On Wednesday 28 NovemberAncient Roots New Leaves returns for the second and final concert in this series. In this performance we will see a unique collaboration between leading Iranian composer and instrumentalist Hamid Motebassem with the upcoming female vocalist Sepideh Raissadat. We caught up with them ahead of the concert.

What are you particularly looking forward to about your forthcoming performance at Southbank Centre?

Hamid Motebassem: London is a very large and lively city, always buzzing with an array of cultural activities from around the globe. It feels like a global stage and it feels nice to be performing in this global venue. Performing in London, especially at the Southbank Centre, has been the highlight of many of my European tours during the past 20 years and I am really looking forward to performing there again this year.

Sepideh Raissadat: Well this is the first time I am performing in London I am very excited and enthusiastic to be performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of the world’s premium concert halls, in front of a perfectly tuned audience

You’ve been working on large orchestral project, but this is a return to the more traditional small ensemble style. Is this the shape of your future works?
HM: Composers always try to choose the right tools for their works. Sometimes this is in the format of large orchestras, and sometimes it is in the form of small ensembles such as quartets or quintets. My approach to this ensemble is quite different to the more traditional ensembles that I myself have performed with in the past. All the compositions for this performance are arranged and composed for a quintet of four lute-style instruments and percussion, plus a vocalist. Although the music that will be performed is based on classical Persian music, the arrangements and the sounds that will be produced are quite different to the more traditional ensemble.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and the music that you will be performing?
SR: I started to sing the traditional music of Iran at the age of five and my passion for singing was highly appreciated by my parents. At the age of nine I started to study the traditional classical repertoire of Iranian music known as Radif with the famous Persian diva Parisa whose career at moment time was limited to her private teaching activities. In fact she was banned from any public performance, as were the other female vocalists, since the 1979 revolution. My first professional performance was at the age of eleven, when I was chosen by a performer at school to be on national Iranian television. The performance was actually cancelled because television programmers believed that mine was the voice of a mature woman rather than a young girl.

When I was eighteen I recorded my first publicly released album with a great Persian composer Parviz Meshkatian, which considering the political and religious climate in Iran at that time was nothing short of a miracle! It was the first time a female voice was being published as part of a duet after the revolution. Two weeks after the publication of the album, had a concert in a public theatre in Tehran. This was the first time after the revolution that a female voice was heard in a prominent public setting.

After finishing my Bachelor’s degree in painting I applied to study Musicology at the University of Bologna and I moved to Italy. Along with my studies I taught, practised and performed Persian music. I collaborated with several great Italian musicians such as Franco Battiato and Andrea Parodi and I also performed on Italian national television and radio several times. I moved to Canada in 2009 and am currently continuing my academic studies in ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto

How did your musical collaboration come about?
HM: Composing for a female vocalist is always quite significant for a composer. Sepideh Raissadat is one of the young and upcoming female vocalists whose knowledge and capabilities youth and energy brings a special flair to the performance and it’s been a real joy working with her.

SR: I started collaborating with Maestro Motebassem and Mezrab Ensemble approximately 2 years ago following a short tour in Italy. Since then this is our first big tour that takes place in twelve cities of Canada and Europe. We started on October 26 in Toronto and will do our last show in Stockholm

Who or what inspires you?
HM: Every work is inspired differently. Sometimes it is an earthly love and sometimes it is a more divine love. Some works are inspired by past legends and equally some are inspired by present day events.

If you could programme your ideal Southbank Centre show, which artists (living or dead) would you bring together?
SR: I would invite at least a dozen of the best Iranian female singers who do not have the opportunity to perform in Iran.

What do you listen to in your spare time?
SR: Besides Persian music, I listen to central Asian music. I also enjoy listening to Hindustani music a lot.

Do you have any strange rituals you carry out before or after you perform?
HM: I just try to relax and concentrate on the work and also try to get ready with my outfit, which needs to be in presentable form. That’s basically it! I don’t have any special ritual. I need to have space to relax and concentrate to get myself psychologically ready.

SR: If I’m alone I will close my eyes and possibly meditate. If I’m with the other members of the ensemble, I try to be more quiet and enjoy their presence.

What’s next for you?
HM: After this series I will be going back to Pardis, which is a large orchestral project with vocalists, which has already been performed in London last year at the Cadogen Hall. My plan is arrange a series of concerts in Iran and also to arrange a video and audio recording of that concert.

