Several people have asked me to complete the ‘Meet the Artist’ questionnaire myself – so here is my version!

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I was a very young child when I started playing the piano (around 5 or 6). There was always music in my home as I was growing up: my father played the clarinet in an amateur orchestra and with various ensembles, and my parents regularly attended classical music concerts and operas (the Welsh National Opera had a residency in Birmingham in the 1970s when we lived there). My paternal grandfather had a wonderful Victorian piano (complete with candelabra) on which he played Methodist hymns and bits of Beethoven (whom he adored) and Haydn. The piano stool was full of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, all speckled with age with that special musty smell. I used to sit next to my grandfather as he played.

The piano, or rather piano teaching, has only been my career for just over 5 years. I worked for 10 years in specialist art bookselling and publishing before I had my son. And I didn’t play the piano for a long time after I left university. Coming back to the piano as an adult was hard, and when I started having lessons again in 2008, I realised how much I hadn’t been taught in my teens. I’ve crammed a great deal of study of technique into the last three years: as a result my playing has improved hugely.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My music teacher at school was enthusiastic and encouraging, and my friend Michael, owner of a magnificent Steinway Model B, has always supported my playing: he often leaves music on the rack of his piano for me to look at when I visit. Last time it was Schumann’s ‘Kriesleriana’. A few years ago, I would have looked at it and thought “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to play that!”. Now, when I pick up new music, I think “where shall I start?!”.

My current teacher is very supportive and encouraging, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. Through her courses, I have met other pianists and piano students who have helped to broaden my musical horizons.

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

Setting up my own piano teaching studio from scratch and learning “how to be a piano teacher”. I have no formal training as a teacher, but when I started teaching I knew how I didn’t want to do it! (remembering dull lessons as a child). Overcoming my lack of confidence about my own playing, trusting my musical instincts (I am horrendously self-critical), and learning how to become a performer have also been important, positive challenges.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Wigmore Hall is my spiritual home, but I also like Cadogan Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. St John’s Smith Square is a beautiful venue, but cold in the winter! Each has its own distinctive atmosphere.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I particularly admire musicians who are able to stand back from the music and allow it to speak, who do not place their personality/ego before the music, and who are able to get to the very heart of what the music is about. My pianistic heroes/heroines are Sviatoslav Richter, John Lill, Mitsuko Uchida (especially in Mozart and Schubert), Murray Perahia (Bach, Chopin and Brahms), Maria Joao Pires (Schubert), Claudio Arrau (Beethoven), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Messiaen and Liszt). Surface artifice, “look at me” antics, and flashy piano pyrotechnics do not interest me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

British pianist John Lill playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank Centre in the early 1980s. Lill was in tears as he took his curtain calls, and members of the audience actually threw red roses onto the stage.

A concert of Baroque music in a tiny Byzantine church in Zadar, Croatia, c.1985.

As for my own performances (which are growing more frequent), my Diploma recital in December remains memorable: the setting (a lovely 18th-century room in Trinity College of Music), the pianos (both warm-up piano and concert instrument were fine Steinways), and the recital itself. I was surprised at the tricks one’s mind can play in such an intense and very concentrated situation like a performance: I had several “out of body” moments as I played, and at the end of the Schubert E-flat Impromptu, I recall thinking, “halfway through now – we can go to the pub soon!”.  I enjoyed every minute of it, including the river bus trip to and from the college in Greenwich, but the actual performance was very special for me: it confirmed and endorsed all that I do at the piano, day in day out.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

At the moment, I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. As a pianist, I feel it is essential to always have some Bach somewhere in one’s repertoire as his music offers so much: instructional and intellectual. Liszt is a fairly recent discovery for me: I’d avoided learning him for years, fearing it would be just too difficult (not true!). I’ve stayed clear of the more flashy, popular, virtuosic works, preferring to explore his more intimate, spiritual and intellectual music. Likewise, Messiaen is very spiritual and intellectual, and his music puts us in touch with concepts that are far bigger than us. He was also a synaesthete (as I am) which interests me.

My tastes change quite frequently, and I am often inspired to learn something after hearing it in concert or on the radio. I listen to a wide range of music, and my reviewing role for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to enjoy even more fine live music. I feel it’s important to keep one’s ears open to as many musical influences as possible.

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

A love of the instrument and its repertoire; that one should strive for accuracy and musicality at all times; that music is for sharing.

How has blogging informed your teaching/playing?

I started this blog originally as a place where I could set down ideas and thoughts I had while at the piano, but it has gradually expanded into something more wide-ranging. I enjoy the exchange of ideas that comes when people leave comments, and the opportunity to share thoughts about music and teaching with other pianists and teachers around the world. The ‘Meet the Artist’ series is proving fascinating, with so many varied, and sometimes very honest, responses.

What are you working on at the moment?

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Debussy – Images: ‘Hommage à Rameau’

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Messiaen – Prelude No. 2

Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33, nos. 2 and 7 (sometimes listed as No. 4 – in E flat)

Read my reviews for Bachtrack.com here

The ‘Meet the Artist’ series continues on this blog: the next interviewee is pianist Leon McCawley.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?

My grandfather was a coal miner who loved music. He encouraged me to get involved. He and my mum talked music a lot, and I gradually began to find out about composers. From the first day I picked up an instrument I knew I wanted to be a composer, although at that stage I did not know what that would mean.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

As a young boy it was Beethoven and Wagner. Later it was the great contrapuntalists like Palestrina and Bach who taught me about complexity. In the 20th century it was my fellow Catholic Messiaen.

