A pianist drums a rhythm with his fingers on the side of the piano stool. At first he appears to be simply warming up his hands, but the rhythm is insistent and repetitive. His fingers move up to the fall board of the piano, still drumming. His hand reaches around to the flank of the instrument, edging towards the gold Steinway logo. He stands and moves around the curved body of the instrument, still drumming drumming drumming…. Suddenly a red balloon flies out of the belly of the piano, twirling into the air with a comical farting noise…..

Another pianist curls over a tiny toy piano, picking out a quirky tune which, on that instrument, sounds like many carriage clocks chiming…..

A flautist yells at the end of a piece which requires overblowing, triple tonguing and other complex techniques

Welcome to the world of composer and pianist Stephen Montague.

Steve at Barbican/G Crumb 2011

In celebration of Stephen’s 75th birthday St John’s Smith Square played host to 24 hours of music making, beginning at lunchtime on Friday 9 March: 5 concerts during the day and evening followed by a performance of Satie’s bizarre Vexations – 840 repetitions (c15 hours of music) of a curious little two-line piece, played by a tag-team of pianists in hourly slots. In the crypt below a video wall (set up by film maker Rob Munday and Royal College of Arts students) showed a new film by Kumi Oda (a biography of Stephen Montague) along with short films by Alex Julyan, Rob Munday and others which ran throughout the day and into the long night.

The daytime and evening concerts featured works written over the course of 40 years, including some new commissions/premieres, and demonstrated the quantity, breadth, variety and richness of Stephen’s work. This is the man who had breakfast with Aaron Copland as a student and who spent 15 years working with maverick composer John Cage; who has lived in the UK since 1974 but who still retains very strong ties to his American homeland, not least through his music. He’s a composer with a keen imagination, sharp wit and a healthy sense of humour, who, in his own words, has lived his life “looking forward”, and who shows no sign of stopping now that he has reached his three score years and 15.

Stephen’s connections to the country of his birth were revealed most strongly in the first concert of the day, ‘After Ives….and Beyond’. One of the most significant influences on Stephen is the American composer Charles Ives, and in the 1pm concert pianists Mikaela Livadiotis, Yaoying Wang, Jiarui Li, Christina McMaster and Lewis Kingsley Peart performed a programme of works which paid a direct homage to Ives in the use of folksongs, hymns and spirituals, marches, jazz, boogie-woogie and the mechanised sounds of the 20th century, together with Ivesian tone clusters and musical collisions, strummed and plucked effects inside the piano, and the drumming on the piano case. These effects – and the later performance by flautist Rebecca Griffiths of Vlug (Speed) which uses extended techniques and overblowing – demonstrate, in my view, Stephen’s fascination with sound. Now that may seem a daft thing to say of a composer, whose business is to create sounds, but Stephen is a composer who likes to push the capabilities of the instrument to it limits to create deep dark rumblings in the bass of the piano, or ethereal strummed murmurs from its innards, proving that striking the keys needn’t be the only way to “play” a piano. Chords and collections of notes are used for their colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression, and theatrics, surprise, chance and silence are also important elements. These things connect him closely to John Cage, who beleived that “all sound is music”.

The piano works in this segment combined Lisztian virtuosity in tumultuous passages with moments of repose, delicate far-away melodies and fragments of hymn tunes. The concert closed with After Ives (1993) which ends with an outrageously rambunctious and “perverse homage” to J P Sousa, whom Ives apparently detested, quoting his famous The Stars and Stripes Forever on the piano with Chopinesque melodic interjections and Lisztian extravagance, all masterfully and very wittily handled by Lewis Kingsley Peart.

