TS Eliot and Vivienne in 2015

On the eve of this new year I have paused to consider that 2015 is the 100th anniversary year of TS Eliot’s marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood – and the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Vivienne’s life and relationship with Eliot were the subject of my successful staged cycle of songs in 2013, called Vivienne. I was subsequently invited to perform the cycle of Stephen McNeff’s settings of Andy Rashleigh’s lyrics at the 9th TS Eliot Society Festival in Little Gidding. (McNeff and Rashleigh already have form working on TS Eliot, having written a musical version of The Wasteland for the Donmar in 1994.)

I intend to give a performance of the piece around the time of the anniversary of Tom and Vivienne’s wedding on 26 June 2015. Plans are also well advanced for a recording of the cycle with pianist Libby Burgess, in a programme I have chosen around related themes. More news on this in the next few weeks.

The BBC is to mark the anniversary of TS Eliot’s death on 4th January with a programme of readings and music on Radio 3 from 5.30pm. Eliot is among the three most quoted poets in the English language and I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing other peoples’ artistic responses to his work throughout 2015.

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

To Steeple Gidding

IMG_1847The second church I visited for my Vivienne recce was in the village of Steeple Gidding. The church is now deconsecrated, but a beautiful and well-kept venue, if a still a bit chilly in May. Just along the ridge from Little Gidding, this church also looks out over ravishing countryside and extensive earthworks – signs of much earlier inhabitants in the area – now grazed by sheep and cattle. The night before we perform Vivienne, Ruth Padel will be reading some of her poetry here, interleaved with the movements of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

IMG_1846Alas, not all venues in which I get to sing are equipped with a Steinway, and we will be using an electric piano. That seems heretical at one level, but it would be a pity not to perform a piece like Vivienne in such a pertinent setting solely on account of the keyboard. I don’t know any professional pianist who enjoys playing an electric piano but the better ones are a godsend in venues with draughts, variable temperature and an uneven floor, and often much better than a ‘real’ piano that has not been cared for. I am always impressed by my various accompanists who, over the years, have conjured beauty, volume and expression from the most unpromising-looking instruments. Fortunately, I will have Libby “Liberace” Burgess with me on this occasion.

At Little Gidding

ImageIn anticipation of performing Vivienne this summer at the TS Eliot Festival at Little Gidding, I thought it would be interesting to do a recce of the possible performing spaces.

First stop, Little Gidding itself. Like most people, I assumed that this had been a place of great significance for TS Eliot, hence his choice of the name for one of The Four Quartets; but according to my host, Hugh Black-Hawkins, Eliot only visited the place once (after a big lunch in Cambridge), attracted by its connections to Nicholas Ferrar and King Charles I. The original house is long gone, but the building that Eliot visited still stands and continues its long-standing service as a retreat house.

Image“Forty paces” away from where the original manor stood (still somewhat disputed) is the Church of St John, an ancient and beautiful little space, in front of which stands Ferrar’s own tomb. Alas it is too small for a performance of Vivienne but worth a visit, as the interior and panelling are wonderful.

Another possible venue for the performance is the Festival marquee that will stand on the lawn between the house and the church. However, I have discovered over the years that tents are not best suited to acoustic performance and I decided against it.

ImageLittle Gidding church and house are poised on the top of a hill, with an uninterrupted view of surrounding area for miles in all directions. Perhaps Eliot was lucky enough to see it on a perfect spring day as we did. Certainly the spirit of the place stayed with him, resurfacing when he was writing The Four Quartets many years later. The church is still a focal point for visitors seeking to connect with him and a book of his poems lay ready for us on the pew when we arrived. Just as the church is open to everyone to walk in and reflect, so Eliot’s enduring verse is on hand to the passer by as a channel for their thoughts, it would seem.

Farewell to Vivienne (for now)

Image

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)

Image

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).

Vivienne Published

ed_peters_vivienneThis week I got a wonderful surprise from the team at Edition Peters. The famous music publishing house, who deal with all my colleague Stephen McNeff’s music, has produced the vocal score of Vivienne. I am thrilled that McCaldin Arts has received a pre-publication copy of the score, having premiered and produced this piece which has enjoyed such success.

The copy arrived just as we prepare to perform Vivienne for the final time in 2013, in a lunchtime slot in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 25 November.

Vivienne in Bloomsbury

october_viv_01Last night we performed Vivienne in the October Gallery as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. It was an important opportunity to try the piece somewhere that is not a dedicated theatrical space, and to discover how far towards a concert performance we can take the staging without losing its power.

Once again we had an appreciative and knowledgeable audience, and it seemed right that a performance of Vivienne should take place in Bloomsbury, with Eliot’s publisher Faber & Faber only a stone’s throw away.

Vivienne: tickets for Autumn performances

Bloomsburylogolinedates13Two more performances of Vivienne are taking place before the end of the year. The first, on Thursday 17 October at 6pm, is part of the Bloomsbury Festival and can be seen at the October Gallery. The advance tickets have now all been taken but there will be more available on the door.ROH_logo

The second and final performance of 2014 takes place in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, on Monday 25 November at 1pm, as part of the lunchtime recital series. Booking for this performance opens on 16 November. A proportion of the tickets is retained and available on the day.

Tickets for both performances are free.