SR: This year we will continue our tour in our European cities in early 2013 and in the next academic year I will start my PHD studies at the University of Toronto.

Hamid Motessem and Sepideah Raissadat will be performing live with the Mezrab Ensemble at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday 28th November. For a preview of what you can expect to hear at the concert, you can watch the below video footage from their 2012 tour:

For more info and to book tickets for this exciting performance, CLICK HERE

Getting to know conductor Thomas Blunt

Conductor Thomas Blunt is one of the current participants in the International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation, which culminates in a concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall on 13 April 2012. Alongside the other two young conductors, Domingo Hindoyan and Ward Stare, Thomas will conduct the Orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D.

Read more about the concert and buy tickets

What’s your earliest musical memory?
Sitting at the piano at home when I was about four years old.

What was it that first attracted you to the conducting profession?
As a boy I sang in Worcester Cathedral Choir, and was lucky to sing in many concerts with large orchestras as part of the Three Choirs Festival. I found the sheer clamour of the orchestra completely thrilling, and seeing one person in front of it all – I just thought that must be the most exciting thing one can do in music.

For you, who are the most exciting conductors working today? Who has inspired you the most?
There are many conductors whose work I admire today – Vladimir Jurowski, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Ivan Fischer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir Simon Rattle being a few. I particularly enjoy listening to and watching recordings of conductors of the past – Carlos Kleiber, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Charles Munch and Günter Wand are amongst my favourites. I was lucky enough to take part in masterclasses with Haitink when I was studying at the Royal College of Music – he is a truly inspirational man, conductor, and musician.

How have you benefited from working with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic?
One of the great things about LPO is that they are wonderfully responsive. This puts the spotlight on everything you say and do, as it can all have an immediate effect. At the same time though it gives you a freedom knowing you have that support and that the musical possibilities in front of you are so huge. It’s an incredibly exciting situation to be in, and can only benefit your own artistic and technical development as a conductor.

Do conductors put in ‘practice time’ like orchestral players? How do you prepare for concerts?
This is the great problem for conductors in that it is impossible to practise. The only real way to improve your conducting is to just do it, so for me ‘practice’ is really studying the score, working out techincal issues as to how I’ll conduct it, and reading around the context of the music’s composition as best as I can. This is important so that when you stand up in front of the orchestra you present a clear vision and journey. Conducting is an aerobic activity in one sense, so before concerts and rehearsals I do stretches and yoga, with some meditation thrown in to help get me in the zone.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Conducting a run of Verdi’s Falstaff for Glyndebourne on Tour in 2009. It’s a very challenging opera to conduct, but I was lucky to have also assisted Vladimir Jurowski on the same production during the preceding Glyndebourne Festival. By the end of the run the opera really felt like a part of me, and I have never had so much fun conducting anything.

Which aspect of conducting do you find the most challenging?
Getting the right balance between leading and allowing.

What advice would you give to aspiring conductors?
There is no set path to making it as a conductor, and I think really one has to find one’s own way. Initially it’s essential to get to a high standard on an instrument or two so one can experience music-making from the inside. Following this some postgraduate conducting study is an option. Opera is often a useful route and has been for me; many conductors also start out as repetiteurs. Assisting conductors is a great way to learn, and can put you in touch with all sorts of people in the business. Winning a competition can accelerate things, but really everything is down to determination, luck, and being ready when your time comes.

Aside from conducting, what do you do in your spare time?
I’m a passionate Aston Villa fan, so have spent quite a lot of time feeling depressed about that of late! Apart from that I like cycling, galleries, yoga, novels, papers, politics, and going to the cinema and theatre. Lately I’ve been reading a few books about espionage during and after the Second World War (I’m distantly related to Anthony Blunt). Outside of classical music I love funk, soul, and electronica.

Do you get a lot of fan mail?
That’s one area of my career I need to improve on!

What’s your favourite film? (and film score?)
So many to choose from but I love the Alfred Hitckcock/Bernard Herrmann combination. North by Northwest is just brilliant.

If you could have a conversation with any composer from history, who would you choose?
Mozart probably. Apart from all the usual reasons I just think he would be great company.

Getting to know conductor Domingo Hindoyan

Conductor Domingo Hindoyan is one of the current participants in the International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation, which culminates in a concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 13 April 2012 at Royal Festival Hall. Alongside the other two young conductors, Thomas Blunt and Ward Stare, Domingo will conduct the Orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist John Lill, and Julian Anderson’s Past Hymns.

