Showing posts with label Charles Owen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Owen. Show all posts

Friday, October 06, 2017

The mind behind the cough

Diagram from Wikipedia
Last night I went to the London Piano Festival concert and in the middle of the Rachmaninov I felt the first warning signs. Like most other people in London, the PM included, I've had a lurgy. It's gone, but left lingering dregs in the form of a tickly but persistent and "productive" cough. Nothing that Vocalzone pastilles can't sort out, I thought, heading off to Kings Place. And all was well until 2/3 of the way through Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva's splendid performance: in the Rachmaninov Suite No.2's Romance, the bug decided it was time to get me. Just after friends and I had spent half the interval grumbling about people coughing.

It starts with a soft sensation like cat-fur brushing against one tonsil. Perhaps a quiet 'hem-hem' will clear it. No...The cat fur is pressing and now feels more like a brush-bristle. A needle. It's agony, all down the right side of my neck. I put my coat over my mouth and cough as quietly as humanly possible. Did you know that if you stifle a cough in material it helps muffle it, but if you put your hand over your mouth it just amplifies the noise? Take note, dear friends... Yet the cough remains. And I can't cough properly, especially not in this bit. Oh, come on, Jess, it's not like you're the PM...

But...oh help. Oh gawd. What to do? I can scarcely take a breath. My eyes are watering. On stage Charles and Katya are in Rachmaninov Heaven and everybody around me is blissing out. If I get up and run for the door, won't that cause more disturbance than coughing? But I can't cough either. What's more, if I pick up my handbag and start rustling around for my Vocalzone under the tissues, Oystercard, lipstick, Ghost Variations flyers and change that fell out of my purse, that'll cause impossible disturbance too... But I can't cough. What would my friends say? What would my neighbours say? What about the other press?

Won't it be over soon? Won't it pass? Won't this movement, at least, end, and then I can attack the bag for a pastille? I thought the suite was quite short, but it seems not - this movement has turned interminable. Rachmaninov will make sure it goes on forever and forever more. And far from being gentle and romantic, it's eating me alive.

By now something inside my throat is shivering like violin vibrato and my eyes are streaming so much that it must be wrecking my make-up (upside: maybe everyone will think the music moved me to tears...) My whole body is shaking. I try to control it, but slowly the whole of Kings Place seems to be tipping slowly over to the right. Is this real? Is it all psychological? Is this every worst experience of my whole life coming back to destroy me, in the middle of a piano festival? Is this what it's like to have a breakdown? They're going to have to carry me out in a heap of melted hopelessness.

The movement ends. There's a second or two of silence. I can hear the cough sweets screaming at me from the bottom of the bag. In a moment...but Charles and Katya catch one another's eye over their pianos, hands raised, motionless. And they plunge straight into the finale.


Suffice it to say that this morning I'm alive and well. I wonder if every other concert-cougher feels as I do when that happens to them. Rather cruelly, I hope so, because it really does disturb the music. I managed to muffle mine, despite personal suffering. So you can, too. Remember: use material, not your hand, and never leave home without a cough sweet.


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Thursday, October 05, 2017

All hands on deck! London Piano Festival opens today

I'm going to be hanging out at Kings Place a lot over the next few days as the London Piano Festival swings into action tonight, led by the dastardly duo of Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva. Turning piano concerts into celebrations of the range, colour and full glory available to pianists, they've programmed a total feast and brought in some amazing artists to deliver it. Here's a piece I wrote originally for Kings Place's magazine to trail the festival. The full programme is online here.


When Kings Place opened the doors to its first London Piano Festival last year, some concertgoers may have been wondering where it had been all their lives. Piano festivals are oddly rare in the capital, despite the perennial popularity of the instrument and its almost limitless repertoire. The piano duo Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva decided to put that situation right – and sure enough, the 2016 festival went so well that now it is happening again.

Between 5 and 8 October Kings Place will resound with piano music: four solo recitals, a concert for children, an evening with Owen and Apekisheva, a grand two-piano marathon with six star pianists and finally jazz from Jason Rebello.

The range of music extends from a baroque recital performed by Lisa Smirnova to a new commission from the South African composer Kevin Volans, included in Melvyn Tan’s concert alongside Weber and Ravel. The children’s concert includes Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and an unusual arrangement for piano four-hands of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf - Simon Callow is the narrator. Nelson Goerner from Argentina offers high romanticism (Friday 6th, 7.30pm), and the Russian pianist Ilya Itin presents two sizeable sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninoff (Saturday 7th, 4pm).
 
Katya & Charles amid some silver birches
Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
“We’re trying to focus not only on the biggest names, but on artists who are of the very highest calibre but rarely perform in Britain,” says Owen. “We are very keen to bring several of those musicians to reconnect with British audiences.” Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin are prime examples: “Lisa is someone I studied alongside in Moscow, with Anna Kantor, and I always admired her,” says Apekisheva. “She’s a very interesting, individual musician and she has a huge career in America and Europe, but not in the UK. Her Handel recording was wonderful and received fantastic reviews.”

Itin, who won first prize, the audience prize and the contemporary music prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996, is now based in New York and combines performing with his role as a sought-after teacher. Apekisheva met him at Leeds and was bowled over by his musicianship: “Again he is an absolutely outstanding artist, but hasn’t played here for such a long time. We decided we must have him back.”

The repertoire is a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. “There’s an underlying theme of Russia, coinciding with the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917,” says Owen. “Katya and I are playing both the Rachmaninoff Suite No.2 and the Symphonic Dances for two pianos and we’re giving the world premiere of a new commission from Elena Langer, inspired by some Kandinsky paintings from 1917 which we hope to project onto the screen as we play.”

