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

For me, my earliest memories of listening to various great works for the first time was the biggest catalyst for me wanting to learn the piano. There was never really an exact point in which I decided this would be my career, but I guess I always pretty much had a one-track mind in wanting music to be my life. Partly a reason for this is that I don’t think I was good at anything else! My first piano teacher Dorothy she, who recently just passed away, was certainly an extremely instrumental figure in my life. She was the one who taught me everything from the beginning. All of my teachers each played a very important role in my development, from my professors in my early teenage years, A. Ramon Rivera and Alexander Korsantia, to the teachers that really molded my development from the age of 15 onwards up until today: Robert McDonald, Dang Thai Son, and Jonathan Biss. Aesthetically, I would say that the pianists whose musical language and careers have inspired me the most are Radu Lupu, Grigory Sokolov, and Mitsuko Uchida.

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

I listen to a lot of recordings of various works frequently. Whether it be a Bach Cantata, Schubert Lieder, or Mozart Piano Concerto, etc. I always want to have music in my ears, and somewhat subconsciously and consciously get deeper into the musical and emotional worlds of these great composers. Further, when I’m listening to a great piece of music whilst enjoying a beautiful part of nature, this inspires me the most.

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

This process varies all the time, but I would say first and foremost I would choose pieces I really want to play. The burning desire must be there for me to have to play this work at this time. Then, the decisions come where a programme must make sense musically, and also I have to imagine how it would work and sound to an audience. I don’t like programmes that are random, and are more of a showcase of all the different types of pieces a musician can play. I much prefer a programme that has cohesion and relation in its aesthetic, and the musical worlds of certain composers. This would apply mostly to the music within one half of a recital programme. After an intermission it can either be completely different, or continue on a common thread.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There really have been so many very memorable concert experiences, and in a way, all of them have been, because of how unique each experience is, and you never know what will happen on stage. However, one that has stood out very much so far was my BBC Proms debut. This was a concert that I had prepared a lot of time for, and there was nothing quite like that experience of walking out on stage to this ocean of people at the Albert Hall. I really did feel this unique and electric energy, and general warmth coming from the public that day.

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

I would hope that I can continue to have the chance to play music for people in all corners of the globe. I think despite all its unique challenges, and immense stress, our profession as a performing musician is a very lucky one. What an opportunity it is to be able to travel the world, see so many different countries and cultures, whilst doing what you love. Music is a very active and living thing. So much of this music left to us by these transcendent geniuses is so unbelievably great. However, without it being brought to life and played, it’s simply notes on a page. I just feel very lucky to be able to have a part in this wonderful process of bringing these works to more people.


Eric Lu won First Prize at The Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018, the first American to win the prestigious prize since Murray Perahia. He made his BBC Proms debut the following summer, and is currently a member of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. Eric is a recipient of the 2021 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and is an exclusive Warner Classics recording artist.

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Pianist Peter Jablonski first appeared in the Meet the Artist series on this site back in 2016. In this updated interview, he reflects on his musical influences and inspirations, his new release for Ondine, and what the experience of lockdown has taught him, as a musician. 

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

My first musical experiences were with jazz music, and I started learning jazz percussion at a young age. But piano came into my life very soon after, and it became obvious that it should be my main instrument when I started studying at the Malmö Music Academy, where I studied both percussion and piano performance. Everything in life can have an influence on a musician, big or small, and I count among those my performances at the Village Vanguard in New York when I was nine; meeting and playing to Miles Davis, playing with Buddy Rich and Thad Jones; playing to Claudio Abbado; working with Vladimir Ashkenazy; my first teacher in Malmö, Michał Wesołowski, who was so adept at describing music in colours, scents, feelings, and images; travelling the world as much as I have; reading Bertrand Russel, Pessoa, Oscar Wilde, Sabahattin Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Stefan Zweig, Dostoyevsky; learning my first Chopin mazurka; the realisation every time I play a concert that my profession is unique—one creates in a moment in time something that people can never hold in their hands, but something that they hopefully can carry in their memory for days, months, maybe years; my partner’s infuriating knowledge of obscure composers she continues to throw at me, and whose music often serves as a sad reminder of how unfairly many of them are forgotten. There are so many things that an artist can list as having been influential—it is the beauty of not only being an artist, but being a human.

