Archive | September, 2013

Havant Symphony Orchestra and Valentina Seferinova at Hayling Island Community Centre, 21 Sep 2013

23 Sep


Hayling Island is, one might say, the poor cousin of Portsea Island, the latter being home to the major city of Portsmouth and its seaside sister Southsea. Hayling by comparison has a tiny population though it is just as large geographically and boasts, in Langston harbour, an equally impressive haven from the Solent.

The love of good music is, by last Saturday night’s evidence, also just as great in Hayling. The unassuming, indeed drab and uninspiring shell of the Hayling Community Centre belied the fine musical experience going on inside as the Havant Symphony Orchestra, under the assured conducting of Colin Jagger and accompanied by internationally acclaimed pianist Valentina Seferinova, delivered a stirring and highly accomplished evening of popular classics.

There is very little tiering of seats at the Centre, so if like my wife and I, you don’t arrive early, your view of the stage area  may be very limited especially when the hall is packed to the gunwhales as on this occasion.

We settled in for the first offering, Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld overture. It was clear early on that this is a quality orchestra with high standards. Colin Jagger has studied conducting at an advanced level here and in the USA and his skill was evident. Paradoxically, it can be noticeable sometimes in a professional orchestra that some players are jaded or uninspired, whereas amateurs tend to be driven by sheer love and enthusiasm and in the right hands can produce a better result. I couldn’t resist foot-tapping to the can-can finale and was further entertained by observing the faces of my companion audience members as they struggled with the urge to loosen up.

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And so to the main event as far as I was concerned: Grieg’s Piano Concerto with soloist Valentina Seferinova. Valentina is my piano teacher, I am proud to confess, so it’s hard to review her performance in an unbiased way. But I am sure the majority of the audience would agree that her delivery of this beloved work lived up to the drama and beauty that Grieg’s masterpiece is so well known for. Outstanding in his ability to evoke both the powerful and the delicate susceptibilities of the human spirit, Grieg created one of the most loved works of its kind. During the virtuoso solo passages Ms Seferinova, devoted entirely to her task, enraptured the audience. As I looked around, everywhere that wonderful power of music to subdue the animal instincts and stir the spiritual was in evidence. The piano itself, a not-so-huge grand, was not quite capable in the hall of fully conveying Ms Seferinova’s passion and seasoned virtuosity but both came across in plenty. I was disappointed at first not to get a better view of the pianist but was treated to a good view of her hands reflected in the glossy varnish of the piano lid.

Colin Jagger expertly wove the orchestra and piano parts together, each enhancing, as they should, the drama of the other. The genuine spontaneity and enthusiasm of the closing applause testified to the excellence of the performance.

Sadly, due to the exigencies of ferry travel late in the evening my wife and I had to leave before the performance of Beethoven’s 5th that completed the programme.

Great music is alive and well on the South Coast.

Graham Fitch at the London Piano Meetup Group

8 Sep


Picture a rugby second row forward and you have some idea of the imposing physical presence of Graham Fitch, piano teacher of repute, author and star turn at yesterday’s gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group. The event was hosted by the indefatigable teacher and writer Fran Wilson, whose Crosseyed Pianist blog is one of the richest sources for London-based concert reviews and all things piano-related. Fran and colleague, teacher and harpsichordist Lorraine Liyanage organise regular meetings for the Group including yesterday’s excellent session.

One of Graham’s areas of expertise is the theory and practicalities of music practising. Sometimes neglected by teachers, the principles of effective practise are absolutely crucial for successful playing. This was an opportunity for several amateurs, some dozen souls gathered yesterday at Peregrine’s Pianos in Grays Inn Road, collectively to benefit from Graham’s skills and knowledge.

The intended format was not that of a masterclass although at times that is what it became. Three students played extracts from pieces they are preparing and shared with Graham and the audience their particular practice issues. Our first brave participant was a young lady preparing Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No. 9. She played it through very well and with an attractive lightness. Graham then sat at the piano to demonstrate his approach and quickly dispelled any doubts we may have had about his performance abilities as he confidently and from memory played through the opening bars, bringing another, maturer level of interpretation to the piece. One of the student’s difficulties was maintaining the leggierissimo bass line in the closing bars. Graham demonstrated how to achieve a marvellous effect using a half pedal, that maintained the staccato articulation Chopin specified, whilst creating an attractive corona of sound to round off the piece.

Our second student played a beautiful (if slightly long) extract from Debussy’s Estampes ‘Pagodes’. I was moved close to tears by this exquisite creation of the French master. Graham’s enthusiasm for his subject is boundless. One technique he presented for practising around big leaps in the left hand, is to focus on the central notes of the chords that are closer together and thus geographically less challenging than the ‘outer’ notes, which will take care of themselves. For the approach to performance and coping with nerves Graham had much to contribute. He described how performing can be seen as analogous to tightrope walking. At home or with friends, the tightrope is close to the ground, so falls have little negative consequence. In front of an audience the height of the rope is much greater and the fallout from losing one’s footing is potentially devastating. To help with this Graham advocates meditative visualising of the performance environment in advance, seeing hearing and even smelling each feature of the venue and the performance as if one were already there. Psychologists have shown how this can improve performance and help conquer nerves not only for musicians but athletes and indeed anyone facing a daunting task.

