I asked Birmingham Conservatoire's head of keyboard, John Thwaites, how it came about, and our old friend Anthony Hewitt, aka "The Olympianist" (he once cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, giving a recital every night), who is on the faculty, what made him decide to cycle from London overnight, performing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit on arrival around dawn...
JD: Why a Pianothon at all?
John Thwaites: For the first time - and because we are currently under demolition! - the Keyboard Department was gifted a Town Hall Showcase by Birmingham Conservatoire. I gave serious consideration to an All Day event, but finally concluded that this was fairly standard fare. Wouldn't it be much more sexy to pull off an All-Nighter? I thought a little: kids like "sleepovers" and staying up as late as possible -- so this is a Sleepover with Music, where no-one insists it's time for bed, and we head off for a Champagne Breakfast next morning.
Anthony Hewitt: It’s inspired by the all-night Jazz concerts at Town Hall in the 50’s and 60’s. John Thwaites is a great enthusiast and has put on many festivals at the Conservatoire focusing around composers or themes. This is in the same vein, but certainly unique and daring. We hope some the celebrity names appearing before mid-night will be a draw for audiences who like their beauty sleep, and that the hard-core pianophiles will stay the distance. There may be some ‘early birds’ too in the wee hours. As for the students, they are being tempted with a dazzling array of repertoire and unmissable performers, plus of course an all-night bar (musical bars as well as refreshment!). I’m going to make it compulsory attendance for my class!
|Peter Donohoe plays Messiaen in the middle of the night|
JT: And we now have another mystery guest: a jazz piano phenomenon who is inspired by the gig, and has offered his services for the Champagne Breafast... and people are buying in!
JD: Who's going to turn up for it?
JT: We are inviting students of EPTA members, of specialist and other schools -- there will be a youthful element to all this, including hundreds of the Conservatoire's own students.
Also important: people can come to the first two hours! They will already have a great concert -- and we'll see when they can tear themselves away... Balcony Tickets are £1 for everyone and anyone -- no-one is prohibited by cost -- it's all part of a gift to Birmingham and the wider world, a Piano Gift.
JD: What's in it?
JT: Ingredients? Nocturnes!! The complete ones by Chopin -- I've heard Gergely Bogányi play Nocturnes in the middle of the night on my summer course, Cadenza International Summer Music Course. I remember sitting there and thinking "It doesn't get any better than this. This is completely satisfying, and one wants for nothing"....so this is then more of the same... Also nocturnes by Fauré and Debussy Nocturnes.
|Simon Callow recites Enoch Arden|
It's sort of a Piano Education in a Single Night!There's the last three Beethoven sonatas, to be played by a mystery guest -- and great also to have the last great Schubert B flat, played by a student (Domonkos Csabay). And if it's very difficult to accommodate as many students as I would like to, then, counter-intuitively, it's wonderful to give one this enormous Sonata...another Schumann F Sharp Minor Sonata (on a Wilhelm Wieck Piano from the 1850's), another of the "De Profundis"...
We'll have Melodramas, two of them at the mid-way point of 12 hours of piano. It'll be nice to hear a human voice..especially as one is Simon Callow, in Strauss's Enoch Arden -- I'm playing Piano for this and the rehearsal was great! But then into Speaker Pianist, and the Birmingham premiere of the Rzewski De Profundis...
Stars in their chosen firmament? Peter Donohoe is playing Messiaen and Mark Bebbington is playing Ireland - one of the greatest British solo piano works, Sarnia.
|Anthony Hewitt: piano cycles|
JD: Tony, you're cycling up from London and playing Gaspard on arrival. Why on earth...?
AH: It really came about because of a casual conversation with John Thwaites in the pub. Worryingly, no alcohol had been consumed...
For an all-night concert and night-ride, Gaspard has obvious connotations with images of the night, which are so masterfully conjured up by both Ravel and Bertrand’s evocative poems. It’s particularly relevant in 'Scarbo', (I hope on Friday the moon will be ‘glittering like a silver shield…'), and where the goblin vanishes and reappears, once seen no longer seen. I love the word ‘pirouetting’, although hope we cyclists will be doing none of that! The use of imagery is such an important part of playing (and teaching), and particularly in a lot of music of this era. If we can get out of our comfort zones and look at, or visualise, things which we’ve never seen, then the effect on our imaginations can only stimulate the musical experience.
