A very warm welcome to our Spring Series at Birmingham Conservatoire.
Once again we present an array of the world’s finest musicians at some of the world’s cheapest ticket prices! And, as always, there is something for everyone: our groundbreaking Frontiers Festival, our acclaimed jazz series, our Opera Triple Bill and –of course – our regular concerts and public master classes given by some of the greatest international classical musicians performing today.
The piano features particularly strongly this spring with visits from our esteemed Vice President, Peter Donohoe – who took the music world by storm when he won First Prize in the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition – closely followed by the American pianist Jeffrey Siegel and the legendary Turkish pianist, Idil Biret, whose
magnificent recordings and performances have garnered a host of awards too
numerous to list here.
The feast of music continues with appearances from violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violist Nobuko Imai, baritone Roderick Williams and festivals devoted to the music of Schubert and Brahms. And there are so many more enticing concerts – often performed by our own superlative students.
Do please delve deeply within these pages so that you don’t miss out on some truly special music making.
Ghostpoet – half price tickets available for Conservatoire Students*
We’re pleased to announce that we’re working closely with the Hare & Hounds, KingsHeath to offer Conservatoire students exclusive offers for gigs and shows.
The Hare is widely recognised as one of the finest independent live music venues in the country and has hosted shows with artists such as Alt J, Jungle, Jack Garrat, Wild Beasts, Bonobo, Floating Points, The Hot 8 Brass Band and many more.
Widowspeak- Free ticket for Conservatoire students
To kick things off we’ve got a double ticket offer for two shows this coming week.
On Mon 23 Nov This Is Tmrw host Captured Tracks’Widowspeak, an indie-folk, dream pop duo hailing from Brookyln, New York. Check out the video of them performing their single ‘Girls’ live below;
Entry for this show is completely free and they’ll also throw in a free drink on arrival. All you need to do is show you Conservatoire student ID card on the door.
Those of you who attend will also be able to take advantage of a second ticket offer where you’ll be able to pick up a limited half price ticket for Mercury Music Prize nominated Ghostpoet for just £6. There’s just 10 up for grabs so get down early to avoid missing out.
Mercury prize nominee Ghostpoet, live at The Hare and Hounds
For more information on the Hare & Hounds and all their up-coming shows head over to their website here or give them a like on Facebook.
This week’s Performance Platform provides a rare opportunity to hear the first performance of a new work for two pianos, Wild Man Dances, by Liz Johnson, composition tutor at the Conservatoire, written for Andrew West and Ronald Woodley and completed earlier this year.
The programme also includes the remarkable, earlyFantaisie (Tableaux) of 1893 by Rachmaninov, performed much less often than his later Second Suite, as well as the two-piano version by Gaston Choisnel of the suite from Ravel’s crystalline score for his ballet Mother Goose.
Samantha Carroll spoke with Ronald ahead of the concert to find out more about this special concert for two pianos…
Andrew West and Ronald Woodley
Have you ever worked with Andrew West before?
Andrew and I first worked together as colleagues at Lancaster University in the 1990s, when I was Senior Lecturer in Music and Andrew was Pianist in Residence. We have regularly collaborated since then, both on 2-piano projects and clarinet and piano recitals.
Have you enjoyed working with him on this occasion?
It is always marvellous to work with Andrew — he is such a natural musician with huge experience of chamber music and piano accompaniment, especially with some of the top singers in the country, and always brings terrific ideas to rehearsal, which we enjoy tossing around and discussing at some length.
Do you feel a lot of pressure giving the first performance of the new work for two pianos ‘Wild Man Dances’ by Liz Johnson?
There is certainly a lot of responsibility involved, and this is a pretty tricky piece to fit together, with a lot of the musical material being thrown around between the two players. But I have worked with Liz before, and I know how supportive she is towards her performers, and what they can bring to the piece that she hasn’t necessarily thought of herself — so that makes the working relationship very flexible and flowing in both directions. Liz is also currently writing a new quintet for me, for multiple clarinets and string quartet, which we are performing and recording next year with the Fitzwilliam Quartet.Watch this space.
The Fitzwilliam Quartet
Are there enough 2 piano works out there to perform?
There’s actually a very large repertory of two-piano music, both works written originally for the medium and some really exciting and worthwhile arrangements, often of large-scale orchestral works from the first half of the 20th century, and often made by the composers themselves. When Andrew and I first started playing together, we performed Stravinsky’sRite of Springseveral times, as well as works such as Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which sit beautifully in a programme alongside classics for the medium such as Debussy’s En blanc et noir.
This piece was written for you both. How much input did you have?
Basically my stance when working with a composer is to let her/him write what they want, and then see whether we can find a way to make it work. If there are seriously impracticable details, then these can be ironed out at a second stage in the process. With Liz’s Wild Man Dances, I think that I had a hand in initiating her writing a work that was rhythmically very alive and energetic, to contrast with some really beautiful, texturally intricate pieces for strings and voice that she had previously been working on.
Do you have any advice about how to work efficiently on collaborative projects like this?
When collaborating with other performers, such as a two-piano partnership, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should link up to someone similar to yourself in character: often more contrasting personalities can come together to create a different kind of unity of approach, provided that there is sufficient understanding and respect of one another’s strengths. When collaborating with a composer, he/she will often already have a view of you as a performer (for better or worse!), and it’s generally better to allow him/her free rein to write exactly what they want to start with, without your interposing too much, except in answering specific technical queries. How much subsequent revision of a first draft is feasible will depend very much on the dynamics of the personalities involved, but I think it’s true to say that these days the compositional process for most composers is much less beholden to precompositional technical systems than, say, a generation or two ago; so creative discussions between composer and performer at draft stage (or even post-first performance stage) are very much the norm rather than the exception.
Andrew West and Ronald Woodley perform Music for Two Pianos at Adrian Boult Hall on Tuesday 27 October at 1pm. Book tickets.
This evening we remember one of the great champions of jazz, John Taylor. JT, as he was fondly known, sadly passed away in July this year. He was a Visiting Artist to the jazz department at Birmingham Conservatoire for many years and along with his incredibly expertise, gave huge inspiration to staff and students alike.
Since JT’s passing, many memories have come to light from his colleagues and pupils which all express their immense gratitude to this pillar of the British Jazz scene. Many talk about his generosity of spirit, others his unrivalled talents, others of deep-set humility. Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz, spoke at length about JT’s contributions to the Conservatoire and of his personal debt owed to the master. You can read more about that here.
We have gathered a few other memories below
Trevor Lines, Academic Lecturer:
“A memory (from over 25 years ago): I was on a summer school, spending most of the week studying and hanging out with JT as much as possible – as always, very generous with his time. One evening concert I wandered in from the bar and found him up on the stage playing my bass for a student band. He gave me a self-deprecating grin and told me over a drink he’d had thoughts of being a bassist and bought a bass and Ray Brown’s book but decided eventually it wasn’t for him. Later he was behind the drums for another group of students playing the most economical swinging time you’ve ever heard. Seeing him do those things was yet another object lesson in what it’s really all about.”
Jake Steels, BMus Jazz in year 4:
“The workshops with John were really inspiring. He brought a huge amount of energy to the rehearsal process with his enthusiasm for the music. I spent a little time talking to John because of his connection to the Lake District (where I am from). He had many happy memories there.”
Dave Ferris, graduate of the BMus Jazz course:
“I don’t really know what I can say about JT that other people haven’t, other than that spending time around him always just made me really want to play the piano better. He was an inspiration not just musically but as a complete role model – he was constantly searching out new things and (to my ears anyway) still getting better right up until the end, and the joy he took out of music was absolutely infectious.”
Andrew Bain, Assistant Course Director for BMus Jazz and Drum Tutor:
“Although I only played with John twice, those performances featured some of my fondest musical memories. His infectious energy and boundless creativity inspired awe. We had planned a two day festival that we would co-curate featuring his favourite musicians and music, but unfortunately we never got to hear how that would have sounded. I will always remember his generosity of spirit, his positivity, and his abounding enthusiasm. There is now a massive John Taylor shaped void in the world of jazz.”
Come along this evening as we remember JT with music written by him and music that close to his him. The concert will begin at 7:45pm in the Recital Hall.
Tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday 20 October) the Conservatoire’s Keyboard Department proudly present Yen-Ting Wang as she takes to the stage for what is sure to be a thrilling Performance Platform. The recital at 1pm brings together four composers who may not usually be put together: Haydn, Granados, Skryabin and Brahms. These highly virtuosic pieces, each for their own reasons, are sure to entertain and will showcase the range of emotions a performer must have at their fingertips. I caught up with Yen-Ting to hear about the programme and how she has been preparing for this performance. The programme for tonight is wonderfully varied. Why have you chosen these pieces in particular?
I have always liked finding new music and I really wanted to give the audience a taste of something that is not so often performed. I hope to captivate them with this choice of repertoire, as much as each individual composer has inspired me throughout this process.
Is there a connection between them, or is it just for variety?
There isn’t really a connection between these pieces I must confess, apart from the idea of improvisation perhaps but I have chosen some very virtuosic music. Finding the right pieces that get the audience to step into the realm that connects us with music is really hard, so I hope to get some of it right.
Does having such a range of styles not unnerve you as a performer?
Yes, definitely. I always get quite nervous anyway, but trying to constitute many different temperaments or feelings within just one performance is challenging in this case its between Brahms and Granados.
You are collaborating with Naoko Senda and Ruri Kuroda for the Brahms Trio. Have you worked with these players before?
No, we haven’t known each other that long; it’s an honour to play in an ensemble with them. They have such high talent and have clearly assimilated their ensemble playing being in Klee quartet together also which is great. I have learnt so much since working with them.
How do you find performing chamber music effects your musical approach?
I have found that chamber music requires plenty of listening and working as a unit obviously, but trying to imitate someone else’s sound as if to copy them, I have found this as important when playing with others. This has helped me when listening to pianists to observe to the overall sound and not just to the individual melodies and lines.
You’ve performed and studied all over world. What is it that brings you to Birmingham?
I was attracted to Birmingham to begin with as I had heard there were plenty of opportunities to perform and the support network in and around the conservatoire has been great.
If you had to choose, what would be your favourite piece of music?
At the moment I’m listening to Brahms Piano concerto No.2. Simply because it’s so beautiful, you can hear that Brahms wrote very logically connecting every phrase smartly.
What has been your favourite musical experience to date?
Robert Levin’s recent masterclass was very inspiring and full of fun. People always have a stereotype of the classical period, he, however brought in an abundance of knowledge emphasising how to interpret music in that time. He is very constructive but plays so creatively giving him freedom because of his in-depth understanding of style. Do you have any future performances coming up that people could come to?
Yes, I’ll be playing Brahms Piano Trio No.3 and Smetana Piano Trio in St. John’s Church, Notting Hill, London on the 26th Oct. 18th November; St Mary’s Church, Acocks Green, Birmingham, again Brahms Piano Trio and Debussy Piano Trio in G Major. I’m also dedicating a lot of time to collaborative work. Currently playing Mozart ‘s Piano Trio with clarinet and viola. For the next programme, we plan to do Brahms op.99- Cello Sonata No.2, op.100- Violin Sonata No.2 and op.101- Piano Trio. We are all looking forward to it!
This Sunday (18th October) we’re presenting a group led by a musician everyone on the jazz course will know well, drummer Andrew Bain. This is a brand new project called Player Pianoand for this Andrew has assembled some of the UK’s finest musicians to form a fantastic quintet. There is Gwilym Simocock on piano, Mike Walker on guitar, Steve Watts on bass and Iain Dixon on sax.
This gig is taking place at the CBSO centre, a venue with a great acoustic and they’ll be playing a combination of original music by the band members, and some written by late and greatly missed British jazz composers.
As well as our regular free foyer gigs at Symphony Hall on Fridays at 5pm we also present a monthly free entry gig at The Jamhouse, a popular live music venue in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. This month on Tuesday 20th October the band features a number of recent graduates from the Conservatoire jazz course, led by vocalistLucinda Fosker.
Another regular venue for Jazzlines gigs is the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, one of Birmingham’s longest standing and best live music venues. It presents a broad programme including alternative rock, jazz, electronica, funk, folk, hip-hop and reggae. We present gigs there usually at least once a month, and on Thursday 22nd October saxophonist and reeds player Shabaka Hutchings returns to the city where he grew up, with his band Sons of Kemet.
A lot of you will already know this band, they’ve been one of the UKs leading live jazz acts for a few years now and won a MOBO award for their debut album Burn. Featuring the double-drum talents of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner alongside tuba player Theon Cross, they mix rock, dub, Caribbean folk and African rhythms. With strong bass-lines and hypnotic drum grooves they’re a band that really must be experienced live. They’ll be playing tracks from their recently released new albums as well as those from their previous release.
At the end of the month, on Wednesday 28th October we welcome bass legend Marcus Miller to Town Hall, known for his work with both jazz artists Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, as well as range of pop and soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Billy Idol and Jay-Z.
He’ll be performing material from this his debut Blue Note album, Afrodeezia, the making of which saw him collaborate with musicians from West Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
There’s also going to be a great local support act Neon Villages, led by Conservatoire graduate and prominent local pianist & bandleader David Grey.
We’re keen to ensure that students at Birmingham Conservatoire are able to attend as many of this gigs as possible and benefit from the fact we are able to bring these musicians to the city.
To enable this we offer discount tickets for almost all of our gigs via Town Hall & Symphony Hall’s free Soundbite scheme for young people aged 16-25. Via this scheme we offer half price tickets to most of our events to anyone who has signed up to this scheme and buys their ticket in advance. As well as the Jazzlines programme this also allows you to access discount tickets for a whole range of Town Hall & Symphony Hall events including our Birmingham International Concert Series.
It’s free to join the scheme so it’s a great opportunity
We caught up with Michael on his tour to get an idea of what the concert promises…
How is the Paradigm Shift tour going? In a recent blog post you describe the music as having taken a ‘big step forward’ during the tour. How do see the music as having evolved? What is different now from when you played the first show?
We’re 18 shows into the tour and we’ve had a lot of good times on and off the stage, this just gets the music to a deeper place. The musicians have long since memorised their parts and we’ve gotten beyond the initial settling in period.
We’re interacting on a more subtle level now but also taking more chances in the music, exploring, etc, and letting people have their space, the music just plays itself and we’re just having fun. Also, when you do that many gigs in a row you get gig chops on your instrument which is nice cause you feel very connected with your instrument in a way you can never achieve from just practicing.
What can the Birmingham Conservatoire audience expect to hear? Will you recreate the album faithfully, or do you prefer to improvise with the material?
We’ll play all the songs from the album and the scored parts will be recognisable but we’ve developed everything to a new place and improvisation is always at the forefront.
Paradigm Shift was originally recorded in 2011 with further recording, post-production, mixing and mastering subsequently added throughout 2014 and 15. Was the intention always to work in this way – by recording it live and then finishing it off in the studio?
No, the reason I did this was because after it was recorded I had two other band/album commitments and had to see those projects through. After they ran their course I got back to this music and I knew I wanted my new band to feature an electronic musician, so I thought it would be great to have him add the post production to the album and so that’s what we did over a good 15 sessions.
What was the reason behind you adding further overdubs rather than just releasing a live album?
I wanted to enhance the sonic landscape of the music and now we’re doing that live on the shows.
Robert Levin – 6th Oct at Birmingham Conservatoire
He champions and composes contemporary music, but has also famously reconstructed Mozart choruses from sketches, including the Amen fugue in the Requiem. He has taught at The Curtis Institute, as the Piano Professor in Freiburg 1986-93, as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Cambridge 2012, and is currently Professor of Music Emeritus at Harvard.
The performance is followed by a public masterclass with some of the Conservatoire’s finest young pianists.
Jack Lovell spoke with Robert to find out more ahead of his appearance at the Conservatoire…
You are performing this recital on the fortepiano. Can you tell us a little bit about this instrument? Did you prepare for this performance knowing you will be using the fortepiano, and has that influenced your interpretation?
It is a copy of an instrument made in the workshop of Anton Walter. I did indeed prepare for the recital knowing I would be using a period piano, which decisively influences both technical and artistic approaches to performance and interpretation.
The greater transparency, clearer articulation, equal balance between hands and voices, and the particular colours available on an instrument of Mozart’s time are central to my approach.
You have a long and complex relationship with Mozart, from performing his works to reconstructing choruses and writing about him. What is it about Mozart that excites/interests you so much?
Mozart’s music conveys a sense of perfection and perfect equilibrium between rhetoric, architecture, and expression. He was a master dramatist and his music conveys a vivid sensuality. It is a challenging voyage of discovery to attempt to get inside his thought processes.
How does it feel taking on the responsibility of reconstructing or completing works by Mozart or J.S. Bach for example?
One learns profound humility. To attempt such a completion is to aspire to speak perfectly a foreign language. What is required is both intellect, infinite patience, and a clear sense of the outer limits of one’s abilities.
You are also a conductor. How do you find rehearsing a group of musicians impacts your musical language and approach?
It is a special privilege to convey to the musicians, and through them to the audience, the swirling feelings of joy, terror, and everything in between that the composer’s music expresses.
A hot topic in the UK at the moment is that of music education is schools. How do you feel about the state of music education in the UK, and wider around the world? What do you think we could be doing to improve it?
With the exception of Asia, where the virtues of classical music are part of basic cultural education, we need in the rest of the world to attach greater importance to the teaching of music and the appreciation of its immense expressive power. This power is known by all, but principally through vernacular (popular) music, most of which consists of tunes that are typically 2-5 minutes long. The greater complexity of Western art music is capable of engendering revelatory understanding of human motivations and emotions. Present-day audiences are more likely to gain a sense of these from the cinema than from art music. But surely Beethoven’s masterworks are not less powerful in this regard!
You will be giving a masterclass on Tuesday. What is it about the interaction with younger musicians that you enjoy? Is it just pianists that would benefit from this masterclass?
It is enormously stimulating to encounter younger musicians, responding to their abilities and stimulating them to surpass themselves in their aspirations and achievements—a mixture of the technical, the aesthetic, and the visceral. In master classes I teach not just the musician who is playing, but address myself to all listeners, whether fellow musicians or laypersons.
What was the best masterclass you were ever in as a student? What made it so special?
The master classes of Sir Clifford Curzon at Fontainebleau in 1960 and 1962. They were masterpieces of artistry, pianistic counsel, and wit. Working with Sir Clifford as a 12-year-old was what made me decide to be a pianist.
Robert Levin’s recital programme includes:
Robert Levin fortepiano
Mozart Four Preludes, K.284a Mozart Sonata in B flat, K.333 Mozart Sonata in E flat, K.282 Mozart Sonata in C, K.330
How did this composition come about? Was it composed for a specific event? And why now?
‘Around the summer of 2013 I became increasing interested in pieces that only had one overt action. Around the same time, I also got involved in studying different forms of attention spans and discovered that over the course of the past 20 years or so, the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes! I got to thinking about structures in popular culture, and how they can sustain attention for longer periods of time. Football being an obvious choice for me, has the ability to sustain attention for 45 minutes at a time (focus is reset at half-time with adverts, analysis etc.) and I wanted to see if there was anything intrinsic to a football match that made it so, or do we focus on a sporting event because of the extrinsic elements (the team that we support, do we have a bet on etc. etc.)
It was composed with Ensemble Krock in mind, who were brave enough to commit to the project without me showing them anything, and it has been performed live a number of times throughout 2014 and 2015 in Birmingham, Dublin, and Stockholm. The recording is released now, owing to fine tuning every aspect of the recording which for a 45 minutes piece, takes a considerable length of time!’
Ray Houghton celebrates scoring the winner against Italy in the 1994 World Cup
What is it about this game in particular that inspired you to write this piece?
‘I have particularly fond memories of this match. The Irish football team in the 1990s were relatively successful and there was generally a sense of positivity around the country when they played. This was our opening match of the 1994 world cup and the country was so excited. After Ray Houghton‘s goal around 11 minutes however, the match very much ran out of steam, and I was fascinated at how an entire country could sit around and watch something so uneventful. I wanted to see if I could write something that kept people focused for the same length of time by using the flow, or the structure of this relatively uneventful match.’
