AKMI Duo are Valentine Michaud (saxophone) and Akvilé Sileikaité (piano)

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

VM: I chose the saxophone in the first place for a very simple reason: with such a golden instrument, it was love at first sight! I was 7 at the time and I knew 3 or 4 years later that music would be a huge part of my life. I had a fantastic first teacher who really transmitted his strong passion for his art and provided me with incredible opportunities for my first concert tours and groups. He really made me want to be a musician. I received the first instrument of my own at the age of 11 and I am still playing on the very same saxophone today.

AS: As I remember, we always had piano at home and I was quite curious as a child to try it. I received my first lessons from my mother, as she is piano teacher. I guess this is quite a typical beginning for the majority of musicians, but it was also so for me. I do not know how I started to build my musical career;  maybe I had brilliant teachers, and my parents supporting me. Maybe it is my passion for what I am doing, but it is definitely making me thrilled and excited.

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

VM: My first teacher, Slava Kazykin, was a very big influence in the beginning, as he taught me the basics of the saxophone, but also the joy that music making can give. Then I met other teachers who all had an important impact on my artistic vision, such as my two last teachers in Switzerland, Pierre-Stéphane Meugé, who initiated me into the strange world of contemporary music, and Lars Mlekusch, who helped me flourish as an artist with a real identity, and encouraged my interests in trans-disciplinary performances. But also of course the friends that I meet, the ones that I hear perform, and the ones with whom I’ve played, such as my duo partner Akvile Sileikaite, and also the travels have had a strong influence on my musical path.

AS: My family’s support, teachers, people I’m playing with, people I’m meeting, music itself.

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

VM: I think one of the biggest challenges of a musician’s career is the organizational side of it. Nowadays probably even more than fifty years ago, a musician has to be multi-faceted, and has to manage very different things at the same time: communication, planning, traveling, programming, teaching, and of course practicing, without mentioning obviously performing! All this requires a lot of energy and you can never take real ‘holidays’ from it. Also, as a classical saxophone player, I face the challenge of convincing people that this instrument has its place in the classical music world, even if it is not so well-known yet. And as the repertoire for the instrument is very contemporary, I also need to present to as broad an audience as possible pieces that are not especially ‘friendly’ to listen to, and make them love it!

AS: I have to force myself sometimes to not be lazy and just practice. This can be challenging! On a more serious note, the greatest challenge I find is the music itself because it is something that you need to express, literally, getting your feelings, thoughts, expressions, yourself naked in front of the other people, the audience, in a way that they would feel it and believe in it, believe in music, in their own feelings. To do this in every concert is challenging. I also find it the greatest experience because it’s unique every time you go on stage.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

VM: Performances can always be perfected of course… but one performance I remember was our AKMI Duo debut concert in the Lucerne Festival in 2017. It was not perfect, but we really enjoyed our time on stage as the connection between us and the audience was very strong and the atmosphere there was very special.

AS: The ones when I feel the audience is almost not breathing. And the ones which people remember and are excited to share their feelings about afterwards.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

VM: I am definitely more at ease with modern repertoire, virtuosic and highly rhythmical pieces that demand a lot of energy. Romantic pieces are not really my cup of tea…

AS: Denisov and Albright sonatas for saxophone and piano with Valentine.

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

VM: I always try to find a balance between modern pieces, new music, new commissions, and transcriptions, so that our programmes in recital are varied and can demonstrate the incredibly wide range of possibilities of my instrument. I often have ideas when going to concerts to hear colleagues, not necessarily saxophone players. Also, if I have a more trans-disciplinary performance in the season, then the programme is determined by the content of the show.

AS: It varies, from trying to choose the best pieces from the repertoire of the particular instrument I’m playing with, to pieces less-frequently played. Both so that people can enjoy and find something new for them. It is also sometimes very much dependent on a concert organiser’s wishes.

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

VM: I don’t have a particular one, but I do prefer the smaller halls: they have a human dimension that I like, and I find it easier to connect with the audience and really share something stronger. When the audience is really far away or sitting really high in balconies, it is much more difficult for me (at least until at the moment!).

Who are your favourite musicians?

VM: I have a lot! There are many musicians that I admire, not necessarily classical ones. I also love artists who are multi-faceted or really committed to contemporary music, as I think this is very important. And of course the people I play with are among my favourite musicians! But for the big names, it could range from Barbara Hannigan or Patricia Kopatchinskaja to Michael Jackson, Queen or Charlie Parker…

AS: Valentine obviously, then Mirga Gražinyte, Parvo Järvi, Martin Grubinger, Fabian Ziegler, Asmik Grigorian, Hilary Hahn, Kian Soltani and many others. These are the names that come into my head first, there are so many I admire. I still have a secret wish to play with some of them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

VM: There were many funny or epic experiences through the years… maybe a funny one was in Moscow. Akvile and I were playing a duo recital and programmed a humorous Swiss contemporary piece. We had to speak a text before each movement, and an old woman in the audience started to stand up and complain that we shouldn’t be talking during the concert, and that she didn’t need explanations. I don’t speak Russian, so I didn’t understand what was the matter. Akvile was trying to answer the woman from the stage and they were debating about it while I was just standing on stage wondering what was happening. Then other people in the audience started to take part to this animated discussion. The scene was really absurd. In the end we started playing again but the woman stood up and left with great noise and slamming the door of the hall. So far this is the one and only time I had such a scandalous performance!

