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17 Dec new 'Wingate' blog

Hi there! Thanks for reading my blog. I've started a new blog at blogger.com - the URL is:

http://ellieswingateblog.blogspot.com/

It's Ellie's Wingate Blog

I am studying contemporary music a LOT this year, supported by the brilliant Wingate Scholarship that I am so proud to have been awarded earlier this year. Please do visit the new blog and 'follow' me to get the occasional update about my progress. I really value all your support and, if you're a harpist or a musician, you may pick up some good suggestions from me too!

I shall continue to add pages to this blog too, but it makes everything less confusing if I keep that one separate.

Anyway, i'm really looking forward to tomorrow's concert at Thurning church, Northamptonshire. It's not too far from me (20 miles) but I still really hope it doesn't snow - especially for the audience. Hopefully people will still come and at least there'll be some warming mulled wine and other refreshments.


More from me soon,


Eleanor



5 comments

22 Nov Paths of Song

My latest CD, Paths of Song - chamber music by John Metcalf and no singing at all! - is out now on Signum Classics. I'm so thrilled to read the December issue of Gramophone magazine, out in shops now, and find an excellent review of the CD in it!

I even get a special mention from the reviewer, Pwyll ap Sion. "Benefiting from an agile and assured performance by harpist Eleanor Turner, who shines throughout the recording, Metcalf's lyricism is at its most expressive when such musical journeys are heard to return home."



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30 Sep 1st performance on 'La Comptesse'!

 I am excited to announce that La Comptesse, the beautiful harp owned by renowned early music specialist Douglas Hollick and kindly lent to me, was performed on last Saturday! I don't know whether the last public performance before Saturday, on this 1806 harp, was in the last century or even the one before, but I am happy to be the lucky harpist to reinstate it centre stage!

I performed the Handel Harp Concerto in Bb, edited by G Pasveer from the Netherlands with some beautiful suggestions for ornaments in the second movement (many of which I followed) with the English National Baroque Ensemble, at St. George's, Bristol.

I was a little nervous as I have high expectations of myself and generally do everything within my power to prepare myself to my best ability! An hour and a half before the concert I still had to dash out to buy a rug (I found a beautiful one from 'Chandni Chowk' - definitely special enough to stop La Comptesse from slipping!) and I also had to eat (at a next-door Bristol Thai restaurant that served me an amazing green curry within minutes! and I left my boyfriend to pick up the bill while I rescued the car from a possible encounter with a parking warden!) and tune up for the concert. I even sneaked in about forty minutes practise - amazing!

It all paid off as Nicholas Whiting, the leader, supported me wonderfully and the reviewer, John Packwood, writing for the Evening Post said:

"Handel's Harp Concerto is an exquisite composition and with the charming Eleanor Turner as soloist this was a performance that held the large audience spellbound with her brilliant playing.

Eleanor cleverly obtained the softer moments with skilful use of the pedals. ....this is referring to the one pedal that opens and shuts the shutters at the back of the harp....I only used it twice ;) (ET)

The Larghetto was suitably haunting before the finale showed some nimble finger work. Her performance, with its thoughtful details of timing, put the structure of the music across strongly. This was an exciting occasion which received an enthusiastic response."

I am so proud to have performed on La Comptesse at last, so grateful to Douglas Hollick for the loan and use of the instrument, perfectly suited to this and so many other special concerts, and to the Ensemble! It was lovely to be reunited with old friends Mike Wilshaw (double bass) and Francis on continuo!

See you soon,

Highly Strung and....La Comptesse xx

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12 Sep Harpo Perpetuo for UNICEF

Update: We raised £174.64 on the day itself and received a further £40 in donations from supporters, making the total figure £214.64 raised for UNICEF - thanks to all who took part and donated, this was a beautiful day of music-making and a brilliant result for UNICEF. We received a lovely letter of thanks from them less than a week later :)

Hello friends, just a quick post today! Myself and some students will be playing outdoors today at Easton Walled Gardens from 12-4pm. This will be under a gazebo kindly lent to us by one of my students, Katy Phipps. The gazebo idea was in case of rain but we have been blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful day, so we may well need it for shade!

I love this time of year. I cannot wait to play outside today, hearing the wind rustling gently through the strings of the harp, making them glow and shimmer with sound, resonating with the other-worldy 'aeolian' quality that composers try desperately to recreate with entire orchestras - but can't! Only the harp can stand outside on a grassy verge, a rocky ridge, a beach, in a forest or next to a Victorian Kitchen Garden (like today) and play by itself. The sound is magical and ethereal and it's almost a shame to place 'proper' music on top of it!

Today we are raising money for UNICEF's appeal to help the people of Pakistan, devastated by the floods. I have just set up a fund-raising page, but it is not live YET. Hopefully, by Tuesday 14th September it will be, and it will be online and available to donate through, until 30th September. The URL will be: www.supportunicef.org.uk/harpoperpetuo

Bye for now,

Highly Strung x

5 comments

02 Sep Friends

 I am so lucky to have great friends. Quite often I forget just how great they are and sometimes I feel frustrated as I live far away from them. However, today I have been reminded of lots of great friends - I was laughing out loud this morning in front of my computer as some really funny anecdotes about Ravel and Debussy were being jostled around on one friend's facebook page...I thought facebook was meant to be quite trashy but suddenly a worldwide network of harpists were alive in response to a query about the great composers' harp works and everyone was obviously keen to show off their knowledge and in a very amusing manner. I was reminded of Kenneth Williams on 'Just a Minute' and other classic radio shows where he used to demonstrate his knowledge on a vast array of subjects while delivering it all with comic flair and audience-warming personality. Helen Leitner, nee Radice, is this friend - she is a fountain of knowledge and good humour, none of which seems to have been quenched by the arrival of her first child a few weeks ago - a beautiful daughter named Rosalie. Welcome to a World of fun with Helen and Harry, Rosalie!!