Read more about the concert and buy tickets

What’s your earliest musical memory?
My father was a violin player and the executive director of the Orquesta Sinfonica Venezuela in the 80s. I used to attend my father’s concerts every Sunday and these experiences are certainly among since my earliest musical memories.
What was it that first attracted you to the conducting profession?
During these same concerts, I have been told that as a 4-year-old I would stand in the aisle of the concert hall and imitate the conductor during the concert as I was fascinated by this role. Later on, as an orchestral player, my initial fascination and curiosity about this profession increased enormously.

For you, who are the most exciting conductors working today? Who has inspired you the most?
For me Daniel Barenboim has been very important and inspiring, also Claudio Abbado whom I met in Venezuela, and Bernard Haitink.
How have you benefited from working with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic?

First class orchestras are sophisticated, sensitive, with a lot of personality; at the same time very flexible and responsive, therefore for a conductor it is very demanding. It is like a good Stradivarius or a Ferrari, you need to know how to play them or drive them, being precise, knowing how to impose yourself or just letting them play. It is very complex. I am trying to achieve that.

Do conductors put in ‘practice time’ like orchestral players? How do you prepare for concerts?
I spend a lot of time studying my scores. This is how I prepare for concerts: studying, analyzing, discovering, searching for reasons, asking questions, trying to find the most truthful answers. I also prepare the rehearsals and anticipate potential problems as much as I can, but it is impossible without the orchestra.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
When I did a three hour rehearsal on Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite, with Claudio Abbado sitting next to me with the score. The rehearsal was very useful.

Which aspect of conducting do you find the most challenging?

The perfect relation, coherence and harmony between conception, gesture and the final sound.

What advice would you give to aspiring conductors?

Attend rehearsals of experienced conductors and at the same time try to build their own identity.

Aside from conducting, what do you do in your spare time?

I love watching football, I am a Real Madrid fan, and this winter I picked up skiing while I was working on an opera in Austria. I find the peacefulness and pure beauty of the mountains very inspiring.

Do you get a lot of fan mail?
After concerts I receive some on Facebook. It is quite fun!

What’s your favourite film? (and film score?)
Cinema Paradiso.  
If you could have a conversation with any composer from history, who would you choose?
It is quite recent, but I would love to meet Leonard Bernstein.

Get ‘up close’ with Charles Hazlewood

Take a peek behind the scenes at the rehearsals for ‘Close up with Charles Hazlewood’ – two family concerts taking place as part of the Imagine Children’s Festival.

Charles Hazlewood and the Philharmonia Orchestra perform on Saturday 11 February & Saturday 18 February together with 250 Soutwark schoolchildren, the Southwark Youth Orchestra and the David Idowu Choir.

Wrestling with Ravel: Steven Osborne’s diary

Pianist Steven Osborne shares his diary of learning and recording Ravel’s fiendish Gaspard de la Nuit with The Guardian. Read the full article here.  

January 2009: Among pianists, Gaspard has a fearsome reputation, one of the contenders for the title of Most Difficult Piano Piece Ever Written, but… I’m quietly confident I can rise to the challenge.

May 2009: The hands have to move like lightning and my brain just can’t keep up. I’m starting to wonder if I will ever get to the end of this process.

June 2009: Chained to the piano.

December 2009: I rush outside only to slip on the ice and land on my left hand. I get it x-rayed and discover that I’ve broken my middle finger. Bugger.

September 2010: As the final take ends, I realise I feel more tired than at almost any other time in my life. But there is also gratitude – for music, for this amazing job I have… and above all for being finished.

Steven Osborne performs Gaspard de la Nuit, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and music by Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wednesday 5 October. Click here to book.

Meet Violinist Henning Kraggerud

Violinist Henning Kraggerud joins Britten Sinfonia as both director and soloist in the opening concert of their 2011/12 season at Southbank Centre on Friday 7 October. Berio’s Duos for 2 violins and the London premiere of Piers Tattersall’s Kreisler l’entre deux guerres rub shoulders with Mozart’s Violin Concerto K.218 and Mahler’s stunning arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. Find out more in this interview about what makes this talented man tick.

What has been the highlight of your career so far? Hard to single out, but probably Beethoven with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, but I also loved Tchaikovsky at the Proms in 2010.

When are you happiest? With my family at Christmas.

What is your greatest fear? You think I will tell?

What is your earliest musical memory? Listening to Beethoven symphonies as a toddler.

Which living person do you most admire, and why? Haruki Murakami, because he is like Beethoven in the way that he didn’t give up before he became a genius through hard work, rather than born a genius like Mozart.

What is your most treasured possession? My violin.

What would your super power be? Controlling the flow of time.

If you were an animal what would you be? Pan-dimensional being, partly mouse, as described by Douglas Adams.

What is your favourite book? At the moment 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami), but is has been Lord of the Rings, Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Never Let Me Go, The Corrections…

What is your guiltiest pleasure? Peshawari naan and Madras curry with Cobra beer.

If you could go back in time, where would you go? To listen to Chopin play maybe?

How do you relax away from the concert platform? Reading lots of books.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Having two children.

 What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Not believing in easy answers you can write in one sentence.

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy? Those who have both legs firmly planted to the ground go nowhere.

For full concert info and to book, click here.

John Cage, composer, philosopher and artist

Composer, visual artist, writer, philosopher, humorist, mushroom expert: the depth and breadth of John Cage’s engagement with art and ideas was dizzying. “Cage was all about simultaneity and multiplicity, those were words that he lived by,” says Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust. In this context, she says, presenting a concert of music by Cage in tandem with an exhibition of his art, at the Hayward Gallery, is something to be celebrated. “It feels like a perfect thing to do: it makes the whole thing lively, especially if people don’t know Cage was a visual artist, which not so long ago, people didn’t. They were shocked to find out that there was this huge body of work.” Anton Lukoszevieze, whose ensemble is named after Cage’s piece Apartment House 1776, agrees. “Cage’s compositional and artistic approaches go hand in hand; it is clear that he was a major figure in both contemporary music and art.”John Cage

Yet Cage was never a polymath in the traditional sense. Music, or perhaps more accurately, sound, was where he began and it was with him every step of way of his creative life (legend has it he promised Arnold Schoenberg, his teacher, to dedicate his life to music). As an assistant to Cage in his later years and a champion of his work since his death, Kuhn is well-placed to untangle the web of Cage’s prolific inspiration. And he was extremely prolific. “We started our [the trust’s] archives with what was in Cage’s apartment when he died,” she says. “That included all his music manuscripts, just shy of 28,000 pieces of paper. We brought together a team of musicologists and they worked to place Cage’s material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.”

Such groundwork was important in establishing a foundation for Cage’s legacy, which Kuhn has seen mature over the past 20 years. “When Cage died, the greatest confluence of interest was in the people who knew him – there was some speculation at the time that once that generation left us, interest in his work would subside” she says. “That’s gone away now because we have a new generation for whom Cage is something completely different.” As we move towards Cage’s centennial year in 2012, the most striking example of that change has to be the 2010 internet campaign, ‘Cage against the machine’, to make 4’33” the Christmas No.1 single ahead of that year’s television talent show winner: a gimmicky distortion of Cage’s original intentions perhaps, but a demonstration of the iconic status of the work that opens this evening’s concert.

It is appropriate then, that this programme is bookended by 4’33” and its successor 0’00”, but as Anton Lukoszevieze explains, the evening also covers “most of his major compositional career. That’s some 45 years, from the ethereal, acquiescent beauty of the String Quartet in four parts to the sonic complexity of Music for eight.” For Kuhn, as well as emphasising the variety of ideas and themes in Cage’s music, this programme shows Cage as the innovator he was. For example: “Cage’s work with technology was astonishing. Today, we take it for granted that people sample music, but Cage was doing that with radios almost 70 years ago. He was using variable-speed turntables – being his own DJ – in Seattle in the thirties. Radio Music is astonishing because it’s so easy to perform and yet it is startling in its simplicity.”

Indeed, simplicity is a word that applies to much of Cage’s creativity: it was the originality of his ideas, not their complexity or sophistication, that made him unique. Perhaps Schoenberg was right when he described Cage not as a composer but as an inventor, and one of genius.

Tim Woodall © 2011

John Cage Night performed by Apartment House is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.30pm on Tuesday 13 September. Tickets from £9 – click here to book.

There is also a free guided tour of the exhibition for concert ticket holders at 6pm, and a free post-concert talk with Laura Kuhn and members of Apartment House.

The exhibition John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day is at the Hayward Gallery Project Space until Sunday 18 September. Open daily 10am – 6pm, admission free. Click here for details.