Why do you go to concerts?13 January 2011
I recently attended a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert my wife was playing in, and it struck me that my experience of the concert must have been substantially different from most of the audience. Of course, it's natural that I should have been listening especially for Jeannie's dulcet tones on the clarinet, but beyond that, I realised that it was impossible for me to listen simply as an audience member: I found my experience as a performer constantly intruded, causing me not only to analyse the performance in great detail, but also to partially identify myself with the players and conductor as if I was in some subtle way participating in the creation of the music. It made me realise that the pleasure I get from listening to a concert is intimately bound up with the pleasure I get from performing. So that made me very curious about the experience of the (presumably) large majority of non-musicians present in the audience. What were they there for? What did music do for them or to them? I could imagine various possible answers (and no doubt there are many more than I imagined), but the question niggled at me so much that at the end I was compelled to ask the man next to me why he had come to the concert. If he thought I was crazy he graciously didn't show it. And the questions are clearly still niggling me because I'm hoping you'll comment below with your own experiences of concert-going. What do you get out of it? The answer can be as simple or as complex as you like.
NEWS: CD OF SCHUBERT DUETS WITH PAUL LEWIS RELEASED IN NOVEMBER20 October 2010
Hear some excerpts here
A busy summer03 October 2010
Once again I find that work has overtaken my blogging efforts. This summer was a taxing one, with a series of challenging projects. One of the most time-consuming was an innocuous lecture on improvisation I agreed to give at the Edinburgh Festival. It's a subject I feel strongly about, but trying to put my ideas into coherent form was like wrestling eels and took many more days than I expected. Before that, I had played a very unusual Rhapsody in Blue at the Festival conducted by Gunther Schuller, one of the most influential American musicians of the last 100 years (he straddled the classical and jazz worlds, and was at the forefront of experiments to bring them closer together). His ideas about the piece were largely concerned with getting rid of the Hollywood-style glitz and brashness you often hear, and restoring it to the dimensions of a chamber work, elegance replacing volume. It was a real shock for us all at first, but I went as far as I could towards his views, figuring here was a chance to really hear something new, and the result was quite beautiful.
Just before that, in early August, I had a wonderful but busy time in Aspen, playing recital, concerto and chamber music concerts in four days. That is one of the most heavenly places I've ever been to: incredible hiking, great food, and of course a top-notch music festival. Here's the view just 45 minutes walk (mainly up!) from the edge of town.
I've rarely been happier to receive a re-invitation.
Certainly the trickiest part of the summer came at the end, playing Rachmaninov 1st piano concerto at the Proms soon followed by 3 days recording Ravel. The prom was more stressful than usual because I had played the piece a few days previously in Belfast and had a couple of memory lapses which quite badly affected my confidence. After some thought, I decided to use the music in London. In classical music circles, there is a slight disapproval of performers, particularly pianists, using the music (I've heard that some British music colleges stipulate that solo piano exams be played from memory, for example, probably as a reaction to the stigma). Memory is a strange business - when you are relaxed everything flows easily but once you start to doubt it it can feel like turning off a tap (witness the people on TV game shows who say it's so much easier to answer the questions at home). I think there's just no point in adding needless anxiety to a performance, so I have little hesitation in using the music when I feel I need it (normally modern music), but then I'm lucky to already have an established career. How much harder for someone starting out, who maybe struggles with memory, feeling they need to try to 'make a good impression' by playing without music. It's quite cruel when you think about it, particularly when it's over something so irrelevant. Sviatoslav Richter played for years before his death only with the music. I can't think of any good reason for forcing people to play from memory that outweighs the stress it causes. In a state of anxiety one cannot properly access the rest of one's emotions; that in turn inhibits one's ability to communicate through the music.
