Kara Huber, Pianist

7 Jan


I love writing about pianists and their concerts and performances. It is a very pleasurable sensation, albeit sometimes a frustrating one, trying to communicate in words the feelings of appreciation that one experience on hearing a performance or recording.

This post is about the award-winning American pianist Kara Huber, whom I have not had the pleasure of hearing play live. Still, she has posted a number of very high quality videos on YouTube and made excellent recordings on CD. So I have something to go on. And that something is really worth writing about.

I first starting paying attention to her when working on a performance diploma that included Chopin’s Nocturne Op 62 No. 2, a very late piece in that extraordinary genius’ output and one that includes a beautiful mix of the serene and disturbing as do all of his nocturnes. This particular composition takes one on a lengthy musical journey with some very complex harmonic passages that have particular emotional and spiritual power, along with sublimely beautiful treatments of the nocturnal theme.

Trawling YouTube for examples of this piece I came across Kara Huber’s rendition. I was immediately attracted by her mature understanding, or so it seems to me, of the quite challenging musical concepts in the piece. I suppose it might be that she read it somewhat the way I did and that just played to my own prejudices. But I liked it. And pretty much everything else I have heard her play online I have liked too.

One thing about Kara Huber is that she is a genuine artist. By that I mean that she has her own understandings of a piece and knows how to communicate them. Allied with formidable technique as a pianist, this is a potent, nay irresistible mix. There are dozens of very good pianists that post on YouTube, and many that don’t; many more who perform on the international circuit. Yet sincerity is not always on display. Some pianists clearly adopt a particular approach to a piece or a passage, that they seem to have learnt as ‘the right way to do it’. They may do it extremely well and with fantastic technique and faultless delivery, but we do not always see and hear the musician’s soul at work. Exaggerated gestures, intended to convey passion and movement in the absence of this sincerity, may serve only to highlight the falsehood and detract from the delivery of the musical message. Not so with Ms Huber. You do feel as though you are getting real music from her, felt deeply and rendered exquisitely. A musical intelligence is there: innate, developed and communicated through masterful pianism.

The  second thing I would like to say about Kara Huber is that she is a pianist who is able to deal with all aspects of the repertoire. Her CD recording ‘Pilgrimage’ gives us raw, classic Bach in the form of the Capriccio BWV 992 as well as Beethoven and little known modern compositions; her YouTube performances of Rachmaninov’s Preludes Op 32 are outstanding, especially Op 32 No. 10 and her presentation of new works such as Alexina Louie’s Put On Your Running Shoes are simply superb. In all cases she perfectly adapts her technique to do justice to the style and needs of the genre, and she seems capable of anything.

Finally, it has to be said, and has been said frequently, that she champions new composers fearlessly and brilliantly. I am grateful to her for opening my ears to the virtues of Joan Tower and others who deserve a much higher regard in the pantheon of piano music than they have. Thanks to Ms Huber and YouTube, that is happening.



Belief systems in business

24 Apr

This post is about the influence of belief systems at corporate level – the ‘values’ of companies. By this is meant not only the overt expression of a belief system such as a particular religion, or atheism, or corporate capitalism or collectivism, but also the expression of convictions about life, conduct and purposes that may, often subconsciously, inform the decisions made by those who run businesses but are not readily identifiable.

A good case study in how private beliefs underpin business behaviour is the encryption of communications by software companies.  Here, strongly held personal beliefs by business owners and inventors may clash with the purposes of government to investigate crime. The point is well put by Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, reported in The Times, 2017-03-27:

Now that many governments eschew official religious affiliation, they must compete with corporations in the validity of their belief systems. For example, WhatsApp declares that privacy of communications is a ‘core belief’ of theirs. As is well known, Tim Cook of Apple also believes that law enforcement should not be able get into their smartphones by subverting built-in security.

My point here is not to question where those attitudes and beliefs – for beliefs they are – come from or how valid or invalid they might be. It is that belief systems, or if not systems then perhaps disconnected convictions, are central to business behaviour. The notion that business entities can exist and operate in a purely commercial belief vacuum is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. Dangerous because unless we can perceive and map this landscape of often competing beliefs and then plot a course through it, we are just aimless wanderers in a jungle inhabited by extremely competitive individuals and entities who will do everything to defend their point of view. These points of view are no doubt often driven by greed and the desire for money and power. As such, masquerading as noble aims and purposes is effective in gaining support.

Since beliefs are so crucial to the successful integration of business and society, the big question is: what belief system are we going to espouse and support? The Quakers of the nineteenth century had strong beliefs about how businesses should  be run to fairly treat employees. There is much work being done to identify appropriate models for business behaviour in the new global economy. Examples include the work of the European Bahá’í Business Forum that accepts the importance of belief as a key driver informing economic behaviour.

It may seem odd to recommend a particular belief system in this way but in the war of beliefs that is taking place out there, the key question is: whose side are you on? We are all, consciously or not, living in a world where powerful corporations and governments are driven by beliefs, and are seeking to impose those convictions on everyone. We had better be clear about this as consumers and citizens.

Valentina Seferinova at Bristol Music Centre 2016-11-08

12 Nov

As I write four days later, the haunting lilt of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 lingers in my mind. The simple arrangement of three notes: B flat, G and F with acacciaturas creates, when handled by a seasoned and intelligent performer like Valentina Seferinova, an ineluctable sense of pleasure in the listener. Looking around at the concentration on all faces, communing with the spirit of Satie and of this unique composition, one is struck by the power of music to evoke out-of-the-body experiences.

Yes, Seferimg_20161108_202424inova can let off musical fireworks with the best of them: the Tarantella Op4 by Josef Wieniawski proved that. She can do more than justice to the old standards: her delivery of Debussy’s mysterious and viscerally powerful La Cathedrale Engloutie was adequate proof. A striking figure in dark velvet, striding the stage delivering anecdotes about the composers in her programme ( I liked the one about Wieniawski listening to a piece at a musical gathering for the first time and then performing it from memory), Valentina charmed and edified her willing audience before delivering, flawlessly, the goods.

The magic of salon concert performances is a collective experience involving bothbmc artist and audience. And as Chopin himself explained: in order to experience true art, one must abandon the great concert halls. No form of recorded music, whether disc, streaming or iPod can come near to matching this experience. The small Bristol Music Club concert room, purpose built over a hundred years ago and seating only 50-100, is a perfect setting for the magic to happen and Valentina Seferinova’s November 2016 concert a good example of the magician at work.





Martyna Jatkauskaita at Wolverton Manor, Isle of Wight 2015-04-25

25 Apr

martynaWolverton Hall is properly in the countryside but near enough to civilisation to make it easily accessible. The owners have made it a specialist concert venue accommodating around 60 souls in the informal setting of a cosy but splendid Jacobean-cum-Queen-Anne drawing room. Click here for details of upcoming concerts: http://wolverton-manor-concerts.co.uk

Tonight’s performer was the remarkable young Lithuanian pianist Martyna Jatkauskaite http://martynapiano.com. Introduced with evident fondness by our hosts, Ms Jatkauskaite treated us to a tour de force of pianistic prowess.

Artists of this calibre can be fragile souls, wont to fiddle with piano stools, sit for several seconds calming themselves, looking heavenward for inspiration and the like. Jatkauskaite is the polar opposite: an obvious devotee of the ‘let’s just get on with it’ school of performing, she launched without a second’s delay into the arresting opening chords of Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op 17. This wittily named suite contains some highly inventive themes and is not easy listening. Nevertheless it was tonight, in the hands of our artist, engaging, interesting music.

To describe Ms Jatkauskaite as a force of nature is to fail to do justice to her seriousness of purpose, almost intimidating presence and intensity as a performer. The glamorous persona depicted on her promotional materials is utterly not the person you encounter in the flesh. To me she seemed quite fearsome, like a Viking warrior or some kind of Marvel superhero, here to deploy her skill like a weapon to conquer rather than something to show off or struggle with. If victory was her intention, she succeeded, with a no-holds-barred exposition of full-on, take-it-or-leave-it, naked pianism.

Her second offering, Schubert’s Impromptus Op. 142, Nos.1,2,3 & 4, was delivered with all the raw commitment these unforgettable gems deserve. The term ‘Romantic’, as is often applied to Schubert, Chopin and their contemporaries, sometimes implies a kind of winsome otherworldliness full of delicate emotion. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as these composers are concerned. In the case of Schubert, his entrancing melodies are underpinned by visceral power-chords and complex chromatic variety. With Chopin, the breathtaking range of expression, musical refinement and depth in his works always appeals on many levels. These are natural materials for Jatkauskaite to mould in the furnace of her artistry. Her intensity of focus is, to use the word in its correct sense, awesome to behold. Coupled with total technical mastery, this means that the richness of the music can come out in full.