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

Overcoming an injury just before Covid-19 struck and wreaked global havoc. I was diagnosed with a condition called frozen shoulder, which took many months to heal, only to then migrate to the other shoulder. In a way, I can say that I experienced Covid-like restrictions imposed on my work two years before Covid appeared, and with it, a shock of suddenly not being able to practice, play, and even travel, and wondering if it would ever get better.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

It is very difficult to listen to yourself, and many musicians would probably agree that it is often painful to hear one’s old recordings. These are just snapshots of those moments in time, and one has a tendency to always find room for improvement. But if I do look back, I would have to name my performances of the first piano concerto by Shostakovich, with Ashkenazy and the RPO and my recording of the Scriabin piano concerto with Ashkenazy and the DSOB.  Tchaikovsky 2 with Dutoit and the Philharmonia isn’t too bad either, considering I had to learn the piece especially for the recording!  Grieg’s Ballade and lyric pieces on Exton released in 2012 have been very dear to me, as I feel very close to Grieg’s intimate side in a Nordic kind of way.

I am also in a very different stage of my career now, where I am much less dictated to in the choices of my repertoire, and can really explore the long-neglected corners and all sorts of repertoire that I simply didn’t have time for until now. My collaboration with Ondine began last year, with the recording of Scriabin’s complete mazurkas, and continues with the upcoming release of piano works by Stanchinsky. These two composers are connected by their historical period, the city they lived in, and the professors they studied with. They knew each other, and were shaped by many of the same events that unfolded in the political and cultural life of Russia. I am absolutely delighted that in collaboration with Ondine, whose work I hugely admire, I have found a perfect mix of freedom to discover for myself the composers and works I long dreamt of knowing, and an impeccable quality control when it comes to all sorts of details and technicalities that I simply couldn’t think of myself.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

This question can be answered differently depending on when it is asked. When I was a 17-year old pianist with a new Decca contract, I capitalised on my rigorous training in percussion and found particular enjoyment in performances of muscular, rhythmical, acrobatic works such as Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky piano concerti (I recorded all three for Decca), of performing and recording works by Gershwin and Ravel, and spending much of my time with Russian romantics and American 20th-century composers. But I am 50% Polish, so Polish composers always loomed large in my life, from Chopin to living Polish composers, and I am so glad I got to work on Lutosławski’s piano concerto with the composer himself, whose encouragement and guidance meant a lot. It was also an honour to have a concerto written for me by Wocjiech Kilar; to premiere works by Zygmunt Krause, Romuald Twardowski, and of course to always have in my repertoire works by Szymanowski, Maciejewski, and many others.   Now I am very intrigued by the works by Grażyna Bacewicz, which I hope also to record for Ondine. So, I guess, to answer this question in another way: I like to think that I give my heart and soul to make sure every composer whose music I perform will get my best.

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

Life is my inspiration. To wake up every day and to see outside my window how nature changes its colours and patterns in the most minute yet steady way is to be constantly inspired. No matter what, the spirit of nature continues its march towards each season, serving as a reminder to us humans, that we too should continue our pursuits with the same steadfastness, and always have time to stop and notice something wonderful and wondrous. You might say that being close to nature reminds me to try and bring this wonder to every concert.

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

It varies greatly. A season might be dedicated to celebrating a particular composer, or one might happen to want to explore particular repertoire in a given year. Right now, for me, my choices are, of course, influenced by what recording I might be working on. For example, I can already say that 2022/23 season will be heavily focused on the music by Grażyna Bacewicz, which I am due to record for Ondine and which I will perform.

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

It is almost impossible to pick one, there have been so many. Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been a special place for me for many years—it is a large venue, and yet there is an intimacy one feels on stage during a recital that almost defies explanation.

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

An eternal question! There are many elements to this answer: diverse programming, daring choices, fresh ideas that show people that there is a huge amount of interesting, worthy music out there that is still waiting to be heard. Hopefully, I will show this with my forthcoming release of piano works by Alexey Stanchinsky. But audiences do not grow just because we want them to—it starts in early childhood, at home, at school. Every child must have an opportunity to learn an instrument, to be exposed to great musical works just as they have to learn maths or learn how to read and write. Music should be embedded in education from the beginning—so many studies and experiments show the healing power of music, the effect it has on brain development, and on concentration, which is particularly suffering in our post-modern, social-media saturated, digital age.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Again, an almost impossible question but certainly one of the most unusual was my first performance in Seoul, South Korea. It would have been around 1995 and I was due to perform Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody with Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Philharmonia.

There was a public holiday in Korea that day so the orchestra bus was heavily delayed on its way to the concert venue. The concert was relayed live on Korean TV and the orchestra was not there at the time of the start, so I was asked if I could play something while we waited for the orchestra. I was still wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but it came to pass that Mo. Chung (who is a great pianist) and I had to take turns in giving an impromptu recital live on TV while the orchestra made its way through the Seoul traffic! Every time I play in Korea someone always comes up to me and reminds me of that day.

Of course I have to mention also the one when the cannon for the 1812 Overture (which was the next item in the programme) accidentally went off during a particularly peaceful moment in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky 1 in my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be in a place that allows you to create at the piano, to be in the moment, for every performance to be an artistic experience and experiment, not just another concert. To be happy with the fact that the process of becoming an artist, a musician, a human being is ongoing and that there is no arrival point, only the journey full of ups and downs, possibilities, gains and losses, and most of all, continuous learning.

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

Learn how to know yourself, commit to a life-long process of discovering your artistic personality, be adventurous in life and in work, and most of all, do not to give up when things don’t work out straight away, and to keep a positive outlook even in the darkest of times. Remember the ancient Eastern proverb—‘Even after the darkest winter, spring will always follow’.

What has lockdown taught you as a musician?

To appreciate the space it has created around me, to appreciate the slower pace of life, and to find beauty in the smallest everyday things. To take a walk and to marvel at the beauty of nature, and of its indifference to us, humans, in a good way. It is obvious that without us, nature would do quite well, but we without nature—well, that’s a different story. The space, the quiet, the slowing down all help to restart the creative process, to recharge, and to find new energy for new projects.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

Here in Sweden, still discovering new repertoire, as well as playing what I will forever love of Chopin, Beethoven, and so many others, and remaining open to what life brings.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Does it exist? To me, perfect happiness is perfect for a limited time only: if there is no strife, no challenges, no adversity of some kind, life has the danger of becoming boring. But waking up on a sunny morning and having a cup of coffee outside, listening to a spring song of a bird and being in that moment viscerally comes pretty close!

What is your most treasured possession?

My music scores.

What is your present state of mind?

Calm.

Peter Jablonski’s album of piano works by Alexey Stanchinsky (1888–1914), one of the most talented Russian composers of the early 20th Century, is released on 5 March on the Ondine label. Stanchinsky was not only a talent but a genuine innovator who,  despite his early death, had a profound influence on the generation of composers to follow.

The album will be released one year after lockdown began.  During these difficult and uncertain months, many people may have experienced poor mental health at times, just as Stanchinsky did during his lifetime.  In honour of Stanchinsky’s memory, Peter Jablonski has partnered with Samaritans and will make a personal donation to assist their work.   The official message from Samaritans is: When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org.


Peter Jablonski is an internationally acclaimed Swedish pianist.  Discovered by Claudio Abbado and Vladimir Ashkenazy and signed by Decca at the age of 17, he went on to perform, collaborate and record with over 150 of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, including the Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mariinsky, La Scala Philharmonic, Tonhalle Zurich, Orchestre Nationale de France, NHK Tokyo, DSO Berlin, Warsaw Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras and worked with such acclaimed conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Valery Gergiev, Kurt Sanderling, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Riccardo Chailly, Daniele Gatti, and Myung-Whun Chung, to name a few.  He has performed and recorded the complete piano concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Bartók and all of the piano sonatas by Prokofiev.  During his three-decade-long career, he worked closely with composers Witold Lutosławski and Arvo Pärt.  Jablonski’s extensive discography includes several award-winning recordings.

