NEWS: STEVEN OSBORNE WINS THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY INSTRUMENTAL AWARD19 May 2013
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Returning to the Tippett piano concerto24 March 2013
Last Friday I played my first performance of the Tippett piano concerto in many years; it took place at the Barbican with the BBCSO and Alexander Vedernikov. I don't generally comment here on individual concerts but I feel this piece is so greatly neglected that it deserves mention. Ever since I was at university and studied Tippett's music with the marvellous musicologist Ian Kemp, I've felt like something of an evangelist for his music. The quality of feeling that Tippett creates in his best pieces is utterly his own, somehow combining otherworldliness with a Beethovenian earthiness. There are often things one has to forgive in his music; awful librettos in the operas, overreaching ambition (though not a bad fault, this), unidiomatic instrumental writing, passages where he seems to lose the direct emotional connection with what he's writing. And yet, in the midst of this is some of the greatest, most purely felt music of the later 20th century. For me the piano concerto is one of his best works, and I remain perplexed that it is so seldom programmed. The explanation is probably partly economics - it's not possible to prepare this concerto with an orchestra in only one rehearsal because it's very complex. But it's a remarkable work, full of deep feeling, contemplation, struggle, joy and much else besides. The BBCSO and Vedernikov took the piece very seriously, and I was delighted with the result. Vedernikov is something special, I think, a conductor who has been a little under the radar but hopefully is starting to emerge more into the limelight. Certainly his performance of Shostakovich 8 in the same concert was rather astonishing for the coherence he managed to create out of this sprawling hour-long work. He doesn't resort to superficial tricks, but rather trusts the music to unfold in its own time. His ability to adapt to Tippett's very particular idiom was very impressive. And, perhaps the greatest compliment of all, every one of the orchestral musicians I talked to sang his praises.
The Tarring and Feathering of David Jones16 February 2013
There was a striking story in the news yesterday: David Jones, the UK Welsh Minister was reported as saying that gay couples "clearly" cannot provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children. The fuller quote from the minister is this: "I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do." So, on the face of it, it's a pretty offensive statement. Jones issued a statement of clarification which included this: "I simply sought to point out that, since same-sex partners could not biologically procreate children, the institution of marriage was one that, in my opinion, should be reserved to opposite-sex partners." He also explicitly rejected the notion he was against gay adoption.
So, I'd have thought the debate would be about the meaning of his original statement. Was his clarification a smokescreen to hide offensive views, or did he just express his views poorly? Instead, reports on the matter were a free-for-all with various public figures expressing their disgust for Jones' original words; the articles betrayed no apparent journalistic interest in what he actually meant. His clarification generally came halfway down the articles. At least the Independent noted, "Mr Jones told The Independent that he did believe that gay couples could bring up children in a warm and safe environment and that his remarks had been taken out of context".
I think all this is symptomatic of something rather serious: the constant scapegoating of people by the news media. We're fed a steady stream of figures to be outraged by, to feel better than, disguised as current affairs. But this story gives the lie to it: I've not seen a single article on the subject which starts with the central issue: what did Jones mean by his original words? The reason seems obvious: it's great copy to talk about people's outrage, and you can't really do that if you've shown that their outrage might be misplaced. The articles give the impression of being impartial, but the avoidance of examining what Jones actually meant suggests they are essentially cynical, offering him up for public humiliation over an offence which the journalists well know may be very trivial. The attitude seems to be, "We don't care if we needlessly destroy a politician's career as long as we get two days of good headlines out of it." The casual cruelty of it is surely rather shocking, or would be if it wasn't so commonplace in our media. Is this really how we want our politicians to be treated?
As for David Jones, his original words seem to be very clear, but I doubt he meant what they appear to say, and not just because he explicitly repudiates that meaning. He says marriage is to provide "a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do". Why "clearly"? Why should it be clear that gay couples can't provide a safe environment for children? It's a non-sequitur. I think it's more likely he meant it's clear gay couples can't biologically have children together, but in the heat of the moment missed out a few crucial words. Let's assume he meant what the words appear to say - he'd be essentially saying, "gay people are evil". How likely is it that a government minister would express such a sentiment?
Charles Rosen 1927-201228 December 2012
The news of Charles Rosen's death earlier in the month took me back to my college days, when I was fortunate enough to play for him a number of times. I'll never forget the first time I met him: we were sitting waiting together in an RNCM admin office for some reason, and for twenty minutes I was subject to an unending monologue about music, cookery, architecture and I forget what else. I was almost immediately lost, but fascinated by a mind more agile than any I'd ever encountered. In a later meeting, when I tried to 'join in', my thoughts were immediately refuted by such a stream of erudition that I felt overwhelmed. This was a fairly common experience. One just did one's best to follow the stream of piercing insights. It seemed impossible to have a real dialogue with Charles, but beneath the apparent certainty was real curiosity, and on rare occasions he would return to a comment of mine he had seemingly dismissed, having clearly thought about it.
