Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I fell in love with music and the piano at about 4 years old when I first heard it played by a teacher at my kindergarten. I still remember that magical moment.

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

When I was about 12, I had a brief period of study with a concert pianist in Hong Kong who inspired me to see music as a vocation. I have been very fortunate to have studied with some wonderful teachers and mentors, including Joan Havill and Robert Silverman. The writings of Schumann, and letters of Brahms have also been a huge influence on me. Launching MusicArt  in 2015 was a crucial step in my career which opened up many new opportunities to collaborate with, and commission works from, contemporary visual artists, choreographers, and poets, who shape my current work in music.

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

It was a great challenge to combine performing with pursuing my doctoral research on the musical aesthetics of Schumann and Brahms at the Guildhall School/City University of London. Another challenge was launching MusicArt to collaborate for the first time with a painter, composer, and an art gallery. I learned from these two experiences to never give up and that challenges often lead to good things!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It was unforgettable to do a live broadcast for Classic FM from my own living room to commemorate Mozart’s 225th anniversary in 2016. It was very intimate yet reached out to so many people at the same time.

With my ensemble Minerva Piano Trio, I am proud of our year-long residency at St John’s Smith Square 2016/17. We joined forces to commission a new arrangement and dance choreography of scenes from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe for piano trio and dance. Our revival of the rarely performed Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8 (original version) was also one of the highlights for me during this residency.

Minerva Trio © Anthony Dawton

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I tend to choose pieces that speak to me on a personal level. Dinu Lipatti once said that it’s not enough to like the piece you play, but the piece must also like you! I play a wide range of repertoire but have a soft spot for Schumann, Brahms, and Ravel.  As long as I can make a connection with the sound world of a particular piece, then I feel inspired to share it.

It is thrilling to premiere a new work as there is a sense of freedom in communicating a piece for the first time. I love the collaborative aspect of working together with a composer, which is very creative and exciting.  That connection I mentioned before then extends to a kind of real affinity with the composer.  At the moment I am working with Hong Kong-born British composer Raymond Yiu.

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

I build on my core repertoire every season. In the past, I would tend to be more composer-focused. If I started to play one piece by Schumann, I would then aim to cover his entire output in order to gain a better understanding of the composer’s language. These days I am interested in finding ways to create dialogues between different works in a programme.

While I love my core repertoire for concert programmes (for example, I will be playing Beethoven, Schumann, and Ravel at St Martin-in-the Fields in December), I am also constantly looking for new stimulants for something adventurous.  For my next MusicArt concert I will present a world premiere concert-installation ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, inspired by the collaboration between Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage and performed within an exhibition of their works at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.  It will involve the music of John Cage, an installation of sound and spoken dialogue, and a new musical work created in collaboration with composer Raymond Yiu and poet Kayo Chingonyi.

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

I had a fantastic experience playing Arvo Pärt’s Fratres at an open space outside Central St Martins for a fashion show in London with a few hundred people in the audience. Since then I am happy to play anywhere as long as it is aesthetically pleasing or stimulating to the senses in some way, not just acoustically.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have huge admiration for Leonard Bernstein, especially since I discovered his Eliot Norton lecture series, The Unanswered Question. He said, ‘The best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.’ Like other great musicians, he reminds one that music and humanity are inseparable.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For me, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at LSO St. Luke’s in London was as special and memorable as playing John Cage’s 4’33” while silently reading a poem at an art gallery. I don’t think I can choose between the conventional and creative approach to playing concerts, as I love both.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is constantly achieving what I set out to do. It’s important to me to generate creative ideas on a regular basis, work with people whom I admire, and create unique experiences for the audience. When I can do these things continuously at a high level, then I am happy.

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

Treat music as an art form that demands the utmost dedication and discipline. Career is by no means guaranteed. After you finish training and studying at the conservatoire or college, your colleagues and collaborators become, in a way, your teachers. Learn to listen through playing with others.

What is your most treasured possession?

The Yamaha C3 grand piano that I have had since I was 12. It has travelled with me from Hong Kong to Vancouver to London. I had wanted a grand piano from the very beginning, and my mother promised if I reached Grade 8 she would buy me one. It turned out she started saving for it from the day she promised, so she could afford it, just in case! That was a great motivation and I made sure to get it as quickly as possible.