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

I have never thought of it as a career. I have a wide range of interests, including politics, which sometime impinge directly on my work. Being a ‘public figure’ in Scotland can bring unwelcome aggression, and while it may have nothing to do with music, it can’t help interfere with my life and work sometimes.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I am pleased with all the recordings I have made but I only regard them as a secondary activity to composing. I am usually most absorbed in the most recent works, which are a new orchestral work for Marin Alsop, a setting of the Credo for this year’s BBC Proms and a new work for the Edinburgh Festival.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have a special admiration for choirs, and especially those choirs which have children on the top line, producing music of the highest quality and complexity. Therefore some of the British ‘church’ choirs like Westminster Cathedral and King’s College Cambridge, who have sung my music recently, are near the top of my list.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Conducting my St John Passion in Copenhagen, Brussels and Liverpool.

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

They should learn how to handle complexity – study Palestrina and Bach!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished a brass band piece for Black Dyke Mills, and I have now embarked on a setting of the St Luke Passion.

What is your most treasured possession?

An actual relic of Blessed John Henry Newman.

What is your present state of mind?

Fulfilled and chilled!

 

James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan at Boosey & Hawkes

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
Growing up in a house where the piano was always being played by my mother and grandmother was very influential. I just wanted to join in all the time!

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
Mozart Concert Rondo for Piano and Orchestra K382. I played this with a chamber orchestra when I was 13. The expressive d minor variation has a 4 bar piano solo before the orchestra joins in; in the rehearsal I was suddenly aware of the orchestral sound swelling around me, carrying me with it, and hooking me for life.

And I was fortunate to have inspirational teachers, Roy Shepherd and Stephen MacIntyre, who had studied with legends such as Cortot and Michelangeli, and also to study with Ronald Smith.
 
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Having moved around a lot, it has always been a challenge to retain former contacts and performance opportunities as well as forging new links in a new location. As part of the research before we move, I have always checked out what’s on where, and started to make contacts with likely promoters.

In this digital age the exciting challenge has been to use the internet and social networks as part of that process, without the limitations of physical geography.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I was delighted to mark 2011, Liszt’s Bicentenary, by recording his Annees de Pelerinage  – Italie on CD, by writing a blog about the music, and by performing his works in concerts in the UK and Australia.

In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, I will be performing in the world premiere and recording of ‘The Same Flame’, a song cycle of 5 songs based on the Olympic values of Courage, Inspiration, Excellence, Friendship, and Respect and Equality, for massed choirs and piano, with words by Matt Harvey and music by Thomas Hewitt Jones. And I’ve been the pianist on the soundtrack of 3 Olympic Mascots animated films featuring Wenlock and Mandeville, with a story by Michael Morpurgo. It’s always exciting to be involved in something new, fresh and contemporary.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Anywhere with a good piano and a receptive audience!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Liszt is always a favourite, and Chopin. I listen to a very wide range of music, often choral, orchestral and operatic, as it broadens my aural horizons and colours all that I play.

Who are your favourite musicians?
Musicians who serve the music they perform, and who make me think – ‘I must get the score and see what the composer wrote there.’  Even better if they are pianists, and if they make me think, ‘I have to learn that piece!’

What is your most memorable concert experience?
In 2009 I gave a charity recital in Mbabane in Swaziland. The local piano teacher’s upright piano could not be transported to the venue, so I played Moussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ on a Yamaha Clavinova. Whenever there was a silence in the music, the sounds of the African night floated in through the open windows – frogs and crickets.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never give up – priceless advice from Churchill.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on pieces by Debussy, whom I think of as being ‘The French Connection’ between Chopin and Liszt. I’m playing two of his studies, dedicated to the memory of Chopin, as well as Masques, and La Plus que Lente.

What is your most treasured possession?
A Maelzel metronome belonging to my grandmother. It set a musical pulse for her, for my mother, for me, and now for my children.

 

Christine Stevenson enjoys a distinguished career as a piano recitalist and concerto soloist throughout the UK and abroad. Winner of the prestigious Dom Polski Chopin competition, her wide experience extends from making the premiere recording of Alkan’s Rondo Brillant with members of the London Mozart Players, to being the pianist on the soundtrack of the latest animated film featuring the 2012 Olympic Mascots.

Recent projects in the UK and in Australia have included concerts and broadcasts celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary, and the release of Christine’s recording of ‘Années de Pèlerinage – II – Italie’  on CD and iTunes, which has received excellent reviews. Recitals this season explore ‘The French Connection’ – Debussy, his influences and contemporaries, and Christine is currently blogging her way through an ABC of Debussy’s piano music at notesfromapianist

In July 2012 Christine will be the pianist in the world premiere performance and recording of ‘The Same Flame’, a song cycle based on Olympic Values for massed choirs and piano, with words by Matt Harvey and music by Thomas Hewitt Jones.

An inspiring communicator, she is on the staff of the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music in London, and is a tutor at the annual Hereford Summer School for Pianists. She has given masterclasses at Morley College, Hindhead Music Centre, Jackdaws Music Education Trust and the City Lit.

Born in Melbourne, Christine graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with distinction, being twice awarded the Gaitskell prize for the most outstanding student. She studied with pupils of Cortot, of Nadia Boulanger and of Michelangeli, and with the celebrated English pianist, Ronald Smith, also participating in masterclasses given by Sergei Dorensky, Aldo Ciccolini and Vlado Perlemuter.

www.christinestevenson.net