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Piano teachers use crowd funding site to commission new works for pupils

9 January 2014

Composer Colin Matthews with CSYM students Ben and Sarah

Commissioning new music is not without expense and heartache, but that hasn’t deterred teachers Betty and Stephen Power from creating contemporary music for their pupils. This year the Powers plan to commission a work from rising star Charlotte Bray and are seeking support online for the funds to pay for it.

The Powers are members of the Cambridge Suzuki Young Musicians (CSYM), a small group of students and parents that has commissioned works from a variety of leading composers including Graham Fitkin, Colin Matthews and Rachel Stott. CSYM pupils were given the opportunity to rehearse with the composers in workshops and masterclasses, and to premiere the pieces in public concerts. Previously, this activity has been funded by a grant from the Britten-Pears Foundation, but the group has now established a ‘crowd funding’ web site to raise funds for the latest commission.

‘Over the past twelve years we have held summer schools where our students have had contact with living composers,’ explains Stephen Power. ‘In 2010 we asked seven composers to write 2-piano pieces for us. We raised money through concerts, practice-a-thons, and were helped with five of the composers by the Britten-Pears Foundation. The intention was to have a set of pieces, one at around Grade 4/5 standard, most around 6/7, and one Grade 8/diploma, that would follow the examples set by Bartók in Microkosmos. Composers Martin Butler, Gary Carpenter, Phil Cashian, Michael Zev Gordon, Colin Matthews, Tarik O’Regan and Rachel Stott produced some wonderful pieces that I hope will someday be taken up by one publisher. Some have been published separately.’

Power met Bray at a concert given by Aldeburgh Young Musicians at Snape Maltings in Suffolk. He invited her to work with his students last summer and there Bray coached the students in her Urban Nocturne for two pianos, and six of her pieces as well as composition. Power believes that it is vital for young people to play contemporary music from an early age, despite the difficulties in securing the necessary resources.

‘Funding has never been easy, and I do think that crowd funding will be useful in the future. Not only to raise money for commissions, but also as a means to spread the word about this music: music that can be played by students, and that is of high quality and uncompromising, deserving a wide dissemination.’

Power hopes that crowd funding – combined with fundraising through pupil concerts and the generosity of audience and family – will raise enough for the Bray commission and for his next project; a commission for a piece for four pianos by Graham Fitkin for 2015.

You can support the project here.

IP issue 23 Jan/Feb 14 amendment 

8 January 2014

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there was some text duplication on pages 26 and 27 in the last edition of IP. This was due to a production error, for which we apologise profusely. You can download the correct version of the article here. The digital editions have now been updated.

Our thanks go to the contributors who alerted us to this oversight.

Jamie Cullum presents new BBC Radio 4 series Piano Pilgrimage

3 January 2014

Jamie Cullum meets Martin Heckscher, managing director of Heckscher & Company, one of the longest-running piano suppliers in the country
Jamie Cullum meets Martin Heckscher, managing director of Heckscher & Company, one of the longest-running piano suppliers in the country

Jazz pianist Jamie Cullum explores the role of the piano in modern life in a new mini series for BBC Radio 4. Piano Pilgrimage, produced by Andrea Rangecroft, promises to debunk certain myths about the demise of the piano industry, as Cullum focuses on success stories across the UK.

As part of his ‘pilgrimage’, Cullum visits the London Borough of Camden where piano historian Dr Alastair Laurence takes him on a tour around the area that, only a century ago, was the world centre of the piano making industry. Cullum meets Heckscher & Company, one of the oldest piano specialists in the country, established in 1883. Managing director Martin Heckscher explains that Camden Town had a distinct advantage as a piano manufacturing base due to its excellent transport infrastructure with the Grand Union Canal and the railway network on the doorstep. In fact, by the late 19th century, at least 100 piano factories were in existence in Camden and neighbouring Kentish Town.

Cullum also travels to the Yorkshire Dales to visit one of the few places left in the country where pianos are still being made from scratch, uncovers some surprising facts about the physics of piano tuning and learns what the instrument meant for women in terms of courtship in the 1800s. Once a film student himself, Cullum looks at the position of the piano in silent cinema and learns about the resurgence of the phenomenon today at an open-air event in south London. The series concludes with a discussion on the piano’s place in pub culture, and features an impromptu sing-a-long with Rockney duo Chas and Dave.

The first episode is on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30am, 4 January

Stephen Hough awarded CBE for services to music

2 January 2014

© Hiroyuki Ito

Stephen Hough has been awarded a CBE for services to music. The award – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – was announced as part of the UK's New Year honours list. A total of 1,195 people have received an award, and women outnumber men for the first time since the Order of the British Empire was founded in 1917.

Other musicians to be honoured include Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins, who also received a CBE.

Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is Master of the Queen’s Music, becomes a Companion of Honour.

Hough guest edited the November/December 2013 edition of IP, which is available to purchase here.

