Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A Chetham's Diary: 20 August 2007

Monday 20 August

A cocktail of anti-jetlag and sleeping pills taken the night before ensure that I wake up late enough to miss practice, and so my first activity this morning is breakfast. Mealtimes are often the best chance to meet people and make friends. The Summer School’s Artistic Director Murray McLachlan is an ever-present figure, ensuring that everything is ship-shape and no stone left unturned. He remembers well Singapore’s Abigail Sin from the first ever summer school in 2001, and when I mentioned that she recently gave the Singapore (possibly Asian) premiere of Rodion Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto No.1, he is the first and only person to register some form of recognition. I am impressed.

There are Asians at the school – mostly younger than myself – but not as many as I originally imagined. There’s Emily Wong and Blanc Wan from Hong Kong (both based in UK now), Aaron Liew and Ong Wan Ping from Malaysia, Katsuyuki Sasamoto and Seiko Nagaoka from Japan, and Fang Fang from China (now resident in Gateshead). Besides myself, there’s one other Singaporean – Cason Kang, a student at Chet’s whom I met only once in the entire week. Yonty Solomon shared his green tea with me, and he was one of Foo Meiyi’s (the Argerich next-door and Tigress of Seremban) teachers.
Young (and a not so young) Asian pianists

Back at class, Bryce Morrison (BM from now on) asked, “What makes great music?” Jacqueline “Jackie” Kieswetter, a South African piano teacher now living in Dubai, gave a great suggestion, “Music and performances that are aesthetically pleasing to the soul.” Before she could further elaborate, Valentina Punzhina, a Russian violinist living The Hague, strongly begged to differ, citing a performance of Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op.28) by Mikhail Pletnev (a contemporary of hers at the Moscow Conservatory) that was so disturbing that she could not bear to hear that music ever again. Some Preludes in particular, caused her to be depressed, and she threw up her arms in despair. Only a Russian, given their history over the epochs, could read this much into what we normally consider pleasant listening. BM and I agreed that the session was beginning to slip into Freudian psychoanalysis.

An anguished Valentina Punzhina decries Chopin,
after being spooked by Mikhail Pletnev all those years ago.

I beat a hasty retreat into Philip Fowke’s class where a grandmotherly American lady is playing some ragtime. We heard pieces by Nicholas Slonimsky (the biographer) and Zez Confrey, with Fowke looking extremely thoughtful, wondering what he could further contribute to this lady’s already accomplished armamentarium. He offers Billy Mayerl’s Railroad Rhythm in reply, and it is simply brilliant. One might wonder who was the teacher and who was the student at this point. Rosemary Hallum, aka Auntie Rosie, is a journalist and critic for The American Rag, a ragtime periodical, has a PhD in childhood music education, but her fulltime job is a judge for body-building competitions! That might partly explain why I involuntarily (or voluntarily) suck in my paunch and puff up my chest in her presence.

This afternoon, the class went AWOL and I am alone with two English teenagers, one of whom is named Toby Brook. Listening to them talk is an interesting experience in itself. Their topic of discussion: examples of where the sound of tolling bells may be heard in Rachmaninov piano works, and the common theme that appears in both Rachmaninov’s First Symphony and Symphonic Dances. When Jackie returned, all three began talking about the first movement cadenza of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Who cares about David Beckham’s LA Galaxy transfer or Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal at Chetham’s?

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