Thursday, August 26, 2004

No. 88 Black-and-White-Notes Street

I've spent several days at the Chetham's International Festival and Summer School for Pianists in Manchester. Back in London today, attending a record company launch for its new releases, I've come to understand just how valuable the experience of the summer school was. When you're surrounded by like-minded people, it's appallingly easy to start taking them for granted. Until, that is, you return to the "real world" and realise that the performances you heard in 48 hours up north by lesser-known names knock the spots off all those glitzy soloists with their snazzy photos and empty heads.

The Chetham's Summer School, held in one of the UK's tiny handful of fine specialist music schools, is run by the school's head of piano, the redoubtable Scot Murray McLachlan, who's an old friend of mine from university. He had assembled 20 piano professors and 160 students of all ages and levels; each student was to have around 4 hours of personal tuition during the week, the chance to practise as much as they liked and the freedom to listen to as many other lessons as they could swallow. There were lectures, concerts by the professors and, for the kids, even a trip to Laserquest. Back at my own piano after only 48 hours, I was staggered to discover how much I'd learned from two days of intensive listening without playing a note myself.

The range of lessons was fabulous. From Murray there was focus, strength and support. From Jeremy Siepmann, a nearly mystical sense of connection between matters of the piano and everything from physiology to astrophysics. Yonty Solomon, once a student of Dame Myra Hess, seems to be the mentor I've long itched to find - and he says he'll listen to me (!); he is a Faure fanatic, his recital displayed a luminosity of tone and total emotional involvement that one hardly ever sees, while his classes were filled with pearls of wisdom handed to him from Hess herself, someone I've always idolised. Noriko Ogawa, whose concert included one of the most stunning Liszt B minor Sonatas I've heard in years, offered a perceptive and analytical approach in her teaching. Bernard Roberts bounced in with down-to-earth common sense, good humour and high spirits - and I can't understand how he's managed not to change one jot since I played to him at Dartington in 1984, while the rest of us have aged past recognition. There were plenty of other professors too whom I didn't have time to hear.

All were kind; all were generous; all had their hearts in the right place. They were there because of their passion for the piano and an almost equal passion to communicate that love and its secrets not only to the next generation but to anyone who hungers for it. It was moving and marvellous. School dinners notwithstanding.

We must feel at home in the piano keyboard, said Yonty. This is where we live: no. 88 Black-and- White-Notes street.

It's difficult to return to normal life after a sojourn at this address.