Stephen Hough January 26th, 2018

On Tuesday evening I attended Stephen Hough’s concert at Music Toronto, in the intimate Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. My teacher, Peter Mose, told me Mozart’s Adagio in B minor was on the program, which is sometimes played as a companion piece to the Little Gigue, which I in turn discovered while reading Stuart Isacoff’s book A Natural History of the Piano after hearing him speak at the Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas last year, and I’ve been working on this piece for about six months. The Little Gigue is tricky and irresistible, with rhythms and harmonies that are as challenging to the ear and brain as to the fingers. The Adagio is (obviously) its polar opposite, and just does not move me (though I’m sure that’s more my failing than Mozart’s). Still, I was interested to see Hough perform.

As it turned out, Peter was mistaken, and Hough didn’t play any Mozart. He did play several pieces by Debussy, including the much-loved Clair de Lune; Schumann’s trippy but gorgeous Fantasy in C; and Beethoven’s fiery Appassionata. I’ve been playing fragments of the slow second movement of this sonata after every tuning for ten years without really knowing the full piece!

Having only attended Music Toronto once before, I suddenly realized that this is where serious chamber music lovers in Toronto go to hear their favourite performers. The house was packed, and highly enthusiastic and appreciative. I went alone, hoping (but not expecting) to see someone I knew. The ladies’ room before the performance was like a party, with several ladies greeting each other in French. I felt envious. But once I was in my seat in the balcony I was joined across the aisle by my friend Liz, an accomplished teacher, jazz player and choir accompanist, and then by Ted, also a piano teacher and fellow student of Peter’s (and who also knows Liz), and then, there was Peter, with his companion Simone, who had told me he would likely not be there. Suddenly I felt very much like a part of the musical life of Toronto.

Something I noticed as soon as Hough started playing is that he is not one of those pianists who emotes much at the keyboard. The last time I attended a piano performance was at the Cliburn competition in June, with young performers who may generally be said to show quite a lot of emotion at the keyboard! There is nothing wrong with this, but it can be distracting. And there was nothing to distract from Hough’s deft treatment of this very diverse repertoire. There’s something to be said for maturity. A younger player might also have been more visibly thrown off by the Steinway, whose unisons started going out of tune almost immediately, despite Hough’s measured approach (eliciting a humorous comment from him just before the encore).

It turns out that Hough is a Renaissance Man. Besides being one of the most sought-after pianists and recording artists in the world, he is also a composer, painter, and writer, with a first novel entitled The Final Retreat coming out shortly. I see from his bio that he recently recorded the Grieg Lyric Pieces. Be still my heart! Excuse me, I must go and listen now.

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This piece by Antonín Dvořák… July 23rd, 2017

On Friday evening I attended one of Toronto Summer Music’s wonderful concerts at Walter Hall. The festival has embraced the Canada 150 theme, and as a delightful gimmick, this concert’s tickets were priced at $18.67. At less than twenty bucks for an evening of extraordinary music, how could one not go?

We were treated to a wonderfully eclectic program featuring Mozart’s little-performed but perfectly beautiful String Quartet No. 4 in C major; Canadian composer Milton BarnesLamentations of Jeremiah for solo viola; the world premiere of a brooding but very accessible TSM-commissioned piece called Carmine Skies by Canadian composer Jordan Pal; and (my favourite of the four), Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 performed by TSO concertmaster (and new TSM director) Jonathan Crow and a clutch of less well known but equally accomplished players.

I grew to love the Dvořák during my trip last month to Fort Worth, Texas for the finals of the Cliburn Piano Competition, where we saw it performed three times over two evenings! (Sometimes it just works out that way in competitions. Three out of the six finalists had selected it as the chamber piece they would perform as part of the final round. Two of the others performed Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, and one chose Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor. I assure you we did not get tired of it!)

