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

When I think back to the moment that led to me majoring in music, it’s funny that it wasn’t some Hollywood-style lightbulb thing—the way it happened was almost forgettable. I’d seriously played music my entire life, but I was also one of those obnoxiously accomplished kids who did everything and was proficient at every subject, so when it came time to do college applications I applied for programs in multiple fields. I ended up applying to and attending conservatory because my piano teacher stopped me after a performance and told me, seriously, that I couldn’t ever give up music. No one else had given me that kind of direction, so I took that bit of counsel and ran with it.

I figured I would follow music as far as it would take me; I promised myself that if there came a day where it no longer brought me joy and I’d wrung all the love that I could out of it, I would stop. That day hasn’t come yet.

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

When I was really little, I would watch Victor Borge on PBS, and I just adored everything about him; he made music so funny but he was also just a phenomenal musician. He was warm and silly and the silliness didn’t detract from the beauty of the music, and I think that was a really crucial thing for me to absorb at an early age, since classical music in general can take itself way too seriously. A lot of people get hung up on things like “greatness” and “nobility” and “transcendence” in classical music, and don’t get me wrong, those elements exist, but there’s also a lot of humor and irony and self-deprecation in music as well, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend the art form doesn’t contain all these very human things.

He was just a master of presenting music to audiences in a way that was really accessible and entertaining. When I was little I didn’t know much about music history or advanced theory, and I didn’t have to to enjoy Victor Borge’s performances. That’s something I keep in mind whenever I prepare performances, since I like to talk to the audience about the music; how do I teach them something about the music in a way that’s entertaining, where you don’t feel like you’re being lectured? I don’t get as slapsticky as Borge, and I’m nowhere near as funny as he is, but that accessible humor is something I always aim for.

There have been a lot of other influences in my life, of course, and I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors in the field of music, but I think a lot of my guiding philosophy all goes back to Victor Borge.

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

I’m really self-conscious about the fact that I’m not on the traditional track that pianists usually take. I didn’t do competitions when I was young because my teacher was very rightly concerned that competition culture would be really rough on me, since I was a pretty shy and sensitive kid. I didn’t go to a big-name conservatory, I haven’t won any major competitions or been picked up by a label or agency, and I’m not pursuing a career in academia. I’ve read biographies and memoirs and interviews by pianists I deeply admire where they actually, literally say, if you haven’t hit these traditional milestones by the time you’re eighteen, you need to give up, because you will never make it.

I know objectively I’m pretty good at playing the piano, but I still have trouble believing that anyone will want to listen to me. I also know that I’m not remotely the only person who feels this way, and that there are a lot of independent classical musicians out there who have overcome the same problems, but doing your own thing still feels very lonely sometimes.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I think my recording of Cécile Chaminade’s concert etude “Automne” (released in May) might be my favorite recording that I’ve made yet. I’m at a point where I feel like I’m constantly torn between wanting to sound like other people, following the rules that my teachers have drummed into me, and trying new things and finding my own voice. I feel like the Chaminade recording is, so far, the closest I’m come to playing something in a way that sounds really like me.

I’m sure in X number of years or after X number of recordings I’ll look back on it and go, oh my gosh, this is terrible, why did I make these musical decisions or play like this, but you gotta start somewhere.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I absolutely love playing Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, etc. but I have this horrible anxiety whenever I perform their music, particularly the really famous pieces, because there are all these legendary recordings and performances that I feel like I have no chance of living up to them. And when you play that music, even if you have something really strong to say and have put your own stamp on it, you feel like everyone’s bringing their own different expectations to listening and you’re just set up to fail.

I think, personally, I perform best when it’s music that I love but that isn’t as well-known, because instead of trying to meet this invisible expectation, I’m coming from a place where I know it’s likely the audience doesn’t know what to expect and it’s on me to create something that makes it worth their while. Sometimes that’s lesser-known works by canonic composers, like Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este”—I just love performing that piece so much, it’s not what you’d expect but it’s such a crowd pleaser. And lately I’ve been adding music by traditionally underplayed women composers to my repertoire, and the amazing thing is that audiences love those works. I’ve had amazing responses to the Clara Schumann and Cécile Chaminade pieces I’ve played in concert, and oftentimes I’ll get feedback that people actually enjoy those pieces more than the famous stuff they’ve already heard a lot.

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

My teacher usually recommends pieces—he has an uncanny way of picking unexpected crowd-pleasers for me—and I often go completely off-book and will learn other pieces when something really grabs me. The Louise Farrenc etude I recently released is one of those; I heard Konstanze Eickhorst’s recording of it, and was so utterly smitten that I dropped everything to learn it immediately, and then recorded it just a few months later.

I also pick my repertoire so I can have options putting together balanced programs that work for different audiences; I kind of think of a concert program as being like a really good meal, where you have a variety of flavors that all complement each other and take you on a journey.

Incorporating a 50/50 gender balance into my solo programs has also been a really interesting challenge, because when I’m presenting less-heard music to audiences, I have to think both about how certain pieces go together thematically as well as how it feels for the listener, going from something they know well to something that’s new, and vice versa. I also have to make sure

I’m not unintentionally reinforcing lazy stereotypes, like having a program where all the male composers ’works are really fast and agitated and all the female composers ’works are slow and lyrical. I know I’ve done my job when I’ve put a bunch of disparate stuff together and people say that they enjoyed the whole thing.

