Archive | June, 2013

Chamber music at St. Thomas’, Ryde, Isle of Wight

29 Jun

The Ryde Arts Festival is an annual showcase of local artistic talent on the Isle of Wight and one of this year’s events was an evening of chamber music at the St. Thomas’ Church in the centre of Ryde. The building has a good acoustic quality and is a beautiful space for the performance of music.

Should anyone doubt the existence of enjoyable, harmonious and intellectually satisfying modern chamber music, last night’s concert would be an eye-opener. Four Island composers were in evidence (and in person), producing highly original works.

Some 50 souls of all ages settled into their seats, having passed an impressive display on their way in of bread, cheese and wine spread on a table at the back of the hall. Their purpose went beyond mere refreshment however, as the programme soon revealed.

First on the programme was a gorgeous string quartet set of pieces under the title ‘Highland Malts’ composed by the highly talented Richard Benger. I have heard Richard play organ in an Island church and have sung, with the Ryde Chorus, a truly beautiful carol written by him. His prowess in composing for strings is no less impressive. The conceit was to portray the varying characteristics of malt whiskies. The “soft and fragrant” Glenmorangie, the “full-bodied, immensely self-confident” Glenlivet being two of the five.

What stood out for me in ‘Highland Malts’ as well as the other string quartet pieces (of which more below) was the high degree of professionalism and accomplishment among the players. James Humhpries and Claire Hudson on violin, Sarah Mitchell on viola and Philip Grainger on Cello were well-practiced, expressive and harmonious, and did justice to Benger’s fine writing.

Next up were two charming, lively and inventive pieces for woodwind quintet, written by A level students from Cowes. ‘Fulvetta’ and ‘En Chasse’ were both inspired by the ornithology of the forest and were most impressive in their creative use of the sounds of the different instruments. Whoever is teaching music at Cowes is doing a darn fine job, bringing out latent talent that must exist everywhere but sadly goes untapped. What a thrill to hear this thoroughly interesting original and mature music emanating from the artistic minds of youth.

The final piece was again for string quartet and was titled ‘The Cheeseboard’, by Cyrus Dean. An interesting concept woven with considerable skill by Dean into 10 short pieces portraying-you guessed it-the experiences of eating different cheeses. They weren’t all to my personal taste, being for me difficult to get into, though the lively dance rhythm accompanying ‘Cabrales’ – “A strong, spicy cheese with some tang from the north of Spain” was really attractive. I did keep thinking “I’ll probably appreciate this more on a second hearing”.

And so it was to bread, cheese and wine, with a chance to meet fellow music lovers, the composers and performers. In all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening, making one feel proud to be a resident on this wonderful Island which has been an inspiration to some of the very finest 19th century figures in the arts, including Tennyson, Dickens, Keats and a host of others. On this showing, inspiration continues to flow in abundance.


London Piano Meet

2 Jun


It has taken me a while to get to writing this but here goes. On Saturday 17th May my wife Judy and I took part in the inaugural meeting of the London Piano Meetup Group at Peregrine’s Pianos in central London.

It was an experience fraught with personal sadness for us, due to the loss that day of a close relative. For this reason my recollections, whilst fragmented and obscure in some aspects, are somewhat heightened in  others.

The group is organised by two doyens of the London amateur piano scene, Frances Wilson, who blogs famously as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and Lorraine Liyanage. Their assiduous efforts in providing performance opportunities for amateur pianists are worthy of much praise and are of the highest value and importance in making real the aspirations of the would-be artist. Only in the fire of tests can the precious metal of artistry be forged. Details of the group may be found here.

My wife Judy and I waited at 5:15pm excitedly outside the venue alongside some thirty other performers and observers. Peregrine’s appear to be Schimmel main dealers, so after the doors opened, the walk to the upper floor took us past a succession of rather beautiful instruments bearing that name.

For me, performance is a challenge to be relished, but a pretty nerve-wracking thing. As well as all the outward signs such as sweating and shaking, there is the adrenalin surge coursing around the system, rendering one’s familiar mind-body coordination comfort zone all undone. One can either surf this turbulence and get inspired by it, or sink ignominiously under its waves.

Introductions over, the first brave artist took to the gleaming Fazioli grand. The instrument was really too powerful for the small venue and this created some problems for all the performers, especially in fortissimo passages. Nevertheless the opportunity to play such a fine piano was a precious one appreciated I am sure by all.

The standout performer for me amongst the amateurs was the second, a young lady who played a really touching Brahms Intermezzo. She seemed to convey real honesty and took great care over the accuracy of her playing.

She was followed by a young man who bravely (perhaps rashly) took on Rachmaninov’s C# Minor Prelude, a fiendishly difficult piece. and faltered about a third of the way through. We all felt for him and he will have learned much from the experience. His basic musicality and piano playing potential were actually really good and he will no doubt return successfully. As Fran later observed, being able to play a thing very nicely at home is a world away from performing it live in front of one’s peers.

Then it was my turn. It’s hard to describe to place one finds oneself in (or at least I do) when faced with such a challenge. Confidence is everything when performing but it has to be matched with some decorum and dignity, something I failed quite miserably at. It was more a case of getting to the instrument without falling over; getting through the piece without stalling, and getting back to one’s seat without looking a complete Wally. I chose Debussy’s Valse Romantique, mainly because it is one of three pieces which I can make some semblance of playing. The heightened nervous state does strange things. Mind-hand connections can just dissipate altogether, memorisation get lost and awareness of one’s self and surroundings turn into a kind of altered reality. Focusing entirely on not getting it wrong blocks musicianship, whereas forays into the latter risk losing the musical thread altogether. Worst of all is the enemy ego, that can send one unexpectedly into a delusional fantasy of “aren’t I doing well”, or “move over, Kissin, this is how it should be played”. Such horrors always end with an embarrassing exposé of one’s weaknesses. That said, I had a few brief moments of what is most wonderful about performing: getting into a space where the art takes on a life of its own, where the music hints at something sublime. It happened for me in the pianissimo sections of the piece. I did forget the last two or three chords, though that was brought on perhaps more by mental fatigue than uncertainty.

I regained my seat without incident, having sought on the way to give the impression of indifference to any audience reaction but in reality listening keenly for any hint of something more than tired applause.

Our next two performers made accomplished work of some challenging repertoire and thus to a performance from Fran of a lovely piece by Takemitsu. A seasoned amateur performer, possessed of considerable musical sensitivity, she raised the bar rather higher into the interval. We were informed then by Fran and Lorraine that the next performer was late arriving, and would someone care to play again. Someone did, giving a convincing rendition of the same Rachmaninov Prelude that our intrepid earlier performer had met with some resistance from. Some might think this was a little insensitive as the former individual was still recovering.

Soon our star turn for the night arrived, a little breathlessly, in the form of Emmanuel Vass. He headed straight for the Fazioli and, after a short introduction, treated us to a flawless account of Bach and some other classical repertoire, followed by his rather amazing ‘mashup’ of James Bond themes, including the Barry original and individual themes from the various films, all woven together with Liszt-like (or was it Liberace-esque?) artistry. He raised our spirits with his no-nonsense, exuberant playing, then sold and signed CDs afterwards.

We had to leave at that point but the evening had helped us through a few difficult personal hours and remained uplifting for some time afterwards.

There are to be more such gatherings and I highly commend them to anyone wishing to test their playing skills in a friendly, appreciative environment.