Tuesday, 8 September 2015

#41: Laurence Lewis: Director and Label Distributor

        Pressburger Klezmer Band

"I met James Brawn, who performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series, through his record label MSR Classics which I’ve been looking after for two or three years. It was actually quite a fluke how we met because initially I noticed the label was advertising a three disc box set by Czech composer Viktor Kalabis that I wanted so I contacted them and then ended up being their distributor. So I heard James Brawn through finding him on the same label, and now see him at many of his concerts.

I got into label distribution in a kind of roundabout way. My late wife Helen and I got involved in a project at Finchley Reform Synagogue to research one of their Torah scrolls from a small village near Prague that had been looted by the Nazis. We spent months researching and then went with an organised party to the Czech Republic.

We ended up making connections with a music dealer in Prague who we began buying material from. We put it on our website, and I gradually made contact with a couple of UK distributors. After around six months I got asked by the Slovakian label Hevhetia if we would be interested to distribute their records. The first record they sent was Miki Skuta playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and it got a double five star rating in BBC Music magazine. And that’s how we got started.

Over time other labels have come to us, or I’ve discovered them. I think I have around 12 or 14 labels, and each of them have extensive catalogues. I tend to concentrate on new releases rather than back catalogues.

As a daily routine I ship out orders to shops, or I deal with customers who come to my website, or to our Amazon store so I take care of the orders first. I have all the packaging here, together with the hundreds of CDs I’m currently handling, and I also have a franking machine. I have to personally take the discs to the sorting office which makes for a pleasant walk as part of my working day. I also write several newsletters to send out to my clients.

I’m currently busy trying to promote Hevhetia who have a really interesting catalogue of music I’d call contemporary in the sense of it could be jazz, it could be rock, it could be folk, it could be electronics, and because it’s Slovakian it’s not quite what you’d expect. And that’s what I like about it. For example, take the record by singer Hanka Gregušova; it appears to be a folk music disc but once you start investigating …. yes she has many famous Slovakian folk themes but it’s all been reinvented and reimagined for the twenty first century, so it comes with jazz, rock, even Reggae beats. She’s gathered around her on this disc some of the best Czech jazz musicians, and also has a cimbalom band. There’s a whole mix of contemporary sounds and there’s her voice in the middle – she’s a real singer! So I’m distributing this worldwide and also as a download; it’s available in over 200 online music stores.

And there’s another disc I’m currently working with by AMC Trio. The band appears to be a standard jazz combo of piano, bass and drums, but they long ago stopped playing traditional jazz pieces like the American Songbook because, as they told me, they didn’t feel that as Slovaks, they could really play American music properly. So now everything they play they write together as a collective, and instead of just being a kind of Slovakian slanted jazz, everything has a story, each piece has a kind of narrative. So if you look at the title track “Waiting for a wolf” (and there’s lots of wolves in Slovakia!), they’ve written this:

Have you ever spent a night, under the stars, deep in the Carpathian Mountains with only ancient trees for company?

And they’ve also composed one of the most heartbreaking jazz numbers I’ve ever heard; “She’s leaving for heaven”

For those who have lost someone close forever

And another of my current projects is the Pressburger Klezmer band who are the oldest klezmer band in Slovakia. Obviously during the war and afterward during the Communist period anything Jewish was not exactly encouraged, but since the Velvet Revolution when Slovakia came into being, there’s been a lot of interest in the Jewish culture. Pressburger have taken these famous old melodies and they’ve wrapped them up in a modern type of medium.

The Slovaks have become very creative. When the old Czechoslovakia broke apart I think the Czech’s got most of the culture and so the Slovaks have had to start again. In doing so they’ve not only been creating new things, as we see in the music of AMC Trio, but they’ve been going back and rediscovering some of their past, as we see in Pressburger Klezmer Band and also in Hanka Gregušova with her folk themes." (Laurence Lewis)

Connect with Laurence Lewis

Friday, 14 August 2015

#40: Ella Xunhuan Zhou: Concert Pianist

“Too few of us have social responsibilities, as musicians and as artists. I think some of us are afraid of taking social responsibility because we think this will affect our work as artists and the effort that we put into music or art. For me, I think it's the opposite because we are part of the planet and what we do inspires other people and affecting other people, it’s so important for us to realise that we have this precious opportunity to highlight some subjects out to our audiences and by doing this, it will make our work even better, our music even better.

