This is one of my favourite interview assignments ever, just out in The JC. Erika Fox, who escaped Anschluss Vienna as a toddler with her mother, and has struggled all her life to follow her musical vocation, tells me her story. The first-ever commercial recording of her music is released today on the NMC label.
Erika Fox Photo: Tim Fox
Erika Fox’s coffee mug is emblazoned with the title of HG Wells’s The Invisible Man. One can’t help noticing, because this extraordinary composer has for too long been an almost invisible woman. Today, her first-ever commercial CD is released, featuring a selection of her chamber works. She is 82.
Musical cognoscenti reacted with horrified astonishment to the realisation that Fox’s music has not previously been recorded. Its style is tough yet mesmerising, highly individual, with a strong undertow of unsettling emotion. “Some people have said it’s challenging, but because it’s mine, I don’t think of it that way,” Fox remarks. “To me it’s ordinary. It’s what I do.”
She lives in west London in a house overflowing with books and music, her home on and off for decades. Her music is much like her upfront personality — warm, perceptive and forthright, with a refreshing dislike of “pussyfooting around”. But it has also been nurtured with many difficult and painful memories...
Stewart Goodyear: part of a new golden age of composer-pianists? Photo: stewartgoodyearpiano.com
He's also the soloist on a new album featuring the work alongside Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which will be out on 7 July (Orchid Classics). It's conducted by Wayne Marshall. Here's a taster - which takes me right back to the day, around two decades ago, when Wayne performed the solo piano part with the LPO under Kurt Masur...here, though, he and Stewart seem in much greater harmony!). JD
JD: Stewart, welcome to JDCMB! Please tell us about Callaloo: what is the story behind it? What inspired you to write it? And what can listeners expect from it?
SG: I always wanted to write a work that paid homage to my Trinidadian background. My suite for piano and orchestra, Callaloo, was composed in 2016, two years after I first experienced Carnival in Trinidad. At that festival, I was exposed to gorgeous Calypso music for two weeks straight, riveted every second. My dream was to showcase the music of my heritage in a classical work.
The suite is in five movements, each a musical depiction of various parts of the Carnival. The finale is a wild Soca, a high-tempo Calypso that compels the listener to jump up and throw away inhibitions.
The work is a joyous celebration of life, of people coming together....Listeners can expect their bodies to inadvertently move to the music!
JD: What’s it been like to work with Chineke? What does this orchestra mean to you?
SG: I love every moment of working with the musicians of Chineke! All members are passionate and committed to their art, and strive for the very best in musicianship. The representation of people of all races and colours performing music that they love, and are passionate about, is a statement that is very much needed in the classical world.
JD: Please tell us about your own background. How and where did you start learning the piano (and/or composition)? Who most encouraged and inspired you? And what do you regard as the most important landmarks in your career to date?
SG: I come from a very musically eclectic background...My father, who died a month before I was born, left a legacy of LPs ranging from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and the symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Hearing those later artists made me desire to have a close affinity to classical music...I was drawn to that music more than any other.
There are so many people I will be eternally grateful for. A few I will mention: so much thanks, love and gratitude to my mother who believed in me and supported me from the very start, my piano teachers at both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, and Jennifer Higdon for supporting my composition, Matthew Trusler and the team of Orchid Classics, Stephen Carpenter, Chi-chi Nwanoku and the musicians of Chineke!
I have been fortunate to work with wonderful music teachers, hear incredible musicians in concert and on recordings, and work with fantastic people throughout my career. Some of the landmarks of my career have been fulfilling my dream of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concerti, composing 3 piano concerti and various other compositions, and recording Callaloo with Chineke!
Stewart plays his own 'Baby Shark' Fugue
JD: Have you always composed as well as being a pianist, or is this a new departure for you? How do you manage the combination of two musical activities in the practical sense? And what are you composing next?
SG: I have always had equal passions of becoming both a concert pianist and a composer. Being a lover of music history, I have been enthralled by the works of composer/performers like Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninov to name only a few. Composition has become a part of my life since I was 8 years old, and musical ideas flow through me wherever I am...so I always travel with manuscript paper!
I have just composed a cello concerto which will be performed Rachel Mercer and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa next season, and future projects include a piano quintet in honour of the Beethoven year 2020.
JD: Do you think there’s a resurgence taking place in the tradition of the composer-pianist that was so prevalent in the 19th century and early 20th? How do you feel about this idea?
SG:I truly hope that this tradition becomes the norm, and I am very excited by the resurgence of this practice, with composer-pianists like Thomas Ades, Daniil Trifonov, Stephen Hough and others. I believe nurturing a new generation of composer-performers will bring the classical music art form to a new Renaissance and golden age.
JD: Do you think the classical music world is making progress in the matter of diversity and equality? What would make the biggest difference, in your view, to the possibility of establishing this balance?
SG: The classical music world is beginning to take notice that many musicians of all colours are celebrating their love of this music without the fear of boundaries or walls. There are still ways to go for the classical music world to make progress in the matter of diversity and equality, but those ways are now being discussed, which is a positive step forward. I think the solution for true equality lies with how classical music programs are structured: Instead of boxing composers by race and sex, include them on programs where they are equal to the composers established already through history. As French, Russian and Italian composers are celebrated equally to German and Austrian composers in concerts, composers of every colour and background should be just as celebrated. Classical music will then be a truly relevant art form embraced by all demographics.