Video links:

Debussy  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epJymUc2rDY

Brahms: Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OImMONM78TI

Music by Arvo Pärt – Für Alina

Poem by Zaffar Kunial – Sunlight

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG-g7bfLpec

ERDEM
London Fashion Week SS14

Annie Yim, pianist
Richard Birchall, cellist

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rTeQ8Iaqnc

John Cage the Lover and Poet (audio)

https://vimeo.com/193910760

OR

John Cage Dream (1947)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEknsWJLp-o

Scenes from Daphnis and Chloe (2017)
Minerva Piano Trio
Thomasin Gülgeç, dancer
Estela Merlos, dancer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdsMBr1JfBw

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity (‘Exsolve’ was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffith: plaudits to them for the album’s fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZHZl2ARMfI

(Video edit of ‘Mandrel Cantus’, filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)

Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of ‘Exsolve’ – along with all her earlier work – directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here. [link: https://joquail.bandcamp.com/]


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

Free instrumental lessons in primary school in the 1970s were pretty important. Someone from the London Borough of Brent music service came into our class and we all did various kinds of ear tests which involved saying if a note was high or lower than another, or louder or quieter. Apparently I did ok which meant I was allowed to learn the violin. From then onwards, I was always making up my own tunes and improvising. Then I struck lucky going to study at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the late 1980s. It was very immersive time, what with the festival, and we were really encouraged to compose and present our own works in performance.

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

Both Dutch and Polish contemporary music has been very influential for me. I spent three years studying composition in Poland which was a very liberating time, and I was attracted to the physicality of sound in a lot of contemporary Polish music. There is also a directness and rawness to a lot of Dutch music, and a sense that everything can be accommodated; that we can draw upon everything that has been a meaningful part of our musical past irrespective of genre. But perhaps the biggest influence in the last decade or so has been spending such a lot of time with my composition colleagues and students at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve learnt so much from them.

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

I think challenges and frustrations can be positive as well as negative. In recent years, my time for composing has been quite stretched, with a pretty demanding teaching position and also having a young child, but then it’s meant I have to use the time available well, whilst also challenging the way I work. It means I have to be more relaxed and let go of the inner-perfectionist demon, which has perhaps resulted in a different sort of music.

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

Every piece brings both pleasure and pain, although hopefully much more pleasure ultimately. There’s the struggle of the blank page at the beginning, and then the joy of something previously unimagined coming into being little by little. The context of the commission is important to me; who is it being written for? Whose commissioned it? What’s the context for the performance? I want to bring as much if that as I can into the piece and create something intimate.

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

I’ve been lucky to work with a few very special performers quite regularly over a number of years, people like the Fidelio Trio, Orkest de Ereprijs, Sarah Leonard and my own collective Noszferatu. They’re close friends and that sort of relationship leads to a special trust or bond that develops over time. That’s a really great pleasure.  Then there are new projects with people you haven’t worked with before, and there’s often a great excitement and energy to these as you begin to work out what makes each other tick.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m proud of all the pieces on my latest NMC album, ‘Elsewhereness’, and also the previous albums Bartlebooth (NMC) and Boogie Nights (Birmingham Record Company).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

The language can be quite multi-faceted, drawing upon broad range of influences from post-minimalism and jazz through to the baroque and experimentalism. I aim to absorb these influences, not pastiche them, allowing them to come out as something else through the filter of my own individuality. There is often a broad emotional range from exuberance to introversion, darkness to technicolour.

How do you work?

Generally quite slowly, searching for a way in to the piece, an idea, a concept. Sometimes the material leads the way, showing its own possibilities.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Lots. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Errollyn Wallen, Howard Skempton, Michael Wolters, Ed Bennett, Sean Clancy, Andrew Hamilton, Bach, Trish Clowes, Richard Ayres, Laura Mvula, Schubert, Andrew Toovey, more, more, more….

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To keep going and to help others along the way

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

Try and improve the world a little; be serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t be an old composer when you’re a young composer; perfection is dull; “success” isn’t everything; don’t lose sight of the magic of music; be generous, kind and help others.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with my family, today I walked in the woods with my wife and son and it was the most beautiful autumn day.

