Showing posts with label Hugh Mather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hugh Mather. Show all posts

Friday, September 25, 2020

32 not out: a Beethoven piano festival with a few major differences

Moving music online may have reduced audiences in one way, but it's expanded them in others. Next weekend, on 3 and 4 October, you can log on from anywhere on earth to see all the Beethoven piano sonatas being played in a festival in a tiny 12th-century church in west London. Hugh Mather, who runs the series at St Mary's Perivale, has put together what looks like an extraordinary logistical feat: 32 pianists for 32 sonatas. Here he tells me why and how - and what Beethoven has meant to us in these troubled times. You can see the whole festival line-up here: 

Amit Yahav performs at St Mary's Perivale

JD: Why did you decide to have a festival of the Beethoven piano sonatas at St Mary’s Perivale, given that Beethoven was already to be so extensively celebrated this year in the “upper echelons” of the music world?

HM: We obviously had to mark the great 250th anniversary in some way. I had organised three similar cycles of the sonatas with 32 pianists at St Barnabas Ealing in 2009, 2012 and 2014, so I knew the format works. Our strong suit is the large number of superb pianists who live in or around London. A sonata cycle was the obvious way of giving 32 of them a chance to perform, and the opportunity for listeners to re-discover many of the lesser-played works. Unfortunately the virus has led to many other festivals being cancelled, and we are now one of the few big Beethoven events still happening. Our friends in the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe are also putting on a similar cycle, but spread over the whole year, rather than a weekend, and in different venues. I had also planned to present all 10 violin sonatas played by 20 musicians in a single day, but that will have to wait till next year.  

JD: You have a different pianist for each sonata - a major contrast from most Beethoven cycles which are attempted like a solo Everest-climb by individual pianists. Why did you decide on this?   

HM: Simply because the format is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable with 32 different pianists!   I have at least 15 CD or LP sets of the complete sonatas, but I always skip around to hear different pianists and their various sonorities and approaches. Even if Schnabel were reincarnated, I would get slightly bored in hearing the same sort of sound and aesthetics for 14 hours, whereas with different pianists it is endlessly fascinating. And we have a superb team of pianists who will each have something special to offer and will all sound very different from each other. I guarantee a very high standard of performance throughout the cycle, and it will be compelling viewing and listening for anyone interested in Beethoven or fine piano-playing.       

JD: What were the issues involved in putting it together? Organising 32 pianists sounds like a logistical nightmare… 

HM: Actually it was surprisingly easy. I wrote to a carefully selected group of pianists in early January, asking them if they would like to participate, and if so, which sonatas they would like to perform. A handful of pianists were unable to participate because it was expected to clash with the Warsaw Chopin competition (since postponed), but otherwise virtually all instantly agreed to play, and I am very happy with our current team !    

To put this in perspective, I have a database of 160 very good pianists who have asked for a solo recital slot. Our venue is always popular because we pay our musicians, we have a nice piano and we provide a high quality recording. So I could easily construct teams to play 2 or 3 cycles! As regards choice of sonatas, nearly all offered the 'Appassionata' and 'Moonlight', etc, but I asked them to specify less familiar sonatas which they would be prepared to play in 9 months' time. From previous festivals, I know that the difficult sonatas to fix are Op 2 no 2, Op 22, Op 31 no 1, Op 54 and the two Op 49s. The jigsaw fell into place over the spring, before the lockdown in March.  

St Mary's Perivale

JD: It’s wonderful that you can livestream concerts from St Mary’s, even without a physical audience. How has COVID-19 affected your plans in terms of the pianists themselves? Have many had to drop out, and how do you replace them?  

HM: The original team of 32 pianists in January included a very good Polish pianist – Michal Szymanowski – who obviously had to cancel because of travel restrictions, and two other pianists cancelled because of other considerations, but otherwise the team is virtually unchanged. I recently advertised on Facebook for replacements to play Op 13 and Op 79 and within 24 hours received offers from 20 and eight pianists respectively. With such a large team of musicians, I suspect there may be at least one to three cancellations next week, and I will need to find a replacement at short notice! That is the worst aspect of the whole project.

JD: What are the technical challenges of relaying concerts on the internet? How does St Mary’s manage this?  

