St Mary’s Perivale in the pandemic

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has affected virtually every arts organization in the UK.   At St Mary’s Perivale we have responded by becoming in effect a broadcasting centre, using our excellent video facilities and thus have been able to continue supporting musicians and providing solace and entertainment for our many supporters, living both locally in Ealing and around the world.   Since March 15th , we have broadcast 43 live concerts and 53 concert recordings, and paid over £15000 to musicians.  This article describes the sequence of events.

Our 2020 concert series progressed normally until Sunday 15th March.  By then we had held 29 concerts to a live audience, and had also been streaming the concerts to a virtual audience as an adjunct.   Then partial restrictions were introduced, and we held two excellent concerts in an empty church on Tuesday 17th March (Konstantin Lapshin piano recital) and 18th March (Michael Foyle (violin) and Maksim Stsura (piano)).   Then the total lockdown ensued, and we were unable to continue with ‘live’ concerts.   Fortunately we have a library of about 400 concert performances, recorded since 2016 in high-definition video, and we were able to stream selected concert recordings instead of live events.   

Our video system will be the subject of a separate article, but in brief it was developed over a period of several years by Simon Shute, aided by George Auckland.  Both were friends living in Ealing who had retired from distinguished careers at the BBC.    Initially the recordings were designed to provide musicians with a momento of their performances, in standard definition video.  In August 2016 high-definition cameras were installed and since then all performances have been recorded and are permanently stored ‘in the cloud’.   The system has been gradually refined and improved and we now have 7 HD cameras, and two high-quality microphones.   In December 2018 we commenced live streaming of concerts via Youtube.   This was always regarded as an adjunct to the main focus of the concert, which was the experience of the audience gathered in the church – until the pandemic.

So at the end of March we selected out 53 concerts from our library of recordings, for streaming, and commenced broadcasting them on 8th April.   At that stage very few organizations were streaming concerts, and we found ourselves in competition with the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Met for our virtual audience !   We broadcast a teatime concert at 4 pm every day for 53 consecutive days.   The average viewing figures, kindly provided by my colleague Roger Nellist, were 42 concurrently with the concert, 129 by midnight on that day and 192 a week later.   A questionnaire survey showed that 48 out of 67 respondents thought that the streamed concerts were ‘important’ or ‘very important’.    We paid all musicians whose recorded concerts were broadcast, and their payments totalled £6500.     We asked the viewers to donate towards the cost of paying the musicians, and were gratified by their warm response.   This major project was only possible because of the hard work of our superb technical team, preparing the recordings for broadcast.    They comprised Simon Shute, George Auckland, Andrew Whadcoat, Patrick Magill, and Tim Hart.    

Recorded performances can never have the ‘frisson’ of a LIVE event, and following the relaxation of restrictions we were delighted to restart LIVE concerts in an empty church on Tuesday 2nd June.  We held a total of 17 concerts in June and July     Viewing figures for these LIVE events were markedly increased, compared with the recorded ones, with 64 watching the concert concurrently, 237 by midnight later that day, and 435 by a week later.   Our audience has included viewers in 47 countries so far.    We paid a total of £2500 to the musicians giving these concerts.  

So our video and streaming facilities, which were developed as an interesting adjunct to our concerts, have proved crucial to our survival over the past few months, and we have been able to support musicians and maintain our historic building    We have now held a further 20 concerts in the Autumn, with average viewing figures of over 400.   Over 3000 viewers watched the St Mary’s Perivale Beethoven Sonata Festival in early October, with 32 pianists playing all the sonatas.   We have paid £6500 to musicians in the past two months, so total payments to musicians in the lockdown is over £15,000.   Donations have been remarkably generous, and have almost kept up with our payments to musicians, perhaps because our supporters realize that there are no paid staff at the church.   

We intend to continue broadcasting 3 concerts per week, over the next few months, and are planning a Chopin Festival in March and another Beethoven Sonata Festival next October, and a series of lectures by key figures in the piano world, as in our Sunday lecture-recital on Liszt piano music by Leslie Howard.  Our small venue makes it difficult to comply fully with Covid regulations on a socially distanced audience, so it may be several more months before we can welcome back our ‘physical’ audience.   Meanwhile, we hope that viewers will continue to enjoy our ‘virtual’ concerts, as a substitute, and that we can continue to provide performing opportunities and financial support for our musicians in these difficult times.   Huge thanks are due to our recording team, under the direction of Simon Shute, and including Roger Nellist, Patrick Magill, Andrew Whadcoat, Rob Jenkins and Truus Bos.

St Mary’s Perivale Beethoven Piano Sonata Festival October 2020

The St Mary’s Perivale Beethoven Piano Sonata Festival takes place on Saturday and Sunday October 3rd and 4th.   32 pianists will play all the sonatas in opus number, from Op 2 no 1 to Op 111, in about 14 hours, and their performances will be LIVE streamed from an empty church.   We are proud of this festival, being one of the few major Beethoven events still taking place in the 250th anniversary year despite the pandemic.   It should be a wonderful treat for all pianophiles.   This article explains the background to this special event.