The TSM’s program included some interesting notes on dumka, the term given to the second movement of this piece. Dumky (plural) were based on a form of nationalist epic poetry originating in Ukraine that Czechs embraced during their own struggles for independence, and Dvořák can take credit for putting them into musical form. From the notes: “Dvorak’s dumky share with the traditional Ukrainian duma an elegiac mood… But their melancholy usually bursts into joy expressed in highly contrasting and lively dance-like passages; these, in turn, alternate with the initial slow, plaintive music. The surprising juxtaposition nevertheless feels spontaneous, earthy and natural – perhaps the “freshness” that Brahms so admired in his colleague’s music.”

He was a generous and humble guy, Brahms. I’m always reading about how much he admired others’ music. (See my posts on Bach’s Chaconne, above.) In fact, I’ve just read that Brahms played a significant role in promoting Dvořák’s career.

The nationalistic and folkloric elements in Dvořák’s music bring to mind similar elements in Grieg’s music. My friend Michael, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and composers, tells me Dvořák and Grieg used to hang out. But that’s a whole other blog post.

This is a wonderful performance of the quintet by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and her ensemble. One of my favourite parts comes near the very end: the lead-up starts with the first violin tiptoeing up the scale, note by note (starting at 39:30), introducing a very short, sweet melody that’s only four bars long. (I pulled out my fiddle and, despite my lack of experience, quickly figured out this little tune!)—and makes us think, that was so beautiful! Can we hear it again, please? But the strings are on to something else… then they come back just a little later, at 40:05, where the piano leads this time, tiptoeing up the scale and then playing that lovely motif on octaves high in the treble. And then it’s repeated by both violins, and with a delightful accelerando that drives through giddily to the end. It’s marvellous!


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The Cliburn July 9th, 2017

June 9, 2017. Yekwon Sunwoo from South Korea performs with conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening in the Final Round of The Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo Ralph Lauer)

Last month I was lucky enough to travel to Fort Worth, Texas for the final round of the Cliburn Piano Competition. My sister Pat lives there, and has been involved with the Cliburn as a volunteer and supporter for many years. She generously bought tickets for us to attend four evening recitals featuring the six finalists in performances of chamber music with the Brentano String Quartet and concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony. We heard piano quintets by Dvorak, Brahms, and Franck, and concerti by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev.

At this level of competition, and at this stage in the competition, technical mastery is a given. All the competitors play brilliantly, and none is discernibly “better” than another; to my mind, success is likely to be determined by the competitor’s attitude towards and rapport with the other performers, and their demonstrated level of confidence. Looked at this way, it was not difficult to predict that Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea might win, and I look forward to hearing more about this remarkable young pianist. Runner-up Kenneth Broberg and bronze medallist Daniel Hsu (both Americans) were equally impressive and deserving. Hsu, notably, also received the prizes for best performance of the commissioned piece, as well as for best performance of chamber music… And I’ve just discovered–my god!–that he played the Chaconne in the quarter-final round, which I missed!

The Cliburn, under the leadership of CEO Jacques Marquis since 2013, has evolved into a highly accessible, two-and-a-half-week “festival” of performances, discussions and experiences around the competition itself, most of which are free of charge. And all the competition recitals are broadcast for free on a big screen in the recital hall at the McDavid studio, adjacent to Bass Hall, so one could, in theory, attend the entire competition and series of events without paying anything. We took in so many symposiums, master classes, and free informal lunchtime recitals (with competitors who had been eliminated from the competition) that I joked that ‘Cliburning” was a full-time job! And I loved every minute. Hats off to the jovial Marquis, who I’m sure deserves much of the credit for this.


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More on the Chaconne… May 3rd, 2017

I neglected to mention that Bach is believed to have composed the Chaconne after the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. Which might explain the anguish.

I’ve chosen here James Rhodes’s performance of the Busoni transcription for piano. It’s a bit messy in parts, but still pretty good. I’ve become a fan, through his YouTube videos (in particular his playing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109), his book Instrumental, and (I confess) his humorous tweets.

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“Chaconne” à son goût April 14th, 2017

I have known for years that there were massive holes in my musical education. And I’ve been doing my best to try to fill them. You see, despite being exposed to “classical” music at a young age (my earliest musical memories are of my older sister practising Bach inventions for her Grade 8 RCM exam), studying piano myself, attending concerts with my parents, and hearing their many recordings, I remained ignorant of some of the best-known pieces and performers. From age 15 until my early 40s, when I had a young family, I was not studying or even paying much attention to classical music. And somehow I went to a university that doesn’t even have a music program, a fact that now fills me with disbelief and regret.