REVIEW: Piano events at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

19 December 2013

The festival featured the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura
The festival featured the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Recitals by Philip Thomas/Mark Knoop, Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle, and Ian Pace/Frederik Croene (two pianos)
Fujikura 2nd Piano Concerto, Diamond Dust, Ellen Ugelvik (pf)
20 and 23 November

This year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) featured a plethora of piano recitals, including a two-piano day. Andy Hamilton paid a visit

Huddersfield’s remarkable two-piano day saw three recitals. The first was a series of duets on one piano by Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop, featuring sets of short pieces by Laurence Crane and Peter Ablinger, plus Cage’s Winter Music and Christian Wolff’s Duet I, and quasi a due by Kunsu Shim, a Japanese composer new to me. Even grizzled HCMF veterans found this recital – consisting of 'music that is stripped of music', according to the programme – a tough listen. Winter Music – at 15 minutes, and so with Shim’s, the only longer piece here – reminded me that Cage, like Anthony Braxton, inspired composers and musicians to transcend his own achievement, if not his originality. Ablinger’s series of pieces Ohne Titel, and Laurence Crane’s series of Duets, were equally stripped bare.  Crane’s Duet No 4 instructed the pianists to 'Sing!', which they did with manly gusto – or at least, vocalised wordlessly. Crane’s ensemble music, heard later in the festival, was quite magical, so maybe I am missing something with his piano pieces, which came across as drier and less involving.

The two-piano duo of Ian Pace and Frederick Croene offered the highlight of the day’s events: Evan Johnson’s very beautiful 'atendant, souffrir’, lists, little stars. (Though the composer’s programme note was a contender for Private Eye’s 'Pseud’s Corner': 'The piece begins with a proposal for how to proceed, and declines to accept it. Instead, a series of zero points are reached, inhabited and abandoned...') Hovering behind the fragmentary material, the composer writes, is Philopoctus de Caserta’s 14th century motet 'En atendant souffrir m’estuet grief payne' – hence I assume the Old French spelling of 'atendant'. The 14-minute piece was a spacious, tremulous delight, consistently piano with lots of silences – more of a summer piece maybe, given the struggles of the coughers in the audience to keep quiet. Adam de la Cour’s Con-join was an example of theatre of the absurd, a 'bondage' piece with the duo’s inside wrists tied together in fluffy red handcuffs. The struggle, initially a matter of synchronising when to play, became more like a staged sword fight. 'The first movement is a homage to Chico Marx, the second a romantic arrangement of Mexican wrestling movie soundtracks', the composer writes – soundtracks of course very familiar to readers of International Piano.

Michael Finnissy’s Third Symphonic Etude was a deconstruction of virtuosity from Beethoven to Schumann via Czerny. Its twisting, distorting temporal effects, between and within the two piano parts – especially in the warping, deranged Romanticism of the slow section – were totally compelling. There were also two solo pieces. Frederick Croene performed Enno Poppe’s wonderfully titled seven-minute Theme with 840 Variations. (I counted only 839. Only joking.) Ian Pace performed Marco Stroppa’s Ninnananna and Moai from Miniature Estrose, tremulous too but with a much wider dynamic range, with books placed under the pedals, I assume to restrict their dynamic range.

Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle’s two-piano duo offered a largely Belgian programme, featuring Henri Pousseur’s Mobile (1958) and works by younger Belgian composers new to me, plus Frederic Rzewski’s modern classic, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues – original lyrics 'When I die, don't bury me at all/Just hang me up on the spoolroom wall/Place a knotter in my hand/So I can spool in the Promised Land'. This was an involving performance of a synthesis of jazz and contemporary composition; it ought to be a modern classic, heard much more in the concert hall. (Rzewski taught at Liège Conservatoire where Pousseur was director.) Pousseur’s Mobile was the other substantial piece in the programme, though here as elsewhere, this composer promises more than he delivers – the open form and total serialism sounding merely dated.  

Later in the festival was the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura. The soloist was Ellen Ugelvik, with the Oslo Sinfonietta. The composer explains, rather unhelpfully, that 'I was often thinking of ice whilst writing the piece. Light is shining on big blocks of ice and many small particles of ice'. A bottom 'A' on the piano triggers a swarm-like response from the ensemble, drawing on the harmonic field, the composer explains – at least, that’s the delightful theory. In practice, the result was a colourful, accessible piece whose welcome wore thin, as its aimless noodling, and pretty, pointless virtuosity degenerated into what Wagner called 'effects without causes'. There was no feeling of every note counting, and emotional climaxes were unearned. Fujikura moved to the UK at the age of 15 to study music, and comments that when in music college, he 'did everything I could to be a film music composer'. I’d say he’s succeeded, because his concert music sounds like film music. It brought to mind Ernst Toch’s delightful comment on being told that Erich Korngold was now working for Warner Brothers: 'Korngold has always composed for Warner Brothers'.

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