In Conversation: Rhodri Clarke

In Conversation: Rhodri Clarke

Meet our newest mentor, pianist Rhodri Clarke. 

Rhodri Clarke
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Rhodri Clarke

Meet our newest mentor, pianist Rhodri Clarke. 

Who, or what, has been a great musical influence in your life? 

Two years after starting piano lessons, at the age of 10, I was invited to be a chorister in my local village church choir in (old) South Wales. In the same year, the choirmaster, knowing I was a piano student, offered me the opportunity to take organ lessons with the church organist, a lady called Dorothea Packwood. On our first meeting, she was 89 years of age. Despite her considerable and understandable frailty, she gave me a solid foundation in organ technique and was particularly rigorous about legato playing and articulation on the organ. A couple of years into our lessons, she sadly passed away; the previous year, the Queen awarded her an MBE – she had been organist of the church for 70 years that year. Following her death, I was asked by the church to be the joint organist of the church which meant playing every Sunday evening or morning most Sundays of the year. As I used to play hymns, anthems and psalms accompanying the choir, as well as solo organ music before, during and after the service, it gave me wonderful experience in choral accompaniment, following a conductor and playing in front of an audience. The year after, I began playing for weddings and funerals at the church, which at the time I found incredibly nerve-wracking but gave me enormous confidence as I increasingly found I could control the nerves. I don’t think I ever ruined anyone’s special day.

What composers or musical situations do you most enjoy? Do you prefer to play alone, or with people? 

I love all forms of piano ensemble work, whether it be an instrumental duo, trio, lieder, opera accompaniment, so I suppose I have a preference for this work over solo playing. There wasn’t really a point at which I decided this but I have always been passionate about the collaborative forms of piano playing. The question I have never been able to answer is whether I prefer or would specialise in working with singers over instrumentalists or vice versa. For me, I love getting to know new repertoire and also working on multiple styles/genres simultaneously. Being able to rehearse a Beethoven cello sonata, Ibert Flute Concerto, some Schumann lieder, teach my student a Bartok piano piece then dash across town to perform Brahms' violin concerto is a great day. I don’t think I’d want to lose any element of that.

What were your first experiences of accompanying?

As I mentioned above, around the age of 11 or 12, playing for church services, weddings and funerals as a church organist was my first experience accompanying. While the repertoire was not always the most demanding, playing the organ really does put one’s multitasking skills to the test, with feet pedals, changing pistons, pulling out stops, often with one hand crossing the other on an upper/lower keyboard. All this before you think about playing in time, watching the conductor, leading the singers... I suppose it also gave me the first understanding that leading is just as important as following when it comes to accompanying. As a later organ teacher said to me, referring to the congregation when playing hymns, “listen to them and you’re stuffed!”

On piano, my first experiences were in high school where I did a huge amount of accompanying. As well as regularly playing for the Junior and Senior choirs, from the first year of high school, I was invited, and always accepted, to play for the school drama productions, performing the role (I later realised) of repetiteur. Around the age of 15, somehow my school arranged for me to shadow the repetiteur at Welsh National Opera for their Madame Butterfly production. They even let me play for a rehearsal although I felt overwhelmingly out of my depth.

Are there differences in the ways you approach a score, depending on whether you are playing alone or in an ensemble? 

As I spend so much of my time accompanying and playing chamber music, it’s probably fair to say that this influences the way I look at any score, whether it’s a solo piece, an instrumental duo, concerto with orchestral accompaniment or lieder. Even when I’m learning/performing solo repertoire, I tend to still view the work as an ensemble; there just happens to be one person guiding the music, rather than two or more. This opens many possibilities for shaping the musical narrative, creating interesting tone colours and textures. So, I don’t think there are necessarily differences in my approach because a work happens to be a solo work. It’s more that each work will bring particular challenges which each need to be approached in a particular way. An example that springs to mind is the accompaniment of Schubert’s Erlkönig which needs something like an Olympic training regime to build up the stamina for the undulating right-hand octaves. But, going back to the question, the one big difference between solo and ensemble repertoire would be the practice process. For solo repertoire, the practice time is also your rehearsal time and you can make creative decisions in a unilateral way. For ensemble repertoire, as well as your personal practice time, you have the rehearsal process itself, which requires you as a performer to have great flexibility in your approach to tempo, dynamics, phrasing, musical interpretation etc. as well as being as prepared as you can be for the rehearsal. Something that worked well in your practice may need tweaking, altering or throwing out altogether once you’ve rehearsed with the other players. I believe it’s a vital part of collaboration to have the ability to constantly reevaluate your musical ideas and interpretation. Even if you believe very strongly in a particular idea or interpretation, you owe it to your fellow musician to try out their ideas and experiment.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in getting started accompanying? 