In the second concert, Beguiled, Stephen paid homage to another of his musical heroes, Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a composer who liked to “live in the whole world of music” – an ethos to which I suspect Stephen also subscribes! This concert had an altogether more reflective, meditative atmosphere, showcasing works which draw on Japanese and Indian musical aesthetics, Blues, loops and phasing, and graphic scores. Highlights of the programme were Haiku, (which, according to the composer’s introduction, started out as a very short work (like Haiku) and became a long one): beautifully and sensitively performed from memory by Chi-Ling Lok, it was haunting, dreamy and ethereal, while the accompanying electronics lent a rather more unsettled backdrop to the work; Nun Mull, ‘Tears’ (2014) written in memoriam the Korean ferry disaster, commissioned and performed by Jenna Sung, who brought a plaintive tragic intensity to the work;  Raga Capriccio (2017), a kooky work for toy piano and tape, inspired by Indian music, commissioned and performed by Helen Anahita Wilson, which sounded like many clocks chiming and the delicate the “ting” of prayer bells; and Eine Kleine Klangfarben Gigue, in which the opening measures of the Gigue from Bach’s First Keyboard Partita provide a ground bass over which other instrumentalists (in this instance The Ling Ensemble – two recorders, violin and bass clarinet) gradually winkle out hidden melodies. It was played with a wonderful sense of humour and spontaneity, the musicians leaving the stage one by one as the piece drew to a close.

A quick glass of wine in the interval and back to the hall for the 4pm concert which was concerned with matters of life and death. Dark Train Coming (2001) was written for harpsichordist Jane Chapman and is the composer’s response to serious cardiac surgery following a doctor’s warning that he could be headed for the “Dark Train into the ether”. The work has a frenetic, filmic quality, with passages in the first movement reminiscent of the soundtrack to a silent film where the heroine is tied to a train track. In the second movement, we hear Baroque arabesques gone mad, while in the third the player taps out a rhythm on the case of the instrument before striking notes which have the exact electronic timbre and insistency of a hospital heart monitor. The finale was a simple melody in the upper treble accompanied by a music box playing Brahms’ famous lullaby, which suggested the hallucinatory landscape of anaesthesia and coming to from a deep sleep.

The middle works in the programme – Folk Dances (2002) performed by Ian Pace (piano) and Madeleine Mitchell (violin) and Mira, performed by pianist Roxanna Shini – were rather more upbeat. The first work was infused with idioms drawn from folk music, jazz and Blues, the second an exercise in using only the white notes of the piano with forearm clusters to create a work of expressive warmth. The programme closed with a magnificently portentous and apocalyptic organ work, Behold a Pale Horse (1990), inspired by the Book of Revelation (“Not exactly a happy birthday message but ya gotta have a sense of humour!”).

The final concert of the afternoon showcased talented young people performing works from Stephen’s collections Five Easy Pieces and Autumn Leaves, together with the world premiere of Hound Dog Blues for piano duo. In his introduction, Stephen explained that he has always found inspiration and nourishment from working with children and young people, and this charming short concert celebrated the new generation. Stephen even performed some of the music himself which lent a lovely sense of shared experience to the concert.

Fortified by more wine and supper, we returned to St John’s Smith Square for the evening concert which brought together other instrumentalists, pianists and the Fulham Symphony Orchestra, who between them performed three concertos, a short ensemble work called Dead Cat Bounce (2014) with lively animations on the columns of SJSS by Royal College of Art students, and a humorous piece Texas Pulp Fiction which was an ode to the composer’s travels through Texas on a Greyhound bus.

Ritual Ode to Changwan (2017) received its premiere at the concert. Performed by pianist Jenna Sung and the Project Instrumental ensemble, it is a theatrical work based on a popular South Korean folk song realised by prepared piano and string orchestra. Once again, we experienced the extraordinary sonic worlds a grand piano can produce when the pianist barely strikes a single note. It was a concentrated and highly arresting work in which the piano took centre stage, though not in the conventional sense of a classical piano concerto, but rather as a piece of performance art, and which finished with Jenna leaving a trail of tiny roses as she glided gracefully off the stage.

Disparate Dances showcased Nancy Ruffer (flute) and Oliver Wass (harp) in a three-movement work inspired by Eastern European, Japanese and Irish dance forms, with a wonderful foot-tapping, exuberant finale.

