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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Photographs by Martin Lijinsky

The second evening of concerts at Chetham’s featured musicians of the next generation and an established international concert artist.

The Ronald Stevenson Memorial recital is given in honour of one of the greatest composer-pianists of modern times, and was established in 2015 with generous funds donated by the Stevenson Society. Stevenson, who died in 2015, was a visitor to the Chetham’s Summer School. He wrote highly attractive, virtuosic and engaging music inspired by the landscape, heritage and culture of Scotland where he made his home. His large and varied post-Romantic oeuvre also includes music written for children, which is sophisticated and characterful.

In this concert, students from Chetham’s School of Music performed works by Stevenson, including his Scottish Folk Song Settings for Piano and the quirky Six Pensees sur des Preludes de Chopin, Stevenson’s clever combining of Preludes by Chopin to create miniatures which are witty and imaginative. It was wonderful to see young people, one as young as 9, performing with such poise and confidence. In addition, their individual sound and range of pianistic colours and moods was impressive, and this concert was both a celebration of Stevenson’s genius and these young musicians.

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Leon McCawley’s concert was one of those occasions where the reviewer’s role is rendered largely redundant! What can I say about a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K279 whose outer movements sparkled with wit and good humour, contrasting with an Andante of understated operatic drama and elegance? Or Richter’s favourite Schubert Sonata, the genial D894, performed with such taste, clarity and sensitivity that we never lost sight of the overall arc of this long sonata. So many little details – of melody, rhythm and harmony – were deftly managed to create a compelling and fluent musical narrative that was expansive yet also highly intimate. McCawley caught Schubert’s fleeting moods, his unexpected volte-faces (often signalled by “distant” harmonies or rests), with lyricism and grace.

My first evening at Chetham’s International Summer School ad Festival for Pianists – or Chets – as it is affectionately called, offered me the opportunity not only to meet piano friends, make new connections and experience the unique Chets vibe, but also to enjoy three fine recitals by professional pianists, who are all members of the teaching faculty at this year’s summer school.

Canadian pianists Megumi Masaki is a keen advocate of contemporary and new piano music, with a specialisation in exploring interactions between sound, image and movement. Her concert featured three works which used electronics and live video art to create a unique audio-visual and multi-sensory experience. Two works, ‘Corona’ and ‘Touch’, by Canadian composer Keith Hamel opened and closed the recital. Both utilise electronics, gesture tracking, interactive visuals and interactive computer processing and the live electronics and visuals react to one another so that each performance is unique. ‘Corona’ depends on the sound of the piano to create the visuals (an abstract sequence of shapes suggesting the planets) and because the video is generated by the piano and is completely interactive, each performance is unique. Musically, this piece had shimmering filigree passages redolent of Debussy and the processional quality of John Adams’ ‘China Gates’, but the additional layers of sound created by the electronics created mesmerising almost orchestral textures. Throughout, Megumi’s clarity and precision of touch and musical sense was clear, making this piece atmospheric and uplifting.

Keith Hamel’s ‘Touch’ utilised similar technology, with the addition of balletic gestures by the pianist to create wondrous shimmers of sound. The work is inspired by bells and all the harmonic material is derived from the analysis of bells and change-ringing patterns. Once again, the piano sound combined with the electronics offered beautiful haloes and extraordinary layers of sound.

These two works book-ended another piece by a Canadian composer. Douglas FINCH’s ‘Epiphanies’ is inspired by the short stories of Alice Munro in which a character has a moment of sudden inspiration or revelation which happens at unexpected times in the narrative. Compared to Keith Hamel’s pieces, this suite of four movements had a spare elegance and understated grace, and the interplay between piano and words, with live interactive visuals by artist Sigi Torinus, was engaging and at times unsettling, almost portentous.

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The second concert of the evening gave me my first experience of Stoller Hall, Chetham’s new multi-million pound concert venue. It’s a really beautiful contemporary shoebox hall, light and airy and finished with pale wood and stone, with an impressive acoustic. This was the setting for Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Neckleberg’s performance of Bach’s remarkable Goldberg Variations – one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and an epic journey for player and audience. This was a highly personal and romantic account, with each movement shaped to highlight its individual character. This had the effect of suggesting each movement was a stand-alone work in its own right, and was particularly effective in the G-minor variations, especially the last one, which had a poignant intimacy. When the Aria returned, it was as if it came from another place, yet was wholly familiar.

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The final concert of the evening given by Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch in repertoire for two pianos. I have heard this piano duo before and I was once impressed by their pitch perfect timing and precision and musical understanding, so much so that one forgets there are two pianists playing as the music is given absolute priority. Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 was lush, liquid and transparent, with elegant natural phrasing and a wonderful sense of ease, which I am sure comes from deep familiarity with the work and a special synergy between the two pianists. The second work was by the little known English composer Arnold Griller (look out for a new disc of his music on the Toccata Classics label for which Douglas Finch wrote the liner notes). His ‘Introduction, Cakewalk and Allegro’ opened with a rather sensuous section, redolent of 1920s cocktail jazz, before lively sections with rhythms reminiscent of ragtime and shifting moods, at times witty, then serious. It was vibrant and colourful and handled with understated panache by the performers. The final work, ‘Hapsburg Burlesques’ by Douglas Finch, was written at the time of the Brexit referendum and includes quotations and transcriptions of Rosenkavalier, Mahagonny, When You Wish Upon a Star, Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet, and even the British National Anthem. With its intricate weaving of recognisable themes and rather decadent character, this work was both stylish and slightly surreal, but without any sense of irony or pastiche. For an encore, Bobby and Douglas performed Rossignols, written as a wedding dedication, and based on Granados’ The Maiden and the Nightingale, from Goyescas, a delicate, intimate miniature.