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

There’s a private house concert I do every year at the home of a dear friend with a wonderful Steinway grand; it’s just an incredibly lovely experience because she rustles up a whole audience of people who just really love classical music and enjoy listening to me talk about it and it doesn’t feel like a performance so much as a warm and nerdy afternoon. I wish I could share that kind of experience with the whole world, because it’s just so much fun.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Ha, the first thing that comes to mind is that time I had a memory slip performing the Prokofiev Third Concerto with orchestra—I noodled around for a bit and somehow got out of it fine, but I still get panicky reliving it.

On further thought, I gave a lecture recital last year (2019) on Clara Schumann’s G Minor Piano Sonata, and I still feel all warm and happy remembering it, because the audience was so wonderful and engaged. It was put on by a nonprofit that does free community events, and the audience was primarily older classical music enthusiasts, who conventional wisdom says are typically the people least willing to listen to new stuff. But I just talked about how awesome Clara Schumann was, why her music isn’t as well known, and what makes her sonata so compelling; I can’t describe how amazing it feels to see a room full of people fully engaged and interested while you talk at them about something you really care about. And you can tell how engaged your audience is while you’re performing! Even if you can’t see them, there’s a certain energy you can feel. When I played I felt like that audience was with me the whole time, experiencing every phrase and going on that emotional journey. And afterwards we had a Q&A session, and they asked so many questions about Clara Schumann and the sonata, and a lot of them based their questions on what they heard in the performance. It felt like a culmination of why I love this art form so much.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When I was younger I equated fame with success and I just wanted to be, like, mega-famous. Now the idea of being recognized on the street is horrifying to me, and I feel a lot more wary about the idea of being treated as some kind of product or commodity. I also have my reservations about the very concept of celebrity, the idea that people might feel like they know you, even though they only know this small part of you that you’ve put on display. So my personal definition of success is a lot more nuanced now.

I think success is a state of being where you’re doing work you’re passionate about, where you feel like you’re being true to your own voice, and you have some audience who your work resonates with. I think, especially in classical music, a factor of success is also how much your work reaches people who aren’t already deep in the field. I feel really validated when people who say “I don’t know anything about classical music” tell me they really enjoyed a performance or a recording, or that I taught them something. Art has to keep finding bigger audiences in order to survive, so I think a truly successful artist is one who continues reaching those audiences.

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

I’ve learned so much from the past couple years of working that I feel like I could write a whole book of unsolicited advice. I think the first concept that aspiring musicians absolutely need to know is that classical music is not a meritocracy. You are not necessarily going to get anywhere purely based on your talent or even your work ethic, because like any other industry, connections are everything and in a chaotic world, luck can be everything. And it’s really unfortunate, but first-generation musicians are always going to have a much harder time making it than people from families who know the unspoken institutional rules of classical music. The flip side of that is that if you recognize that talent isn’t the only thing that matters, you can leverage your other skills and qualities. You don’t have to be the most talented musician in the room to be successful—there will always be people who are better than you are, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for you. You just have to figure out what you have to offer the world.

I think it’s also really critical to get rid of this expectation that if you’re a musician, your whole personality has to revolve around music. I think that’s part of why some young musicians get prematurely burnt out and jaded—I know people who got disenchanted with music in their teens and early twenties and ended up without any other identity to cling to, which is just really tragic. I really do think you should be a whole person outside of music, and it’s okay to be into non-classical music and non-music media and pop culture and whatever else floats your boat. The world is full of so many fascinating things for your brain to chew on, you know?

What is your present state of mind?

I’ve been really thrown—along with everyone else—by coronavirus. I’m very, very lucky to be able to shelter in place. But it’s shocking how uncertain everything is now, and how my routine and short-term plans have been totally upended. This is the time of year I usually do a whole slate of concerts, and that’s not happening. I was working on some really cool projects that were supposed to unfold next season; I’m not sure about the status of those projects anymore, due to arts org budgets imploding, gatherings being risky, etc. We’re all in this suspended state right now. Performing is such an important part of my life, but I don’t know when we’ll be able to have concerts in-person again. It’s very hard to visualize what a career in music looks like after this is all over.

In this state of limbo, it’s really hard to continue working day-to-day like everything is normal. I don’t do well when I don’t have immediate deadlines, so it’s really hard for me to practice like there are still performances on the horizon. On top of that all, I just feel so emotionally drained. I mean, people are literally dying right now, and the level of suffering is just breathtaking. Even if you’re safe and doing fine, you know way too many people who aren’t. It takes a lot of energy and brainpower to work on music—or anything, really—and it’s very exhausting just being a human being right now.

I’m just taking everything one day at a time and being nicer to myself—well, I’m trying, anyway. I still have to practice on a daily basis because physical things like stamina, control, flexibility, etc. evaporate if you don’t keep them up. I used to beat myself up for not practicing enough hours a day or not making enough progress, but now if I’m able to squeeze out one or two hours of meaningful work, I’m genuinely grateful.

(Interview date: 27 April 2020)


Sharon Su is a professional finger wiggler. While she hails* from a very sunny state (California), her work has taken her to concert halls, churches, ballrooms, and the occasional palace throughout the cloudier sections of the world, both as a solo and collaborative keyboard-masher. She has extensively performed pieces from the classical canon (sadly, that is “canon” with one “n” in the middle) as well as premiered a number of newly composed works, likely because the composers were in a hurry and couldn’t find a better pianist to perform their works for the first time. Her work has earned her recognition as an American artist and, most importantly, she has recently been hailed by her mother as being “pretty good at noise-making.”