I like the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov, very much. He’s such a wonderful pianist and a brave man For me, he’s the only one that I see who is actively on social media speaking the truth about some real social problems that unfortunately we are facing everyday but maybe feeling too lazy to change it or even acknowledge it. For me the way he does is very inspiring and audacious. I want to be more like this kind of artist. I can’t save the world but I can do my own part and at least influence to a certain degree.

I remember one of my friend told me a story about the history and development of musicians, during the ancient time, people were using music and instruments to speak about truth, about human feelings either beauty or ugliness through singing or playing melodies. In other words, we are a type of 'media'. In this case, I think it would be more meaningful to use this type 'media' as a platform to be more responsible and more engaged in this real world of full of realities. There are so many issues which are affecting us every second, every time we breathe. Things like discriminations; environmental pollutions, animal abuse etc. I can't just stand aside, I am not that kind of person who takes the glory but not returning anything, I think we need to give in order to receive. Many musicians have reached a certain level of fame they can already be influential but they are not. I don’t have that yet, but if I ever going to make it, I hope I can change things, even just a little.

I love animals, dogs, cats and recently I joined the Wolf Conservation Group. I try to do what I can. I spread the news about adopting animals and I report animal cruelty when I see it. I’m involved in stopping the dog meat festival in Yulin, China. One of my dream is to hope one day I can build my own charity for animals, so more disease can be treated and more life can be rescued.

My dog Nunu is a Cocker Spaniel, she’s almost nine years old now. She inspires me so much, every day. When I was very young I read Jane Goodall’s book about chimpanzees and became very aware of how animals and music go together. When I’m practising I get so much vibes from Nunu. I feel her energy and that she’s a really good listener to me.

We assume animals don’t understand, but I think we just don’t know them. I prefer to have the attitude that there are other beings on the planet apart from us who do have understanding. I find the subject very interesting. Glenn Gould said he only get along with dogs. And there are many other pianists close to animals, for example, Nelson Freire and Helene Grimaud. In general I think musicians tend to be very close to the nature.

I was born in Chongqing a city in the middle of China but when I was seven my parents moved to Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong. I studied piano because my Dad was a violinist. I’ve been studying music my whole life. I’ve had many great teachers. The most recent was Professor Antonio Bezzan. He studied in Budapest when he was very young and when I met him he was seventy four years old and an amazing pianist with a vision. I think as a teacher you have to have a very good vision about where you want to lead the student and to draw the bigger picture for the student. It’s not about telling what is right and what is wrong because you are already at that level where you can judge for yourself if something is right or not. But a good teacher can unlock something in your heart that you’ve been asking yourself for so many years … something that has been inside you that you can’t get to, and then suddenly, by one click, it’s opened. I remember I was playing the Mozart Fantasia in D Minor and, (I enjoy D Minor so much), also the Bach Chromatic Fantasy. Bezzan was standing there and out of nowhere he started to tell me the haunting character of Don Giovanni in such a way that Don Giovanni came in front of my eyes and he stayed there listening to me. So whenever I play this piece, I feel that the character really is there. And also he told me stories about how he’d studied with Frederich Gulda, about his time in Budapest and how he met all those pianists from the golden age, absolutely fascinating And you could see the light in his eyes and you could picture all of them alive, it was so wonderful. Sadly Bezzan passed away last year.

I’m currently working towards a competition I hope to reach the final round so I can play concerto. All my teachers have always encouraged me to play more Mozart because of my small hands, but in my heart I wanted to play Rachmaninov. I love to play concertos and also chamber music. Last year I did the Schubert Fantasy for 4-hands with a great artist in Brazil and everybody loved it. That was a wonderful moment for me because who doesn’t love Schubert?” (Ella Xunhuan Zhou)


Ella Xunhuan Zhou performed at Markson Pianos Concert Series June 24th 2015 
Mozart Fantasia no. 3 in D minor K397
Chopin Preludes no. 1 to no. 12. op 28
Beethoven Sonata no 17 in D minor Op. 31
Rachmaninoff Etude-tableaux no.8 Op 39
Nikolai Kapustin Variations Op 41

Born in China, Ella started to learn piano at age 4, gave her first public performance when she was 6 years old. At age 12, she was selected from one thousand candidates as a child prodigy to study piano and composition in Shenzhen Arts school, among her senior class mates there was Yundi LI ( the winner of the 14th international Chopin competition). During her studies, she participated in many competitions including the Parsons international piano competition(Hong Kong) at age 13 and has received 4th prize.

In year 2000, Ella immigrated to the UK. In Brighton, her talent was quickly discovered by Imogen Windsor and Anna Maria Tabor, under their guidance, she performed Mozart piano concerto in A Major with BHASVIC youth orchestra at age 15, at the same year her mentor Anna Maria Tabor encouraged her to also publish her composition work - The Tango Suite for string quartet. The premier was given by the soloists from Brighton Symphony Orchestra at the Brighton Friends Meeting House, the event was extremely successful and she was congratulated by the audiences and critics which has become a major motivation for her to carry on her music journey.

In year 2003, after receiving the best performance prize at the Brighton Springboard Festival, Ella moved to London and continued to study piano under Professor Roger Green from Trinity college of music, she gave recitals in many venues including the prestigious Southwark Cathedral, whilst she also pursued an undergraduate studies in Philosophy and Political Science at Keele University, at year 2006 she graduated with honours, in the following year 2007, she won 2nd prize at the Richmond Piano Festival Competition.

In 2010, she decided to move to Paris and continue her study with Professor Marian Rybicki in Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, since then, she played in various concerts across Europe including the legendary Salle Cortot. In 2011, she was invited by Prince Zur Lippe to perform her first debut at the Schloss Proschwitz in Germany.

Ella had the pleasure and honour to also participate in masterclasses given by Andrei Gavrilov and Maria Joao Pires. After Paris, in 2013 Ella moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil to continue her music career as a concert pianist and also to study with the latest Maestro Antonio Bezzan, she has performed in several festivals including the Mackenzie music series of Sao Paulo. She is now residing in Paris, Sao Paulo and London.

Connect with Ella  zhouxunhuan@yahoo.com

Thursday, 9 July 2015

#39: Robert Stoodley and Linda Ang 'Piano A Deux': Piano Duo Concert Pianists

LA Ours is a unique journey as we met on a dating website to begin with, nothing to do with music!

RS It took about three weeks of emailing to find out whether she was a violinist, a cellist or a flautist. It turned out that she was a pianist.

LA I was certainly not looking for a musician, let alone a pianist to marry! However, we married in 2008 and in 2010 we started 'Piano a Deux'.

RS The transition from being a soloist to working in a duo takes time. This is where you realise you are no longer sitting in the middle of the piano, that you are always sitting at an awkward angle, and you’re limited to your part of the keyboard, which is either the top or the bottom. Then you find that there’s a lot of clashing of hands, you scratch each other with your finger nails, and you bump into each other a lot. Sometimes composers write the same note for both players. You might also disagree about how phrases should be played or how the music is to be shaped.

LA If you listen to orchestras or ensembles, many play in straight time, that’s playing metronomically. Many ensembles, we find, play like that. We wondered why, until we realised that it makes it much easier. Even with just 2 people, using subtleties of rhythm, or rubato as it is called, makes playing together much more demanding.

RS I think playing in a piano duo is really about honest and open communication. Both have to be able to say without offence if something is not working. If issues are not sorted out, they can fester and affect the eventual result. Conflict resolution is constantly essential. In fact, having a therapist on hand would be fantastic.

LA It’s Wimbledon season at the moment. Solo and duo playing are like playing Singles and Doubles: totally different ball games, with different mindsets and different requirements of skills.

RS With any kind of chamber music, you have to listen like a hawk. If you imagine playing a Chopin Nocturne, and then imagine that one person is playing the melody and the other person is playing the accompaniment … or even a waltz and think “I’m going to put some rubato in” … it becomes a very different and difficult thing for two people to accomplish.

RS A soloist has one brain working two hands. With a piano duo it’s two brains working four hands, hence our motto: 'Four Hands One Heart'!

LA We don’t always take the same part; sometimes I play Primo, at other times Robert does.

RS We’ve been on a bit of a journey with this because Linda assumed I would take the top part as I've got bigger hands and bigger shoulders. But then people and also our agents said that Linda can’t be seen when I play Primo. They want to see her and the dresses she wears ...