Do lots of listening to recordings. Always follow the score as you listen. This will help you to get to know the piece as a whole both in terms of the harmony, solo/instrumental part and structurally. Listen to the accompaniment part and notice how the vocal/instrumental line is being supported.

Sight reading - In the beginning, choose repertoire which is manageable (classical sonatas and concertos for example). 

Simplify writing for orchestral reductions. You don’t need to play all the double octaves. Use a recording to understand the sounds/colours you are trying to recreate from the orchestral part. Very often it’s appropriate to leave out whole lines, or simplify patterns to make them less technically awkward etc. Sometimes playing all the notes, even if you can, will sound way too cluttered for the orchestral sound the composer had in mind.

Sing (yes, sing) the vocal/instrumental line at the same time as playing your part. Choral singing can be very helpful with this. At first, singing while playing is challenging but absolutely worth the effort. Develop the technique of “living through” the solo/instrumental part so that you have the sense it is playing constantly in your head as you play the accompaniment. A good way to start this process is to play that part with your right together with the harmonies or bass line in the LH. Knowing the solo part as well as possible is vital for effective accompanying.

Balance and shading – notice how the timbre/projection of the instrument/voice changes in high/middle/low registers. These things may influence your dynamic range, which parts you leave out, phrase shapes etc. The age old question “Am I too loud” should be ever present, but I prefer to think in terms of support i.e. am I giving the right support at any particular moment, whether it be a stronger bass, softer treble, clear phrasing to support the vocal phrasing etc. Think of your accompaniment as an ever-changing organism, continually adapting to the contour of the music.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals, or does it change depending on the circumstances of the performance? 

I hate to be so conventional but it’s usually bananas. At least two (especially for longer performances). 

One of my unwanted rituals is to roam the concert hall searching for a chair of lowest possible height. I know it sounds ridiculous but I sit as low as it’s possible to sit at the piano and a normal piano stool rarely winds low enough. I’m sure people think I’m crazy but at least I’m in the category of Glenn Gould, if only in that one respect.

I do two things which usually help. Firstly, lying flat on my back doing stretches and then lying still for a while. 

Also, if there’s a piano in the warm up room I have a strange habit of picking a song (usually a very cheesy pop song) which has nothing to do with the music I’m about to perform and busking my way through that. “I will survive” is the one that springs to mind but it really could be anything. Most likely this wouldn’t work for everyone and may even be totally catastrophic if you try it, but I find it puts me in a relaxed frame of mind and clears my mind of anything negative.

What is the hardest thing about being an associate artist, and how do you deal with that? 

Undoubtedly for me, it’s the constant balancing act of time management. Although there are many challenges (musical, artistic, administrative), I find I have to be constantly vigilant with planning my schedule to ensure there is sufficient time to learn/practise repertoire, especially getting to know the work as a whole rather than just the accompaniment. Also, planning time to fit in practice and rehearsals when there are multiple projects coinciding can be very challenging. The most important thing for me is never to compromise the level of preparation for any one project so that I can always offer the best possible musical experience to the particular musician I’m working with. Getting this balance right has been a long learning curve right back from my school/student days. Learning to say no is vital.

What have been some career highlights for you, as a collaborative artist or vocal coach?