 My son is my friend. I have no idea if I am his. I also am becoming increasingly aware that the balance has shifted and I now need HIM far more than he needs ME! Still, he's a great friend, terrific company and is aquiring his own taste in music. In the car we are mostly listening to the All-American Rejects 'Move Along' - I'm not sure how edifying this is in comparison to the Handel Harp Concerto but I think these lyrics are worth quoting:

Speak to me, when all you got to keep is strong
Move along, move along like I know you do
And even when your hope is gone
Move along, move along just to make it through

Good for driving, good for love, good for life! My son is keeping me on track.

Today I met up with a friend who has had a dreadful year, both in relationships, family trauma and work. I am so proud that this person has come through it as well as she has and I am so honoured that we shared our experiences today. Talking about grief is not easy for anyone and yet we all go through it at some point. I strongly feel that we should all be more open with our friends and families about the bloody awful aspects of life. When we suffer in silence and become weary or depressed, the size of our problems grow and magnify and cast a longer shadow over our lives.

Even though I am a 'glass half full' type of person and try to accentuate the positive rather than dwelling on the negatives, I am plagued by the same fears and insecurities as everyone else. I also worry about other people a lot and feel bad that I cannot do more to help. However, my mound of problems has been beaten down to size continually this year by a supportive family who help me with my son, an inspirational sister who has produced a beautiful nephew for me! a wonderful friend in Glasgow called Paul Tracey, brilliant colleagues who are also close friends: Harriet, Keziah and Lisa, and my boyfriend Alex. 

I am so grateful for the people who support me and put up with me, no matter whether they last heard from a week ago or a year ago. Friends are amazing! 

 

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02 Sep Thank you for the music!

Today has been a really great day, even though I have only plucked a few notes on a harp all day and that was at my wonderful student Elizabeth (Liz to me) Bass's house, on her magnificent Salvi Diana called 'Bella'! Seeing Liz always perks me up as her enthusiasm and love for the harp rival my own, we always have a giggle as well as a good harp lesson and she supplied the most delicious cheesecake AND lunch today!

I am constantly being reminded at the moment how great it is to share life's experiences with others who mean a lot to you and today has been full of decent, meaningful chit chat with great people. Liz and I were mulling over the slightly 'tortured' existence of being a musician and reminded each other to balance any criticism of ourselves with equal amounts of praise and satisfaction for the good things achieved through a practice session. Liz had a lovely tip from Charlotte Seale (an outstanding harpist and teacher) who taught Liz on the IBACUS harp course this summer, to 'enjoy being even more creative with your practice' - a brilliant piece of advice. It goes without saying that at a high level there are going to be technical points to study and hard work to achieve fluency and virtuosity, but it's important that a practice session is never without huge creative input. Exhausting stuff, but very fulfilling. Like a private 'jam' with the harp!

Today I am feeling so thankful that my mum hired a harp for me when I was just 5 years old. If I didn't have my harp to relax me and feel my soul, I hope I would have found some other means of doing just that. However, I believe that many people go through life without finding an escape and a release like this - or at least not such a healthy one! I love playing my harp and it is therapy for me as well as my job - I can express myself at the harp in a way I could never put into words or share with my closest friends. I think it actually keeps me sane. The fact that I have students like Liz who feel the same way about their music as I do makes me feel even more blessed.


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02 Jul Claire Iselin, 'Final Recital' TCM 29.06.10

 In a fairly small recital room off the courtyard at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich - the home of Trinity College of Music and the thriving harp department of Gabriella Dall'Olio - Claire Iselin magically teleported her audience to a peaceful, exotic oasis with her harp playing. Her programme was crafted to display a wide variety of styles, each one brilliantly executed with real commitment to the style: she had the whole audience with her throughout the concert.

Claire, who started learning the harp in her native France at the age of six, is a very stylish player who is unafraid to interpret the music in a very personal and often intimate way. I understand that this is typical of a French musician, but Claire is not a 'typical' musician in any sense - she is an exceptional young artist. Her thoughtful and focused playing drew the audience in, from the opening of her first piece, Prelude to the Cantos de Espana by Albeniz, to the final flourish of Ravel's Introduction, Cadenza and Allegro.

We really enjoyed the excerpts from The Crown of Ariadne, by Schafer, for harp and percussion - all the instruments were deftly handled by Claire and her technique and precision at the harp shone out, even despite the added (but wonderful!) distraction of a dancer. Audrey Rogero, contemporary dancer from Laban, which is affiliated with TCM, did a beautiful job of complimenting the music as she noiselessly swooped around the room, becoming first the essence of Ariadne's delicate and sensual dance, then the spirit of Dance of the Bull and finally, the Dance of the Night Insects. It was all suggetive rather than intensely characterised, which worked well as a compliment to the music. As Claire performed this part of the music from the side of the stage, on a pre-prepared Salvi Apollo that was surrounded by the necessary percussion instruments, I was particularly happy that Audrey's dancing was in the foreground as I couldn't see Claire very well at that point, so it was very entertaining to watch and experience the music in this new way. (I should make it clear that in the score of the music, Schafer adds choreographic suggestions for the harpist to interpret her/himself, mainly using the arms and the effect of having instruments on either side of the harp, but Claire has taken this one step further by inviting Audrey to choreograph an actual dance to it, which is not suggested in the score but a very nice idea.)

