Friday, 2 December 2016

#54 Christopher Barnett: Film Composer

... he filmed the very first moving images  ...  Before he was due to unveil his film camera he mysteriously disappeared. He’d got on a train at  Dijon and was never seen again ...

“30 years ago I was working as a mechanical engineering technician. I’d done a four-year apprenticeship straight out of school. Our company built power stations and also raised the Tudor ship Mary Rose. I’d go to recording studios in the evenings to work as a ‘tape op’; I really wanted to become a recording engineer. I decided to learn the piano, I hadn’t had any real music training and had no idea about scales, chords, and so on. I enrolled at Morley 
College and did every course you could imagine … big band, classical piano, harmony and counterpoint, jazz theory, jazz composition … and learnt how to read and write music notation and started playing gigs. It was hard work and tough financially, by then I was married with a young family, but I just dived in and really loved it; I was fulfilling my dream, my ambition. Eventually I did an MMus in Composing for Film and TV. It seemed like a very long journey!

I’ve been writing music for films for the last seventeen years. Recently I finished a TV documentary; The Modern British Slave Trade.  There are many more people in slavery now than back in the 17th and 18th centuries - and in everyday walks of life; people who do your nails, tarmac your drives, wash your cars …. this documentary shines a light on something we know little about and it’s very sad. 

When I compose, I’ll watch the film a couple of times just to see how it makes me feel as a viewer, to see what moves me, and then I’ll go away, think about it and let ideas fester gradually – depending on the deadline. I will then return to the film, place my hands on the piano, and see what different ideas come to me. 

Sometimes I’ll score the film chronologically, or maybe the hardest section first, other times I’ll write a theme which I think fits the character and then work the theme in various ways, changing keys, formats, time signatures, to build the picture. 

Directors usually employ a ‘temp’ (temporary) track pasted to the film in order to specify a ‘musical direction’. I also encourage them to speak to me in terms of emotion rather than by quoting musical terms, because that really helps us to get straight to a solution that works for us both quickly. They may want me to bring out an emotion that’s not quite coming through in the film, perhaps something that’s not quite working with one of the actors or with a scene, or they might need to highlight some darkness or some happiness … and I solve these issues in different ways, via the tonalities I use, or the orchestration. I work intuitively, laying out the music in my software program against the picture. When there’s the budget to hire musicians, I score their parts. But when a piano is needed, I record myself. 

In 2014 I wrote the soundtrack for The First Film, a documentary about Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who, in 1888 filmed the very first moving images, not in glamorous New York or Paris but in Leeds! Before he was due to unveil his film camera invention and ’screen’ the moving image, he mysteriously disappeared. He’d got on a train at  Dijon and was never seen again, and then was forgotten by history. The producer director David Nicholas Wilkinson had wanted to tell this story for the last thirty-odd years. He asked me to do something along the lines of Philip Glass, so I went to my Bechstein upright and hashed out several ideas, settled on a few and took it from there. We worked on the project for around nine months; it was gratifying to have so much time and freedom. The footage was continuously added as new information was discovered, so I did several re-writes. Usually on a ‘locked picture’, I’m asked: ”make this part more dramatic, make that part more subtle” and so on. But there was no real locked picture on The First Film, re-writes were made to accommodate shifting scenes and added material. Nevertheless, it was great to have artistic liberty and to work on such a fascinating story. To top it off, this year it was recognised with a Media award for my work on it.” (Christopher Barnett was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Connect with Christopher Barnett 

The First Film is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and will be screened on Film Four/Channel 4. The DVD will be released in February 2017

The Modern British Slave Trade will be screened on Channel 4 during December 2016.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

#53 Ed Balls: Former Chancellor, amateur pianist & dancer and Katya Jones: Showdance Champion & dancer on Strictly Come Dancing

Ed Balls and Mrs Katya Jones on a Strictly rehearsal break

You think of the piano as an intellectual exercise, the dancing you think of as much more physical. But with both, I find I get much more mentally, rather than physically, tired ...

Katya I started piano when I was four years old and learnt for eight years,
getting up to a high level and taking part in competitions. I didn’t continue because the dancing took over.  But I had the piano at home and kept it up because I love playing. I still play now, picking out by ear the music I like to listen to. 

Ed I started piano in my forties. I’d always wanted to play and when my kids started learning I decided to start too. We were in Opposition and I had more flexibility over my time than I’d had when we were in Government. I realised that to improve, I had to make the time to practice, and also by doing Grades I would be forced to learn in a way that I’d progress. 

Katya I’m a competitive dancer and practice is the number one thing, so it’s very similar to piano performance. Every day we do the same basic steps over and over, we do self-practice, we know what to work on.  We go to the dance studio and in front of the mirror keep going over and over the same steps to perfect them. We say it’s quality rather than quantity. It’s very physical and you get injuries. I also have private lessons and travel around the world to particular teachers as well as to dance in competitions. 

Ed The learning of the piano really helped to give me the confidence that I could do Strictly. When you start, either on the piano or in the dance, you feel it’s impossible, nothing is intuitive. So you can’t rely on instinct because you’re a learner. But I’ve realised through the piano work that if you take the time, you can do it so that’s helped me in the dance. Also, I realised that both my dance and piano teachers were using the same technique which was rather than trying to do the whole thing at once, it was to stop when things go wrong and work out what was going through my head, start again and try to get to the next step. It’s that method of building repetition, of finding the bits and doing them again and again, that works in both piano and dance. 

When I began piano I had to learn to read the left hand music - the bass clef – I’d only done treble clef in violin before. So that mental to physical, having to read in a new stave and play with my left hand …. similarly in dance when I started off I used to move everything at one time. But Katya said no, when I say move your knees, I don’t mean move your chin or your shoulders! And concentrating on isolating an element and then flowing from that, there’s a connection with the piano too. You think of the piano as an intellectual exercise, the dancing you think of as much more physical. But with both, I find I get much more mentally, rather than physically, tired, the taking-in of information and trying to remember everything at the same time, be it feet, posture, or be it notes, expressions and dynamics, thinking of those things at the same time – it’s very mentally tiring. 

Katya When I dance I sing a lot, I connect to the song, I express the dynamics with my body. You don’t want to approach it carelessly; that expression of the notes with fingers in piano translates in dance to the expression of the music with your body. There's a total connection to the sound and it's  an amazing feeling when you become as one with the music. 

Ed When we did the Quickstep, it was the first time that the music carried us along and we just rolled with it. I’ve also had that same experience at the piano. I have a 1966, Japanese, one female owner, upright Yamaha which I bought from Markson Pianos; affordable and it sounds fantastic. My only regret is I never make it sound as good as the piano tuner makes it sound! But at least I get glimpses of what that piano is really capable of. 

Katya In dance, the equivalent to an excellent piano is the co-ordination of your body, it has to be natural yet rehearsed. That’s what so hard about dancing, you have to make something look natural when it’s actually unnatural. 