During my final years of study at RCM in London, I was incredibly fortunate to be invited to join a group of Venezuelan musicians through an English cellist friend of mine who also played in the group. The chamber ensemble was called Bolivar Soloists and specialised in original arrangements of Latin-American music from Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. Over the course of six years, as well as becoming close friends we performed together in the UK, France, Germany, Austria and Spain. As well as being highly trained classical musicians, they were also amazing improvisers and taught me an incredible amount about the folk traditions of Latin-American music and the complexity of the diverse, exotic rhythms from that part of the world. The highlight came in 2010 when we were invited by the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, to record a disk of Mexican folk songs for Deutsche Grammophon, and to undertake a promotional tour of Mexico; a huge honour and wonderful experience.

In 2007, as part of a tour with a Welsh male voice choir, I performed at Carnegie Hall. In that concert, I accompanied the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. It was very special to meet and perform with him, particularly in such a prestigious venue.

Through Bolivar Soloists, I was introduced to the double bassist Edicson Ruiz, who has to be the most gifted musician I ever met. Edicson became a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 17, a fact which still astounds me. Another career highlight is a recital I gave with Edicson at the Berlin Philharmonie which included a piece composed by Efrain Oscher, the leader of Bolivar Soloists, double bass concerti and piano solos by Ginastera and Liszt.

How important is it to connect with the person you are performing with, off stage? 

Honestly, I find it much easier to perform with musicians I like and can connect well with outside the rehearsal/concert situation. This is especially true for me in chamber music where having a rapport with your fellow musicians is so beneficial for being able to create a sense of fun, spontaneity and symbiosis. When you don’t have that, of course you have to always be professional. You cannot possibly click with everyone you meet, but in my view, there’s no substitute for a natural respect and spirit of friendship. It’s easy for the audience to see when this is happening.

You play for both instrumentalists and singers of extraordinarily high calibre. Is there a marked difference between how you work with singers, from how you work with instrumentalists? 

In the case of how I work with musicians in general, the keyword is adaptability. It’s possible that there are differences in the approach with singers and instrumentalists but as there are so many other variables from situation to situation, for me the lines are usually quite blurred. It usually comes down to how much the spirit of collaboration is there and your approach varies depending on that. 

While at university, piano students must practice technical work, and a heavy repertoire for examination. How would you recommend working in accompanying practice amongst that? 

Firstly it’s about organisation. For any skill in life, it will usually only improve if you devote regular time to it. Even if it’s a small fraction of the time you spend on solo repertoire, it has to always part of your regular practice schedule if you want it to improve. Also be realistic about the repertoire you choose if time is an issue.

Know that accompaniment is an important part of your piano training. Many of the techniques you practise when accompanying inform and support your solo playing. For example, developing the ability to think harmonically through the piece, sight reading, absolute rhythmical integrity and understanding breathing to help with phrasing, breathing at the start etc.

University is filled with opportunities to accompany: informal recitals, your friends who play other instruments, choral groups. Arrange informal get-togethers with your friends and play through repertoire. Sheet music is so easy to get hold of. Many instrumentalists and singers love having the opportunity to try things with piano and you’ll learn a lot very quickly. Hands on experience as often as possible will help not only with your piano accompanying but your overall musicianship and listening skills. In terms of fluency, it’s good to prioritise clear rhythm and not stopping i.e. leave out notes if necessary.

As I mentioned above, listening to recordings/concerts and paying attention to how others accompany is a great way to learn. You can tie in with your own solo concerto repertoire by learning the accompaniment for your concerto, recording it, then play along with yourself.

What repertoire is on your bucket list at the moment? What would you love the opportunity to play? 

Solo repertoire-wise, in a more popular vein, it would be Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. This year, I’m performing it (as the orchestra) in the 2 piano version with David Helfgott in several European cities and would love the opportunity to perform the solo part with an orchestra. 

Also, I’ve always been drawn to the music of Messiaen, initially through his organ music, but have always wanted to learn the gigantic Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. It’s a fascinating set of 20 scenes which represent a massive achievement in 20th Century piano writing.

Chamber music-wise, it would be all the Beethoven piano trios I haven’t performed, which is embarrassingly too many of them.

Vocally, I would love to work on Oedipus Rex, an incredible work from Stravinsky’s neoclassical period.

Photo: Pia Johnson