January's themed month explores the world of contemporary music through the eyes of some top performers in specialised ensembles. We kick off our interviews series with John Constable, London Sinfonietta Emeritus Principal Piano.
Why did you choose to specialise in contemporary music as opposed to mainstream classical?
Although the London Sinfonietta specialises in contemporary music I personally have always played music from every century. I play Baroque music with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, I accompany singers and instrumentalists in recitals and I work in the world of opera. I think it is a great strength of the London Sinfonietta that all the players play every style of music, I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in one era!
Is playing Contemporary music more challenging than playing classical music? For instance, do you need more time to master the technical aspects, do you find it more difficult to interpret?
I do not think that contemporary music is more of a challenge to learn and perform than classical music although the challenges are different as they are when I play baroque music to when I have to improvise from a bass line. The technical requirements are often different and I am frequently asked to do unusual things inside a piano and to prepare it with various objects between the strings. As to interpretation I think that as with all music the aim is to find the best way to interpret what is behind the notes, colour, dynamics and accentuation are always the things to decide in music.
Do you think your approach to contemporary music is similar to the way early music ensembles approach their music?
I don’t think there is any special similarity of approach between a contemporary music ensemble and an early music ensemble, every performer is just trying to bring out the best in the music.
How involved are you within each project and to what extent can each member put forward ideas about what to play and with whom?
The lines are always open to our management to suggest works to perform and people we think would be most suitable as conductors or collaborators, but the players are not directly involved in the creation of a project.
How difficult is it to get contemporary music onto concert programmes/into concert halls?
I am very impressed by the way that more and more conductors are including new music in their programmes, for instance it was wonderful that when Barenboim performed all the Beethoven symphonies at the proms he included a piece by Boulez in every concert.
Are audience responses to contemporary music changing? Does it differ in different countries?
I think that since we started nearly fifty years ago our audiences have become much larger and people are generally more inquisitive. I think this is true in most counties.
How is your ensemble trying different approaches to reach new audiences?
We are always trying different venues and different programme formats, we try to involve audiences in the performance and we sometimes have a presenter who describes the music and asks us to play excerpts before we perform the complete piece. We also try to combine some concerts with different art forms.
Which is the most exciting new work you've performed? Could you please describe why?
This is a very difficult question to answer! The most rewarding thing about playing with the Sinfonietta has been playing new music with the greatest composers of our time and often being conducted by them as well. If I really have to pick out one occasion then I think it will have to be the world premiere of Of Challenge and of Love for soprano and piano by Elliott Carter which I played first with Lucy Shelton in Aldeburgh then in Sinfonietta concerts with her in London and Germany. This is because I had always liked and admired Elliott enormously and was greatly honoured that he asked me to give the world première.