Ed It’s also the discipline. I’m a complete amateur and we have to go from scratch up to performing on TV all within five days. If you’re a perfectionist like Katya - 

Katya - I trained in Russia so I’m used to extreme discipline! You just do it again and again and again until it’s right,

Ed There’s a particular heel turn; when we were in Norwich early on and Katya said we’re not going to move on until you’ve done this five times. It took me thirty-eight goes before I’d achieved five of them!

Katya And after that we did three in a row! 

Ed Amateur adult pianists learn differently to children and can do more of what they enjoy at the piano. But what I’ve learnt through the dance is the importance of discipline and practice at the piano, so it’s not just about what you actually enjoy doing or learning. And I’ve definitely learnt the discipline of repetition. 

Katya It really helped that you’d been learning the piano because when we started Strictly it wasn’t necessary for me to teach you musicality or rhythm – it’s been a massive benefit.

(Ed Balls and Katya Jones were speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Ed Balls and Mrs Katya Jones perform in Strictly Come Dancing in Blackpool on Saturday November 19th - wishing them all the best!

Monday, 24 October 2016

#52 Lola Perrin: Composer Pianist and Markson Pianos Composer in Residence

Lola Perrin in the Markson Pianos Showroom
" ... the right hand is chasing the left and there’s a recklessness .... the audience seemed to erupt which was perfect as it was designed to provoke conversation ... "

"I composed my first “climate piece” in 2005 in which I imagined

the changing shapes of spaces inside melting icebergs.  I was influenced by artist Rachel Whiteread who finds ways to capture different spaces in her works.  She was on a trip to the Arctic to highlight global warming and while she was there, I was at my piano in London working very consciously in her footprints, allowing the peaks and troughs of the imagined shapes inside the ice to dictate the shapes of my musical lines.

A few years later I saw an image that was so powerful I instantly decided I’d have to focus my life and work on climate issues. It was one of Isaac Cordal’s miniature sculptures; little business men standing up having a meeting, but with water up to their necks and foreheads. You immediately saw that these were bureaucrats discussing climate change - but too late; they were already flooded.

I first found myself going down the path so many of us artists go down and engaged with the apocalypse.  Imagery of floods, droughts, fires, melting ice … the drama of extremes is a magnet to the artist.

Trying to stop my handwringing about not knowing what to do about climate change ... I followed trails to different scientists and environmental groups and found two really compelling concepts. Zero Carbon Britain which has developed an intensively researched twenty-year plan to switch over to clean energy using existing technology, and and also Citizens Climate Lobby which is a lobbying movement to get politicians to impose a new fee to fossil companies - which will basically force them out of business. And I really loved the sound of joining a lobbying force to compete with the way fossil companies lobby politicians – empowering! These two movements influenced my present composition, Significantus, currently on tour and also being performed at Markson Pianos Concert Series.

It frustrates me that there’s not enough conversation in real life places about the most urgent issue we face, ie climate change. It’s much more in the media now but it’s still not often enough, in or out of the media – it’s like a taboo. I wanted to make a piece of music that has a space within it for a positive conversation with the audience, about the better type of world we want to create in response to climate change. Because if the conversation needs to be everywhere, that includes concert spaces.

I sourced three quotations. The first is by Mark Maslin and tells of how significant we actually are, contrary to the last 500 years in which scientific thought taught us that we were insignificant – through our modern lifestyle we'e leaving our footprints where we’ve never even been! The second quote, from Paul Allen, tells us that if we don't imagine a positive future we won't create it. The third quote, from Chris Rapley, likens the earth to a spacecraft and tells of how we're recklessly tampering with all the vital systems keeping us alive – something we wouldn’t dream of doing if we were on a man-made space ship. 

Just before the conversation with the audience the music is very fast, the right hand is chasing the left and there’s a breathlessness, a recklessness. At the premier the audience seemed to erupt after I played it, which was perfect as it was designed to provoke conversation. I’m looking forward to playing this to more audiences to see if I get the same reaction.

I’m inviting different guest speakers to join the different performances. Climatologist and writer Rachel McCarthy will be at the Marksons Piano Concert Series concert. Other speakers I’m collaborating with are Paul Allen of Zero Carbon Britain/Centre for Alternative Technology, political economist Andrew Simms, complexity theory activist Jean Boulton, environmental psychologist Stuart Capstick, filmmaker/writer James Murray-White and writer/performer Jennifer Leach. I’ve also had interest from Chinese concert pianist Ella Xunhuan Zhou who has started to learn the suite with the idea of touring it next year in China. It’s exciting to think that on the other side of the world is someone just as serious as I am in using the concert space to help drive forward the vital environmental conversation." (Lola Perrin is Composer in Residence at Markson Pianos)


Hear Significantus (Piano Suite IX Lola Perrin 2016) 
With Guest Speaker Rachel McCarthy

Wednesday Oct 26th at 7pm
Markson Pianos Concert Series
St Mary Magdalene Parish Church
Munster Square
London NW1 3PT

Oct 31 Clare College Cambridge with James Murray-White
Nov 9 Schumacher College's Feeding the insatiable symposium
Nov 12 Cambridge Circular Festival with Prof Jane Heal
Jan 29 SOAS University of London with Andrew Simms 

Monday, 17 October 2016

#51: The Reverend Mark Nash-Williams: Vicar of Alston Moor and lifelong pianist

  " ...Alston town has about a thousand people – and we’re really quite isolated ... we’re going to have to learn to do things for ourselves, possibly as people did a hundred years ago ... "

“I started having lessons when I was five or six; playing piano has always been an important part of my life. It’s one of the ways in which I communicate with God. That stilling process of playing opens up channels, so it’s an important part of my spiritual life. Occasionally I accompany services, but if I’m dashing from my stall to the piano and back again, from my point of view it makes for a less satisfactory worship experience. Fortunately we do have very good musicians who can play most of the time, so mainly I play just for my own personal pleasure and satisfaction. 

A while ago circumstances meant that I got out of the habit of playing. The Church kindly thought that playing the piano was part of my personal development so they paid for half a dozen lessons to help me start up again. I began by learning some Beethoven sonatas. I’m now also trying to get my fingers around Oscar Peterson - trying to play some of his transcriptions is fun!

If I had to pick one composer it would be JS Bach - we tend to refer to him as God in this house. There’s a serenity about his music, and a rightness which is immensely good. It’s not easy to put into words; Bach himself was close to God, there’s something about his music which seems to bridge that gap somehow. A friend of mine has a good phrase; “music is God’s language here on Earth”, and I think there’s something in that, because it touches us at a level where words often don’t. Music often opens things up that perhaps other things don’t. Bach is the composer who most resonates with who I am, he’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. 

Playing the piano is a process of praying, I think. Prayer is wide-ranging, it’s not just saying words in church or consciously focussing on God, it can be about the whole of life - and music is part of that communication with God and with the wider world. 

