This weekend sees a celebration of all things piano at London’s Institut Français, with workshops, lectures, film screenings and performances. In the run up to this surfeit of piano goodness, I am delighted to be publishing Meet the Artist Interviews with some of the performers, including acclaimed French pianist Pascal Rogé (who also performs at Wigmore Hall in June) and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss. The first interview is with French pianist David Bismuth.

Full details about the festival here:

www.institut-francais.org.uk/itsallaboutpiano

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?

My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for Sundays and special occasions. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or leaf through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.

There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to listen to him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!

I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th-century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.

My parents were keen concert-goers and my love of live classical music developed in childhood. We went to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a conductor with wild hair conducted the CBSO (this was Louis Fremaux, pre-Simon Rattle). I loved, and still do, the etiquette of concerts – the excited buzz of anticipation in the foyer beforehand, reading the programme, sinking in to the plush seats. Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill. I grew up thinking classical music was something everyone could enjoy and engage with (and music was readily available in state school in the early 1980s) – it felt entirely normal to me – and it was only when I went to secondary school, where my talent for music (I was tested for perfect pitch in front of my entire class, an excruciatingly embarrassing episode – and I don’t have perfect pitch!) marked me out as “different” in a school where being “a team player” was important. Music and the school music department became a place of escape and I threw myself into the school’s musical activities: I took up the clarinet so that I could play in the school orchestra, and joined the choir, recorder group and wind band.

I took all my ABRSM grade exams while still at school, and really wanted to apply for music college, but a rather throwaway comment by my music teacher that I perhaps “wasn’t good enough” to audition led to me to follow a different path into further education and I studied Medieval literature at university. I stopped playing the piano seriously at 19 and hardly touched the instrument until I was in my late 30s and my mother bought me a digital piano, urging me to start playing again. Not long after I turned 40 I had a brand new Yamaha acoustic piano and had begun teaching local school children and a handful of adults. By the time I was 50, I was preparing to take a Fellowship performance diploma, having passed my Licentiate and Associate diplomas with distinction.

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

My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch and particularly my music teacher at secondary school, an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic man who organised all sorts of wonderful musical activities in and outside of school, including trips to dress rehearsals at the Royal Opera House (where I saw Tosca, Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, La Bohème and Turandot, amongst others). In c1981, the school choir took part in a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with massed school choirs at the Royal Albert Hall, an unforgettable experience, which has stayed with me ever since.

Since I started blogging and writing about music, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my approach to the piano. My study with a number of master teachers and concert pianists while preparing for professional performance diplomas has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist, and the deep learning that is required to prepare for such qualifications enables me to pick up new repertoire without feeling daunted by its challenges.

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

Convincing people that being a musician and writer is “a proper job”.

Dealing with ongoing imposter syndrome, which I think comes from not having attended music college at 18. I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing, however, as I believe it keeps one humble.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my Associate performance diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.

In recent years, I have had the great pleasure of performing at a friend’s house concerts in his beautiful home in the Sussex countryside. A lovely setting, convivial atmosphere, friendly audience and a truly stunning Steinway B piano make these concerts the best I’ve ever experienced, and I was very pleased with my performance of the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17 at last winter’s house concert. I have yet to learn the other two movements of the Schumann…..!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I recently read an interview with the pianist Richard Goode, whom I much admire, in which he said he chooses to “perform only the pieces that will be best for you and the audience” and that one should understand one’s own limits. As pianists we have a vast repertoire and one should never feel under pressure to be able to “play everything”. I used to think I was somehow failing if I did not have the requisite number of Bach Preludes & Fugues, Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Etudes or Debussy Preludes in my fingers; now I just play what interests me and what I believe I can play well.

How do you make your repertoire choices?

I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. More and more I am choosing to play 20th-century and contemporary piano music, and the wilder shores of repertoire – I like oddities and lesser-known works. These are often easier to play than the core canon as one is not constantly up against the weight of history and perceived “right ways” to play this repertoire.

Having said all this, Schubert remains my favourite composer; I really should play more of his piano music!

I am currently working on a programme called A Sense of Place – piano music inspired by or evocative of real or imagined places and landscapes. The pieces include movements from Alan Hovhaness’ Visionary Landscapes, John Cage’s In A Landscape, Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land and Britten’s Night Piece.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To play, perhaps Bill Evans’ Peace Piece. I played it at a charity concert a few years ago and the audience loved its meditative atmosphere.

I get sent CDs to review all the time and listen fairly widely as a result, though I always tend towards piano music. If I had to pick a favourite recording, it would be Resonance de l’Originaire by Maria Joao Pires.

Most memorable concert experience?

It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – I have now heard him play this monument of 20th-century piano music twice, and on both occasions the experience has been transcendent, beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound. Talking to Steven in the bar afterwards, he simply said “one just has to go with this music”.