The third item in the programme was, for me, the highlight. Claire's 'The Moldau' by Smetana didn't have me yearning to hear the full orchestral version for even a second. She coloured this music precisely, often very delicately and with a wonderful sense of direction throughout the piece. The resounding fortissimo section of this piece (coming somewhere between two-thirds of the way through and the ending, I think) was particularly memorable to due Claire's sense of timing, and her giving wonderful definition and shape to the bass-line. This allowed us space as we listened, to journey with her and share in the excitement of the music building and reaching a tremendous climax. This is no mean feat as a harpist, a fact that was obviously appreciated by the harpist-filled audience in the tumultuous applause at the end of this piece.

Claire closed her recital with Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for harp with the accompaniment of string quartet, flute and clarinet. Particularly impressive in this piece was the way Claire seamlessly joined with the dynamic of the accompanying Billroth Ensemble, showing her to be a really strong chamber musician. There was some really exquisite phrasing and finely honed shapes that she created both within the dynamic of the ensemble and projecting above it as the soloist. My favourite moment was when the excellent clarinettist Daniel Broncano created a pianissimo (pianissississississimo really!) to mark the start of an echo phrase that was beautifully matched by the ensemble: Claire couldn't help but smile spontaneously at that moment, which was a real joy for the audience as well as the players.

If I had to give a small piece of advice (not that anyone has asked me to!!!) I would suggest that when playing harmonics with the thumb, one can be free to move the thumb as if playing it independently on a full-length string. Regardless of the string being reduced to half its original length by the creation of the harmonic, it actually then becomes a new complete string in itself and can be played as such.

All that remains to be said is that Claire Iselin is a wonderful musician and I wish her very well indeed for her career, which has surely got off to a magnificent start already. I will be going to her concerts whenever I can!


Highly Strung x


4 comments

01 Jul Gwenllian Llyr Harp Recital

Now that my son is almost eight years old I find that I am getting out to watch a lot more concerts than I have done in the past few years. When he was a baby it was hard enough to leave him to go to work (play the harp!) so I didn't watch any concerts for a while. However, as the years have gone on he has been in the audience for many of my concerts, both in the UK and abroad, and increasingly more of other people's. He also gets involved in the planning of concerts that I sometimes host for myself or my students and he certainly got involved with the preparations for Gwenllian Llyr's Stamford recital last Sunday. Along with the rest of the modest but appreciative audience, he enjoyed the concert very much indeed and was not bored for a minute!

That, of course, is down to Gwenllian's descriptive and refined music-making. Gwen took us through two beautifully crafted programmes; each half of the recital was one 'round' of the competition in Bloomington that she is about to compete in and she has put together a really mesmerising and very well prepared selection that I hope the international jury enjoy as much as we all did. The level of perfection and technical achievement that Gwen has reached is spell-binding and impressive in itself, although she is much more of a special musician than just perfection. Gwenllian has a natural flair for shaping the music as a sculptor deftly creates a masterpiece from clay or wood. She is always aware of the materials that she is working with and has a clear vision of the result and the reaction that she can obtain through her art - she is confident and vivacious too. In fact, if I was Gwen, I would have looked a lot more jubilant at the close of the recital, although with the intense heat of the day there was a slight element of relief that she must have felt, having mastered each piece with such control.

I particularly enjoyed Gwen's very well characterised rendering of Manuel de Falla's 'Spanish Dance No.1', transcribed by Marcel Grandjany. The rhythmic vitality was a sheer joy to experience live! This was followed by the most exquisite contrast - Bernard Andres's 'Elegie pour le mort d'un berger' (berger is French for shepherd) - which was incredibly atmospheric and delighted in the many timbres suggested in the score and brought to life by Gwen's fingers. She rounded off the first half with a unique and convincing interpretation of Parish-Alvars' Fantasy on Italian Opera Airs, making it sound fresh and personal with the melody always to the fore - just what is needed to communicate these virtuosic pieces in the opera style, impressing but still creating a beautiful experience for the listeners.

There were many other high points to this concert and Gwen certainly won the hearts of everyone in the audience. Gwen has been preparing a vast programme for the USA International Harp Competition (alongside graduating with a First in her degree!) and her studied yet intuitive understanding of the music that she plays created an extraordinary concert for us all. In the years to come, I hope that Gwen has the opportunity to play with more period instrumentalists (musicians who are expert in repertoire from different musical eras, for example 17th century harpsichord music from the Spanish baroque, or 19th century keyboard works for the early grand pianos). I have benefited enormously from studies with Douglas Hollick and Trevor Pinnock and have always been very inspired by Danielle Perrett's innate understanding of the 18th century single-action pedal harp, her expertise in the music from this time and her passion for its social and cultural importance. Over time, one gains a deeper knowledge of the authentic ornamentation, performance rhetoric and the freedom that only those who truly understand the style and purpose of the music can have with it. This liberates the musician to achieve a more dynamic, expressive performance with no fear of 'romanticising' the music. 

Gwen's playing is absolutely magical and this is only a suggestion of further improvement over the next few years, during which Gwen is bound to become really big news in the harp world! At only 22 years of age, Gwenllian Llyr has already achieved incredible heights with her playing and will, I hope, have the greatest possible success in the USA competition. A top prize in this contest would be richly deserved by this talented, fresh and charismatic individual.


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10 Jun Inspirational Evening June 9th blogpost

Inspiring events and crossing boundaries 

I probably shouldn't be blogging at 3am and this is sure to be full of typos, but sometimes inspiration grabs me and this is one of those times.

Today I departed from my usual concert experience to play for an Anglo-Dutch exchange at Inner Temple in London, where my sister, Belle Turner, is a leading junior barrister and chairs a Young Barristers' Committee.