I have a project that is focussed on the town of Alston and also on the wider community, scattered across an area of a couple of hundred square kilometres. Alston town has about a thousand people – and we’re really quite isolated; we’re up in the North Pennines in an area that gets snowed in regularly. It’s around 40 minutes’ drive to the next place of any size so we have to be self-sufficient. We’re inconvenient to the authorities and providing services is never going to be profitable. So we’re beginning to lose our services; the banks have closed, the hospital is under threat, the buses are minimal, the school is under threat … Like a lot of people, I’ve realised that if we are to flourish in the long term, we’re going to have to learn to do things for ourselves, possibly as people did fifty, sixty or a hundred years ago. 

The Church has generously given me a three month sabbatical so that I can explore how we might make that happen. It’s not exactly a Church ‘thing’, but my view is that God is interested in the whole of our lives and community and how we flourish as a whole, and so the Church ought to be a part of that anyway. If we’re looking at the future of the community in general, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that there’s no point in doing this unless we’re looking at sustainability and also at carbon neutral, and then moving ahead quite quickly in that direction. And perhaps we can be an exemplar of how this can be done. 

So I’m researching what people are already doing in different parts of the country and beyond, attending courses, reading, interviewing, visiting colleagues and learning ways of getting the community involved in local development. Hopefully by the end I’ll have the beginning of a paper suggesting a way forward which the wider community can pick up and work with as they develop a community and neighbourhood plan, and then we will start to have conversations much more widely with the community about as to where we want to go. It’s daunting but exciting!” (The Revd Mark Nash-Williams was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Monday, 26 September 2016

#50 Nafis Umerkulova: Concert Pianist

When you have an injury you get all sorts of thoughts about how you may never get back to how you were before .... I learned that even if it’s a Carnegie Hall recital, it’s better to stop than risk injury. To really listen to your body is important ...

"I was born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in 1988. At that time it was still part of the Soviet Union which then collapsed when I was one, and went on to become an independent republic in 1991. It took quite a few years to change and it’s been an interesting transition. During the Soviet years, speaking Russian was compulsory, so my grandparents and parents were educated in Russian. But Uzbekistan managed to preserve its traditions during the Soviet Union. As a result some Uzbek families were bilingual and would speak both languages equally well, like my family. I was brought up speaking pretty much Uzbek only until the age of 5, but gradually Russian was introduced until it became my mother tongue at school.

I became interested in piano at the age of five, after hearing my mother play. At the age of six I passed an audition to the Specialist Music School named after Uspensky. Everything was in Russian and at that time they still used a lot of Soviet books. Musical education at that time was based on solfège, modelled on the way it was taught in Moscow or St Petersburg. But Uzbekistan was a new country with new ideas so change was happening and there was a combination of what they had before with new, fresh ways of doing things. So, the country I grew up in was very diverse and special. My friends were from all over the world; there were Ossetians, Tatars, Koreans, Jewish, Russian and Uzbek kids. It was similar with my teachers. One influential piano teacher was the Georgian pianist Natalia Tzinzadze, who studied with the legendary Heinrich and Stanislav Neuhaus. Looking back I feel appreciative of how interesting and exciting my formative years were and grateful for having been surrounded by so many inspiring people.

I left Uzbekistan when I was 16 to study at the Purcell School and later continued to the Royal Academy of Music, followed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Last year I found out I was accepted for a competition and had only a few months to prepare. It was a very intensive time as I had a huge programme to learn. On top of the competition preparation I was also teaching and taking care of other engagements. It was stressful,l but exciting, to have to do so much in such a short time, so I decided to push myself hard. I was also preparing different programmes for several concerts that were close together. It turned out that it was all too much pressure for my hand and I started feeling something was wrong. However, I couldn't bring myself to stop when I should have, as I was excited about the competition and wanted to be ready for it on time. So eventually it got to the point when I realised that I’d injured my hand. Fortunately it didn’t seem to be too serious but I had to completely stop playing for a month. Then I started playing 5 minutes a day, then gradually that turned into 15 minutes, then 30, then 45. I didn’t know how long the injury would last, I had to turn down some performance engagements. Once I began to recover, even though I still had to take it easy, it did help to have a goal of a concert to work towards. The first concert was only half an hour, so I played three Schubert impromptus. Gradually I started playing longer concerts and then finally full length recitals again.

It was a challenging period. Playing piano is what I want to do all my life, it’s what I live for. So at that time I felt very scared. When you have an injury you get all sorts of thoughts about how you may never get back to how you were before. But I was very lucky to have a lot of support from friends and people who are close to me. I believe that our emotional and mental well being is just as important in the recovery process as the physical well being. In some ways I was happy this happened because it made me realise quite a few things, like having my priorities defined clearly and also being aware of whether or not something is worth pushing for. I learned that even if it’s a Carnegie Hall recital, it’s better to stop than risk injury. To really listen to your body is important. No matter how much pressure you’re under, the musician’s health is the main priority. As other musicians have told me, injuries happen when you ignore the signals the body is sending you. When you prepare for a performance there’s a lot of adrenaline and pressure; it all just adds up, and can perhaps make you delusional where you think you can carry on even though the body is telling you to stop!" (Nafis Umerkulova was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Nafis Umerkulova performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series
September 28th at 7pm

Schumann Sonata in F sharp minor Op 11
Ravel Sonatine
Debussy Estampes

St Mary Magdalene Parish Church
Munster Square, London NW1
Tickets £6/£4 on the door


Thursday, 21 July 2016

#49 Daniel Grimwood: Concert Pianist

Daniel Grimwood

A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in 

“The thought of performing my favourite composer on the modern piano that most suits him gave me the idea of playing an all Schubert concert, because he works so beautifully on Bösendorfer pianos. These pianos have a tonal aesthetic that harks back to the nineteenth century. The original Mr Bösendorfer was taught by Brodmann, one of the great builders of the Viennese hammerflugels.  Bösendorfers have been built in an unbroken line since the early 19th Century, (I believe Czerny owned one), and there’s something of the refinement of tone of the old Viennese instruments that’s being carried through.

I recently recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial model; it’s a great big beast of a piano and you can create this huge wall of sound, but nonetheless it’s still always very transparent and very refined. Which pretty much are the same words I would use to describe Schubert’s keyboard music; transparent and refined.

But this time I was recording piano works by the German composer Adolph von Henselt; a hobbyhorse of mine. He was the teacher of Rachmaninoff’s teacher, born in Bavaria but he moved to Russia. I think you can’t overestimate the importance of the influence that his output had on Russian composers.

As long as I like the music it matters to me little who wrote it. I try to have as encyclopaedic a knowledge of repertoire as possible; I think it’s not sufficient to know that Chopin was a great composer, for example. I think I need to know everything about the world in which he was writing, and that means the music that he performed and taught, the music that was being performed at the same time. Sometimes you come across music that’s not as great as the Greats that we’ve received, and that shows us what really is great about those composers. But sometimes you come across a composer who really should be better known. And then we have composers like Schubert, who is one of the most famous, but there’s a lot of his music that is never performed. For example, I think to date, there are only two or three complete recorded cycles of his string quartets. How often do you hear the first three symphonies performed in concert? Almost never! If he’d been two composers and if one had written the early works and the other the late works, I think the early works would be heard more.