1024px-Piano_practice_handsShort of time, our last performer could not present fully but Graham showed his skill and empathy as a teacher by putting her at ease, praising her and pointing to various things she could do to make practise more effective. Of course the benefits of slow practice were extolled, Graham remarking, to some personal embarrassment as it hit home to me, that often students just don’t practise slowly for long enough, his recommendation being to practise a phrase or piece slowly for at least a week to start getting the benefit.

Thoroughly impressed with the lessons learnt and elevated by some beautiful piano music, we repaired to the pub. On the way I managed to corner Graham about a practise issue I have – balancing the volume and quality of sound in the left hand in Chopin’s Nocturne Op 62 No.2. In this piece, the lower bass notes are single, the higher ones being chords; a combination found everywhere in piano music but in the quiet, reflective modes of the Polish master, sounding awful if done wrongly. Graham’s advice, that I am keen to try this coming week, was to play only the top note of each tri-chord in practice, to familiarize the mind and body with the quality of sound needed, then to add the other notes later. One of Graham’s areas of work that I am fascinated with is the psycho-physical process of learning music. Understanding this better would be a worthy goal for any student because how we learn to play well is influenced not just by the exercise of mental or physical faculties in isolation but by a symbiotic process that involves many aspects of our being acting in coordination.

Altogether a brilliant event of real value and a great chance to meet other amateurs. Contact London Piano Meetup Group for details of future events.

Life and death on the streets

8 Sep

Senior officers gathered, stony-faced, in room H21 to consider their response. The wave of killings had blighted their patch for two years now and last night’s massacre on the troubled Sirius estate was an unbearable embarrassment to the force. No-one however expected any forthcoming police action to be anything like adequate: in recent years, it never was.

Barry O’Brien wearily entered the room knowing he faced an uphill struggle to get agreement on his strategy for ridding the estates of the murderous gangs. He wanted a sustained campaign of heavily armed intervention, coupled with political backing from his public paymasters, fronted by ‘Nimitz’ Cruise, the force’s most effective SWAT team leader, known for his uncanny ability to get straight to the target.

Superintendent Danny Mears-Tooting was openly known to be a ‘controller’ of Ali ‘Basher’ Hassan, acknowledged ‘capo di capo’ leader of the most ruthless and heavily armed of the gangs. It was Hassan who was believed to have directed the massacre, evidenced by residues at the scene recovered by ballistics from weapons only he possessed. In Mears’ view, the expedient approach was to maintain the Hassan outfit’s dominance on the street in order to keep other, potentially more murderous gangs such the ‘Sunny Killers’, in check and to protect Mears’ lucrative interests on the street. He was implacably opposed to O’Brien’s methods, arguing that only the unanimous agreement of those present in the room (which he would personally prevent from ever forming) could authorise Cruise and his methods. He was helped in this stance by the fact that O’Brien’s intelligence was notoriously unreliable and Cruise could easily be sent to hammer the wrong target.

Superintendent Chai ‘Midas’ Na maintained his usual composure, although it was rumoured that he could no longer see any of the incident room exhibits clearly without his spectacles which he had, as usual, forgotten to bring. His favourite pair, stylish Gucci ‘Morals’, were in a drawer somewhere at home and he insisted he didn’t need them. Na had never even been to the estates and had no intention of doing so any time soon. Several other deputy supers, members of the veteran ‘Demos’ group were, under the direction of newly elected police commissioners, reluctant to disturb the fragile, corrupt status quo. They had, of late, argued for an uneasy truce, turning a blind eye to the violence as long as they could maintain a tolerable, if fragile, co-existence with lawlessness they assumed would never touch their comfortable families. After all, the sink estates suffering most had been dominated by criminal gangs for decades and no-one in the quieter suburbs cared, as long as the steady supply of cheap labour could be relied on to keep fuelling their bloated, debt-ridden lives.

Some voices among the embattled officers were raised in support of the idea that talks should be held between gang leaders, residents and police, in the curious and, to any sane observer, futile belief that the criminals would see it as in their best interests to shut down operations voluntarily.

An hour later, O’Brien emerged with a haunted look. As he viewed the crowd of protesters outside the precinct, most of whom, he noticed with disgust, were not there to decry lawlessness on the streets but loudly to chant slogans condemning police brutality, he knew that his options were limited. He spoke to his driver as they sped away. “What would you do, Jim? What in God’s name would you do?”