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Sharon Su play’s Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto – more information

Louise Farrenc – Etude, Op 26/10


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…and how it relates to the performance of Western art music


Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

 

I will never forget Tuesday 18th February 2020. In truth, there was nothing unremarkable about how the day itself unfolded: I woke up, went about my usual business of teaching, had lunch at my favourite coffee shop whilst browsing Premier League football news (yes, there was the small matter of Covid-19 that was making tidal waves in China and parts of Asia, but this has no interest to me. After all, “I live in Cape Town, and the damn thing probably needs a GPS or Google Maps to get here,” I reassured myself). The afternoon itself was equally uneventful: I did some grocery shopping in between teaching, practised for a few hours afterwards, then went home and ate the leftover dinner that my wife and I had cooked the previous day. It was after dinner that I received the phone call that changed my life forever, my beloved grandmother had passed away very suddenly, and in less than 48 hours I found myself in Changi Airport en route to Malaysia. I have visited Singapore many times in the last seven years, but I have never seen Changi airport so tranquil and serene, the exact opposite of its normal busy, bustling self. It was at this moment that I realised how potentially serious the Coronavirus was, and I prayed that it never finds its way to Cape Town.

Surely, but not slowly, the Coronavirus locked on to Google Maps and in under four weeks South Africa had her first infected case. Since then we have now been in lockdown for the best part of seven weeks and here I am writing to share my thoughts as the country ‘phases’ itself towards an economic recovery. However, before I proceed, I just want to be clear on the following points:

  • In regard to Covid-19, there is the narrative norm on one hand and the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ on the other, as well as everything in between. The point of writing this article is not to promote any ‘school’ of thinking but rather try to be as neutral as is humanly possible.
  • The opinions (musical and otherwise) stated in this article are based on my experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.

Here we go!

What I learn from the Coronavirus pandemic in relation to the performance of Western art music:

1. Be careful what you wish for…

Any die-hard fans of low budget, straight to video/DVD horror and slasher movies will no doubt be familiar with the above tagline as it was used use in Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 Wishmaster. In this film, an evil genie (known as the djinn) grants wishes to those who are willing to give up their souls. However, the wishes granted often contain a ‘catch’, or in other words, have an undesirable outcome for the wisher. For example (if my memory serves me correctly…), the djinn grants the wish of ‘eternal beauty’ to a female clerk by turning her into a mannequin! (Can you imagine wishing to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto only to be turned into a CD player?) For those who are not so familiar with Wishmaster, doubtless you will remember the climax of Disney’s Aladdin, when the protagonist mocks Jafar for not being as powerful as the genie, all the while knowing that once Jafar wishes himself into a powerful genie, he will have ultimately made himself a prisoner to the lamp.

In fairness to András Schiff, having part of your upcoming book quoted in a national newspaper is not a bad marketing ploy. The only drawback is that the editor will always choose the section from the book which is the most – hmm, how can I put it – musically provocative? The internet is full of ‘clickbaits’ and I suspect the purpose behind quoting the more aggravating passages from Schiff’s writing is to generate not only attention but also as reaction. That is not to say that Schiff is wrong, but does it really matter that ‘the average’ audience who attends Classical music concerts cannot hear the difference between a German 6th and a Dominant 7th Chord? All of us start our musical journey somewhere: I was a self-confessed Richard Clayderman fan in my early childhood who dreamt of playing Francis Albert Lai’s ‘Love Story’ on my wedding day (Thank God I didn’t!), but as a result of attending live concerts, I developed a lifelong passion for Classical music and made it a big part of my life. I must also confess that I am no angel and have on a couple of occasions fallen asleep during live performances. It is my humble opinion that having an audience who is just (if not more) musically knowledgeable than the performer is akin to a patient who ends up diagnosing himself/herself in a medical consultation with a doctor. I have not read Schiff’s book, and there is every chance he is being quoted out of context. However, saying that modern audiences don’t know the difference between poor and outstanding performances is kind of like biting the hand that feeds you. And even if this is the case, what does it say about Schiff’s own standing as one of the most revered pianists of the twentieth century? (I must also confess that Schiff was one of my musical idols during my teenage years). On Schiff’s remark with regards to the ‘dos and don’ts’ of concert etiquette, I don’t think, even in his most surreal musical fantasies, that he envisages an age where the internet and social media would be the only platform available for live performance. If Schiff ever does a live stream, at least he won’t be giving death stares to certain audience members when they do cough or shuffle, and audience members will now be able to press pause for a bathroom break, especially when the encore is Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.

In fairness to Schiff, he has since apologised for what he had said. However, there is no denying that the pianist’s initial remark will continue to leave a lingering taste on the tongues of many Classical music critics and bloggers.

