Behind the Scenes: 2015 Dublin International Piano Festival & Summer Academy

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Now entering its third year, the 2015 Dublin International Piano Festival & Summer Academy is fast becoming recognised as a platform for musical excellence within the global arena of classical music. As part of 2015's summer celebration of Irish culture, sport and history taking place around the island of Ireland, the festival's programme entwines an intensive educational schedule for advanced piano students, with an exhilaratingly compelling concert series for music lovers. Esteemed pianists Edmund Battersby, Archie Chen, HJ Lim, Evelyne Brancart, and Lance Coburn, will perform at the National Concert Hall, and the Hugh Lane Gallery. In addition to an array of stimulating masterclasses and seminars, renowned Irish composer, Bill Whelan, is set to deliver an illuminating lecture on 'Composition, Improvisation — Who has the rights and does it matter?'. Performance psychologist Dr Jaime Díaz-Ocejo will discuss 'Performance Profiling'. The international line-up of student participants of the Summer Academy will also appear in recital.

Final Note met with the dynamic duo behind the Festival, Rhona Gouldson and Archie Chen (who also run the Piano Academy of Ireland), at their beautiful home in Rathgar to talk about their impassioned devotion to music and education, their love story, and their concerns for the future of the Dublin International Piano Festival & Summer Academy.

What drew you into the world of classical music?

Rhona: My 4 older siblings and myself grew up with my mother, who was keen to have us all doing elocution (she was a speech and drama teacher herself), Irish dancing, swimming and learning music....and so we all got sent into the College of Music [now the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama] — the 3 lads learning piano and violin, and my sister and I learning piano and Irish harp! Although I was a scholarship student all the way through, for both piano and Irish harp, I didn’t particularly have a great grá for the Irish harp...playing lots of Calthorpe arrangements of Irish tunes. I probably should have insisted on changing to the Concert harp, for its fuller sound and greater choice of repertoire. At about the age of 12/13 my love affair with the piano began, and I realized very quickly that this instrument had become the voice of my musical expression. Nonetheless, I completed all my grades on the harp, but loved nothing better than sitting at the piano, practicing for hours.

My teacher, Mairead Hurley, and I got on famously, and after a couple of years she proposed that I switch teachers to Dr Mary Lennon, but I insisted on staying with her. However, in my Leaving Cert year, I decided it was time for the change. From the very first lesson with Mary, I learned the importance of engaging in really close listening and as an extension of that, the beginnings of a technique that would enable me to try to create the sound that I had imagined in my head began to emerge. Of course, this is the challenge faced by many musicians, to remain consistent throughout a work, knowing how to use just the right amount of fingers here and just the right amount of arm weight there, right across entire phrases and sections. This new-found sense of listening was a whole new world to me, and being naturally quite a detailed person, this was something that I responded to immediately.

At the end of that year I was awarded the Killian medal from the Department of Education for the highest placed in the Leaving Certificate music exam, along with the Taylor Exhibition from Trinity College, Dublin for the highest music entrance exam out of 400 applicants. I was musically awakened, and hungry to learn more. Mary went to London to pursue a Doctorate degree, so I continued my studies with Frank Heneghan. Here I was at the age of 18, having only recently learned a basic technique and now entering 4 years+ of an academic music degree, where performance was in fact discouraged! So there was no pressure on Frank to make a star out of me, and I was able to continue on my path of learning and development as a pianist...although the enormous academic demands on Trinity music students, plus the newness of university life in general, meant that the focus and drive to become a great pianist waned.

