can program something more than one, two or three years in advance rings hollow to me, with the probable exception of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which I have never grown tired of and don’t expect to. But clearly I also love to take my time to explore one work or one composer, and that usually lasts two or three seasons at least…

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

No. As long as there is a minimal amount of climate comfort, and a decent piano, and more importantly a curious audience, I am happy. But I will say that I never had as much pleasure as I did when recording the Well-Tempered Clavier in Weimar’s historic Jakobskirche and on a very unique Hamburg Steinway D that I had found in Paris, through Régie Pianos. Everything about the acoustic and physical experience there was satisfying, and I suppose that’s a good thing when it comes to making a permanent record!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I don’t know. There are lots of musicians whom I admire, and who have made some great recordings, who have performed some memorable concerts, who have moved me, dead or alive, at one time or another of my life. Some musicians have done it more regularly than others, but it’s so subjective, even to me! And truly, for the most part, there is no debate to be had on most of the great musicians. In no particular order, Artur Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann, Dinu Lipatti, Vladimir Horowitz, Claudio Arrau, Marcelle Meyer, Pau Casals, Jascha Heifetz, Henryk Szeryng, Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein… to stay only with the dead, and to remain terribly incomplete. But I love going down rabbit holes and listening, either to radio, one of the streaming services, or just randomly picking through my record collection, and acquainting or reacquainting myself with a musician. But I am not a guru seeker, so while I enjoy listening, going to concerts, and so on, I am also happy with silence sometimes, which is a great teacher of music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’ve been to many. A performance of Eugène Onégin with Valery Gergiev conducting his Mariinsky orchestra and singers in Paris some twenty years ago has stayed with me emotionally. Deeply memorable also was a masterclass given by Kurt Masur in New York where he showed the arm-waving student conductors how to conduct without even moving his arms (and of course do it better)! It taught me the power of intention and focus.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

There are several sides to success and different ways of understanding the meaning of success as a musician. For me, first, it is being able to express myself from the fount of my inner truth, in other words, it has to ring true to me first, and remains entirely personal, involving no one else, and which is only possible following a long inner journey of discovery and experience. Second, it is succeeding in the practical sense, having the ability to make albums, to perform, and to transmit what one has learned, in such a way as to be free from need and free to be creative. But that sometimes comes and goes with life’s many ups and downs! So then I hold on to my first precept.

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

Stop practicing! Begin living! Seriously, if you know how to play scales and arpeggios, know how to read music, and have covered some basic repertoire from different periods, your basic instrumental education is over. I think way too many musicians try the athletic approach to music, and think they have to be as good if not better technically than the current stars. Perhaps so, in a sense, okay, fine. But a big part of learning to be a good performer, even a good technician, comes from loosening up and taking a step back. Live! Love! Make mistakes! Learn! What else is true music, true art about, if it is not about life? The practice room is too small to let life in. Don’t let life slip by, and find your truth through experience, through the highs and the lows of it all. Confront yourself to reality, not theory. The conservatory is not the place to learn to be a musician, but only a technician. That’s fine for a bit but don’t expect too much from it, if you really have it in you to be a musician. Stop studying as soon as you can, and you’ll have a greater chance of becoming a musician someday.

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

A good place, on a cooler and calmer planet, in harmony with my environment and humanity both physically, emotionally and spiritually.

What is your present state of mind?

Bach and Beethoven. Also, where have our winters gone?

George Lepauw’s first major solo album, the complete Well-Tempered Clavier by J S Bach, is released worldwide on 14 February on the Orchid Classics label.


A concert pianist since his formal debut at age ten in Paris, George Lepauw has performed ever since as a recitalist, chamber musician, vocal collaborator, and soloist with orchestra. He also occasionally collaborates with musicians from other musical genres, including cabaret, musical theater, traditional Chinese and Persian music, flamenco, blues, and pop.

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

Mstislav Rostropovich

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

Rostropovich and, later, my husband Julian Lloyd Webber, who taught me a lot through his deep knowledge of music and repertoire.

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

Practising!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Vivaldi Concertos for 2 Cellos with my husband and the European Union Chamber Orchestra (Naxos). Apart from the well known existing concerto for 2 cellos, we arranged five other Vivaldi concertos for two instruments. I think they all work very well on two cellos. We also included an arrangement of a Piazzolla Milonga which is a beautiful piece.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Possibly the Bach solo suites

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

Depends on the venue/concert promoter and what we agree

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

The beautiful new Bradshaw Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – I played the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 cellos with Jian Wang, conducted by Julian.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For all the wrong reasons it would have to be Julian’s final performance as a cellist in Malvern on May 2nd 2014. It was a brilliant concert but with a very sad atmosphere.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To please my audience

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

Enthusiasm, a questing nature and a constant love for the music.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Bergonzi cello


Jiaxin Lloyd Webber graduated from Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1997. She was already giving performances with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra but left China for further studies in New Zealand where she received her Master Degree at Auckland University in 2001.

