Here I am in conversation yesterday with Professor Mary Hunter in the Studzinski Recital Hall during the Klavierfest at Bowdoin College, Maine.
We were billed to talk to the audience about various issues to do with performing, but as many conversations do these days, it turned into a kind of ‘Whither classical music?’ discussion. It seemed appropriate to wonder what was happening to young audiences when we were in the heart of a college campus, but found ourselves addressing an audience largely made up of older people from the town. The fact that it was a Saturday morning may have had something to do with it, but all the same I was struck by the absence of students. What more can you do to reach out to them than make the effort to be right there in the middle of their campus, talking, teaching and playing?
Someone in the audience (I’d acknowledge him if I knew who he was) commented that pop music has now become The Establishment, with pop artists feted by presidents and prime ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Classical music, he suggested, has already become almost a kind of ‘Outsider Art’. Paradoxically, this may even give it a new lease of life, because outsider art pursued with skill and dedication often attracts followers. We agreed that it might even be better for classical music to situate itself consciously at the margins rather than struggling to maintain some kind of position at the centre of the music world, where there is overwhelming competition – not least in the form of decibels. Someone else said they had asked some of their students what they didn’t like about classical music. ‘Too soft’, they said. And yet it is not soft. It has every kind of tone colour the human hand can produce.
Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who died this week, famously said (tongue in cheek, I suppose) that when you’re composing a song, ‘one chord is fine, two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz’.
I had that quote in my mind last night as I listened to the concert marking the end of three days of coaching young professional chamber groups for the Marryat Players autumn chamber music meeting. This year my co-tutor Tim Boulton and I had four excellent groups – the Gagliano Ensemble, the Albany Trio, the Aomori String Quartet and the Epstein piano quartet. By chance their chosen works combined to make a fabulous concert programme – the Dvorak Terzetto, the Shostakovich second piano trio, the Janacek 2nd string quartet known as ‘Intimate Letters’ (long a favourite of mine) and the Brahms C minor piano quartet.
But it was not an easy programme – everything was either technically demanding, musically intense or both. There were no points where the audience could sit back and let things wash over them – it was all music that grabbed them and wouldn’t let go. As usual, we had underestimated how long the programme would take to perform once we had added a few little speeches and a bit of coming and going as well as moving pianos, music stands and chairs – and of course some prolonged applause. It was almost 10.30pm when the concert finished, though everyone said the evening didn’t feel overlong because there was so much to watch as well as listen to. People always seem to be struck by how absorbing it is to have live music played in front of them.
As I listened to these incredible pieces, played with such skill by fourteen very talented young players, I wondered what Lou Reed would have said about the music. If three chords takes you into the realm of jazz, what on earth would he have said about Janacek? What realm do those unearthly harmonies take you into? Another songwriter said that to write a good song all you need is ‘three chords and the truth’, which of course is true, but luckily the truth is not confined to three chords and can also be expressed through hundreds of different chords juxtaposed in every way the imagination can devise.
City Music Society, which holds its concerts at Bishopsgate Institute near Liverpool St Station in London, is starting its ‘early evening’ autumn series on Wednesday night, 16 October, with a piano recital by me. Tickets are free for students under 25 with valid ID. For members of City Music Society, tickets are £18, and £21 for non-members.
I haven’t played at Bishopsgate Institute for a long time, and a quick search on Google Images suggests that the hall has been attractively renovated since I last saw it.
My programme includes Haydn, Schumann, Mozart and Billy Mayerl. The concert starts at 7pm, unusually early for London concerts these days. I’m always being told that people with City jobs already find it hard to get to concerts for a 7.30pm start, so I’m hoping that starting at 7pm will not lead to people trooping in after the Haydn Sonata has finished. Troop in before 7pm please!
The temperature in London has been dropping in the last couple of days. I went for a walk the other day in a light jacket and regretted not being more warmly dressed. It has been so nice during the summer not to have to worry about cold hands. Let’s hope it’s a while yet until the season when pianists have to hunt backstage in concert halls for a sink with nice warm water in which to soak their hands before a performance.
I’m preparing an interesting recital programme at the moment for a concert in Salzburg on October 23. Tomorrow I’m trying it out for an invited audience in London.
The programme focuses on Billy Mayerl and his favourite composers. Billy Mayerl, the pianist at the Savoy Hotel in London in the 1920s, did some classical training but abandoned it in his teenage years for a life in light music and entertainment, which turned out to be much more lucrative. He was able to buy a house in Hampstead with the royalties from his popular piano composition ‘Marigold’! Mayerl was never keen on the ‘old masters’ – in a radio broadcast he once made a slighting reference to ‘a nasty gentleman named Clementi’, and he had reservations about Mozart and Beethoven – but he did love the music of Debussy, Ravel, Grieg, Delius, Stravinsky, Gershwin – and of course the popular music of the day: ragtime piano, ‘novelty’ piano pieces etc. My recital programme includes excerpts from most of these.
It’s delightful music whose only drawback is the continuous, rhythmical ‘Bom-ching, Bom-ching, Bom-ching, Bom-ching’ of the left hand as it leaps sideways between bass notes and offbeat tenor chords, often widely spaced (Mayerl’s chords often span a tenth). For someone with a small hand, it’s tiring. I don’t think I have ever had to play so much of this kind of figuration in a single programme, except of course when playing entire recitals of Mayerl’s piano music. It’s often struck me as a funny thing about this ‘entertaining’ light music, that it’s actually very tricky to play, and Mayerl’s is the trickiest of the lot. It should sound effortless, of course – easier said than done!
I have spent the week down at Prussia Cove in Cornwall at the autumn IMS chamber music seminar, together with 50 musicians from around the world. We battle up and down the cliff paths against the wind. Musicians and their instrument cases loom out of the mist in the mornings.
It is always very interesting to play in chamber groups with a) new friends and b) old friends, but I find it almost as useful just to sit around in the dining room having one cup of coffee after another and talking to people about their lives as musicians. In the space of a short week I feel I store up lots of impressions and opinions to think about when I have more time.
Tonight at 7.30pm we are playing a concert in the church of St Pol de Leon in the village of Paul, near Penzance. If you are in the area, please think of coming along. On the programme is a Britten string quartet, a Brahms piano trio, some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations interspersed with music by Gyorgy Kurtag, and the Shostakovich piano quintet. This last is played by Leo Phillips, Olivia Hughes, Yura Lee, Steven Isserlis, and me.
On my way from Porth-en-Alls, the house where we rehearse and have our meals, to the cottage where I stay in Prussia Cove, I pass through the lovely old gate in the photo. There is often a very nice light in the lane beyond the gate, and the sight of the open gate can seem pleasantly symbolic.