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

Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing. Don’t endlessly compare yourself to your peers or to others in the profession – this can lead to feelings of dismotivation, dissatisfaction and worse, depression. Navigate your own course to find your own musical identity and voice.

Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!

What is your definition of success?

Seeing people come out of a concert truly touched or moved by the music they’ve hard.

Witnessing a piano student’s “lightbulb moment”

Being able to play Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17 in its entirety! (one day!!)


img_228121

Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, described by concert pianist Peter Donohoe as “an important voice in the piano world”.

Read more

franceswilson.co.uk

 

This marks an interesting and exciting new development in my Meet the Artist project – a podcast interview with pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen.

The motivation behind this interview is Alisdair’s fascinating and highly enjoyable #twittergoldberg’s project in which over the course of a month he has released on Twitter a single variation from Bach’s iconic work every day, with an accompanying commentary to each variation on Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc.

In the first part of our interview, we discuss the Goldberg Variations and the background to Alisdair’s #twittergoldbergs project, what Glenn Gould might have made of the #twittergoldbergs project and social media. In the second part (published 3rd September), we talk more generally, covering aspects such as teachers, inspirations and influences, and forthcoming projects.

Alisdair’s complete recording of the Goldberg Variations is available here

www.alisdairkitchen.com

Twitter @alisdairkitchen

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

My grandfather was a composer, so he definitely inspired me. My mum did a music degree when I was about 9 years old so we had a small music studio at home where I learnt to use Cubase. It was around then that I remember writing my first composition, a Morris dance that was used in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my mum wrote the rest of the music for the production).

As for making it my career, I actually came to it fairly late – 8 years after completing my degree. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to make a living from composing and I didn’t want to teach, so I took an office job to bring the pennies in. It’s only since getting married and having a baby that I’ve been able to stay at home and write music, but it’s been the best decision I ever made!

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

I consider myself to be a self-taught composer, as I don’t recall ever receiving much direct feedback on my work. Even at university, our composing sessions consisted of listening to new music rather than learning compositional techniques and tips. This is my memory of it anyway! So my composing hasn’t been directly influenced by any teachers.

Instead, I would say that my main influence initially was music I had played in orchestras. I used to say that I wanted my music to have the harmonies of Debussy, the rhythms of Stravinsky, the Englishness of Vaughan-Williams, and the passion of Rachmaninov. However, since returning to composition in 2011, I’ve opened my ears to the wealth of new music that has been written since the time of those composers, right up to music being created in the present. As a result, my style has changed a little, I have learned a lot, and my ideas are more creative. I’ve started to look outside of music to find influences, for example ancient history and nature.

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

As I left it so long after university, I didn’t have any tutors to promote me, enter me for competitions, or show me how to turn this from a passion into a career. I have had to do a lot of research into how composers get paid, how to be noticed, how to get my music performed, etc. I have also had to find the performers for myself, something which would have been a lot easier had I still been at university and surrounded by musicians. This has actually been a good thing though, as I have made connections with a lot of fantastic performers.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I’m extremely proud of winning the Yorkshire Late Starters Strings composing competition 2011/12 with my 15 minute piece “Battle of the Winwaed”. The piece was written for the YLSS, who comprise adult string players of grades 2-8. To get round the challenge of writing for mixed abilities, I split the cellos into parts 1 and 2, along with the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas and basses. I also wrote parts for a solo violin and solo cello, to add more complexity for those players of the highest standard. The orchestra performed the piece twice in 2012.

I’m also very proud of my third string quartet, “Cross Quarter Days”, which was recorded in 2012 and has been released on iTunes, Amazon, and on my website. The piece is in 4 movements, each representing one of the four key dates in the Pagan calendar that divide the year into quarters. It represents a big leap in terms of my development since the second quartet, written just a year earlier, and I feel it’s the work that best represents me as a composer.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

One of my favourite pieces to listen to is Michael Torke’s July for saxophone quartet. It’s so funky, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it! Other favourites include the Rite of Spring, Turangalîla, the Planets, Ravel and Debussy’s string quartets, White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans, Gabriel Prokofiev’s Jerk Driver… I also listen to a lot of 80s pop music and Steely Dan!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Performing Turangalîla with the County Youth Orchestra at Snape Maltings, I think it was in 2003. Such an overwhelming piece to perform, and in such a fantastic venue. I feel very privileged to have had that experience. I remember walking off stage with my cello at the end and saying to the conductor, “wow, that was amazing!”.

Regarding performances of my own work, the most memorable is probably when I performed my own concerto for cello and string orchestra at university in 2002. Having my Christmas carol “On A Gentle Winter’s Night” performed in Guildford cathedral in front of 1000 people in 2001, and then its second performance in New Zealand last year, are also very memorable occasions!