 

2. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all…

When the Chinese government took the decision to lock down Wuhan in January 2020, no one else in the world envisaged that this would be the beginning of a new world order. Indeed, the rest of Asia swiftly implemented the Chinese lockdown model, followed by most of Europe (apart from Sweden) and it was only a matter of time before countries on the African continent did the same. However, whereas the lockdown was dutifully observed in China and Germany, the entire practice has less of a desirable effect in countries such as the Britain and South Africa. This is not because the Chinese and the Germans are necessarily better than the British or the Africans, but because the collective mindset of citizens in every country is different. Sweeping statement perhaps, but China and Germany are known to be nations of extraordinary discipline (I say this with a small pinch of salt because there will always be exceptions to any argument: even in the most disciplined nations there will also be a handful of free-spirited beings. Conversely, in nations where freedom of expression and an easy-going way of life are encouraged, there will always be a handful of very disciplined people). In musical performance, the Chinese (and Orientals in general) are known for their peerless technique and poise, often the fruit of countless hours of practice. (I have been told that, in China, a piano student must ‘earn’ his/hers right to any musical repertoire by first completing at least all the Hanon Exercises as well as the first two books of Czerny’s School of Velocity!). Such precision of  technical execution, combined with extraordinary agility, is what gives the Chinese pianist the ‘WOW’ factor: think of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, although a case can be made for Miss Wang that it is not only her playing that has the ‘WOW’ factor. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Germans are a nation of law-abiding citizens who enjoy a sense of order to their everyday live. (It is possible to argue that the Chinese’s respect for the authority comes from a place of fear, whereas the Germans actually seem to enjoy following rules). I will never forget listening to a discussion between two former housemates of mine, one German, the other Italian: the former could not understand why the latter is so keen on evading tax whereas the latter cannot understand why the former is keen on paying tax! Hence, a ‘Germanic’ musical performance can often translate into emphasis of the downbeat, as well as the awareness of the music’s symmetrical phrase length, thus giving the listener a sense of structure, of knowing where exactly you are in the music. In other words, German pianists have the tendency to play more ‘down the bar line’, and I name Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel as two exponents of this school. I have always felt that one of the challenges of playing any musical repertoire at the highest level, be it German or otherwise, is to ‘unsquare’ the so-called ‘square’ phrases, but once again, I must remind you that I am merely making a generalisation about German performers and German music. There will always be exceptions to the rule; Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff spring to mind.

I cannot speak for Britain, but the reason lockdown doesn’t have the effect it was supposed to have in South Africa has much to do with the country’s unstable infrastructures and volatile economy (South Africa’s state-owned enterprises have been surviving on state bailouts for years and the country has recently taken the decision to liquidated its national airline, the SAA, after years of mismanagement). As a result, South Africans have become very self-sufficient whilst making the most of their entrepreneurial abilities. When the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the sale of tobacco and alcohol would be prohibited during the national lockdown from the end of March, many South Africans decided that this was unconstitutional and ‘made another plan’ (the South African phrase for ‘Plan B’). The resulted in many smokers getting their supply of cigarettes from ‘unofficial’ sources as well as a spike (actually more akin to a wedge) in pineapple and yeast sales, as people brewed their own version of homemade pineapple beer. At the same time, there was also a gentleman across social media who subsidised his own income by delivering wine using an arial drone! When there was a clamp-down on these ‘illicit’ activities, some resorted to looting and burgling liquor stores, on a couple of occasions with the help of selected members of the South African Police force, who were meant to be enforcing the lockdown in the first place!

Any instrumental teacher worth their pedagogical salt will tell you just how important it is to address the basics such as rhythm, the reading of musical notation, posture and technique. At the same time, no two students are the same, and I have always felt that one of the hallmarks of a great teacher is the ability to successfully convey the same information to different individuals to achieve the desired result. Despite their differing styles of pianism and musical interpretation, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel all studied with Theodor Leschetizky. And even though Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter were the student of Heinrich Neuhaus, all three of them could not have been more different in terms of their musical temperament. However, all these great pianists have one thing in common (that is if we discount their massive technique and repertoire, which is taken for granted at the highest level), they are first and foremost, musicians of the highest order (I say this with a slight reservation, because some of Richter’s late performances can be slightly off the mark, to say the least). In short: Gilels, Lupu and Richter all put the composer before themselves. I have always got the impression while listening to Gilels and Lupu’s performances (of Beethoven and Brahms in particular) that this is what the composer themselves wanted to say, only now they are saying it through the performer, who acts as a kind of conduit. As we entered an age of remote teaching, one only has to look at the YouTube channel of Graham Fitch and Josh Wright, two outstanding pedagogues who often remind the viewers that there is no one way of playing the piano. Sweeping statement perhaps, but it is possible to say that the techniques introduced in both Fitch and Wright’s video tutorials have one primary function: the economy of physical movement through the release of tension, which make for more efficient interpretation of the musical score.

 

3. The narrative norm is not for everyone…

In general, there seems to be three school of thoughts on Covid-19. The mainstream narrative belongs to the billionaire philanthropists, politicians, national media and medical professionals on the front line fighting this ‘invisible enemy’. They will tell you how dangerous and easily transmittable the virus is and show you the ‘facts’: hospitals all over the world are over-crowded with Covid-19 patients, the virus completely annihilates the human respiratory system, and until a vaccine is found, we will have to keep our ‘social distance’. Finally, they will justify the world-wide lockdown by saying that human lives are much more important than the country’s economy. The second narrative seeks to challenge the first, these are put forward by investigative journalists, independent news broadcasters, regular doctors and medical professionals (who changed their practice from conventional medicine towards natural and alternative healing modalities commonly known as functional medicine). They will argue that Covid-19 is not as deadly as the media make it out to be. They will also argue that there is a difference between dying of Covid-19 and dying with Covid-19. They will point to a flaw in Professor Neil Ferguson’s model (which sparked the lockdown in the UK and the US) and question the merit of social distancing (especially when Ferguson himself was guilty of the violating the curfew during lockdown). Finally, they will argue against the world-wide lockdown as it is not only catastrophic to the country’s economy but also leads to long-term psychological and emotional impact on people. For those without a regular pay cheque (like the majority of South Africans), it is a matter of rolling the dice and going back to work or die of hunger, and many chose the former. Those who are in favour of the third and final narrative are often dubbed conspiracy theorists. Based on the argument put forward by the investigative journalists and independent news broadcasters, they believe that Covid-19 is manufactured in a science lab and that the current pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ masterminded by the billionaire philanthropists and the World Health Organisation in their quest to depopulate and conquer the earth.