And so finally to Ravel. In the middle of September I recorded the final installment of my complete survey of his piano music: Gaspard de la Nuit, La Valse, and Miroirs. The experience was both wonderful and terrible, to be honest; all Ravel's music requires so much concentration that by the middle of the second day I was already exhausted. But Andrew Keener, that most sympathetic of recording producers, helped me along with some good psychology and TLC, and in the end I felt excited that I'd managed to capture quite well what I want to say with the music. This is the most stressful part of it, to know you have something of great beauty and intensity to say with the music, but fearing you may not be able to communicate it: maybe because you become too tired, or because there is a problem with the piano, or you can't relax, or a house alarm ruined the best take, or the hall roof keeps creaking, or any number of other things which might interfere. So to finish a recording and feel that you have honoured both the composer and your own feelings about the music is always a cause for great satisfaction.
Recording Ravel26 July 2010
I'm sitting with Jeannie on the plane to Boston, en route to Massachussetts to spend time with her family; her twin nieces were one a couple of days ago so we're catching the tail-end of the birthday celebrations. A long flight like this gives me the first chance in a while to think about writing. It has been a hectic month, the dominant feature of which was three days of recording Ravel solo piano music. Nothing Ravel wrote is easy, even the pieces which sound it; he doesn't seem to know what feels comfortable at the piano. This might well be connected to the fact that he was a pretty mediocre pianist, a fact attested not only by a smattering of recordings (one cannot always rely on early recordings to give an accurate picture), but also contemporary accounts. Yet, perversely, he had an astonishing instinct for the colouristic possibilities of the piano, and while it may not be the most grateful music to learn, it is supremely effective and satisfying to play. Ravel was notoriously defensive in person, capable of being cold and sarcastic even to his good friends, and I think one senses the effect of this defensiveness also in his music. It is not that his music lacks emotion - quite the opposite - but the emotion is often buried under the surface, particularly beneath apparent innocence or playfulness. It is a fascinating solution to the conundrum of how a man who is scared to reveal himself in person can cope with revealing himself through his music, and this conflict produced, in my opinion, some of the most touching and vulnerable music ever written. I've recorded Le Tombeau de Couperin, Sonatine, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and a bunch of little pieces; I'll record the remainder of his piano works in September for a double CD of his complete piano music to be released early next year.
Since then I've hardly been at home, but for once it's not work-related: I attended a marvellous 3 day birthday party on the Scottish island of Rum (SCO cellist Su-a Lee hired a whole castle for more than 100 of her friends!), and then visited my great friends the Pigotts in Totnes where I helped make little icing men for a swimming pool birthday cake and played the Lego Harry Potter computer game with the kids. It's nice after the intensity of recording to do something brainless!
Two Little Slices of Heaven15 June 2010
Last night I played the last concert of an exceptionally busy month. It seems that every concert has had different repertoire, including a number of very tricky works in close succession (Brahms 2nd piano concerto, Ravel Gaspard de la nuit and La Valse, Rachmaninov Corelli variations...). I have eagerly awaited this day of freedom, and am presently sitting in London pub with a pint of beer waiting for the football to start. Bliss!
In the midst of all the busyness during the last month, I had a brief but wonderful break from in Achiltibuie to celebrate the birthday of my friend and colleague from Hyperion, Mike Spring (a man who possibly knows as much about piano music as anyone on the planet). Achiltibuie is a very special place, situated in the far northwest of Scotland, 30 minutes along a single track road where one's desire to stare at the fabulous scenery struggles with one's desire not to hit the sheep which keep crossing the road. The village looks out over the Summer Isles and the surrounding area is just idyllic, with some spectacular walking. We stayed at the Summer Isles Hotel, a place renowned for fabulous cuisine; this also happens to be where I started my honeymoon with Jeannie. The only sad part is that Jeannie could only join us on the final evening - she got a call at the last moment to play principal clarinet with the Bergen Philharmonic, which meant she missed the 14 mile walk from Lochinver past Suilven. Jeannie and I did manage to have a quick jaunt up Stac Pollaigh on the morning we left however. This blog post is brought to you by the Stupendous Scotland Tourist Board.