For example, I didn’t know anything about Glenn Gould. (I know! Literally not one thing.) Or most of the music of Bach. My head was full of pieces I’d heard growing up but couldn’t identify. All of this changed when I met my wonderful teacher, Peter Kristian Mose, around the year 2000, and I began to ask questions, which Peter answered, over the next 17 years, with unfailing patience and never the slightest hint of condescension. I started to fill in the gaps in my knowledge by reading Kevin Bazzana’s 2003 biography of Gould and listening to recordings. I pointed out Gould’s childhood home on Southwood Drive to my children every time we passed it on our way to their music lessons.

There are many other examples. The latest is the Bach Chaconne, the last movement of his Partita no. 2 for violin. My introduction to it came via a Facebook post late last year by Peter, who had been to a performance by violinist Miriam Fried. I went on YouTube to check it out. It is a very dark piece, and I had to let it grow on me. (It’s also fifteen minutes long.)

But grow on me it did, and, as often happens with these things, I started to see references to it everywhere. It has played a pivotal role in the life of James Rhodes, whose stunning 2015 book, InstrumentalI read earlier this year. It led me to listen a great deal more carefully. Just this month I was tuning a client’s 1921 C. Bechstein grand, and there on the music desk was the Bach Chaconne. (The piece was transcribed for piano by the Italian pianist and composer, Ferruccio Busoni, in 1893.)

The Busoni transcription is daunting, but I decided that no matter how far I got, I had to try to learn this piece myself. So I have recently purchased the Henle edition, and made a start. There is something indescribable about starting to learn to play a piece you love, to hear this incredible music coming out of your own fingers and your own instrument, one faltering bar at a time.

Here’s what Brahms had to say about the Chaconne, in a letter to Clara Schumann: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

Watching and listening to different artists’ interpretations of the Chaconne is a fascinating exercise. For this piece I have chosen violinist James Ehnes’s 2013 live performance for CBC Music. It strikes me as beautiful, thoughtful, and well-considered. It’s a performance, and a piece, to be savoured. I really don’t know how I got this far in life without knowing it.



I’m not ALL about classical… January 23rd, 2017

… though admittedly, Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve (released 20 years ago) has strong classical elements, including the title (obviously) and those amazing strings. Which is probably why I like it so much. I LOVE this song! The lyrics are, admittedly, depressing, but the melody is hypnotic. I was amazed to learn that it was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Apparently they wrote quite a few songs for other bands.

So here it is again, all “classified.” I like this version too, but I kind of miss Richard Ashcroft’s agonized vocals.

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My latest obsession January 6th, 2017

As you may know from my previous posts, last summer I returned to Oslo, Norway for a visit, where I had lived for a few years as an adolescent. Music was a big part of my life there, and particularly the music of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer.

Recently I’ve fallen madly in love with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a group of pieces based on 18th century dance forms (Sarabande, Gavotte, Air, and Rigaudon, and the exciting Prelude), composed in 1884 to pay tribute to the Danish writer, Ludvig Holberg. Since I had only ever heard the string orchestra version, I was surprised to discover that Grieg originally wrote these pieces for piano. When I mentioned this to my friend, the pianist and vocal coach Michael Angell (who knows a great deal about Grieg), he immediately sent me the score from his cellphone! And I’ve been immersed in learning to play these wonderful pieces ever since.

But I have to say, as much as I love playing them, they are really marvellous when played on stringed instruments. There are bits (especially in the Gavotte) that are very reminiscent of Hardanger fiddle music. And of all the performances I’ve seen on YouTube, this one by Camerata Nordica is my favourite. I love the energy of the players, and their symbiotic communication with each other–made possible by the fact that they perform the entire suite from memory! I have heard that this group is now in disarray due to managerial problems, which is a great shame. See also, however, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s performances (also to be found on YouTube), led by the same man, Terje Tønnesen. I defy you not to fall completely in love with this music!