What is your present state of mind?

I’d say it’s in a pretty good state, but in need of sleep (my little boy was awake most of last night….)

*The title track on the new CD ‘Elsewhereness’ was commissioned for the launch concert of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 

Joe Cutler : ‘Elsewhereness’. Released 19th October 2018. NMC Recordings / NMC D246

Launch concert for ‘Elsewhereness’ at Birmingham Royal Conservatoire on 16th November 2018


joecutler.com

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

As a young child there was a lot of music around the house and I listened to Jacqueline du Pré play Bach’s Cello Suites every night before bed. I am not sure how attentive a listener I was – I believe the aim was for me to drop off to sleep! – but I refused to accept any other interpretation of that music! As for my decision to make cello my career, I became accustomed to the life of a touring artist on a series of cruises starting when I was five years old, during which I had fantastic experiences performing amongst top professionals, signing autographs and even being interviewed by Richard Baker before rushing back to the swimming pool!

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

I grew up attending my father’s concerts with cellist Alexander Baillie and listening through the door to their rehearsals at home. Musicians were often guests at our house and I remember discussing the finer points of ‘Lord of the Rings’ with Dame Emma Kirkby, whose individual approach to singing has always seemed the most natural to me. Lately, I have been influenced more by ideas and principles of making music than by specific performers: I am not aiming to emulate any cellist in particular but to reach my own personal sound in ways I am discovering myself. There are cellists whom I greatly admire such as Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker, but I have been more often inspired by musicians in other fields such as the conductors Claudio Abbado and Carlos Kleiber, the violinist Julia Fischer and pianists Claudio Arrau and Arthur Rubinstein.

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

The greatest challenges have been projects that I embarked upon with a view to expanding the repertoire of the cello. In 2014 I performed Jan Vriend’s ‘Anatomy of Passion’, a 30 minute work for cello and piano composed in 2004. It was a formidable challenge, not only because of great technical demands and complex rhythms to coordinate with the piano, but also because I decided to perform the piece from memory which I believe made my performance more convincing. More recently, I arranged and performed Bach’s iconic ‘Ciaccona’ from the Violin Partita No. 2 in venues including London’s Wigmore Hall and King’s College Chapel. This was an enormous statement, to take a piece which means so much to people and adapt it to another instrument which made it essential for me to transcend the substantial technical difficulties of performing this on the cello and create a performance which was musically worthwhile and not just an impressive show of technique.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I try to make every performance better than the last, but rather than pride, I experience enjoyment when I play. My performances of the two pieces mentioned above have been some of the most rewarding concert experiences of my life. I am also happy that the recording I made at nineteen years old of the Chopin Cello Sonata still seems relevant to me despite the six years of development I have had since then.

Which particular works do you think you play/conduct best?

I play a wide range of repertoire, from Bach through to brand new pieces and I try to approach every type of music with the same philosophy – to take a fresh look at the score and try to interpret what that particular composer means in their notation. I then put one hundred percent of myself into every moment of the music, no matter what the style. Having said that, I think music by Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich suits me well and I find the technical challenges of music from the 20th and 21st centuries to be the most fascinating. In terms of conducting my repertoire is smaller, but I have most enjoyed conducting 19th and 20th century music. In particular, I conducted Strauss’ Metamorphosen with the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in 2017 and since I felt a particular affinity with the piece I found it very natural to memorise and perform.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season as a performer and also as conductor?

My repertoire choices are often taken in collaboration with musicians I am working with and I am very lucky to perform regularly with my father, pianist James Lisney. We both enjoy crafting programmes with a unifying theme and have toured several of these ‘project’ concerts with titles such as the Beethoven Grand Tour (the five Cello Sonatas), Cello Song and Russian Connections. I enjoy playing contemporary music so I make a particular effort to fit some new music into most of my recital programmes. As for concerti and chamber music that is often a little more out of my control but I am eager to play all sorts of music!

You are also a composer and conductor. How do these disciplines impact on your performing career and vice versa?