Pebble beach by the road heading up to Achiltibuie
About to get caught in a hail storm up Stac Pollaigh
Hail storm receding
North of Suilven looking west
A mammoth journey17 April 2010
I wonder how many classical performers found themselves stranded over the last few days thanks to the Icelandic volcano eruption (my headline of the year goes to the Daily Mail: "AWESOME POWER OF THE FIRES OF HELL. Poison gas, famine, catastrophe. How all the technology in the world can't save us from Mother Earth's fury".) Certainly, it's in the nature of our profession that on any given day there's a good change we're going to be abroad. As for myself, I was in Copenhagen to perform with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot (one of the most genial and intensely musical collaborators I've had the pleasure to work with). I was due to fly back on Friday morning for a concert that night in Carlisle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. By late Thursday night, it was becoming clear that I was going to miss the concert, and I was trying to work out simply how to get home at all. In the end and after much research, I managed to book a berth on a night ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich leaving yesterday, which gave me time to make the trek down from Denmark (departing 7.45am on a train bursting at the seams with displaced air passangers, and arriving at the ferry terminal after many changes of train after 8pm). I arrived at 6.30 this morning in Harwich and am now, at 1.40pm on the last little train journey from Edinburgh to Linlithgow. I got off fairly lightly, because there were many at the terminal unable to get on the ferry, with the word being that there were no places available for several days. I knew I had a 2 berth cabin, so was able to take someone with me. The bizarre thing is that when I got to the cabin there were 4 beds in it. I know at least one other person who found the same. Moreover, while I was able to give a spare bed to someone, I know others who were not allowed to, being told the ferry was already full. So it seems like there was a great waste of capacity. There must have been many, like me, travelling alone and forced to book larger cabins because there were no single ones left. The refusal to allow those beds to be filled seems to me inexplicable.
NEWS: RACHMANINOV PRELUDES CD NOMINATED FOR CRITICS AWARDS AT 2010 CLASSICAL BRIT AWARDS13 April 2010
My altercation with the back doorstep23 March 2010
Shortly before Christmas I was woken by the sound of the bin lorry coming down our little cul-de-sac and bolted out of bed to get the bin out in time. Unfortunately it was the first day of the cold snap, and the ground was covered in ice: as a result I went flying when I stepped outside and landed with full weight on left middle finger. At first I didn't think any real damage was done because although it was pretty sore and inflamed it looked otherwise normal. As a precaution I got it X-rayed and was shocked to discover it was actually broken: a tiny flake of bone had been pulled off by one of the ligaments. As breaks go this is relatively minor, but the recuperation time is still significant. 3 months on, it is well on its way to being fully recovered, but I still have slight limitation in movement at the extremes of the range and weakness due to having been unable to use it properly over a long period. I've avoided writing about it until now because I knew I would have to cancel some concerts but wasn't sure how many, and I didn't want to needlessly alarm promoters (the truth is I was also pretty freaked out by the experience and didn't want people asking me about how serious the injury was until I knew if myself). I managed to cancel fewer concerts than I expected but what I had to cancel was really disappointing - a tour of 10 concerts with my wife around Scotland. Some of these were taken over by a couple of other pianists - Aaron Shorr and Scott Mitchell - but thankfully some were moved to this month (we're on our way to Inverness for the penultimate concert as I write). The first concerts I did after the accident were Schubert duets with Paul Lewis at the end of January, and for these I had to refinger everything to avoid the injured digit. Needless to say, this was very irritating! Since then, as luck would have the repertoire has increased in intensity gradually - Beethoven 4th concerto last month, Britten concerto a couple of weeks ago. These I was just about ready to perform when they came up, my finger gradually being able to withstand more stress. By now, the only real limitation I feel is a reluctance to play full power with it. In a month I expect I'll hardly notice there was ever a problem. The only significant obstacle left is my first performance of Rachmaninov's 1st piano concerto next Monday. The problem is not so much a question of power (the other fingers can compensate), as of simply playing the notes: due to the injury I lost several weeks practise time, and what practise I could subsequently do was at first severely restricted to stop my finger swelling up. So I feel like I'm much less prepared than I would normally be for a first performance. I'm pretty frustrated by this, but at the same time I'm grateful I can play the concert at all. And anyway, the whole experience might not be wasted: you have to suffer to play the blues... and Rachmaninov.
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