Showing posts with label Kings Place. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kings Place. 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.


Monday, December 01, 2014

Muse for the day

An extremely moving day yesterday at the Andrzej Panufnik centenary event at Kings Place. Billed as "A family celebration", it centred on performances of music by both Panufnik père and fille - these days, indeed, we hear much more of Roxanna's music than we do of her father's. This occasion, with two chamber music concerts, a film followed by a discussion and finally a Warsaw Cabaret, is the latest - and London's last, as far as I'm aware - contribution to the centenary. (Unfortunately I was only able to attend part of the event due to Elgar talk preparations for tonight, but am happy to declare myself blown away by the playing of the Brodsky Quartet and moved to tears by the film and the words of Camilla Panufnik, Andrzej's widow.)

Two very different personalities emerge, hearing Andrzej and Roxanna's works side by side, yet there are qualities in common: both love to use crunchy harmonies in which major and minor meet and greet, and there's a delicacy, a finesse, to the sound - the musical equivalent, if you like, of a shiny surface, gloss rather than matt. Roxanna's music, though, sounds free-spirited; she always leaves room for humour, or lament, or an exploration of far-off lands. Andrzej's does not.

His works are impeccable: never a note too many or too few, the architecture perfectly circumscribed, the rigour vigilant and the core strong. Yet Panufnik senior is much of his era in that his own life and music, through coincidence of time and place of birth, was circumscribed first by soviet politics and subsequently by what does emerge as an atmosphere of cultural fascism in the west. Perhaps I'm imagining it, or projecting, but his sense of vigilance over each phrase makes one feel that, when finally free from the control of others, he exerted supreme control over his own self. The structures are perfect, the substance within them almost fiercely austere.

He underwent a dramatic escape from Poland in 1954, climbing out of a toilet window to give his minders the slip while on a concert tour to Switzerland, fleeing to the airport and boarding a plane to London. In the film My Father, the Iron Curtain and Me, Jem Panufnik, Andrzej's son, retraces his father's steps and ponders on their different lives and musics (Jem makes club music and art). Imagine reaching a point when you can no longer function in your home country because everything you say is twisted to support a regime you loathe, in which music true to your own spirit is forbidden because everything must support the state, and having lost your entire family to wartime tragedy - and then losing a baby daughter as well. Driven to the point where if you don't leave, you will assuredly crack. And arriving in the longed-for west, only to find that your music is not performed because it is the wrong kind of music - it is not serialist, therefore not approved. And some luminaries you had met when they visited your old country refuse to acknowledge you because they wish to be friendly to those regimes, but not to those who abandon them (apparently Stalin termed these champagne communists of the west "useful idiots").

Panufnik was far from alone among composers in suffering this history of the double-whammy: political exile from one country followed by cultural exile within another.

It's not easy to keep alive the work of a composer after his death, but perhaps the centenary events this year will mark a return to the concert hall for Panufnik's streamlined, distinctive and unfailingly imaginative works. Poland has been doing much to rehabilitate his works and reputation; a performance by the LSO in the beautiful new concert hall of Katowice apparently brought the house down. Now we need his adopted home to do likewise. Hearing his works again has certainly been a highlight of my year. One hopes they are now here to stay.

Read and listen to more about Andrzej here: http://panufnik.com
Read and listen to more about Roxanna here: http://www.roxannapanufnik.com

Meanwhile: I'm off to the Elgar Society tonight to talk about how another composer's spirit has touched my own life so many ways.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A great cellist goes west...

A couple of years ago the much-loved British cellist Robert Cohen made a move that took many of us by surprise: despite having enjoyed a strong solo career since his youth, he joined a string quartet. And not just any old string quartet, but the Fine Arts Quartet, one of the most distinguished and distinctive chamber ensembles in the States, and very much a full-time concern. They're coming to Kings Place, London, on Thursday (22 May): this will be their first concert here with their latest line-up, Robert included. 

The concert will be filmed by Hibrow TV for its online arts broadcasting platform. Hibrow now has ACE funding and Robert is one of its "curators". Its founder, film director Don Boyd, apparently felt he needed to do something to counter the disastrous loss of arts on mainstream TV.

I first met Robert when I was about eight and he must have been 14-ish and the Purcell School's young whizz-kid cellist. This seems like a good time to catch up...so I asked him to tell us how and why he's joined up, and what it's been like to make the change. 



JD: Robert, please tell us why you’ve decided to join a full-time string quartet? It’s a huge move…

RC: In January 2011, I was invited to play with the Fine Arts Quartet on a European tour. I had played sextets with them 6 years before and that experience had been an extraordinary and wonderful one. Playing quartets with them was even more thrilling. Not only are they amazing musicians, but exceptional individuals. I enjoyed every moment playing and being with them. Later that year, when they invited me to join the Quartet, my feelings were that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t possibly miss; at age 52 to open a whole new life into the fabulous world of string quartets with an ensemble that so beautifully suited my kind of music making. The decision was remarkably easy!

JD: …and you’ve shifted to the US. How do you feel about that?

RC: We set up a home in Chicago, which we all love - it’s such a stunning city - but we also keep a home in London because we have family there. Given that the Quartet tours globally much of the year, it’s nice to have a foot on either side of the Atlantic. (I can pop home relatively easily, whichever home is nearest).

JD: Tell us something about the Fine Arts Quartet and its history, please? It’s a hugely distinguished group and has made some gorgeous recordings. 

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet was founded in Chicago in 1946, and has been based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1963. It has recorded over 200 works and has won numerous awards. The Quartet members have also nurtured many of today's top international young ensembles.

JD: What qualities about their playing do you like and what is it like to work with them? What qualities do you feel you have that enable you to fit in?

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet is instantly distinguishable because of its unique sound; inspired by the golden era of string playing for which warmth, beauty, passion and humanity emanate from every note. I grew up with these sounds in my ears, listening to the greatest ever string players; Casals, Feuermann, Heifetz, Kreisler, Primrose, the Amadeus Quartet... I absorbed those values and aims into my playing and they are part of what I bring to the Fine Arts Quartet. They are fundamental qualities in the Fine Arts Quartet’s way of communicating music. So when I started playing with them, it was really natural for me to slot in.

JD: What’s the most difficult thing about joining a long-established ensemble as kind of the new kid on the block? How do you know - and how do they know - if you are the right person for them? 

RC: The Fine Arts Quartet have an extraordinarily large repertoire. In my first year, I learnt around 75 quartets, almost all of which the others know and have performed for years. I’d never even seen the music for these works! I wanted very much to arrive at rehearsals  playing and knowing each piece as though I had performed it with them many times. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I was on the edge of my seat with my antennae straining every millisecond to catch and memorise every detail. Gradually I found it easier to anticipate how the Quartet structured its work on the music and how the dynamics within the group affected the rehearsals. And finally when I felt I was balanced within the Quartet, it was more natural for the others to absorb my own input of ideas. The experience of growing into this Quartet and into such a history has been really exciting and fulfilling.

JD: Are you going to keep up your other activities - your solo career, your chamber music festival, etc?

RC: I do still give solo concerts and continue to make concerto recordings. For example this summer I'm returning to the ‘Chopin and his Europe’ Festival in Warsaw to perform with the Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia. However, the majority of my time is devoted to the Quartet. After a wonderful 35 years of solo and concerto performances, I feel privileged to be discovering the glorious quartet repertoire and to be performing with such wonderful partners. The Fine Arts Quartet schedule is so busy that for now my Chamber Music Festival at Charleston Manor is on hold. 

The Fine Arts Quartet is renowned for its enormous range of repertoire, much of it unusual. Here they are in action, filmed by Hibrow...