For five days, young barristers from The Netherlands have come to London to share the experiences of our own barristers and learn first hand about how law is practised in the UK. As someone who has a great passion for learning, and not exclusively in my own field, I love to see people learning in other disciplines and always ask myself whether I can apply any of their methods to my own discipline. This I then extend to my teaching. Firstly though, I'll explain in brief what I did tonight. I was asked to provide a short recital to entertain the English barristers and the Dutch guests while they enjoyed pre-dinner drinks. I was delighted to be able to choose two brilliant original harp compositions - one of which was by the 19th century English harpist Parish-Alvars, the other by the Dutch (non-harpist) composer Henk Alkema. The latter composition, Forgotten Lore, is known well by me on account of it being the set piece in Stage 2 of the Netherlands International Harp Competition this year! It also happens to be a wonderful, likeable composition that I was delighted to be performing again.

The Dutch visitors, and the Londoners, all listened attentively to my performance. There wasn't a single rustle even in the 'frozen frame' ending. The piece really seemed to capture everyone's imagination and in the freeze-frame stillness at the end I felt as if all those well-respected people of the law were watching me, like on an old cinefilm stuck on one frame, studying the musician at work in her discipline, immersed in the music just as they have been immersed in their discipline. It is so engaging and inspiring to meet people who are passionate about their work or vocation; whether it is music, law, politics, sport, care in the community....we can all learn so much from each other and enhance the quality of our lives and careers, as well as gaining a deeper sense of respect for others.


The highlight of the evening, for myself and all the young barristers, came after dinner in a wonderfully motivating speech by Lord Robert Walker of Gestingthorpe QC, one of the twelve supreme court judges. Lord Walker spoke with poise and conviction, tempered by an endearing humour and humility, about the young people needing to ensure that higher standards were sought for justice and fairness in all walks of life. Something about the delivery of his speech made me want to put down my pudding fork and rush out immediately to try to change the world and influence those in positions of authority, but as I cannot convey the power of his persuasion for you, I will instead list his three main points:


1. to maintain intellectual inquisitiveness

2. to continue to look to history to guide/inform our decisions

as there is almost always a comparable situation that we can learn from - even if the actual subject matter is different

3. to keep being outraged

here, Lord Walker cited examples that clearly fill him with outrage - levels of child poverty in the UK, bad decisions by government on issues of public money being misspent, people in positions of power abusing their authority and not wishing to be held accountable for that - and we were left with the impression that there were plenty more things. 

Perhaps I was the only person in the room to be privately confessing to myself that I was guilty of these things not filling me with the outrage that they should. Perhaps I am the only person who will now be thinking about this very hard over the coming weeks - about when and where injustice so became the 'norm' in society that I could not be bothered to use my energy on being outraged by these things, and other things that really are of great importance to me, to all of us and to our children and future generations. However, having had the privilege of hearing such a motivational speech up-close and personal, I know for sure that I will not be the only one to be feeling this way.


I hope that I will continue to be inspired by Lord Walker's words - applying his first two points to my music practice, performance and teaching, and his third point to all the real issues that, like it or not, are affecting all our lives every day. What a blessing to be a part of such a great event. Congrats to Belle Turner for organising the event and being a true source of inspiration herself.

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10 May Netherlands comp 3

Final thought...

My final thought to share with you is that during the competition, I was listening to Alicia Keys’ latest album, The Element of Freedom, in my car. At the very start of the album, she quotes the diarist Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” And she adds, “This is the element of freedom.” I took a lot of inspiration from those words, which really helped me to deal with my fears before the Final. I had to look deep inside myself to find true confidence and an honest desire to go out in front of everyone and really ‘live’ the music.

Something about the pressure of a competition like this – the length of time preparing, the money spent on getting there, the exhaustion of working so hard in my day-to-day life too, (for me, combining all that discipline with being a mother), even just the loneliness of it all…it really gets to you. It fills you with dread and the fear of failure. I decided that day to ‘give myself up’ entirely to the music – to trust what I knew I knew, to experience the dream of performing the most wonderful harp concerto with a superb orchestra and conductor – my dream…and to do it without fear, but with excitement, love and freedom. That really is the element of freedom – and it is well worth finding! I am indebted to all the people in my life, not forgetting the competition organisers themselves- who helped me to achieve that and to realise my goals.

That's all from me about this competition in particular, but I hope to put up more posts with lots of tips for young harpists preparing for contests...maybe even a check list of things to take with you will appear at some point! Of course, all of my ideas are personal to me - it would be so interesting to learn how other harpists prepare, compete, stay sane and if they also enjoy the experience!

Highly Strung

 

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10 May Netherlands Comp 2

The beginning….

This particular journey started back in February last year (2009) when I heard that there was going to be a new harp competition in the Netherlands. I had never performed solo in the Netherlands and really wanted to – there’s a terrific buzz about the harp there and superb harpists, musicians and teachers such as Erika Waardenburg, Ernestine Stoop and Petra van der Heide. Gwyneth Wentink, an incredible talent of my own generation, who I have heard perform many times and deeply admire, was a student of Erika’s and is now an international soloist – as it turned out, she was also to be a member of the jury for this competition! But knowledge of the jury remained secret until day 1 of the competition.

I have studied with Erika Waardenburg on a few separate occassions – initially a one-off summer course in Devon, then a private study weekend at her studio, then an even more inspiring Springcourse in 2009 at her home. It was on this three-day course that I met Remy van Kesteren, who impressed me with his playing and also with the fact that he was actually the founder of this competition in the Netherlands. Although he now had a large committee made up entirely of students like himself. He is also an extremely funny and lovely person to be around!

Starting the music….

A piece that I love but have struggled with, Faure’s Une chatelaine en sa tour…, appeared as the compulsory piece for the first round of the contest. A work that requires a sostenuto melodic line throughout, has complex pedalling that should be silent despite the difficulties of reverberating harmonies, uses delicate textures and calls for a personal interpretation is surely an excellent choice for a set piece. There could be no harder test than this. With Erika’s encouragement on Springcourse, I gained a new focus and confidence with the piece. She shared many ‘tricks of the trade’ with me, for example, enharmonic realisations of parts where the pedalling was stopping the flow of the music. In general, the course boosted my confidence and helped me to feel a part of things in the harp world, especially having been out of formal education for so long.

As well as Erika Waardenburg, I had lessons with many wonderful harpists and musicians in the UK. Without the support and guidance of the following people, I would not have felt equipped to even compete, let alone to get to the final stage and win a prize:


Thank yous….

Daphne Boden

My teacher of 8 years from age 11. Daphne also kindly gave me a lesson and hosted a delightful soirée at her house to give me the opportunity to perform my competition repertoire!

Alison Nicholls

My teacher from the age of 19 to 26, whose words of guidance are always with me. I could write so many paragraphs about everything that Alison has taught me but all I will say here is that every time I play, practice and perform, I feel as if she’s there with me. In particular, I thank Alison for the fact that I now rely on things like triplet scales and dominant sevenths in contrary motion, in place of panic-fuelled practising!

Charlotte Seale

I am indebted to Charlotte for her generosity with time and advice. After my initial edit of Thomas Hewitt Jones’s ‘Shades of Grief’ that I commissioned in 2009, Charlotte found hundreds of ways to make this hugely challenging work playable, and then beautiful. Her musical ideas are as astute as her quick eye for an enharmonic translation (or ten!) that can reduce the pedal movements dramatically and also allow freedom for the musical line.

Helen Sharp

Helen gave me two in-depth lessons that completely transformed my interpretation and ability to play Spohr, Faure and Prokofiev! I would recommend that anyone has lessons with Helen and I very much hope to have more myself. Helen was also really generous and her advice brightened the atmosphere in my practice room for a long time after each lesson!

Lucy Wakeford

My lesson with Lucy on the Ginastera Concerto was totally invaluable. Lucy covered everything, in depth, in one session that focused my mind, gave me confidence and really pushed me to accelerate my learning of the piece. Every fingering, pedal move and phrase mark was alive in her mind and she shared everything with me. It really fired me up for the final fortnight of preparation and I am so lucky that she made time for me. Every word of hers was with me on the day of the final, as well as in my practice.

Susie Summers

Susie and I worked together in a few sessions (and one practice performance at our old school, kindly organised by Nan Ingrams) on the Ginastera Concerto. Susie is an outstanding pianist and is currently working as a piano accompanist at the Royal College of Music and also for BBC Young Musicians. She is a wonderful, sensitive and perceptive musician. Being accompanied by Susie was far more than just running through the music – her phrasing of the orchestral lines and her brilliant realisation of the orchestral textures at the piano really affected how I played the concerto. This part of my preparation was essential and I was so lucky to work with Susie as she really immersed herself in the music with me, making it an unforgettable experience. I was to realise just how very special she is when, before the final of the competition, each finalist had a run-through in front of the conductor. This was with only a piano accompanist, as opposed to the rehearsal we had already had with the orchestra, so that he could colour-code on his score which finalist was doing what! I knew the piano part so well from working with Susie that I wasn’t put off (especially as the accompanist was far from Susie’s level of perfection) and was therefore able to make the most out of the session with the conductor.

Anna Tilbrook

Anna is an exceptional piano accompanist who specialises in song accompaniment. She was recommended to me by my friend and colleague Harriet Adie – I had to phone Harriet immediately after my lesson with Anna, which my fabulous soprano duo partner Helen Winter attended too, to say thank you for putting me in touch with Anna! It was an inspirational lesson.

The songs by Schumann, for soprano (or tenor in one instance) with piano or harp accompaniment, are musically and technically very demanding. They are written in a style I am completely unfamiliar with and the writing is essentially pianistic, therefore it’s difficult to make them sound natural on the harp. They were included in the competition programme as set works because they are such a wonderful addition to our repertoire and, as I now know, accompanying a singer is VERY different to a violinist, cellist or flautist. Instead of an imagined story or idea behind the music, there is a real story, told in real words with an expression that must flow from true understanding of the text, the character, the genre, the nationality, the culture and era it was composed in. You are the accompanist not the soloist, there to serve the needs and artistic vision of the singer, but also capable of influencing him/her, supporting and enhancing their performance too. Anna made me tell the stories of the songs in my own words, which revealed my far-too-basic level of comprehension at that time! She also demonstrated some phrases on the piano, which was incredibly revealing and inspiring, and gave me no end of advice that I cherished. Both of the sopranos that I got to accompany in the Netherlands were really amazed by my deep knowledge of the songs and commented that I was leading them in many places and really pushing them to do more with the music. I was delighted, of course! Before my lesson with Anna, I only knew the notes on the pages, not the actual music. I am so grateful for her help and I can’t wait to work more on these songs.

Douglas Hollick

Douglas is a superb harpsichordist who lives near me, in Lincolnshire. He is also an organist, a piano and harpsichord maker and restorer, an expert in baroque and classical rhetoric and a great musician who brings fun to the music of the 16-1800s! I am so privileged to have had a few lessons with him and to be able to hear his beautiful, inventive playing on authentic instruments from around the classical period.

Keziah Thomas

My friend and colleague Keziah gave me a brilliant lesson when we played our competition programmes to each other a week before the Netherlands contest. Her advice on the Faure and Prokofiev I am sure got me my pass through to the second stage of the competition – Keziah’s main advice was not to ‘overcook’ the music by getting too intense too soon. Of course, there are much finer points to it than this, but it was all exactly what I needed to keep me in line just at that time! It also reminded me just how much we should be learning from our friends and colleagues and how great it is to freely give and share tips – there should be no secrets as everyone is an individual and music is not like sport – the winner is rarely the one who reaches the double barline the soonest!

Tillett Trust

I applied to many funding bodies to get help with the costs of having lessons, travelling, attending the contest, putting on practice performances, having my harp serviced and so on. I am delighted to say that eventually, after many negative replies, I had a positive and much-needed YES from the Tillett Trust! Even though I wrote my application only a few weeks before the competition, the board of trustees managed to get together and gave me a £500 grant. I would have NOT been able to get over to the Netherlands without this support, having spent more than what I had in the run up to the competition. I still can’t use my bank card or credit card, due to debt, but it was worth it! Fortunately my 2500 euros prize-money will be on its way to me soon, for which I am immensely grateful. However, even going and competing would simply not have been possible without that ‘Yes’ from the Tillett Trust.

Preparing for an International Competition

After the initial decision to compete comes much planning and preparation, for the journey of a lifetime! Alison Nicholls, who taught me from 2001-2009, has always impressed upon me the necessity for commitment to your ‘programme’ (your repertoire for each round) in the early stages of the preparation. There are bound to be new pieces to learn especially for each contest (set works) so it is really important that most of your competition programme is music that has been a part of your repertoire for a long time. Lists of potential choices can be drawn up and divided into categories – styles, genres, characters, musical periods etc. (Sometimes you may feel that a piece by a baroque composer is actually in a similar mood to a romantic or classical work, therefore not being a great contrast despite being written in different eras. You shouldn’t rule out pieces that you learnt ten years ago, as you can bring so much freshness to them with the benefit of experience.) It is necessary to bring everything together into a really wide-ranging programme that best serves your musicality, as well as providing many inevitable challenges.

When designing my programme, I started working backwards from the final round: The Ginastera Harp Concerto followed by a free choice, compulsory ‘encore’ piece of up to ten minutes in length. This was to be announced on stage by the competitor him/herself. Even at the time of Erika’s Springcourse, I’d already had the idea of following the Ginastera (written in Buenos Aires) with two of the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla. At that stage I had got as far as buying Maria Luisa Rayan Forero’s excellent harp transcription and listening to numerous recordings of the pieces by tango quintets, Astor Piazzolla himself and versions for violin and orchestra by Lara St John and Gidon Kremer. Although it was a really appealing link between the Ginastera and the Piazzolla, I asked many people for their advice on the selection and learnt the music so that I could play it to other musicians. I wanted to know whether people thought that the two pieces complimented each other and if the Piazzolla transcription was suitable for the final of an international competition.

I had a couple of unsure reactions and a couple of keen ones, so I worked on the pieces until I could prove that they were a worthy completion to my programme…in the meantime, I had the first and second round programmes to finalise!

The first stage, from which only 5-8 participants would pass, was a short round comprising of Fauré’s ‘Une châtelaine en sa tour…’ and one virtuosic piece from Prokofiev’s ‘Prelude in C’, Manuel de Falla’s ‘Spanish Dance No.1’ from La Vida Breve and a piece I didn’t know, and I must confess still don’t, which is ‘La Caccia’ by Paganini/Magistretti.

Even though I knew the Prokofiev very well already and loved performing it, I felt that I should at least have the choice between that and one of the others, so I decided to learn the de Falla – I had wanted to learn it for years anyway, since hearing Anneleen Lenaerts playing it on the harp and Janine Jansen playing it on the violin. Once I had started learning it, I also discovered the most incredible rendition on youtube, of a solo castanet player with orchestral accompaniment – very inspiring rhythmically!

This piece is a wonderful concert work to perform. However, my interpretation was changing with every performance and I was enjoying the music so much that I would admit I wasn’t realising all of Grandjany’s suggestions. I was also adding a few of my own details and playing much of it ‘pres de la table’ and in the style of the flamenco guitar. It was too tempting! So, I had the choice of either working out a definitive interpretation that was restrained by the transcription, in order to perform it in the contest, or continue to enjoy it more as a concert work…which is what I chose to do! I also had reservations about how well it was sitting with the Fauré. So, I happily resolved to follow Fauré with Prokofiev and thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the Prelude, having not played it much for a year or two. It felt like an old friend, but also a fresh piece.

My ideas for the Stage 2 programme started with a good feeling due to the relatively high level of free choice. This round gave me a strong incentive to enter the competition and it really inspired me. We could choose a piece from the baroque or classical era, we could choose a contemporary work written in the 20th century or up to the present day, we could also choose which two out of four possible Schumann lieder to accompany.

Thomas Hewitt Jones, a friend from my years at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, had recently written a searingly beautiful musical score for Independent Ballet Wales. Unsurprisingly, the music received rave reviews by the press and public alike. Knowing that Tommy’s music wasn’t just appealing to my own tastes but was also acclaimed by critics, sealed my decision to ask him to write me a solo harp piece. Having followed his incredible progress over the past few years I knew it was only a matter of time before he would become too busy to accept such a humble commission. So, I went ahead and asked him to write me a piece that was 6-8 minutes long, thinking that it may also be suitable for the contest. I only had to wait about a month before Tommy had come up with all the thematic material, which he ran past me in a play-through we had in Dulwich. I loved all the ideas and the whole shape of it. It was clear that it was going to be a really profound piece that would stand out from my other harp music. Tommy writes very chromatically, which is what gives his music such depth and meaning; so I pretended that it would all be playable with no problems, not wanting him to hold back musically! When he emailed me with the first draft, I was thrilled and knew instantly that this was the piece to play in the second round that would really represent Britain in the contest! What I did not anticipate was the amount of hours (definitely over 50!) that it would take just to get through editing, pedalling, re-editing and re-pedalling continually each practice session, to get a final edit. Charlotte Seale’s help with editing the piece was heaven sent!