The formula of a complete sonata cycle over a weekend is ‘tried and trusted’ because it is the fourth such festival I have organized in Ealing – the others were held at St Barnabas Church in 2009, 2012 and 2014.    We are very fortunate in being able to hold it despite the lack of an audience, because of the superb video and streaming facilities at St Mary’s Perivale.  The format of 32 pianists, each playing a sonata, is more interesting and enjoyable than hearing any single pianist play the whole cycle.  We have a formidable team of superb musicians, of varying age from 20 to 70, and from different pianistic backgrounds.  Their biogs are on our website.   Less than half (14) were born in the UK, and the remainder come from Russia (5), the Ukraine (3), Israel (2), and from the USA, Romania, Italy, China, Jordan, South Africa, Hungary and Kazakhstan.  It is endlessly fascinating to hear the different styles and sonorities produced by so many first-rate pianists on the same instrument, and the standard of performance will be uniformly high throughout the cycle.   Assembling the team of 32 pianists has been remarkably easy.   I have a database of about 160 pianists who have requested a solo recital, and could easily compile another team of pianists to play a parallel cycle.  No doubt there will be a last-minute scramble if/when a pianist becomes ill shortly before the current festival, but on previous occasions we have always found a replacement.

One of the joys of the festival will be to re-hear many of the early and middle-period sonatas which are rarely played in recitals.   Pianists seem to feel that they should offer the late sonatas to show their musicianship and perhaps their ‘gravitas’ rather than play some of the wonderful early works.   In an old analysis of Perivale performances from 2004 to 2015, the most popular sonata was Op 101 (6 performances) followed by 109, 111 and 27 no 2 (‘Moonlight’)(5 performances each), and 10 no 3, 13 (Pathetique), 53 (Waldstein) and 57 (Appassionata) (4 performances).   The most difficult slots to fill in previous cycles have been Op 2 no 2, 10 no 1, 14 no 1, 22 and 31 no 1, so I am hoping the relevant pianists stay fit and well in early October !   Our website also includes some masterly programme notes on each sonata by Julian Jacobson, who has played the entire cycle many times, sometimes on a single day.   These are thoroughly recommended to all.

It may seem slightly strange broadcasting the entire cycle from an empty church, with no applause, but in practice this works surprisingly well.    To fit into the time-frame of about 14 hours music (2-6 pm and 7-10 pm on both days) I have asked pianists to omit exposition repeats in sonata-form movements, but to use their discretion and musical common-sense with other repeats.   We will disinfect the keys between each performance, and allow each pianist a 5 minute warm-up, so the broadcasts will be rather like watching Wimbledon, including the knock-up sessions between matches ! We will utilize our sophisticated video system which comprises 7 high-definition cameras, giving a fascinating range of views of each pianist during their performance.    The livestreams will be posted on Vimeo, Youtube and Facebook, and will remain available for at least 3 weeks after the festival.

We always pay our musicians, on this occasion £100 per sonata, which is good value for some of the shorter ones, but less so for Op 106 !   This will be an expensive weekend, with £3200 in musician fees, as well as regular piano tuning etc, and we are hoping that we can attract a sizeable virtual audience, and that at least some will donate generously via our website.   In contrast to other venues in Central London, we are an organization run entirely by volunteers with no sponsorship from outside sources, so all the funds go directly to support our musicians and our building, rather than supporting other funding streams.   So please make a note in your diary of our big festival – October 3rd and 4th from 2pm to 10 pm –  and come with us on a wonderful journey from early to middle to late Beethoven, over a glorious weekend of superb piano playing.    And if you are able to make a donation during the festival, that would be even better !

 

 

 

 

 

1500 Ealing concerts 2004-2019

I think it is appropriate to mark a personal milestone, namely the organization of 1500 Ealing concerts over the past 15 years, at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas.  Here is a brief overview of this period with some relevant details.
I served as a very busy Consultant Physician at Ealing Hospital from 1982 to 2006.  However I have always been a musician ‘at heart’, and over this period I organized about 800 lunchtime concerts for patients and staff at the hospital, and gave many local concerts as a pianist, including several recitals at St Mary’s Perivale, and thus became involved with this wonderful church. It is a tiny 12th-century building which became redundant in 1972 and is now a classical music centre. It is stunningly beautiful, and has a magical ambience and excellent acoustics, and provides the perfect setting for instrumental and chamber music concerts. In 2003 I donated half the cost of a new Yamaha grand piano, and commenced Wednesday evening concerts there in 2004, becoming Chairman of the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale in September 2005, with an excellent and motivated team of friends.  Since then we have held 870 concerts, detailed in the archive section of our website. For many years, we held 38-50 concerts per year on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings, and then in 2016, on the suggestion of Roger Nellist, we commenced additional Tuesday afternoon piano recitals, with the annual total rising to 120.   The average attendance has been around 50, so the total of attendances is over 40,000.  Most of our concerts are now ‘live-streamed’ and so reach a larger audience.

St Barnabas Ealing is a large active church with a magnificent organ and strong choral tradition. In 2007 I bought a Bösendorfer concert grand, previously used by the BBC at Maida Vale Studios, and this fine instrument has been the basis for all the concerts held since then, raising over £230,000 for church funds. I commenced Friday Lunchtime Concerts in September 2007, and these now exceed 530.  There have also been 13 Weekend Festivals and 6 series of Summer Proms, including 3 complete cycles of Beethoven sonatas, played by 32 pianists, as well as festivals devoted to the piano music of Chopin (three times), Liszt and Haydn, and 3 organ festivals, as detailed here . All have involved much support from friends within the St Barnabas community.

