FInding success as a young 21st century pianist

Post Date: 10 June 2018
Post Type: Piano Things

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Blossoming in the 21st century Classical Music world : Triumphs on CD and in Rachmaninov Concerto Cycles for Manchester trained young pianists

Yuanfan Yang: Watercolour (Orchid Classics ORC 100073)
Yasmin Rowe & Yelian He Y squared: Music for Cello and Piano (Willow Hayne Records WHR047)
Panayiotis Demopoulos: ‘Nina’s Clock’ (Divine Art /metier jazz mjd 72405
Tom Hicks: Rachmaninov Concerto Cycle with Stockport Symphony Orchestra (Five Concerts from June 2016-18. www.stockportsymphony.co.uk/ www.tom-hicks.co.uk)


Its been a great pleasure to listen to performances on disc and in concert recently from four highly talented young pianists who were trained in Manchester recently. Young concert artists today face quite a different proposition when it come to career building from what used to be in the 1980s and 1990s. It is no longer enough to win a competition (there are too many around for one individual triumph to guarantee an immediate, long lasting career). And even mail shots appears to be rather dodgy: Looking for work is legally not recommended in a generic, insensitive way as new data protection laws (and the astronomical costs of Royal Mail Postage) prevents the kind of regular marathon mailshot recommended by Leonard Pearcey in his laudable and influential 1970s handbook for young musicians entitled ‘The Musician’s survival Guide: How to get work in Classical Music’. In 2018 you cannot write blankly to 800 music clubs asking for work. Indeed many of the music clubs that could have cheerfully been posted too a quarter of a century ago now find themselves near extinction as their membership tails off and costs escalate. Times are indeed a change. However it is not good to be negative. Alternative strategies are afoot from the youth of today. Virtually every young pianist who is organised has their own website, a high profile on social media, and understands the importance of YouTube. Recording contracts used to mean a huge deal. They still do, but we now live in an era where the very survival and viability of producing compact discs themselves is questioned by many. Indeed, there are many young people out there who do not even own a CD player! Many new cars and laptops are designed without the facility to play discs, and in any case the youth culture is such that it is almost unheard of ‘buy’ recordings of anything. And who can blame them when the cost of living is so high, and when most artist can be listened to from the internet, downloaded for free, instantly accessed and shared via social media.
But there is no shortage in the production of new commercial CDs. Clearly in 2018 there is a generational divide in the market , and though retail shops devoted exclusively to CDs are extinct in many cities, the market for purchasing recordings in a tangible form remains buoyant at recitals and orchestral concerts. Of course, classical gigs tend to be frequented mostly by audiences over a certain age. There is no question that many of the over forty-year olds still look forward to taking home a ‘souvenir’ disc of a memorable recital, a token memento of an enjoyable ‘evening out’.

In this new climate for classical music it is particularly heartening for teachers, music lovers and young aspiring musicians themselves to read of success. This weekend I witnessed afresh enterprise and triumph from four young pianists who were model students in Manchester: Three new CD releases and a Rachmaninov concert Cycle from outstandingly talented musicians who have had associations with Cheetham’s School of Music and/or the Royal Northern College of Music and have now moved further afield with significant successes and enterprising projects aplenty.


First up for consideration is ‘Watercolour’ the debut solo recital disc on Orchid Classics of 21-year-old Yuanfan Yang, Edinburgh born, Leeds raised, Chetham’s School of Music educated (for seven years) and now in the middle of undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Yuanfan has always been precocious as a musician, reaching grade 8 at a remarkably young pre-teen age and continuing to win an enormous number of impressive awards and prizes well before his twentieth birthday, notably the James Mottram International Competition and the keyboard final of BBC Young Musicians 2012. This debut disc tries and largely succeeds in containing ‘the Atlantic Ocean within a milk bottle’ in that it presents a huge range of Yuanfan’s remarkable musician’s diverse interests, skills and priorities in a wide ranging and contrasted programme. In some ways it is a salute to his teenage triumphs, including music that he completed early on with significant success- so we have his post impressionistic ‘Aquarelle’, reminding us of his special attention to colour, pianistic layout, atmosphere and musical space, qualities that were heard in superabundance throughout his teenage years in ‘The haunted Bell’, arguably his most striking and memorable solo piano piece of this era.
In Chopin’s great F minor Fantaisie , Liszt’s ‘Valée d’obermann’ and the third Impromptu from Schubert’s second set, Yang proves that he is much more interested in tonal beauty, inward integrity and musical expansiveness than in mere virtuosity and show. Even his accounts of ‘La Campanella’ and Chopin’s ‘Winter wind’ etude op. 25 no. 11 show a spirit who is far too sensitive and caring to merely indulge in music as a sporty pass time: No cheap thrills of excess brilliance and speed for him! Overall a most encouraging disc that firmly refutes the myth that young pianists today are all about being ‘brilliant’. Indeed, the late Ronald Stevenson used to frequently lament the inevitable pairing of the words ‘young’ with brilliant’ when it came to 21st century marketing for pianists. Stevenson once taught Yuanfan at the Chetham’s summer school in Manchester, and he would surely have been amongst the first to applaud and welcome this serious, considered and reflectively mature disc.

Yasmin Rowe attended both Chetham’s and RNCM. Like Yuanfan she also won numerous awards during her period of study in Manchester, including the Moray Piano Competition and the overall prize of the 2008 EPTA UK competition. Following on from the success of her debut album for the Australian Company Willowhayne Records, this second release from Yasmin is a collaboration with her long standing ‘cello partner Yelian He. They call themselves ‘Y Squared’ and are currently working from a base in Melbourne, where Yelian grew up. That they financed this impressive release by Crowdfunding is testament to the enterprise, determination, initiative and lateral thinking that is necessary for survival and success in classical music today. It may be a struggle at times, but the effort as evidenced most impressively by this slick, sonically resonant yet clear recording is most certainly worth it. But it is more than the packaging that is beautiful: The ensemble playing in Mendelssohn’s under-performed and touchingly poetic second sonata is second to none. Clarity, stylistic understanding, variety of colour and a sense of authority over phrasing are hallmarks of an outstanding achievement. Solo items on the disc are also included, in keeping with the aim of packaging a CD these days for commercial use at live concerts (Y squared normally have solo items in all their concerts). Yasmin’s beauty of tone and simplicity of expression in Schumann-Liszt’s ‘Widmung’ is outstanding. The solo ‘cello offering from Yelian is the world premiere of Svante Henrysons ‘On a day like this’, paired with ‘Black Run’. He has tremendous flair, enthusiasm and variety of sounds at his disposal, and is able to exploit these technical attributes to full effect. Intonation is not always totally flawless, but this is a minor gripe in performances that really capture a sense of idiomatic abandon, qualities also in evidence in the concluding ‘cool’ numbers from Kapustin and Piazzolla, guaranteed to get feet tapping and bodies swinging. Deeply impressive in every respect.


‘Nina’s Clock’ is the fourth disc on Divine Art’s Metier Label that the Greek Composer-Pianist Panayiotis Demopoulos has made and shows his innovation, enterprise, virtuosity and creative off-the-wall humour in a remarkable way. Panos spent two years as a post-grad at RNCM after four at Napier in Edinburgh, but I guess none of his training at either institution would have trained him for what he does here- The suite Ninas Clock employs solo piano with some preparation and is part improvised on a structured skeleton and follows the story of one night after recording sessions, a variety of moods and styles. Indeed, its eleven tracks emerge to the listener as though no ‘conventional’ keyboard playing at all has been used! On many occasions throughout this fascinating and intriguing disc one wonders if one is listening to a piano at all, so exotic, electronic, percussive or gamelan-like is the musical impression. Prepared piano meets jazz meets philosophical humourist… It is quite unlike anything you are likely have ever encountered before. Listen to a few seconds of ‘Eight O’clock Carful Dominoes’ here to see what I mean: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ninas-Clock-OClock-Careful-Dominoes/dp/B07C

Overall there is a remarkable gamut of colour and mood, an extraordinary range of characterisation and some breath-taking virtuosity- albeit of a variety that one seldom encounters. How such facility and control is built up with inside piano plucks and strikes is open for discussion. Presumably hours and hours of experimentation and discovery was undertaken in order to gain the confidence and freedom necessary for such command. The result is emotionally exhilarating and remarkably varied.


Indeed, Demopoulos is a remarkable figure: his musical activities (which include modern jazz performance) is juggled alongside his day job as a high-level local government officer! We await the next Demopoulos project with abated breath….!

Finally, ‘Be prepared’ and ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’ That’s the two messages to be learnt from 24-year-old Guernsey born Tom Hicks, who this weekend successfully and remarkably finished a complete Rachmaninov concerto cycle with Stockport Symphony Orchestra. This was a Herculean undertaking, a tremendously ambitious and challenging project, and one that not many pianists (if any!) would dare undertake in their early twenties. But therein lies a message for others who may wish to find work but are alluded: Plan ahead, visualise what you want, believe in it, practise hard, ask…. and success will come! It was a performance of Brahms’ D minor Concerto with the RNCM orchestra which was given back in 2014 that led to Tom’s offer to perform with Stockport Symphony (it is always important to invite people of influence to your concerts) and bravo to him for suggesting to the orchestra that he play five concerts with them rather than just the one! In fact, this is the second time he had performed all five Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra, having previously accomplished this remarkable feat at home in Guernsey. This weekend in Stockport marked the end of his two-year collaboration in with Stockport. In the challenging and concentrated ‘Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini’ this weekend he was always in full command, playing with sparkle and authority to a capacity audience in Stockport Town Hall. The extended applause and warmth from the audience was much deserved. Here is a young artist totally in control. The lack of ostentatious display and concentration on the music above all else showed admirable integrity. There was no sense of stress nor lack of familiarity with the thousands of notes that had to be played in this and the other four concertos in the cycle. And the orchestra, though mainly comprising amateur players, rose magnificently to the occasion. In fact, it has not been such an easy year for the Stockport Orchestra, who were facing possible extinction in their fortieth anniversary year after the local council threatened to cut their grant. It is an expensive, precarious business in the amateur orchestra world, but happily the ensemble is back on the road with a promised international season ahead, including the return of their concerto competition and Peter Donohoe as their soloist in the Grieg Concerto.

Murray McLachlan