AS: My debut at Lucerne Festival. Or if an interesting story, a little scandal Valentine and I had in Moscow when playing contemporary music. We performed a piece by R.Gubler, called “Very Important Things”, a piece that needed us to ‘describe’ the subject we are going to perform, preferably in the language of the country we were playing in. So in the middle of the composition, one lady stood up and said in Russian that we don’t need to explain every subject, people knew what we were doing. Then someone shouted her back that she was disturbing the performance. I tried gently to explain that this was part of the piece and the composers required us to do it. Quite an interesting discussion started then we just continued to play. Then in the middle of our playing, the first lady stood up, said something like “I cannot stand it anymore” and left the hall closing the doors as loudly as possible. I guess she didn’t like the piece so much…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

VM: I think to succeed is when you make people feel better when you play. Smiles on the faces of my audience are the best rewards, and to see wide open eyes of children as I play is probably one of the best feelings ever.

AS: Working hard, meeting people, not forgetting to invest to “yourself” by reading, attending galleries and concerts, and having hobbies.

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

VM: As a teacher, I try to give to my students a taste of the joy of playing music can be. Curiosity is also a very important concept to me, to keep an open-minded spirit and to be interested in all kind of arts, not just in your instrument, not just in classical music, and not just in music in general. Of course, working hard and always trying to be better than your yesterday-self is also a very important idea. And sharing is also one of the most important things to me. I don’t think a selfish person can be a truly good musician…

AS: Believe in what you are doing, have goals and enjoy the process of reaching them. And practice.

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

VM: On a stage, surrounded by friends that I like to play with. It doesn’t really matter where!

What is your present state of mind?

VM: At the moment I am extremely enthusiastic and full of energy for what is coming up in the next months! I have many very exciting projects to come and I can’t wait for it!

AS: Trying to enjoy everything I am doing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

AS: Family, enjoying the process of learning, playing and being on stage and having time for myself and holidays.

What is your most treasured possession?

AS: People around me, ideas and arts.

 

AKMI Duo won this year’s Swiss Ambassador’s Award and embark on a UK concert tour from 15 October at Wigmore Hall, 16 October at Carol Nash Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester and 17 October at Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff


Valentine Michaud and Akvilé Sileikaité first crossed paths in Zurich in 2015; and with that, the AKMI duo was born.

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It could have been any night at the Wigmore Hall, London’s ‘sacred shoebox’: the grand piano stretched across the stage like a gleaming limousine, the anticipatory hum of conversation in the foyer, people chatting in the bar…

Except it wasn’t any other night.

For me, it was my first experience of jazz at the Wigmore. It felt right, because for a jazz ingénue like me, it was easy to walk into a venue I know well for music which I didn’t know. It felt comfortable. The atmosphere was different, however, and the audience younger.

It all began in a familiar way – the lights dimmed, the pianist crossed the stage to the piano, his body language quiet and composed. Then that first piece, hushed, tender, elegantly voiced. Not “jazz” as I understood the term, but something which transcended the boundaries of genre. I heard Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, a dash of Messiaen, a hint of Radiohead in the colourful, piquant harmonies. The piano sound was gorgeous, restrained, perfectly nuanced.

After the second piece, jazz pianist Jason Moran turned to the audience.

“People like me don’t play in halls like this” he said.

There was a burst of laughter from the audience, but this was no joke. Go into the green room at the Wigmore, where performers, Moran included, wait before going on stage, and you’re surrounded by photographs of others who have performed in this hallowed hall: there’s not a single person of colour amongst them.

The enormity, the responsibility, the flow of history and heritage weighs heavily on every performer playing at the Wigmore. And Moran clearly felt it too – only more so. Added to this, the night before he’d played at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, with a portrait of the Old Radical staring right back at him as he sat at the piano. Imagine how that felt? He dedicated his Wigmore concert to “everyone who has walked across this stage”.

History was felt too in the stride number Carolina Shout, a hommage to Moran’s jazz forebears James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson. It was the only piece in the programme which felt like “real” jazz to me. Contrast it with Magnet, an earthy, dark, rumbling piece largely confined to the lowest registers of the piano which revealed sonorities and resonances rarely-heard – the echo of a voice shouting into a cave, drums and strings, bassoons, even the thrum of helicopter rotorblades….it reminded me of Somei Satoh’s Incarnation II, another piece which capitalises on the piano’s resonance.

