Guest article by Wendy Skeen

A friend of mine attended András Schiff’s two concerts with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment earlier this week in which he performed and directed Brahms’ two piano concertos. Here she shares her thoughts on the concerts – less a review, more a report informed by Wendy’s own experiences as a pianist, piano teacher and performance coach.

These two concerts were unusual in three key respects…

First, Sir András Schiff was both conductor and pianist. It’s not unusual these days to find concerts where the pianist directs the orchestra from the piano, but it’s rare to see that with Romantic repertoire such as these Brahms piano concertos. You might wonder whether it’s possible for a pianist to successfully direct an orchestra whilst also playing such fiendishly difficult repertoire. Well… it is possible… but it takes a pianist with colossal technique, musicianship and presence of mind (Schiff) and an orchestra comprising musicians of such high calibre and bravery (the OAE).

Secondly, these concerts involved much smaller orchestral forces than we’re used to hearing in Romantic repertoire. In a modern symphony orchestra, aside from the regular complement of wind and brass, there’s usually 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 double basses. For these two concerts the string department had just 10 first violins, 9 seconds, 6 violas, 7 cellos and 4 double basses. One might have thought this would detract from the overall effect yet it engendered a much more intimate, personal and transparent ambience, even within such a large concert space. This allowed us to hear so much more in the music than we’re used to hearing. In fact, at the start of Monday night’s concert, Schiff gave a short speech where he told us that “we think we know this music, but we don’t know it well enough!” I think that everyone who was there knows exactly what he meant by that!

Thirdly, the use of period instruments, the most notable of which being the Blüthner grand piano which Schiff had selected for these ‘historically accurate’ performances. This instrument, which was built in Leipzig around 1867 and restored in 2013 by Edwin Beunk, had been transported from Berlin especially for these concerts. In a short introduction before Tuesday night’s concert, Schiff explained that the instrument was contemporary with when Brahms’ piano concertos were being written and performed. He also explained that it was straight-strung rather than having the bass strings running diagonally in the middle and upper register strings, as with a modern grand piano. As such, it offers pianist and listener “distinct registral differences”, rather like a choir, from bass, tenor and alto through to soprano. In the hands of a master like Schiff, this resulted in a beautifully broad palette of tonal shades and colours, allowing many more distinct lines to peak through the texture as a result of Schiff’s masterful voicing and phrasing. It felt like the musical equivalent of seeing a work of art after it’s been restored… the craftsman’s work revealing the beauty that lies beneath hundreds of years of time and history!

This is not to knock the modern-day concert Steinway. It’s just an entirely different experience hearing music played on period instruments. I confess it did take my ears a few minutes on Monday night to adjust and attune to that different kind of sound and balance. But oh my goodness… what a joy to just let go of past experiences of these pieces and allow the ears to open up to a different, equally valid approach.


Wendy-Skeen-200x300.jpgWendy Skeen is an enthusiastic amateur pianist. She is also an experienced piano teacher, performance coach, workshop facilitator and fully qualified Cognitive Hypnotherapist with a particular interest in the topic of performance anxiety. She studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and holds a diploma in Cognitive Hypnotherapy and Master Practitioner in NLP qualification from the Quest Institute. She also holds a CIPD Certificate in Training Practice and TAP Certificate in Learning Management. During the early part of her career Wendy worked in arts administration. After that she spent a short while working in sports management and PR. She then spent over twenty years working in adult education in a variety of learning & development and coaching roles before setting up her own piano teaching studio and hypnotherapy practice. Wendy regularly participates in performance workshops, performs in meet-up groups and accompanies instrumentalists and singers whenever she can. She also develops and performs music for her village’s theatre club productions. She is particularly interested in the topic of performance anxiety, especially as it applies to musicians, actors and athletes as well as business people who have to ‘perform’ (e.g. when giving presentations). Her focus is on helping people to find practical strategies that will work for them based on a tailored approach that takes account of each person’s specific ‘way of doing their performance anxiety’. Her one-day and weekend ‘Panic to Poise’ workshops are particularly popular with instrumentalists and singers.

Contact Wendy Skeen

 

One of the world’s best pianists, Sir András Schiff, joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to perform some of world’s best piano music.

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Written 22 years apart, Brahms’ only piano concertos are snapshots of his life. The first is youthful, raw and expressive; the second is mature, structured and wiser. Both embody radical ideas of the 19th century, when revolution was in the air and artists joined political movements to overturn the old order.

The OAE performs these blockbuster piano concertos over two nights with Sir András Schiff, an extraordinary pianist and one of the world’s finest musicians. To complement the piano concertos, they also delve into music by Brahm’s mentor and inspiration, Robert Schumann exploring the complex interplay between political turmoil and personal anguish in composer’s life.

Pre-concert talks, Level 5 Function Room, Royal Festival Hall 6pm

New to Brahms? Enjoy an introduction to Brahms’ Piano Concertos at a free pre-concert talk by presenter Katy Hamilton.

On the second night, Dr Robert Samuels of the Open University will explore Brahms’ relationship with Schumann in a pre-concert talk

Brahms Piano Concertos with Sir András Schiff

Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 March 2019, Royal Festival Hall, 7pm

Further information and tickets


source: OAE press

(Photo: Yutaka Suzuki/Askonas Holt)

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First page of the autograph manuscript of St John Passion
Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.

Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.

In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.

Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.

As Debussy enters his 150th anniversary, some of the most innovative names in music have teamed up to give DJs the chance to remix an entire orchestra.

Known for challenging classical conventions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) have released rare recordings of Sir Simon Rattle conducting a rehearsal of Debussy’s La Mer. Judged by French electronic artist and BBC Radio 6 music favourite Chapelier Fou, the Dubussy Remix contest is aimed at giving new artists the chance to have as much fun as they like with a well known classical piece.

Dubussy is the OAE’s way of exploring how a structural pioneer like Debussy, inspired experimental DJs like Chapelier Fou and Flying Lotus and what comes out when these genre’s are thrown together.

“Structural things are useless in Debussy’s music…and it’s just for the love of sound…it’s almost something that you can touch.  I wasn’t interested in classical music until I discovered Debussy”

Chapelier Fou

All entries must be in by 30 October 2012 with each track being between 3 and 5 minutes long.

3)  You can download the audio files here

4)  …and upload your completed remixes here

1st Prize (to be chosen by Chapelier Fou) will receive four free tickets to The Night Shift – the OAE’s relaxed, rules free classical night on 22 November:  www.oae.co.uk/thenightshift ; a bag of The Night Shift and Chapelier Fou goodies and the opportunity to be name-checked on all OAE and Chapelier Fou social media sites, as well as having your track premiered by our Night Shift DJ at a future gig.

2nd Prize (As voted for by the public) will receive two free tickets to the Night Shift and a selection of OAE and Night Shift prizes.

For more information please contact Matthew Grindon, Press Assistant, The OAE, on 0207 239 9373 or email matthew.grindon@oae.co.uk

Robert Levin in action (Photo credit Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Anyone expecting a ‘traditional’ concert experience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday night would have been disappointed – or maybe pleasantly surprised. Consistently innovative, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) are offering a new music concept in the form of The Works, in which you can learn more about a Great Classical Masterpiece in a fun and informal way in the company of the orchestra and an ‘expert’. Future events include harpsichordist Laurence Cummings on Bach, but for the first event of this new series, the OAE were joined by charismatic pianist and renowned Mozart specialist Robert Levin.

Levin, who has a passionate and forensic interest in the minutiae of Mozart’s music and his creative life and compositional processes, is a lively and engaging speaker. While not everyone may like his particular brand of New York Jewish ebullience nor necessarily agree with his “scholarship”, there is no doubting his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He has studied Mozart’s manuscripts in microscopic detail to winkle out all the details of his creative process and to attempt to understand his precise vocabulary of rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, architecture. As Levin says, “Mozart hides sophistication behind apparent simplicity” (thus, calling to mind Schnabel’s famous quote about Mozart’s music). His detailed study of Mozart informs both his teaching and his playing.

A few years ago, I attended a study day with him entitled ‘Mozart and the Piano’ in which he examined the evidence to suggest that Mozart was not only intimate with all the quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses of the musicians with whom he worked (a bassoon part written for a player with loose teeth, for example) but also with the capabilities – and limitations – of the instruments at his disposal. It was a fascinating and entertaining angle on Mozart’s music.

“If Mozart had had access to a modern Steinway, just think what he would have written!” Levin declared provocatively at the start of The Works. Of course, as Levin immediately countered, we cannot make such assumptions: Mozart worked with what was available at the time – the harpsichord, fortepiano and fledgling piano. What we can do, however, is look at the documentary evidence – the drafts, the autographed scores, his letters – to gain a glimpse into the compositional world of Mozart.

Levin has argued, convincingly, that the paper, ink and quill that Mozart used all point to a prolific genius who could turn his hand to almost anything, a consummate multi-tasker who would sketch out a draft of a piano concerto and then set it aside to work on more lucrative projects.

He also feels Mozart was the “Duke Ellington” of the 18th century, endlessly improvising off the cuff, and knocking off dazzling cadenzas at the drop of a hat. He didn’t need to write them down because each time he performed he would do something new.

Levin is also an improviser, and his intimate study of Mozart allows him to offer suggestions as to how Mozart may have performed (directing from the piano, of course) which sound fresh and natural, but never ersatz. Sometimes there is an astonishing latitude in Levin’s interpretations, but at no point have I ever felt, when hearing Levin perform, that he is taking unfounded liberties with the material. Rather, there is a sense of someone who is thoroughly immersed in the ‘language’ of Mozart, but who does not hold up what is written in the score as “sacred”. A degree of danger and unexpectedness is what makes Levin’s playing so intriguing, and he believes he has a responsibility to create something “new” in each performance he gives.

I am no purist about historically accurate performance on historically accurate instruments: I feel it is impossible for us to truly recreate the sound, feel, nuance, atmosphere of Mozart’s music in his time – and certain attempts to do this can come across as either overly esoteric, or an undignified ‘Disneyfication’ of the music. Robert Levin’s approach offers some interesting and thought-provoking angles on the subject: in his hands, Mozart’s idiosyncrasies become a wonderful asset and serve as a pretext for a better understanding of the man and his music, as well as reviving the art of improvisation in classical music and promoting novelty in musical performance.

Robert Levin talking about how differently things would have been done in Mozart’s day.

Robert Levin on improvisation in the Piano Concerto No. 23 from the OAE blog, and on Radio 4’s Today programme.