The final work of the evening was Stephen’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997). Scored in the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra and in three movements, it employs experimental elements favoured by Ives and Cowell, including fist and forearm clusters, and great walls of sound from the piano. The work draws on American vernacular music, folksongs and Civil War battle songs, and is an epic confluence of the composer’s American roots, viewed from the perspective of having lived away from the US for over 40 years. An intense, energetic and highly-charged work, it was performed with great gusto, vigour and elan by Rolf Hind.

Although the formal concerts finished at 9.45pm, the music was not over, and the performance of Satie’s Vexations, which had commenced at 9pm on an upright piano the crypt bar, continued upstairs as Norman Jacobs (New Music Brighton) appeared in the lift, playing the work on Helen Wilson’s toy piano. The music was then “transferred” to the upright piano and thence to the Steinway D for the overnight performance. Space was cleared in the hall for people to chill out or bed down for the night……. The all night count of repetitions was cleverly made visible by the RCA students’ real-time animation of expanding tree rings elegantly projected on the high walls and ceiling.

The whole event was a wonderfully vibrant and exhilarating showcase of Stephen Montague’s impressive compositional output, and the cheerful presence of the composer throughout the day – introducing the works, chatting to the audience – created a relaxed, informal atmosphere: this was very much music for friends, with friends and amongst friends.

Birthday cakes for Stephen Montague in the crypt bar at St John’s Smith Square


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

I was born into a musical environment: my father, Bernard Rose, was a huge inspiration. He was a conductor, composer, scholar, organist, horn player, singer, inspirational teacher. I studied with him at Oxford and sang in his daily choir at Magdalen College, but before that I was a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, as was my father, his brother and both my brothers. At Salisbury we had about 8 services a week, with about 12 rehearsals, from the age of 8-13. I remember thinking at the age of 12 or so that I wanted to be in music, and thought conducting would be good. My father sent me to have lunch with his old teacher at the Royal College of Music, Sir Adrian Boult, and Boult gently grilled me for over an hour over lunch, insisting that I should only pursue conducting if I really wanted it. This helped focus my mind. Leopold Stokowski used to stay frequently at our house from when I was very young, and I think this must have had an influence on me also. As soon as I went to Oxford I began serious conducting, having already taken on a small Oxfordshire choral society.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

In the early days Christopher Dearnley, Organist at Salisbury Cathedral, and my first piano teacher, was a strong influence. Then at my senior school my teacher for A-level played me Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Juenglinge”. I was 15 years-old, and it blew my head off. I knew from that moment that I would dedicate much of my life to ‘living’ music.

When I left school I studied ’12-note music’ in Vienna with a former pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, and this has been a strong influence all my life. Whilst at Oxford I became fascinated by the conducting of Pierre Boulez, and used to go to watch him conduct. This was my main conducting influence.

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

The most challenging aspect is inspiring musicians, professional, students or amateur, to create exciting musical sounds, and, hopefully, display their enjoyment of this to the audience. Certainly, it is very fulfilling teasing the written notes into audible sounds, whether it be medieval music, Classical or music of today.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Through gesture as much as possible. When teaching conducting I stress the importance of “less talking is more music”. The fact that in the concert or recording venue at the moment of impact there is no speaking is a vital aspect of communication from conductor to musicians.

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

My first role as conductor is my being the representative of the composer in the room, from whatever period. I always do masses of research into the composer’s background at the time of composition, etc, before studying a work. I have had the pleasure of working directly with many hundreds of living composers, and I am a composer myself, so feel I am “on their side”! If the piece is not written out logically I do all I can to persuade the composer to make the scores as logical as possible.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Stravinsky “Sacre de Printemps”

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg, Russia, is unbelievable!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are too many to list. It goes from Perotin in the 1150s through to Machaut, Byrd, Tallis, Sheppard, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Hummel, Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Xenakis, Arvo Paert, Steve Reich…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Achieving a fine/masterful performance.

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

The joy of performing at the highest possible standard; rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!

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

Still conducting and composing internationally

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The morning after a great concert!

What is your most treasured possession?

The autograph score of Bach’s B Minor Mass

What is your present state of mind?

Good! I’ve just finished editing a new CD in Latvia and am preparing for my 70th birthday concert in April. I am a lucky person!


Gregory Rose’s 70th birthday concert is on 18 April 2018 at St John’s Smith Square. The programme includes several premieres, including a piece for solo voice with Loré Lixenberg and a new Violin Concerto, specially composed for the acclaimed violinist, Peter Sheppard Skærved.

Full details here

Gregory Rose is particularly noted for his performances of the romantic and contemporary repertoires, having conducted over 300 premieres of orchestral, choral and ensemble music throughout Europe and the Far East. He studied violin, piano and singing as a young child and was a pupil of Hans Jelinek (Vienna Academy) and Egon Wellesz (Oxford University), both former students of Arnold Schoenberg, and of his father, the late Bernard Rose.

Gregory is Music Director of the Jupiter Orchestra, Jupiter Singers, Singcircle and CoMA London Ensemble. He has conducted many concerts and operas for Trinity College of Music, including concerts with the Contemporary Music Group, and operas by Poulenc, Stravinsky, Virgil Thomson, Scott Joplin, Berthold Goldschmidt, Samuel Barber, Nino Rota and Malcolm Williamson. He is a professor of conducting at Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

Full biography

St John’s Smith Square announces OCCUPY THE PIANOS Festival 2018 
Friday 20 -Sunday 22 April 2018
Celebrating two themes: Protest and The Journey Within 

Including more than a dozen world premieres, a led meditation, a queer concert and Radulescu’s Icons in SJSS’s crypt (pianos laid on their sides with their action removed) 

St John’s Smith Square is delighted to announce its third full Occupy the Pianos festival curated by pianist and composer Rolf Hind. The numerous concerts from 20-22 April are studded with many freshly-written works and radical takes on music and concert-giving, with new and radical piano music at its core.

The two themes this year are Protest (from the feminist angle in Maxwell Davies to the words of prisoners in Rzewski, from a plea for compassion to animals to radical rethinking of music making from a queer angle) and The Journey Within. These themes don’t merely relate to the music chosen but the manner of presentation: so the second main day – The Journey Within – will gradually dissolve into audience participation with everyone ending up downstairs in the cafe together, by way of a concert conducted as a led meditation with Eliza McCarthy.

Rolf Hind says of this year’s festival:

St Johns’s Smith Square is only a stone’s throw from Parliament Square, site of protest and agitation for hundreds of years. In keeping with our name, this year’s programming considers politics and protest. At the same time – reflecting the beautiful, serene space in which we find ourselves in this church, the festival’s 2nd day will move towards spirituality and the journey within, offering new ways for the audience to encounter music and their experience of it.

There will be more than a dozen new works over the weekend, placing the focus on future directions for the piano, a focus also highlighted by the appearance of the extraordinary Magnetic Resonator piano in Rolf Hind’s Friday night recital. There has been a Call for Scores (Occupy the Pianos received over 100 new pieces in the past) and the weekend begins with a workshop on writing for the piano, with further pieces dropped into the weekend as surprises.

Increasing the sense of fluidity between events there will be two of Radulescu’s Icons housed in the crypt. These Icons are grand pianos laid on their sides which have had the action removed and are then played in unique ways.   At the end of the festival there will be a chance for members of the public to improvise on these instruments themselves.

Don’t miss the concert “On a Queer Day” on 21st April at 4pm, where several pieces will be introduced by an investigation of what it means to play Bach queerly and later that evening at 7.30pm there is Kagel’s Staatstheater, a surreal theatre piece, funny, disturbing, and politically engaged, which takes apart the whole concert hall experience, and doesn’t really put it back together again!