Regardless of what your views on Covid-19 are, one will always be able to find the sources to support one’s arguments. However, what I found disappointing is how dismissive certain individuals have become. Arguments from those who embraced the dominant narrative include ‘I would be wary of anyone who doesn’t think Covid-19 is serious’, or ‘You obviously have not seen what I have seen’ (an unassailable medical argument), and ‘It is against the law to promote fake news about the epidemic, you should only get your information from trusted sources such as the national media’. Whereas the ‘conspiracy theorists’ will respond with answers such as, ‘There are far too many coincidences for this to be a pandemic’ (often quoting Event 201 and the Rockefeller ‘Lockstep’ document), and ‘The medical institutes and national media covering the Covid-19 pandemic have links with the philanthropist foundations.’ I will probably get a lot of flak for this but isn’t the human thing to do during these extremely traumatic times simply to listen to others no matter how ridiculous their thoughts are? All of us have our own demons to conquer, and what we are feeling right now is intrinsically linked with our own anxiety and past experiences, hence this is all deeply personal. I have colleagues who are terrified of going back to work when school resumes, and at the same time, I also know people who are not afraid of the virus. But I am not going to reprimand these individuals when they are two centimetres outside their social distancing perimeter when I am waiting in line to do my grocery shopping. At the same, I can only be supportive and continue to convey the message of hope and safety to everyone else during these uncertain times.

I have always found it interesting that what constitutes expertise as well as the clarity of thought is often directly linked with the reputation of an institute and its country of origin. For example, a medical doctor working for a first-world medical establishment will always be considered as better qualified than a doctor living in a third-world country with his/her own private practice. Western art music, due to its heritage and traditions, is full of what can be described as ‘gatekeepers’: musicians, teachers and critics (though not necessarily in that order) who are convinced that theirs is the definitive way of playing the piano and musical interpretation. I often get the impression that part of this has to do with privilege as well as pride: ‘I studied with A, who was the student of AB, who studied with ABC, who is the neighbour of ABCD, who was responsible for feeding the stray cat who wanders around Beethoven’s apartment, which in turn makes me a direct link to Ludwig himself!’ (Jokes aside, one often feels obliged to convey a worthwhile message learnt from one’s teacher to the next generation). Doubtless many of us will remember Wanda Landowska’s closing remarks to a talented young pianist, ‘Very well, my dear, you play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way!’. Without intending any form of disrespect towards Madame Landowska, I doubt even she had ‘the hotline to Bach’, as legendary South African piano teacher Laura Searle used to put it.

I came across an interview not so long ago by an eminent pianist of the twentieth century (another one of my musical idols) talking about the differences between Classical and Romantic music. The pianist went on to say the following:

There are certain devices that one uses in Romantic music that are appropriate only for Romantic or subsequent music. If you take those devices and apply them to earlier music, then it’s totally inappropriate, and it makes the Classical music sound silly. However, if you were to use what you might call ‘Classical devices’ on Romantic music, historically, that would be correct!

In my humble opinion the difference between the interpretation of Classical and Romantic music has much less to do with the ‘devices’ (in using such a term I suspect the pianist was talking about rhythmic organisation). I strongly feel that the difference between how we approach Classical and Romantic Music lies in our sense of musical objectivity. This is because the musical ideals of the Classical style were intrinsically linked with the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on logic and the rational. In Classical music this is translated into balance and structure, as well as the beauty and clarity of melodic line. Being a virtuoso during Mozart’s lifetime had little to do with thundering double octaves and brute fffs, but rather with beautifully shaped semiquavers passages. The Romantic movement is a reaction against the hegemony of reason central to the Enlightenment. In art and music, Romanticism shifts the emphasis from structural objectives to the realm of emotional subjectivity, at the same time placing the individual as a focal point in the creation of an artwork. In short, the performer now has more musical licence for rubato, as well as for injecting his/her personality into the performance. I recall one of my teachers telling me that rubato in Mozart is on ‘a knife edge’, you are either right or you are wrong, whereas rubato in Liszt is more of a ‘grey’ area. While I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more hideous than Mozart being played in the Romantic style: lots of Sturm und Drang, long pedals across bars, variation in tempi as well as the ‘splitting of the hands’ – a quintessential Romantic gesture found in the performance of Chopin, Schumann and the late Romantics. I also cannot imagine Liszt and Rachmaninoff performed ‘classically’: with little, if any, tempo fluctuation and understatement of all the dynamics, topped off with a hygienically precise execution. Music is a living, breathing entity, it is also a reflection of humanity, flawed, unique and unapologetically beautiful. I am not saying for one second that we should disrespect the stylistic parameters of musical performance that have been passed down for generations, but I find many of the mainstream musical narrative somewhat troubling because there will always be exceptions to the rules, just like there are exceptions when it comes to individual performances. While I am far from convinced with the musical interpretations of pianists such as Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelich (it must be said that some of the rationale behind some of Gould’s more eccentric recordings – such as the Mozart Sonata in A Major K331, has more to do with the pianist’s own sense of anxiety more than anything else), I also think it is unfair to dismiss them as charlatans or musical quacks. I may not be Pogorelich’s biggest fan with regards to the pianist’s comeback performances, but at the same time I pay him the compliment of treating him as a human being and a musician; the very least I can do is to listen. And even though I might not like what I hear, Pogorelich is still entitled to his musical opinions. By the same token, I don’t think Pogorelich himself will approve of many of my own performances! However, one sometimes comes across a musical interpretation that has absolutely no regards for the musical text or what the composer wants, and that is when I get immensely annoyed. I recently came across a YouTube performance of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy at [at least] a quarter of Schubert’s tempo marking. My initial reaction was that this must be a joke; sadly it wasn’t, and if it was, I have obviously missed the punchline. I will never forget my composition teacher telling me the following when I was a wide-eyed teenager: “Michael, if you want to be loved, don’t become a musician.” He is right of course, musical interpretation is full of subjectivity and no matter how competent you are, there will always be someone somewhere in the universe who will find fault with what you do. At the end of the day, I truly believe that if you are a trained musician, and you approach the music that you play with humility, intelligence and heart, then you will be able to do it justice. Whether or not your interpretation is ‘in line’ with the mainstream musical narrative, does it really matter if the gatekeepers don’t like what you have to say?

