Concerto night is a regular feature of the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for pianists, and on Sunday 19th August, we were treated to four concertos, performed in the magnificent Stoller Hall by members of the Chets teaching faculty, who also happen to be international concert pianists.

The concerto is one of the greatest corners of the pianist’s repertoire. A showcase for performer and instrument, it’s an opportunity for the composer to capitalise on the combined forces of soloist and orchestra, often with thrilling and highly expressive results. The concerto format inspires great music and is a spectacle for the audience and the genre continues to tempt composers today. The romantic image is of the soloist doing battle with the orchestra, but in most instances piano and orchestra are collaborators, creating wondrous musical conversations and exciting contrasts of sound, texture and mood – very much the case in the four works performed in this concert.

The soloists in these concerts were accompanied by the Stockport Symphony Orchestra, an amateur orchestra of considerable talent and stamina, conducted by Stephen Threlfall, who is a member of staff at Chetham’s School.

Seta Tanyel gave a committed and colourful account of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, a one-movement work of grand romantic gestures and post-Rachmaninov melodies. Written as part of the soundtrack for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight, the music has a dramatic narrative, rich in nostalgia and sweeping climaxes. This was followed by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, played by Leslie Howard, always a popular member of the Chets team (and a regular behind the bar during the piano summer school). Not as popular, nor as satisfying as Tchaikovsky’s first concerto, Leslie Howard nonetheless gave a masterful and enjoyable performance, at times pushing the orchestra to the limit with tempi. The Stockport Symphony Orchestra rose impressively to the challenge and one felt them begin to catch fire in this work.

In the second concerto concert of the evening, Dina Parakhina played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini with an exquisite sound, rhythmic vitality and musical imagination, matched by the orchestra who clearly enjoyed this piece.

This was followed by a highly imaginative rendering of Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Philip Fowke. The interaction between soloist, conductor and orchestra was clear throughout (and especially evident for those of us seated in the choir stalls with a view down to the pianist and conductor). Philip’s compelling and generous performance was rich in interesting voicings and a rare improvisatory quality, which brought renewed vigour and colour to this much-loved work.


Photographs by Martin Lijinsky

5f3e69_e385f87332164cdbbb4075d6aa12adf3Guest post by conductor and artistic director Tom Hammond

Two of my ambitions as a conductor are to maximise communication within ensembles (sounds simple, but isn’t), and to make concerto soloists feel like they are being accompanied by their own musical shadow.

If I can see the eyes, face, bows and fingers of the soloist I and the orchestra are accompanying, I can go with breath, speed of bow, a nod of a head or other subtle physical gesture… but when it’s a piano concerto, this is often impossible.

Nine times out of ten there’s no chance to see the fingers on the keyboard, I’m not close enough to hear inbreaths (which not every pianist makes audibly anyway) and if I try to lock on to eyes for an extra mode of communication – I can lose the connection with the orchestra. Basically – it’s all behind me!

In a recent performance of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ I even had the acoustic challenge of a piano that was (on the biggest stick) projecting beautifully into the hall, but away from my ears and couldn’t necessarily hear every note. Quite scary when picking up ends of cadenzas, I can tell you….

My solution is often simply not to even try more than a little eye contact for starts and ends of movements, and then rely totally on my ears. That’s sometimes harder than it might sound, as piano concerti often contain the trickiest technical moments for conducting; bringing in a tutti or a solo instrument off the back of a cascade of rapid notes when, with a string concerto for example, you can also use visual contact as well as aural. Moments in the Rachmaninov Paganini Variations and indeed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ can really sort the men and women from the boys and girls in conducting terms…

All this led to me wondering how pianists feel about working with orchestras and conductors, and what factors might help make a performance comfortable at the very least, and something special at best. Two pianists I am accompanying in the coming weeks – Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova – took time out of their hectic schedules to answer a few questions.


May0031407 Stephen Hough for DT ArtStephen Hough

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
I never worry about the instrument until I see it. But with a new piece there is the uncertainty of how it will actually sound (or rather feel) in that first rehearsal. No amount of preparation prepares you for the oboe or horn or violas coming at you from that particular angle on stage. And because a collaboration with a conductor is like a blind date well … when the mask comes off who knows what to expect!
Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I normally have a good view of the conductor’s buttocks which doesn’t help much … No, but seriously I don’t need eye to eye contact but out of the corner of my eye I’m taking in body language all the time and at certain crucial moments THE STICK!

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
As much as we need is nice, but not more. I don’t like thrashing the details out until everyone’s exhausted. A little spontaneity is essential. But with certain pieces decisions have to be made, especially with the great works, the Brahms and Beethoven concertos for example.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
I’d be curious to try the two Brahms sometime, if only to decide that it didn’t work.