LA We have realised that the visual impact of a concert is really important too.

RS When we begin a new work we sight-read through it and then practise it separately on two different pianos for some time. Issues arise when we come back together and work out how to find one interpretation from the different ways in which we’ve come to hear the piece. That’s when conflict kicks in again.

LA I think of Maria Callas at this point. She went to every single orchestra rehearsal and said “If you want to know how to act, you listen to the orchestral part, it’s all there”. So it’s really important to know all the parts. Sometimes we actually swap roles so we know the other part intimately – that’s the ideal.

RS We’re interested in finding neglected composers and playing their music, especially when it's really good. We've found the French composer Georges Onslow, who we discovered in a dusty drawer in a music library.  During his lifetime, was as celebrated all over Europe as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn and admired by all of those, but interest in his music faded when he died. His family didn’t take on the publication or organisation of it, and so it just disappeared from public view. We've just recorded a CD which includes his Op. 7 sonata and his six solo pieces.

LA We also play the standard repertoire, and a lot of our own arrangements, for example 'An American in Paris' , 'Carmen Fantasy', 'Tea For Two' and Liszt’s 'Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2'' where we've added our own cadenzas . Also 'Stranger in Paradise' from Kismet and ' You Are My Heart’s Delight' by Franz Lehar.  There’s also Johann Strauss' ' Voices of Spring'. Very often we take tunes from operetta or music theatre and rearrange them. I used to play these arrangements on my own, and when Robert turned up he added another tier, so we've called one piece: 'Gershwin In Tiers' We’ve recently recorded six Poulenc songs which I arranged and turned into a suite for piano duo: 'Songs of Love & War'.

RS We also add pianistic gestures and write big virtuosic finishes which always work well in concert.

Piano À Deux perform at Markson Pianos Concert Series 
Wednesday 29th July at 7 p.m
St Mary Magdalene Church, Munster Square, London NW1 3PT
Admission is free, though contributions will be welcome at the end

'Carmen Carnival': Bizet arr Ang/Stoodley
 E minor Sonata, Op. 7: George Onslow
'L'Amour et La Guerre': six Poulenc songs arr Ang/Stoodley (selection)
 'An American in Paris': Gershwin arr Ang/Stoodley


Since its creation in 2010, “Piano À Deux” with its 'Four Hands One Heart' approach is redefining the piano duo experience for audiences worldwide. Robert & Linda have been wowing audiences in Hungary, Italy, Germany, Singapore, in the UK and on cruise ships with their charisma, comedy and virtuosity set in their original musical arrangements. They met not through music, but at a dating website, and married in 2008. Apart from their arrangements they also play the standard repertoire and music by neglected composers like Georges Onslow. They have just recorded his Op 7 Duo Sonata and six solo pieces on their second CD, which includes music by Debussy and songs by Poulenc (arr Linda Ang) Through their first CD: “Strictly Not Bach” released in 2011, Piano À Deux, with their audiences, have raised £2,000 for WorldVision and other charities. Their 2012 appearance on UK’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, where one of the judges Amanda Holden said, “I’m sure that the Royal Family would love this!” has earned them the epithet: 'Darlings of ITV' from producer Chris Gidney.

ROBERT STOODLEY Robert studied the piano with Dorothea Law, (student of Paul Baumgartner and Alfred Brendel), and is a linguist and songwriter. Some of Robert’s songs have been published and sung throughout the world. Many have been recorded, the most recent recording being “St. Michael-le-Belfrey--the Vinyl Years”. Robert also gained the Premier Prix at the Conservatoire de Lyon (France), has broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and given recitals and concerto performances throughout the UK. 

LINDA ANG STOODLEY Singapore born pianist Linda, B.Mus. (Edinburgh) won many awards like the RoyalOverseas League Accompanist’s Prize, and was with the Guildhall String Ensemble when they won the Internationales Jeunesses Musicales Competition in Belgrade. Linda has performed in the UK, Europe, Mauritius and Singapore; on Dutch and Mauritius television, Radio Scotland, Radio Oxford, Radio 3, live on Classic FM and Premier Radio and has recorded with several artistes and has seven CDs of her own. Linda was featured in Singapore’s “Straits Times” and Singapore Airlines’ In-flight Magazine and was cover girl for “Woman Alive” magazine.