You mention that the piece celebrates that particular 1994 match, but also “the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes”. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think that is?
‘Yes, as I mentioned above, around the time I was composing this piece I began studying different forms of attention spans and was fascinated (if a little shocked) to learn that over the course of about 20 years, the average attention span for a singular activity has dropped from around 40 minutes to 2 minutes. This roughly correlates with greater access to the internet and maybe people consuming more information in much smaller chunks. As artists, we can either use this data and go along with it, which leads to interesting results, or we can also ask questions; again, leading to interesting results. There’s no right or wrong attitude, but I think it’s important for people to be aware of both sides of the coin. This piece I think, airs on the side of asking questions…’
At the risk of sounding naïve, how do you translate the physical actions of a football match in to a 45 minute piece of music? Are there exact points where we could say, “ah yes, that sound was that goal, or that moment was that tackle” and so on?
‘It’s not naïve at all! I sat down and watched the entire match and wrote out the duration that each team had possession. For example Ireland: 0’00” – 0’38”, Italy 0’38” – 1’07” etc, etc. I then had two blocks of sketch material which I composed the music from (one block for Ireland, the other for Italy). Every time Ireland had possession I used block A, whilst every time Italy had possession I used block B. This happens for the whole duration of the first half with significant events (Ray Houghton’s goal for example) punctuated in some way. The tempo of the piece loosely correlates to the tempo of the match also. It’s almost like composing a musical soundtrack to a silent film or to put it another way, it creates an alternative existence for a structure that occurred through chance in 1994…’
What made you chose a guitar quartet or Ensemble Krock for that matter?
‘I wanted to have a relatively homogenous sound for a piece that asks questions about focus and attention, and a guitar quartet is possibly as homogenous a sound as you can get (They are all tuned the same and all occupy the same register). However, as Krock are an electric guitar quartet you also have the ability to radically change sounds at your will. (The best of both worlds). On a more biographical note, all I listened to in the mid 90s (even though I was quite young) was Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins. As this is a piece set in the 90s, I wanted to capture some aspect of that soundworld, and the electric guitar quartet is the perfect medium for that.’
What is it like working on a project with such strong collaborators as Krock and John Murphy? Does it add anything special to the final product knowing that as a group you have shaped and created something unique?
‘Yes, it makes it far more special. Krock were absolute legends throughout the whole process. We met in 2013 when they were over from Stockholm doing a composition department project. We immediately hit it off and shared many interests and a similar working method. I had the opportunity to test the electronics for the piece in EMS in Stockholm in early 2014 and this really allowed us to craft the overall soundworld of the piece and not just the notes. Similarly, John Murphy runs a fantastic studio in Dublin where he has recorded the best underground and leftfield music around. He has a fantastic pair of ears and is such a perfectionist with an acute attention to detail. He is also remarkably kind with his time and was always willing to entertain my tiny suggestions and my constant ‘it’s not quite right, maybe a little more of this’ which lasted almost a year. Knowing the people you’re involved with, liking them, trusting them and having the time to explore all avenues has led to a very rewarding experience and a piece that I’m incredibly happy with. I am eternally grateful to all of them and am forever in their debt.’
You’ve mentioned somewhere that ‘nothing else of note took place and the second half was completely devoid of physical drama.’ …but what about John Aldridge and Jack Charlton’s bust up with the illuminous yellow baseball capped FIFA official? Surely that incident warrants a piece of its own?
‘Ah that was the match against Mexico! I know you’re just testing my football knowledge now!’
Welcome to another great season of performances at Birmingham Conservatoire!
This is my first term as Principal and I am well aware how good past seasons have been and how many of the world’s greatest musicians have worked and performed here. This autumn’s programme continues that tradition.
Birmingham Conservatoire Principal, Julian Lloyd Webber. Photo credit: John Millar.
Our percussion department also comes to the fore with a lunch-time performance of Steve Reich’s landmark composition, Drumming. There is plenty of jazz, world and contemporary music, of course, our regular series of lunchtime recitals given by our most outstanding students.