A London plaque for Joseph Haydn

plaqueFINALThis autumn I have been fronting the campaign to put up a plaque in London to the composer Joseph Haydn. Despite his enormous contribution to London’s musical life and two long visits to the city at the end of the eighteenth century, there is no permanent memorial to him here.

As there is no original building that can support a plaque (and thus qualify for English Heritage consideration), a small team from the Haydn Society of Great Britain has worked to obtain the required permissions relating to the building that now stands at 18 Great Pulteney St. This is the site where Haydn lived when he first arrived in London in January 1791, as recorded in a letter he wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger.

We have exceeded our crowdfunding target for the costs of the plaque’s manufacture and installation and, in the process of fundraising, we have also opened a wonderful dialogue with Haydn fans across the world. We have talked to people from as far afield as the USA and Japan about their favourite works by Haydn and why they feel he is still not as popular as his contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven. This highly unscientific survey will be summarised next year in an article for the Haydn Society.

The exact date of the plaque unveiling has yet to be confirmed. The hope is that the plaque will be in place in Spring 2015 and London will finally have its first memorial to a composer who was such an important part of its cultural heritage.

For more information about the campaign and research into the plaque’s position, go to The Haydn Society of Great Britain and Kickstarter.

Do Androids dream of electric pianos?

In what is threatening to become a series on the subject, I have felt moved to write some more about the work of the classical accompanist. Specifically, about playing an electric piano, which I am sure is a pleasure many pianists have endured at some point, but which I guess most would prefer to avoid.

Few classical singers would choose to be accompanied by synthetic sound, any more than a classical pianist would choose to play an electric piano (untuned pub upright notwithstanding). However, if a venue doesn’t have a piano of its own and is unable to afford hire costs, an electric piano is often the only alternative. It can allow us to take a performance to audiences in new or unusual venues, which is surely a good thing. The instruments are improving in quality and touch, but if the piano usually spends its life in a school hall, the chances are it isn’t from the upper end of the quality scale. It’s often impossible to double-guess this in advance, so it’s a case of turning up and doing battle with whatever is there.

5265543390_b83d8c5570_zWhat does it mean for a professional pianist to try to make music with an electric instrument? If it’s for a rehearsal it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s not so much fun if it’s a song recital. I’ll tell you about a concert I did recently, in which most of the things that can hamper a pianist were in evidence.

We narrowly missed having no electricity supply at all (due to admin confusion) which would have killed off the concert there and then; the sustain pedal (usually a good sign in an electric piano) refused to work at all for the first half hour, then perked up intermittently and inconsistently; the aforementioned pedal didn’t want to stay in one place on a shiny, stone floor, and slowly migrated away from the pianist, who had to stop between songs to retrieve it.

Most challengingly, the piano had no touch sensitivity, so we could equalise the balance of sound between top and bottom of the keyboard, but not the volume of the sound. As it turned out, this was controlled by a slider, obliging my pianist to grow a third hand at critical moments, in order to control the dynamics. And of course, constructing a seat of the appropriate height out of uncomfortable, stacking bucket chairs is an art that has to be honed over many years.

It was not anyone’s fault that it was not a great piano, but it fell to my pianist to perform some kind of magic trick. Of course I was absolutely aware of every phrase and adjustment that she was making (and am still filled with admiration at her creativity) but there’s only so much you can do with no sustain function at all.

imagesMy good taste in accompanists is evidenced by the fact that I have only ever worked with people who, despite deserving Steinways, are game for an electric piano anyway. As I described in my previous piano-related blog-post, it can be pretty stressful for singer and pianist when the instrument has to be tamed under the nose of the audience, but our job requires us to conceal that fact. The reassuring truth is that the performance won’t have been significantly diminished for many of the audience members on account of the piano being electric. Indeed it shouldn’t be about us, but about whether the audience has had a good experience. We aspire to a high and consistent standard, but there are many factors beside the piano that can compromise the result and thankfully, sometimes, the audience doesn’t know the half of it.

So, once again, I raise a grateful toast to my accompanist. Thank you, Libby Burgess.

Spare a thought for the pianist

photoLast weekend I was at the English Haydn Festival, held annually in and around Bridgnorth in Shropshire. I was giving a performance of Haydn’s London Ladies, accompanied by a pianist with whom I work regularly, Paul Turner. Any chamber musician understands that, despite the pleasures of working with new colleagues and exploring new approaches, there are gigs where one is very pleased to be working with a trusted friend. In this case, it was simply a case of not wanting to deal with anything unexpected in the middle of a very busy period of activity, and we were looking forward to a gentle afternoon performance of some old favourites.