Archie: Music was always around from as early as I can remember. It was a way of life in our family, my parents were both musicians, my mother was a lounge organist and my father a drummer. Growing up as an only child, it was great to have lots of aunts, uncles and cousins around. We would often get together at each other’s homes and have ‘jam sessions’. I was exposed to lots of jazz, blues, rock, flamenco and even tango; it was a really fun way of growing up. I was the youngest cousin in the family, so it was a certain 'rite of passage' to follow in the footsteps of elder family members who had attended the likes of Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Peabody and Indiana! What really drew me into the classical world, as a youngster was my mother’s extensive classical music collection. I was a sponge and listened to every single Mozart and Beethoven Symphony. At one point I was addicted to the three great Beethoven Sonatas, the Moonlight, Pathétique and Appasionata, so much so that the cassette tape broke from playing it so many times before bed. From then, my interest in classical music grew, and it was Horowitz in Moscow that really sucked me into the world of the concert pianist. It was that Horowitz aplomb and sound that I was always trying to emulate.

Rhona, how did studying music at Trinity College, Dublin, influence your development as a musician?

Well during the first two years I got involved in any piano performance goings-on at Trinity, from performing in Samuel Beckett Theatre concerts, to accompanying the student Choir. Although I did take the performance option in my third year as part of my overall undergraduate degree, we all generally did way less practice (and therefore less performances) especially during the last two years, due to the large number of hours we had to spend in the library. After performance, for me my second love was to compose ‘in the style of’ Bach Chorale preludes, fugues, Haydn Sonatas, you name it...I had a natural feel for ‘styles’ and was pretty great at writing! It came as a real disappointment to me that none of the faculty were performers themselves, that performance was in fact discouraged, with noticeably less and less emphasis by the third year on the creative side, but instead with most of the weight being on library research, history and analysis.

Looking back now, I probably went through a semi crisis as I began to question how I fit into this rigid and dry structure. The performance degree at the RIAM/DIT was probably the more suitable choice, but I guess who wants to give up their chance to be a Trinity graduate? The harsh reality is that the joy was taken out of my music at that time, with the subsequent need to withdraw from the world of classical music for a couple of years... I couldn’t go to concerts, listen to music or play much piano. On the plus side was the accumulative practice we got at Shenkerian analysis, which I did really enjoy and without doubt, contributes to making me a better teacher today! It is vital to be able to break the music down minutely to understand it, in order to decide how to interpret and in turn perform it.

Rhona, was a career in piano pedagogy always on the cards for you?

Absolutely! From the very start of my career as a young 20-year-old teacher, I was able to achieve immediate results with students of all types, ages and abilities. I am naturally persuasive, communicative, and have a flexible personality...my students listen to me and most of them practice well. These days, the majority of students are not going to make careers out of music, but they deserve to learn in the best possible way, and it is a responsibility that I take very seriously indeed! Had I enjoyed a more rigorous training in my own childhood and early teens, who knows what variation of path I might have followed. I thank God that teaching is so natural for me, and that it gives me enormous satisfaction, because I simply wouldn’t survive working in an area that I disliked or found boring. I may not be the best teacher out there, but the results are pretty great — while having some fun in the process, my students continue to sweep the boards in feiseanna and exams, so I must be doing something right!

Rhona, how did your introduction to the Kodály method alter your philosophy of teaching?

Well Kodály emphasized the importance of developing the ear, intelligence, heart and hand simultaneously...(as opposed to just training the fingers for example). This was a big part of my training with Tom Toher at the Leeson Park School of Music (my first job), and this holistic approach of using all the senses, along with the idea that music can be learned and enjoyed by everyone, not just the super talented, was totally compatible with my own beliefs. I have a good deal of patience and as long as students are enjoying themselves and making some progress, I’ve done my job! At the end of the day, it’s all about what their expectations are, and if you discover as their teacher that they have more ability than they or their parents give themselves credit for, then it is your job to point that out. Being naturally quite competitive, I will admit that I do love pushing the boundaries and not leave them in their comfort zone. Combine this with an extra bit of talent in the student, a supportive parent in the background, and the results can be amazing!

Archie, what did you take from your studies at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, with Menahem Pressler and Edmund Battersby?