The Russian focus extends to a significant rarity: the Sonata No.2 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich’s whose music is currently enjoying a major revival of interest. Apekisheva learned it for the Brundibár Festival in Newcastle earlier this year: “I completely fell in love with the piece and very much want to play it again,” she says. “It’s very exciting music, but what a challenge to play!”

Ultimately, Owen and Apekisheva say, their aim for the festival is to create something special together that can be enjoyed by piano fans from far and wide. Both regard Kings Place as the perfect venue in which to realise their vision: “With all these wonderful spaces, there’s room for audiences to spread out, meet, talk and chat,” says Owen. “The vibe is informal and there are great places to eat and relax. We’re trying to build an audience who will trust our choices, a core audience of piano lovers. And, very importantly, we want people to have fun!”


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A new piano festival for London!


Meet Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen: two glorious pianists who have been working together for many happy years. An established duo of this kind, celebrated as an entity in itself, is still relatively rare. And now the pair have added another string to their bow: they have founded three days of pianistic feasting under the simple yet splendid heading London Piano Festival. Highlights include a lecture on Liszt by Alfred Brendel with Dénes Várjon at the piano, Kathryn Stott in French repertoire, jazz from Julian Joseph, Charles and Katya in a two-piano recital culminating in Rachmaninoff's Suite No.1, and much more besides.

But why aren't there more piano festivals around anyway? When the Institut Français founded its own It's All About Piano a few years back, I couldn't help wondering why it was the first such event in the UK's piano-filled capital. Now we have that one in South Kensington for spring and this one at Kings Place coming up fast for 7-9 October, with exciting plans for future years too. I asked Charles and Katya to tell us more about it... (All photos: Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

JD: How and why did you conceive the idea of starting a piano festival? 

KA: Charles and I had an idea of starting a piano festival a few years back after a wonderfully positive visit to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland. There are so many chamber music festivals in the world, but piano festivals are relatively rare. London has many exciting piano events to offer, but none of its major concert halls presents a single intensely focused festival devoted exclusively to the piano, at least not until now! The idea came from our friendship and love of the instrument. The possibilities of repertoire are endless, and of course the piano is versatile like no other instrument – it can imitate the human voice, various instruments and even the full orchestra.


 JD: How did you decide on who and what to programme? And why at Kings Place?

CO: For this first festival, we decided to focus on artists, all of whom we admire and know personally, people we could pick up the phone to or email directly. Both Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa took part in the New Ross festival where the four of us became a bit of a gang. They are both irrepressible musicians and wonderful personalities! Ashley Wass is an artist we both value highly and the same can be said for our fellow Guildhall professors Lucy Parham, Ronan O’Hora and Martin Roscoe. We are both fortunate to have received inspiration through coaching sessions with Stephen Kovacevich and of course Alfred Brendel remains the ultimate iconic figure in today’s piano world, now sharing his insights through the spoken word.

When it came to deciding upon repertoire, each pianist was encouraged to choose the repertoire with which they feel a special connection. For example, Kathryn Stott will play a signature all-French programme linked by the luminous tonality of F sharp. The epic Two Piano Gala has been deliberately created to avoid the most famous duo works to give audiences a new encounter on many unexpected 20th-century treasures.

As for the choice of Kings Place, we both love their two vibrant concert halls and super contemporary feel, set in the most buzzing and regenerated area imaginable. We’ve played there as a duo and in solo recitals since the venue first opened in 2008. The two resident Steinway pianos are both stunners and as North Londoners, the halls are walking distance from our respective homes!


JD: You're both busy performers, together and separately! How have you dealt with all the organising?

KA: Starting a new festival is a great and exciting idea, but the reality is you never really know the challenges that are waiting for you until you start the work. Charles and I had to learn some totally new skills as organizers and it has been difficult and demanding at times - we are still learning! But also rewarding when you see the results. It's really great to have each other as we try to divide the work. Often one of us might be away or really busy with concerts and that's when friendship and understanding come in handy!

JD: Have you had to fundraise to deal with the cost? What has that been like?

CO: Indeed, we have organized fundraising events and been generously supported by a number of companies, and individuals. Approaching people for funds is my least favourite part of the festival process, but it is a necessary evil that anyone involved in the Arts and many other walks of life has to accept.

JD: What are you most looking forward to?

KA: Of course we look forward to every single event at our festival as each was carefully created with various themes in mind. But perhaps the one we most look forward to is the Two Piano Gala on Saturday 8 October. It has an unusual format, not the usual two halves concert, but a three-part event.

Seven fantastic pianists are taking part and the repertoire is all 20th century music. The programme will start with a serious Busoni work and continues on with Debussy and Rachmaninov culminating with a selection of fun, exciting pieces by Milhaud, Piazzolla and Grainger. There is also a newly commissioned work by Nico Muhly, Fast Patterns, which is highly virtuosic, obsessive and minimalist in style. The evening will be a true celebration of the instrument.

JD: Can we hope that it will become an annual event?

CO: Indeed you can! Plans are already underway for the 2017 London Piano Festival to include a strong Russian flavor in terms of pianists and their repertoire.

JD: To end, how about some anthem-like words from you both about why the piano and its repertoire deserves to be celebrated? 

CO & KA: The sheer depth of tonal beauty that a great piano possesses, mirrored by the incomparable range, variety and beauty of its repertoire is always a cause for celebration. Which other single instrument, apart from the mighty cathedral organ, can truly encompass such a spectrum of emotions, textures and dynamic range whilst retaining a truly magical singing tone?

Full programme and booking here.