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

Online Masterclasses

27th April to 10th May 2020


Created by renowned violinist Gwendolyn Masin, The Exhale is a series of holistic music masterclasses offering musicians a safe space to pause, explore and refresh; a place to begin an inner journey to understanding, without outward expectation. A place to exhale.

Behind the discipline, professionalism and creativity that music-making demands, Gwendolyn recognises the need for internal wellbeing, both emotional and physical. Her vision is a retreat for professional, student and amateur players alike, with exceptional music-making running alongside sessions for the mind and body.

Originally scheduled to take place at Lake Biel in Switzerland from 13th April, like everything else The Exhale has been impacted by the global coronavirus crisis, but rather than cancel the event, Gwendolyn has moved it online. With an expanded faculty (currently numbering over twenty artists) and a repurposed curriculum, the course is even more comprehensive than before, with the added advantage of being accessible to a wider audience.

The curriculum is designed to guide participants along various journeys through music, movement, mental and physical wellbeing and conscious eating. World-class instrumental-teaching is intermingled with yoga, nutrition, Alexander Technique, psychology, Feldenkrais, Dispokinesis, improvisation and meditation.

Sample sessions:

  • Transforming Stage Fright into Stage Presence
  • How to Practise
  • Basics of Breathing Technique
  • Self-care and Resilience in the Performing Arts
  • Meditation
  • Body Mapping for Musicians
  • How to Approach Creative Enterprise Without Losing Your Soul
  • Yoga
  • Listening With Your Whole Body

The ultimate aim of The Exhale is that through self-exploration participants will find themselves empowered and their performances enhanced.

The Exhale fosters musical freedom, inspiration as well as musicality as a whole, based on an harmonic balance of concentration and performance along with physical and mental well-being. The Exhale has been created for professional musicians; string students who wish to pursue a professional career; players in search of professional development; and amateur musicians.

The Exhale brings together a faculty of over 20 tutors, many of whom are internationally-renowned musicians, including Gwendolyn Masin, cellists Ruth Phillips and Dale Culliford, violinists Franziska Huber, Pavlo Beznosiuk and Jennifer Johnson (author of What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body), Yoga teacher Clare Nicholls, violist and Alexander Technique practitioner Matthew Jones, and psychotherapists Emma Black and Dana Fonteneau.

This is a time for sharing and growing together and so participant fees are on a donation basis.

Sign up for The Exhale sessions via Calendly:

 

Contact inhale@the-exhale.com


Meet the Artist interview with Gwendolyn Masin

Interview with Ruth Phillips

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.

 

 

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee

 


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

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