Schubert scholarship is going through a period of change at the moment. For example, Schubert’s Beethoven Project by Gingerich which talks in depth about how Schubert was trying to build on Beethoven’s achievements. After his year of crisis he starting writing fantastic masterpieces in the Beethovenian genres - the piano sonata being one of them. It’s also interesting to understand what position the piano sonata had in European society at that time; it was predominantly a domestic form. As we know, none of Beethoven’s piano sonatas were performed in public during his lifetime and likewise, Schubert sonatas wouldn’t have been considered to be public music. The sonata was a feminised and domestic art form. There were of course virtuoso male performers who were starting to emerge at that time in the wake of Beethoven, but that wasn’t what Schubert was expecting to be published for (what little of it that was published in his lifetime).

There was a tradition of keyboard sonatas being published in threes, and for some time now it’s been considered that Schubert’s three last sonatas belong together, they are cut from the same cloth. I’ve played these three before and I don’t like separating them because they work so beautifully together. Having become accustomed to that, I always feel they seem a little out of place when they’re not in the company of their brothers and sisters, so to speak. The sonatas that I’m currently preparing to perform are the three that proceed the final three.

As I’m preparing this programme I’m starting to feel quite strongly that I’m not practising three sonatas, I’m practising three gigantic movements of a huge structure. It’s definite that Schubert intended them to be published as one set and they are also cut from the same cloth. There are thematic similarities; there’s this curious knocking rhythm that begins in the first movement of the first sonata and finishes at a structural point in the final movement of the last sonata. It’s a strong rhythm, like someone knocking on the door. I’ve spent time in the south of Germany and Austria in landscapes that Schubert would have felt at home in, very similar to the landscape surrounding Vienna … and there are qualities in Schubert’s orchestral writing such as the way he treats the woodwind … the horn calls … all of the things we associate with German Romanticism that were largely inherited from Weber … all of these things that come from the land, and I picture these when I’m playing Schubert. I had a moment once when I was walking through Vienna and I was on one of the bridges over the Danube and I could just hear in my mind’s ear the trio section from the Scherzo of the Great Symphony …

My attitude to venues and audiences is quite simplistic; give me a piano that works and people who want to listen and I’ll do it anywhere. I don’t have a favourite venue because the venue gives me less than the people listening to me. I have given salon style concerts, most recently in the Gregynog Festival in Wales. I took up my 1801 Broadwood square piano, which is an elegant toned instrument and invites a more intimate form of music making. Concert giving should be intimate. A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in. I went to hear Richard Goode perform the last three Schubert sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. Even though I’d bought my ticket at the last minute and had to sit far back, Mr Goode’s unique skills drew in the entire audience and the room shrank. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few pianists of my generation to have heard Richter perform in concert and again, it was this sensation of the room actually shrinking to fit the performance; it was quite beautiful.” (Daniel Grimwood was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


July 27th at 7pm
Daniel Grimwood performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series

3 Schubert Sonatas
Sonata in A minor, Op. 42
Sonata in D Major, Op. 53
Sonata in G Major, Op. 78 

St Mary Magdalene Parish Church, Munster Place, London NW1 3PL
Tickets £6/£4 on the door


Daniel Grimwood first discovered the piano at a neighbour's house aged 3 starting a musical journey that has led him to share his music with audiences across the world amassing a repertoire ranging from Elizabethan Virginal music to works of living composers.  He enjoys a solo and chamber career that has taken him across the globe, performing in many of the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals, including the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room in London, the Rachmaninoff and Gnessin Halls in Moscow, the Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in New York, as many others throughout the world.  Winning a scholarship to the Purcell School of Music where he became head boy, and later completed his studies with Vladimir Ovchinnikov and Peter Feuchtwanger. Please visit his website for discography. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

#48 John Dawson: Professional piano accompanist

Programme Note from John Dawson's Bedford Festival Vexations performance
... what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time ...

“Although there’s a certain constituency of people interested in Satie’s Vexations, most people you talk to about this piece think it’s mad! I’ve been lecturing on 20th Century music to residents of Bedford Retirement Education Centre and when I told them about the Satie work I was met with very puzzled faces. They asked me why on earth anyone would want to play the same short piece of music 840 times in one sitting lasting 19 hours …

In fact I’ve performed Vexations twice. I had been interested for a while but it’s almost impossible to find a concert venue interested in staying open all night. The opportunity arose when I was a lecturer at London College of Dance and Drama and I discovered that the students were going to have a 24 hour sit-in, meaning the building would have to stay open round the clock. This was exactly at the same time as reports coming in about the Ethiopian famine that prompted Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid. So I played Vexations through the night and raised a few hundred pounds for Live Aid. But I played so fast it only lasted 12 hours instead of 19, and even worse, I found out several years later by examining the five bar charts recording the number of repeats that my support team had made a mistake and I probably only played the piece 836 times instead of 840 …. but as I ended up marrying one of the people who had been counting I forgave her! We’re still married after 30 years so something must have gone right.

That was a fairly informal performance in a small music room with people wandering in and out, including a very confused caretaker. There were people there who were so culturally divorced from what we were doing that there was no point in trying to explain ..! 

That was almost a dry run for the real thing because ten years later I was invited to perform for the Bedford Music Festival. I couldn’t find a suitable piano on which to perform a traditional classical recital. When I found out that the venue was prepared to stay open all night I decided to do Vexations again. This was in 1997 and being before the days of the Internet, we couldn’t find any evidence that the piece had been performed anywhere in the world by one person. We invited the Guinness Book of Records but they weren’t interested, they missed the point because the actual piece to be repeated is very short. Of course nowadays, ten minutes on the Internet will show you that Richard Toop performed it in 1967, but in the late 1990s it was much harder to research things like this. There were one or two accounts of people who’d tried and failed.  For example there was an Australian pianist who abandoned the performance after 593 repetitions saying the music was “evil” - I suspect that had more to do with his own demons rather than anything intrinsic in the music. But so few people were attempting the work, it really was an underground activity. 

I thought it would be good to put on a straightforward concert of it, so that’s what we did. Everything this time was designed so I could concentrate solely on the music. I had a manager and counters were in place to keep count in relays. I was as military as I could be to make sure that everything would go right so that once I sat down I would concentrate solely on the music. I didn’t make any serious mistakes (and my planning was good so I didn’t have to stop for a toilet break at any time). 

