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Welsh chamber music finds a new, young audience

16 December 2009

Chamber group Ensemble Cymru has established a new academy in North Wales with the aim of championing the much neglected chamber music of Welsh composers.

The venture is based at the Ucheldre Centre, an arts complex in Holyhead, Anglesey, and aims to recruit ten young musicians up to the age of 19. They will work with the members of Ensemble Cymru, from whom they will receive coaching in performance technique. The ensemble’s executive officer will also run a series of business workshops to help the young musicians develop skills necessary to manage and promote their own professional ensembles in the future.

The project will run for six months, culminating in a performance in April by the ten musicians, who have been recruited on the strength of their experience, commitment and standard of playing. They will perform alongside the ensemble’s principal players and will also receive coaching in their own ensembles formed from within the group of ten new recruits.

‘The Ensemble Cymru Chamber Music Academy will be seeking to excite young musicians and to nurture their enthusiasm for what is one of the most demanding and inspirational types of music there is to perform,’ said Peryn Clement-Evans, artistic director of Ensemble Cymru. ‘Wales’s leading composers past and present, including William Mathias, Alun Hoddinott, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams, Huw Watkins, Gareth Glyn and Guto Puw have all written music in this tradition which, though one of Wales’s greatest treasures, is comparatively neglected and unrecognised.’

The academy is supported with funds from Anglesey Music Trust and the Friends of Gwynedd Youth Music with support from the William Mathias Centre, the William Mathias Schools Service and local teacher representatives. Ensemble Cymru has an annual programme of more than 150 concerts and workshops, performing to 15,000 people. It is resident ensemble at Bangor University.

Curtain up on the Fluid Piano

16 December 2009

A new acoustic instrument, the Fluid Piano, was unveiled in November at the University of Surrey. Its construction allows a musician to alter each note manually, microtonally within the range of a semitone (up or down); tuning can be pre-prepared or altered live during performance.

More than ten years in the making, the Fluid Piano was invented and developed by Geoff Smith and constructed by instrument maker Christopher Barlow, with funding from Arts Council England and the support of University of Surrey. As a composer-performer and leading exponent of the hammered dulcimer, Smith says his first instrument has been central to the development process: ‘I explored the use of a fluid tuning mechanism on the hammered dulcimer as a precursor to integrating it into a design for piano.’

The Fluid Piano is proportional to a fortepiano, with a range of more than five octaves (64 keys), and has three pedals to sustain and dampen sound. The player has reachable access to a full-width ‘mixer-desk’ area to control the pitch of each note. Integrated into the body of the piano is a horizontal harp, also with fluid-tuning mechanisms; these additional strings can either resonate sympathetically to the main piano strings or be dampened.

It was unveiled with world premiere performance-demonstrations by three artists: Pam Chowhan, head of planning at the South Bank; jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh; pianist Matthew Bourne, lecturer at Leeds College of Music. Each artist gave a contrasting interpretation, exploring some of the performance techniques the Fluid Piano has to offer. ‘If there’s nothing to emulate then you have to invent,’ explained Yeoh afterwards.

After her performance, Chowhan said: ‘This instrument challenges your spatial concepts. As pianists we are so used to playing a major chord and knowing what to expect back.’ Bourne agreed: ‘There’s a vast number of new techniques to explore, which makes this instrument revolutionary.’ A Fluid Piano performer has the option to play, tune or pluck – simultaneously if desired.

Smith said that his invention has sparked much interest and debate from many areas of the music industry. He hopes to challenge equal temperament and sees the Fluid Piano as ‘a multicultural instrument. Its existence asks many questions about the traditional classical orchestra. For the first time, the piano is liberated from the restrictions of fixed western turning; musicians will be able to explore a diversity of bespoke tuning layouts, and scales and modes from other cultures.’

Though only one prototype is currently in existence, Smith hopes to make the Fluid Piano ‘available to as many musicians as possible’, through artist collaboration and securing a manufacture/distribution deal. He also has a particular interest in the near future in channelling the Fluid Piano into the niches of music education, music therapy, early music and more.

Further information: Fluid Piano @ Purcell Room, 7.45pm, 27th March 2010

New home for City of Belfast Music School

16 December 2009

The City of Belfast Music School has relocated to a new home in the city after nearly four-and-a-half decades in its original location. The new premises are on the Fortwilliam campus previously occupied by Castle High School on the northern edge of the city, overlooking Belfast Lough.