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

I started the piano when I was 3 (apparently!), and to be honest I’ve never for a second thought about the possibility of doing anything else. And I guess I might have to finally come to terms with the fact that – at 36 – Stoke City seemingly aren’t going to be calling me to play up front for them, so I guess I’m stuck with the music.

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

I had the great fortune to go to Chetham’s School of Music for nine years, during which time I had a fantastic education in the nuts and bolts of music, before going to the Royal Academy of Music in London to do the Undergraduate jazz course there. Having such a comprehensive training has certainly been invaluable in helping me adapt to, and survive in, the myriad of musical situations I tend to find myself in!

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with some amazing musicians over the last 20 years, and I’ve always tried to learn from everyone I’ve worked with, and every musical challenged I’ve undertaken. That’s one of the lovely things about being a musician – you never stop learning!

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

Logistics! Replying to emails, booking flights, doing my accounts… The glamorous stuff!

In all seriousness being a freelance musician does come with a unique set of challenges, and surviving professionally, or professional surviving if you like (!) is right up there with the hardest of them.

Alongside that, I’ve always struggled with performance anxiety (a problem rarely discussed but frequently suffered by so many…) so dealing with that is always at the forefront of my mind.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My last release under my own name, called ‘Instrumation’, features a chamber orchestra and I wrote, arranged, produced and mixed it all – so I’m very proud of that! Every album I’ve ever made I’ve tried to do to as high a standard as possible, and whilst your style, influences and sound inevitably change over time, hopefully the attention to detail and quality of your work can remain a constant feature of what you do.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Unfortunately I don’t really get too much opportunity to play the more standard repertoire, but this is something I’d like to rectify at some point in the future. So I guess the answer would be – hopefully – my own!

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

I guess this question, again, is a little bit irrelevant for my particular career! That said, I do really enjoy the wide variety of musical situations I end up getting involved in, and I guess there is a certain amount of reacting to what is requested of me that dictates the musical direction I end up taking. In terms of a more general direction, I certainly find myself enjoying the world that lies in between the composed and the improvised more and more, so the pieces from the ‘classical’ side that I get involved with tend to be those that lend themselves to this kind of treatment. I seem to come back time and time again to 20th Century French music, as the harmony and lyricism seems – to me – to be so strongly connected to the world of improvisation and harmonic exploration that I enjoy so much.

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

I was fortunate enough to perform my own music at the Proms back in 2008, and to play in the Royal Albert Hall, and in front of a live BBC television audience, was just the greatest thrill. I guess, with having a classical education, performing in that situation, on that iconic stage, felt like truly fulfilling a dream. Aside from the RAH, I’ve been so fortunate these last few years to play in hundreds of concert halls around the world, all different shapes and sizes and all fantastic in different ways, but I guess on a personal note – playing in the Bridgwater Hall in Manchester has always been a wonderful experience, as I remember seeing it being built from the very beginning when I was at Chetham’s in the 90’s – so finally getting to play concerts there as a professional musician has always been a special experience.

Who are your favourite musicians?

In terms of composers, Ravel, Debussy and Dutilleux are my favourites. Jazz musicians: well piano-wise my heroes have definitely been headed by Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and the wonderful, much-missed John Taylor. In a wider sense, the music of electric bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Pat Metheny has always really been special for me. And aside from that, I always absolutely love listening to Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder. Hopefully that covers quite a bit for now!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To achieve respect and appreciation from my fellow musicians has always been the main aspiration for me. Of course every concert I play, I really want to give the audience a wonderful evening and take them on a musical journey, but in a more general sense I think that question of what my legacy will be has become more and more important to me as the years pass. I try extremely hard to give everything I can to each project I’m involved in, so when things go well after all the hard work, it always makes for a satisfying moment!

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

This would take quite some time to answer, but suffice to say I’m always encouraging my students to really try to put in the hours at the piano, as nothing can really replace good old-fashioned hard work! I do try to get them to try to stretch themselves creatively as much as possible, as, in the world of improvised and new music especially, developing and honing your own ‘voice’ and sound is of paramount importance. Again, there really isn’t any short cut to this, other than to put the hours in!

Gwilym Simcock performs with the Northern Chamber Orchestra on 12 January 2018 at Stoller Hall, Manchester and at Macclesfield Heritage Centre on 13 January.

Feted for his jaw-dropping technical brilliance and exciting style, Gwilym’s effortless fusions of jazz and classical music are totally mesmerising. Adding to his mega-watt reputation, he’s also a highly-regarded composer and this concert features his stunning Cumbrian Thaw for piano and strings – combining jazz influenced harmonies and beautiful string writing – along with his jazz-twist arrangement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner for piano and orchestra. Tippett’s Sellinger’s Round and Haydn’s Symphony No 85 ‘La Reine’ complete a memorable programme. 

Gwilym Simcock has carved out a career as one of the most gifted pianists and imaginative composers on the European scene.  He moves effortlessly between jazz and classical music, with a ‘harmonic sophistication and subtle dovetailing of musical traditions’. Gwilym has been hailed as a pianist of ‘exceptional’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘dazzling’ ability, and his music has been widely acclaimed as ‘engaging, exciting, often unexpected, melodically enthralling, complex yet hugely accessible’, and above all ‘wonderfully optimistic’.

Gwilym’s influences are wide ranging, from jazz legends including Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, to classical composers including Maurice Ravel, Henri Dutilleux, Béla Bartók and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Although principally a jazz artist, Gwilym has composed numerous works for larger Classical ensemble that combine through-composed elements with improvisation, creating a sound that is distinctive and very much his own.

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