I had to trust that the new work by Dutch composer Henk Alkema would fit in nicely with what I had already decided on for my programme, even though we only received that piece via email less than three months before the competition.

I decided to start with my classical choice, ‘Variations on ‘Je suis encore dans mon printemps’ by Louis Spohr, which is a really light, fresh piece. After this would be the two Schumann songs – ‘Provenzalisches Lied’ (reminiscent of folk music from the minstrels of Provence, calling to mind the sound of the hurdy-gurdy and country bands in places and blossoming into minstrels’ love-song) and ‘Die Tochter Jephthas’ (the intense, dramatic story of Jephthas sacificing his daughter to God).

Following the passion of the Schumann songs I had to choose whether to go for a complete contrast in mood and play Alkema’s new piece, ‘Forgotten Lore’, or to continue with the darker material and follow Schumann with Thomas Hewitt Jones’s ‘Shades of Grief’. I went with my gut instinct and decided on the order that I thought I would programme them if it was a concert, so I kept the Schumann and Hewitt Jones together. I then had the opportunity to re-tune my 7th octave D bass wire, and my top G, as different semitones for ‘Forgotten Lore’. So, this was my entire competition programme:


First Round

_ Gabriel Fauré – Une Châtelaine en sa Tour… opus 110
_ Sergei Prokofiev – Prelude in C, Opus 12, no. 7


Semi-finals
_ Louis Spohr – Variations sur “Je suis encore dans mon printemps" op.36

_ Robert Schumann – Provenzalisches Lied in B flat major

_ Robert Schumann – Die Tochter Jephthas, Opus 95, No.1 in C minor

­_ Thomas Hewitt Jones – Shades of Grief (2009)

_ Henk Alkema – Forgotten Lore
 


Finals

_ Alberto Ginastera – Harp Concerto opus 25

_ Astor Piazzolla – From Quatro Estaciones Porteñas: (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) Invierno Porteña and Verano Porteña (transcribed by María Luisa Rayan-Forero) 

 

Go to part 3.....

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10 May Netherlands comp 1

When I recently competed in the first Netherlands International Harp Competition 2010, I decided to share my experiences of this momentous feat with all the young harpists who aspire to compete and perform to their best ability - in concerts, competitions and auditions. It's a lonely journey and I thought it should be shared....a journey of immense dedication and commitment that so many embark on. Not everyone completes the mission, it has to be said - it takes a determined character to keep going when times are hard, and supportive friends and family to push us on when we want to give up. Here are my some of my experiences:

Written on 28th April 2010, the day after the competition finished.

"I am writing from a restaurant in Wijk Bij Duurstede, a lovely town in the Netherlands, where I have been staying for the duration of the competition. It is not too far from the festival city, Utrecht, and is peaceful with a lovely river flowing through. I stayed with a lady called Mieke – a quiet, artistic lady who lives with her cat, Rafal, and some canaries. She looked after me like a mother and provided me with a calm environment to return to after each demanding day of competing at the Utrecht Conservatorium. At my age (27), I was apprehensive about staying with a ‘host family’. However, I am so grateful to Mieke and have many fond memories of my stay, including two beautiful little harp paintings that she gave me as a momento! Having a quiet companion really helped me to relax and focus, plus her fantastic breakfasts and pack-up lunches kept me going in a more practical sense!

The end…

It is now the day after the Final of the competition and it is all over. In the final concert (or ‘The Final’!) I achieved my goal of performing the Ginastera Harp Concerto with a wonderful symphony orchestra and a conductor who would help me realise all my musical ideas about the piece. Etienne Siebens, the Belgian conductor who was directing the orchestra, really wanted each of the three soloists – the finalists – to have an individual voice and to lead the performance in terms of the tempi and style. I wanted really steady tempi with the wonderful colours and South American rhythms clearly audible – in particular, the dazzling interplay between 3/4 and the 6/8 that brings the first and third movements alive! Both in the rehearsal and performance, Etienne created the easy, relaxed atmosphere of a concert - rather than a tense competition atmosphere. At least, this was how I felt. He also helped me to forge a great relationship with the orchestra, which allowed the music to really breathe.

Etienne referred to me for every musical idea and I was honoured that he felt able to encourage me to further pursue my intentions with the dynamics and create the softest, most distant pianissimo at the end of the 2nd movement, which is marked lontana. The excellent acoustics of the Main Hall at the Conservatorium were designed by Peutz, so it was even more wonderful that I was fortunate to get the most votes from the live audience and thereby win the special Peutz Audience Award – an immense achievement that makes me feel both proud and humbled at the same time!

As I sit here and write whilst eating this lovely meal, I feel I should confess that this is the first time in over half a year that I have done anything like this. Preparing for an international contest requires dedication and focus throughout the process – which can be as much as two years preparation leading up to just one competition! Obviously, other things are going on at the same time, and hopefully lots of performances and working with other musicians, but I find that once I set myself the task of preparing for a big contest, it’s on my mind every day until it’s over. So, things like luxurious long meals go right out of the window!" Go to the next blog post for part 2!

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10 May The Dance - a poem by Maureen Scorer

I was really honoured when a lady who came to one of my concerts wrote a beautiful poem afterwards! Here is the poem, it's called 'The Dance':


She sat so quietly at that great machine,

A small calm figure then raised her arms

Placing her hands upon the mass of strings;

Then softly the air was filled with notes,

A wondrous breeze then filled the air.