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

Be true to yourself. Don’t give up. Have an open mind. Listen. Network. Take criticism constructively. Make things happen, don’t sit around waiting to be noticed.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m currently about halfway through my largest commission so far – a 25 minute suite for full symphony orchestra entitled “Legends of the Tor”. The work will be in 5 movements, each referencing a different legend relating to Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. The piece has been commissioned by my local symphony orchestra, after they successfully applied for a highly competitive “Community Music” grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. The community element will be the involvement of 5 local schools, who will each have a group of children composing their own music on the theme of “Myth and Legends”, with the help of workshops led by myself and members of the orchestra. The children will perform their pieces at the concert in June when the orchestra will premiere my piece.

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

My goal is a commission for the BBC Proms! I’ve set myself a 10 year target, so we’ll see what happens! Failing that, I’d be happy to have my music performed regularly and to continue receiving commissions so that I can carry on writing.

Alison Wrenn’s new work for piano trio Between the Mountains and the Sea receives its premiere at the Halstatt Classics Music and Literature Festival on 17th August. Further details here

 

Alison Wrenn (b.1981) is a British composer, whose style brings together influences from the English Pastoral Tradition, elements of popular music and media music as well as strains of Celtic and some aspects of American minimalist music.

Full biography

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

My mother taught me to read prior to kindergarten. The nuns at St. Athanasius considered this a problem, as i would be bored and get into trouble. they offered piano or French lessons at $15 a week as an ultimatum. I remember my first piano lesson, and reading music made immediate sense; a connection was made and i never looked back.

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

I most admire some of the greats from the past: Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Gould. i am also inspired by string instruments in their capacity for true expression. with that in mind, i presently gain most inspiration from the kids who play on From the Top, and my colleague, Matt Haimovitz.

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

Dealing with adverse reactions to my crossing genre lines in my choice of repertoire, mostly from Neanderthals of the Classical music industry.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Knowing when to lead and when to follow, reacting and interacting in the moment.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My upcoming Liszt recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and other Liszt arrangements; my Stravinsky record; both of my Radiohead CDs.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

Hard to choose, but Mechanics Hall in Worcester is a great recording venue, ditto the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Upper Manhattan; Meyerson Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, Sir James Galway, Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Matt Haimovitz

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Listening: my teacher, Russell Sherman in numerous recitals
Performing: collaborating with Matt, Sir James

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

Rachmaninoff and Ravel are two favourites to perform, also Shostakovich.
I listen to The Bad Plus, Bill Evans, Elliott Smith

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

That one’s own creation of the present moment in music is most important, not submitting to some foregone conclusion as to what’s appropriate.

What are you working on at the moment?

Goldberg Variations, Rachmaninoff Concerto #1

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

Costa Rica

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Spending all day with my cats

What is your most treasured possession?

Elliott, my Tonkinese cat

What do you enjoy doing most?

Reading

Christopher O’Riley appears with Lara Downes in The Artist Sessions on 29th May, at the historic Yoshi’s SF, with a performance of his new Oxingale Records BluRay/CD O’Riley’s Liszt.

Christopher O’Riley is an American classical pianist and public radio show host. He is the host of the weekly National Public Radio program From the Top. O’Riley is also known for his piano arrangements of songs by alternative artists, including alternative rock band Radiohead.

Christopher O’Riley studied with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music. Christopher O’Riley splits his time between Los Angeles and rural Ohio. His radio and tv show can be found on-line at www.fromthetop.org. His personal website (including a full biography) is at www.christopheroriley.com.

Jocelyn Pook (image credit: Matthew Andrews)
Jocelyn Pook (image credit: Matthew Andrews)

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

I came from a family in which music and art was important. To this day I don’t know how my mother, a single woman raising 3 children with no money, managed to pay for piano lessons for all of us, but I’m glad she did. There were free violin lessons offered at my primary school so I took up the violin when I was 8, then changed later to viola. I had inspiring and encouraging teachers along the way, in particular my first piano teacher Jean Marshall who also encouraged my early interest in composing.

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

I used to compose simple songs on the piano as a child, but it didn’t occur to me to take this further, and when I went to music college it was as a performer, studying viola and piano. After I left, I began working as a professional viola player – sometimes performing in theatre companies and pop bands. Seeing how untrained musicians, some of whom couldn’t even read music, were able to compose, inspired me and gave me confidence, so that when small composing opportunities subsequently came my way – such as writing music for my quartet, or a friend’s video, a colleague’s dance piece, etc. – I seized the opportunity.

