An Interview with Freddy Kempf


We Are Family – the 1979 hit song – could have been penned for Freddy Kempf and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The relationship between the concert pianist and the Orchestra goes back to 1985 when, aged just eight years old, Kempf made his concerto debut performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, K.414.

“I’d been spotted playing at various music festivals and it was suggested I give a concert with the RPO,” Kempf – now 37 – tells me, midway through a concert tour he is undertaking in Russia.

It was a life-changing event. The young Kempf had already begun to be noticed, but his RPO concert fanned the flames of his emerging talent. Within two years, he’d won the National Mozart competition, before two years after that, winning BBC Young Musician of the Year.

“Some years later when I was eighteen and in the US, I was chatting with some student friends about the UK music scene,” he says. “They were amazed that by that age I’d played the Tchaikovsky concerto twenty times. I told them it was all down to the UK’s unique professional and semi-professional music scene that gives young musicians an opportunity they won’t get anywhere else in the world.”

Today, Kempf really values his long relationship with the RPO. As a student at the Royal Academy of Music, many of the Orchestra’s current members were his friends and contemporaries. Now, as a soloist travelling the world often on his own, he says it’s wonderful to meet up with them for performances.

“There’s a chemistry between us,” he says. “A concert pianist’s life can be lonely, but it’s been nice growing up with the RPO and working with its players. They’re my friends, and the RPO is like a second family to me.”

And now we can enjoy the fruits of that relationship when Kempf and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Hull City Hall on Thursday 28 May and at Cambridge Corn Exchange on Saturday 30 May. The pianist regards it as a very special concerto. Considering how many he has in his repertoire, he actually came to it later in life. He says, simply, that he loves it.

“It’s so well written and contains some of the most beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear in a concert hall. It’s fantastic and I always enjoy playing it.”

Written by John Evans

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An Interview with Tom Poster

Poster, Tom_credit Sussie Ahlburg

Written by Hannah Nepil.

By his own admission, Tom Poster struggles to understand ‘what it’s like for friends who are still making decisions well into their twenties and beyond as to what direction they want to take in life.’ For this 33-year-old pianist, who has performed with ensembles ranging from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to the China National Symphony, there was no such turmoil: ‘it never crossed my mind to think about doing something that wasn’t music related.’

Yet, he didn’t come from a musical background. ‘My dad did teach me a few notes on the recorder that was the extent of his contribution.’ How, then, did he develop this passion? ‘I think it was hearing music on the radio and being totally transfixed from the age of about three. My parents could see very quickly that they had to find ways for me to explore this love.’

And so began the piano lessons, the oboe lessons, and the cello lessons. In fact, it wasn’t until his mid-teens that Poster decided to focus on the piano. ‘As a kid, it was the music that I was drawn to rather than any specific instrument.’

Even now, he thrives on variety. ‘I’ve always loved sitting at the piano. But I wouldn’t want life to be just about me and a piano every day.’ That’s why he likes to mix up solo work and chamber music. It’s also why he prefers not to listen to too much piano music.

And it’s why he likes to juggle his piano career with other interests. He recently wrote a piece for trumpeter Alison Balsom, inspired by ‘very strange looking deep sea creatures.’ Now, he is working on a puppet opera inspired by the life of the eighteenth-century French showman and soldier Tarrare, a figure infamous for his pathologically huge appetite, who was eventually accused of guzzling a child. It might seem an unusual choice of subject, but according to Poster, Tarrare is a typically operatic character: ‘an outsider whom society thinks is a freak.’

You could say that Poster is thrilled by the unconventional. He certainly has a curious, searching mind. A Cambridge graduate with a Double First in Music, he has presented shows on BBC television and radio and given masterclasses at Dartington International Summer School and in Singapore. ‘The greatest works can stand on their own feet, but classical music is not an art form which always offers its richest rewards immediately,’ he says. ‘There are certain works that require concentrated effort on the part of the listener, so we should do anything we can to help people into that world.’

But with so many demands upon his time, does Poster never long for a stolen hour slumped in front of the TV? ‘I try to see friends and go for walks. But having such an overwhelming passion doesn’t always leave a lot of space for other things.’ For him, music is a much-needed outlet. ‘I often felt a bit of an outsider as a child. There was something that was very comfortable about sitting at the piano, and expressing myself that way,’ he says. ‘It’s an incredible solace – music.’