As part of my training I’ve been out cycling at night alone through narrow lanes lined with lonely trees (very spooky) and wondered what lurked beyond. I am fairly certain I’ve seen a Scarbo or two in the Surrey Hills!
JD: Is this a pilot for more events in the future?
JT: For me, everything goes into Friday March 3rd, and that's it for this lifetime!
But I do want to launch some ongoing campaigns and opportunities... a Petition "Every School deserves a Real Piano" and a community piano school at the Conservatoire, "Birmingham Piano Academy".
More about the programme from John Thwaites:
The Greatest Show on Earth: something shocking in its audacity, youthful in its exuberance. In its totality I believe it offers the best night of piano playing anywhere on the planet this year.
|Anna Scott plays Brahms |
as he might have heard it
Piano-playing means Chopin, All-Nighters need Nocturnes. The Complete Chopin Nocturnes are played in three groups, B flat minor opening proceedings, by Gergely Bogányi, one of the most exceptional pianists of our times. Gergely won the 1996 Franz Liszt Competition in Budapest. In 2002 he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the White Rose of Finland by the President of the Finnish Republic, and in 2004 he received the highest artistic award of Hungary, the Kossuth Prize. Rubinstein used to say that when he played Chopin he felt as though he spoke directly to people’s hearts—no-one today does that better than Gergely Bogányi.
On 1st March 1977 Peter Donohoe gave the British Premiere of Messiaen’s “La Fauvette des Jardins”, having studied it first with the composer and his wife in their apartment in Montmartre. The panoramic “day in the life” of a garden warbler seemed fitting for this event, and Peter is joined by his wife Elaine, who he met for the first time at that first performance.
|Margaret Fingerhut joins the starry line-up|
I confidently expect that we’ll all be knocked sideways as our Mystery Guest walks on stage to play Beethoven’s last three Sonatas. My inspiration was the moment that Ali lit the Olympic Flame in Atlanta.
The inspiration for an All-Nighter comes from the Swinging Sixties, when Birmingham Town Hall regularly hosted All-Night Jazz Festival gigs, pictures of which still adorn the lower bar. Richard Hawley of THSH has been keeping that flame alive ever since, and we include Kapustin by way of tribute.
Our Prize-winning students are showcased throughout, presenting some of the greatest masterpieces for the instrument. Domonkos Csabay, who won the 2016 Amy Brant International Piano Competition, plays Schubert’s last great Sonata in B flat D960. Lauren Zhang, a Birmingham Juniors student who won the 2016 Ettlingen International Competition for Young Pianists, plays a Transcendental Study by Lyapunov, and Róza Bene, who was joint winner of the 2016 Anthony Lewis Memorial Competition plays Couperin.
In the early hours we add poetry to the mix. We are delighted to welcome Simon Callow in a recitation of the Victorian Melodrama “Enoch Arden”by Tennyson/Strauss. This is followed by the Birmingham Premiere of Rzewski’s “De Profundis” (after Oscar Wilde) for speaking pianist.
|Alistair McGowan performs Satie & Grieg|
Birmingham is increasingly a centre for Historically Informed Performance Practice. In this context Dr. Anna Scott will be performing late Brahms as Brahms himself might have heard Adelina de Lara or Ilona Eibenschütz playing to him. It's more than a little thought-provoking, so prepare to be scandalised, and to further enjoy the playing of Gyorgy Hodozso, a Weingarten Scholar in Birmingham and Dr. Scott's latest prodigy.
An evening of international ambition, but hosted in Central England. A privilege, then, to hear Mark Bebbington play "Sarnia" by John Ireland, the British composer who has left the single greatest body of solo piano music (not to mention the Concerto and Chamber Music piano parts).
Finally we welcome Alistair McGowan, to play Satie and Grieg, and to introduce his good friend, “Olympianist” Anthony Hewitt, who will cycle through the night from his London home to play Ravel’s masterpiece of nocturnal virtuoso pianism “Gaspard de la Nuit”. After that, only the magnificent organ of the Town Hall can provide a fitting close: Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous”...
Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies