Archive | October, 2012

A Christmas Tale

25 Oct

Peter looked up from the counter for the hundredth time that Christmas Eve, searching for any sign of a customer near the garage. This was the petrol station night shift: that long, lonely stretch of hours where the silence was so deep that you could hear the slightest noise clearly. The call of an insomniac bird would sound as loud as a backfiring car. Occasionally the stillness would be punctuated by the cry of a drunk somewhere in the distance or the whine of a car speeding from somewhere to somewhere.

Such a cry broke the peace of this Christmas night, its sound amplified into a thousand possible meanings by the silence before and after it, providing food for Peter’s mind, made hungry by boredom. He ruminated on who had cried, why they had cried and to whom, if anyone, they had cried; whether they were in distress and need, or just mouthing off in a drunken stupor; what this told us about society in general and its terrible decline. In particular, what did it say about Christmas?

Could the meaning of Christmas have been reduced to the anguished cry of someone losing their dignity late at night in an alcoholic funk? Was not the much-vaunted promise of warm, loving family time together on Christmas Day just hypocrisy, when overshadowed by the unhappiness of what was really going on out there? Such fevered thoughts are no doubt the familiars of many a Christmas night-shift worker.

His meditations were interrupted, his spirits suddenly lifted by the sight of a young man approaching the night till, out of the darkness. This young man occasionally visited the shop alone at night, maybe for chocolate, milk or some such. He never spoke or even looked up as he purchased, evidently chronically shy and probably, Peter thought, judging from his stance, demeanour and manner of speaking, suffering from some minor mental illness.

The young man sidled up to the window and spoke: “m-Mars bar and a t-Twix, please”, forcing the words out from his stuttering mouth. Peter tried to dredge up a bit of Christmas spirit and, feeling genuine compassion as he pushed the chocolate through the drawer and took the young man’s money, smilingly said: “There you go”. The young man said nothing and Peter thought, as he pushed the change under the glass, “Hm, typical”, slightly miffed that his kindness had gone un-acknowledged.

The young man then paused for a moment, turned and placed 50p back into the drawer, looking up for the briefest second and saying quietly: “That’s your Christmas present”. He then disappeared into the night.

Peter stood for a moment, his cynicism fighting with his better nature. Then a tear welled up in his eye, his chest heaved momentarily and a trickle of warmth permeated his soul. This, if anything, this tiny act of infinite kindness, was the real meaning of Christmas.


Piano practice at SJ Pianos

22 Oct

Learning to play piano on a digital instrument has advantages. If, like myself, you live in a flat then the ability to pop on headphones and render your efforts silent to the outside world is a real benefit for your neighbours. This is especially true if you are taking exams with their requirement to perfect endless, frankly rather boring scales and arpeggios.

What a digital piano cannot do though, is to reproduce faithfully the full range of tonal and harmonic sounds that come with playing a real piano. The almost tactile quality of sound produced, I assume, by the circulation of air around a vibrating string; the complex blending of beautiful harmonies produced by the recursive stimulation of strings and their neighbours and harmonic relatives; the subtleties of pedalling: all these are missing from the electronic shadow instrument.

So when preparing on a digital for an exam to be played on an acoustic piano, there are important differences to cope with. To avoid being put off by a Pandora’s Box of unfamiliar sounds and effects coming out in the fraught atmosphere of the exam room, it behooves the digital student to spend as much time as possible playing real pianos in advance of the exam and for this reason I hired a grand piano for four hours this morning at Samuel Jacques Pianos in Edgware Road, London. It’s remarkably inexpensive: £7/hr for an upright and £11/hr for a grand. With free coffee and wi-fi and beautifully appointed and sound-proofed rooms and good quality pianos, it’s well worth the money.

The instrument was a Kawai and beautiful it was. I got straight to work with relish but as I launched into some scales, the degree of my ill-equipped-ness quickly showed. The individual notes were lost in a miasma of muddy noise set up by my clunky keystrokes. No matter how sophisticated the mechanical action and electronics of the digital, it can’t ever replace the real thing.

It took a good two hours of practice to feel that I was starting to be in control. After three hours I was delighting in the power at my fingertips to produce a totally superior kind of sound, lingering on the notes and chords to enjoy the pure, ringing tones. It is a little disconcerting though, to have the keyboard shift to the right when soft pedalling!

I played Bach for about an hour in a kind of reverie, but the four hours ended sooner than I expected. I finished by singing a couple of favourite Rogers and Hammerstein show songs, “Younger than Springtime” and “Hello Young Lovers” and noticed how much more naturally the voice and string sounds blended together than when I do this at home.

