In the furore following the final of the piano section of this year's International Tchaikovsky Competition, some thoughts on why young artists need to be allowed to develop at their own pace.


Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final! In an honest and touching interview with Ismene Brown of The Arts Desk, Debargue comes across as a sensitive and intellectual young man for whom music is profoundly important, not just in terms of beautiful sound, but also as a “a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations”.

Let’s just clear up a few inaccuracies. In ‘The Spectator’ article quoted above, he is described as “the man who came last”. He didn’t come last. He achieved what most can only dream of: he reached the final of the most prestigious piano competition in the world. That he did this following only four years professional study with a Russian master teacher (Rena Shereshevskaya) is remarkable. (And by the way, it doesn’t really matter that his scale fingering is unusual: there is no “one size fits all” fingering scheme, because hands and fingers come in different sizes.) Now everyone is asking what next for this extraordinary young man?

It is at this point that I start to worry for a talented and obviously sensitive young man like Lucas Debargue. He is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young artist to be thrust into the limelight before he is ready. Unlike the other competition finalists, he has not undergone the long and rigorous traditional professional training which would prepare him for the concert platform: he still needs to hone his stagecraft and, more importantly, learn how to deal with the journalists, agents, promoters, and fans who besieged him as the competition progressed – and continue to. The classical music industry is not a particularly pleasant place, and the world of international pianism is highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. At the big competitions, representatives from the big artist agencies are waiting to scoop up the winners and runners up, offering tempting contracts, a slew of international engagements, recording deals and more (look how much Martin James Bartlett, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, has done since his win, including several performances at the Proms, and he’s only just 19; he has, however, undergone a professional training in specialist music school and conservatoire). It’s true that success in an international competition can make an artist – but it can break one too. From the moment one chooses the life of the international concert pianist, one lives in the public eye: every performance and recording is held up for scrutiny, and one is under almost continual pressure to meet the expectations of agents, promoters, fickle audiences, critics and fans. The life of the concert pianist is tough, restrictive and lonely. In addition to the many hours of solitary practise, there is the traveling, nights spent in faceless hotels, fine historic cities viewed through a fog of fatigue, never having the option to be less than perfect, even if one is ill or tired, knowing that one is judged on one’s last performance (here I recall the unpleasant hoopla surrounding Ivo Pogorelich’s London concert in February). The pressure can be unbearable if one is not equipped to handle it. (Read Charles Beauclerk’s excellent and sympathetic biography of John Ogdon for some brutal insights into the life of the international concert pianist. For Ogdon, the piano was his saviour and his tormentor, and there is no question that the pressure of so much traveling to perform around the world contributed to his breakdown.)

Add to this that peculiarly British fascination with the maverick, the eccentric, the tortured genius with the unconventional “backstory”. We risk endangering Debargue further by holding him up as curiosity, instead of allowing him to develop and mature in his own time. There is something very authentic about his playing, his particular soundworld and his special and personal connection to the music which has clearly touched people.

Lucas Debargue plays Ravel – ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’


In his interview with Ismene Brown, Debargue talks of having few friends and little support from his family. His teacher was his mentor and supporter, encouraging him to take a tilt at the Tchaikovsky Competition and saying when he got through the first round “It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you.” He has yet to develop the necessarily resilience, thick skin and artistic temperament to survive the “wild west” of the international concert circuit, and I only hope that whoever he chooses to manage him, should he decide to go down that route, is sympathetic and puts his well-being before all else. Otherwise, I dread to think what might happen….

So please let’s allow him – and others like him – to develop at his own pace to emerge onto the international circuit, should he choose that path, when he is truly ready. To conclude this article, I think it is worth quoting a comment on Peter Donohoe’s piece for Slipped Disc about the competition (Peter was a juror this year):

Aside from all of this, what happens to each of these young artists remains to be seen. How will they carry on with their studies as musicians? Which repertoire will they cultivate? Will they develop chamber music careers, teaching, new works, recordings? This is what is most important as they begin to soul search and decipher how and what they will contribute to the world of music outside of the usual parameters. (Jeffrey Biegel)
Read Peter Donohoe’s thoughtful and intelligent article here

View clips of Lucas Debargue’s performances in the International Tchaikovsky Competition


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A narrative interpreting Ravel's "La Vallee des cloches."

There are many ways one could write about a musical work. There is analysis, evaluation, criticism, and narrative to name only a few. Each of these ways provides opportunities for different kinds of learning about and experiencing of music, and so each has value as a learning activity. I think that the narrative is in some ways the most natural, the most enjoyable, and even the most beneficial for many listeners. It combines expressing emotions with unleashing the imagination to create images and stories to interpret what is heard, while allowing for the more technical aspects of music such as form and structure to be set aside from conscious attention. These may surface in the narrative, but only organically, not as a dedicated task to be completed.

In listening to “La vallee des cloches,” the fifth piece in Ravel’s Miroirs, I was compelled to set down a narrative as I listened, and found my enjoyment of the piece increased during the performance, and my memory of it more enjoyable after the music had stopped. What I wrote made a decent story, and also reminded me of the music I had heard, allowing me to audiate it as I read my narrative. I would like to share it with you here. I invite you to listen to this wonderful music as you read, and then you will be able to fully share in my experience of this music.

Two delicate tones, spacious between, followed by a delicate ripple of finely tuned sounds, the delicate tones still heard in the background, at first remaining where they were and then venturing out, exploring the landscape created by the ripple. The tranquility of being gently coaxed into the image was rudely intruded upon by a boorish clang, out of place, unwelcomed, and soon joined by others similarly disagreeable. The ripple was disturbed, veering off from its recently well-accustomed path, clearly distressed at being disturbed.

The ripple then stopped where it was, just watching with trepidation the uninvited visitors move about, and wondering what they would do next. Then a solitary one, also out of place but hinting at kindness while exuding strength as a lone rescuer determined not to make too bold an entrance, appeared, and offered hope of returning to the former calm so recently enjoyed.

And so it happened: or nearly so. The tranquility returned, but tinged with an apprehension that had not been there before; an apprehension laced with the memory of what had just happened, and the realization that it could happen again. Gradually, peace increased, brought I suppose by the solitary rescuer.
There now was a confidence and even strength that bolstered the peacefulness, and worked to subtlety change the character of the ripple, which stood firm rather than gently. All became quiet, and looked around.

Darkness descended. Not an evil or fearsome darkness, but one that brings the hope for a better day. The ripple was filled with passion and love, though it knew not for what. It was a new feeling never before experienced. But it slowed the ripple, even as it stirred about pensively until at last it slumbered in the night. Dreams of longing and desire for something unnamed filled its sleep.

As the night progressed, the ripple tossed and turned. At last the dawn of the new day broke. The ripple began to move about as it had at the start of the previous day, but it was different. There was darkness, a loss of innocence and welcome naiveté that on the previous day had been lost forever.


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A life of music loving recounted and found to be unattributable.

2011 Symposium2

Amid the frequent pronouncements of doom over classical music, and the unenthusiastic attitude of many of my general music students toward it, I sometimes ask myself what drew me to classical music. I never became a great musician, yet my love for music has always been great. That’s important because when a child is raised in a music rich environment, he can become a life-long music lover, even if he never plays at Boston’s Symphony Hall, or New York’s Carnegie all or….(you fill in your prestigious concert hall). Here’s how I became the music lover and the musician/teacher I am today.

My parents told me that I enjoyed music from a very early age, but many children do. My earliest memories are discovering the two classical recordings had in their record collection, and delighting in playing them on their phonograph. At some point, I also discovered Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts on television. The whole family waited for them to end before we could have dinner on those precious afternoons when they were broadcast. I soon began imagining that I was the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

At that time, the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra periodically broadcast a concert on television. The broadcast had a theme song, it was “Getting To Know You” from the musical “The King and I.” I soon began starting my classical music listening sessions by playing “Getting To Know You,” and then switching over to one of the classical records. I would stand in front of the phonograph conducting the music, dreaming of becoming the next Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Winograd (former cellist of the Julliard Quartet, and then conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.)

As I grew into my teens, I got to go to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, to see that great orchestra play. My mother took me, and we had memorable days together enjoying the music and the cool Massachusetts Berkshire air that is so refreshing and welcome compared to the hotter more humid air we so often left behind in Connecticut. When I got my driver’s license, I subscribed to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and drove myself to Symphony Hall in Springfield to hear orchestra concerts. It never occurred to me to object to going alone. I just couldn’t wait until the next concert.

By this time, my clarinet playing (I had started when I was ten years old) had progressed so that I was active in regional festivals, musical theater pits, and the school concert and jazz bands. The more I played, the more exciting life got. I began conducting while still in high school, and was able to conduct a composition I wrote for band. A classmate in music theory class got me interested in composing, and though I never formally studied music composition, I have dappled in it ever since, having several works performed over the years.

I entered college as a music education major so that I would be assured of making a living in music. There were frequent delights in a music conservatory–chamber music ensembles, wind ensembles, an opera orchestra, solo playing with piano–these were more varied and more fun than ever. Four years at a music conservatory were filled with music, though a few performances still stand out in my memory. Playing clarinet and bass clarinet for Pierrot Lunaire, playing on WGBH radio’s “Morning Pro Musica” with Robert J. Lurtsema and singing in a performance of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” were among the standouts.

And then there was a concert I attended given by the Hartford Symphony. Philip Entremont played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. I was fascinated. How could a piano concerto start with just the piano? How could the work begin without the orchestra playing the exposition? Yet there it was, only the pianist playing those four repeated chords, and then another four, and then the end of the first phrase. How curious that so much expression could be found in repeated chords, yet it was expressive. By the time the orchestra came in I was both annoyed and relieved. Annoyed that the spell had been broken, and relieved that Beethoven hadn’t left the orchestra out of the first movement! With all the classical music I had heard, I still had the thrill and excitement of being in wonder. That was it. The old music always sounded fresh and was capable of inspiring my inner being.

At some point, it was no longer works that were new to me that brought out that wonder, but new interpretations of familiar ones. Lori Maazel conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony with the bell tones of the brass brought to the fore. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto played as I never knew a clarinet could be played, sublime, by Harold Wright. Leonard Bernstein Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and a few years later, Brahms first symphony. I met Mr. Bernstein after that concert, and it is to this day among the most precious two minutes of my life.

The delights, both remembered and ongoing, are seemingly endless. They started somewhere in my childhood, and snowballed into a life-long delight. How it all started, I am still not sure, but I do know this: I have always surrounded myself and been surrounded by music. I found pleasure and fulfillment in it that others did not. For the past 30 years it has been my privilege to teach young people music, and for some, to move other life-long love affairs with music along. Whether it is the turning of a phrase in the ear, or a lovely body in motion to the music, or the images of a video helping my imagination take flight along with the music, it is a joy that for me has never been matched. Musicians, fill the lives of others with your music, your art. It is an ennobling and necessary part of human life.

By the way, the two recordings were Gaite Parisienne by Offenbach, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.



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Video extrait “Synesthésie Concert” – Arts Base, Bruxelles 11 October 2015.
L’exécution de Giusy Caruso accompagnée par la projection des images artistiques de Alessandro Giorgi Art Photography
Synesthésie est cette expérience sensorielle qui concerne un mélange de perception des sons, des couleurs, des images nettes et de timbre abstraite. Le programme du concert propose une fascinante écoute pleine de contaminations, de références, analogies voilées et de stimuli sensoriels de type synesthésique.

Michael Freeman, Silent Movie - Thumbnail

I was recently asked by a classical string musician friend if I would compose a short mischievous piano piece called Cheeky Monkey. I completed the task, and here I have used the tune as a soundtrack to an 8mm short film my brothers & I made as kids

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As a “non-pianist” I tried to play my piece as good as I could. The piano is a Roenisch from 1909 :)

Nikolai Medtner - 8 Forgotten Melodies / Vergessene Weisen Op. 38: Sonata Reminiscenza, Danza Graziosa, Danza Festiva, Canzona Fluviala, Danza Rustica, Canzona Serenata, Danza Silvestra, Alla Reminiscenza

Wie bereits angekündigt, freue ich mich nun endlich, interessierten Musikliebhabern unter euch den gesamten Zyklus “Vergessene Weisen Op. 38″ von Nikolai Medtner präsentieren zu dürfen – aufgenommen letzte Woche auf einem C-Bechstein-Flügel. Kurz noch einmal ein paar generelle Informationen zum Komponisten und Werk:
Nikolai Medtner, geboren 1880, war russischer Komponist und Pianist, wobei er oft eigene Werke aufführte. Seine Kompositionen sind inspiriert von deutscher und russischer Tradition, halten sich aber an den romantischen Stil. Rachmaninoff und Medtner, welche befreundet waren, hielten jeder den anderen für den bedeutendsten Komponisten seiner Zeit.
Medtner schafft mit seinen Werken und seiner unglaublich bildhaften und erzählerischen Tonsprache eine ganz eigene, individuelle Atmosphäre.
Der Zyklus besteht aus 8 lose zusammenhängenden Stücken. Das erste und umfangreichste ist gleichzeitig seine 10. Klaviersonate mit dem Namen “Sonata Reminiscenza”, bestehend aus einer musikalischen Erzählung in einem einzigen 14-minütigen Satz, welcher in bedrückendem a-moll geschrieben steht. Trotz der Einsätzigkeit ist noch eine gewisse Sonatenform zu erkennen (Exposition, Durchführung, Reprise), wobei zusätzlich Zwischenmotive eingebaut werden und z.B. bei der wiederholten Exposition ein neues Seitenthema erklingt.
In den folgenden 7 Stücken werden immer wieder Motive aus der Sonate verarbeitet. Speziell das eingängige melancholische, immer wiederkehrende Intro- und Schlussthema der Sonate ist z.B. bei „Canzona Serenata“ und „Alla Reminiszenza“ deutlich wahrnehmbar. Aber auch die Stücke untereinander zeigen Parallelen auf. Das einleitende Glockenmotiv des „Danza Festiva“ erklingt z.B. im danach folgenden „Canzona Fluviala“ ebenfalls als einleitendes Motiv, geht dann aber in ein ruhigeres, fließenderes Stück über. Das letzte Stück „Alla Reminiszenza“ kann auf Grund der engen Themenverwandschaft mit der Sonate, als eine Art Coda des gesamten Zyklus gesehen werden. Zum Abschluss klingen hier ebenfalls laute Glocken im befreiendem A-Dur.

Hier geht es zur Playlist:

1. Sonata Reminiscenza
2. Danza Graziosa
3. Danza Festiva
4. Canzona Fluviala
5. Danza Rustica
6. Canzona Serenata
7. Danza Silvestra
8. Alla Reminiscenza

Ich wünsche viel Spaß bei dieser tollen Musik und hoffe, es gibt für euch dabei viel zu entdecken.


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