I’ve always been patient and I was very curious to see if I could actually do it.  There is an egotistical element in every performer, but I was also really interested in seeing what effect a performance of this type would have on me. And what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time. For the first dozen repetitions I just bedding in; it’s such an awkward, difficult piece to play that I was scared of making mistakes. So I was making sure I was playing the right notes, that my body posture was comfortable, I was concentrating as if I was in a Grade exam. After around an hour I started to move into another state. I supposed it’s similar to being carried away by a Mozart slow movement for example; you do go ‘somewhere else’ but it’s a strange paradox: you think you’re being carried away but in reality you cannot let go because if you did, your technique would vanish. For much of the time I felt a sense of timelessness. I had an awareness that I was producing a monotonous hum, but even though I wasn’t thinking of other things, my mind was somewhere else. This took place in a big old church in Bedford called St Pauls, with its cavernous space and big stained glass windows, a magical atmosphere, especially in the middle of the night. The audience numbers fluctuated during the performance but I did notice that a handful people sat there for several hours. 

Now, I’m sure Satie meant this as a joke, he couldn’t possibly have intended anyone to play this 840 times. If you look at the score there are inconsistencies that don’t make sense. He tells you to 'present' the bass theme at the sign, but the sign occurs twice, at the beginning and at the end, so what does that mean? I think it’s supposed to be a paradox, un-performable, and he’d probably be laughing at people who try to perform it. But, like any joke, you can call his bluff and see what happens. It’s had an effect far beyond the quixotic joke that he possibly had in mind. 

And as a piece, there’s something about the sheer pointlessness and aimlessness of the chords. They are all diminished triads, or augmented triads; all very carefully calculated to give a sense of senselessness. There isn’t really a beginning or an end. Ironically, it is peculiarly suited to a piece that you play 840 times. You may think any piece would do, but this is just about the best piece that you could choose to play 840 times - so in that sense it is a successful composition, it’s the change that the repetition brings about in the listener’s mind that’s interesting.

The audience experiences were vastly different. Some people were puzzled. One of my friends - a Hindu - sat entranced for well over an hour in the middle of the night and later told me that he had found the whole experience incredibly powerful and relaxing almost like religious meditation.

I do feel that this music has the power to transform the listener. The closest music I know to Vexations is Plainsong that you find in a monastery; monotonous but not boring – and capable of producing a truly transformative experience in the listener who engages with it on their own terms.” (John Dawson was talking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

#47 Lorraine Liyanage: Concert Harpsichordist, Piano Teacher and Dulwich Music Festival founder

Just because you don't win doesn't mean you don't give up

"I run a private piano teaching studio in East Dulwich, South London and was sending my students far away to Croydon and Bromley to take part in music festivals.  I dont drive and it was always difficult for me to get to there so it occurred to me that I should set up on my own festival.  In 2012, I founded the Dulwich Music Festival for my students, and for other local students and piano teachers. The festival started as a small-scale once a year event but has now grown to around 5 events a year and is part of the Federation of British and International Festivals.

The festival is an opportunity to feature most keyboard instruments from piano to fortepiano to harpsichord, and we may include the organ in the future.  The aims are to introduce young musicians to primarily historical instruments and also to have competitive piano classes.  We encourage contemporary music which provides the young musicians with the opportunity to meet the composers who wrote the music they’re playing. Weve just had our fifth annual piano competition this June and already have the date in the diary for next year’s event at Dulwich College which will be adjudicated by James Kirby.

We also run the Broadwood Horniman Harpsichord Competition which is the only harpsichord competition of its kind in the UK and so theres a lot of demand for it, with competitors coming from across Europe for last year’s event.

Our newest event is the Clementi Junior Piano Competition which had its inaugural event in March 2016. Whilst researching local Dulwich history, I found a connection with Muzio Clementi’s former home on Kensington Church Street which was previously owned by Dulwich Schools JAGs and Alleyn’s School in the 19th century.  When I discovered this piece of local history I thought it was great connection for the Dulwich Music Festival and I contacted Clementi House to establish a new event. Competitors perform set pieces by Clementi on a modern grand piano; the next competition is in February 2017 and entries are already open.

Of course, not everyone wants to compete.  I have colleagues who don’t enter their students into competitions and there are also parents of some of my students who do not want their children to participate in competitive events so we always include non-competitive classes. These provide the opportunity to receive feedback and it’s also great preparation for exams as it helps to combat the nerves by performing in public. 

I personally dont mind competitions; I took part in competitions such as the Ealing Festival regularly as a child so Im used to them and consider them a rite of passage for young musicians. Being at ease with playing to an audience developed my confidence with public speaking which is a skill that I regularly use now when performing as a harpsichordist and also as the festival director.  I didn’t win any competitions but I enjoyed the experience and also the excitement of performing - and it was a fantastic way to hear new repertoire before the days of YouTube and Spotify! In fact, the only time I remember “winning” is when I played in a class of two and I came second!  I was around 17 years old.  It didnt put me off. Just because you dont win doesnt mean you give up.

When I perform I love to play contemporary music.  Recently I performed music by the Australian composer Stephen Yates.  The composition, written in the 1990s, is based on a Baroque Fandango.  A wonderful aspect of performing contemporary music is that you can get in touch with the composer and ask what was in their mind when they were composing. This piece has a macabre character and goes into some very dark places so I asked the composer all about it and he provided me with fascinating information about the background to the piece. The music is about someone who wandered into a castle on his travels where he stumbled upon a crowd of people dancing at a ball. He is invited to dance in the fandango and suddenly it turns sinister and the dancers start swirling around him and drawing him into their ghoulish embrace.  I’ve also recently discovered the music of Greek composer Nikolas Sideris that I performed at a recent harpsichord recital.

One of my other passions is the music of Haydn played on the harpsichord. I am fortunate enough to have access to a Kirckman harpsichord built in 1772 that resides at the Horniman Museum and Gardens where I have performed several times. This instrument is ideal for the music of Haydn and I have a lot of Haydn programmed for 2017 recitals.

Im attracted by the repertoire and also by the harpsichord community which is very welcoming and mutually supportive.  And you tend to end up playing in amazing places; beautiful old buildings always seem to surround the harpsichord world.  Not long ago I was in the Museu da Música in Lisbon. To one side is the tube station and the other side is an amazing museum underground.  I went there just to try the instrument but it ended up being an audition so I look forward to playing there in the near future.  Another interesting place where I recently performed is The Asylum Chapel in Peckham.  This is a Grade II listed building created for retired pub landlords that was bombed in the war.  Although the whole of the inside was destroyed the stained glass windows stayed intact. The acoustics are wonderful and it makes for some stunning photos.  I had a very diverse audience for this concert and all ages came as well, it was fantastic, I think its what we call the South London effect!" (Lorraine Liyanage was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

To find out more about many of the events listed above, please visit Dulwich Music Festival

Upcoming harpsichord recitals are listed online

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

#46 Jenni Roditi: Composer, conductor, pianist

I originally trained in piano and composition … Everything I do pours into my teaching and now, for the first time, into my conducting too …

“I conduct two choirs; a professional choir TIC - The Improvisers Choir and a community choir TOC - The Open Choir. The project is TIC TOC SING. TIC singers come from a wide variety of genres. We have pop singers with opera singers, avant-garde with jazz, folk and experimental so we’ve got a bend-not-blend aesthetic. Some are composers, while others are working in film and are in musical theatre. So the idea was to have a completely mixed genre, mixed sound choir.