Also on the 20th there is a must-see performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a mad, wronged woman – uniquely in this case the role of Miss Donnithorne is shared by two of our most exciting vocalists, Elaine Mitchener and Loré Lixenberg.

The musicians involved in Occupy the Pianos are hand-picked by Rolf Hind: creative, multi-faceted and collaborative.

As well as being wonderful players they are thoughtful and curious about repertoire, and willing to take part in different elements of the weekend which gives it a joyful, collegiate feel. In each festival new players are added to the mix, fascinating young players often at the beginning of their careers. Not necessarily the “prize-winners” but brilliant musicians with a distinctive edge and profile.

At the festival’s heart is an ever-growing team of brilliant musicians whose approach is outwardlooking, unconventional and curious. The collegiate communal spirit of that group has made Occupy the Pianos such an adventure. An adventure that continues…

– Rolf Hind


For more information & tickets please visit


Source: press release/ Jo Carpenter Music PR Consultancy

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

I was born and educated in the United States in the middle of the last century. My father was an excellent pianist and a college professor of music and humanities. He taught in a number of small colleges and universities when I was growing up so we lived in numerous towns and cities covering a 3000 mile circuit around America: New York, Michigan, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Florida. My mother was a modest amateur pianist who loved playing hymns and sat patiently with me in my early years of practicing the piano.

As children my younger brother, sister and I were encouraged to be creative, play instruments, sports, try new things, experiment, take chances and not be afraid to fail. My father was also a talented arranger and did a number of works for choirs, small ensembles, and marching bands. His enthusiasm for everything else Life had to offer had a profound influence on me not only as a musician but as someone who continues to enjoy an active life, playing sports, travel and adventure.

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

Probably the biggest single factor in becoming a musician and composer was a summer music camp 1957 while my father was studying for his doctorate at Florida State University (Tallahassee). Each summer the School of Music had a 6 week Summer Music Camp which attracted around 300 teenage musicians not only from Florida but the neighbouring states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. At 14 I’d become a decent pianist and was advancing on the French horn. The FSU Music Camp was a combination of hard work during the day and wonderful evenings of concerts, dances, barbecues, and pool parties. The array of excellent large ensembles, choirs, theory and harmony lessons, conducting, and creative exercises were prelude to exciting evenings of hot, humid, hormonal socialising and mandatory cold showers. It was the perfect balance. I was excited and learned a lot.

One memorable occasion was a visit to our beginners’ conducting class by Ernst von Dohnanyi, a professor at FSU. He was a lovely old man who clearly enjoyed being around young people. We were told he was Brahms’s favourite pupil and were mightily impressed. He radiated a kind of old world mystery with his heavy Hungarian accent but also radiated a musty, old man’s whiff at close range during the lessons. His heavy accent made his musical life and friendship with Brahms all the more real and exciting. He showed us how to beat in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 time and told us to keep our shoulders down, our heads up with eyes on the orchestra, not the score. One day, to our amusement, he gave us a treat- how to conduct 5/4- ever so exotic in 1957.

My father later studied conducting with Dohnanyi and I was allowed to sit in on some of his seminars. It’s a pity I didn’t write down some of Dohnanyi’s comments particularly about conducting Brahms. I remember his comments often ran something like: “In zu score it’s written ‘Andante’, but Johannes always liked to take ziss section a little faster, like ziss. Johannes said he’d vished he could change za tempo mark but of course it vus permanently printed… zo No, not possible.” I later studied piano, conducting and composition at Florida State University, then Ohio State University both of which gave me an excellent foundation I only grew to really appreciate later on.

A Fulbright Fellowship to Warsaw, Poland, 1972-74, behind the Iron Curtain, had a profound influence on me. I worked in the Experimental Music Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw which at that time was an amazing state-of-the-art electronic studio. Through that and the annual Warsaw Autumn Festivals I met most of the outstanding composers in that part of the Soviet Bloc at the time: Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Gorecki, Pärt, Schnittke, and many more. The Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1972, ’73, ’74 radically changed my compositional outlook. Each festival was filled with one bone-crunching cluster piece after another and the festival lasted for a solid two weeks! I went to every concert- four a day. I was burnt toast by the end.

What saved me in my final festival (1974) was an English group called Intermodulation. Their performance of Terry Riley’s ‘Dorian Winds’ lifted me out of the clusters up into the clouds. Finally music that spoke to me, and I embraced it full frontal. It was a kind of instant white flag of surrender to the other side. My ‘Paramell’ (1974) for muted trombone and muted piano soon followed- modal and pulse driven. Later, meeting, working, and touring with John Cage completed my eclectic musical education by adding the ultimate tool to my musical toolbox- the idea of chance operations and experimentation. Ironically now is that I’ve moved back to revisit some of the earlier Polish influences in an effort to broaden further my harmonic and textural palette. So, like Henry Cowell, I want to live in the whole world of music, not just one corner.

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

The greatest challenge for any freelance person is surely earning a decent living. I’ve been freelancing in Britain and touring worldwide since 1974. Unfortunately the freelance profession has not gotten easier and, in fact, seems much harder, more competitive, and more difficult than ever. In the 1970s and 80s the BBC, Arts Council, and festivals all had much more money. My earnings from Performing Rights then were always a third to half my annual income. Over the past 40 years, in spite of more performances than ever, those PRS earnings have dwindled to irrelevance.

As a pianist I did lots of studio recordings and broadcasts for the BBC and many European stations. I had non-stop grants and commissions which seemed rather easier to come by then. Commission money now is definitely in shorter supply with far more of us chasing the dwindling sources. The challenge as a freelance composer is to earn a living using the expert skills we have all developed and dearly paid for over the years, and not to flip burgers at MacDonald’s to make ends meet. The arrival of Brexit does not look like a promising solution.

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

The challenge of a commissioned piece is usually the brief, the time frame and negotiating a proper fee. I like having a decent brief because it makes the first few decisions easy- the size of the ensemble, the duration, the context, the venue, and of course the deadline.

Where it can be a challenge is when the brief is too specific and uninspiring. My recent 40 min. orchestral score for David Bintley’s ‘The King Dances’ for the Birmingham Royal Ballet was an excellent combination of an exciting topic, a good scenario, and almost complete artistic freedom to do what I wished compositionally. The choreographer even wanted to use 10 minutes of music I’d already written for another occasion. The BRB commission was a delight, exciting, wonderfully realised by choreographer, lighting designer (Peter Mumford), and the costumes & staging artist (Katrina Lindsay). We even had generous rehearsal time for the production. The result? An extremely happy and rewarding experience. (See the BBC TV film of the making of the ballet – The King Who Invented Ballet which at c. 58:40 min has the complete performance of BRB performance of ballet, ‘The King Dances’). The downside however was the rather modest commission fee for 6 month’s hard work and not nearly enough money for copying the score and parts which had to come out of my fee.

The opposite end of the spectrum was an extremely well-paid commission for a 3 minute brass quintet. The commissioner in this case dictated a nightmare scenario: the mini piece which they stipulated was to reflect/echo the commissioning institution’s strengths in “medicine, science & technology, climate change, environmental sustainability, astrophysics, culture, human behavior, and philosophical beliefs.” A jaw-dropping brief for a 3-minute processional! The real passion-killer, however, was it had to be no harder than Grade 5 since the musical talents of their university students were modest! Now there was a true challenge (!), but all part of earning a living as a freelance composer. I managed to write the work and it worked. Fortunately no one asked me which notes were “astrophysics”, “medicine” or “climate change”.

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

I think every composer has people, ensembles and venues they like to work with, and certainly some you never wish to see again. I worked for many years in a duo with the pianist Philip Mead, a first rate musician and educator. We travelled all over Europe and North America touring programmes of new music and electronics. It was great fun and always exciting to perform together.