5f3e69_d3be6bedc9d64af0897015aab598ebdcmv2-1Alissa Firsova

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
“Worry” is not a feeling that comes to mind when embarking on a new concerto project, but rather “excitement”, “curiosity”, “joy” and “gratitude” for the opportunity to take on a challenge and join forces with the conductor and orchestra to explore a remarkable piece of music. However out of the 4, the greatest achievement and dedicated work lies in the process of learning the piece and trying to master it to the best possible ability. Then when meeting the conductor and orchestra for the first time, it becomes a celebration. A bit like a process of making a cake: taking good care of all the ingredients, cooking it at the right temperature and for the right amount time, and then, eating it – the party begins! What I love about musical interpretation is that it is endless. It is so interesting to be able to get to know a new conductor and their personality and see what their ideas are about the piece, when there is a chance to play though sections and explore different ideas, this is gold-dust. I think it’s always important to have an open approach, to try new things, to be flexible in being able to adapt to a different acoustic or instrument or time of day.

Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I think it is ideal to have the opportunity for eye-contact, for those few “magic moments”. Other than that, the most important thing is the listening. When that is completely in sync and focus with everyone, then we might as well be blind-folded. But sometimes it’s nice to be able to communicate visually, to bring that other dimension and to respond to each other. I’ve always felt at home having the orchestra around me. It gives a great support and warmth, a feeling of being all in it together, and the conductor marries the soloist with the orchestra. The priceless moments are those spontaneous ones during the concert, where everyone suddenly takes time or creates a new nuance that didn’t happen in the rehearsals. Thats when you know total ‘oneness’ has been reached.

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
Even though ideally one would like to have as much rehearsal time as possible, in order to keep trying different things and perfecting corners as well as getting used to the overall structure and pacing of the piece, it’s also important to leave room for the spontaneity and freshness for the concert. I like to have one rehearsal before the day of the concert, and one on the day, an extra rehearsal could be a bonus.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
 Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 in C and No. 27 in B flat
Tom Hammond conducts piano concerti by Beethoven and Brahms, with Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova respectively, on 18th March and 6th May. Full details here

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love this summer, there have been three screenings of the classic love story Brief Encounter, with a live performance of the score (drawn largely from Rachmaninov’s perennially popular 2nd Piano Concerto) by pianist Leon McCawley with the LPO. The film screening took place during the second half of the concert and was preceded in the first half by a full performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto. The whole event was introduced by Lucy Fleming, daughter of Celia Johnson, who plays Laura, the female lead in Brief Encounter. Her introduction was full of wonderful anecdotes about the making of the film (which took place during the final year of the war), including extracts from Celia Johnson’s diary.

Trevor Howard as Alec and Celia Johnston as Laura in ‘Brief Encounter’

Based on Still Life, a one-act play by Noel Coward, and directed by David Lean, the plot centres around Laura, a suburban housewife married to a dependable but rather dull man. A chance meeting with a doctor, Alec Harvey, in the ‘refreshment room’ at the station (which is fiercely guarded by the wonderfully-named Myrtle Bagot, played by Joyce Carey with some of the best lines in the entire film) leads Laura into a brief but intense romantic liaison with the doctor, before circumstances and their own moral integrity forces them to part, never to meet again…. Much of the action is narrated by Laura, and despite the plummy, cut-glass RP accents of the main characters, the plot is sharply-observed, witty, very funny at times, and also heart-rendingly poignant. The story is underpinned by the wonderful score, and was in fact largely responsible for bringing this epic piece of music to wider fame. It has undoubtedly contributed to the enduring appeal.

It must be 20 years since I last heard the ‘Rach 2’ performed live (I think by Evgeny Kissin at the Proms) and I had forgotten what a gloriously rich and expressive work it is. Towering and climactic, it is demanding work to play, and one of the chief challenges is avoiding an overly-romantic reading of it. Leon McCawley’s warm tone was perfect for this work, combined with an exquisite clarity and an ability to highlight some of the less obvious details in the score. The entire work had a classical edge to it which avoided sentimentality, yet never detracted from the rich textures of the score.

Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)
Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)

To perform the score with the film must have taken some very careful rehearsing to create such a smooth synthesis of film and soundtrack. In her introduction, Lucy Fleming explained that some complicated technical processes were used to strip out the original music from the film. A new soundtrack was commissioned especially for the RFH screening: this played while we watched the film was the most wonderful cinematic and musical experience, a nod back to the days of silent cinema, almost, when films would be accompanied and “narrated” by a resident pianist, small orchestra or organist.  A really superb evening celebrating great music and a great film, both of which have most definitely stood the test of time. Oh, and the enduring power of love…..