I want to finish this article by referencing a movie my wife and I enjoyed during the lockdown, Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi’s and based on Christine Leunens’s 2008 book Caging Skies, the film is set towards the end of World War II and centres around the everyday lives and the imaginary world of Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, an innocent but heavily indoctrinated ten-year-old German boy who dreams of becoming a Nazi and fighting for the Third Reich (Jojo’s make-believe world is symbolised by his interactions with an extremely supportive and immensely entertaining ‘Adolf Hitler’, played by the director himself). Jojo’s world starts to fall apart when he discovers that a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr, has been secretly living within the walls of his house and it doesn’t take the two protagonists long to strike up a friendship. As Jojo develops feelings for Elsa, he begins to question his own beliefs before realising that ultimately, it is love and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ that prevail, especially during traumatic and uncertain times. As the world slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to think that this momentary pause in time gave all of us a chance to reassess our lives and how we go about doing certain things. The world may not be a perfect, yet it is the only one that we have. Life can often be a struggle, but all of us who are here on earth have been given a wonderful opportunity to make something of it: live it, embrace it, love it, and if you can, play some music on the way, and perhaps take a leaf from Jojo and Elsa’s book –  dance to it.


Dr Michael Low, May 2020

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.

An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.

In 2013, Michael started a project in Singapore collaborating with The Kawai School Elite in a series of masterclasses and workshops for teachers and students. Having grown up in the East and lived his life in the West, Michael believes that both cultures has much to offer and envisage an exchange between Singapore and Cape Town in the future. In 2019 Michael was also invited to Taipei for a series of Masterclasses and workshops.

Michael is also the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, one of South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.

Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

www.michaellow.co.za

Wigmore Hall/BBC Radio 3 Special Broadcast series

JS Bach, arr. Busoni Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 Schumann Fantasie in C, Op 17

Charles‐François Gounod – Meditation sur le 1er prelude de Bach (encore)

Stephen Hough, piano

Monday 1 June 2020


I admit I welled up as Stephen Hough played the opening measures of the Bach D minor Chaconne, transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni. Yes, that opening has a spine-tingling authority, but the spontaneous tears were less for the music and more the effect of having beloved Wigmore Hall filled with music again – if not filled with an audience. Along with many other people, musicians and music lovers, I miss live music so much: I feel painfully bereft and in order to deal with this emptiness, I have avoided, until now, the many livestream performances and other music making which is going on online all the time now.

This was the first of a much-heralded and eagerly anticipated series of live concerts from Wigmore Hall, made possible by a collaboration with Radio 3, the hall and a generous benefactor. Why is this so significant, so tear-jerkingly meaningful? Because in the third week of March 2020, Wigmore Hall, along with the rest of London’s cultural life, closed its doors in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. My last visit to WH was at the very end of February to hear, with a good friend, Jonathan Biss scorching his way through Beethoven, a concert which had an edge-of-the seat electricity and immediacy, and left us speechless. I didn’t know then that this would be my last visit to beloved Wigmore Hall for many months; I don’t know when I will be back there.

But, as Stephen Hough said in a conversation with Petroc Trelawny on Radio 3’s Breakfast show, the fact that live music has returned to WH, albeit bereft of an audience but for the Radio 3 presenter and hall director John Gilhooly, is a glimmer of hope, a sign that things may be making tiny, tentative steps to return to normal (I refuse to use phrases like “the new normal”!). Later, in an interview on Channel 4 News, Stephen said that not since the 16th century had we been “starved of” live music in this way; the concert halls remained open and the music played on even during wartime.

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The programme was, of course, exemplary in both its selection and execution. One can guarantee that Stephen Hough will always perform music which is so much more than notes on the page. Ferruccio Busoni was a regular performer at the Wigmore, then Bechstein Hall, in its early years, and indeed played at the hall’s inaugural concert. His transcription of the extraordinary Chaconne is a romantic tour de force, for both instrument and player, a fantasy of sorts, while remaining faithful to Bach’s original conception. Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17, is also a tour de force, of the myriad facets of love, originally conceived as a deep lament for his beloved Clara during a period of enforcement separation.

