Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast Ep 40 – Cellist, composer and conductor Joy Lisney

Podcast 40 features an interview with cellist Joy Lisney who appears at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre, on 8th June in a recital of Bach, Chopin and Brahms with her piano playing father James Lisney.

Joy is no sloucher, it strikes me. She composes. She conducts. She cycles. A lot.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me in the way that it did initially. Because there’s a down-to-earthness about that range of activites which I find quite refreshing. Whilst I have no intention or remaining time available to squeeze in an early morning run (well, its probably down to motivation more than anything else), I like the way that activities which are seemingly at odds with our perception of an individual’s work or identity, actually compliment a musicians life – pointing to something far more holistic.

There’s another thing worth noting about this conversation which has slowly dawned on me listening back to it and others I’ve recorded since this one. It is the unease around discussing detail in classical music – and actually any subject. I often sense I need to give permission to a contributor to go a little deeper into the detail too. At the same time as giving that permission I recognise I’m experiencing a kind of imposter syndrome, perhaps even a nosiness, asking. But as someone who loves the genre, I always want more and more detail. Because by appreciating more and more the finer detail of what’s involved, then I can arrive at a deeper understanding of the art.

Expect detail on sound production, Joy’s compositional process, her take on female composers (including the questions not to ask a female composer – you;ll be glad to hear I didn’t slip up by the way), and some valuable insights into the role of a conductor, and the way they sometimes need to communicate to players.

Music: Vriend’s ‘Anatomy of Passion‘ performed live by Joy Lisney in 2004.

More information about Joy’s 8th June concert can be found on the Southbank Centre website or at www.joylisney.com.

Sound Unbound 2019 at Barbican

A glorious escape on a sunny Saturday in May. Just what the doctor ordered.

Sun, outdoor music, free entry, and no need for a ticket. The recipe for drawing in the crowds to hear live music? It certainly seemed that way at the Barbican’s brilliant Sound Unbound weekender on Saturday.

And if some of the events I attended appeared a little over-subscribed that was a measure of the popularity of the offer. And perhaps that hinted at a different kind of model for experiencing live music: get people through the doors for free where the barriers for engagement are low, raise the profile of performers, and drive revenue from on-demand after the event.

Certainly, being able to come and go as I pleased suited me well. Getting me to traverse the ‘Culture Mile’ to go to different venues also meant I got a sense of the Barbican Centre in relation to say, Smithfield Market. This in itself gave the weekend’s events a real festival, almost Fringe-feel which very quickly recharged by batteries.

The most arresting experience was undoubtedly at nightclub Fabric where NonClassical’s eclectic mix of ambient electronica drew me into the kind of venue classical music promoters are increasingly seeking out to appeal to an unorthodox audience, and where I felt I was stepping back into the dark world of my twenties. The uncompromising warnings about single-use cubicals, and inevitable statements about the establishment’s zero-tolerance on drugs, an inevitable reminder of the venue’s primary function gave the experience an unexpectedly hard edge.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast Ep 39 – Violinist Itamar Zorman discusses the music of composer Paul Ben-Haim

Podcast 39 features Borlotti-Buitoni Trust Award winner from 2014 violinist Itamar Zorman. We met at the Southbank Centre in London in late March 2019.

Itamar was born in Tel-Aviv, studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Julliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. He’s performed with the Mariinsky Orchestra, German Radio Philharmonic, KBS Symphony in Seoul and the HR SinfonieOrchester in Frankfurt, and in a variety of international concert venues. Find out more at itamarzorman.com

The Borlotti-Buitoni Trust’s award supports Itamar and other musicians like him in raising his professional profile and in turned helped Itamar research the work of composer Paul Frankenberger who fled Germany during the Nazi regime and moved to British Mandate of Palestine in 1930s. There he assumed the name of Paul Ben-Haim and continued composing. The CD released at the beginning of May reflects Itamar’s ongoing fascination of the Jewish composer and illustrates the way in which the composer’s musical language changed over his career.

When the perception of a distant lands merges with familiar language and a blend of accents the resulting conversation something unusual occurs for me as a listener.

When the rhythm of that conversation takes unexpected turns then attention increases. There is then something almost musical in this conversation. A dialogue of the kind I’ve not experienced before in this podcast series.

I listen to this podcast back in the edit and hear a man who thinks carefully before he speaks. I like that. We don’t do that enough in our everyday exchanges with one another. We don’t allow ourselves the time to consider what the person has said and how we can best respond.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a moment my contribution to this conversation with violinist Itamar Zorman about his release of music by Paul Ben-Haim is especially fascinating. It’s the moments in between what I say and how he replies that hook me in, moments that forces me to lean in and focus.

Expect lots of delightfully nerdy detail.

How do musicians handle jealousy or are they just accustomed to vulnerability on stage?

This one’s a tough one demanding detail and taking in a few things I’ve been pondering over the past few days. 