Tom Poster performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at G Live, Guildford, on Friday 15 May; and Mozart’s Piano Concert No.23 at Cadogan Hall on Monday 2 November. His new CD of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin will be released on the Editions Classics label in June.

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Meet Alexander Shelley

Shelley, Alexander-13755_2014_06_28-555x405

He’s the son of celebrated concert pianists, the grandson of a talented cellist and the great grandson of an equally talented organist, but Alexander Shelley, the newly appointed Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is very much his own man – and poised to open a new chapter in the RPO’s glittering history.

He came to the world’s attention in 2005 when, aged just 25, he won first prize in the Leeds Conductors Competition. Even before then, however, he’d tasted success and demonstrated a passion for conducting and for musical collaboration that included being a cellist in the World Orchestra for Peace tour of 2003, and founding the Schumann Camerata, a chamber orchestra with whom he gave over 80 concerts. His success at Leeds, rather than encouraging him to take his foot off the accelerator and wait for the offers to roll in, simply spurred the young Shelley to even greater efforts.

BBC Proms engagements and numerous concerts as guest conductor of this country’s great orchestras followed until, in 2009, he was appointed the youngest ever Principal Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, a position he holds to this day and which he has maintained despite numerous appearances around the world at the helm of many of its greatest orchestras. This year, in addition to his appointment as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Associate Conductor, he becomes the Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

So what drives Alexander Shelley to devote himself so wholeheartedly to music? ‘There are no certainties in this life,’ he says. ‘You may be the most brilliant musician but it’s no guarantee you’ll get lots of concerts, and the less you perform, the more challenging each performance becomes.’

It’s an attitude instilled in him by his parents, both successful musicians, who were happy to let the young Shelley pursue his cello studies at school, but only to consider a musical career if, as he recalls, ‘it was absolutely all I wanted to do; if it was my passion.’

‘To get up every day and strive to improve in music, it needs to be the love of your life,’ he says. ‘My parents were acutely conscious of that, and wanted to be sure it was my decision and wasn’t being forced on me. I’m very grateful for that.’

At the root of his passion for conducting lies a clear understanding of the purpose of his job: to be, as he says, a ‘conduit’ for the composer’s music. ‘My modus operandi is to connect with the essence of every work I conduct. I break down the piece to its constituent parts and then reassemble it in my mind, so that while I have an understanding of the trees, so to speak, I can also see the forest.

‘And then it’s about trying to find that thread, the aspect of the music that speaks most eloquently and, through my conducting and the orchestra’s playing, present it to the audience. So if my job is about anything, it’s being the right representative for the piece, and bringing the orchestra with me.’

On that subject, he’s looking forward to conducting the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Someone outside the Orchestra may be a little surprised to hear that for Shelley, one of its players’ many strengths is an exceptional sight-reading ability. Such a skill means that they can quickly move on in rehearsal from mastering the music’s technical challenges, to the essential business of interpretation. This leads to a sense of confidence, which in turn generates a musical energy both in rehearsal and in concert.

‘There’s a sense of urgency and excitement which is very productive, and gives a special edge to everything the Orchestra does,’ he says.

Clearly, Alexander Shelley is a huge admirer of the Orchestra, but the task of any conductor wishing to inspire his colleagues’ respect – especially one bearing the title Associate Principal – is to have that feeling reciprocated. Years spent working with some of the world’s greatest orchestras have given Shelley clear insights in how best to achieve this.

‘A position like mine is about making the relationship with the RPO official and a step towards saying “Let’s take this journey together, and see where it leads us.” It’s a little like dating. The relationship will develop and it may falter at times, but eventually you begin to feel there’s something there, a trust that you think could be mutually beneficial and interesting.

‘To be embarking on this phase where we say, “let’s see each other more regularly” is really special, because the more trust there is between a conductor and an orchestra, the more you can achieve. But like any relationship, it’s also important to keep the magic there; to not let things become routine. It is my job always to be challenging them, to be interesting and to respect them.’

On that score, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and, importantly, its audience, need have no concerns.

Written by John Evans

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Ria Jones talks Musical Theatre

Jones, Ria Oct 12

West End star Ria Jones speaks to Hannah Nepil about her musical theatre background and the advantages of performing Broadway hits in concert performances, ahead of ‘Best of Broadway’ in March.

