More Finnish eulogising

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Just back from another mid-winter trip to Finland, feeling, yet again, so inspired by the education system there, and the resulting standard of musicians and human beings! I spent a week teaching improvisation at one of the major music schools, both with students and with teachers and it was such a joyful experience. Particularly with the teachers – some of the improvising together was just magical – high quality music-making by any standard. There are only a couple of things you need to know about Finnish education. Firstly, they come near the top of the PISA tests worldwide each time the test is done (they have dropped a bit in the last couple of tests, but are still a long way above the UK), and secondly, they don’t start school until they 7 years old. They have a proper good childhood first – and when they do go to school they learn to read in a few weeks and overtake all the other kids in other countries who have been in school for several years already. And they are really nice people too. (Every single one of them.) Then at the end of the week I spent an evening at the top music school in the country where the standard is really amazing, with the Helsinki Strings an internationally renowned string ensemble with whom I’m playing a programme of my arrangements of Brazilian jazz in May. We just read through a couple of pieces and talked about rhythm and style and they make such a good sound I’m very happy and excited. It will be a fantastic project – and I think will all be filmed and recorded so I should be able to share some of that around on this internetty thing.

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New Year, Crescendo, Holiday.

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

After our first New Year’s party at home for years, which was huge fun, January started quite quietly only to get busier and busier, ending with 11 concerts in 10 days at the largest chamber music festival in the southern hemisphere in Nelson, New Zealand.

I began the year’s work in Brno for the 2nd chunk of my residency with their orchestra – seriously cold this time, down to -12 one night which was great! I had such wonderful meals and conversations and wanderings around the beautiful old town…and the performances were so enjoyable for me. Made all the more so because I only recovered from chopping my left index finger tip off instead of some red cabbage about a day before the first rehearsal. The Protecting Veil continues to be a concerto that fascinates and seduces me each time I play it.

Then I was in Finland working with the East Helsinki Music Institute which is a remarkable school – I had around 60 students and teachers, and the Helsinki Strings, an incredibly talented ensemble and we had the perfect luxury of 5 days to make music together. We created original material based on some fragments of music I stole from my Darbar/Philharmonia/SouthBankCentre project last September and I was knocked over by the skill, musicality, enthusiasm and just general ‘what-a-lovely-group-of-humans’ ness of the whole week. Finland has a world famous education system for very good reasons. Very special and I really look forward to the next project out there in 2018.

And just 24hrs to turn around in London and then off to New Zealand for the 3rd time. Always such an impressive country somehow, I just love it/them/the vibe/the nature/the coffee. Wow, the coffee is SO good it’s actually worth flying there just for that. But instead I was there for concerts – there were a lot of them, and the highlight for me was Beethoven’s utterly glorious and life-affirming Opus 69 sonata with Denes Varjon, a real master of the piano from Hungary, from the old school, Kurtag inspired world of chamber music. We also had an amazing day of 12 cellos, lots of improvising, (and coffee) and I particularly enjoyed hanging out with the New Zealand and Goldner String Quartets. One day I will go there and have a holiday after to explore. Instead, I’m now in South America for a bit of holiday in Colombia and Mexico. Ahhh, see you all soon…

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Monday, November 28th, 2016

One my most satisfying, profound and just downright musical improvisation experiences ever has been with a group named Spontonality that was dreamed up with old friend Tim West, who then organised it with creativity and flair so five of us ended up in the most beautiful place imaginable for an impro week in Cornwall – Kestle Barton studios. We explored all the possible different combinations of the five of us – all the solos, duos, trios and quartets, with Tim on piano, Tony woods on saxes, Julian Bliss on clarinets, and Torbjorn Hultmark on trumpet/soprano trombone/electronics/bird noises/shouting/coffee mug and chair. There were moments of sublime magic, utter madness, serene happiness, funk/12tone/free jazz and everything in between. Here is the last 10′ of the week on soundcloud if you want a listen – and let me know what you think.

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A Love Affair Continues…

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Yes, I really do love India! The colours, the food, the history, the smiles, the languages, the religions, the light and the darkness, and, of course, the music. My first trip there was in the early ‘90s when a 5-week tour with the British Council and a small chamber group exploded into my young consciousness. I came back with a huge haul of cassettes to listen to, and that was when the love affair began. I have worked with many Indian musicians since, the most rewarding and exciting certainly being a collaboration that began with sarod-master Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in 2000 in the Royal Festival Hall. This continued with many concerts in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and India, often including his sons, Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan.

In September I was back in the Royal Festival Hall for the latest chapter of this musical journey for a performance in the Darbar Festival, with 4 musicians from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Niladri Kumar (sitar), Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri – wooden flute), Jayanthi Kumaresh (saraswati veena) and Ghatam Karthick (ghatam – the clay pot): 4 of the most exceptionally talented of the younger generation of Indian classical musicians, making a name for themselves worldwide.

In 2015, when this project began to brew, I started thinking about the way to make a meaningful meeting between the two greatest classical traditions in the world – those of Europe and India – and thought that the creation, as well as the performance of the music had to be shared between east and west. Often it is the case that Indian musicians have provided musical material, and western musicians have arranged it for orchestra or other ensemble and I have often been disappointed with the results. So I called old friend and running-mate Fraser Trainer, with whom I have done a huge number of creative projects around the world and we began to collect ideas and ingredients.

The recipe we hit upon began with a visit to India (see previous blog) with the Philharmonia musicians, meeting the instrumentalists we were to eventually work with, and playing together, sometimes improvising, sometimes learning their melodies and rhythms, and sometimes sharing some of our music. We made really good connections there, and Fraser started to collect material for our final piece. Over the next year or so, there was a lot of communication between us all by email, skype and file sharing; Fraser and I bashed out a structure for the piece, and slowly a kind of skeleton for the piece emerged. I would say that we started with about 15’ of music already composed, and then during a 5-day rehearsal period leading to the concert we added lots of musical flesh, and ended with a piece of nearly an hour. That final week had been very intense, but full of a wonderful sense of co-creation, and lots of laughter and discovery. The concert itself was one of the most excting I have taken part in – in many ways it was the fruit of 20 years of searching and thinking and collaborating and I was extremely proud of the result. Two reviews here and here sum it up well.

Here’s hoping there are many more chapters to come.

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My most exotic programme…

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Next Monday I play a very exotic programme in Portsmouth…well, exotic for me, which, in this case, is Schumann, Beethoven, Janacek and Brahms. I think it’s about 20 years since I have played a programme with nothing contemporary, electronic, Indian, Brazilian, improvised, or just generally weird. So it’s been a great joy to immerse myself in some of the greatest music ever written for cello and piano. I’m joined by Alasdair Beatson, (“Artistry incarnate – that was Beatson” Sunday Times) who is a truly magnificent pianist and musician, to explore the intimacies of Schumann, the lonely genius of late Beethoven, the ecstatic excesses of Janacek, and the sheer comforting beauty of Brahms. Part of the wonderful Music in the Round on Tour which is a great honour for me. Tickets here.

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