A busy month11 May 2008
I've had a constant stream of deadlines over the last month, taking in a lot of repertoire - both Brahms concertos, 3 Beethoven sonatas, Ravel piano trio, Messiaen quartet for the end of time, Messiaen Vingt Regards, Debussy preludes, Shostakovich second piano concerto… It is an interesting discipline preparing so much music at one time because it forces you to focus very clearly on how to minimise practise time on any one piece. Increasingly I find I need less and less time to prepare music I've played before, which I think is down to practising more slowly. I read a wonderful quote from Peter Serkin - "Practising is a very peaceful way to spend the day". This has had a big impact on me, not exactly that I feel like this when I practise but that I find it a very useful ideal to aim for. The closer I get to this, the quicker and easier I am able to work. It reminds me of something my brother Kenneth told me: when he was at St Mary's Music School learning piano as his second study his teacher (and mine - Richard Beauchamp) got him to practise the last movement of a Beethoven sonata. The reason I remember this is that he told me he could still remember the piece by heart many years later. I guess the brain absorbs the material much more quickly when it is given a lot of time in this way. Certainly, I find I can prepare most pieces that are vaguely in my repertoire in 3 or 4 days if I allow myself the time to practise them very slowly.
Life Before Death05 April 2008
This is a series of photographs of people before and after death which I find very moving, as much for the brief descriptions of the people as for the pictures. When I saw Nigel Murray's body a few days after he died it was the first time I'd ever seen a corpse and it was a very important experience, not only to see a dead body but that of a close friend. For all the death and violence in popular culture, the simple fact of death seems to me largely avoided, in Britain at least. Why do we not see the dead at funerals? I think it's important, both to say goodbye to the person and also to put our own lives in perspective.
Australia tour02 March 2008
I'm just back after 5 weeks away from home, an unusually long absence for me. Touring is something I'm only just starting to enjoy, actually. In the past, long trips would make me a bit crazy; it's partly the endless hotel rooms, alarm clocks going off at 5am that you didn't set, airport security lines, bad pasta etc. etc. and partly the sense of dislocation, being constantly out of your element. Home is important to me. I live in the town where I grew up and where my parents still live, a fairly quiet place between Edinburgh and Glasgow called Linlithgow, surrounded by farmland, with it's own loch and palace (birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots for you history buffs). When I returned to live here after years in northern England I felt an enormous relief to be back in such familiar surroundings. I guess people who travel a lot with their profession find different ways of dealing with it, and for me a strong home base seems to be important.
This last trip to Australia felt much less gruelling than comparable trips have been in the past. I did a 2 week tour under the auspices of Musica Viva with the Goldner Quartet, a couple of solo recitals, a week with the Melbourne Symphony under Oleg Caetani (genius Shostakovich conductor), and just before getting back to Scotland, a week with the DSO Berlin and Ingo Metzmacher (genius Messiaen conductor). A lot of factors combined to make this trip as fun as it was: staying with wonderful friends in Sydney, Jeannie joining me for a week in the middle of the trip, great musical experiences in all of these projects and, not least, AUSTRALIAN WEATHER (the Scottish winter has been miserable). What an enormous difference getting up to warm sunshine makes. No wonder Australians are by and large such a relaxed bunch of people. I should also mention how fantastic Musica Viva were at looking after the logistical aspects of the tour. The other important factor is that I feel much more interested now in the places I visit; I used to focus all my energy on my concerts but now feel more able to take time off and enjoy my surroundings. It's probably no coincidence that I'm also enjoying playing more and more.
Arriving in Berlin was a rude awakening. Why is it always so cold there? People tell me it's not but it seems whenever I'm in Berlin I'm freezing. I was staying at Alban Gerhardt's flat, cat-sitting his wife's cats while they were off skiing in Switzerland. Alban is a great friend and colleague, one of the musicians who has taught me the most over the years, so I was really happy he came back to Berlin a couple of days before I left. It was also nice not to have to empty the litter tray any more.
In memoriam Nigel Murray27 February 2008
It seems appropriate to start this blog by talking about my old Director of Music at St Mary's Music School, Nigel Murray, who died of cancer last November aged 64. Nigel's path to this job had been a difficult one, his previous career as a successful freelance violinist in London being cut short by an arm injury. How great a loss this was became clear to us students when he played the solo violin part from Erbarme Dich in a school performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion; it remains one of the deepest musical experiences of my life, a performance whose emotion was only heightened by the sense of his struggle with the instrument.
As a teacher, Nigel was a joy. I accompanied a few of his violin students over the years and his focus always seemed to be on developing musical personality, not competent performances. Once I mentioned how hard I was finding it to decide on a particular tempo in a Mozart concerto and far from trying to provide a simple solution his reply was words to the effect, "Ah yes, I know just what you mean. It's terribly hard, isn't it?" Nigel never shied away from the complexities of making music, but loved to raise questions in our minds, to provoke us to see music in a broader perspective. Above all, he had great faith in us - his sense of pleasure at being around his students was palpable and his way of teaching conveyed a trust that we could find our own answers. He never seemed to place himself above us and had a way of gathering staff around him with a similar mindset. Studying at St. Mary's was a marvellous experience.
Much of my interaction with Nigel came through playing cello in the school orchestra which he conducted with vigorous abandon. He could be unpredictable in concert; I remember a performance of Strauss' Metamorphosen in which the sudden general pause near the end must have lasted a full 10 seconds (it's normally about 2 or 3). I still remember his expression of rapt concentration at that moment, telling of the most intense engagement with the musical drama (not to mention the looks of terror from a few of us wondering whether the downbeat was ever going to come, or whether we were going to be forever stranded on the Queen's Hall stage). It is moments like this that encapsulate how I remember Nigel, a man of enormous vision for whom the purpose of music was both a journey into oneself and the unknown, and to whom music without risk was unthinkable. He never lost this curiosity and passion. I saw him a couple of weeks before he died by which time he was rather frail. As we talked I started telling him about some thoughts I'd been having about rhythm in music which prompted him to exclaim, in full voice, "Aaaah, what a marvellous subject!", before leading him on to talk about rhythm in music, in the body, and in life. He faced his impending death with some apprehension but also great dignity, and when he died I had a sense of having lost one of the great influences on my life, a man who enriched my music-making and my living immeasurably. There will be a memorial concert for him in the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on the 2nd of June this year, given by colleagues of Nigel and pupils, both current and past, of St Mary's Music School.
Welcome01 February 2008
It's a strange business contemplating what to write in this blog. My initial thoughts were to start by talking about rhythm in music, an obsession of mine, but my wife Jeannie suggested to me that this might be unduly technical. Another option is to relate to you an unending series of triumphant performances and to tell you how many people were moved to tears by the beauty of my playing, but that's not my style. Since you are reading this at all, I assume you have some interest in my concertising so I will talk a bit about this concert and that concert but I expect that the more significant focus of the blog will be on the experience of being a musician. I find it a marvellously fulfilling job, an incredible way to connect to myself and to others. And maybe we'll get around to rhythm in due course.
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