Ria Jones – Welsh singer and actress – finds it irritating when people say ‘musical theatre singers can’t act.’ In fact, she points out, they have to act twice as hard in order to convey the character while singing. ‘What’s more, they have to be able to run seamlessly into each song, so that it enhances the story, rather than stopping it. I like to think of musical theatre as a string of pearls: the pearls are the songs, the string in between is the story, and if you break it, all the pearls fall off.’

She should know. She has been starring in musical theatre since the age of sixteen and her credits range from Les Misérables to Sunset Boulevard, for which she created the role of Norma Desmond. ‘I still have a lovely letter from Andrew Lloyd Webber thanking me for it,’ Jones reminisces.

Music has always been important to Jones. Her mother trained as an opera-singer and her father was a cabaret-singer in his spare time. Aged three, she was given tap-dancing shoes, along with singing and dancing lessons. Twelve years later, she won a major talent competition that eventually led to roles in Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita, in which she became the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron. Yet, as a child, she rarely saw live musical theatre: there wasn’t much of it in Swansea, her home town. So how did she develop a passion for it? ‘My Mum was a huge film buff, so if there was ever a good musical on TV, she would say, “you have to see this one.” She would have loved to do lighter musical theatre work, as well as opera, so when I went into it, that was great for her.’

What Jones particularly loves about her job is the chance to do ‘a bit of everything: you get to sing, to act and to dance, while telling a story. And for even more variety, she likes to complement stage work with concert performances: next month, she will take part in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Best of Broadway – a Gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall, with hits from West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Misérables, Chicago, Mamma Mia! and Wicked, to name a few.

She believes that some songs are better suited to concert performance than others. ‘Anything Goes, for example, probably works better as part of a production, accompanied by tap-dancing and a spectacular set. But Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns works well in concert, because it’s so simple, emotive and well-known.’ As she admits, ‘it’s easy to become Ria Jones in concert, rather than the character you’re trying to portray, as you only have three minutes to convince an audience that you are that character.’ But concerts have one major advantage over theatre productions: ‘they allow musical theatre lovers to hear the scores played as they’re meant to be: with a full orchestra.’

Ria Jones performs in ‘Best of Broadway’ at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 18 March at 7.30pm.

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Meet the Management: Rosemary Anthony (Tours Manager)

R Anthony 3

Tell us a bit about your working history and how you came about this role at the RPO.     

After studying a music degree at King’s College, London, and deciding performing wasn’t for me, I had a short stint working as a Recruitment Consultant, which I hated! After that, I was lucky enough to win an internship in the concerts department of another orchestra in London, and I’ve never looked back. I made the shift to tour managing about eight years ago and joined the RPO three years ago. The combination of working with the wonderful RPO, the travelling, and the huge variety of artists, cultures and venues is a constant source of fascination and interest for me.

What’s the best thing about being a Tours Manager?

Working with such a huge variety of artists in many different venues across the world is enthralling and gives one an appreciation for different cultures, as well as our own. But, most importantly, it is a real privilege to tour the globe with the RPO. 

And the worst?

The early mornings can be difficult, particularly on a long tour. We often start our journey to the next concert venue very early in the morning in order to check-in for a flight, or to ensure that our coaches don’t get stuck in traffic. And, of course, I am (almost!) always the first one up checking everything is in order for the day ahead.

Describe a typical working day for you (if there is such a thing!).

There is no such thing!! We travel to all corners of the world with all different kinds of programmes, conductors, soloists and often with over 100 musicians. When I am in London, I might spend the first part of the morning queuing at an Embassy with a bag full of passports to lodge visa applications. Once back in the office, I might be drafting a contract for a tour in eighteen months’ time, discussing flight or accommodation arrangements for a tour later in the year or discussing rehearsal requirements with a conductor and their agent. When we are on tour, then my job is to keep track of all the details of the schedule and to ensure that everything runs as smoothly as possible – for example, ensuring the buses arrive on time; the hotel rooms are ready and prepared ahead of our arrival in each new city; ensuring the group is successfully checked-in to flights and arrive at concert venues on time. 

Has the current financial climate affected the way you do your job and if so, how?

Absolutely; it has had an effect on every aspect of orchestral life. In the touring department, we find ourselves finalising and confirming projects much later into the season than in previous years, which puts pressure on us to put all the arrangements and logistics in place in a short amount of time.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love taking long walks around where I live in Surrey with my husband and my SLR camera, especially if there is a nice pub for lunch halfway around! When I get the time, I enjoy knitting and travelling to new countries, exploring new places and cultures, as well as photographing new landscapes and wildlife.

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