This music is profoundly moving at the best of times, and now, in what for the music industry is the worst of times, it had a special resonance, emotionally charged, brave yet never showy, authoritative and thoughtful and, in the Schumann, both extrovert and virtuosic and passionately tender. Inspiring, uplifting and painfully wonderful, there was Stephen Hough on stage, immaculate in his usual concert attire, playing beautifully to an empty hall.

As he said in his Channel 4 interview, the audience are a crucial part of the concert experience for the performer. Not only does a hall full of people have a different acoustic, but a living, breathing – and, yes, coughing – audience creates “a very active involvement in the music, and I think a performer senses this, the energy…and that quietness, when people are listening and attentive, and you feel an electricity there that you cannot replicate” (Stephen Hough).

An empty hall has a different kind of quietness, and in that strange solitude Busoni’s architecture seemed all the more monumental, while Schumann’s inner struggles had a greater poignancy.

Apparently, some 2000 people tuned in for the livestream performance, which was notable for the high quality of both sound and filming (for piano nerds like me, close ups of the pianist’s hands were a real treat – you just don’t get that close as an audience member). As a friend of mine, like me a regular at Wigmore Hall, remarked on Twitter:

Of course this makes us ache for performance with an audience again; but it’s also brought home to me that this is the only way some people can *ever* see/hear a Wigmore Hall concert. That so many of us are ‘together’ remotely for this adds something inexpressible to the stream. @Adrian_Specs

There was, via the social networks, indeed a shared experience. Not the same shared experience as one enjoys at a concert with friends, but nonetheless a very palpable togetherness. I knew I was listening with several of my regular concert companions, albeit remotely, and this brought a feeling of solidarity too. Because we will be back at Wigmore Hall. We will once again sink into its plush red velvet seats, open the programme to peruse the evening’s offering, enjoy conversation and wine during the interval, and experience the incomparable thrill of live music.

In the meantime, BBC Radio 3’s Special Broadcast series continues at Wigmore Hall every day until 19 June. Full details here

Watch Stephen Hough’s concert here

 

 

 

 

The arts don’t exist in isolation.

David Byrne, musician

Musicians, like writers and artists, need quiet time and solitude to pursue their work. The desire to withdraw, often for hours on end, is not necessarily a sign of unsociability nor introvertedness but rather a signifier of deliberate intent and purpose. We choose to withdraw into our work spaces – whether it is a purpose-built music room or studio, or simply a corner of the home which is designated as one’s “creative space” – in order to get on with our work. For those who live with musicians, artists and writers, appreciating and respecting this need, and the creative space, is both important and supportive.

The lockdown in response to coronavirus is seen by many as an opportunity to “get creative” and in the first days of the UK lockdown, my Twitter feed was full of tweets by well-meaning people urging us to “learn a new language”, “finish that novel you always wanted to write”, “take up art” and make use of all this new-found “spare time”. Musicians were told they should think themselves “very lucky” to have all this “extra time to practice”, but while amateur musicians are relishing this time, professional musicians are more ambivalent, and some are quite hostile to the idea that they should welcome this grand fermata in their busy lives.

The trouble is, we didn’t choose this period of isolation; it was imposed upon us. And that affects inspiration, because in normal circumstances when we take ourselves off to our creative space, we control that intent, we have autonomy over our own time and how much of it we choose to spend alone.

It may be true that inspiration is about 80% solitary graft, day in day out, and that most inspiration comes from a regular routine rather than “lightbulb moments”, but the lockdown has, for many of us, caused a massive rupture in our routine. Musicians, for example, are not able to attend rehearsals, where regular interactions with colleagues fuel creativity – and if there’s one truism about creativity, it is that one must “feed the muse”. Interactions and experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. Unfortunately, almost all of these experiences are impossible at present, and this physical confinement can seriously limit the imagination.

Another important factor is motivation. Several musician friends have commented to me that without the focus of concerts to prepare for, they see little point in practising. And without regular practising or rehearsals, one slips out of a daily routine, leaving one feeling disoriented, out of sorts, and in some instances, depressed.

In addition, music, art, words need an audience – and this is what I think David Byrne means in his quote at the head of this article. The arts and creativity cannot really thrive in isolation: the musician needs the performance to work towards, the artist the exhibition, the writer the deadline. This is not attention-seeking but rather a significant motivator, and more fuel for the muse.

Of course many creative people are finding inspiration in isolation (and it remains to be seen how many Requiems for the Victims of Coronavirus are premiered when the concert halls reopen, or Lockdown Diaries published!), and for some of my musician colleagues, this pause has been a reminder of just how hard they work in normal times – rehearsing, teaching, performing, travelling, plus all the other admin and minutiae of daily life. If nothing else, the lockdown is an opportunity for a much-needed rest.


(Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)

Guest post by Warren Mailley-Smith

It is a truly tumultuous time for musicians, and particularly classical musicians, during this lock-down period.   And for our particular profession, I personally suspect that things won’t be bouncing back ‘to how things were’ any time soon.

However, I believe there are genuine opportunities for all of us amidst the rubble and some cause for optimism as the pandemic crisis inadvertently provides a much-needed catalyst for the industry to explore new ways of monetisation, new formats and new audience development. I think the starting point is to utilise platforms, software and technologies that already exist and have been used extensively by other branches of the arts for some time.  Overnight, the traditional world of classical concert-going and music-making has been turned on its head and our only option currently is to explore new ideas, possibilities and solutions which can ultimately make us stronger when we reach the other side.