HM: Our video and streaming facilities were developed over several years by a group of retired BBC personnel, led by Simon Shute and George Auckland, who live in Ealing and are longstanding friends.    The system now comprises 7 high definition cameras and 2 high quality microphones permanently installed in the church. It was developed as an adjunct to our concerts, initially to provide recordings for our musicians, and it only realized its full potential in the lockdown, since when we have become, in effect, a broadcasting studio! Since then we have streamed 28 live concerts and 53 concert recordings.  Our superb technical team provide their services free of charge, in keeping with everyone else at Perivale, so we have been able to install broadcast quality video systems remarkably cheaply.


JD: Do you think concerts change substantially without an audience? How do performers cope without that live feedback? 

HM: Broadcast concerts, viewed at home, are inevitably a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and I can’t wait to return to having a ‘live’ audience enjoying a communal experience again. Nevertheless, the concerts have filled a void in many peoples’ lives, providing much entertainment and solace, and they have enabled us to support so many musicians over the past few months of financial hardship, from viewers’ donations. Performing in an empty venue is indeed slightly nerve-racking, rather like a professional broadcast, but most of our musicians are experienced performers and soon get used to it.

JD: As a pianist yourself, can you tell us something about what makes the Beethoven sonatas such an extraordinarily special body of works? Do you have any personal favourites among them? If so, which and why?

HM: The Beethoven sonatas have been called the ‘New Testament’ of the piano literature. They cover such a remarkable range, from the early classically-based works to the late transcendental sonatas, and there are few if any weak pieces among them. I love them all, and have listened to them all my life, but I didn’t have time to study many of them, on top of my medical career. My favourite will always be the 'Hammerklavier', for personal reasons. After graduating in medicine in 1971, I took a few months off to study the piano with Jimmy Gibb at the Guildhall, and decided to learn the great work, which I played at an open recital at the Guildhall in 1972. Then I got married to Felicity Light, who was a medical student, so I had to earn a living, and returned to a frantically busy career, which precluded serious practice for years. So I have only learned and played about 5 of the sonatas in public. The 'Hammerklavier' has stayed with me ever since, and I played it in our complete Beethoven cycles at St Barnabas in 2009 and 2014. The slow movement still moves me to tears every time I hear or play it – one of the most profound and transcendental pieces ever written. 

JD: Medicine and music are often deemed to “go together”. While writing ‘Immortal’ I’ve been fascinated to learn that Beethoven occasionally practised almost an early form of music therapy: he would improvise for friends who were suffering grief, bereavement, depression etc, and his musical response to their frame of mind would bring them the relief of tears. During this weird year, I’ve gone back to my piano and playing Beethoven has brought me energy, positivity and renewed enthusiasm for life. Do you find he has a similar effect?

HM: The link between medicine and music is indeed widespread. As for Beethoven, one can spend a lifetime exploring these wonderful masterpieces, and I never tire of them. I particularly enjoy all the early sonatas which people rarely play in recitals, as well as the immortal late sonatas. Part of the joy of our festival will be a re-acquaintance with some of the less-commonly played works. In the lockdown I have been re-listening to the late string quartets and have found them to be life-enhancing and deeply enriching, and appropriate listening material for this strange and depressing time. At the risk of sounding pompous, Beethoven’s compositions really do encapsulate every facet of the human experience, rather like Shakespeare. We hope to show that in our great festival at St Mary’s Perivale on 3 and 4 October.

Beethoven Festival, St Mary's Perivale, 3 and 4 October, is online here: 

Friday, October 18, 2013

A trailer for the ALICIA'S GIFT concert

Here is my Alicia's Gift Concert partner, Viv McLean, playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which will feature in our programme in a big way. This was at the gorgeous 12th-century church of St Mary's, Perivale, where the tireless Hugh Mather runs an exceptional concert series - Viv is a regular there. Enjoy.

Alicia's Gift will be at St Mary's on 8 December, but don't forget we kick off on 9 November at the Musical Museum, Brentford, with Kensington & Chelsea Music Society to follow on 13 November, Vernon Ellis's Queen's Gate Terrace salon on 27th, and finally before Xmas a performance for our North London fans at Burgh House, Hampstead, on 15 December.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Piano Passion in...Perivale and Ealing?