I closed my eyes and felt the music

Flow in waves about the room;

My mind saw pictures of a crowd of girls

Dressed in pure white gowns,

No shoes were needed in the glorious hills

As they danced upon the soft green grass

Leaping and weaving about the place

Their arms outstretched,

A ballet of such unadulterated bliss

As they danced about the fields

Their free flowing hair gleaming in the glorious sun

Like a mass of white birds flying high.

Then slowly the music began to fade

And reluctantly I returned to earth

As tears slowly dried upon my face.

About the room a quiet hush remained behind,

Just that small calm creature at her harp,

Her hands no londer weaving that dance of joy –

Just quietly the fingers resting there

No longer plucking at the strings

But leaving us in a world of bliss.

This truly was a dance of joy.


by Maureen Scorer

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10 May Lavinia Meijer Recital

Yesterday, myself, my student Elizabeth and my son Iñaky, drove all the way down to Canterbury in Kent to hear Lavinia Meijer from The Netherlands perform an exciting contemporary programme for the 'Sounds New' festival. It was also part of a harp day by the Royal Academy of Music, although I must say, a poorly publicised one as neither Elizabeth nor I (both of us regularly trawling the internet for our fix of harp events!) stumbled across any adverts for it. Perhaps they just didn't reckon on harp fanatics like ourselves being willing to undertake the 300 mile round trip to hear this concert - but it was well worth it.


Elizabeth and I agreed we wouldn't have missed it for the world. Lavinia's playing is always full of beauty and care - something which is particularly important when executing this kind of fiendish programme - and there was incredible skill in the way she blended the tones and colours on the Lyon and Healy harp she was playing. I now know that it is possible to play a 'pppppppp' dynamic that the audience can still hear! Incredible finger control. 


The programme was mostly compositions she has recorded for her excellent new CD, 'Visions'. Out of music by Garrett Byrnes, Konstantia Gourzi, Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Isang Yun, Paul Patterson, Toru Takemitsu, Luciano Berio and Benjamin Britten, my favourites were Patterson's stunning and moving new work 'Armistice' - a far cry from the comedy moments of other recent compositions by Paul, such as 'Mosquito Massacre' (which Lavinia played as an encore, bringing the house down with her hilarious comedic acting and dazzling playing) - and the Garrett Byrnes and Jacob Ter Veldhuis pieces.


Although executed with brilliance, it was the first time I had heard the Berio Sequenza, and although I have the score, I am not rushing to play that one! Using many of the same extended techniques, however, the pieces by Byrnes, Takemitsu and Isang Yun sounded fresh and beautiful, woven with intricate colours, telling stories and certainly highlighting the capacity that the concert harp has for creating an outstanding array of timbres and keeping an audience spellbound for a whole concert!

My favourite is the piece that I first heard Lavinia premier at the Tenth World Harp Congress in Amsterdam, 'Cities change the Songs of Birds' for harp and boombox (recording of genuine women's voices from the projects of New York, cut, looped and artfully arranged to form a real tapestry of words) by 'Jacob TV', or Jacob Ter Veldhuis! The harp sound is clear and strong and not entirely dissonant - juxtaposed with the brutality of what we're hearing from the speakers; in the first movement a woman is distraught after having her bag - her lifeline - stolen; in the second movement a mother and daughter are at odds over their interpretation of the events of the daughter's childhood and who was most responsible for the prison sentence that the daughter is servicing for drug-related crimes; in the third and final movement 'That's it, your honour' the woman is heart-breakingly describing to the courtroom that it was not in fact her fault - everything that went wrong against her and the crimes she herself committed - it was as if her life was pre-destined by her circumstances. And we, the audience, absolutely believe her. This is a completely convincing work and the sound of the harp is full, intense and rhythmic - often, Lavinia is playing the exact rhythms of the woman's voice, repeated and sometimes with her speaking or shouting the words herself at the same time. The effect is musically satisfying and emotionally it is a really strong piece that leaves me with a real lump in my throat.

Elizabeth and I also felt that Paul Patterson's Armistice, composed for the anniversary of the May 8th Armistice in 1945, is a brilliant new piece for the solo harp repertoire. Paul spoke about the piece, saying that Lavinia helped him to decide on the structure of this piece and it was her idea to have it resolving entirely at the end. There is "about six minutes of sheer hell" where we hear intense dissonance and special effects on the harp signalling air raids, bombs falling and terror (which, typically, Lavinia still made beautiful!) and then a really evocative military motif tapped out by the harpist's foot (Lavinia's beautiful high heels seemed tailor made for this purpose) came into our consciousness all of a sudden, and then just as we were all taken there with the soldiers in our minds, it stopped almost as suddenly as it had started - this had a really poignant effect in performance. Then Paul's 1945 motif reappeared from the beginning of the piece, treated in a different way again, with magnificent chords slightly reminiscent of the Britten Suite for Harp that Lavinia opened her recital with. It was a spectacular conclusion to the work and provided the audience with a real sense of completion and hope. It also looked immensely satisfying to perform. I think this will be another work, like Patterson's 'Spiders', that will become a real fixture in the harp repertoire. I look forward to being able to get the music myself!


So a big congratulations to Lavinia, who is off to do a completely different programme somewhere else in the world, next week!


Highly Strung

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07 May Piazzolla video

 

In March I recorded a couple of videos of me playing music from Piazzolla's beauiful Four Seasons of Buenos Aires! Here's one of them - it was recorded in one take only at a studio called World of Sound, in Wellingborough, by a very nice chap called Daniel Lock.

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