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Music-making and the brain October 17th, 2016


I’ve become fascinated by the new research that shows that music-making stimulates the brain more than any other activity, mental or physical.

Take a look at this lovely little animation created by Dr. Anita Collins, an Australian music educator. Collins also has a wonderful TED-X Talk, which you can view here, that goes into fascinating detail on how our brains — especially young children’s brains — benefit from music.

FMRI studies show the brain’s music-learning centres lighting up when newborn babies hear their mothers’ voices. They are actually hearing music. (Is this why some adults naturally adopt a sing-songy voice when speaking to infants? Quite possibly.) What does this mean? It means that musicality may be innate — i.e. we are all born musical!

Further research has shown that children and adults who study music in a structured way for at least two years have higher IQ’s than those who don’t. Studying music makes you smarter.

Governments and school boards should take note. As Dr. Collins so effectively points out, music education confers lifelong benefits, to individuals and to society as a whole. It should be fostered and protected. Unfortunately, it has been cut from far too many educational systems as an expensive and unnecessary frill. What can we do to change this?

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My wonderful teacher — Peter Kristian Mose September 21st, 2016


I’m so excited to be resuming piano studies with Peter Kristian Mose later this month — after a 14-year hiatus!

I met Peter around the year 2000. I had bought my rebuilt Heintzman upright the previous year, and was ready to take some lessons again (this time after a 25-year hiatus!). At the time I had two young kids… and after a couple of years studying with Peter, my husband Eric and I had our third child, and piano went to the back burner once again.

Those kids are now 22, 18 and 14! And I am READY to embrace this part of my life again.

Coincidentally, Peter has recently unveiled his new website. You are invited to take a look here. If you’re in the vicinity of Toronto, ON, and if you’ve been toying with the idea of taking piano lessons or are looking for a teacher for your children, I strongly recommend you call Peter up for a chat. You’ll find his contact info on the site.

See you in the studio!


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The Music of Strangers August 24th, 2016


This week I finally went to see The Music of Strangers, the 2015 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, the world-fusion band created some years ago by cellist Yo Yo Ma.The music is an enchanting mix of east, west, north and south, classical and jazz… and, understandably, it took some time for the group, and the music, to coalesce.

A former child prodigy, it turns out that the most famous cello player in the world never really felt like the author of his own destiny. (His son reports growing up thinking his dad worked at Boston’s Logan Airport, since he was always going there.) Hence the search for something more than his decades of concert touring, resulting in the Silk Road Ensemble. The group aims to promote cultural awareness and harmony through touring and education initiatives intended to bring comfort and understanding to a hurting world.

When I told my 21-year-old daughter I was going to see the film, she recalled Ma’s appearance in the kids’ animated series Arthur, in which the character D.W. addresses Ma as “Yo Mama!” (I still think Arthur was the best-written children’s show ever made.) Ma also appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and the delightful clip is included in the film.

The Music of Strangers also goes into some depth to profile its various members, including Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh, a stringed instrument played like a cello (though quite different in both appearance and sound). Kalhor is a tragic figure, for whom the plight of his Iranian family and countrymen is etched in the lines on his face. He rarely smiles, and we are happy for him when we learn that he has married… though eventually it is decided that he cannot live in Iran with his bride, and theirs becomes a Skype marriage.

In the film, Kalhor’s sadness is contrasted with the exuberance of Spaniard Cristina Pato, who plays Galician bagpipes. You read that right–bagpipes, from Spain. She is one of only three women in the ensemble of seventeen (really, Yo Yo? that’s all you could find?), but her feminine charisma, shall we say, more than compensates. If you doubt that a woman can look sexy playing the bagpipes, check this out! (One wonders how the men stay focused on their scores.)

Kalhor and Pato and the other ensemble members are all passionate about preserving and furthering their instrument’s heritage, and their association with Ma and ensemble has brought them to world prominence. This video showcases both Pato and Kalhor and gives the flavour of this wonderful mix of artists and musical styles.

All that’s missing is a Hardanger fiddle player.

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