15 Questions

A set of 15 questions has recently been put to various artists (including some friends of mine like Lauma Skride, Dave Maric, Alison Balsom, and The Pavel Haas Quartet) and can be viewed at http://www.tokafi.com Below is how I responded. The site is quite diverting and it is interesting to see the variety in approach to some of these questions/challenges.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I’m on a train to Cardiff, to start rehearsals for a BBC Proms concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This year has been very busy, but I am in good spirits and looking forward to a family holiday at the end of August.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I have two Proms this season, which is a great thrill. I LOVE playing at the Proms. Two works I have never played before; Messiaen’s “La Transfiguration” and then Stockhausen’s “Kontakte”. I suppose I’m especially excited to be doing the Stockhausen. When I was 12 I photocopied the score and used it as wallpaper in my bedroom, so when I got the music in May, the unusual notation was strangely familiar to me. It has been fascinating to learn this work and I have developed a huge admiration for it. After that, I have my debut with the LA Philharmonic to look forward to, on August the 12th.

Can you still remember the first time you heard a piece of classical music?
Not the very first. But as a live event, I do remember hearing Stravinsky’s “Firebird” very early on with the RSNO. Later, aged 13, hearing “Le Sace du Printemps” would set me on the path I currently enjoy walking down.

What was the deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?
Artist….well, it was not obvious that I would be a percussion soloist. Despite any level of talent or flair, this career path is generally not open, at least not on any grand scale. So I studied hard to be an orchestral player, and for years combined occasional concertos with a percussion duo and freelance orchestral work. It was a great time, and it could have stayed like that, but things hotted up for me in the past six years or so. I’m very grateful for all the opportunities I do have, and getting presented with exciting concerts to play is still such a thrill for me.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
I can struggle somewhat with the highs, then lows after a performance. I get extremely energised by my performing, which is also very physical, so often feel at a loose end after a concert. But the more concerts I give, the easier it is to deal with this. I also get bad jet lag. Sometimes I wake up and have absolutely no idea where I am or what it is I am playing that day. All this is offset by having a creatively and intellectually inspiring skill set which I am effectively sponsered to travel the world to develop! I also relish meeting many great people in this business.

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?
This is a very large topic. I do wish that contemporary music could have a bigger audience, in the way that other art forms seem to find so much easier to attract. I think some damage has been done in this area which we are still not only suffering for but also continuing to perpetrate. Elitism should only be used in the selection of music, and not in its presentation. I try to do my bit by being open to meeting audience members and giving post and pre concert talks. I also am careful about what I play and who I approach for new pieces.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for classical music?
I’m not sure I fully understand the full implications here. However, music is essentially a live event, so if new media and the internet can be used to attract bigger crowds, then great.

With so many different recordings of a particular piece available – how do you keep yours fresh and different?
This probably doesn’t apply to me! One thing that I do enjoy so much about what I do is that in creating many new pieces, I get to give the first impression. Some of the concertos I have premiered have been taken up by others, which is always fascinating.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
A good performance must be “real”. No falsities or flashiness will attract me. Clarity, balance, a fine sound and some kind of strength (of confidence) will all be important. I always try to play my very best, but because of the huge technical demands and the annoying logistical booby-traps involved in playing solo percussion, I have had to learn to accept that things don’t always go according to plan. However, I do require that when I go on stage I at least have the potential to play everything “perfectly”.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
I’m with Stravinsky on this one! I dislike the notion. But confess that it is inevitable that no two performers will have an identical slant. What really matters is being able to justify every single musical choice you do make.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
If anything, it is my job to put the emotions of the composer into the performance and not the other way around somehow. Were one to give a particularly intense version of some piece or other, a composer could maybe comment “Wow, I didn’t know I had that in me!”. That would be a very great compliment.

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and classical music?
Again, shark infested waters here, but I am all for a gigantic increase and re-focusing of a broad musical education in our schools. I fail to see even remote disadvantage in immersing our youngsters in the greatest artistic legacy in the history of human thought.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I am interested in presenting early music alongside modern magic. So, this could lead to some odd parings, maybe Gesueldo and Andriessen let’s say, but I think it could work. And – I must declare an interest here – I would definitely include Simon Holt’s new percussion concerto “a table of noises”!

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
This question has raised a smile at least from me, so it can’t be that bad…! Frustrations in the practice room can usually be vented in front of several thousand people over the course of any normal week, so I do my therapy sessions in public you might say. I find the marimba and other tuned instruments exasperating at times, as you are at the mercy of haphazard chance quite often as there is no sense of touch on the instrument. But I adore performing and am an incurable percussionist. I love the diversity of the art form, in sound and style. There is nothing to compare to it!

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
I had a wonderful piano teacher aged 13-17, who helped me enormously. I found the instrument itself quite difficult, but I loved the sound. We had a gorgeous Steinway at home which my Grandfather bought for us, and I enjoyed my practice. At my “peak” I could play through Debussy’s “Estampes”, but dread to think what would happen if I tried to play that music now! I’ve always liked the French Horn and the Bass Guitar too.

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