While in New Zealand Jiaxin was principal cello of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra, a founder member of the Aroha String Quartet and played regularly with both the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. With the Auckland Symphony Orchestra she performed cello concertos by Dvorak, Elgar and Lalo.

Now resident in the UK, Jiaxin is married to the world renowned cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and has performed with Julian for BBC Radio 3, Classic FM, CNN Global TV, and BBC TV. They have recorded for Universal Classics and Naxos. Their recordings have been chosen as Record of the Month by both Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine and as CD of the Week by both Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Their 2013 recording, ‘A Tale of Two Cellos’ was the Number One UK classical album for many weeks and is one of the Naxos label’s bestselling recordings of all time. Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber have played sell-out tours with such orchestra as the English Chamber Orchestra and the European Union Chamber Orchestra and have made many nationwide TV and Radio appearances on such high profile programmes as BBC Breakfast, The Andrew Marr Show and Radio 4 Midweek.

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

My music teacher at school, Margaret Semple, instilled the habit of musical curiosity, and didn’t think it strange that I would want to write and perform my own music.

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

As a teenager, playing the oboe in all kinds of rep, from Bach to improv. The lively new musical culture in my youth, the 1960s, both pop and “classical”. Early inspirations included Cage, Stockhausen, Messiaen, John Tavener.

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

The frustration has always been, and remains, the huge amount of time it takes to compose a new piece of music. A perpetual challenge is to sense the right structure and timescale for musical ideas while struggling to write these ideas down for the first time.

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

Composing for friends or close colleagues is like spending time with them – they are constantly in my mind as I write. Conversely, the challenge is writing for people you don’t know – will they understand and sympathise with your intentions?

Of which works are you most proud?

I am usually thinking about recent work – it’s as if the music I wrote long ago can look after itself. Coming to mind immediately are In the Land of Uz (mini-oratorio), The Big Picture (site-specific cantata) and my Oboe Concerto.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Above all it is animated by line/melody and rhythm.

How do you work?

I brood for a long time. I’m trying to think of a concept which will be so irresistible and compelling that it writes itself. It doesn’t always work out that way…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

They change all the time, it’s impossible to say. To give some kind of answer, I’ve just looked at what is piled on my CD player today: We Go To Dream (a lovely album by Astrid Williamson); Not Now Bernard and Other Stories (composer Bernard Hughes, excellent); Brendel plays Bach, on the piano obviously; an organ album played by Konstantin Reymaier (more Bach, plus Handel, Marcello,etc).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When the work continues to flow in, of its own accord.

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

I wanted to study music because I was interested and curious about it – I still am, almost fifty years later. That has kept me going in difficult times. So my advice is: If you’re not really, really interested in music – the actual dots – don’t bother!

Judith Weir’s ‘Thread’, after a text from the upper horizontal border of the Bayeux Tapestr, receives its world premiere recording on Not Now Bernard and Other Stories, a collection of music for families narrated by Alexander Armstrong, released on the Orchid Classics label on 7 February.


Judith Weir was born into a Scottish family in 1954, but grew up near London. She was an oboe player, performing with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and studied composition with John Tavener during her schooldays. She went on to Cambridge University, where her composition teacher was Robin Holloway; and in 1975 attended summer school at Tanglewood, where she worked with Gunther Schuller. After this she spent several years working in schools and adult education in rural southern England; followed by a period based in Scotland, teaching at Glasgow University and RSAMD.
During this time she began to write a series of operas (including King Harald’s Saga, The Black Spider, A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom and Blond Eckbert) which have subsequently received many performances in the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. The most recent opera is Miss Fortune, premiered at Bregenz in 2011, and then staged at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012.
As resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, she wrote several works for orchestra and chorus (including Forest, Storm and We are Shadows) which were premiered by the orchestra’s then Music Director, Simon Rattle. She has been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Music Untangled and Natural History) the Minnesota Orchestra (The Welcome Arrival of Rain) and the London Sinfonietta (Tiger under the Table); and has written concert works for some notable singers, including Jane Manning, Dawn Upshaw, Jessye Norman and Alice Coote. Her latest vocal work is Good Morning, Midnight, premiered by Sarah Connolly and the Aurora Orchestra in May 2015.
She now lives in London, where she has had a long association with Spitalfields Music Festival; and in recent years has taught as a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. Honours for her work include the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Elise L Stoeger and Ivor Novello awards, a CBE (1995) and the Queen’s Medal for Music (2007). In 2014 she was appointed Master of The Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In January 2015 she became Associate Composer to the BBC Singers.
Much of her music has been recorded, and is available on the NMC, Delphian and Signum labels. In 2014-15 there were releases of The Vanishing Bridegroom  (NMC) and Storm (BBC Singers/Signum).  Judith Weir’s music is published by Chester Music and Novello & Co.  She blogs about her experiences of cultural life in the UK at judithweir.com.

 

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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

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

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

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

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

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

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net