Paul mostly performs these days on modern pianos but we knew that for this concert he would be playing a fortepiano, which he was looking forward to. Most musicians have the luxury of an intimate relationship with their specific instrument, but pianists have to negotiate terms with every new piano they meet. That’s why top-flight soloists often have a preferred instrument or model from a certain maker, which they demand for their performances, in order that they know what they are getting. With a modern piano there is also a level of standardisation that one can generally take for granted – an octave has the same span on ‘standard’ pianos, there are an agreed number of octaves etc. On the whole it is a question of touch rather than scale that distinguishes instruments.

photoNot so on a fortepiano, which is closer to the size of a harpsichord. To me, more used to seeing Paul (who is tall) at a modern grand, it looked as if he was playing a toy. No pedals, of course, but sustain and dampers worked by levers operated with the knees on the underside of the keyboard. Not easy to practice this at home if you don’t have a fortepiano of your own and even then, decisions about whether and when to use these changes of register depends on the sound of the individual instrument, only discoverable on the day. More challenging was the fact that the keys were each a little narrower than a modern piano, so the span of an octave was significantly smaller and the potential for catching the edge of an unwanted note on the way past, greatly increased. Finally, to spice things up still further, the white notes were black and vice versa, so a sneaky downward glance at the keys (lit by an angle poise precariously balanced on an adjacent table) didn’t offer many clues.

This is the point at which I unleash my unbounded admiration for any pianist who can take all these factors on board and remain unruffled by a splashy quarter hour of fact-finding, when the clock is ticking and there is a man lurking at the back of the church, eager to re-tune his beloved fortepiano, which is shifting pitch due to the cool atmosphere. The human brain is truly remarkable and never more clearly demonstrated than on a day like this where I could hear Paul adjusting mid-phrase to the physical dimensions of the instrument and the specific qualities of its sound. I simply had to sing the right notes, remember my words and not trip over the uneven floor tiles, but I could hear Paul exploring even to the last note of the final song. He would say that this is all in a day’s work for any professional pianist but it is easy to overlook how much work is required under such circumstances and how impressive it really is.

As we chewed things over on the drive back, Paul observed that he had studied the harpsichord seriously for some time at the Royal Academy, played the organ a bit (though never as a primary interest) and had done a few rounds with a harmonium. Taken together, these various keyboard experiences had given him resources to draw on when dealing with the challenges of the fortepiano.

The moral of the story, we decided, was to say yes to any opportunity to acquire a new skill because you never know when it will come in handy. A good rule of thumb for life generally, I think.

Congratulations to Champs Hill

The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards were presented this week and the popular winner of the Chamber Music and Song award was Champs Hill, the venue in Sussex created and run by David and Mary Bowerman. The purpose-built concert hall has hosted many established and emerging artists over the years and, more recently, has become the main recording venue for the Champs Hill Records label. Having recorded my CD, Madrigali dell’Estate, at Champs Hill and experienced Mary and David’s great care and hospitality at first hand, I can only say that they are very deserving winners!

Read the full RPS statement here

Farewell to Vivienne (for now)

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Yesterday was the last performance of Vivienne in 2013 and, I am happy to report, another triumph, with a big and appreciative lunchtime audience in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. The success of the piece in artistic terms was again confirmed by the consistency of the response we had from this audience, which matched the enthusiasm and sentiment of those who have seen other performances. I was particularly grateful to my production team (below, L to R: Joe Austin, director; Christopher Nairne, lighting; Simon Kenny, design)

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who came along to make sure this final performance was of the highest quality. Libby Burgess was, as always, a wonderful musical partner at the piano as we explored Vivienne’s fragile state of mind.
viv_roh_25_nov My task is now to develop a schedule to tour Vivienne and I hope to link performances to the twin anniversaries in 2015 of Vivienne’s marriage to Eliot (100 years) and Eliot’s death (50 years).

Delighted by A Voice of One Delight

The first performances of A Voice of One Delight took place last week and I am thrilled by the level of enthusiasm with which they were received. We were very fortunate in attracting the resources to bring the piece to a high-level of finish before putting it in front of an audience and this has allowed us to get detailed feedback about how the production ideas support the narrative. For more photographic images by Claire Shovelton and a link to watch the work on video, go to the A Voice of One Delight webpage.

Rehearsing A Voice of One Delight

Rehearsals have been progressing very well for A Voice of One Delight, which gets its first performances later this week at Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival.

Here we are at the Jerwood Space, deep in thought about character, time and space. The usual Sunday morning challenges.

From L to R: me, Petra Söör (choreographer) and Joe Austin (director). The picture is a pianists-eye view taken by Libby Burgess.