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

My first piano was my uncle’s wedding gift to my aunt. At the time he was moving houses and the piano was ‘temporarily’ housed in my home, where it stayed for another 6 years! My first piano teacher (a small ballet company’s piano accompanist) was the person who really pushed me and my parents to think that it was really possible to consider a career path in Western classical music, a very new concept in China at that time. You must remember that this was merely only five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution!

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

The support of my mother throughout my life, and how she let me pursue what I loved to do, regardless of any social or financial consideration.

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

Juggling being a ‘hands-on’ mother of two young children and pursuing a performing career!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

There are some gems which I recorded for Pianist Magazine that turned out unexpectedly well. I have now recorded a large number of CDs for the magazine and I am very proud of issue 100, both for its significance and the music in it.

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

Not really. I would say perhaps the audience play a more important part in influencing my performance on the day rather than the venue itself.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I am not what you call a loyal listener, I go through phases. However, the old masters seem to always make me stop and pay attention whenever I hear them: Guido Agosti, Shura Cherkassky, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, Benjamin Britten, Louis Kentner… the list will go on and on.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Collaborating with James Loughran and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra on Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.488. Also a small recital I gave in the Scottish border when the front leg of the old Bechstein piano suddenly broke during the final movement of Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata; in happiness I hope!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Great question! Without sounding a cliché and being corny, all I want is just to play to people. My definition of success is being able to make that special bond with the audience – even if it is just to one single person on the night – in a short magic moment music can touch special places deep within.

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

To be forever inquisitive – one always finds answers if one keeps asking questions.

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

Pretty much the same as I am now, but perhaps travelling further afield to play more concerts, as the children will be more grownup. Also, dare I hope for much better gardening skills?!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Waking around with my family the day after a good concert.

What is your most treasured possession?

I am a very laid back Buddhist; I think that one of the main ideas of Buddhist teaching is to try not to hold on to many earthly possessions.

Chenyin Li performs two piano sonatas by Beethoven, Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite and three Chinese transcriptions as part of the Bluthner Piano Series at St John’s Smith Square on 23 May. Further information and tickets here

www.bluthner.co.uk


The Chinese pianist Chenyin Li is internationally acknowledged as one of the most exciting and sought-after musicians of her generation. Her career was launched after winning the 6th Scottish International Piano Competition in Glasgow, as well as being the first prizewinner of the Campillos International Piano Competition, Dudley International Piano Competition and the European Beethoven Gold Medal. She has been described as a “gritty, fiery and athletic pianist, backed by a strong technique arsenal” (The Daily Telegraph), and “a player of remarkable subtlety” (The Scottish Herald), who “understands the original intentions of the composers as well as bringing her own individual interpretation which invests the music with a new life” (National Business Review). Read more

www.chenyinli.com

I was distressed to read this article by Richard Morrison in The Times yesterday about the possibility that St John’s Smith Square (SJSS), a beautiful baroque Grade 1 listed church in the heart of Westminster, may close permanently within 18 months due to financial difficulties.

For a long time the poor relation, despite its best efforts, to the cultural edifice of the Southbank Centre just across the river, SJSS has in recent years put itself on the map as a go-to musical destination, thanks in no small part to the imaginative, open-minded and innovative efforts of its Director, Richard Heason. In post since 2012, Heason has transformed SJSS from a “hall for hire” into a distinctive, forward-thinking vibrant cultural hub in the heart of London with new commissions, specially curated festivals and events, concerts featuring the venue’s fine organ, and a programme which supports young artists early in their careers. And while the Queen Elizabeth Hall was undergoing major refurbishment, SJSS hosted the International Piano Series and International Chamber Music Series, bringing it further endorsement of its status amongst London’s classical music venues

Back in the 1980s, when my father worked for a leading international insurance company, I attended concerts at SJSS which were sponsored by his company. I remember being struck by the beauty of the venue and its fine acoustic. In recent years I have rediscovered SJSS, not least because of its ease of access from Vauxhall station (a mere 10-minute walk across the bridge and along Millbank). It is my favourite concert venue along with Wigmore Hall and I have enjoyed some very fine concerts there – piano recitals by Paul Badora-Skoda, Steven Osborne, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, to name but a few, choral concerts by Polyphony, chamber music (most recently I Musicanti’s stimulating residency), Rolf Hind’s eclectic Occupy the Pianos Festival of contemporary music (returning 20th April), and Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday concerts (March 2018). I’ve heard premieres and new commissions, I’ve heard friends perform there, and I have made new friends there (a chance encounter in the café ahead of a performance of Messiaen last year).  I have even had the privilege of performing at SJSS myself, playing the hall’s beautiful Steinway as part of its Music Marathon events, which bring amateur and professional musicians together to celebrate shared music making.
For purely selfish reasons, I would be very sad to see this fine venue close for good. It would also be a loss for London’s cultural/musical heritage. It is a wonderful place, with a vibrant, varied programme of music. If you have not already done so, I urge you to discover it and support it. It is easy to find, being located within walking distance of Vauxhall, Pimlico, Victoria and Westminster stations. There is a pleasant café in the crypt and the venue is staffed by friendly, helpful people. Richard Heason can often be seen at concerts and is very amenable and approachable.
To survive, SJSS needs “a minimum of £200,000 a year for at least ten years” (Martin Smith, Chairman of the Board of Trustees). It receives no regular public subsidy, unlike its neighbour across the river, nor money from the Heritage Lottery Fund or Westminster City Council.
To quote that well-known advertising jingle, “every little helps” – so buy a ticket or three, or become a Friend, and go and experience the magic of music at SJSS (and the lemon drizzle cake is pretty good too, enjoyed with an inexpensive glass of rosé!).

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.

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

18-04-18_gregory_rose_web

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

www.sjss.org.uk/otp2018


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.