For pianists and pianophiles, the world grows richer every year. Annabelle Lawson reports on a new forum which looks set to enjoy many happy returns, the inaugural Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists, mounted last August in Manchester.
Monumental in both intensity and quality of activity, this event was not designed with the half-hearted or pianistically ambivalent in mind. The seven-day programme of individual coaching, masterclasses, lectures and concerts could not have failed to satisfy even the most gluttonous and insatiable of piano enthusiasts.
The brainchild of Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music, the residential course provided several hours of one-to-one tuition over the course of the week for each of its 90-plus pupils, who ranged from 9 years old to adult and came from countries as diverse as Singapore, Korea, Russia, Latvia and Malta. The Summer School Faculty involved all fifteen teachers normally working in the Chetham’s Keyboard Department and students were allowed some input in choosing a teacher appropriate to their particular needs. A daily workout comprising five hours of time-tabled practice and lessons was supplemented by an eclectic assortment of masterclasses, lectures and concerts given by a core group of teachers; Susan Bettaney, Norma Fisher, Ronan O’Hora, Peter Lawson, Murray McLachlan, and Bernard Roberts. There was also an improvisation course run by Les Chisnell and twice daily student concerts provided a ready platform for every participant.
As a former pupil of the school, having just completed my first year reading music at Cambridge, the ethos of the Summer School came as an invigorating and much-needed tonic to what my secondary school teachers used to describe ominously as 'the adult world'. Whether you take a representative adult from the course, fighting to develop a passion alongside maintaining a non-musical career, or, more concerningly, a representative music college student struggling to find practice rooms, performance platforms and constructive, enthusiastic feedback, it seems that Western society at large in the 21st century does not go out of its way to facilitate the pursuit of excellence. Even in British conservatories it appears that the more committed students can become social outcasts in an environment where 'too much' practice is considered 'uncool'.
The day was tightly scheduled from 9.30am until after the late-night student concert at 11.00pm. Each student was allocated his/her own, private practice room for the week and was given the opportunity to sign themselves up for concerts and masterclasses. The distinguished staff presence throughout the festival guaranteed that an expert opinion could always be sought after any performance. Many students seemed to be using the course as a sounding-board for trying out new competition programmes, for example the BBC Young Musician Competition, and such feedback was invaluable in these situations. An on-site bar, (open until late!) also provided a communal space for pianists, both staff and pupils, to 'chill-out' together – a rare sight indeed!
The work-conducive ambience of the festival manifested itself in some breathtaking student concerts. 19-year-old Arta Arnacane from Latvia, with the Bernard Roberts Philharmonic, gave a performance of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto which raised the entire audience to their feet. Her playing of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit provoked a similar response. Earlier in the week, Murray McLachlan had given a lecture on Beethoven and Youth. He proposed four stages in the learning of Beethoven’s music, of which the last comprised a trance-like state which extended beyond a 'merely' accomplished and polished artistic interpretation. I suppose that it is at this point that we talk of music being 'sublime' or of an 'inspired' rendition of a piece; when a performance appears so effortless that the music and the performer seem really to become one entity. Sounds over-sentimentalised or naïve? That may be, but for me, Arnacane’s performance was a major contributor to the restorative power of the festival. In its lack of affectation or bluffing of any kind, it reminded you of what music should be about.
Another inspiring performance came from nine-year old Abigail Sim, who gave a flawlessly memorised and executed half-hour recital including the Ravel Sonatine, a pair of Chopin nocturnes and a highly virtuoso arrangement by Stephen Hough of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song These are a few of my favourite things. Similarly impressive was Lulu Yang’s performance of the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses.
In terms of concerts and masterclasses, there were too many highlights to mention. The opening concert by Murray McLachlan was perhaps characteristic of the festival in its 'all or nothing' approach. To perform the twenty-four Chopin Etudes in succession was a mighty task accomplished with bravura and, interestingly, preceded by the late Scottish composer Erik Chisholm’s ‘Night Song of the Bards’ (Six nocturnes for piano). This idiosyncratic juxtaposition of the new with the classical mainstream was again representative of the music explored in the ensuing masterclasses and concerts, which embraced the whole gamut of piano repertoire. Ronan O’Hora’s performance of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, D960, was ultimately refined, as was Bernard Roberts’ Beethoven Recital. Duo repertoire also featured in a sparkling and effervescent recital by Susan Bettaney and Joan Greenburgh and an intimate Schubertiad, delivered by Murray McLachlan and Bernard Roberts, which included not only the Fantasy in F minor, D940, and the Grand Duo (Sonate), D812, but also, as an encore, a lesser known set of variations on an Andante theme.
At the other end of the repertoire-spectrum, Peter Lawson’s recital brought the dance-hall and Broadway to Manchester. His assortment of short works by Stravinsky (Piano-rag-music, Tango, Circus Polka) was followed by the complete Gershwin Songbook and a gutsy rendition, given with impressive conviction, of Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata. This introduction to Prokofiev’s less frequently heard works was extended later in the festival through a performance by Christopher Ellis (2nd year student at the Royal Academy of Music) of the 5th Piano Concerto. In fact, if one went to enough masterclasses and concerts, one fell across many novel items with which to refresh the musical palette. Wendell Keeney’s Sonatina played by Charlotte Wilson was one such piece. This example of American neo-classicism, which sounded 'a little like Scarlatti after taking jazz lessons' (Peter Lawson), was compelling in its succinct musical content and ebullient freshness. Michael Finnissy’s arrangements of Gershwin songs also featured heavily in student recital programmes.
Many people I talked to at the end of the course seemed really loath to leave this fragile arena of focussed activity. The concept of living 'in a bubble' immediately springs to mind here. Bubbles, by definition, have to burst. In a consumer-based society, where even students feel obliged to devote as much time to packaging and selling themselves as they do to practising, the temporary reality that was the Chetham’s Summer School may well have to be confined to bubble status. On a personal level though, I would wish to keep the atmosphere of the School in the front of my mind as I start the next term and thanks must go to all involved in initiating such a precious experience