The first bit you need to know is what went on yesterday morning. 

I was making my sandwiches for a day of filming. Mid way through mashing the hard-boiled eggs, I started thinking about a journalist who irritates the hell out of me. Nearly everything she says or does makes me annoyed. We’ve spent barely 30 seconds in one another’s company. I’m not especially proud of my feelings towards her. Truth is, the feelings I have about her are essentially a projection of my own insecurities – a reminder of all the things I know I can’t be in order to get to the top. Rather than being OK with that, my go to place (because we’re all wired to follow the path of least resistance) is to be irritated by her. At the risk of falling back on a phrase I actually despise, that’s my bad not hers.

I deployed a bit of rational thinking in the moment to get to me to ‘a better place’. I moved on to buttering the baps accordingly.

I then started thinking about the equivalent in the classical music world. What would it be like for a soloist to experience a similar emotional reaction, powered by similar thought process fuelled by a similar momentary lapse in self-belief. They must experience this, surely. They’re not super-human. They may risk sharing that with their peers or with journalists like me, but they must surely experience it even privately.

I know of musicians who do. People paralysed by their own self-criticism. It’s a difficult thing to observe in the moment. Why? Because for good or bad I do elevate musicians by virtue of them being on stage performing for me. And the reason it’s difficult is because I don’t want to reconcile the reality of the experience in the moment with what I perceive from my place in the auditorium. I want my musicians to be normal human beings, but I don’t want them to be that normal. 

Fran Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist writes about vulnerability from a performers perspective in this excellent blog post.

In the concert I filmed last night I saw the white heat of live performance, in the gloriously revealing acoustic of a school hall. It is in these surroundings where the elite accomplishment of the orchestra is laid bare, observed by an eager community audience for whom this concert performance is a genuinely heartfelt high point. A sense of occasion exuded. Those doing the work were only a handful of metres away. It was an electrifying experience.

From my position behind the camera, I was most aware of the cellos. There were three of them. Only three. But there was so much energy coming from them in even the overture that it sometimes felt like they were doing the work of a sixteen piece section. One player in particular – the number two – clearly demonstrated her unequivocal enthusiasm in the moment with appetite, grit, and joy, on both her face and the way her bow hit the string. It was a magical split-second thing to witness. I wish I had a longer lens to have captured it.

Thoughts have been swirling around today. And, following a recommendation from a friend earlier this week, I’ve re-watched Brene Brown’s captivating ‘Call to Courage’ – a powerful evocation advocating the need to be vulnerable. 

Reflecting on Brown’s call to arms for the second time this week, I wonder if I’ve arrived at a conclusion about musicians and their work. 

Yes, they are subject to the same thinking as the rest of us. They’re not wizards or magicians. Their achievements are not some kind of sleight of hand. Perhaps they are people – the ones who create electrifying moments – who know how to be vulnerable, people who thrive because they have learned how to utilise those insecurities. Perhaps they are individuals who learned long before the rest of how to be and how to benefit from being vulnerable. 

My feelings about that journalist are changing by the way. But you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a work in a progress. More on that story a little later. 

Review: Florian Mitrea at St Johns Smith Square

Some thoughts that arose during 2018 Royal Overseas League Keyboard Final winner Florian Mitrea’s St Johns Smith Square recital this evening.

1. Mitrea is an assertive player, with a love of drama articulated with an assertive touch, a brilliantly bright white tone, and some breathtaking dynamic contrasts.

2. Those moments when he holds silence before delicately placing a pianissimo chord command terrifying moments of self-reflection.

3. He has tremendous facility – taut, bright and crisp – especially in his right hand.

4. Mitrea loves grand pianistic flourishes. He’s embraces those points in the score that demand the fingers glide right across the keyboard.

5. He is a lovable showman with an excited smile and bright twinkling eyes. He is captivating presence on stage who works hard to make everyone feel welcome and included.

6. He is undoubtedly most at home with the music of the relatively unheard of Contastinescu. In both of these works, Mitrea appeared and sounded his most self-assured. Mitrea natural exuberance was more focussed and powerful.

7. For all that exuberance, there’s a compelling unfussiness about Mitrea’s style. This makes for a greater sense of inclusion. In the quieter sections there’s a heightened sense of intimacy that contradicts the scale of the interior.

8. It must be possible to describe artistry with positive regard, maintain a sense of objectivity, and shake the hand of the artist afterwards.

9. Musicians do an odd thing bestowing credence on the words of a critic. I think critics paid or not paid should build their own audience based on the quality of their judgment, the sincerity of the way they articulate it, and the close distance they hold between themselves and the audience. Yes we hold artists to account when reporting on their performance, but we’re also there to celebrate and advocate the art form.

10. I went backstage to meet the artist for the first time in my concert-going life. I was invited. It felt like a massive intrusion at first. But once I realised others were doing the same it seemed rather lovely to show appreciation and say ‘thank you’.