Another work had the pulsing, looping hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reich. In all the playing, and his introductions to the pieces, Moran revealed himself to be a compelling communicator, creating connections through words and sound which drew us in, made us listen attentively – and made us think.

But it was in the more soulful, expressive and introspective numbers that I found most to admire – never before have I heard so many colours, nuances, subtleties of timbres from the Wigmore Steinway as in Moran’s hands. His first encore was achingly tender, so poignant, so intimate; the second more upbeat, a piece with the rhythmic drive to rouse us from our seats to offer a standing ovation.

“It’s all just music!” said my jazz pianist friend Rick Simpson when we were having a drink after the concert. And he’s right – it is all just music, regardless of genre or period. And on Friday night it was just music – and music making – of the highest order.

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Listening to a concert of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto at the Menton Festival in the ‘70s. It really was a shock and it provided the turning point. Pursuing a career in music came about due to a number of circumstances.  As I finished secondary school in 1989, the Russians decided to enter Afghanistan, which strangely affected me deeply.  Dreading a looming third world war, I decided to choose what I loved the most in life: music!

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

I would love to say Gustav Leonhardt or John Eliot Gardiner… but actually I am not someone to hero worship or adore gods. The influences on me are multiple: add to the two names above –  Harnoncourt, Mitropoulos, Christie and Gruberova.

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

Winning the international harpsichord competition in Bruges in 1983… this was very unlikely, considering the programme and how severe the jury was. My other greatest challenge as a conductor came last year conducting Gounod’s Faust with forces I have never had before in répertoire totally new to me and my ensemble Les Talens Lyriques… but I loved it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In terms of pure prestige and distinction –  definitely Mitridate by Mozart with a flashy label and a flashy cast: Bartoli, Florez, Dessay, Piau etc.  In terms of my own personal conviction, Les Nations by Couperin, because he is the composer who speaks most directly to my heart and because the recording just released a few months ago is 99% what I dreamt it would be – refined in spirit and execution.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Hmmm! Difficult question… let’s be general and answer opera. I love giving life to human drama. Music, especially sung, can bring an extraordinary intensity to a text. That’s what I love most.

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

I try to balance my career between solo harpsichord, chamber music (because I love to play with my own ensemble), opera for the reasosn above and possibly some sacred music for my soul

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

Not really. I am of course very sensitive to acoustics. Wigmore hall in London, Victoria Hall in Geneva, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or even the brand new Paris Philharmonie are quite inspiring.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Krystian Zimerman, Isabelle Faust, Christian Gerhaher. Wonderful artists. Very inspiring and very honest (I hate the new tendency of showing off!)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Bach D minor harpsichord concerto in 1985 during the Bach anniversary with La Petite Bande, the baroque orchestra I loved most at that point. I was 24 and this was a dream!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Approach your ideal of sound as close as possible and coax the music you perform with all your soul and body. When it happens, say 80-85%, it’s a big success – people like it, or not!

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

Be honest, serve music with devotion, ignore your ego and remain curious, remain the child you were once. This pure attitude is perhaps what creates a true emotion for oneself and for other people through music

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

In front of my orchestra still performing and making people as happy as I can.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Harmony and serenity

What is your most treasured possession?

Love

What is your present state of mind?

Resigned and hoping for better!

Christophe Rousset is the renowned harpsichordist, conductor and founder of the baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, who return to the Wigmore Hall on 21st February in a Venetian programme of music by Monteverdi, during a break from performances of La Divisione del Mondo by the little-known Venetian composer Legrenzi  in Strasbourg.   His latest recordings are Couperin’s Les Nations and Couperin & Moi, both on Aparte.  His next disc of keyboard music by Frescobaldi will be released at the end of March.


Christophe Rousset is a musician and conductor inspired by a passion for opera and the rediscovery of the European musical heritage.

His studies (harpsichord) with Huguette Dreyfus at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then with Bob van Asperen at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (winning the coveted First Prize in the Seventh Bruges International Harpsichord Competition at the age of twenty-two), followed by the creation of his own ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, in 1991, have enabled Christophe Rousset to obtain a perfect grasp of the richness and diversity of the Baroque, Classical and pre-Romantic repertoires.

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(Picture: Ignacio Barrios Martinez)

 

When is a piano not a piano?

When it submits to the dizzying, audacious Musica Ricercata. The Wigmore Steinway found new voices – drums, horns, tinkling bells and great bellowing bass rumbles – in Roman Rabinovich’s mesmerisingly theatrical and witty performance of Ligeti’s eleven-movement musical algorithm. Based on the Baroque ricercar, the set of pieces are linked by a gradual reveal of pitches and structural progression, culminating in a fugue. This was an ambitious and, for some, uncompromising opening to a concert which also comprised music by Bach and Schubert. As befits this musician who is also an artist, Rabinovich drew myriad colours from the instrument, all infused with a rhythmic bite and vibrant sparkle which took full advantage of the crisp tuning of the piano.

