Monday, September 30, 2013

Talking to Stefan Schuck, conductor of "Sirventes-Berlin"

On September 26th 2013, at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (Israel), I attended one of two concerts performed by “Sirventes Berlin”, an a cappella group of virtuoso singers. It was the first Israeli tour of the ensemble, which is directed by its founder Stefan Schuk. On September 29th, Stefan Schuk and I met to talk on the verandah of a café in Jerusalem’s Old City.

PH: Maestro Schuck, would you like to talk about your musical background?

Stefan Schuck: Yes. I studied Church Music in Frankfurt – organ, piano and conducting – also taking another degree in orchestral- and choral conducting. Then one of my teachers suggested I go to Berlin to join him as assistant professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and to also conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Choir together with him. This is a one of the best large amateur concert choirs and working with it was very good training for me. I then received the post of professor of choral conducting at the Rothenburg High School of Church Music (near Stuttgart). In March 2013, I left the job in Rothenburg in order to concentrate totally on work with my two ensembles in Berlin – “Sirventes” and the “Hugo Distler” Choir, the latter an amateur community choir. In our performances, I try to work in an informed style, using period instruments for accompanied music and authentic tuning systems.

PH: What was behind the choice of repertoire sung at the Abu Gosh Festival?

SS: I would normally choose more “colorful” repertoire for a festival, that being a bigger mix of sacred- and secular music. Hanna Tzur, the director of the Abu Gosh Festival, thought that the particular works we ended up choosing would arouse the festival-goers’ curiosity as to a-cappella music. There was a definite line running through both programs: the first started with a Christmas motet by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521). Then there was a piece by the late Renaissance composer Sethus Calvisius (1556-1615), who was a director of music at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, two works by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), who was a cantor at the same church and, finally, to Bach, who was choirmaster there for 27 years. Among the works we performed at the second of our concerts at the festival, we sang music by Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785), a pupil of Bach and we performed some later works.

PH: Tell me more about “Sirventes”.

SS: Established ten years ago, “Sirventes” is a group of professional singers, most of them freelancers, most coming from both the major professional choirs in Berlin. We have some 32 singers, with eight usually singing in each concert or at Noon Song. I select singers according to what we are performing and in consideration of their own other performing schedules. For example, we have female altos and male altos. For very early music, such as that of Byrd, I have the male altos sing, but for Romantic music, I will choose to have female altos. For the Abu Gosh program, we had one male- and one female alto. I do not have a permanent leading soprano; in the concert you heard, the first- and second sopranos changed around so as not to exhaust one singer. The demands on the members are very great. We do not have a lot of rehearsals and, because we perform so often, I need the singers to be flexible. That is the reason they sang a few pieces at the festival without me to conduct them: this gives them the opportunity to listen to- and rely on each other. The singers are all well versed in early music, several having studied in important early music academies like the Basel Schola Cantorum or the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and they are knowledgeable about style and the use of ornamentation. They are fast, skilful readers (especially important for getting contemporary works together quickly) and if I ask them, for example, to sing in mean tone temperament, they will all know exactly what to do. My task as the conductor is to bring them together in the same manner of singing, of sound production, in a tempo that serves their breathing and the music itself and to create a good balance of voices.

PH: I see that Bach motets are an important part of the “Sirventes” repertoire.

SS: Yes. They are endlessly interesting and among the most difficult works there are for singers. To today, nobody knows for what occasion “Singet dem Herrn” (Sing to the Lord a new song) BWV 225 was composed. (There are musicologists who have suggested it might have been a training piece for Bach’s choral singers but, considering Bach complained about the quality of his boys’ choir, I cannot accept this theory. I think this motet is too marvelous, too complicated and certainly too large a piece for pedagogical use). It remains the best known and most performed of his motets. The other Bach motets were used for music played at funerals of people of the Leipzig upper class.

PH: Do you record with “Sirventes”?

SS: Yes. In fact we are about to make a recording of a cappella works of Homilius. As I said earlier, he was a pupil of J.S.Bach. Next year is the 300th anniversary of his birth. For the recording we will have 16 singers in order to achieve a good blend of sound. We will have three days of rehearsals, a concert and then three days of recording. This is very interesting music, being of the “Empfindsamer Stil” (Sensitive Style), a style developed in 18th century Germany. No longer Baroque in style, but also not yet Classical, this music is very complicated; one must find the right musical language to create its specific purity, refinement and intricacy. Actually, Homilius’ music was rediscovered not so long ago in Germany. An edition of his a-cappella motets only came out some three years ago. This will be the first recording of some of those motets.

PH: I understand that “Sirventes” has an Israeli connection.

SS: Yes. The Tel Aviv composer Joseph Dorfman (1940-2006) wrote a very demanding cantata “Dass sie leben” (May They Live) for our ensemble with solos (a role for Jewish cantors), to be performed at an ecumenical church day in Berlin. A historic occasion, this was the first time the Protestant- and Catholic churches in Berlin joined forces to take part in the same festival. Dorfman’s text is written in Hebrew, Russian, German and Yiddish, it uses texts from the Bible and some very moving texts by the poet Itzhak Katzenelson, who perished in Auschwitz. The message of the work is that all nations and religions should live together in peace, making music and living together. The work is highly complex. We performed some concerts of it in synagogues in Germany, with cantors from the Berlin Reform Synagogue. This project took place shortly after “Sirventes” was formed.

PH: I am interested to know what Noon Song is.

SS: About five years ago, I was invited to Trinity College, Cambridge, where I became familiar with the wonderful English choral tradition of Evensong. I traced the origins of Evensong to an early Lutheran tradition in Germany. This early German polyphonic tradition, however, has been totally lost. Even the music for it has been lost. I did manage to find some very small pieces of this sung liturgy, but most is lost. On returning to Berlin, I introduced a new kind of service, something similar to Evensong, and called it Noon Song. This service now takes place every Saturday at 12 o’clock at the Hohenzollernplatz Church in Berlin. For it, I have translated the English liturgy into German, we sing two Psalms as large a-cappella motets and maybe a Bach motet. Performed by our highly professional “Sirventes” group, this service is unique in Germany and has proved very successful, with the church normally full to capacity. We work with an extremely large repertoire. Much of the music we sang at the Abu Gosh Festival comes from works we perform at Noon Song. In these services, we sing Bach motets, of course, and Romantic works, such as those by Mendelssohn but also a lot of English anthems – Britten, Howells, Sullivan, etc., and a lot of Byrd. However, my main aim is to do mostly German a-cappella music; this repertoire is seldom sung nowadays – music of the generation between Luther and Bach, composers such as Johann Walter (1496-1570), Sethus Calvisius, etc. – nor are there many recordings of it. One reason we do not hear this repertoire is that either choirs do not have the capability to sing it or church choirs are not required to tackle it.