The choirs kind of leapt out of my Vocal Tai Chi workshops that I’ve been running for a long time where there’s a lot of improvising behind closed doors. Both choirs work with improvisation. I conduct using a system of signals that form the music in the moment. This gives a lot of freedom to the individual singer to come up with their own ideas. I’m taking on the meta-structure … which I mean the overall shape of the piece. So I can control the flow of the music by encouraging one element to grow and another to fade for example. I can start sections and stop sections and that means knowing what to encourage and when to change. Those are really compositional decisions - but not made with any time to reflect, as one does sitting at a desk, but in the moment with no looking back. So whatever is happening my task is the make it work… as Miles Davis said -'if you play a wrong note - play it again'.  It is a co- creative process because I am responding to what the choir members are creating themselves. It's a beautifully porous situation. 

The hand signals are a simple set of traffic lights with various semaphore gestures that indicate what kind of musical clay to work with. They say whether you copy others, or if you step forward to solo, or if you are creating a repeating pattern, or if you are harmonising something that’s there, or giving an undercurrent of rhythm, or if you are suggesting harmony with sustained notes … I have different signals for each of these simple building blocks. Pitch is already there in the room, once someone sings a note then you create a mode around that note. Sometimes there may be two modes going on, I’m interested in the bitonality, so can be perfect, sometimes it may be more jazzy, sometimes it may be more complex or dissonant in colours and tones. There isn’t really harmonic progression in the old sense, it’s more like the Balinese - Javanese tradition of repetition and concentration on timbre and colour and working with atmospheres.

My own improvised singing is like a vocal form of Tai Chi… I call it Moving Voice Between Heaven and Earth. It’s a synthesis of tai chi, breath practice, centring and grounding with the present moment sounding and improvising voice, the creative voice. It draws on different practices I’ve studied including therapeutic work, Indian ragas and Extended Vocal Technique. I’m also influenced by indigenous sounds; earth bound voice traditions, Inuit, Bulgarian vocal tradition and so on.

I originally trained in piano and composition at Guildhall and have been writing for many different instrumental groupings including three operas, choral work, and piano music, such as my forty-minute piano duo, ‘Between the Octaves’, exploring essential elements of piano music in seven movements: initiate, spatial, line, layer, rotate, pronounce and pulsate. So, TIC TOC SING is drawing on my work in contemporary music composition all the time. Everything I do pours into my teaching and now, for the first time, into my conducting too and the way that I embody my work and (hopefully) inspire students to practice with me. 

After the first TOC concert someone said it was looking at a living organism, or like being in the presence of a sort of animal that was expressing itself giving the sense of an untamed energy. Another audience member said she had expected it to all sound samey but there was a lot of variety and a real sense of journey for her. There had been nerves to start with but afterwards there was a vibrant and celebratory atmosphere!” (Jenni Roditi was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

On Friday 10th June at the Crouch End Festival opening night at the Grade 2 listed Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre, Jenni Roditi will be conducting two concerts in one. First, the community choir TOC - The Open Choir - will perform in the Crush Hall, a marble art deco with wonderful resonant acoustic. Then the audience will process downstairs to the Supper Room where the professional choir TIC - The Improvisers Choir - will perform.

June 10th 7.30pm Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre
Tickets £3.30 in advance and £5 on the door for TIC. TOC is free entry
June 16th 7pm – 9pm Introduction to Vocal Tai Chi at the Loft
Booking via £6 on the door.
June 18th 11am – 4pm. TIC TIC SING
Public workshop in Hornsey Town Hall Supper Room with members of both choirs present.

Connect with Jenni Roditi

Jenni Roditi FRSA GGSM, MMus VMTR is an associate of the Institute of Composing and board director of BASCA. She is a composer, vocalist, pianist and conductor of two improvisation choirs. She founded Vocal Tai Chi in 2012. She is currently working on refinements of her piece ‘Between the Octaves’ for piano duo and is looking for a venue and open minded players to present the premiere of this work….

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

#45 Marina Petrov: Concert Pianist, Educator & Co-founder of ATGPMF

The first thing I try to teach my students is the love and understanding of music ...  Many of my students stay with me for a very long time ... this is something that can be explored for decades

"I consider myself an idealist when it comes to teaching music.  I give myself completely as a person and as a musician.  The first thing I try to teach my students is the love and understanding of music,of understanding different styles.  Many of my students stay with me for a very long time because this is a process for learning for the rest of your life and because music is something that can be explored for decades.  It never ends.  When students fall in love with music, as I do through the piano, then we learn how to create.  So creativity is an important part of what we do together and this is why students who stick with me for a long period of time produce such a level of playing.

My piano class consist of students of all ages and levels, from children as young as five years old, to amateurs, to diploma students, to professional pianists. With the young beginner, I use a combination of books.  I try to get them to sing with the piano, sing without the piano, to make little phrases.  I don’t obsess about the reading of the notes.  I repeat the same things over and again; singing up the scale together, “A B C D E” and other methods so they connect with the keys.  It’s a very gradual process of learning.  I say to them, “If you play the same thing at home over and over, and you look at the music and you also look down at the keyboard, it will gradually just come”.  The progress depends on the child and how much they practice.  I have a rule for children that they must practice 20 minutes per day, and if they don’t do it, they have to make it up.  Some do and some don’t!

During the lesson, at some point I stop the piece and ask them to name the notes they’re playing.  I always teach them if they don’t recognise the written note, they have to work it out.  I don’t want them to feel frightened that they don’t know the names, I teach them that they simply need to stop to work it out.

Teaching children is not an easy task and it requires much patience.  The brain in the child is small and they are leaning several simultaneous processes; to play (mechanical finger movement), to have the co-ordination, to read music, to look up and down … many different processes combine when they are learning.  This is demanding on the child and if you try everything at once it won’t happen.  So we build very gradually and steadily.

Theory is an important part of learning to play.  Even during the shorter lessons, I find a way to integrate theory, I’m doing it all at once so it’s a combined process. As students progress I encourage them to memorise; musical memory is so important. And when they know the work from memory, they can look down and learn about the space. But of course I have to make sure that their reading skills continue to improve. I do this by changing pieces regularly and integrating sightreading.

And then when they become teenagers and go through many changes that are hormonal, for example, it can become a different story.  Sometimes a student will have taken many grades but then during teenage years become unsure, and that can worry me.  So, to keep them engaged I try to encourage my teenage students to explore non classical music and often we switch to a completely different style, either something trendy, or something they’ve heard and want to learn - and that’s how I keep them going.” (Marina Petrov was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


Marina Petrov was born in Kiev and raised in Belgrade.  At the age of 18 she won an award to study at the Moscow Conservatoire. She is based in London where she has also established a unique piano teaching practice.  Connect with Marina

Marina Petrov and Maya Jordan are the founders of Around the Globe Piano Music Festival, for all ages and standards, next taking place in London November 20th, 2016

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

#44 Geoffrey Paterson: Conductor

In spite of the difficulties presented by the orchestration, in the end – if you work at it – it does work! 

“At the performance I spoke with the audience from podium before we started to play, and one of the things I said was that it was very likely that none of the audience had ever heard the work before. It’s not widely known within orchestral circles that Joachim’s orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo piano duet exists. The work is not published in a set with the other symphonies and it’s quite a challenge just to locate the parts. So I think this difficulty in finding the parts has something to do with why the piece isn’t often played. 

Another reason is that the orchestration, as we discovered, is frankly rather strange! It’s fascinating, but it’s not really like a Schubert symphony - because of the way it’s orchestrated. 

Schubert wrote this large scale piano duet (four movements, forty minutes long) in 1824 for two pupils at a time when he was not able to play because he was ill.  After Schubert died, Schumann thought that this piano duet was either a reduction, or sketches for ‘the lost symphony’ and encouraged Joachim, who was only 24 at the time and already a very famous violinist and part time composer, to orchestrate it. Schumann  wanted Joachim to  reconstruct this Schubert symphony that had apparently been lost. So in 1855, thirty-one years after the duet was written, that’s what Joachim did. 

I don’t know what Schumann thought of the result. Certainly it’s not orchestrated in the way Schubert would have done. A lot had changed in the twenty-seven years since his death. In 1855, when Joachim made the arrangement, Wagner was already at work on The Ring. It’s already a completely different musical landscape. Of course Joachim was more aligned with Schumann and Brahms than he was with Wagner, but the orchestration isn’t particularly Brahmsian either. 

It’s quite densely orchestrated. One of the most striking things is that Joachim worked through with a kind of impatience; either with a quest to do something different or because he didn’t quite have the confidence in his decisions. He’s very reluctant to let one instrumental group take a melody, or an accompaniment figure, from the beginning to the end. In most symphonic repertoire, at least in the way that themes are first presented, you can talk of ‘the violin melody’ or ‘the clarinet melody’ or the ‘flute melody’, but in this orchestration it’s almost impossible to do that because no melody really belongs fully in one instrumental group before he passes it to another, even in the first presentation. That’s very unusual! 

A harsh judgement would be that it’s slightly incompetent. And maybe that’s an attitude that people take and that’s a reason it’s not performed very often.  But from a twenty-first century point of view, with the whole history of the first part of the twentieth century, with neo-classicism and particularly with composers such as Stravinsky who deconstructed earlier music, it’s very interesting to hear that in the mid-nineteenth century, there is an orchestration that uses similar principles.  For example, in the last movement, sometimes only two or three notes of a tune are played by one instrumental group before the tune is then passed on to another group, and then to another group, and so on.  

It’s quite disorienting to listen to - in Pulcinella, Stravinsky does something similar, but he also tweaks other elements of the music so we immediately recognise that there are inverted commas around the source material,  But with Joachim it’s not the case – the material is literally Schubert’s music from the duet, it’s just the way it’s arranged. And that is very odd. 

In conducting the work there are a lot more basic problems to solve than there would be in a symphony of that era because you have to balance these melodies, you have to dovetail things. But firstly, the players have to understand what role they play in the texture and when you have quite dense textures with counterpointed two melodies, plus an accompaniment figure, plus a bass line … even if it were orchestrated in such a way that people had longer to get into the zone of what they were doing, you have to clarify those lines. And when those lines are not carried through within an instrumental group, each section has to really understand who they’re passing the melody to, where they’re getting it from, how you balance between very different instrumental tone colours in such a way that in the audience, you hear a through-line. 

At the first rehearsal there was no problem with accuracy, but the music itself sounded very disjointed; everything was constantly changing in terms of the tone colour and dynamic level. But you just have to work quite painstakingly. The moment the players understand what the main melody is and what their component part of that melody is, then those things kind of solve themselves because they know what they’re listening to. 

From my experience of being a viola player you get a very valuable perspective from sitting right in the middle of the orchestra.  But it does mean that can get lost in the middle if you’re not quite sure if whether what you’re playing is a countermelody, or the main melody, or an accompaniment figure. Until you understand that, you really don’t know how to play a work.  And so it took a little more time than it might have done until clarity emerged, which I hope it did at the end. 

Afterwards, backstage the players were thrilled. It had been a challenging process and I don’t think anyone expected it would be as difficult as it was. But when you surmount the challenge and achieve it in the end, yes, I think everyone was really delighted! 

In spite of the difficulties presented by the orchestration, in the end – if you work at it – it does work! And with a figure as important as Joachim in 19th century music, as a performer, to have this extensive document of how he thought of the orchestra as a medium is wonderful. We know how Joachim played from what was written about him, but there is only a small amount of recorded material of him playing from the earliest years of sound recording. What we do have from him is this document of what he thought about the orchestra and that’s an invaluable resource.” (Geoffrey Paterson was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence, Lola Perrin)

Postscript: Kenneth Woods, who programmed the concert conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, adds:

"My interest in Joachim's orchestration of the Grand Duo came about through my friendship with the great composer John McCabe, whose loss last year continues to leave an open wound in the hearts of many a musician across the UK. John was a great devotee of this arrangement. As a pianist, he'd played the Duo many times and found it sonically problematic in spite of the fact that it was glorious music. It's unusual, if not impossible, for an arrangement of a work to improve on the original, but there are arrangements such as Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at and Exhibition which, even if they're not an actual improvement, offer an easier way into the piece for the listener. John also felt that as arranged by Joachim, it offered a wonderful addition to the limited number of mature orchestral works by Schubert, standing alongside the Unfinished and the Great C Major symphonies. Of course, many musicians, not least Robert Schumann, have suspected that Schubert always intended the work to be a symphony." (Kenneth Woods)


Geoffrey Paterson's current season includes multiple projects with the London Sinfonietta, Die Entführung aus dem Serail with Glyndebourne on Tour, The Nutcracker with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen and Aarhus and his debut at the Holland Festival with a revival of The Corridor and The Cure. He studied at Cambridge University, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, took composition lessons with Alexander Goehr, participated in conducting masterclasses with Pierre Boulez, and trained as a repetiteur at the National Opera Studio. He won First Prize at the 2009 Leeds Conductors Competition, also winning the audience prize. He works regularly at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he was a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. 

Principal Conductor - English Symphony Orchestra
Artistic Director - Colarado MahlerFest

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

#43 Andrew Downes, Composer & Cynthia Downes, Publisher

                                                                   Andrew Downes with wife Cynthia and
                                                                  daughters Anna and Paula at BFI for the launch 
                                                                  of his box set recordings of Symphonies 1 - 4

Interview with Andrew Downes (AD) 
and Cynthia Downes (CD)

CD My husband Andrew composes in his head all the time. He gets up very early and then at 8 o’clock he writes down all the ideas he’s been mulling over in his mind in the last twenty-four hours.  He works very methodically every day. It’s all there in his head, he spends two hours just to put it down.

AD I hear it pretty much exactly.  When I put it down, I try bits of it on the electronic keyboard, but it’s really just to check that something’s right, a balance or something like that.  Then I just put it straight into Sibelius 7. Then after the day’s session is over,  it just evolves into the next thing, usually overnight, and I wake up with new music in my head.

CD We have to be quiet while he’s actually writing it down; I always say the music pours out of him.  But for the rest of the time we’re not aware that he’s quietly composing in his head.

AD I do live in quite a quiet world. I don’t actually talk that much. I used to write it all out by hand, but the computer program makes it so much easier.  You can just produce the parts immediately from the score.   The best thing is that when you get to rehearsals you know that the parts are correct and you’re not going to spend a lot of expensive time putting things right.

CD He handwrote symphonies 1, 2 & 3 because they were written in the 1980s, before the Sibelius program came out. He used to pay students to write out parts for him.

AD I’ve just recorded and released my first four symphonies.  It all started in America with Stanislav Suchanek who was the second horn in the Czech Philharmonic at that time.  He had a sabbatical year as Professor of Horn at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  I went over there, I was commissioned to write a sonata for 8 horns, he played first horn.  He liked the music and took it back to Prague.  They recorded it and put it on the radio.  They’ve commissioned other pieces since, including a concerto for 4 horns and orchestra.  That was the first time I worked with the orchestra itself and we gradually developed this link.  Ondřej Vrabec is first horn player of the Czech Philharmonic and also an Associate Conductor.  He performed as Horn soloist in my concerto for Horn and Symphony Orchestra at Birmingham Town Hall, so that’s how it linked up.  He ended up conducting my symphonies.

I was able to commission the recording of my symphonies because I’d had compensation for a medical negligence case and was compensated for the things I could no longer do.

CD He broke his back and the hospital didn’t diagnose him until thirty hours later by which time it was too late, they didn’t immobilise him.  He was paralysed from the waist.

AD I’m unable now to travel to places like Prague or anywhere else, so we thought, rather than spend the money on things I could no longer do, it was better than spending the money actually making the recording.

CD I always was upset because when he had Symphony No. 1 first performed at the Cheltenham Festival the organ was at the back of the church, so in the amateur recording the organ just didn’t come over.  In the second performance the organ was loud and clear but the tape recorder didn’t work so we still didn’t have a good recording.  I’d always been bothered about that.  Our son-in-law, David Trippett, was very keen for Andrew to ask a good orchestra to record Andrew’s symphonic works and I thought that was a perfect opportunity to get that symphony heard, rather than it being stuck in a trunk.  What better orchestra than the Czech Philharmonic where Andrew already had contacts!

AD As soon as you get something on recording and people start listening to it, then you get other orchestras interested.  The Central England Ensemble will perform it in the Autumn as part of my 65th birthday celebrations, they’re doing it in the Cathedral on September 3rd.

CD We had recordings of the 2nd and 3rd, good performances but there some wrong things.  Composers are judged on their symphonies so it was an inevitable decision to use this money to record the first four symphonies.

 AD It took from end of February until May 2015.

CD The Czech Philharmonic recorded when they had a free morning or afternoon and they were incredibly efficient. It was all streamed through to us in Birmingham during the recording sessions taking place in Prague so we could hear exactly what it sounded like. 

AD We were listening live during the recording sessions so we could say if we heard anything wrong.
CD I was following it very closely on the score to for things that weren’t quite right, and it was very, very rare I have to say.

AD And I was listening and saying if I felt the interpretation felt right to me.  Very rarely did I have to say anything; between the conductor and the producer they were really getting it right.

CD There was a huge exchange of emails between Andrew and Ondřej who was making sure he understood how Andrew wanted different things done.  And getting hold of one of the instruments, the native American flute, was difficult.  We sent the one over that we’d bought in America.

AD Yes, and the first flautist in Prague actually learned the instrument specially, and he played it beautifully!

CD Symphony 3 has a lot of multi-time and Ondřej asked how to conduct it.  So we said just beat the crotchet beat and every player will just fit into it. 

AD It went very well.  Ondřej is very talented, there was absolutely no problem. Once you’ve written the piece it doesn’t really belong to you anymore.  It belongs to the players.  It was quite a relief in many ways when it was over, but we still had the documentary to make.

CD That was very stressful for Andrew. He couldn’t compose during that time.

AD I had a brain haemorrhage last year and since then I’ve been focussing on small scale pieces, songs …

CD He first of all wrote 7 Postludes for Piano, because he’d already written 7 Preludes for Piano. Then he went on to songs with small ensemble.  I think he will build up again.  He hasn’t lost any of his flair, perhaps just some of his confidence to start off with.  He’s written 109 works in total.   I’ve always loved music and although I did French and German at university, I learned violin from the age of 11 and have never stopped playing since.  I’ve run various musical groups and I support Andrew.  It works out well because there’s no rivalry between us.  I’m his publisher, personal assistant, promoter, I sell his music and CDs. 

AD Yes, we’ve retained control over all of the music. 

CD Faber are publishing one piece.  It’s very hard to get in with a publisher; we discovered that composers signed to publishing houses often couldn’t have a piece performed because the publisher would charge too much.  Often a group wanting to play a work has no money.  We’ve put all of Andrew’s music into the library of the Birmingham Conservatoire so groups can borrow the parts.  Or we can lend them out too, so players come directly to us to borrow the parts.  You can’t do that if you’re signed to a publisher.  Because Andrew had a really good job as Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and I’ve always worked in teaching, we’ve never been financially dependent on his composition. 

AD Imagine being dependent on PRS!  Before being a composer, I was a choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge, then I went to the Royal College and studied with Herbert Howells, then Lennox Berkeley. I was a counter tenor for a number of years and did the London circuit.  I ended up going to the Gottingen Handel Festival and singing the part of David with Fischer Dieskau in Handel’s Saul.  Fischer Dieskau was a very heavy smoker and completely besotted by his wife, Júlia Várady, who was soprano soloist in the production.  It was an incredible, nerve wracking, gorgeous experience, but it really didn’t do my nerves any good and I decided that my singing career should end on that high note. (Andrew Downes and Cynthia Downes were speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence, Lola Perrin, 2016)


Connect with Andrew Downes at

Andrew Downes new box set CD release of Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4, including a DVD documentary about the making of the CD, was launched on Sunday April 17th at the National Film Theatre, South Bank Centre, London.  The launch was hosted by Laurence Lewis, Managing Director of Czech Music Direct.  The 2CD + DVD set can be purchased from Lynwood Music (the composer will sign any copies sold from this outlet), Czech Music Direct on 020 8346 0088 and the major retailers and online music sites. 

Saturday September 3rd 2016, 7pm
St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham, UK
Andrew Downes 65th Birthday Concert

Symphony no 1 and other compositions
Paula Downes (soprano)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano, organ)
Central England Camerata (leader and solo violin Anna Downes)
Conductor Anthony Bradbury