I’m very lucky to have had a great foundation from my first piano teacher, Mary Toy, who not only taught me piano but also musicianship. She was a teacher at the forefront of piano pedagogy — way ahead of her time. In fact she’s in her 90s now and still going strong! Therefore, when I arrived at Indiana University for my audition with Menahem Pressler at the age of 16, I was fully equipped to play, for instance, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. As he wasn’t known to accept any undergraduates for a long time, it was quite an honor to be selected as one of three that year. He was a very demanding teacher and nothing was ever good enough, however, I learnt a lot from him. It certainly toughened me up very quickly!

Edmund Battersby taught me to listen intensely, to experiment and hear new things in my playing — much like Chopin taught his students to do. He often spoke about Goethe, in that one must know that a sound is possible before being able to create it. He also talked about silences in music, and how most pianists are uncomfortable with silence and use the pedal as a crutch. He very much influenced the textures of my personal sound.

Archie, what do you enjoy most about performing?

Performing to me is about communicating with the audience. It’s an opportunity for me to publicly acknowledge the composer, to be as honest and truthful to the score as I can be, and yet be able to put my personal touch to the performance and show my love for the music. It’s a profoundly spiritual and artistic experience, and it is a privilege and huge responsibility to share this experience with the public after working in solitude for hours and hours. I find that it’s always challenging to make a composer’s work come alive, to perform with great commitment, and at the same time have spontaneity.

How did you both meet?

Well it was definitely fate...the angels first aligned us in 2004 while I took a career break and headed off around the world for 5 months to find myself. I had just started working for myself, after completing several cycles of school, Trinity followed by working for 7 years at the Leeson Park School of Music; I was tired and it was now time for a break and to go exploring! Archie was studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with John O’Conor, having met him at Indiana university where he gave a masterclass. John subsequently invited him to his Beethoven course in Positano, Italy, where he met Lance Coburn...(yes they both followed John to Dublin, they both married Irish women and they both have two children!)

Anyway, back in 2004 Archie’s sponsorship funds dried up and he needed a job, so he answered my ad for a substitute teacher, sped up to Rathgar for an audition on his motorbike in cool leathers and gorgeous shoulder length shiny black hair. We chatted, he played for me and I offered him the job. Five months later I came back, engaged to my then fiancé. I thanked him for doing such a wonderful job with my students. 10 months later, he called me to see if I had any more work for him, which I didn’t. My then fiancé and I had miraculously split up and while feeling lost and without a focus, I had a hazy memory of the business side of hiring a teacher (from back in 2004), and still having a few bob left over for myself, I thought: why not throw myself into a new project and see what happens?! I needed a distraction and what I didn’t realize until later was that it was in fact very good for me to build something that I could call my own and be proud of.

And so I put up an ad, this time for students, and within a few days I had Archie’s quota, plus a surplus! I realized that I was going to need another teacher and so another ad went up for a teacher this time, and that’s when Tetyana Vlasyuk came along, followed by Lina Kiva, who are still with us! It was 6 months later when the angels realigned our energies as we had our first kiss...we were working together, it came as such a surprise and I was terrified of spoiling the very thing that I had built on my own. We agreed to leave it behind us, but within 10 minutes we were kissing again and we never looked back since! And so Archie’s phone call in 2004 was the start of our alignment, which took two years to evolve into Rathgar Piano, after which unfolded a beautiful relationship.

Dublin has many fine piano schools — why did you decide to set up the Piano Academy of Ireland, and how does it stand out from the crowd?

After 4 years of slowly but steadily growing Rathgar Piano, we decided it was time for a name that would match the quality. It was just after setting up our first Festival in 2010, when we realized that we had achieved all the major goals that you would expect a proper Academy to achieve: a thriving and progressive bunch of students under the guidance of an enthusiastic and inspiring faculty; the appropriate theory, music appreciation training and choir to support their learning; supportive concert opportunities laid on during the year; ample encouragement to perform in other environments; a very high success rate with diploma students as well as a vibrant pre-instrumental programme for the little ones; and in 2010 a Festival.

We realized after 4 tough years of giving 100% to this baby, that the localized name wasn’t enough. By that stage we had students flocking from as far as Kilkenny, and so along with going National with our Festival the following year, we decided to name it the 'Piano Academy of Ireland'. I think what makes it stand out from the crowd is the personal touch we offer...I know the name of every child and parent in the school; we don’t pressurize students with end-of-year assessments, but instead offer them supportive performance opportunities combined with RIAM/ABRSM exams for those that wish to have those kind of goals. (Many of our adult students couldn’t care less about exams; they just want to play!) The Piano Adventures method books we use with the young children are the best we have found, and we have had great results with the young beginners. I guess because we have chosen to focus our entire attention on the piano, which is our passion, people can feel that. On the other hand, it can sometimes hinder business when siblings are doing other instruments and want a one-stop-shop...although the discerning ones that know and appreciate how well they are looked after, happily stay with us.

How do you both combine family life with a hectic work schedule?

In 2006 we got thrown into this mad schedule, and it has been a complete roller coaster since! Building a business and starting a family at the same time has certainly been tough; add Archie’s Doctorate degree into the equation, followed by the founding of an International Piano Festival, all of these layers have made our lives even more hectic!

I guess these are our ‘energy years’ and we should make the most of it while we are young as we won’t be able to keep up this pace forever. Our two kids are used to us both working a lot; but as we work from home, we can sneak little breaks and we get to see a lot more of each other than if they were in a crèche. It's definitely easier now that they are in school, as it was so tough while the kids were toddlers and still at home. Yet as we get older, we somehow continue to add to our work load and it seems like it is busier we are getting! Weekends are extremely precious!

What inspired you to set up the Dublin International Piano Festival & Summer Academy?

This is definitely something I would not have started without the support from family, friends and colleagues, and I am extremely thankful for this. Especially having such a supportive wife who shares the same passion for piano makes it so much more doable. Having previously been a participant in similar music festivals around the world, I was inspired to create a festival in Dublin to fulfill a need here for a quality holistic programme of piano, and also because the passing down of information to the next generation is of utmost importance to me. Combined with the work that my wife Rhona and I do at the Piano Academy of Ireland, it evolved as a natural progression.

How has the classical community reacted to this ‘new kid on the block’?

So far with a lot of positivity! For instance John O’Conor’s reaction was: “Congratulations! Many people talk about creating a festival but don’t do anything about it. You’ve done it!” We’ve received emails from around the world congratulating us on creating a wonderful festival. We’ve had many inquiries from international professors wishing to join our faculty, and have networked with other event planners and festival directors around the world. I think the locals are delighted to have masterclasses, seminars and exciting concerts to attend during the summer months. Our audience numbers have grown each year, and we hope this trend continues!

Edmund Battersby, Evelyne Brancart, Lance Coburn and HJ Lim join this year’s panel of distinguished instructors — what does each pianist bring to the festival?

All of these pianists have such unique styles, and that is part of what makes this piano festival work! Each is gifted with tremendous instincts for everything from form to creating a perfect phrase. Great performers and teachers understand the essence of a composer and his/her compositions, and I believe that’s what all of these very different pianists have in common.

What I find so remarkable about Edmund Battersby’s playing is the colour and texture he brings to the music. He is a great communicator and doesn’t always take the easy route, but that in turn also deepens his interpretations and creates a very interesting sound.

Evelyne Brancart’s playing brings a certain directness and no holds barred approach combined with a flawless technique — everything seems to come with ease. Her Chopin Etudes performed with this kind of freedom is something to behold! I learn something new each time I hear her seminar on piano technique which will take place this year on Wednesday 29th of July at 7pm in Christ Church, Rathgar.

Lance Coburn, one of my best friends (and who is one of the reasons I’m in Ireland today), is a very powerful player who performs with great conviction and determination. His interpretations draw you right into the core of the music, along with his sense of humor!

HJ Lim, I have yet to meet in person or hear live, but from our extensive correspondence and mutual admiration, I know things will go very well indeed. She is a pianist of extraordinary imagination and vision and plays with flair, excitement and originality!

The practice of Mindfulness and the psychology of performance are fast becoming an important part of music education — how important is this within the Festival’s programme?

Our mission in ‘Fostering Excellence in Piano’ pushes us to improve the programme each year. One of the most important elements of the programme is the inclusion of seminars with top performance psychologist, Dr Jaime Diaz, who explains the psychology behind developing musical excellence. Previous students and teachers/performers found his seminar to be incredibly helpful. We also have Margaret O’ Sullivan Farrell presenting an introduction to Alexander Technique, guiding the students on how to sit properly and be at ease in their bodies. Also new to the programme this year (and something that we felt was missing from the programme the last two years) is a spiritual advisor. Because music is not just about playing the notes, but also about communicating a message to an audience, with all of these aspects in place, it helps create a deeper interpretation of the music.

Tell us about the level of participants taking part this year.

We have quite an eclectic participant pool this year coming from all over the world with ages ranging from 16-47 hailing from USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland. From secondary school students to Doctorate level...and even a piano professor coming to hone her skills further!

As part of 2015's summer celebration of Irish culture, sport and history, what can spectators expect from the Festival?

This year’s audience can expect to be stimulated in mind, body and soul! Monday July 27th at 8pm in the National Concert Hall, Korean pianist HJ Lim will perform in a unique collaboration with the Venerable Seongnam Sunim — a singing monk. This will be quite a contrast from the typical classical concert format, and to my knowledge nothing like this has ever been done before! It will include an element of drama with narrative featuring an antagonist versus a protagonist — good versus evil! The pianist begins on the dark side, the Monk interjects with his singing to cleanse the pianist. By the end of the concert one of them will prevail...but you will have to come to the concert to find out who! The following evening, they will discuss the spiritual aspect of the music in their seminar, 'The Pianist and the Sage'.

Qatar-based Sports psychologist Dr Jaime Diaz returns to the Festival to explain the psychology behind developing musical excellence...well worth a listen. Audiences can be intellectually stimulated as Bill Whelan addresses issues of copyright in relation to composers, improvisers and performers, in his seminar in the NCH, Wed 29th. They can also enjoy observing the progress of the students through 24 hours of public master classes over 9 days, witnessing their final performance on the last day of the Festival...along with daily mesmerizing concerts there is something for everyone to enjoy!

What's next on the cards for you both?

After this festival is done, a well-earned rest and quality family time, which we can’t wait for! On the eve of our third Festival and as we are so looking forward to the 10 days ahead, we also have to admit that it could quite possibly be our last one. As I write this for Final Note, we are deeply saddened and hope that it is not final. But without government or corporate funding of some sort, the Festival is simply not sustainable. Many of our “in kind” service providers from the last 3 years have made it clear that this is the last, and will be charging us full price next year...and I don’t blame them! Plus we don’t even get paid for all our immense efforts. But the fact is that despite the Festival’s aim to bring Irish audiences outstanding pianists and pedagogues from around the globe, people understandably get tired of doing things cheap and ‘supporting someone else’s venture’, as we have been told! And as for begging and bargaining...this is something that I absolutely abhor! We want to be able to pay people their fair price! But after three letters of refusal from the Arts Council, we have been more than a bit discouraged, and yet we realize there is, in fact plenty of money out there and plenty of festivals being funded. The trouble is that we have always been "doers" and have not been very good at asking for help, but in the meantime, we soldier on and hope and pray that maybe karma will manifest itself and bring us more luck next year!

For more information on the Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy see: http://www.pianofestival.ie/

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