There've been some rather amazing noises coming out of what used to be a quiet corner of west London. Two churches - St Mary's, Perivale, and St Barnabas, Ealing - have in recent years sprouted extraordinary programmes of intense music-making, under the artistic direction of retired doctor and passionate pianist Hugh Mather.

With innovative schemes involving big screens for a better view, tickets issued on the door only and a Chopin Festival, which is coming up fast (11-12 May), comprising ten hours of piano music from a plethora of rising stars each playing for 20-30 minutes, it seems that Perivale and Ealing are reaching - with remarkable ease - ideas upon which bigger promoters fear to tread; and, best, making a success of them.

How does Hugh do it? I asked him for a JDCMB Q&A session...
JD: Hugh, you were a medic and now you're a concert promoter! Please tell us your own story? How did you get started in the music scene?
HM: I was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and played the piano and organ from an early age, gaining the FRCO diploma while still at school, and subsequently the ARCM piano performer’s diploma. I then studied medicine at Cambridge and in London, and was appointed Consultant Physician at Ealing Hospital in 1982, specialising in diabetes. However, I always combined medicine with music, and continued to have piano lessons with the eminent teacher James Gibb, initially at the Guildhall and then privately, for over 30 years. I gave many concerts as a solo pianist, including concerti by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Grieg, and Schumann, and played Beethoven’s 'Hammerklavier' sonata at the Guildhall and elsewhere. In 1986 I commenced weekly classical concerts at Ealing Hospital, providing performing opportunities to musicians living around Ealing, and these continued for 20 years, with approximately 800 concerts. I retired from medicine in 2006 and since then I have developed a second career, promoting about 100 concerts per year - about 600 concerts since 2006 - at two contrasting Ealing venues, namely St Mary’s, Perivale, and St Barnabas Church.  

JD: Tell us about your two west London venues, St Mary's Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing - what makes them great places to play and listen to music?

HM: St Mary’s, Perivale, is a small, 12th-century Grade 1-listed church hidden away within Ealing Golf Course, just off Western Avenue in Perivale, near the Hoover Building. It became redundant in 1973 but is now a flourishing concert venue, run by a charitable trust, the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale, of which I am Chairman. It is a stunningly beautiful building with a magical ambience, and provides the perfect setting for small-scale concerts, particularly instrumental and chamber music, with a capacity of 70. It has excellent acoustics, a good piano, and the audience appreciate being closer to the musicians than in most other venues. 
We cultivate a ‘club-like’ informal atmosphere, with free admission, free drinks and nibbles at the end of the concert. We hold about 50 concerts per year, most of which are ‘double concerts’ with different musicians performing in each half, as can be seen from the Archive section of our website ( ). This has details of around 320 concerts since 2006, with performances from over 180 pianists and 100 violinists. The standard of performance is very high indeed, and is rising year by year. Musicians love the both the venue and our enthusiastic audience, and are invariably keen to return.  
We have informal links with the Royal Overseas League, who send their top prizewinners to play, as well as with the Royal Academy, the Royal College and the Guildhall, so we have a constant influx of the best new talent. We have excellent in-built video recording facilities, and produce a high-quality DVD recording of every performance, which is sent free of charge to all the musicians.  We have recently commenced putting some highlights onto our Youtube channel ( and so far have uploaded about 60 performances. These amply demonstrate the high calibre of our concerts.
St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, is a large active Anglo-Catholic church built in 1916 with a fine choral tradition and a magnificent, newly-installed pipe organ. I have attended the church as a parishioner for many years, and in 2007 I bought a very good Bosendorfer concert grand, previously used by the BBC at the Maida Vale Studios for broadcasts, from Harrow School. This fine instrument has been the basis of all our subsequent concerts. The church has a much larger capacity than St Mary’s Perivale, and is used for Friday lunchtime recitals and occasional large festivals, such as the forthcoming Chopin festival. Since 2007 we have had 260 Friday lunchtime concerts. We have also held eight major festivals devoted to single composers, listed in, and three series of Summer Proms, each with 12 concerts. About 170 pianists, listed in our archive, have played in concerts at St Barnabas. Concerts are held in the ‘round’, with the piano in the nave and the audience seated as close as possible.

We have developed a novel ‘big screen’ system. This was originally acquired for organ recitals, but is now proving immensely beneficial in piano festivals, enabling everyone to see each pianist in ‘close-up’. The concerts have been used to raise funds to pay for the new organ, and to date have raised over £130,000.       

JD: We hear that you don't sell tickets in advance - people just come along on the night and pay what they like in a retiring collection at the end. How does that turn out in practice? How do your musicians respond to this?
HM: We don’t sell tickets in advance, and all concerts at St Mary’s Perivale are indeed free admission with a retiring collection. This simplifies the administration of concerts, and encourages more people to attend.  In practice, the amount donated varies from £1 or less to £20 or more, and averages at about £6-7 per person. This attracts Gift Aid, raising the total to approximately £8 per person. Our Wednesday concerts at St Mary’s Perivale are ‘double concerts’ with different musicians in each half, so that we can provide more performing opportunities and the audience have a more varied and interesting evening. Soloists usually get paid around £100 for half a concert, or £200 for a whole recital, depending on the size of the audience, and we usually give ensembles £50-60 per person. We aim to give the musicians about 70% of our receipts and to keep 30% to pay our overheads. All musicians also receive a high-quality DVD of their performance free of charge.
At St Barnabas, our Friday lunchtime concerts are also free with a retiring collection, and we pay our musicians a fixed fee, namely £100 for a soloist, £120 for a duo, £150 for a trio and £200 for a quartet. We do charge a fixed fee for our festivals of £12 per session (afternoon or evening) (£6 for young people).

JD: Why a Chopin Festival, and why this very unusual format? Please tell us how it's going to work, why you're doing it and what you hope to achieve with it?
HM: The Chopin festival repeats the well-tried and successful formula used in previous festivals, as detailed in our archive These have covered all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (twice), Liszt piano music, Chopin piano music, Haydn sonatas, the music of Schumann and Schubert (including chamber music as well), and an organ festival.

The formula really does work brilliantly well in practice. It is infinitely more interesting and rewarding to hear many different pianists playing similar repertoire on the same piano, rather than have a single artist, however good or eminent. We have an inevitable bias towards piano events because there are so many excellent pianists based around London who need  and deserve performing opportunities.

The St Barnabas Chopin Festival will take place on May 11th and 12th 2013 from 2.30-6.00pm and from 7.00-10.00pm on each day. A flyer with the detail, and full information on the pianists, their programmes and brief biographical notes, is on

We have 21 pianists, including many prizewinners from international piano competitions, giving short recitals of 20-30 minutes, including virtually all the most famous Chopin works, comprising almost 10 hours of piano music. Admission is £12 per session, or £40 for the whole festival (four sessions), half price for young people under 16. No tickets will be issued beforehand – just turn up on the day. The church is large and admission is guaranteed. Free parking is available in nearby residential streets. There are regular breaks for refreshments, and tea and supper will be available.

All piano fans, and all lovers of Chopin, are encouraged to come along to this festival of fine piano playing. I am grateful to the support of both the Chopin Society and Liszt Society in helping to advertise this event. I have no doubt that it will be as successful as our several previous festivals have been.

JD: What are your aims for the future of your series ?
HM: My overall aims with my concert-promotion activites are threefold, namely 1) to provide vital performing experience for the best musicians based in London, particularly at the start of their careers, 2) to provide concert-goers in Ealing with much pleasure in their locality, without having to travel into central London, and 3) to raise funds to preserve St Mary’s, Perivale, in pristine condition for future generations, and funds to support St Barnabas Church. It is gratifying to see several of our regular musicians starting to make waves in the musical world.

As regards pianists, two of the finalists in the Leeds competition last year – Jayson Gillham and Andrejs Osokins – are regular performers, as are many other rising or established piano stars, such as Viv McLean, Ashley Fripp, Mishka Rushdie Momen, Mei Yi Foo, Ivana Gavric, Rustem Hayroudinoff, Jianing Kong, Meng Yang Pan, Konstantin Lapshin, Ji Liu, Evelina Puzaite, etc, and many of the best string players and chamber ensembles based in London have played at both our venues. 
JD: Anything you'd like to add?
HM: Only that organising 100 concerts a year, with all the fixing, advertising, publicity and sorting out arrangements, has now become a busy full-time job, but is an excellent and rewarding way of spending my retirement!