The move will provide the school with room for expansion and considerably improved access, says Head of Music Services Dr Joe McKee. ‘Not only do we have better facilities for our students, but our new location makes it safer for everyone using the school than before, when we were situated on a busy city-centre thoroughfare.’

Founded in 1965, the school is one of Northern Ireland’s five music service organisations and is currently funded by the Belfast Education and Library Board. Its original premises, a one-time primary school, ‘were a tight fit to begin with,’ says McKee, ‘and our much, much bigger new site gives us more scope to do things we couldn’t before. We’ve already had a couple of our own concerts in the building because we now have a big enough hall to do that, whereas before we had to go to venues outside’.

With just 13 full-time staff and a growing roster of part-time teachers, the school currently works with 5,600 students and musicians in its mixed programme of daytime and evening classes, and its various bands and orchestras, one of which, from its World Music department, recently performed in Senegal, while another participated in the Last Night of the School’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in November.

The site is shared with an Ulster Orchestra composition programme, the multi-media creative education group Studio ON, an incoming dance company and a local autism support group. ‘There’s a better buzz about the place,’ says McKee. Because we don’t have ‘out-centres’ now during the week, professional musicians and teachers and students mill in an out of the school together, particularly in the first half of the week when every room is occupied’.

The new facilities also include a homework study room and quiet rooms for parents to work in while waiting for classes to end. In early 2010, responsibility for the school will pass to a new single Education and Skills Authority when the five existing regional Education and Library Boards are merged as a result of a root-and-branch reorganisation of Northern Ireland’s local government structures.

In Harmony children take to the stage

16 December 2009

Children from England’s three In Harmony projects in London, Liverpool and Norwich have given winter concerts to mark the end of their first year of learning musical instruments. The programme is a movement for social change through orchestral music, set up in response to interest in Venezuela’s El Sistema.

Schools minister Diana Johnson (pictured, with In Harmony director Julian Lloyd Webber and children from the scheme) attended the concert on 7 December at Herbert Morrison Primary School in the London Borough of Lambeth. More than 100 children came together as an orchestra to showcase their developing musical talents on the cello, violin and viola. Lloyd Webber accompanied the children on his cello, playing ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ and their own composition ‘Dessi’s Dance’.

‘It is wonderful to see just how much these children have progressed over such a short space of time,’ he said. ‘I have had total belief in the In Harmony programme from the beginning and it’s wonderful to see those dreams being realised now. The children are more confident today, they’re working brilliantly together as a team and you can see how eager they are to learn. Having just been to Venezuela and seen the effect El Sistema has had there, I am more determined than ever to give all our children the opportunity to experience music.’

Diana Johnson said: ‘Music is at the very heart of British popular culture – it’s what children talk about, and it’s what they aspire to. But far from just being about who gets voted off The X Factor each week, or who is top of the album charts, music can also be a powerful agent of social change. It teaches discipline, raises hopes and aspirations, is a source of enjoyment and also gives young people skills that will stay with them for life. This is why we’re investing £330million to give primary school children access to a range of musical instruments and free tuition for at least a year – and longer if they show an interest.

‘This is the first ever National Year of Music, and we want more young people than ever to get involved in the fantastic musical opportunities that are on offer in this country. The In Harmony programme is just one of these opportunities, and I’ve seen first-hand today here at the Herbert Morrison Primary School what remarkable talent we’re nurturing and the impact music is having on these young people and their community.’

Similar concerts, both attended by Julian Lloyd Webber, took place on 10 December in Liverpool and on 3 December at youth venue OPEN in Norwich, where the children were accompanied by Chamber Orchestra Anglia. ‘We feel In Harmony Norwich is progressing really well,’ says its Director, Marcus Patteson. ‘Already we are seeing and hearing that it is making a difference to the lives of the children we are working with.’

Meanwhile In Harmony Lambeth has unveiled a Portacabin on the Lansdowne Green estate which has been set up to enable teenagers on the estate to record their own music and also performances by the In Harmony participants from local primary schools. Tutors from In Harmony gave a short performance and party for local people on 27 November to thank them for their support for the initiative.

Gamelan orchestra seeks new home in Glasgow

2 December 2009

Spirit of Hope gamelan, a Javanese gamelan set owned by Glasgow City Council, is seeking a new home. The instruments were brought to the city as part of the European City of Culture programme in 1990.  Naga Mas, a community group that runs a programme of gamelan performances and workshops throughout the year, hopes to find partners with whom to collaborate and share space in order that the instruments can continue to be played and enjoyed by a wide range of people. More information, including space requirements, can be found at or by emailing

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