That same rhythmic bite and richly-hued sound palette found a different voice in Schubert’s piano sonata in c minor, D958. Composed in 1828 and completed shortly before the composer died, this is his hommage to Beethoven, and the unsuspecting listener could easily be forgiven for mistaking this for one by the old radical himself. Yet Schubert’s more introspective nature is always there, in the shifting piquant harmonies and mercurial volte-faces of emotion and pace. Those who favour the “Schubert knew he was dying” approach to the last three sonatas would have been disappointed: Rabinovich’s performance proclaimed “Choose life!”, particularly in the rugged (but never earnest) orchestral vigour of that deeply Beethovenian opening movement, and the rollicking, toe-tapping tarantella finale (which had a woman across the aisle from me air-pedalling frantically while jiggling up and down in her seat). The second movement was a hymn-like sacred space of restrained elegance and mystery, oh so redolent of Beethoven in reflective mood, yet unmistakably Schubert in its intimacy and emotional breadth.

The Bach Partita, which came between Ligeti and Schubert, tended towards romanticism (no bad thing – I play Bach with a romantic tendency), while the bright sound of the piano afforded some delightful filigree ornamentation.

Based on what I heard last night, I look forward to hearing Rabinovich’s new Haydn piano sonatas recording (the second of which is in production).


Wigmore Hall, Friday 25th January 2019

Ligeti
Musica Ricercata
Bach
Partita in D, BWV828
Schubert
Piano Sonata in C-minor, D958

Roman Rabinovich, piano


Meet the Artist – Roman Rabinovich

On Artistic Process

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Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.2 in G sharp minor Op.19
RavelMiroirs
Mozart – Piano Sonata in C K279
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A D959

Monday 18th June 2018, Wigmore Hall. Peter Donohoe, piano

I can think of few better ways to celebrate a significant birthday than a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall: a beautiful venue with a warm atmosphere, an audience of friends and supporters, and a generous programme of music reflecting the breadth and range of Peter Donohoe’s talents and musical tastes, and celebrating a long and acclaimed international career.

Anyone who attended Peter’s Scriabin sonatas marathon at Milton Court last year (the complete piano sonatas performed in three concerts in a single day) will know that Peter has a real affinity for the diverse and mercurial qualities of Scriabin’s writing, so this early piano sonata proved a good opener, reconfirming Peter’s ability to create multi-hued, highly expressive music and capture Scriabin’s fleeting, often volatile moods. And its rather fantasy-like qualities set the scene well for Ravel’s Miroirs, which for me was the real tour de force of this concert. Here was piano playing of the highest order – exquisite layers of sound, moments of aching beauty, and a clear vision for each movement to shape their individual characters and narratives. Oiseaux Tristes was heat-soaked and languid, its ennui washed away by the sparkling, rolling waves of Une barque sur l’océan – for me the highlights of this set. In both the Scriabin and Ravel, Peter displayed a wonderfully natural insouciance, presumably born of a long association with this music, which brought spontaneity to the performance.

The second half was occupied with the classical sonata form, in the hands of two masters – Mozart and Schubert. While the Mozart was elegant and intimate, as if played at home amongst friends, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was pacy and expansive. Here Schubert experimented with the possibilities of the classical sonata form, creating, with its companions the D958 and D960, a triptych of sonatas of “heavenly length” and wide-ranging musical ideas. The first movement of the D959 had grandeur and scale, emphasised by the exposition repeat, which Peter observed, and tempered by moments of introspection and wistfulness, though never melancholy. Its infamous slow movement was a reflective meditation shot through with a barely-controlled frenzy, rather than a funereal dirge with hysteria (the preferred approach of some pianists who shall remain nameless and who insist on reading the marking Andantino as Adagio….). Schubert’s shifts of gear, bittersweet harmonies and moments of wistfulness were neatly captured throughout. The finale was warm and consoling, nostalgic and ultimately hopeful. One can only wonder what else Schubert might have done with the sonata form had he lived longer…..

For an encore, Peter played Mozart’s D minor fantasy, beloved of pianists everywhere and a neat contrast to the quasi-fantasy of the Scriabin which opened this magnanimous concert.

The genteel Wigmore Hall audience was startled by the abrupt slamming of the lid of the piano, heralding the start of a brand new work by a composer celebrating a significant birthday on the day of the concert. The pianist was Igor Levit, always very popular with Wigmore audiences, and the composer was Frederic Rzewski. As a student Levit was captivated by Rzewski’s music and asked the composer to write a new piece. The work premiered at this concert was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for Levit to play.

Read my full review here