One anomaly to deal with is the fact that on any real piano, some notes may be out of tune or may be of different quality to others. This you don’t get on a digital, where tuning is pre-set and the mechanics are much less prone to mis-calibration.

At the appointed hour I left through the basement area, an Aladdin’s cave of pianos, stools and paraphernalia, some instruments in pieces or on their sides, stacked in piles or half-assembled, up into the gleaming showroom with its treasury of Steinways, Kawais and the rest.

To sum up, please get me a detached house with a decent space for a baby grand. Then plug your ears because there will be a lot of noise coming!


Concert by pianist Valentina Seferinova, Petersfield 2012-10-06

7 Oct

Petersfield lies some 20 miles north of Portsmouth. A fine Art Deco style Festival Hall was built there in 1936 and this was the venue for last night’s concert by pianist Valentina Seferinova. Ms Seferinova is from Bulgaria but moved the UK in her late thirties; she lives near Portsmouth with her husband and son, lecturing in music and teaching piano at South Downs College.

Her programme included popular favorites by Debussy, Chopin and Rachmaninov and lesser-known works by Bulgarian and Polish composers. She prefaced each piece with short, and informative explanation, thus preparing and stimulating the audience intellectually as well as musically. The programme was carefully thought out and sequenced, with seasonal and water-related themes interlinking the pieces.

The evening opened with ‘en Automne’ from op. 29 ‘Impressions’ by the Polish composer Zygmunt Noskowski. The sounds of autumn, including wind and rain, are delightfully explored in this piece (thankfully the weather outside was calm and fine).

This was followed by Chopin’s Fantasie in F Minor, Op 49. Murmurs of recognition from the audience on hearing the opening lines changed to knee-tapping as the joyous march theme pumped out.

One thing this concert highlighted for me is the profound nature of Chopin’s influence on later composers. That on Debussy and Rachmaninov, both featured last night, is well known, but it also shone through other works featured in the programme.

The next pieces were by Debussy: the First Arabesque, followed by two Preludes, Book I: “La fille aux Cheveux de Lin” and “La Cathédrale Engloutie”. Ms Seferinova’s playing combines flawless technical skill with original interpretation and a most attractive delicacy of touch. She clearly studies scores in great depth, resulting in unexpected elements of the composer’s intention being highlighted to great effect. This was certainly the case with both the Preludes, the former enhanced by the lightest of musical brush-strokes and the latter by the ethereal ringing of the cathedral bell in the right hand, cleverly brought out from the surrounding melody. Also in the latter, the full power of the mighty crescendo-ritardando to C in the bass was fully realised, the slightly-built pianist occasionally rising from her seat as if to gravity-assist the delivery of the bigger chords. The catharsis of this piece seemed to release another level of excellence in Valentina as Part 1 of the concert concluded with a dazzling rendering of “L’Isle Joyeuse”.

Part II opened with two pieces by possibly the foremost of Bulgarian composers, Pantcho Vladigerov. In these, Elégie d’Automne (continuing the seasonal theme) and Humoresque , both from Op 15, as well as in the works of Veselin Stoyanov (Nocturne) and Ludomir Róźycki (Balladyna, Op. 25) that followed, we enjoyed an introduction to a rich corpus of modern Slavic composition, less musically challenging on the ear than, for example, Bartók but in the hands of Ms Seferinova, fully satisfying aesthetically, and most enjoyable. If you come across these composers and haven’t heard them before, be prepared for a pleasant surprise.

Two of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de Fantasie, Op 3, sandwiched between the modern Slavics, completed our programme with the unfailing spiritual and emotional appeal of that most excellent of Russian pianists and composers.

Valentina’s encore was a very moving romantic piece by the 19thC German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff. I for one shall be downloading this as soon as I can ascertain what it was!

Overall impressions? There were frequent moments of concentrated silence during the concert, that rarified space where a large group of music lovers focus mentally and spiritually on great art. This testified to the pianist’s outstanding performance ability as well as to the audience’s musical sensibilities. And just as we constantly discover new and old compositions that stand equal in worth to those that fill the popular repertoire but fail to enjoy their prominence, so occasionally we find pianists whose relative obscurity belies their excellence. Both were in evidence last night and I think most of the audience would agree that we were hearing pianism of a high order. As a live performer she definitely ranks, in my opinion, alongside or above some of the most popular international pianists.


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7 Oct

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