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

I am usually filled with trepidation at the start of every new project. Each feels like the biggest challenge at the time. My last piece, Hearing Voices, a song cycle for voice, orchestra and recorded voices, was the first commission for symphony orchestra (for the BBC Concert Orchestra) so that was a big challenge.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Working with a symphony orchestra was exciting because there are so many possibilities of texture and timbre and combinations of instruments. It’s fun to play with large forces, especially percussion and brass sections which I have less experience of using, and it’s always so thrilling when you hear it all come alive.

Which recordings are you most proud of?  

My albums Flood, Untold Things and Desh.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

No, there are many I love!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Barenboim, Nigel Kennedy and Gustavo Dudamel are amazingly talented artists whose passion for music has inspired and communicated so widely. And they don’t shy away from ethical and moral issues.

Plus, singers such as Kathleen Ferrier and ones I’m lucky enough to work with: Melanie Pappenheim, Natacha Atlas, Tanja Tzarovska, Manickam Yogeswaran, Parvin Cox and Lore Lixenberg.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

A gypsy ensemble that played in our living room in Serbia.

Tell us about your upcoming performances at Tête à Tête Opera Festival?

Tonight my multimedia song-cycle Hearing Voices will be performed at the festival at King’s Place. I first performed the piece in 2012 and have reworked it for a second performance this year. I’ll be joined again by director Emma Bernard and mezzo-soprano Melanie Pappenheim for this performance in addition to Laura Moody, Susi Evans and Preetha Narayanan. The piece focuses on the topic of mental health and I used recordings of my mother, Bobby Baker and Julie McNamara as well as videos by Dragan Aleksic. It’s a very personal piece for me as my family have been touched by mental illness for three generations.

Tomorrow night is my vocal work Anxiety Fanfare and Variations which is also about mental health. I’ll be joining the Nottingham People’s Choir and my Jocelyn Pook Ensemble to perform the work with soloists Donna Lennard, Melanie Pappenheim, Jonathan Peter Kenny and Richard Morris. Anxiety Fanfare looks at the day-to-day feeling of anxiety which affects so many people now.

What else do you have coming up?

The west-end play King Charles III is transferring to Broadway in October at the Music Box Theatre which is hugely exciting – I’m off to New York for rehearsals in September. It was a great project to work on and it’s amazing to see how far it’s come, I can’t wait to see what the American audiences think too!

What is your most treasured possession? 

My daughter.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Writing music and spending time with family and friends

What is your present state of mind? 

Pretty chilled out considering I’m writing this on a flight back from China!

Further information/links:

The DESH soundtrack is available on CD now on Pook Music (PM001) and the single ‘Hallelujah’ is available to download on iTunes.  DESH returns to Sadler’s Wells in June for a third run after a sell-out world tour.

Jocelyn Pook’s next collaboration with Akram Khan, iTMOi, will be performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, Tuesday 28 May – Saturday 1 June.

The Brodsky Quartet and singer Lore Lixenberg premiere a new song cycle, which includes music by Jocelyn Pook, at Drapers’ Hall on Monday 24 June as part of the City Of London Festival.

To find out more information about Jocelyn Pook, visit her website www.jocelynpook.com

Best known for her score for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Jocelyn Pook is an award-winning composer who writes music for film, television, theatre, dance and the concert platform.

Jocelyn graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1983, where she studied the viola. She then embarked on a period of touring and recording with artists such as Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson and PJ Harvey and as a member of the Communards. She has also toured extensively with The Jocelyn Pook Ensemble, performing repertoire from her albums and music from her film scores. For her music-theatre piece Speaking in Tunes she won a British Composer Award and, for the National Theatre’s production of St Joan, she won an Olivier Award. Jocelyn has worked with a variety of acclaimed choreographers including, most recently, Akram Khan Company on the contemporary solo work DESH. Jocelyn has established an international reputation as a highly original composer of screen music following her score for Eyes Wide Shut, which won a Chicago Film Award and a Golden Globe nomination. Other film scores include: The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino (Dir: Michael Radford), Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps, Dir: Laurent Cantet) and Brick Lane (Dir: Sarah Gavron). She also contributed a piece to the soundtrack of Gangs of New York (Dir: Martin Scorsese).

Jocelyn has composed scores for television shows and commercials, and was nominated for a BAFTA for Channel 4’s The Government Inspector (Dir: Peter Kosminsky). With a blossoming reputation as a composer of electro-acoustic works and music for the concert platform, Jocelyn continues to celebrate the diversity of the human voice. Her work Mobile was a commission from the BBC Proms and The King’s Singers and is a collaboration with the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Portraits in Absentia was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and is a collage of sound, voice, music and words woven from the messages left on her answerphone. Ingerland, Jocelyn’s first contemporary opera, was commissioned and produced by ROH2 and performed in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre in June 2010 to wide acclaim. Jocelyn has chaired and been a judge on various panels including the British Composer Awards, Ivor Novello Awards and BBC Proms Young Composers Competition.