His teaching style by contrast was undemonstrative and generous. He imposed rather little of himself, and didn't seem to feel the need to get people to play the way he did. His observations were generally to do with the musical text or structure, and often got to the heart of some problem or other. He once told me, with the touch of hyperbole typical of many of his statements, that the only thing a teacher could teach a pupil was how to practise. A bit extreme, perhaps, but the more I teach the truer it seems.
However, the memory which overwhelms all others is a performance he gave in Manchester of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. It was shockingly invigorating, utterly uncompromising, and brought out all the strangeness of the piece and the extremes of its structure without in any way being self-conscious or self-serving. For me, it was like hearing Beethoven play. I'll never forget it.
It was a great privilege to know him. I'll leave you with a quote typical of his mental agility and humour. In it, he's talking about a passage in the last movement of Beethoven's piano sonata op.111 in which a slow melody goes so high up the keyboard that the pianos of Beethoven's time haven't the slightest chance of sustaining the sound.
"More than any other composer before him, Beethoven understood the pathos of the gap between idea and realisation, and the sense of strain put on the listener's imagination is essential here. The best argument for using the pianos of Beethoven's time in place of the modern grand piano is not the aptness of the old instruments but their greater inadequacy for realising such an effect, and consequently the more dramatic effort required of the listener. The modern piano, however, is sufficiently inadequate to convey Beethoven's intentions."
Teaching30 October 2012
I'm sitting in a café waiting to hear my one and only student (Mohamed Shams) give his debut with the RSNO playing Rhapsody in Blue. For a while I've had a good association with the Royal Conservatoire Scotland, giving a masterclass every term, but over a year ago I became curious what it would be like to teach more regularly. So I approached Aaron Shorr, the head of keyboard, with a view to taking on a single student (my frequent absences made me reluctant to take on more). In fact, it has been intensely rewarding, and challenging in a really good way.
The issues surrounding teaching force one to engage with music more broadly. It's not enough for the teacher to feel the music strongly - you have to engage with someone who might feel it in a totally different way. Do you let them go their own way, playing in a way you feel unconvinced by, do you try to push them towards your own ideas, or do you find a way to encourage them to strengthen their own ideas? Of course, teaching is partly about practicalities - technical questions of how the fingers work, how to create different kinds of sound, and also the practicalities of interpretation, how one gesture leads to another, how to create a sense of structure - but for me the central question is how to encourage someone to find in themselves an intensity of engagement with the music. Otherwise, what is the teaching for? To get them to play like you? I feel this temptation: when one has a strong vision of the music, it can feel like 'the truth'. And indeed, there must be some place in teaching for leading a student in the specifics of interpretation, showing them possible solutions to interpretative difficulties. But the student's individuality also has to be respected and nurtured. If they play like me, it will sound false; they have to find their own voice. So, there must be an open space where the answers are not yet clear, where the student is confronted with their own indecision. Every time I learn a new piece I find myself in this place, struggling to find my way towards a sense of deep conviction about the music. It's so much more rewarding than being spoon-fed the answers, which is why I very rarely listen to recordings of pieces I'm learning. I feel it's the job of the teacher to show their students what this place of indecision is like, to encourage them to go deeply into it, and to trust that they can find their own answers. I'm sure this is harder with some students than others, but as I sat in rehearsal this morning listening to Mohamed playing Rhapsody in Blue, alongside my own suggestions I heard things I had never imagined in the piece, beautiful things. For me, those are the most rewarding bits of all.
Ravel, and being on stage26 February 2012
I'm in the middle of a really delicious series of recitals comprised entirely of the works of Ravel: the Sonatine, Gaspard de la nuit, La Valse, and a whole bunch of smaller pieces. There are many composers I feel very close to, but maybe none more than Ravel, my first musical love, and a composer who has been with me almost constantly throughout my pianistic career.
A few days ago, just before playing this programme at the Wigmore Hall, I appeared on the Radio 3 programme In Tune, and Sean Rafferty asked me something that really stayed with me: "What does it feel like to sit down on stage before you start a concert?" I thought it was a good question. Every performer must have their own experience of what it means to be on stage, and certainly it can change from concert to concert, but in these Ravel recitals I have had a particularly vivid experience of that moment Sean asked about, the transition from silence to music. The Sonatine, which starts the programme, begins with a kind of sigh, ambiguous with hints of nostalgia, tenderness and longing. The thought of this pure beauty emerging out of the silence gives me a feeling of intense anticipation, like when you're about to see someone you love after an absence. The start of the music feels like a moment of perfection, yet strangely relaxing. It reminds me of when one's eyes shift from a narrow focus to the taking in of one's whole field of vision; it's hard to describe but my whole body changes subtly, perhaps feeling more open, more fluid. Something about the way the music moves gets translated into a bodily feeling of inner movement. There are very few other places I experience such pure pleasure, and I think it probably best to draw a veil over those….
NEWS: RAVEL CD NOMINATED FOR BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE AWARD15 February 2012
You can vote here. Voting ends 29th February.
NEW CD: COMPLETE SOLO PIANO WORKS OF RAVEL08 March 2011
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