Say what you like about Porgy and Bess - flawed drama, tricky pacing, etc - but you can't get away from the incredible music George Gershwin wrote for it. After years and years in which there's been nothing of this work on a UK stage, this was my second in about four months: on Saturday I went to review Grange Park Opera's new production for The Arts Desk and loved it to bits. And there is a lot for which to thank Cape Town University's Opera School and Cape Town Opera itself.
Slightly weird acoustic effects in the round theatre that is GPO's latest home - a story much told elsewhere - but the surrounding gardens are almost impossibly gorgeous. And a special shout-out to the cakes in the croquet lawn marquee, which are some of the best gluten-free jobs I've yet encountered.
A less emotionally discomfiting place to see Porgy and Bess than a British country house opera has yet to be invented... but as I've mentioned in the review, if you go, you do know what you're getting into. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the music.
Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy at Grange Park Opera
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
If you go to a British country house opera to see a work about an addict and a cripple in a poverty-stricken Deep South tenement, you do so knowing that the contrast between stage and garden marquee will be extreme. Seeing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bessat Grange Park Opera was never going to be a comfortable experience. But “no use complainin’ ” – it is a splendid show in surroundings that are almost too pretty to be true.
Porgy and Bess is, at the best of times, an odd, hybrid drama with deep-seated problems of pacing and more. A heartbreaking story (by Edwin DuBose Heyward based on his 1925 novel), with some masterly touches and immortal songs, it never wholly escapes Gershwin’s more usual habitat of Broadway. Jean-Pierre van der Spuy’s production homes in on the conflict of good and evil in the religion-driven community of Catfish Row, virtually battling over the soul of poor Bess...
Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt's new album From the Ground Up: The Chaconne explores ideas of mindfulness in music and the meaning of the "ground" in every sense. Here's a guest post by Hugo (yes, he is Robin's brother, in case you wondered) and a little taster to go with it. If you're lucky enough to be in Sweden next week, you can also enjoy their festival Mis/Reading Beethoven in the country's oldest rococo theatre, Confidencen (14-19 June). Over to Hugo... JD
O/Modernt’s new album, From the Ground Up: The Chaconne, presents an exhilarating mix of variations on the chaconne theme, underpinned by links between ground basses as musical starting points and breath as the ground of our being, themes explored below by Hugo Ticciati
When I am asked about the role mindfulness plays in my practicing life as a musician my response circles around the two pillars of breath and repetition. As such, the question is particularly relevant to O/Modernt’s new album From the Ground Up: The Chaconne: asonic exploration of both repetition and breath.
The simple act of breathing invokes a rhythmic ebb and flow while the compelling repetition of ground basses invites the listener into a very particular musical zone. In traditional works built on a ground bass, the primary objective of the opening measures is to firmly establish the ground, making both performer and listener fully aware of its shape. As the work progresses, however, the ground recedes until it becomes an element in the background – almost autonomic, like breathing – whose purpose is to provide us with a kind of stabilising terra firma. At that point we can respond more to the filigree, the captivating musical overlay that’s built on the repeating bass.
Depending on the style of music and the performance, we can then be coaxed into shifting our focus – sometimes responding to the overlay more or less exclusively, and at other times listening to the ongoing bass line with renewed appreciation. This is a similar process that takes place when repeating a mantra – each repetition taking you deeper into the words, into your breath, while simultaneously leading to an expansion of your awareness. Can the repeating ground bass be experienced as a mantra of musical mindfulness?
With a little semantic play on the word ‘Ground’, I ‘misread’ in the liner notes Heidegger’s aphorism ground means being – being means ground to include a third term: ground means breath means being – breath is the ground of our being. For me the word‘ground’ invariably refers to the ground of our being and to questions about authenticity and identity: Who are we? How are we as individuals grounded? As in many contemplative disciplinesI believe becoming more aware of the involuntary mechanism of breathing facilitates a profound awareness of the present moment and as suchis a way of becoming more grounded: a sense of identity through repetition that can readily be transferred to the role played by the repetitions of musical ground basses. The focus of the album is therefore as much on the idea of being grounded as it is on the ground bass in music.
The varied mixes and juxtapositions of works on the album are intended to make us more alive to aspects of music that we might normally remain unaware of, living as we do in an overcrowded aural landscape that’s all too often saturated with music that isn’t really meant to be heard at all. O/Modernt, Swedish for ‘Un/Modern’ was born from a desire to explore how musics from different epochs and geographical locations can come together, intertwine and enrich one another.
So with the ground bass and breath as our repetitive guides, we begin a journey from early vocal and instrumental works from Italy and Spain, where the chaconne (originally a sexy South American dance) made its European debut; making our way through Bach’s Ciacconafrom the Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) and contemporary works, including Inside One Breath, a new piece by Johannes Marmén that takes the dynamics of breathing as its subject; and finally reinventing ourselves to remixed and looped grounds by Purcell, overlaid with Sam West’s readings from Shakespeare and Baba Israel’s extemporised beat poetry. Three improvisations, Ground, Breath and Being– showcasing the art of harmonic singing – weave together the continuous heterogeneity of the story.
I encourage you to embrace the musical frictions as they breathe new life into works from other times and places, not as exotica or manifestations of bygone eras but as expressions of the present. With John Cage, let us ‘invent the past, revise the future’ and breathe the present. Hugo Ticciati