Peter Jablonski’s website

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

I started playing the piano when I was very young – always by ear to begin with – and it wasn’t long before I started to pick out my own tunes on the keys. It felt very natural. I’d probably be horrified if I heard those stumblings now, but the seed was definitely sown. So it was always music from the get-go. I had some lucky breaks with television scoring soon after I left university, and it was then that I realized that I might be able to write music and pay the bills!

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

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful music teacher at school – the sort of chap who thought nothing of involving the entire school in an epic performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. (I was in charge of the percussion section, and our trip to Woolworths to go through their entire mug collection for the ‘slung mugs’ raindrops is a lasting memory.) Without his encouragement I wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge – and, as is so often the case, I can trace the rest of my musical career from that wonderful springboard.

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

Even if you know it’s the only thing you want to do, starting out as a musician (or any creative artist) is, as we all know, really hard. It’s even more difficult now, especially given the times we’re living through. And to have those pressures, both creative and practical, while trying to stay true to your strengths and not compromise can be daunting. The greatest challenges so far – usually involving being some considerable distance outside my musical comfort zone – have nearly always produced new and inspiring ideas. The greatest frustrations? When you find yourself in a creative cul-de-sac (for any number of reasons) and you have to find a way out because there’s a deadline looming.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many wonderful musicians and artists over the years, and when you’re able to write music knowing who’s going to play it or sing it, it can be inspirational. When you can tailor a piece or a solo or a whole musical landscape to someone’s personality – quirks and all – then that’s the challenge and the pleasure rolled into one! And collaborating with new colleagues, as I’ve been doing recently, starts that journey again.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written quite a lot of music for youth ensembles, and seeing the fun and sense of accomplishment they give to children of all ages and from every walk of life is wonderful. It’s instant communication, and it’s very special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

With each new commission I’m nearly always asked to come up with some “good tunes”, so that’s a bit of a giveaway. I’m not a particular fan of the ‘accessible’ description, but I’ve always written in a melodic, tonal style which, it seems, still resonates with a lot of people. I’m the first to admit that the style of my concert pieces owes a lot to my media work, and I’m not trying to create two different worlds. It’s a dramatic language that, for me, crosses over.

How do you work?

When I first started out everything was written at the piano. But, inevitably, the process now is initial sketches at the piano (with a trusty pencil) before going over to the computer and scoring from there – a familiar story for so many composers. When I worked a lot in television I treated the job as a 9 to 5 operation, almost literally. It was the only way to get so much music written in such a short space of time. Concert commissions are more forgiving, but I find I still need the pressure of a deadline. Adrenalin is a wonderful creative tool!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many that the list would go on forever. And tomorrow I’d probably give you a completely different list. Working with Lang Lang and Joshua Bell was extraordinary – their musicianship is awe-inspiring – and can I give a shout-out to my great-aunt, the pianist Dame Myra Hess? If you know some of the history of the National Gallery’s lunchtime concerts during the Second World War you will know what an extraordinary woman she was. Composers? All over the place – Elgar, Walton, Mahler, Fauré, John Williams, Tallis, Sondheim….

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

It goes without saying that the question has a poignancy today that we couldn’t imagine a year ago. To get back to where we were would be a major achievement, and embracing the new audience who have turned to ‘classical’ music as a source of comfort during these unprecedented times is hugely important.

As a composer, what is your definition of success?

If you can start with a blank page (or computer screen) and create music that connects with a listener on any level, whether for a few moments or a lifetime, that’s success.

The Way of Light – The Music of Nigel Hess is released on 5 February on the Orchid Classics Label
Nigel Hess has had considerable success in the film and television world (Campion, Maigret, Wycliffe, Dangerfield, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Badger and Ladies in Lavender). This new album concentrates on music he wrote for the concert hall.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

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

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

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

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

What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

 

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

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

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

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

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


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

katharinedain.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of which works are you most proud?

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

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

How would you characterise your compositional language?

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

How do you work?

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

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

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

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

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

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

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


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

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

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

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Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes