A new play by Lewis Owens

In 1958, at the height of his artistic ability and reputation, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was invited by Oxford University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Music, along with fellow musician Francis Poulenc and other dignitaries. From the initial invitation by Oxford to Shostakovich in Moscow, the story is a fascinating, humorous and poignant portrayal of the clash of two distinct, and distinctly insular, worlds: the Byzantine rituals and orotundity of Oxford University and the unsmiling officialdom of Soviet Russia. When Shostakovich finally arrives in Oxford for his three-day stay, hosted by Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, we are presented not only with a unique insight into the inner personalities of Shostakovich, Poulenc, Berlin, Trevor-Roper and others, but also a searing reminder of the value of art in the Cold War period.

The play is based on the official correspondence and telegrams surrounding the visit, first published by Dr Lewis Owens in 2004, including Berlin’s astonishing ruminations on the significance of Shostakovich’s visit.

This story has never been staged before and includes the music of Shostakovich and Poulenc (including performance by internationally acclaimed pianist Colin Stone – see interview below).

Pianist Colin Stone talks about significant teachers, influences, recording and performing:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was only four when my mother started giving me lessons, I don’t think I had a great deal of choice in the matter. I always loved the sound of the piano and I was certainly inspired by her playing but equally I remember many family rows caused by my reluctance to practise and eventually I was sent to the junior department of RCM.
Who or what are the biggest influences on your career as a pianist?
I believe we always owe more to our teachers than we realise. Norma Fisher in particular was pivotal in helping me acquire some mastery over the instrument. Later, when I went to Oxford I was extremely lucky to be introduced to André Tchaikowsky, the most prodigiously gifted musician I have ever met. His death in 1982, my last year at Oxford, was not only a huge loss to the world of music but a personal tragedy as well. My last teacher was Edith Vogel. All three of them made deep and lasting impressions on me as a musician.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
Anyone who tries to make a career in music is facing a huge challenge. The biggest challenge can be simply planning one’s time. If you accept too many commitments, in the form of students or concerts, and you have a family as well, you suddenly find that there are not enough hours in the day. In terms of specific musical challenges I would put my performance of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich somewhere near the top. Without doubt the most nerve-wracking performance was a live broadcast premier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Rob Keeley’s piano concerto. I still don’t understand quite how it came together with so little rehearsal. A real testament to the amazing skills of that particular band of musicians and the conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Which recordings & performances are you most proud of?
I’ve made a number of solo piano recordings some of which I find difficult to listen to with the passing of the years. I prefer to listen to my collaborations with other musicians.
I am very proud of the duo with my dear friend Rustem Hayroudinoff. The CD we made for Chandos of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony in its version for two pianos was a real highlight.  Similarly, the recordings I made with the London Mozart Trio, in particular our recording of Smetana’s trio, give me cause for optimism.
Which works do you think you perform best?
I have no idea what works I perform best, I think that is for others to judge. I will say that I am most happy playing music with strong contrapuntal interest.
Favourite pieces to listen to? And to perform?
There is so much wonderful music, I have always thought that compiling a list in the manner of Desert Island Discs would be a complete torment. I find that I have occasional cravings; perhaps to hear a late Beethoven string quartet or a Bruckner Symphony or perhaps something played by Oscar Peterson but appetites change.
In my mind a number of performances have merged together. I have a very vivid and special memory of playing Schuberts B-flat trio. Vivid in the sense that the physical place was not important but the atmosphere in that glorious slow movement has somehow distilled itself into my mind. Without wishing to sound unduly pretentious that music really does transport one to another place.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I have been trying to write a book about the numerous things I wish my students knew. I think my biggest concern is that there is a YouTube culture that interferes with the process of students learning how to read a score. I have to beg my students not to rush out and listen to random performances of the pieces they are about to learn. I have nothing against them listening to other performances after they have studied the score but I do find it a problem when they treat the process of learning music as an aural tradition. I think the imagination is best served by discovering the music afresh, direct from the score.
Tell us more about working with Lewis Owens on his new play?
Lewis is a remarkable man. His erudition on the subject of Shostakovich is well known but I was surprised to discover that he has such gifts as a dramatist. It has been very easy for me to work on this with him, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and in those few areas of uncertainty he was brilliant at finding the solutions by picking the brains of his colleagues.

“The life of Isaiah Berlin contained several episodes that cry out for theatrical treatment, and Lewis Owens here dramatises one of them, co-starring Shostakovich, with intelligence and flair.” Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin’s editor, Wolfson College, Oxford

“A very imaginative and unusual play.” Peter Bien, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College, USA

“The play portrays, in sharp focus and with an immense attention to detail, not only the visit of Shostakovich to Oxford but, and as significantly, the various machinations that lay behind the apparent success of the visit. There are surprises too, both musically and politically speaking.” Alan Mercer, DSCH Journal editor

Performances include the play in the first half and a recital of music for piano and ‘cello by Liszt, Poulenc and Shostakovich in the second half.

13th June, 7pm – Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R 4TN. Tickets

14th June, 7pm – The Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT. Tickets

3rd July, 7pm – The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ. Tickets



Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

In my teens, I had ambitions to be a composer, but gradually my creative energies were transferred into performing. My piano teacher through this period, Ransford Elsley was an inspiring advocate for contemporary music as well as being an extraordinary teacher who completely transformed my playing within a year of lessons. That rapid development continued through my undergraduate years, and at a certain point I decided that I could make a bigger contribution to music as a performer than as a composer and have been an active collaborator with composers ever since.

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

Rolf Hind, who I studied with while a Masters student at the Royal Academy of Music, was, and still is, one of my biggest influences. His vast experience working with many great composers provided invaluable insights into the many styles and strands of contemporary music and he also provided me with the technical and practice tools to tackle the most demanding scores. It’s been particularly inspiring to perform alongside him, as duel soloists with the London Sinfonietta (playing Beat Furrer’s Nuun for two pianos and orchestra) and more recently, as a piano duo at his Occupy the Pianos festival. Professor Neil Heyde, my PhD supervisor at the Royal Academy of Music, has also been an important influence on how I think and write about music, and particularly about my relationships with composers.

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

Management of time and workload is a constant challenge, as there are often mountains of new notes to learn as well as lots of organising to be done in setting up concerts and tours, editing CDs, writing funding grants, writing articles, meeting and having workshops with composers, marketing and PR, negotiating contracts… all this alongside studying, work and everything else in life. This is often not helped by composers who only give you the score a few days before the concert!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’ve got four CDs being prepared for release, and I’m proud of all of these: “Not Music Yet” is a recording of a massive graphic score piece by Australian composer, David Young, “Piano: Inside/Out” is a recording of a range of new Australian works that feature extended techniques, “Orfordness” is a recording of solo and chamber music by British composer, David Gorton and “Chiaroscuro” is a recording with New York-based soprano, Jane Sheldon of works by Crumb, Saariaho, Schoenberg, as well as some newly commissioned works.

Of recent performances, I’m most proud of my performances alongside Thomas Adès and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last year. Performing Tom’s Concerto Conciso under his baton was a great experience, but it was an even bigger thrill partnering him in his two-piano arrangements of two Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow. They are fiendishly difficult, and made even trickier because they had to be synced up with accompanying video by Tal Rosner, so it was very satisfying to absolutely nail it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I particularly enjoy playing works that have either been written for me or where I’ve had input from the composer – if I had to point to any in particular, I’d say the several works by Michael Finnissy and George Benjamin are pieces I play well.

To pick a few other favourites: George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Olivier Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya, Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Alban Berg’s Sonata No 1.

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

My solo programs are often centred around new works from composers and might focus around a particular theme, a particular country, style or school of composition or around particular approaches to the piano. Sometimes there might be interesting connections or lineages to bring out in a program between older and newer works, and sometimes it’s good to give the audience a lot of variety. I’m also interested in working with filmmakers, actors and dancers on interdisciplinary collaborative projects.

You have a particular interest in contemporary piano music. What is the special appeal and challenges of this kind of repertoire for you?

As mentioned earlier, I’ve loved contemporary music from an early age and my appreciation for collaboration with composers has only increased through the course of my recent PhD on the subject. There is something very special about co-parenting a new work with a composer and creating a little bit of history when you eventually walk on stage to premiere it. There’s also so much variety in contemporary music, so many styles and approaches that it’s always refreshing, surprising and stimulating. It can also be challenging, especially when composers want to push the limits of what’s possible for a piano (or a pianist) to do – but that’s the kind of creative challenge I love and I think it’s particularly rewarding when you discover a truly innovative approach to the piano or set a new benchmark for virtuosity. Importantly, playing contemporary music also gives you new insights and tools for interpreting works of the canon.

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

There are many venues with particularly aspects I really like. I enjoy the casual vibe of Café Oto, and I have also really enjoyed the atmosphere of performances at King’s Place as a performer and audience member. Like all pianists, I like playing on good instruments and I’ve played on excellent pianos in the Purcell Room and in the venues of the Royal Academy and Royal College. Playing big halls like Queen Elizabeth Hall or the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall are wonderful experiences that bring out your best as a performer. If I had to choose one: the Melbourne Recital Centre is a beautiful venue marrying excellent architecture, acoustics and pianos.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love playing or hearing Olivier Messiaen’s music – he was one of the first contemporary composers I really got hooked on and familiarity has not dulled my enthusiasm for the colours, rhythmic energy and ecstatic climaxes of his music.  Learning the complete Vingt Regards surl’Enfant Jesus is one of my projects for the next few years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I like a lot of older pianists like Glenn Gould, David Tudor, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Leon Fleischer, Ignaz Friedman and Dinu Lipatti. Some favourite composers include Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis, Gerard Grisey, George Crumb, Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, Belá Bartók, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. I’m a big jazz fan (and former jazz saxophonist) and I never tire of hearing Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. And there are many musicians I admire from other musical cultures, such as the extraordinary shakuhachi player, Riley Lee.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a performer:

Performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (alongside musicians from Ensemble Offspring, Synergy Percussion and Eighth Blackbird) at the Sydney Opera House was an extraordinary experience. It’s a work that requires complete dedication without any ego and a true spirit of egalitarian music making. During the performance, I could sense the whole ensemble enter a state of ‘flow’ where we started playing and breathing like a single organism. It was the biggest audience I’ve played for live (around 3000) and when it finished, the whole crowd rose to their feet with a tremendous roar, giving Steve (and us) a rock star reception.

As an audience member:

It’s been great seeing some of the big contemporary works performed live that I would have probably never had the chance to experience in Australia: in particular Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques in 2008 and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen in 2013 (both performed by the London Sinfonietta alongside musicians of the Royal Academy of Music). And as a pianist, I have to mention seeing one of my childhood idols, Keith Jarrett last year at the Festival Hall – I’ll never forget the luminosity and vibrant colours of his sound.

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

I always tell young pianists that they should find their métier, that something special and unique that they can contribute to music. I also encourage them to try out all the skills and diverse repertoire available to a pianist rather than sticking to a very narrow conception of the canon. And of course, this includes encouraging them to consider playing, or creating, new repertoire.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Outside of music, I love movies, art galleries, books, cricket (as spectator) and the rare chances I get to go to the beach. But most of all, I love an evening of good food and good wine, shared with good friends.

London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga has performed at the BBC Proms,  London 2012, Aldeburgh (UK), Occupy the Pianos (UK), ISCM World New Music Days (Australia) and Borealis (Norway) Festivals as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has commissioned dozens of new works, with a focus on the exploration of innovative approaches to the piano, and performed recitals across Australia, Europe and the USA. He is a member of Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s leading contemporary music ensembles, and has also performed with Halcyon, Synergy Percussion, Ensemble Plus-Minus, Endymion Ensemble and the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as performing piano duos with Rolf Hind and Thomas Adès.

In recent years, Zubin has been awarded the Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarship, the ABC Limelight Award for Best Newcomer and the NSW State Award (Performance of the Year) at the Australian Art Music Awards.

A Masters and PhD graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, he has collaborated with many of the world’s leading composers including Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Steve Reich, Beat Furrer, Howard Skempton, Liza Lim, Ross Edwards, Nigel Butterley and David Young.

(Photor: Bridget Elliot)

A delightful and informative small exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music which delves into Charles Dickens’ musical connections, the music of his time, his association with the Academy, and musical re-imaginings of his novels.

Read my full review here


The exhibition runs concurrently with other related events as part of the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, including lectures and concerts. More information here