I believe that our biggest opportunity lies in overcoming the obstacles to online live performances (as opposed to pre-recorded) and enabling a reasonable/consistent degree of audio and video reproduction for the end user.  Sharing in the unfolding of a live performance on people’s screens still lends an edge of anticipation and audience engagement which a pre-recording can’t have. And this is crucial when it comes to monetising our efforts as it is the one bit of the few parts of added value we can offer to the trillions of existing free videos and recordings, which are only the click of a mouse away.

I am currently experimenting with one recital programme a week and performing it on multiple platforms on different days of the week. Crucially, different platforms lend themselves to different approaches for monetisation for us all – but the important thing is that multiple approaches are possible.

The following has been my starting point, but I believe this is the tip of the iceberg:

Instead of being limited by traditional concert-promoting methods to a geographical radius of a few miles around a venue, we are instead looking at potentially UNLIMITED audience reach thanks to a (mostly) reliable broadband connection.  As pianists, we are the lucky ones in that we have no artistic restraints other than the instruments on which we can play.  Our repertoire and music-making is potentially unlimited.  Not so, anything requiring more than one musician in the same room at the moment.

Hopefully things WILL return to normal as soon as possible.  But if they don’t, we at least have some possibility of finding an alternative path without artistic compromise, which can then run parallel to more traditional approaches (if we wish), once demand for traditional public performances return in force. It’s certainly a steep learning curve for us all (as if we didn’t have enough practical challenges to deal with already!), but if we are prepared to embrace the challenge, we will surely see the benefits, if not immediately, then in time.

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Warren Mailley-Smith

noun

Music

noun: fermata; plural noun: fermatas

  • a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest.
  • a sign indicating a prolonged note or rest.

“It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” – Miles Davis

John Cage’s 4’33” may be the most infamous example of the use of silence in music (or rather the use of silence to create music), but composers have always recognised the power of silence and musical silence is as meaningful as interruptions and pauses in the language we speak. And because music is also a language, we recognise and understand the significance of those silences in music – a momentary breath, a witty or rhetorical stop-start, a pregnant, portentous pause, false cadences, an interruption to the flow of music which has you guessing before the composer strikes off in another direction. All these devices add meaning, drama, humour and emotion to the music. They also sharpen our attention and keep us listening, for the ear is constantly asking “what comes next?”.

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Fermata marking in music

A fermata marking above a note is generally understood to mean a longer pause – i.e. longer than the note value. Exactly how long to wait is at the discretion of the performer and there is a fine line to tread between creating dramatic, meaningful silence or suggesting that you might have forgotten what comes next in the music!

There is an even greater fermata at work at present, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. It has created an unprecedented, in peacetime at least, rupture to normal daily and cultural life. Concert halls and opera houses are closed, those places which until a few weeks ago resounded with music, and silence – not just the silences between the notes but that special hush of anticipation before the music begins or that magical concentrated, almost inexplicable silence which occurs during a particularly intense performance when it seems as if the audience is listening, and breathing, as one, or that special quiet at the end of a particularly arresting performance before the applause comes.

For those of us who love live music, the closure of the venues and its effect on our cultural life, has come as a huge blow, and not just in the absence of live music but also the social aspect of attending concerts. I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang at the Barbican in March; both concerts were cancelled, and I do not anticipate returning to the London venues which I love (especially Wigmore Hall) until the autumn now, at the earliest. Summer music and opera festivals are now being postponed or cancelled (sadly, it seems highly likely that the BBC Proms will be cancelled), and one wonders how venues will cope when they are eventually permitted to reopen while audiences must continue to observe social/physical distancing. Auditoriums are not really designed to observe a 1- or 2-metre apart rule, and in older halls such as London’s Wigmore, audiences sit hugger mugger in tightly-packed rows. How will venues square this tricky circle? Will they perhaps sell only every other seat to ensure some distance between people? And how will orchestras, ensembles and choirs, for example, observe appropriate physical distancing on stage?

And there’s another conundrum for the venue managers – managing the social spaces where people meet and congregate before and during a performance, spaces which are often crowded, especially at a sold-out concert or the opening night at the Royal Opera House. It will be a challenge for sure – but I have a feeling that when the venues begin to reopen, music lovers and keen concert-goers like me will flock back to them. And some of us may take a gamble with our health in doing so.

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Wigmore Hall, London

In the meantime, while coronavirus has forced the closure of the places where musicians and audiences come together to share in the experience of live music-making, it has not silenced the musicians who are determined to play on, their music broadcast via YouTube, Zoom and similar platforms, often with interesting and innovative results, and, it would appear, large audiences. Classic FM reports that a recent “living room” concert by their Artist-in-Residence violinist Maxim Vengerov has been viewed by more than 20,000 people, with 1,500 peak live viewers – more than can fit comfortably into a medium-sized concert hall. Such performances also bring the musicians closer to their audiences and break down the traditional barriers and notions of elitism associated with classical music and the rituals of its performance and presentation. Audiences see musicians at work in their own homes and discover that away from the formality of the concert stage, these people are normal – they live in normal homes, not Lisztian salons, wear normal clothes, have kids and pets. By the same token, musicians can forge stronger connections with audiences by bringing their music to the living rooms of their fans and supporters. If these online viewers translate into paying concert-goers when the venues eventually reopen, this could signal a marvellous resurgence for classical music and perhaps even encourage new audiences, a perennial issue for the artform. So maybe the coronavirus could have a positive impact on the way music is presented and enjoyed – we can but hope….

As a postscript, readers may be amused to learn that an alternative Italian word for fermata is corona…. And fermata is also the Italian word for bus stop.