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A Republic of Equals

Jeremy Siepmann


The Second Chetham's International Summer School and Festival for Pianists took place in Manchester last August. Jeremy Siepmann was there, and survived to tell the tale.
Eight days, 135 pianists from all over the world (aged between 8 and 71); more than 100 practice rooms, each in use for much of every day; two concert halls (busy throughout the week); five-hours-plus of individual lessons each day (though some of us taught more); daily lectures, at least one master class a day (but on one occasion six concurrently); two recitals every evening, the first by distinguished members of the 20-strong faculty, the second by students on the course (sometimes carrying on till after 11:00); a comprehensive repertoire ranging from Bach to today (literally: Charles Cammileri's delightful mazurka was composed, quite unexpectedly, less than 24 hours before its entirely unplanned world premiere, and there was one stunning demonstration of spontaneous composition, by a Chetham's student who extemporised a sonata of fire-breathing virtuosity on tone-rows volunteered by members of the audience); there were also courses in jazz, improvisation and composing for the piano, and video shows of great pianists of the past. If you hated pianos, this was a masochist's paradise. As it happened, of course, we all loved the piano. The big question was, would our love survive a week of such relentless exposure? Survive? It flourished. I reflect the feelings of many on the course - faculty and students alike - when I say, without the slightest exaggeration, that this was one of the most exhilarating, stimulating and energising weeks of my life. To my surprise, fatigue never entered the picture, though in addition to my daily six hours of teaching, I had three talks and two masterclasses to give, many more to attend, two concerts each evening, and a good deal of unrelated work to do on the side.

So what was the secret? Nothing is ever quite this simple, but I would say it was the combination of three things: firstly, a sense of community in which faculty and students were united in the mutual pursuit of excellence (and in the joy of discovery and interaction); secondly, a degree of unforced informality which put everyone at their ease; and lastly, a thirst for learning which banished all the baser, competitive instincts which blight too much of school and concert life. The sense of mutual support, empathy and understanding amongst all present was more than encouraging; it was profoundly moving - the more so given the great range of age, talent and attainment. Much of the success of this unique event is immediately attributable to the vision, imagination and omnipresent inspiration of one man - its indefatigable founder Murray McLachlan, whose stamina and enthusiasm alone are the stuff of legend.
Some of the older participants, however - teachers nearing or already enjoying middle age - were perhaps too easily discouraged or inhibited by the most precocious of their fellow students (the six-foot 13-year-old from China, for instance, who gave dazzling though not yet masterly performances of the Chopin E minor Concerto and Liszt's La Campanella - and the diminutive nine-year-old from Hong Kong who gave an extended recital of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and several Chinese pieces, which he brought off with the greatest aplomb). But precocity and technical bravura are not necessarily handmaidens to profound, or even potentially profound artistry, and can easily warp one's perspectives. If these players had been heard but not seen, if the listener had no knowledge of their ages and listened from a purely artistic point of view, many musical shortcomings would have revealed themselves (and why not, at such an age?). The term genius' was bandied about by a few - maybe more than a few. I have to say that I was not myself aware of true genius in our midst, though the level of talent was often remarkable. Some of the most musical, musicianly and insightful playing I heard, however, came not from virtuosos or even potential virtuosos, but from players of more modest attainment - and a disproportionate number of these (as, also, of future virtuosos) were girls or women. Why, I wondered, hardly for the first time, is this not reflected in the marketplace?

For me there was only one depressing feature of the week (a symptom, alas, of an apparently worldwide malaise) and that was the degree to which technique seems to have become separated from the ideal of beauty. Speed, volume, stamina, dynamic control, well-disciplined articulation, skillful pedalling, impressive musicianship - yes, there was plenty of that - and plenty of reason to celebrate it. In terms of tonal control, however, which is very much an aspect of a truly pianistic technique, I heard very little that was truly beautiful, or used for anything much more than cosmetic colouring. Colour as an eloquent expressive resource, as an agent of psychological profiling, let alone as an agent of structure, was a commodity in short supply. In terms of sheer instrumentalism, I heard distressingly little lovingness. The concept of a pianistic equivalent of, say, a vocal ensemble by Monteverdi, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms or Verdi - the concept, that is, of colouristic polyphony - was seldom even hinted at. But there were some cherishable exceptions. The most beautiful and illuminating sounds I heard all week were drawn from a much-complained-of instrument in the main hall by a 17-year-old French boy with the stuff of greatness in him (and one of the few who seemed to have any real understanding of colour in pianissimo). I have to say, too, that when I played this instrument myself, I found no cause for complaint. It would do everything I asked of it. The difference is in the asking.

Closely allied to the problem of colour, of course (though not synonymous with it), is the use of the pedals - often called 'the soul of the piano'. Among the sadly few who used them like a master was an almost intimidatingly intelligent young Cambridge graduate who gave a deeply impressive performance of the Liszt B minor Ballade. Here was a professional to his finely honed fingertips, already an artist of exceptional insight and sophistication. But talent and performance, however exciting, were not what made this week so special. What made it special was the joy of unfettered aspiration.