My work as a composer impacts directly on my cello career as I often perform my own music. My conducting contributes less obviously to the rest of my career (though I have conducted my own music) but I believe that the experience of leading an orchestra through various types of music has improved my concerto playing and opened my eyes to particular considerations in composition. My experiences as a cellist are central to everything I do and it is almost impossible to separate it out. Of course, the technical knowledge is crucial to composing for string instruments but also the experience of performing gives me a certain empathy with musicians I am writing for; I take great care to ensure that the music I compose is rewarding both to perform and to hear.

As a composer, how would you describe your compositional language?

This is a question we composers are asked very regularly and I am still struggling for an answer! The aspects of my music which might constitute a style or language are by nature the ones that recur in many of my pieces and as such, they are the very elements it is difficult to identify in one’s own music. My orchestration is often detailed and delicate, but I am not adverse to thicker symphonic textures. I do not write in a strictly tonal idiom but I think it is clear to listeners that I have a background in western classical music, and tonal direction is central to my music. I am very motivically-led and this is often the focus of my compositional process. I begin with one or two ideas which I develop, combine and transform in the same way Beethoven, Wagner and so many others have done before.

How do you work, as a composer?

Since I have never had my own piano I have become accustomed to working in silence at a desk. I tend to start out on manuscript paper and when I begin writing I usually have a significant portion of the piece mostly if not fully composed in my head. At some point in the process I will ‘run out’ of music and at that point I look back at what I have written so far and examine the possibilities. Later on I type everything into Sibelius [music notation software] but I do not use the playback function except for checking mistakes – I am much more likely to hear a typo than see one!

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

I find it very rewarding to write specifically for certain players or ensembles. For example, in 2017 I composed ‘Thread of the Infinite’ for the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra in the knowledge that they would perform this piece unconducted, directed from the violin by Thomas Gould. In this case I made sure that the coordination between parts was clear enough not to require a visual cue from a conductor and inserted several soaring violin solos for the Leader. I have recently written a piece ‘Spiralen’ for Ensemble Recherche, who specialise in the highly complex music of composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann. My music is far removed from this idiom but I found it very rewarding to work out what new things these musicians were capable of and how I could absorb this into my own style.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?

Many of the most challenging aspects of being a conductor are administrative! At this stage in my career I am running my own orchestra which involves a lot of non-musical tasks such as organising parts, venues and marketing. This means however that I have autonomy over the artistic direction the orchestra takes which I find very exciting. I love rehearsing with musicians and find it very interesting to think about how different musicians respond to words and visual cues. I often have to say something in two or three different ways to get all the players in a section to respond in one way. If I want a particular quiet sound, for example, some of the violinists might pick that up from my beat, others would benefit from some metaphorical suggestion and the final group might respond best to a specific technical instruction such as bow position and speed of vibrato.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players? Conveying the vision of the composer?

I see my role as a facilitator with a interpretative opinion… I wish to give the players both the framework and the freedom to perform, which involves bringing everyone together to a unified vision of the music. I hope that in a concert situation I can help inspire the players to find something magical and then very often as a conductor our work is done – less is more.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There are many works I would love to conduct, particularly some works by George Benjamin such as ‘At First Light’. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony totally captivated me and has filled my head since I first heard it. I am very excited that this dream is shortly to be fulfilled in a concert at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on 3rd March 2019.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I feel entirely free when I am performing and my main motivation in pursuing a career in music is to get the opportunities to show people the music that I love and believe in.

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

What I have learnt so far is to approach every work with humility and love; look at every work from a composer’s perspective, put one hundred per cent of yourself into it and value that input. I have also learnt that your understanding of something you take the time to discover by yourself is so much deeper than something given to you fully-formed. The journey is essential.

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

10 years sounds an unimaginably long time and I cannot immediately see where my current trajectory will take me. I suppose that my ultimate goal is to be able to perform the music I want to perform to a willing audience(!) and I hope that I can combine the three strands of my career – cello, composition and conducting – to have a fulfilling musical life.

Joy Lisney conducts the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in music by Alma and Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge on Saturday 10th November. Further information and tickets


Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years. Her early promise as a cellist was highlighted by Carlton Television when they chose her, at the age of six, as a possible high achiever of the twenty first century.

She has since fulfilled expectations with a distinguished international career, launched by a debut series of two concerts at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2012.

Joy has enjoyed collaborations with artists including Dame Emma Kirkby, Alexander Baillie, Howard Williams, Huw Watkins, the Allegri Quartet and the Wihan Quartet and also performs regularly in duo with her father James Lisney. Venues for duo recitals have included Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and St. John’s Smith Square. In 2014 she performed all five Beethoven cello sonatas in a single concert in a tour concluding with a sold-out performance at London’s Southbank Centre. Projects in 2017 have included a Schubert Quintet Tour with the Allegri Quartet, concerto performances by Prokofiev, Haydn and Turnage and the Cello Song recital tour.

As a passionate advocate of new music Joy has commissioned two new works from the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, the first of which she recorded on her debut CD in 2012. In 2014 she performed as a London Sinfonietta Emerging Artist at the BBC Proms in a concert broadcast on Radio 3 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies. In April 2017 Joy performed on the opening night of the Park Lane Group Recital Series at St. John’s Smith Square, giving a solo recital including two premieres, one of which was her own composition ScordaturA. Joy has also given European premieres of works by Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall.

As a composer, Joy has won the Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss Prizes and she was also Composer in Residence at Cambridge University Music Society for 2016-17. Joy is in the second year of her PhD in Composition at King’s College, Cambridge, supported by the AHRC, and is Honorary King’s College Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet and she has since had music performed at the King’s Lynn and Aldeburgh Festivals and the Park Lane Group Series.

Forthcoming performances this season include the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto (with Emma Lisney), the premiere of her new work for chamber ensemble, and concerts at Temple Music Foundation, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, St George’s Bristol, the Purcell Room, and St John’s Smith Square.

Joy is also the founder and conductor of the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, a string orchestra which combines the best players of Cambridge University with young professionals from the South of England.

joylisney.com

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

My family owned an old upright piano that had belonged to my grandparents. It was brilliant to muck around on, and I remember trying to play some TV themes: I got quite good at Grange Hill. There was quite a lot of music at home, as my two older brothers also learned the piano and we all sang in the local church choir, along with my Dad. Although, I did find dressing up in a cassock quite funny. I had really good teachers who were disciplined, while letting me do my own thing. When I was 11, my state school put on Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and that was an incredible experience, even though I was only a badly behaved squirrel. A few years later I heard a recording of Debussy’s Prelude a’apres-midi d’un faune, which opened my ears to how sensuous and sexy music could be, and sent my teenage hormones through the roof. I then devoured music at the piano, mostly borrowing scores from the library.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career both as a performer and a composer?

There’s such a huge range of good music from across the centuries that I love, and nearly of it shares the same philosophy: that music’s essentials (melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure) can combine into something that reflects our lives. This shapes my work in what I play and compose/arrange. Making music should also be part of a community, and it can be linked with popular and folk styles while maintaining strength and depth. That’s one of the great legacies of people like Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, and their music is a big influence in different ways. Jazz has always had a big impact too, especially the composer/ arrangers like Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, or Leonard Bernstein’s fusion of styles. It shows us that music can be dangerous, dirty, brash and raunchy as well.

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

Self-motivation: maintaining a belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile in a crazy and complicated world, especially during periods of depression. This seems to become harder the older I get.

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

There are so many things I’m lucky to have been involved with, as a performer, composer and arranger. Some of the orchestral pieces I’ve written for the BBC Proms are a highlight: ‘Wing It’ in 2012, ‘Gershwinicity’ in 2018. The ongoing Scary Fairy orchestral fairytale series is a lot of fun, with Craig Charles narrating his poetry. There’s also a concert of orchestral folk song arrangements with the singer Sam Lee, playing jazz songs with Jacqui Dankworth, recording Elgar’s 2nd Symphony on the piano, choral concerts, chamber music… too much to list. And I guess playing the piano at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony: my Mum died of cancer that morning and I managed to hold it together, even though I was in the middle of having a complete emotional breakdown.

As a performer, how do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

When I do get the chance to choose, it’s always a very eclectic mixture of music, linked thematically in some way. I generally try and get in a new piece or arrangement of some kind, maybe something entertaining. After all, a concert can be fun too.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Although it’s a bonkers barn of a place, playing at the Royal Albert Hall in the Proms always feels like a bit of a party. Playing the organ there can be a ridiculous ego trip.

As a composer, how do you work?

I do get tunes or harmonies that pop into my head, often as I’m just about to fall asleep, which can sometimes be a nuisance. Normally I throw all the ideas together by improvising at the piano, singing along at the top of my voice. This is scribbled down on semi-legible manuscript, worked at and crossed out until I’ve got a full complete draft. Then I typeset it on Sibelius software, so that I can actually read it.

How would you describe your compositional style/language?

There’s often a lot of jazz styles in there: swing, funk, blues and others, mixed with classical structures and colourful tonal harmonies. Clear melodies and strong rhythms play a big part too. Most of the time, the music is about our life experiences and emotions: joy, sadness, love, loss.

Tell us more about your new piano series……

I’m putting on A Mahler Piano Series at the 1901 Arts Club in London, in eleven weekly concerts. It features a wide variety of musical styles that influenced Gustav Mahler, as well as the bulk of his symphonic music arranged for solo piano. He played his symphonies on the piano to friends and accompanied singers on the piano, so it’s a recreation of those experiences in an intimate salon venue from the period. It’s about putting his music in the context of the European musical melting pot of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including folksongs, country dances, waltzes, klezmer, Jewish music, military marches, operetta, popular and salon music classical composers including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, a concert of works by female composers and the music of contemporaries such as Busoni and Schoenberg. I’m joined by some wonderful singers as well, so it will be a pretty epic adventure.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As an audience member it was actually at the ballet, the first time I saw The Rite of Spring danced by English National Ballet. I was hyperventilating by the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

In a way, any musician that can make a living as a performer is a success, especially while trying to raise a family. Beyond that, I think anyone that can find new and inspiring ways to connect with audiences is doing it right. Giving people life-enhancing experiences outside of the mainstream is vital, including going into schools, hospitals, prisons.

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

Be versatile, work hard and try to stay as positive as you can. We’re pretty lucky to be doing this, when you think about it.

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzing like a beehive.

‘A Mahler Piano Series’ is at the 1901 Arts Club, London from September 12th to November 21st 2018. Full details and tickets


Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale, and his compositions range from virtuoso display pieces to small works for beginner instrumentalists.

As a solo pianist, accompanist, chamber musician and organist, Iain has performed at all the major UK venues and abroad in the USA, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong and all across Europe. He has worked with many of the country’s leading musicians, including Bryn Terfel, Sir Paul McCartney and Lesley Garrett. Iain played the piano at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with Rowan Atkinson, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, broadcast to a global audience of around a billion viewers. With Counterpoise he has worked with numerous singers and actors, including Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Willard White, Jacqui Dankworth and Eleanor Bron. As a session pianist, Iain has recorded numerous film and TV soundtracks for Hollywood, Disney and independent productions. His solo organ performance in the Proms 2007 on the Royal Albert Hall organ was critically acclaimed, and he performed his Animal Parade in 2015 at the Royal Festival Hall organ for a family concert. Iain was Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge University, and Organ Scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Iain is a prolific composer and arranger, and has made hundreds of arrangements ranging from operas to piano pieces. He has composed two 40 minute Scary Fairy orchestral works combining poems by Craig Charles with a continuous full score, first performed and broadcast on BBC Radio 2 ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ with the BBC Philharmonic. For the BBC Proms he composed an orchestral work Gershwinicity in 2018, A Shipshape Shindig in 2017, a jazz guide to the orchestra Wing It, and a Double Violin Concerto, in 2012 for the Wallace and Gromit Prom. Iain’s choral work The Burning Heavens was nominated for a British Composer Award in 2010. He has made arrangements in many styles, including traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop. Iain is the Arranger in Residence for the Aurora Orchestra who have performed and recorded his compositions and arrangements, including all the songs for the Horrible Histories Prom in 2011. His organ arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5 was performed at the 2011 Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey.

iainfarrington.com

The genteel Wigmore Hall audience was startled by the abrupt slamming of the lid of the piano, heralding the start of a brand new work by a composer celebrating a significant birthday on the day of the concert. The pianist was Igor Levit, always very popular with Wigmore audiences, and the composer was Frederic Rzewski. As a student Levit was captivated by Rzewski’s music and asked the composer to write a new piece. The work premiered at this concert was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for Levit to play.

Read my full review here