PH: Where do you find scores of this repertoire?

SS: The Berlin State Library is very comprehensive and I spend time there. There is also a huge treasury of church music manuscripts stored in Naumburg Cathedral, in eastern Germany. It was forbidden to be worked on during the Socialist regime, but, in the future, a huge amount of music will come to light from this archive. Also, today there are a lot of manuscripts from various libraries available on line, making them very accessible and I can make transcriptions of them. I am excited at the prospect of what we will be able to do with all the manuscripts lying dormant in libraries. Together with the musicologists of a Stuttgart publishing house, I am working on making playing editions of much of this music.

PH: Do you sing new music at Noon Song?

SS: This started off being quite problematic. However, I have made a practice of inviting composers to come and hear us singing at Noon Song, the result being that many contemporary composers have written works that we have premiered and that are now part of our repertoire.

PH: Let’s go back to the Abu Gosh concerts. I was fascinated by a most unusual work - “Unicornus captivator” by Ola Gjeilo, and I enjoyed Sirventes’ imaginative performance of it.

SS: Ola Gjeilo(b.1978) is a Norwegian pianist and composer now living in the USA. He is involved in film music and jazz piano. He has written some very fine choral pieces. He came across this wonderful ancient, mystic text when a student in Switzerland. It is a good setting; he writes very traditionally but still has his own unique style. Evoking a colorful series of images, he mixes Gregorian chant with some interesting rhythmic influences. The text compares Jesus with all the beasts mentioned in the text. I love the piece.

PH: Maestro Schuck, this has been most interesting. Many thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing “Sirventes” again in the not-so-distant future.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Judith Davidoff and Myrna Herzog talk about upcoming performances

Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and director of Ensemble PHOENIX, is busy with rehearsals for two major upcoming performances in the very near future. Visiting her at her Ra’anana (Israel) home on September 20th 2013, I found it a beehive of activity, with three members of the New York Consort of Viols there, having flown in to Israel the same day. I had the pleasure of a short conversation with the consort’s musical director Judith Davidoff, who established the New York Consort of Viols in 1972. An international recitalist, teacher, lecturer and researcher, Ms. Davidoff plays early fiddles, viol and ‘cello. She was recently honored with the “Special Early Music Outreach Award” by Early Music America.

PH: Ms. Davidoff, I am delighted to meet you. Would you like to talk about the concert you will be performing on Monday September 23rd 2013 at the Renaissance Festival at the Yehiam National Park in the Western Galilee?

Judith Davidoff: Yes. The New York Consort of Viols has sent three members of our quartet to join up with two members of Ensemble PHOENIX. The five of us are going to present a program I put together a few years ago called “The Road from Valencia”.

PH: What lies behind the idea of the program?

JD: The program traces the travels of Jewish Sephardic musicians who were forced to leave Spain in 1492. Some recent research has discovered that at least two of those musician families went from Spain to Italy and further afield. Their journey to Italy took them to northern Italy where the two families – the Bassanos and the Lupos – were given residencies in small palaces. While they were there in Italy, they (probably the next generation - the dates we have are not all that convincing) were invited by the court of Henry VIII to go to England and join his instrumental ensemble. It turns out that Henry was very fond of Italian Jews in his ensemble. So, some of the Bassanos and Lupos went to England.

PH: How did you fit this episode of history into one program?

JD: The first three quarters of the program feature Spanish music, Italian music and English music that they would have encountered, composed or heard in their travels. The last section of the program focuses on the Diaspora, with (modern) contemporary works that have been influenced by Sephardic music. The three works played in this second part of the program are by Flory Jagoda (b.1925), David Loeb (b.1939) and Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984). There will also be a narrator, who will give some readings, among them, “The Edict of Expulsion” and the letter from the court of Henry VIII inviting the musicians to join his ensemble.

PH: Do you have enough time to rehearse?

JD: Well, Eliav Lavi (lute, readings) and Myrna Herzog (bass viol) have already rehearsed together, we three from New York – Lesley Retzer (treble viol), Lawrence Lipnik (tenor viol, voice) and I (bass viol) – rehearsed in New York, and tomorrow, all five of us will meet together and spend the day in intensive rehearsal.

PH: Many thanks, Judith Davidoff.

Myrna Herzog and I then talked about the PHOENIX production of “Venus and Adonis” or “La Púrpura de la Rosa” (The Blood of the Rose) by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, the first opera of the New World, an opera written in Peru in 1701. It will premiere at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on September 26th, 2013. Taking part are members of VOCE PHOENIX: Alon Harari (countertenor), Hadas Faran-Asia, Revital Raviv, Michal Okon, Taliya Dishon, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner (sopranos) and Eliav Lavi (tenor). Instrumentalists of Ensemble PHOENIX: Marina Minkin (harpsichord), Sunita Staneslow (harp), Eliav Lavi (Baroque guitar, theorbo), Alberto Fernandes (violone), Rony Iwryn, Nadav Gaiman (percussion). Stage director: Regina Alexandrovskaya. Myrna Herzog will play the viol and the schryari and is in charge of musical- and general direction.

PH: Myrna, would you like to talk about your love of opera?

Myrna Herzog: Yes. Well, let’s start with the fact that I had wanted to be an actress and, in the past, I studied theatre. After having changed my vocation to Baroque music, Baroque opera became my great love. And all the more so when doing opera in languages that I understand and know well. My dream has been to conduct Spanish-, South American- or French opera. French and Portuguese are both my first languages.

PH: How did this opera project begin?

MH: Years ago, when I was in New York, I found a score of the opera. I made a copy of it, took it home with me and was hoping I would some day have the opportunity of performing it. This opera is particularly interesting, being the first opera ever written and staged in the New World. Then, one day I was approached by Hanna Tzur, director of the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, who asked me if I knew the opera and if I would be able to conduct it. I said that I could and that I had the score. This request was like a present for me!

PH: What were the first stages of the project?

MH: I translated the opera into English (rather than Hebrew). Performing and lecturing quite a lot in South America nowadays, I used my connections there; they sent me a new transcription of the opera. Diana Fernández Calvo sent it to me and I made a revised version of it (I cut it slightly to fit into the time slot of Abu Gosh concerts) and prepared it all from scratch.

PH: This is home territory for you, isn’t it?

MH: Definitely. It is a privilege for me to work with material that is theatre in music, especially where the text is so familiar to me. Working with the performers I can explain the metaphors in it, how the words sound, etc. It is wonderful to take all its dramatic content, work with it and transform it into superb music. This is really what I like doing best! Theatre is my world.

PH: How is it shaping up?