Thus the tally of concerts at both venues currently stands at 870 (St Mary’s Perivale) and 630 (St Barnabas) or 1500 in total, with performances by over 400 pianists and 186 violinists etc,  I have  produced 1500 programmes, introduced about 1450 concerts and ‘turned  pages’ for about 800 of them !  It has been a most fulfilling way to spend my retirement.  It remains to be seen whether I can chalk up 2000 concerts in Autumn 2022, assuming my concerts continue with the same frequency as at present.  Organizing 160 concerts per year is quite onerous, since each requires perhaps 6 emails to arrange the  date, repertoire, biography, arrival time and other details, leaving relatively little time for other activities, such as piano and organ playing, and grandparent duties.   However, it is immensely satisfying to act as a catalyst between so many brilliant young musicians based in London who are looking for performing opportunities, and the many people in Ealing who enjoy hearing ‘live’ classical music.   I certainly aim  to continue with these concerts for as long as possible.   None of this would have been remotely possible without a superb and dedicated team of colleagues at St Mary’s Perivale (notably Roger Nellist) and at St Barnabas (notably Peter Haisman and Nick Barnes), and above all the total support of my wife, Dr Felicity Light.   Onwards and upwards, to the 2000 mark….

St Mary’s Perivale Questionnaire Survey October 2017

Most readers will be aware of the concert series held at St Mary’s Perivale.  We currently hold 100 concerts per year, with an average attendance of 56.   Of the 88 concerts so far this year, 24 were held on Sunday afternoons (chamber music or piano recitals), 37 on Tuesday afternoon (our piano recital series), and 27 on Wednesday evenings – mainly chamber music.  Attendances have been good for the Sunday and Tuesday afternoon concerts, but have been falling slightly on Wednesday evenings.  This small qualitative survey was undertaken in October 2017 to ascertain the views of our audience on our concerts, and to ask for suggestions for improvement, in the hope that we can maintain or increase audience size, particularly for  our Wednesday concerts.  The questionnaire was handed out to audience members, and 71 completed at least part of it.  The questions are listed below, with a summary of their responses in black.

  1. What do you like about our concerts ?  The largest number – 46 – referred to the very high standard of the musicians and music-making, described as ‘amazing’, ‘stunning’, and ‘excellent’ etc.   Our beautiful venue, with its own special ambience, was mentioned by 29 respondents.   Twenty six referred to the friendliness and informality of the concerts, described as ‘convivial’ and ‘welcoming’, and the choice and wide variety of programmes was mentioned by 25.  The intimacy of the concerts and proximity of the audience to the musicians was referred to by 15, and 13 praised our excellent acoustics.  Ten respondents referred to its convenient location,  6 to the enthusiasm of the organisers, 3 stated that they liked ‘everything’, 2 mentioned the duration of the  concerts (60 minutes on Tuesday afternoons) and single respondents mentioned the comfortable seating, the affordability of the  concerts and the fact that no prior booking was needed.
  1. What do you NOT like about our concerts ? Half the respondents (36 out of 71) replied ‘ nothing’ or similar words, such as ‘don’t change a thing’ and ‘I like everything’.   A small number referred to specific dislikes.  Three complained that the repertoire was ‘too conservative’ and one that it was ‘too modern’.  This is further considered later in the survey.  Two thought that there was insufficient space for socializing at the end of the concert, two found the chairs to be ‘hard’ and requested cushions. Individual respondents thought that the chairs were too close together, that the piano can be too loud, and were annoyed by people taking photographs during concerts.
  1. How can we improve ?
    The choice of musicians ….  Fifteen thought that the current choice was ‘OK’ or ‘Fine as it is’.    Thirteen requested more string quartets, 11 more solo piano, 11 more vocal items, 8 more piano trios and 6 more wind items.  Conversely, 5 wanted less solo piano. There were individual requests for a brass quintet, for recorders and lutes, for ‘unusual instruments’,for guitar, mandolin and banjo, for less string quartets and less wind.
    The choice of music in general ….Ten respondents thought that the current mix was’fine’, and a further seven wanted more ‘pure classical’ repertoire.  Eighteen wanted more early music and baroque repertoire, whereas 2 requested less early music. Ten  wanted ‘more modern’ repertoire, whereas 10 wanted ‘less modern’.   Two requested jazz.
    The choice of composers …. We want to know which are your favourites.   Please indicate which would make you MORE likely to attend with a TICK, and LESS likely to  attend with a CROSS, leaving ‘neutral’ ones unmarked.
    The following shows the numbers of ticks (‘y’) and crosses (‘x’) received by each composer, arranged in order of popularity
    Beethoven 51y 1x / Mozart 48y 0 x / Chopin 44y 3x / Schubert 43y 1x / Rachmaninov 41y 2x /Brahms 40y 1x / Mendelssohn 40y 2x / Liszt 36y 2x / Bach  34y 4x  / Schumann 31y 1x /Debussy 32y 4x / Ravel 27y 5x / Shostakovich 26y 10 x / Prokofiev 20y 11x / Bartok 16y 13x
    Any other composers you would like to  hear ?  ………….This produced a wide range of responses.   The most commonly mentioned additional composers were Tchaikovsky (9), Vivaldi (7), Handel (6), Grieg, Haydn and Dvorak (5), and Elgar, Faure, Telemann and Vaughan Williams (4).

 The social aspects of our concerts ….  These were rated as ‘fine’ or ‘very good’ by 17 respondents, and six commented favourably on the tea and cakes provided on Sunday afternoons.  Four respondents stated that they were unconcerned by the social aspects.  Two respondents commented that the church was too small and cramped for socializing, and another stressed the need for the chairs to be moved to the side of the church at the end of concerts to provide more space.  Another suggested the use of the chancel for socializing.  One respondent commented that coming alone made it difficult to socialize, and another thought that more introductions could be made to other members of the audience.   Two respondents regretted the absence of red wine, which is never used because of our light-coloured carpets.   One respondent wondered whether a more extended social occasion for the audience might be held.