WP_20150425_20_23_40_ProThe interval, during which we partook of refreshments in the delightful kitchen area, gave me a chance to snap the venerable Bechstein that submitted to the evening’s ravishing by our pianist.

Part two of the concert consisted of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. Again Ms Jatkauskaite launched with fiery vigour straight into the turbulent first movement. She proved here, as she had earlier with the Schubert, that she possesses the refined control necessary to render meaningfully the many-faceted emotional complexity of such a piece. The lovable melodies in both the first and second movements were tenderly given. Judicious pauses, rubato and full-spectrum dynamic control combined to give a satisfying delivery. Her Funeral March merged reflective sensitivity with properly meaty, crashing chords. Chopin’s enigmatic finale I must confess defeats my musical senses every time. She certainly seemed to know what she was saying with it however.

This might indeed sum up her performance and from what it showed, her personality as a performer: she knows exactly what she is going to say, she knows exactly how to say it and she means to say it powerfully and with total commitment. Watching her after the applause, listening to our host offering his thanks, the post-performance fire in her eyes was quite remarkable.

If you hear of her playing anywhere, my recommendation would be: do not hesitate to go.


Valentina Seferinova at South Downs College, 2014-10-23

26 Oct

The venue for Valentina Seferinova’s latest piano recital was South Downs College, situated on the hills above Portsmouth and host to a thriving music education department.

The background to this concert was unusual but intensely significant: the recent passing of the performer’s mother. Conceived as a traditional Bulgarian tribute given 40 days after a bereavement, the program contained pieces that Ms Seferinova’s mother had heard her play many times and had become favourites of hers; thus having a powerful personal meaning that communicated itself strongly in the performances.

I had rushed from work in a long lunch ‘hour’ and was thus not in the usually relaxed mode of the concertgoer. But this I think helped me to concentrate and avoid the sleepiness that almost always afflicts me at most evening affairs these days.

The program featured entirely Romantic works by Eastern European composers, of whom Ms Seferinova has become something of a champion both as a performer and recording artist.

The audience comprised students and guests, the average age of the former being about 19. The settling in phase was replete with those looks of intense, offended antipathy that only teenagers can do properly. I love to watch the faces of audiences at concerts to get a feel for the impact of the event and, as the concert progressed, the looks became, on almost every face, no less intensely rapt than they had earlier been disdainful. It helped that the program featured many pieces composed when their creators were also very young, and that the performer talked about each piece briefly before playing.

We heard works by Rachmaninov (Morceaux de fantaisie including the thunderous C Sharp Minor Prelude and the amusing and gorgeous Polichinelle); Chopin (an early Polonaise and the Nocturne Op. 55 No 1) along with pieces by, among others, Scriabin.

The highlight for me, leaving aside the inevitably gripping Rachmaninov Prelude, was Seferinova’s knowing and dynamically rich Chopin playing. The Nocturne, in its quiet moments, produced sustained, intensely engaged ‘no fidget’ responses from the youth whose normal state is one of eternal motion, a minor miracle in itself. The Polonaise had more depth and dynamic range than might be expected from its 15-year old composer and than that given on a recording by at least one world famous pianist that I have heard.

Ms Seferinova has a devoted following and goes from strength to strength both as a recording artist and on the local scene in Hampshire as a performer and teacher. I strongly recommend seeing her live, if you get the chance; it is a truly rewarding experience.


Wassailing the apple tree

10 Jan

Along Betty Haunt Lane, off Forest Road on the Isle of Wight lies Great Park Farm. Here this evening, in the cold and the drizzle and the dark, assembled a small group of people of varied ages, to take part in the ancient ritual of wassailing.

Following an opening and envigorating session of dance delivered by the truly exotic Moonshine Border Morris, with curiosity piqued, toes nipped and pates dampened, we trooped into an adjoining field to wassail the apple tree.

Our learned host explained that there are two main kinds of wassailing: first the visit and sharing of drink; second the gathering to invoke blessing for a specific purpose. Ours was the latter, in this case to request divine assistance in the fruiting of some apple trees.

There is something thrilling about taking part in a ritual whose origins go back hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. The proceedings included sharing of cider, soaking of bread toast in cider and placing the impregnated rounds in the branches of the needy tree. Then singing the wassail song and shouting to invoke the spirits made us forget the cold and rain.

Theis most unusual hour culminated in another session of dance. The thump of the drum, jiggle of the tambourine and lilt and sway of the accordion created an attractive backcloth upon which the magnificently attired and made up dancers wove their magic.

Things are happening out there in the fields…

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05

6 Jan

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05.