London Sinfonietta Academy 2011: a participant’s view

The last week of July saw the return of our London Sinfonietta Academy course, an intensive five-day course of rehearsals, workshops and masterclasses which provides key experience and training in core contemporary repertoire, with coaching from London Sinfonietta Principal Players.  Academy student and pianist Alex Wilson shares his thoughts on his Academy experience.

The time: approximately 9:47AM.  Monday 25th July.  I have battled through the rush hour traffic and arrived to negotiate with a surprisingly complicated coffee dispenser (or was that just me?), and meet the participants of the 2011 London Sinfonietta Academy.  After many weeks of slaving away in a sweltering windowless room at an increasingly out-of-tune piano it is time to discover if the endless metronome practice has paid off.  I feel closer to György Ligeti and Thomas Adès than ever, yet the possibility of disaster is weighing on my mind: will Maestro Valade throw out the carefully notated tempo markings in favour of a much faster speed selection?  Will the piano be facing in the right direction?  And don’t even get me started on the unique challenge of learning to play a harpsichord and harmonium from scratch in the space of five days.

London Sinfonietta Academy 2011 in rehearsal

As it turned out I needn’t have worried.  Pierre-Andre was a joy to work with, possessing a seemingly-endless knowledge of our repertoire and showing extreme patience and tolerance in the face of even the most basic of mistakes.  Contemporary music can’t be described as easy to decipher at times (a bar consisting of two triplet crotchet beats?  Cheers Mr. Adès…), yet Maestro Valade’s clear and concise conducting made it feel almost effortless to follow.

Playing such potentially difficult repertoire can be daunting no matter how many hours of headache-inducing practice has been carried out, but receiving advice from John Constable, London Sinfonietta piano extraordinaire, makes you feel as if you are performing with a huge safety net ready to catch you and solve any problem you may encounter.  Possibly the nicest musician I have ever met, what John doesn’t know about performing contemporary piano repertoire simply isn’t worth knowing, and he appeared keen to share all his years of experience with us all.  I have received tips that I will use for the rest of my life and feel I am a greatly improved musician as a result.  Thanks John!

The challenge of the orchestral pianist is a unique one; I am used to the solitary life of practicing and performing by myself, and watching someone waving their arms around to dictate how fast to play is clearly an alien concept to any pianist.  The concept of jumping between instruments is also a fairly new experience, and reasonably exclusive to contemporary music; the joy of playing a beautifully resonant piano chord before sprinting to the celeste in 3 beats for a delicate melody, then off to the harpsichord in 1.5 beats is a task many composers like to set, probably simply to test the fitness levels of the pianist…  I have learnt to overcome many obstacles during my time in the Academy, have made new contacts, become better acquainted with stalwarts of the contemporary repertoire, and will never forget how to play the harmonium pianissimo with a consistent sound whilst ensuring all notes sound simultaneously-  possibly the greatest challenge a pianist will ever face!

Alex Wilson will be performing, along with other members of the London Sinfonietta Academy 2011, in a BBC Proms Plus Portrait event on Wedneday 31 August.  In this event, Academy musicians will perform a selection of works by Graham Fitkin, and the composer, in conversation with Tom Service, will discuss his new Cello Concerto which will be premiered in the evening Prom concert.

The London Sinfonietta Academy 2011 is generously supported by the Esmée Fairburn Foundation, the Fenton Arts Trust, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, Leo & Regina Hepner, and the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

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