The practical organisation of our concerts …. Twelve respondents thought the current organisation of the concerts was ‘good’, ‘fine as it is’ or ‘just right’.  Fifteen expressed a preference for Sunday afternoon concerts,  16 for Tuesday afternoons and 6 for Wednesday evenings.  Three stated that the Wednesday evening concerts clashed with other fixed commitments.   Two respondents suggested that the Tuesday afternoon concerts might commence at 1pm rather than 2pm, to give more time to pick up grandchildren from school.  One wondered whether the Tuesday afternoon concerts were taking audience away from those on Wednesday evenings.

  1. What else influences your decision to attend a concert ? Thirty four respondents mentioned their busy lives, with other clashing commitments. Seven referred to the adverse influence of  cold or wet weather.  Other factors mentioned including traffic problems (3), clashes with other concerts (2),  transport problems (2),  and health issues, carer commitments, costs, and the long distance from Perivale, each mentioned by a single respondent.
  1. Publicity – Any thoughts on how can we raise our profile ?There were few comments on this.  Two were concerned that further publicity might lead to problems with over-capacity audiences.   Two suggested advertising in ‘Ealing Today’ (a local on-line news service) and other suggestions included posters, advertising on local radio and on stations, and leaving more leaflets in schools and shops.                                                                                 We produce  leaflets for each season’s concerts.  Do you find them helpful?  64 respondents replied ‘yes’, and 1 replied ‘no’
    Do you use our Text Messaging Service ?   13 respondents replied ‘yes’, and 54 replied ‘no’  If so, is it helpful ?  12 replied ‘yes’  0 replied ‘no’
    Do you use the St Mary’s  website ?   38 respondents replied ‘yes’, and 25 replied ‘no’ If so, is it useful ?   34 replied ‘yes’, 0 replied ‘no’
    Have you seen our publicity material on Facebook ?  10 replied ‘yes’ and 55 replied ‘no’
    Have you seen our publicity material on Twitter ?  5 replied ‘yes’ and 50 replied ‘no’
    Have you viewed our Youtube channel ?   19 replied ‘yes’ and 43 replied ‘no’
  1. Any other comments or suggestions not covered by the above?
    There were many warm comments from respondents, with eight specifically thanking us for the concerts, and others advising us to ‘just keep going’ and stating that they couldn’t see how the concerts could be improved.  Single respondents made various suggestions. These included the purchase of better quality music stands, the inclusion of some lecture recitals, and the reservation of some seats by the entrance for late-comers.     Other ideas from single respondents included more special or anniversary events, the inclusion of programme notes, the shortening of biographical notes, the  consideration of ‘streaming’ some concerts, consultation with an acoustic engineer to see if our acoustics could be improved further, the provision of another toilet, and the erection of a marquee in the churchyard for social occasions,

Discussion :The overall results were overwhelmingly positive, with many gratifying comments.  The most important attribute was deemed to be the consistently high standard of performance.  It was pleasing to have so many mentioning the friendliness and informality of our concerts, which we try to cultivate, in contrast to the perceived rather ‘stuffy’ atmosphere at some Central London venues.  The views on our choice of music and musicians was similar to those in previous surveys, with those wanting more early music balanced out by those wanting more modern, and those wanting more or less solo piano music balancing out as well.   The negative reaction to 20th century composers was slightly less than expected, so perhaps we could afford to be slightly more adventurous with repertoire, but this might well have a negative impact on audience numbers.

There were remarkably few areas of complaint. A couple of people complained about the chairs being unduly hard, and we may obtain a few cushions, although this is a minority view.  One thought that they were positioned too close together, and we have now taken notice, leaving a slight gap between them, and encroaching on the nave aisle.  Some commented on the lack of space to socialize at the end of concerts.  This is particularly relevant on Sunday afternoons, when the audience needs to stay seated while hot tea is served. One way suggested was to make use of the chancel as a social area at the end of concerts, by pushing the piano to the back, and closing it, and removing chairs and stands as appropriate.  This is a good idea, and we will encourage it.  Otherwise, we will work harder at creating more space after concerts in the nave on Wednesday evenings, and to involve everyone in the socializing.

The questions on publicity yielded some useful results.  The seasonal leaflets were universally thought to be useful, and have an important role in addition to the weekly email flyers.   Conversely, over a third didn’t use the website, although almost all would have been viewing the weekly email flyers.    Only a small number used the Text Messaging Service, but they all thought it was useful, so perhaps we need to encourage more people to adopt this service.   Few had seen our material on Facebook and Twitter, but this serves an important role in publicizing our concerts among musicians. Advertising in ‘Ealing Today’ was suggested, and we will pursue this, since it has a large circulation and is free.

As always, some interesting and unexpected points emerged from the questionnaire. One person stated that the weekly email flyers were always diverted to their ‘junk’ folder, despite attempts to change this.  We will discuss with our technical experts to see if there is anything we can do about this.   One person complained about our music stands being ‘wobbly’, and after discussion with our musicians, we will purchase some better quality ones. Two people requested red wine, but we have to maintain our embargo on this, because  of our light-coloured carpet.  We will indeed keep some seats available near the door to accommodate late-comers. The request for a second toilet is rather speculative, since the church didn’t have a single one for the first 800 years of its life !

Despite the enthusiasm of our audience, audience numbers continue to be variable and occasionally disappointing, particularly for Wednesday evening concerts.   From the survey results, this seems to be due mainly to the inevitable clashes with other commitments, and the ‘busy lives’ of our audience, as well as the influence of adverse weather.   Yet when we programme popular classics, played by well-known musicians, we still attract a good audience, almost regardless of the weather, and (presumably) of their busy lives.   Our challenge is to provide concerts which are sufficiently enticing to attract a good audience, regardless of the weather and rival attractions.

Summary: This survey shows that we are providing a popular service for local music-lovers, and in doing so we are raising funds to maintain our beautiful church for future generations to enjoy, as well as providing valuable performing experience to many of the best young musicians in London.   We will take notice of the small points listed above, and otherwise continue our concerts as before.   We hope that this will help us to build up our audience further over the coming months, particularly on our Wednesday evening concerts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memorizing piano works and the effect of age

This post is a reflection on my own experience in memorizing piano works, and how this has declined with age.  As a teenager, and in my twenties, I learned a considerable number of the ‘big’ piano works, including the Liszt sonata, several Beethoven sonatas including the ‘Hammerklavier’, Schumann Fantasy, Schubert Wanderer, Brahms Handel variations and many of the Chopin Ballades and Scherzi, and played them all in public.  I never remember thinking specifically about ‘memorizing’ them, as such – because it was totally automatic, and happened without any effort.   There was simply no problem.  Although I was a busy medical student, I could absorb large-scale works in the holidays, rapidly and reliably.  They are still stored away in my brain, and will be for ever.  I suppose it is a sort of ‘finger memory’ although I find it difficult to analyse – it just happens.

However my ability to memorize repertoire started to decline from the age of 25 onwards, as I think it probably does in everyone.   I am now 71, and over the decades, it has become harder and harder (ie virtually impossible) to memorize new pieces.   It requires much more effort, and the pieces feel correspondingly less secure.    This increasing insecurity at the keyboard has resulted in more performance ‘nerves’, and I suspect it is the main reason why pianists tend to become increasingly anxious about giving concerts as they get older.  I have now completely lost my nerve, and have given up recitals.

Memory lapses are indeed every pianist’s worst nightmare.   Odd technical slips are quickly forgotten, but if a pianist grinds to a halt, in the middle of a work, this is simply catastrophic – he/she is ‘dead in the water’ and there is no way back !   I am fairly certain that this dreadful prospect lurks as a dark shadow in the back of most pianists’ minds during recitals, particularly as they get older.   I am surprised how many of the 300+ pianists playing in my concert series, most of whom are under 30, have had minor memory lapses, which may not always be noticed by the audience  (although I usually spot them), but they must be very unsettling for  the performer.  Some manage to extemporise their way out of a disaster, and find their way into the piece again. I have huge admiration for them – it must be absolutely terrifying.  A young pianist recently played a Scarlatti sonata in F minor, and got ‘in a loop’ and ended up quite convincingly in C minor, but no-one in the audience noticed anything awry and applauded enthusiastically.  Of course, there is absolutely no reason why the music shouldn’t be used, as indeed Curzon and Richter always did at the end of their careers, but it would certainly look strange and would probably not be acceptable in younger players.

The most devastating memory lapses occur in concertos, particularly when the ensemble with the orchestra breaks down, as in various debacles shown on Youtube, involving pianists such as Yundi (in Chopin 1 in South Korea) and Schnabel (in a performance of Mozart K488 ).   The one occasion I actually came unstuck in a concert was as a schoolboy, playing the piano solo in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, a notoriously long and rambling piece.   I missed an entry, and must have had 1000 nightmares about it over the years !  Some concertos are particularly prone to these problems, notably the last movement of the Schumann  concerto, which modulates repeatedly to remote keys, and it is very easy to  get lost.   There is the additional problem of memorizing when to come in, after an orchestral tutti.    One needs to rehearse the variable lengths of  the orchestral tutti, particularly in the Brahms concerti, so that the entries are automatic, because a missed entry will be absolutely catastrophic.

In conclusion, I don’t think that young pianists realize that their ability to learn and memorize new works will inevitably decline markedly in later on in life, and that this process starts to happen from the late 20s onwards.  Alfred Brendel is reported as saying that his slowly developing career meant that he had more time in his 20’s to learn a large number of pieces, whereas those who have a major career early on may not find the time to do so.    It is an incentive for all pianists to commit as much of the core repertoire to memory when still relatively young – ie under 30 – so that it is there to play and work on, over the next few decades.   So if you are a young pianist, and always dream of giving your definitive Beethoven sonata cycle, to rival Schnabel and all the ‘greats’,  later in life, you need to start now, and get the basic notes in your head, rather than leaving it to tackle some of them in middle age.   And perhaps we should become more tolerant to the idea of solo pianists using the music during their recitals.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that they haven’t done sufficient practice !

Tuesday recitals at St Mary’s Perivale – progress report

In a previous blog, written in June, I explained the rationale for establishing a new weekly series of piano recitals for outstanding pianists at St Mary’s Perivale.  In brief, there are so many superb artists seeking concerts around London, yet there are very few venues which have a good piano, an interested audience, a suitable small hall and the ability (or desire) to pay their musicians.    To provide more performing opportunities, we started the Tuesday afternoon recital series in July, and since then we have had 18 recitals, with 17 more planned before the end of April 2017.  Including other concerts on Sundays and Wednesdays, a total of 46 pianists have given, or will give, recitals at St Mary’s Perivale between July 2016 and April 2017.  The full list is included at the end of this blog, and all the recital programmes are published on our website,either in our archive section or in our forthcoming concerts.

The series has been a resounding success.  We were unsure whether we would attract an audience to St Mary’s Perivale at 2 pm on Tuesday afternoons, but the average attendance has been over 40, and has held up well in recent weeks despite the adverse weather.   We have attracted an impressive roster of pianists, and all the recitals have been excellent.   It is still impossible to provide a platform for all the pianists who wish to perform, and I currently have a ‘waiting list’ of about 25 more pianists.   We initially planned to pay our Tuesday pianists a fixed sum of £100, but we were able to increase this to £200 following a generous anonymous donation, in sharp contrast to those central London churches and well-known private recital venues which give no payment whatsoever.  The concerts are ‘free with retiring collection’, and the latter have kept pace with the fees paid to the pianists, so we are in surplus from these concerts.

A few general points are worthy of mention.  Firstly, the format of a short recital, lasting a maximum of 60 minutes including an encore, with no interval, works very well.    I think many concerts, with about 90 minutes music in the traditional two-half format, are too long.   The shorter length corresponds with most people’s attention span, and enables them to return home after 3 pm, before the rush hour. Secondly, holding concerts on a weekday afternoon has also proved very successful. Retired people like a specific focus to give structure to their day, and afternoon concerts, travelling in daylight, with relatively little traffic, are inherently more attractive than evening concerts, driving in the dark with rush-hour congestion.   This obviously excludes attendance by people in work, but that also applies to most other concerts as well.  People with busy jobs and families can rarely afford the time for concerts – but that will be the subject of a further blog.   Thirdly, the sustained audience size, over a series of 17 weekly concerts, shows that they have not become bored with repeated piano recitals.   This reflects the high calibre of our pianists, but we are also careful to ensure that the repertoire is sufficiently accessible to a general audience – ie not exclusively 20th century – and that musicians introduce their pieces.  It is important to remember that even mainstream works such as the Liszt sonata or the Schumann Fantasy, are a tough ‘listen’ for a general audience, and a brief explanation by the pianist can be enormously helpful.

All our concerts are recorded in high-quality video and sound, using our in-built recording system.   This was upgraded from Standard to High Definition cameras in August 2016, and the quality of our recordings since then has been stunning.   There must be few other venues which provide a free broadcast-quality recording for their musicians.  We are very fortunate in having the help and expertise of several former BBC employees who have developed this video recording system. This will also be the subject of a further blog.

Our publicity has been transformed in recent months by the liberal use of Facebook, with excellent photographs taken of most concerts by Roger Nellist and uploaded to our page, and to a lesser extent by the use of Twitter.   St Mary’s Perivale is one of the most visually attractive venues in London, and the many concert photographs are helping to spread that message.  This has certainly helped to raise our profile among musicians, although it remains to be seen whether it will increase our audience size, since few of our audience use social media.

So we seem to have developed a successful formula of short piano recitals, on a weekday afternoon, providing valuable performing opportunities to outstanding pianists, with a reasonable payment and a free high-quality recording, on a good piano in an idyllic setting, and giving much enjoyment to a keen loyal audience.  We hope to continue them indefinitely, and thus help to support all the wonderful pianists living in and around London.

Appendix :
Here is the list of the 35 pianists who have played, or will play in the Tuesday recitals between July 2016 and April 2017.Dinara Klinton, Tamila Salimdjanova, Ashley Fripp, Mark Viner, Kausikan Rajeshkumar, Mei Yi Foo, Ben Schoeman, John Granger Fisher, Mihai Ritivoiu, Florian Mitra, Mengyang Pan, Alexander Ullman, Konstantin Lapshin, Ilya Kondratiev, Artur Haftman, Luka Okros, Pablo Rossi, Richard Uttley, Jianing Kong, Daniel Lebhardt, Marcos Madrigal, Emmanuel Despax, Costanza  Principe, Lara Melda, Yuanfan Yang, Masa Tayama, Iyad Sughayer, Aristo Sham, Alim Beisembayev, Victor Maslov, Vitaly Pisarenko, Julian Trevelyan, Caterina Grewe, Tomasso Carlini.
And here are 11 further pianists who have given or will give recitals at our Sunday or Wednesday concerts in the same time period : Alexander Soares, Charles Economou, Andrew Brownell, Martin Cousin, Viv McLean, Jayson Gillham, Mishka Rushdie Momen, Dario Llanos Javierre, Michal Szymanowksi, Andrew Yiangou, Anna Tsybuleva,
An older list of 318 pianists who have played in my Ealing concerts over the past decade is available here .

 

 

 

Pianists – do you ever play ‘for the sheer joy of it’ ?

I am interested in whether professional pianists regularly play the piano for their own enjoyment and satisfaction, for relaxation and fulfilment, rather than as a work-related activity, preparing a small number of works intensively for future public performance.  Most will have spent many happy hours in their youth playing through Mozart and Beethoven sonatas etc, and learning many works by Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, for the sheer pleasure of recreating great masterpieces for themselves.  This is why we all want to become pianists in the first place, and is why we teach and encourage the army of amateur pianists out there.  After all, if the sole purpose of learning the piano were to give public recitals, most piano teachers would be out of work tomorrow !

Yet there is a risk that this love of the piano is lost later on, as pianists become young professionals, and have to put in all those endless hours of hard practice, and begin performing in public.   They may adopt the necessary routine of polishing up a small number of pieces, over and over again – perhaps many thousands of times –  for a big recital or competition, and the innate joy of music-making for its own  sake may be lost.   Some pianists work exclusively on a single recital programme for an entire season, to be taken round prestigious venues, often with repertoire which has been learned many years ago.   Their daily practice consists of making these over-familiar works even ‘safer’ and ‘safer’, to guard against mistakes and the dreaded memory lapses.     This may indeed be necessary to give satisfactory performances under immensely stressful conditions, but this ‘treadmill’ may be extremely stultifying and may be nothing less than mental torture, far removed from the pleasures of playing the piano for its own sake.   I am reminded of Andre Agassi, who has stated that he absolutely hated tennis throughout his career, having practised so intensively in his early life, and I suspect that some famous pianists have the same ‘love-hate’ relationship with their instrument.

It is interesting that so many prominent piano pedagogues stop performing in public in middle-age, while concentrating on developing the  careers of their younger colleagues, after successful careers earlier on.  Obviously they have less time to keep their playing to the necessary standard, but I wonder whether ever they play ‘for fun’, on their own at home, for relaxation and self-fulfillment, after a hard day’s teaching ?  I rather doubt it.  Perhaps they still associate the piano with all that ‘work’ they undertook years ago, rather than ‘pleasure’.    However, I have known some musicians who have managed to keep their initial love of the piano and its literature, throughout long careers.  I met the celebrated pianist Nikita Magaloff at his home in Switzerland, shortly before his death in 1992.  He was actively learning some unfamiliar Schumann piano works for the first time, aged 80, and was totally enthralled by the beauty of the music.  Similarly my old teacher, Jimmy Gibb, was learning new repertoire in his late eighties, when his faculties were failing, and his sheer love of the music shone through everything.   I hope today’s pianists may emulate this, and that the huge pressures of giving public recitals don’t put them off the sheer joy of making music for their own private fulfilment.  To summarize, I hope they continue to love the  piano rather than end up hating it….

Repertoire choices by pianists – why so little Mozart ?

We keep a detailed archive of works performed at St Mary’s Perivale.  I have performed an analysis on piano works played between 2004 and 2015 – a total of over 500 concerts, with over 200 pianists.  I suppose there have been about 200 half or whole-length solo recitals in that time.  The musicians have a free hand in what they choose to play, although I occasionally ask them to change it if it is exclusively 20th century repertoire, as detailed in a previous blog about the tensions between what musicians want to play and what the audience want to hear.

A summary of  the pianists’ repertoire choices is on http://www.hughmather.uk/repertoire-piano.htm  and makes for interesting reading.  Top of the list is the ubiquitous Chopin G minor Ballade, studied by virtually all pianists, with 13 performances, although I am not sure that any of them have been entirely satisfactory – but that is a topic for another blog !   After that, the major Chopin piano masterpieces and popular Liszt virtuoso works (Rigoletto paraphrase, B minor sonata, Mephisto Waltz, Spanish Rhapsody etc) feature prominently, with several late Beethoven sonatas (Op 101, 109, 111) being performed more frequently than earlier Beethoven works.   Rachmaninov’s Second sonata and Mussorgsky Pictures are also well-represented.   Lower down the batting order, we find Ravel’s Gaspard, Debussy’s Images Book 2 and L’Isle Joyeuse, Schubert’s Wanderer and a cluster of favourite Schumann works.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this list is ‘the dog that didn’t bark in the night’ – namely the virtual absence of Mozart.  He makes only one appearance in the list, with the Fantasy K475 being played 3 times. Looking at the data again, it transpires that there were two performances of the ‘Ah vous dirai-je’ variations K265 and single performances of 7 sonatas (K283, 310, 330, 331, 332, 457 and 545,) and of the D minor Fantasy K397, to set against all those performances of Chopin and Liszt.  Why is this ?   I doubt whether it reflects the musical tastes of our pianists, since I don’t know (and wouldn’t understand) any musician who doesn’t worship Mozart.  And most pianists, me included, must have bashed their way through most of the sonatas when aged say 9 -12, so they will know them all.  And I think most of our pianists would jump at the chance of playing any of the great Mozart piano concerti, but steer well clear of performing the solo sonatas in public

No, the explanation is obvious, although it will seem strange to non-musicians.  Mozart’s sonatas sound easy, but are extraordinarily difficult to play well.  By comparison, the big romantic works are much easier to  ‘bring off’.  Everything is so exposed – the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ comes to mind – and problems of balance between the hands, of ‘inner phrasing’ and articulation in the runs, and handling all the trills and turns deftly and neatly, and achieving that rare spiritual balance between purity, warmth and freedom, may be beyond at least some of the pianists who choose Chopin, love Liszt or revel in  Rachmaninov.  These problems are generally more evident in the  sonatas than the piano concertos, where the orchestral support solves some of the balance problems. There don’t seem to be many ‘Mozart specialists’ among the best young pianists around London at the moment.  Perhaps they don’t get so far in competitions.    If I were holding a piano competition, I would make a Mozart sonata a compulsory choice.  Certainly there are no easy ‘plaudits’ for fine Mozart performances, compared with a rousing Liszt rendition, because the audience will assume it is easy – but never mind !   I am hoping we can encourage more musicians to be brave and play the Mozart (and Haydn) piano sonatas in their recitals in future.

Problems for students from abroad obtaining a visa

Many of us enjoy listening to the brilliant young musicians who come from outside the EU to study at one of the London conservatoires. I have only recently started to understand the difficulties they face in surviving here, and being allowed to remain in the UK. I thought it might be interesting to describe the circumstances of one such musician. At his request, I am keeping his identity secret, but all the details below are accurate.

He is an exceptional young pianist, in his mid-20’s who has a star-studded CV. He was born in the former Soviet Union, showed exceptional promise from an early age, trained with distinction at the Moscow Conservatory and won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. He has won first prize in two important international competitions as well as several awards in other competitions. He is a charming young man who, to coin a phrase, plays like a god ! Yet he is in an impossible situation. Although his scholarship covers his tuition fees at the RCM, it doesn’t cover his living expenses, which need to be obtained from elsewhere. He is not allowed to teach piano or work in any other capacity. The immigration authorities require him to show that he has £11,000 in his bank account for a period of a month, in October, to prove that he can sustain himself, before they will give him a student visa to remain in the UK. He has won several awards of a few hundred pounds from various worthy funding bodies who support exceptional young musicians, but is still about £5000 short of the target, and is desperate to raise the funds to allow him to stay in the UK and to progress his career as a pianist. Various generous individuals have already contributed support, but it is insufficient. The RCM (and Professor Vanessa Latarche in particular) have been immensely supportive to this student, but there is little more they can do.

I am writing this post for two reasons. Firstly, there may be some readers who would like to help this wonderful young musician so that he can complete his training. I have heard this pianist give outstanding recitals and I know enough about piano-playing to declare that he has exceptional talent. He is also a thoroughly charming person, and I cannot think of a more worthy recipient of support. If anyone would like to contribute to help him stay in the UK, please send me an email at hmather@btopenworld.com and I will put you in touch with him directly. I hope this might stir some generous souls to contribute. Why not help this very good cause ? Any support would be treated in strictest confidence, and would be gratefully received.

Secondly, I am ashamed of our country’s attitude to outstanding young musicians. This blog steers well clear of political comment, particularly in the current climate, but when there are so many untraceable illegal migrants in the UK, it seems perverse to concentrate so hard on excluding supremely talented young musicians from the UK. This is a frequent problem for the many other brilliant musicians who want to remain here. London is still the music capital of the world, and so many of the world’s elite musicians live here. In terms of pianists, for example, this includes Brendel, Perahia, Uchida and Schiff, who were all born abroad and have contributed enormously to our cultural life. So why do we make it so difficult for their successors to settle here ?

Wagner’s Ring Cycle – complete – in Ealing !

Ask any opera buff whether there is a fully-staged production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in London this year, and they will confidently tell you that there isn’t one.  They will be wrong. You only need to travel to North Ealing to experience the whole great cycle, on four consecutive evenings – August 18th to 21st – with world-class singers and a peerless orchestra, in a lavish and realistic production.   St Barnabas Church PCC is indeed presenting the complete cycle from August 18th to 21st !   So if you need your annual ‘fix’ of a fully-staged Ring, there is no need to travel to Bayreuth or Seattle – come to Ealing instead.

Of course, we will be watching a fabulous recording of the cycle, emanating from the Met, New York, from about 1990, in high quality sound and vision.   Full practical details are on www.barnabites.org/wagner-ring-cycle/ .    There is no need to book tickets, each opera will cost £10, and delicious food will be provided in the intervals.  In fact, the church has been showing operas now for 5 years, with about 55 performances covering most of the core opera repertoire.   The operas have given huge pleasure to many local people, particularly the elderly who would be unlikely to travel to Covent Garden, the Coliseum or Glyndebourne, and have raised funds for the church.  The format really does work supremely well in practice.

I am a huge fan of ‘canned opera’.   The advantages over the ‘live’ experience are self-evident and too numerous to list, but include better singing, better vision, (usually) better sound, more ease in reading surtitles and no risk of singers cancelling because of a sore throat !  These are discussed in detail in a previous blog post http://www.hughmather.uk/wordpress/the-advantages-of-home-opera/ .   I accept that there can be an extra ‘frisson’ of excitement with a live performance, but this usually turns into a massive frisson of irritation with modern productions.    Watching ‘canned opera’ at home on one’s own can be a solitary and lonely experience, whereas being part of an audience experiencing an opera together, as at St Barnabas, is enormously enjoyable.

All opera houses regard staging the Ring as their ultimate challenge –so St Barnabas PCC thought that it would take up this challenge as well !  It is a gamble, since many opera-lovers find Wagner very difficult, as do a surprising number of musicians, so we may struggle to find an audience.  I am always amazed that so few young instrumentalists, for example, seem to know any opera in general, and Wagner in particular.   And various friends who are superb musicians, particular (it seems) those with a choral background, seem allergic to what they regard as ‘overblown’, ‘emotionally incontinent’ music !   Perhaps it depends on one’s psychological make-up.   I think the excessive vibrato of many Wagner singers is a potent factor in their distaste – this is indeed a problem and needs its own blog post.   And it takes a certain amount of work to absorb the leitmotifs and the convoluted story of the cycle.   I was given the Solti set of LPs as a Christmas present by my wife around 1980, and spent whole weekends listening the music while following the turgid libretto, line by line.  Now it’s much easier to absorb the operas, watching them on DVDs instead.   Robin Duval is giving an illustrated lecture on the Ring Cycle on the preceding Sunday evening at 7 pm to help people who are new to the Ring.   He is considerable expert on Wagner, and this should be an excellent introduction.   More details again are on www.barnabites.org/wagner-ring-cycle/ .

The rewards are indeed great.  One can’t be neutral about Wagner – either it leaves you cold, or it completely knocks you over !  Your first Wagner ‘trip’ – particularly Tristan, Walküre or Götterdämmerung – can be a ‘rite-of-passage’ experience – a veritable life-event.     The cumulative emotional impact can be overwhelming.  It really does, like Heineken, reach parts which other (composers) don’t reach, although I don’t think I should be too specific as to what they might be.  One is left in awe of the genius of Wagner himself – regardless of his considerable personal failings.

So come along and enjoy Wagner’s Ring Cycle in August, whether you know the cycle intimately or not.  I am hoping that at least some people might have their ‘rite-of-passage’ experience in St Barnabas Hall in mid-August !   If you are already a Wagner fan, do come along – and please tell your friends.  It will be a mind-blowing experience, and certainly the cheapest Ring Cycle you will ever experience.  Come and be part of this special occasion.