My work with John Lubbock and his OSJ chamber orchestra was always a complete pleasure and the source of several exciting commissions and recordings. The Smith Quartet is another ensemble that has been wonderful over the years, the results of which are two excellent recordings.

I have always had a good relationship with the BBC Symphony and working with them is always exciting and rewarding. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Paul Murphy was a wonderful experience because of Paul’s enthusiasm, expertise, and their brilliant realisation of ‘The King Dances’.

Venues are also vitally important. My ongoing relationship with Richard Heason, Artistic Director of St Johns, Smith Square, for example, has been absolutely exemplary in his enthusiastic production of large scale events for both my 70th and now 75th birthday concerts amongst the other collaborations.

With all these associations the enjoyment comes from the people who understand what you are trying to do and who work with you enthusiastically to help you realise just that. It is a symbiotic relationship so when we feed each other properly the results can be magical.

How would you describe your compositional language?

My music is tonally based but often makes use of the full panoply of harmonic possibilities from tonal/modal harmony/melody to bone crunching tone clusters and tone rows for dramatic effect. The musical structures are often based on the shapes of earlier centuries but modified to suit and exploit a modern format for each new commission.

How do you work?

Mornings are my best, most creative time. I get up early (05:30) and work 5 – 6 hours taking a short break every hour or so. I work on A3 landscape manuscript paper with a 2B mechanical lead pencil and a large pointed eraser. I hear the music in my head but check it on a keyboard. I have good concentration so can write under almost any conditions. I’ve never missed a deadline. Afternoons and evening are used for business work, copying music, promotion, meetings etc. I love having the evenings off going to the cinema, a concert, theatre, or out to eat.

Which works are you most proud of?

Most composers give birth to many ‘children’. A parent probably should not have favourites but with so many children, we all do! As in real Life, some kids just turn out better than others no matter how much time you put into their house-training, manners, education and grooming.

Of the nearly 200 or so ‘children’ I have, those who have turned out best are my String Quartet No. 1: in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski (with electronics), At the White Edge of Phrygia (chamber orch), Southern Lament (piano- for Stephen Kovacevich), Requiem: The Trumpets Sounded Calling Them to the Other Side (soprano, orchestra, chorus, fog horns), Varshavian Spring (chorus, orch), The King Dances (orchestra score for the ballet), A Dinner Party for John Cage (theatrical event for 12 singers in a chaotic chance determined dinner), Wilful Chants, (BBC Prom commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Brass and O Duo percussion), Snakebite (chamber orch), Dark Sun – August, 1945 (large orch, chorus, radios), Haiku (piano, electronics, tape), Paramell (muted trombone and muted piano), Paramell V (2 pianos), and Christmas Triptych (sop, baritone, chorus, orchestra). I like many of the others but some still need a little more grooming and my detailed attention before I let them out to play too often. And yes, I should really try and visit them more often too.

As a musician, what is your definition of “success”?

For me success is writing a piece of music I’m proud of and having those feelings re-enforced by an enthusiastic audience response. My goal is to reach out to an audience and reel them in to a place they may never have been. Seduction is perhaps the best word. And it flies in the face of an attitude in the 1960s where it was popular to say “who cares if they listen!” as Milton Babbitt and the post Webern movement declared. For them, alas, the audience voted with their feet at the exit. I’d much prefer an audience on their feet at the end.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Pianists: Stephen Kovacevich in full flight playing solo, chamber works, concertos of core repertoire. Rubenstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Marc Andre Hamelin playing anything hard, Philip Mead playing my music, and Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Brubeck doing their thing.

Conductors: Toscanini, Solti, Bernstein, John Lubbock, Gregory Rose, Stephen Jackson, Grant Llewellyn, Paul Murphy, Sian Edwards.

Composers: Gesualdo, JS and CPE Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Bartok, Henry Cowell, Gershwin, Varese, Cage, Nancarrow, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, Tomasz Sikorski, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Bob Dillon, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and Helmut Lachenmann.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing the European premiere of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on the Huddersfield Music Festival and breaking 9 strings with my forearm clusters in the opening movement.

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

The first 10,000 hours I figure gets you through the basics for stepping into this profession. The next 10,000 listening to music, analysis, and engaging with other art forms gives you insight, bench marks, and perspective. The next 10,000 consolidates the first two and takes you to a higher level but not to the top. The very top is determined by an X Factor which is the mysterious Joker card. Nobody can explain why some up there are the winners while similar, or better talents, can be the ‘also-rans’. What is sure, however, is that it always takes longer than you think to get where you want to go and the path is full of wrong turns and traps! The trajectory of your professional career is a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping your eyes on the horizon but working hard on the daily detail is vital. Infernal desire and dogged tenacity as much as talent can be the key that unlocks that X Factor and deals you the Joker when it counts most.

If all you want is just a little fun in music, ignore all this. That works too, and you may lead a happier, more balanced life. Professional musicians have a rather chequered history in the ‘happy relationships’ department which makes interesting reading post-mortem but not at the time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a well paid commission to write something I’ve always wanted to write for instrumentalists, singers, conductor and a large ensemble of my choosing for an exciting venue that is to die for. Perform it, tour it, then record it with the ideal post concert location an exotic hideaway with the one you love overlooking a warm sea in the Caribbean or a rocky perch on the Amalfi coast.

My schedule? Work 5 hours in the morning, lunch al fresco, a couple sets of tennis, afternoon drinks into the sunset, a candle lit dinner for two, something visually and musically stimulating in the evening, and a late-night cocktail on a moonlit sea followed by an erotic poem in bed.

What is your most treasured possession?

My memory.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Try to imagine.

What is your present state of mind?

The ancient Arabic saying: “Live for this day, for tomorrow is only a dream, and yesterday, only a memory.”

Stephen Montague celebrates his 75th birthday with a weekend of special concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London, including several premieres. Further information here

Stephen Montague was born Syracuse, New York, 1943 and studied at Florida State and Ohio State Universities followed by two years in Warsaw, Poland as a Fulbright Scholar (1972-74). Since 1974 he has been based in London where he works as a freelance composer, pianist, and conductor but tours world-wide.
Major commissions include London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms, London’s Southbank and Barbican Centres, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Paris, Singapore, and Hong Kong festivals. Conducting work has included the London Sinfonietta, City of London Sinfonia, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony and many others.




Thursday 11 January 2018

Samson Tsoy, piano

Schubert – Four Impromptus, Op 90

Rachmaninoff – Five Preludes Op 23

Two composers writing 75 years apart, both 30 and both entering significant periods of intense creativity in their compositional lives. By 1827 Schubert knew his life was drawing to a close. Ill with syphilis and the side-effects of its treatment since 1823, the year before his death, when his composed his Impromptus for piano, signalled a period of remarkable output. 75 years later in 1902 Rachmaninoff marries his cousin Natalia Satina and embarks on his Second Piano Concerto, the Cello Sonata, and Second Suite for Two Pianos, in addition to the Preludes Op 23.

Both sets of works are infused with their composer’s distinct psychology. Schubert’s bittersweet nostalgia, his markedly shifting moods, his long-spun melodies and the lilting rhythms of the ländler and the waltz run through the Four Impromptus Op 90, creating a unifying thread, and Samson Tsoy revealed these special qualities of Schubert’s writing with sensitivity and poise, from the desolate opening of the Impromptu in C minor, to the warm poetry of the fourth in A flat. This was refined and mature playing.

Rachmaninoff’s Op 23 Preludes are confident and exuberant, never more so than in the famous G minor, and Samson responded to with equal confidence and spirit, offering a rich palette of musical colours presented with stylish panache and an evident relish for this music. A special warmth and elegance was reserved for the D major Prelude.

A most enjoyable and rewarding lunchtime concert.


I Musicanti
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London


On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.

Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.


Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood