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 http://www.andrewdownes.com/

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

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

#42 Simon Markson: Managing Director of Markson Pianos and occasional actor

                                                                       Simon Markson 

“About nine months ago Markson Pianos were approached by a film production company and asked if we could supply pianos for Florence Foster Jenkins, a film being made in the UK.  They were very specific.  There were six pianos in all.  They wanted a concert grand, two smaller grands and several uprights for specific location sets.  The film is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins who was an American socialite from the 1920s and ‘30s.  They wanted a concert grand for the Carnegie Hall set and we put in a Steinway.  There were two hotel and apartment scenes where we put in a Bechstein grand and another Steinway grand.  The uprights were for various different scenes for a members of the cast playing the piano.  The pianos all had to be adapted to become silent so they could be played as ordinary pianos but could also be silenced where necessary.  At other times they would be played quite quietly.  Meryl Streep had to sing, and you always can’t sing without a piano accompaniment really, but the piano couldn’t be too loud for those scenes.  So there were lots of technical challenges.  We put a Steinway grand into Abbey Road studios with Meryl Streep coming along to record her singing, where she recorded in a separate sound booth to where the piano was situated. 

We had to deliver the pianos at short notice and also tune them at very short notice.  Logistically this was challenging to arrange.  The piano might be needed twenty steps up or twenty miles away.  Our tuner could sometimes be required to be there at 8.30am and stay there all day.  He was picked up either from his barge, or from our showroom, by a chauffeur.  I think it was both the most exciting and most challenging thing we’ve ever been asked to do, with last minute changes and technical demands of finding so many different pianos at the same time for one film.  We’ve done lots of different films where we might have been required to supply one piano at a time, like for ‘Room with a View’ when we supplied a beautiful ornate Bechstein grand piano. 

I was asked by the production company to do a viewing to see if one of our pianos could be taken to the first floor of a mansion outside London.   The film director turned up with crew in a jeep and I was asked to play the part of the piano tuner in the film.  I’ve done a lot of amateur dramatics and improvisation before, so I unhesitatingly said “yes!”.   The director said “we’ve found our piano tuner” and everyone cheered.  Then, followed a costume fitting and several months later I was called in for the filming, collected by car early in the morning and taken to Twickenham film studios. I expected that my character would to be seen in the background tuning a grand piano, so I was surprised to find myself on set with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.   It was only in the dressing room that I had been shown my script.  It became clear on set with various retakes that I would grow into the part of Charlie the piano tuner, and that my interaction with Meryl Streep was a comic one.

While on set I was asked my opinion on whether a large busk of Toscanini should remain on the piano or if it should be placed behind me.  I said it shouldn’t be placed on the piano as it would be difficult to tune the piano. I was also aware it would block most of the view of me in the film!  Hugh Grant wanted it on the piano but Meryl Streep agreed with me and the bust was placed behind. With the announcement of Toscanini’s arrival I was to be escorted off stage by Hugh Grant.  In one of the takes I slowed down thinking that this would increase my visibility in the film, and the director, Stephen Frears, shouted out “Don’t make a meal of it Simon”.

In the after-party Meryl Street was very interested to hear about our piano business.   I was told by the young editor that I had been cut in rather than cut out so I knew straight away that I wasn’t on the cutting room floor. It was a wonderful experience, they were very good humoured, supportive and encouraging.” (Simon Markson) 

Florence Foster Jenkins is out in cinemas from May 6th