MH: The result is very good. I am enjoying encouraging people to stretch themselves to their maximum limits of expression. That is where it becomes very fascinating: people have interesting personalities, with which they bring out the emotions expressed in the opera. I have the privilege of a first-class team of singers: Alon Harari-Mars, Hadas Faran-Adonis, Revital Raviv-Venus, Michal Okon-Belona , Taliya Dishon-Cupid, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner are nymphs and Eliav Lavi-a peasant. And we have a very strong continuo section – all players are mentioned above.

PH: I have not heard of the schryari you will be playing. What kind of an instrument is that?

MH: It is a very noisy Renaissance instrument. It will only be used for the military scenes.

PH: Can you say a few words about the director?

MH: Regina Alexandrovskaya is from the Israeli Opera. She is wonderful - she has a fantastic imagination. The opera is nearly fully staged; it is not a concert version. Performing it as a concert version would be very unfair to Velasco, the composer.

PH: John Blow also wrote an opera called “Venus and Adonis”.

MH: True. This, however, is completely different from Blow’s version of the “Venus and Adonis” story. Well, it is the Spanish version, which means it has lots of passion, lots of amazing rhythms and it is very sensual, of course.

PH: How many performances will there be?

MH: The premiere will be at the Abu Gosh Festival September 26th. After that, there will be three more performances, one in each of the three main cities, with the support of the Spanish Embassy, the Marc Rich Foundation and the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport: December 5th at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem, December 7th at the Mar Elias Church in Haifa and on December 11th at the Enav Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv. And for the two performances not in churches, we will have a lighting specialist - Dania Zemer.

PH: I wish you the very best of luck with these two interesting projects.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Talking to British harpsichordist and conductor Steven Devine

On August 5th 2013, I met with Steven Devine in Devon, England. Born in Yorkshire, Steven Devine is the harpsichordist of London Baroque and co-principal of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has built up a fine solo career on harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano and, as a music director, has appeared worldwide with a variety of orchestras and opera companies. As of 2003, he has been professor of fortepiano at the Trinity Conservatoire (London).

PH: Maestro Devine, do you come from a musical family?

Steven Devine: Sort of. All my family has always been interested in music, though none were professional. They all knew and loved music. My paternal grandmother, however, was a fantastic Methodist church organist. As a young woman, she had lost the finger of her left hand in an accident and decided this was the chance to develop her third- and fourth fingers. She is now 101 and very occasionally still plays the organ.

PH: When did you show an interest in music?

SD: I was five. My family picked up on it and developed it. They bought me a piano and sent me for lessons when I was six. I had a lovely piano teacher and did well.

PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?

SD: Initially not. But when I was about 11, my piano teacher suggested I try for Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. I was accepted and that is where it all really started. I loved the school, its ethos and all the music there. We were in the heart of Manchester, with many opportunities to attend concerts and other cultural events in the town. I focused on piano there for about four years. Then, at 14 or 15, I had a “crisis”. There were many amazing pianists there at that time, I did not feel like doing all that practice to keep up with the standard; I had also discovered football. Not quite knowing what to do with me, the school staff sent me down to the harpsichord room. (The school was forward-thinking to have such a thing!) There I met a teacher called David Francis who was the right man at the right time. He was incredibly enthusiastic about music, especially Baroque music, and he understood how to pass this and a lot of knowledge on to a teenager. He always let me do things I wanted to do and try things…quite an alternative educationalist in many ways. So, while the school was rigidly academic, I had these moments of freedom with him. He was and still is a very fine harpsichordist. Towards the end of my school career, he took me to his concerts and I got to see the life of a professional musician.

PH: Did you leave the piano?

SD: No. When already quite ensconced as a harpsichordist at Chetham’s I still did a lot of piano accompaniment. I was a “free agent” and played in everything. Here I should mention pianist Peter Lawson, who still teaches there. He coached one of the chamber ensembles in which I played and talked very much about “piano sound” – such an important issue.

PH: Having finished school, where did you go from there?

SD: I went to Oxford University, which I did not really enjoy. I loved the academic studies but I do like tying them into the practical side. The university, at that stage, had not really joined the two. After my schooling at Chetham’s, it was a shock to me not to have any reliance on practical music-making. With some of the students being among Oxford’s most outstanding organists and singers, here we were in the lecture hall studying the music of Schütz and listening to dreadful recordings from the 1950s and 1960s! The scores were in the library and I remember asking our teachers if we could play them, to see what the music suggested to the player and audience...but the answer was “no”. Much as I enjoy academia, I found this approach ridiculous. On receiving my degree I left.

PH: Where did your career take you from there?

SD: I was very lucky. Actually, I went to the Dartington Hall, met Antony Rooley, Evelyn Tubb and Emma Kirkby and we did a series of projects there and I continued to work with them for a time. At the same time I went to Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent. I had been there with my parents at age 12 and was fascinated by all the keyboard instruments in this Georgian stately home. I then went there to help every year as a summer job. When I left university, I was offered a job there, accepted it and went to live in Kent. I am still connected to it, being the Director of Development.

PH: Could you say a few words about the museum?

SD: Yes. It is the most amazing place. It was set up by private collector Richard Burnett and his wife Katrina. Burnett’s idea was that the instruments should not just be on show – they should be played. If, for example, if you play Chopin on a Chopin-style Pleyel piano, what does the instrument tell about the music? There are two Conrad Graf pianos there – how does Schubert’s music sound played on a Schubert-style instrument? This approach has been among the most important influences in my own playing. So, the public visiting the museum hear the instruments played by me, by Richard, staff and guest artists. We have group visits – we give them supper and entertaining talks. There were years when we had 20,000 visitors a year. We are going through an interesting time now: the future of the museum is somewhat undecided. It is, indeed, one of the most astonishing institutions for performance practice; the instruments tell us a lot, as do our intuitions and scores. The world of music benefits from it all.

PH: Are you also a technician?

SD: I am. I tuned instruments at Dartington Hall for a number of years. I learned these skills at the museum. Doing repairs, restoring, voicing and tuning instruments were part and parcel of daily life there – being sensitive to the speed the quill touches the harpsichord string or the hardness of the hammer on a piano.

PH: And what about your performing career outside of the museum?

SD: I have a good solo harpsichord career and a career playing chamber music on early pianos. Am very lucky to have a recording agreement with Chandos Records for whom I recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” two years ago (of course, on harpsichord.) I am the harpsichordist for an ensemble called “London Baroque” and co-principal with Robert Howarth for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Robert Howarth and I also conduct a lot.

PH: What about contemporary music?

SD: My line of work I have doesn’t always invite it. As a conductor, I am only usually booked to direct music written before 1800. But when just out of university and making my way as a harpsichordist I commissioned some works and still do occasionally. I play some contemporary for myself – it’s nice to keep one’s hand in.

PH: Do you compose or arrange?

SD: I play the clavichord, own two very beautiful instruments and love exploring the sound of it, playing some ethereal, exploratory pieces. You could call them free improvisations…not pastiche at all. I have written a couple of choral pieces. For the last 10 years, harpsichord-builder Colin Booth and I have been performing an annual program of music for two harpsichords. Running out of repertoire, I have arranged concerti grossi and other works for two harpsichords. I do, of course, transcribe from manuscripts; the nature of this work requires us to do so, with a lot of early music is still in libraries.

PH: Did you study conducting?

SD: I did at Chetham’s. Being a harpsichordist you are frequently at the front of ensembles and I direct Baroque works from the harpsichord. (I directed a lot of oratorios when I was at the university but missed playing the harpsichord!) Now I spend a bit of time in Germany as an opera conductor. However, I would not want to give up on playing to just concentrate on conducting. Actually, I conduct events of the annual Royal Albert Hall Christmas Festival. There we have carols for all to sing and we perform Händel’s “Zadok the Priest” and other orchestral favorites. Pre-Christmas concerts are a big thing in England… and important: for some people they are the only concerts they attend in the year. It is a lot of fun and so nice conducting to a hall of 6000 people. I have a wonderful team there. The choir sings beautifully and the Albert Hall organ is the second largest in the United Kingdom.

PH: Do you play the organ?

SD: I used to, but do not so much now. I am not in practice, but occasionally play for family weddings. It is not something with which I feel particularly comfortable.

PH: Would you like to talk about your recitals and recordings?

SD: Yes. I enjoy the many opportunities I have of being a keyboard soloist. I toured performing the Goldberg Variations for a couple of years. In addition to recording them, there is the recording of the Italian Concerto and French Overture I did - Bach harpsichord Works, Volume II. Next year is the anniversary for Jean-Philippe Rameau and I am doing a recording of his harpsichord works.

PH: Does your performing include fortepiano?

SD: Most definitely. I have always had a hankering after piano repertoire. It was lovely to be surrounded by 104 keyboard instruments at Finchcocks, many of them early pianos, and to develop my own thoughts on them over the 10 years I lived there. By the time I was 22 or 23, I was able to let the instruments “teach me” how to play them. I teach fortepiano (and harpsichord) at the Trinity School of Music and try to instill that approach in my students there. We need questioning minds and to let our own feelings go with the music.

PH: What repertoire do you especially like?

SD: I like whatever project I am working on at the moment. In 2015, I will hopefully be performing the Brahms Horn Trio with a horn-player called Anneke Scott and violinist Matthew Truscott, a new thing for me. The colors in that are so special. I will play it on an early piano which will help to create those colors.

PH: Let’s go back to your teaching.

SD: I am very fortunate. I was acting head of Historical Performance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London) last year. I also teach early piano and harpsichord there, working with first study pianists to give them an introductory course in harpsichord and fortepiano. I want to raise their awareness to the kinds of instruments played by composers… the different mechanics, what is different to the modern piano, what the performing issues are, etc. Though I do not take private students, I very much enjoy young artists coming to meet me at home to talk about performing and music, to be challenged and to chat through music.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

SD: Actually, a great deal. It is a uniquely British thing in terms of the amount of exposure and musical events organized by- and for amateurs. Amateurs are such an integral part of the musical fabric of Britain. At the various workshops, one can work with professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs and try out so many ideas…and make them work! I am very lucky to work with a semi-professional orchestra of period instruments in London called “Linden Baroque”. Exploring Baroque instruments and sometimes little-known works, they work very hard. We perform three concerts a year, of which I direct two. The only difference between them and a professional orchestra is the starting point. By the time we finish our rehearsal process, audiences are very happy to pay money to hear Linden Baroque’s concerts. I have worked with quite a few amateur singers in Kent. When professional musicians talk, they speak a self-perpetuated “mythic” language, but when you work with amateurs you have to say exactly what you mean and what you think!

PH: Do you want to talk about concert audiences?

SD: People go to concerts for a variety of reasons. I think the idea of audiences nowadays being less discerning or looking for lollipops is a bit of a myth. And, frankly, if people pay money they expect a certain standard and quality of performance. I think audiences have not really changed over 900 years. When it comes to early music, some audience members might like to hear drums and funky rhythms and there are a few artists who will go along with that, although most will not. As to coming to hear lesser-known works, that depends who presents them. For example, there is a wonderful musicologist and harpsichordist-conductor called Peter Holman who has a group and festival in Suffolk. He has built up such a loyal following up there that he will pack the place out with 500 enthusiastic listeners to hear the most obscure 18th century work he has discovered. He can do anything he wants as his audiences trust him to give quality, even if it is something they do not know. For me, personally, the most rewarding audience can be 40 people coming to hear me in a harpsichord recital and who will possibly also want to talk to me about the music or instrument because they are passionate about them. With the subject of audiences, economics are involved, but people will always want to engage with us whether in a concert or by listening to a recording. But we, as artists, do have to adapt, just as Bach had to adapt to fashions.

PH: What plans do you have?

SD: I have repertoire I would like to explore, there are many people with whom I would like to engage and make music.

PH: When it is not music, what are your interests?

SD: I have lots of interests…among them, walking, sport, food, wine and being with my family.

PH: It has been most interesting talking to you, Steven. Many thanks.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

British pianist Peter Lawson talks about his life in music, about teaching and performing contemporary music

On August 27th 2013 I spoke to pianist Peter Lawson at his home near Manchester, UK. Born in Manchester, he studied piano there with Derrick Wyndham and Sulamita Aronovsky. Peter Lawson has appeared as soloist with most British orchestras, has recorded for radio and given recitals throughout the UK as well as in Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg, Japan and Russia. With a repertoire extending from Baroque music to contemporary jazz, his commercial recordings reflect a special interest in 20th century music. Mr. Lawson plays with the Equivox Trio, Tango5 and with recorder player John Turner, with whom he has recorded much British music. A senior tutor of piano at Chetham’s School of Music, he also teaches piano and contemporary piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, both in Manchester.

PH: Peter, do you come from a musical family?

Peter Lawson: To the extent of enthusiastic amateurs, yes. My mother and father both played the piano. I would say that my father was a good amateur. He read music well and could play Rachmaninoff preludes…more than recognizably, I would say, but not to the highest level. He played popular classics, like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. My mother relied more on her ear, which was quite good. So, generally, it meant that there was music in the house when I was growing up. Some things stick in my mind, mostly from what my father played - Gershwin in particular.

PH: When did you start learning the piano?

PL: My father taught me a few things and I doodled at the piano on my own. But at the age of 7 or 8, I started lessons with one of the few local piano teachers. He was not the most brilliant teacher, in the sense that he was a bit of a piano-teaching factory, with lots of pupils – children and some adults – and he taught them to a very modest level. What I got from him was fairly basic. On the other hand, he did not seem to instill any awful habits and, when music became more serious for me, I felt I did not have to undo too many bad habits. I remained with that teacher until going to the conservatoire at age 17.

PH: Why had your parents not looked for a better teacher for you?

PL: Why I was not pushed by them into studying with a specialist teacher was because, as people with a typically sedate British middle class background, they probably were not inclined towards that sort of education. And, when I was around 14 or 15 – at the age young people start to think about what they might do when they leave school – I was always going to be a chemist. I did not study music at school. I took science for my A Level exams, but then, by the age of 16, I realized that to study chemistry at university you needed quite high-flying academic credentials. At the same time, my love for music and the piano had grown; so, suddenly, this so-called chemist became a potential pianist.

PH: So you went onto higher music studies.

PL: Yes. I went to the local conservatoire, which was then called The Royal Manchester College of Music. In those days, it was relatively easy to be accepted in Britain. I think the powers that be looked for signs of potential rather than actual attainment. (These days, students need a very high level of both.) This conservatoire was and still is a very good place to study. I worked on my first degree for four years. My teacher was Derrick Wyndham; he was very sober in his approach to teaching but he taught the craft of piano-playing and musical awareness to a very good degree. I think his philosophy was that if you had what it takes, you would find your own way forward. He left me to my own devices, which, possibly for me at the time, was not really the best.

PH: So you finished your first degree. What were your plans?

PL: I was 21 when I graduated. I was considering going into school music teaching, but then decided to continue on to post-graduate studies. I was assigned to work with a Russian teacher – Sulamita Aronovsky – who had just arrived in England. In fact, I became her first British student. It was suggested that she would be a good teacher for me, though I did not know of her at all. She turned out to be very good. Unlike Derrick Wyndham, she was a very pro-active person. She gave me a good shaking, saying I had the talent to go further and that I had more to give. So I started to work very hard and, with her encouragement, learned a lot of repertoire. It was then, when in my mid-20s, that I went in for some competitions – one in Geneva, the Busoni Competition in Italy and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. My teacher probably never thought I would win one, and I certainly could not imagine winning one; but it is not always the winning that is the important thing – it is the taking part, the effort and what it teaches you en route. I think the competition experience taught me a lot. Coincidentally, when I went to Brussels at age 25, I certainly did not win that tremendously demanding competition, but I did meet my wife there, proposed to her after three days and she accepted!

PH: When did you start performing?

PL: Like most musicians, you are given performance opportunities as a student, even as a young student, and you get the experience, possibly without the pay. I think it’s a gradual process as a musician. As a post-graduate student, I started getting a few more opportunities to perform outside of the college from people I had met and through my own efforts. My performing has never progressed to the point where I could make a living from playing but I would not want to make a living from performance anyway.

PH: When we chatted earlier, you mentioned having played the double bass.

PL: That is a short, simple story. When I was a student, you were required to study another one or two instruments in parallel to give you a more balanced education, to encourage students to take blinkers off and experience other forms of music-making. (In Britain, that has since changed. Students learn one instrument). Not having played another instrument, I had to choose an instrument which I felt I could learn with some facility and also enjoy playing. Getting to a modest level on the double bass is probably easier than on some other instruments. And because I love jazz, it was an instrument that straddled the divide between classical music and jazz. I played the double bass for a few years, did not touch it after that and eventually sold it. The instrument never really figured largely in my professional life.

PH: Would you like to talk about your current performing career.

PL: I do relatively few recitals a year. Because I have broad musical interests, I have never been drawn to only playing one kind of music or music in one sort of format. I like doing all sorts of things. Consequently, my playing experience has covered quite a wide range of things: I have done my fair share of solo recitals, concertos, commercial recordings fir EMI and Virgin, recordings for BBC radio, I have played in dance bands, on cruise ships, in folk bands, have done some accompanying and also audition accompanying.

PH: What about chamber music?

PL: Funnily enough, not much. I have not done regular playing with a chamber music group…the odd chamber concert here and there. It is not top of my priorities. My daughter Annabelle, however, is a pianist living in London. She has a piano trio – the Lawson Piano Trio which is hugely successful.

PH: You play a lot of contemporary music and have many thoughts on performing it. How did that start?

PL: A good question. I seem to remember, as a child, that a couple of family members gave me some sheet music of popular music of the time…it was fashionable pop music of the 1960s. I sat down to play it and enjoyed it. I have a pretty good ear and can work with those sorts of scores and make something of them. So my interest in popular music began when I was a teenager. It’s a commercial form of music-making and a fairly small step into looking at jazz and more improvised music. Since my teen years, I have always played modern music and, in fact, my very first piano teacher suggested I should play a little sonatina by a Scottish composer called Kenneth Leighton for one of my exams. I was not familiar with the composer but remember playing the piece and being very excited about it. In fact, I have since played more music by him. I think my love of contemporary classical music stems from that. I have always been curious to look for new things. As a student I would go into a library to look for works I didn’t know, take them home and sight-read them. If I found them too difficult, I would take them back and exchange them for something else. This made me a good sight-reader and it kindled a kind of curiosity within me. I feel very strongly about passing that curiosity on to my students. Ultimately, it is curiosity that will lead them on; the notion of exploring and not being afraid to try new things is very important for any musician. If you develop an interest in contemporary music from a young age, that will stay with you. It is like trying all the different kinds of food offering today from all over the world; musical repertoire should not remain a restricted diet. Musicians tend to be a very conservative bunch.

PH: Are you an improviser?

PL: Yes, but would not improvise on stage! I enjoy it and it rubs off on some kinds of music I play. It probably also rubs off on classical pieces I perform because of the play of rhythms – the heightened sense of rhythm that jazz brings to your music-making. I would like to feel that improvising is a benefit to whatever one is playing.

PH: Do you compose or arrange music?

PL: No.

PH: Would you like to talk about audiences, audience reactions and your communication with the listeners?

PL: It is hard to make pronouncements about audiences if you don’t spend three or four days a week giving concerts. I don’t feel I am the person to compare British, French and American audiences. I have met courtesy at the very least but usually enthusiasm from audiences. I suppose a lot of the most rewarding concerts I have done have been with more specialist repertoire. Because I play a lot of contemporary music, and have received some very good reviews for it, I am often asked to play specific repertoire. If that is the case, it might be that the audience listening is a particular segment of the general concert-going audience, shall we say, and you would expect them to react more favorably. I do quite like to talk to my listeners and enjoy that in a smaller setting; those more intimate events are almost an open invitation for people to tap you on the shoulder and communicate. I like that! The notion of playing on a high stage, where your audience is ten feet below you, stretching one hundred yards into the distance – that divide between stage/performer and audience – is what I really don’t like. My ideal is to play almost on the flat and have people seated close to me.

PH: I am interested to hear about your teaching and the unique teaching environment in which you work.

PL: Well, it’s strange, in a way, compared to many people, because I have taught at one school nearly all my professional life. As a post-graduate, I got a couple of teaching jobs in good schools but teaching fairly average students. I was very happy with that, but, through a lucky break, I got the chance to fill in at Chetham’s School of Music for someone who could no longer teach and I have stayed there. That is a very particular school because it caters to students aged 7 or 8 up to 18. The sole proviso for them being students there is that they have great musical talent. There are no specific academic attainments they need in order to be accepted and, although it is a very expensive school, for British students the fees are subsidized by the government. So it is not a school you can turn up to with a lot of money in your wallet and buy yourself a place. To be there you have to be musically very talented. A small school, started some forty years ago, it has about 300 students, most of them in the older age group - 16 to 18. It is one of five specialist music schools in the UK and the standard of playing there is phenomenally high…breathtakingly high. I like it for two reasons: for its outstanding level of playing and for the fact that, although a small school, it still caters for a very wide range of academic needs. Although the majority of students do go on to study music either at university or conservatoire, a number of them, including some of the best players, go to study other subjects - medicine, law, mathematics, etc. What I like is the fact that students are aiming in different directions and are open to stimulus from a whole range of things. With a standard that is continuously rising, we also have students from Europe and the Far East. It is a wonderful place. I have a full-time job there and also teach another half day at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I take a contemporary piano class, partly to oil wheels for the transition from our school-aged students at Chetham’s to being conservatoire students. One other role I have at Chetham’s is doing some career advisory work that helps students progress from school to conservatoire.
PH: What are your thoughts on competitions?

PL: Well, I feel they are a fact of life. Everything we do is a sort-of competition. Certainly, students have to be able to cope with the competition idea. I have always tried to encourage my students – the excellent musicians, first and foremost – to demonstrate their good musicianship through the piano. That is my main aim and I have always felt that if students are taught to appreciate music in its broader sense and encouraged to apply your curiosity and initiative to what you are studying, they will give themselves the best chances of making a career. They, of course, also need a good sprinkling of luck. A competition might have its place, in short term, giving them a push up the ladder of success. I think that, without that combination of drive, initiative and curiosity, longer term, they will fall down the ladder again. Although I see competitions as one of those things that are a part of life, I don’t see them as important as some of my colleagues do and will not insist that my students do them; but if they want to want to, I am quite happy to go along with it.

PH: So what is your message to students going for a performing career in the years to come?

PL: I desire to encourage them to see new music as the only way to allow music to survive. Young musicians certainly need to feel they are part of a “new music creation business”. If we are just going to rely on Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, however good they are, it will die.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

PL: Not really. I don’t have any private students. I will occasionally give a one-off advice session to a pianist, but have no time for private work. However, at Chetham’s we do have a piano summer school for children and adults and I have contact with amateur pianists in that situation. I do enjoy teaching adult amateurs: they have a commitment, which not all young students do, clearly a desire to progress and, hopefully, the intelligence that can take on more adult concepts. The fact that they are playing music that is maybe not at the highest level does not really affect how you can pass on advice and how they can receive it. (It does happen occasionally that an adult amateur will come along and only want to hear praise. This is where it is very difficult to be honest and to give practical advice.)

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

PL: Photography and the countryside. We live on the edge of Derbyshire near a national park. It is very hilly and most beautiful; the countryside there is quite wild. I like hill-walking and the challenge of it. And, because I like photography, the two things go together quite well. I try to go walking once every week or ten days. In fact, I plan to go out tomorrow if the weather forecast is okay.

PH: Peter, many thanks for allowing us a glimpse into your musical world and for sharing so many interesting thoughts and ideas.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Interview with Maggie Cole

On August 13th 2013 I spoke to Maggie Cole at her London home. Maggie Cole enjoys an international career playing and recording on harpsichord, fortepiano and modern piano. As well as teaching privately from her home, Ms. Cole has been a faculty member at the Dartington Hall International Summer School for the past two summers and is professor of fortepiano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London).

PH: Maggie, do you come from a musical family?

Maggie Cole: What I would say is that on my mother’s side, with many relatives still living in Chicago - her home town, there is a deeply musical vein running through the family system, but, in my immediate family, it was not really happening. There was an inherited piano sitting there at home and my much older brother played a bit of jazz on it. My parents were not players; they were listeners. I popped into the scene and really wanted to play.

PH: What are your earliest memories of music?

MC: Sitting at the piano at age four, the actual feel of the piano and figuring out I could play things on it. I remember the sound and feel of producing little melodies myself and I remember a kind of excitement in moving them around the keyboard (I did not know the word “transpose”).

PH: What music did you listen to as a child?

MC: The really honest answer is that, around the age of 10 or 11, and right through my teens, I was involved in listening to some jazz and pop music…the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the black American musicians – Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many more; I just loved it. I could already play the piano and could pick out the songs I had heard on the radio. For me, there did not seem to be any big separation between classical- and popular music. I was very aware that there was Mozart on record being played in our house and my dad adored listening to opera on Saturday mornings - strangely, no later than Mozart! A big musical listening experience was my piano teacher introducing me to Glen Gould’s playing; at that time, people were very excited by the fresh sense of discovery in his playing. My teacher thought he was the finest Bach player around (not everyone did!). I loved playing Bach and remember feeling really excited about what I heard on those recordings.

PH: When did you start piano lessons?

MC: I started at four because I begged for lessons. I grew up in a very small, safe town called Nyack, New York, north of New York City, where a husband and wife were the local piano teachers. The wife told my mother that I was too young to start, that she had never taught anyone my age and that I would have to wait a couple of years. My mother remembers that I stamped my foot in rage. The teacher then said she would give it a try, I began and we got on very well. I was with her for 13 years (too long, actually) but none of us knew much about music education. Actually, there was one year, when she and her husband were away in France, that I went into New York City to study at the Juilliard Preparatory School, and I did not like it one bit! It did, however, give me the taste of a different teacher for that year.

PH: Where did you continue your studies?

MC: At age 16, I went to Switzerland with my mother…for reasons a little too complicated to go into here, but finishing school was not one of them. In Geneva, I had the good fortune to study with a man called Louis Hiltbrand at the Geneva Conservatory for two years; he had been a student of Dinu Lupatti and was the person who had taken over his teaching studio following Lupatti’s death. Hiltbrand’s work felt like an amazing, direct line to Lupatti. Personally, this was a difficult time in my own life, but Hiltbrand was a magnificent teacher and I totally adored him. His was a very different approach to piano teaching and music making, which I badly needed.

PH: So, at age 18 you returned to the USA.

MC: Yes. I was all ready to go for auditions at the Eastman, Curtis and other schools. In the throes of a kind of crisis, I, however, I could not see any possible reason to play music any more. I took myself off to England, but the first thing I did on my arrival was to rent a little upright piano, having no plans to take lessons. Playing it was my love and for relaxation and enjoyment. For two years, I did lots of other things – I cleaned houses and waitressed. I was interested in dance and did a huge amount of dancing in London, taking a hard look at whether I wanted to do that professionally… modern dance, rather than ballet. I decided it was not my calling. After a few years in England I returned to the United States.

PH: With what objective?

MC: Of getting a good liberal arts education as young Americans do. I was 20 - a little older than the other students - but enjoyed being a more mature student. I was at a small university in the mid-west. In about my third month there, I walked into the music building, opened a door thinking I would find a piano in the room, and found a harpsichord. I had a few basic ideas about the instrument but had never seen or played one. I was hugely excited and sat down to play every piece of Bach, Scarlatti and Rameau I had played on the piano. With that I was back to music. There was an incredibly good teacher there. She was modest about her harpsichord-teaching, as she was the organ professor, but she knew a lot, was wonderfully loving, guiding and not authoritarian. After a few years with her, as well as enjoying a lot of other subjects, I realized that I was very serious about the harpsichord and decided to return to England.

PH: Did you return to England in order to study there?

MC: Yes. I first studied with a wonderful grande dame of the harpsichord in Cambridge – Mary Potts. It was fun and interesting working with her. She had an original instrument (that was new to me). She was very kind, but too complimentary, and I needed to learn. Then, by luck, I met a man who was the keeper of the early keyboard instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He let me practise there as I did not yet have an instrument of my own. He would hear me practise and one day suggested I meet his wife. I went to their home for supper and played her some little Bach piece. Sharing her thoughts, it was that night that she said two such illuminating things that, on the spot, I asked to study with her. That is how I met my great teacher Jill Severs, with whom I studied privately for three years. Many fine harpsichordists have been through her hands. She is a very fine player to this day and her teaching was sharp and pin-pointed…exactly what I needed. After a little while, I was suddenly out there performing.

PH: Did you continue studying?

MC: My learning has continued largely through working with remarkable colleagues and I keep learning from them. Maybe I would not have had that benefit from conservatory training – to be performing and learning in such a closely knit way. To work really intimately with people like Steven Isserlis, Michael Chance, Nigel North, Nancy Argenta and many others has been every bit as much my training as any formal lessons have been. I feel very lucky to have worked with some extraordinary people. Apart from in Geneva, I never took the conservatory track. Now, funnily enough, I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London).

PH: Do you still see yourself as a pianist?

MC: Yes and no. I now deeply understand why I was never going to be suited to the modern piano world. As much as I left the modern piano at 18, mostly due to family problems, there was something that was never going to quite work for me about the number of hours a pianist must practise to do the kind of repertoire written so well for the modern piano. Life seemed too confined with this kind of regime. As well, I grew up with a Steinway piano that always felt too tough, too heavy and too thick. The piano was too much of a battle for me with my particular physical make-up and with what my ears wanted to hear. At a young age, I had absolutely no idea that my ears were seeking earlier keyboard instruments and the actual physical sensations of playing them.

PH: How did you start playing the fortepiano?

MC: It crept in. It was starting to appear on the world concert scene, although later than the harpsichord. I had the chance to play on Christopher Hogwood’s Viennese fortepiano replica of about 1795 and then a chance to play it in a concert - in a Mozart violin sonata, I remember. That particular piano completely caught my fancy. Then I started playing other fortepianos, both originals and copies, and I kept finding them to be not very satisfying. So I would go back to Hogwood’s, borrowing it or hiring it. I ended up doing some recording on it. As I continued to explore it, I would remember my feelings about Mozart and Haydn from childhood. The sensation and musical results of playing Classical repertoire on this instrument really felt like coming home. It was what I had always heard in my head as a child and was not getting on the modern piano. But I knew that, if I was going to be serious about the fortepiano, I would have to purchase my own instrument.

PH: How did you go about finding one?

MC: This is a magical story. I visited my aunt and uncle from Chicago. Amateur ‘cellists, they were in Prague for a quartet-playing week. Paul McNulty, one of the most highly revered fortepiano builders, and nowadays there are quite a few of them, lives outside of Prague and I took a side trip to the village where he lives and works. I spent an afternoon playing the instrument that was there and, at the end of the afternoon, I said to Paul that I needed to commission one. When he told me it would take three years to deliver, my heart sank, but I asked him to put me down on the list. Driving back into Prague, we chatted and I said to him that I thought I had heard through the grapevine that Mitzuko Uchida owned one of his instruments. Yes, he said, adding that it was the same kind as I had just been playing at his workshop. I told him that she only lived a mile away from me in London and that rumor has it that she did not like the instrument. He confirmed the rumor and said that she was the second person not to like it! Trevor Pinnock had commissioned it, owned it first, did not like it and had sold it to Mitzuko, who had it sitting there for two years unplayed. McNulty said she would probably only sell it when he sold her an instrument she did like. On my return to London I called Mitzuko and went to visit her. She took me to the mews where she kept her instruments, pronounced that I “would never like him” and left me to play on it for an hour. There was something in this piano for me. It had not been played and needed to come alive again. I asked her whether if I paid for the moving, took it home for two weeks and liked it, she would sell it to me. She immediately agreed, still insisting I would not love “him”! So I took it. Two weeks later, after playing it a lot, it was now really awake and the sound had all developed again. A good friend Melvyn Tan, an artist with a huge reputation as a fortepiano player (he has now, interestingly, gone back to the modern piano) confirmed that it was a beautiful- and beautifully made piano and said I should buy it. A technician who looked at it said the same thing. So, instead of waiting three years to get a Paul McNulty fortepiano, it took only three months!

PH: So the fortepiano became an important part of your performing life.

MC: Yes. I formed Trio Goya with violinist Kati Debretzeni and ‘cellist Sebastian Comberti. I have done much solo playing on it, many song recitals with singers are really interested in singing specific repertoire with the delicate, more responsive fortepiano as well as much duo work.

PH: Do you play in other groups?

PC: Yes. I regularly play with a group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Sarasa Ensemble, a loose collective of lots of musicians. We choose players according to who is best suited to the repertoire of a specific program; we are never usually more than six or seven players for any one concert. Our repertoire can range from very early Baroque- to late Classical- or even early Romantic music. We just recently toured, playing the Dvořák Piano Quintet on an original 1875 piano, with what we all agreed was a great result. I think we really found something new about that piece. For me it was a thrill: I do not play music of that period very often and had never played that work before.

PH: And solo work?

MC: Yes, both on fortepiano and harpsichord.

PH: Let’s go back to the harpsichord. Would you like to talk about your harpsichord recitals?

MC: Well, it goes in phases for me. When I began performing, there was a huge flowering of the harpsichord recital in England and Europe, with a lot of excitement around it. I was part of that and performed as a soloist all over the world. I still do, but now give fewer recitals in a typical year. This is partly because my range of interests has expanded, but also because there is perhaps less demand for the solo recital nowadays. Actually, at one stage I asked myself if I really like doing harpsichord recitals: it is so terrifying sitting on the stage all alone with a harpsichord; you cannot hide behind anything with an instrument that speaks in such a direct way. And yet, every time I give a recital I remember how exciting it is, how special the repertoire is and how you have this wonderful freedom just to take the music whichever way you want to take it. I had the chance to give a recital in Moscow at the end of December 2012 - a full-length harpsichord recital in a newish hall there. The program included one piece of contemporary harpsichord music. I just found it so thrilling to play to that Russian audience on that freezing, snowy night. Looking outside, I saw so many people coming to the concert hall. It was so touching. And they clearly enjoyed it very much. This was a strong reminder to me of how much I like doing solo work.

PH: Perhaps we should now talk about contemporary harpsichord music and your performance of it.

MC: Sure. I think what is interesting is that the harpsichord has attracted so much new music for a long time. It’s not just recent. It goes right back to the Manuel de Falla Harpsichord Concerto and Wanda Landowska’s commissioning of concertos from composers of her time, such as Poulenc’s “Concert champêtre” and the Manuel de Falla concerto. I would say that we have a really enormous repertoire to draw on; I receive lots of pieces from composers who would like me to look at their music and perhaps play it. I choose only pieces to which I feel I can give my heart and soul. I think it is important for me to keep in touch with what is going on now, but I also really like the idea of the harpsichord as an instrument of our present time and not just associated with the past. Contemporary harpsichord music does not need to pay homage to the past. There are many young composers who see the harpsichord as a fascinating instrument for which to write and they seem to be breaking free of recognizable, early gestures. I am full of admiration for my female colleagues who devote themselves almost entirely to playing contemporary harpsichord music…extraordinary, wonderful, exciting things…often with electronics. That is how much there is! I tend to play more solo contemporary harpsichord pieces, but I would like to get into that slightly wilder area.

It is always interesting to speak with living composers, to really be able to find out their intentions and to be able to contribute to the process of a piece being created. I have had that opportunity a few times: in a piece supposedly finished, I have been able to point out a design flaw and get it fixed! The French composer Henri Dutilleux (who recently died at a very ripe old age) wrote an extraordinarily beautiful and large piece for harpsichord, double bass, oboe and percussion that I played. He came to a rehearsal of it and listened to what we were doing. That was a little scary, but just to have him there and hear his small comments (improvements to make, but adding strongly that we had absolutely captured his piece) was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. He also wrote a heartwarming note onto my music. Of course, we really never know with our dead composers exactly how they heard their music or wanted it performed.

PH: I would like to hear about your interest in teaching.

MC: I do teach a lot. I have loved teaching one-on-one since I was 12. Over the last 15 years, I have really discovered how interested I also am in group teaching. It started when I got a job teaching at a Spanish summer school about 13 years ago. It was historical-performance based, though modern performers were made very welcome there. I would often have a very big group and I did not know so much about steering a big group through two weeks of exploration and study when I started. I have just come to really love this and I do quite a bit of group teaching now.

PH: Have you anything you would like to say about today’s audiences?

MC: A huge subject. I am not going to speak about trends. It seems that we, as performers, are all forever trying to dream up ways to make classical music appealing to the young and to educate the next generation; I am involved in that. Regarding the general concert audience, it is always very touching to me that people still want to leave behind television and all their other distractions, and actually step out, pay money and come and give themselves to a concert. But, more and more, I do seem to understand that this medium is a real conversation between player and audience. We can not do what we do unless people also make this effort and commitment to being there. I am full of gratitude to all of those people who turn up.

A particular thing for me is that I truly enjoy playing in very small, out-of-the-way places and particularly love playing to audiences who do not have masses of music available to them. London is, of course, an exciting place to play in, with its many venues and many opportunities to hear wonderful music, but I find that my really memorable moments of performing have been in very remote places, such when I performed in northern, northern Norway. People, hungry for music, had to come by boat, making that effort to get there. And I would not say it was an uncritical audience – there were some very discerning listeners present who were just so pleased to have live music come to them.

Then there is another audience that, for me, stands out. In the USA, with my group Sarasa, I do outreach work with young offenders; they are an extraordinary audience, an amazingly special audience to me! They have not made the choice to hear us, but they very quickly become extremely present and are very active and creative in their response as audience members. Our sessions together turn into collaborations in which we get to hear their rap, poetry and other forms of expression. They bring a kind of listening that is altogether different from the concert hall.

PH: Do you compose?

MC: I don’t. I often improvise – alone and sometimes with other people – but I do not write anything down…and have no desire to. But when it finally comes to the concert, and I’m playing, at that moment I never feel I am playing somebody else’s music and I never have. The minute I finish playing, that sensation disappears and the notes are back on the page! Music is such an ephemeral art form. Uniquely, that performance is never going to sound like that I do, before or after it. It can only be mine and the audience’s for that one time.

PH: Do you have any interesting plans you would like to mention?

MC: Oh, always. My next couple of trips to the USA will be musically very interesting…harpsichord recitals which include a brand new piece and two Bach Partitas that continue to fascinate me. And then there will be a group concert with a singer in a program that will be new to all of us. Trio Goya has its first Wigmore Hall concert coming up – something that we’re very excited about. And there are things brewing in Portugal – a new collaboration with a modern pianist who has become very interested in the fortepiano. We have done some 4-hand playing together and there is a bubbling idea that we might become a 4-hand team, which I have never had. Actually, I have tried a few times but it was never the right person; here, I have the feeling this might be the right one! That would be heavenly.

PH: When it is not music, what do you enjoy doing?

MC: As strong as my interest in music, and possibly stronger, there is my interest in people and psychology and what makes people feel well on this earth, in what makes them feel like they have a place and a contribution to make. This is a hugely deep interest and, therefore, has led to a lot of study in different forms – study of personal psychology and group psychology. Working with young people, or, actually, people of any age, it can mean trying to see clearly where the person is in their creativity and what the next step is in exploring a little more freedom, expression, communication, sense of wholeness – there are many ways of talking about this. You can put it into any language: it can be the language of the harpsichord, the fortepiano, dance, rap or whatever. For me it is always about enabling growth and health and, finally, community.

Then, my vegetable plot is of great interest to me. It is one of these English allotments, and they are big. Although I am in no way an expert, it is my relaxation and I never worry about my hands there! If I went back to studying I would probably study Botany. I also read a lot...mostly fiction, but some non-fiction. I love the outdoors – I am a big walker.

PH: Maggie, talking to you has been fascinating. Many thanks for your time and for so much interesting and enriching information.