The International Summer School and Festival for Pianists held each summer at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester UK is now in its 19th year, and has established itself as one of the major annual events in the piano calendar.
Incorporating a series of nightly public recitals as well as (this year) the sixth Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists, this extraordinary (if not exhausting!) event benefits from the stunning setting that is Chetham’s School of Music, which includes the new Stoller Hall, several recital and ensemble rooms, a huge fleet of pianos (the school’s impressive collection supplemented by additional pianos on loan from nearby Forsyth’s music store) and the enlarged premises opened in 2012.
The Summer School for Pianists provides the opportunity for players of all ages to have one-to-one lessons with the dozens of internationally respected pianists and pedagogues on site, who comprise a formidable faculty list that reads like a “who’s who” of the international piano scene.
With more than 250 participants in each of the two weeks, the event combines several projects initiated and led by the inspiring and indefatigable husband-and-wife team of Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page, both of whom are themselves hugely successful pianists, teachers and communicators.
I was delighted to receive an invitation from Murray and Kathryn to visit this uniquely all-encompassing event and see for myself how its strengths combine to add up to more than the sum of its parts, offering a fusion of inspiration, education and creativity for pianists and lovers of the piano of all ages and at all stages of their lives.
In this article I will explain more about how the course works, be a fly on the wall observing some lessons, talk to participants, enjoy the array of concerts, and offer my overall view of the week.
The Big Picture
Have you ever dreamed of a private lesson with Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Peter Frankl or Joseph Banowetz? How about Piers Lane, Benjamin Frith, Martin Roscoe or Philip Fowke? These and many more were on the 2019 menu, giving individual lessons, workshops and contributing to an inspiring programme of evening recitals.
Those attending the course receive three hours of one-to-one tuition from one or a mix of the 70+ tutors available overall, having expressed their preferences when applying. Each tutor also gives small group workshops including their students for the week.
This is the core of the course, but if it seems a light amount of input, think again. Attendees can also take part in a range of other activities which include regular student recitals, and professionally delivered recording sessions held each afternoon.
Usefully, anyone attending can slip into other peoples’ lessons to observe, which is hugely instructive. Visiting several lessons myself, I was particularly impressed by the warmth with which all the faculty teachers and participants handled this aspect of the course. Added value indeed!
Additional treats included early morning Tai Chi sessions (week one) and afternoon Baroque dance workshops (week two). With so much on offer it’s no wonder that many return to the Summer School year after year.
Did I mention that entry to literally dozens of recitals given by internationally acclaimed recording artists is included in the package? I’ll review these later and hope to share a flavour…
And of course, there are ample practice facilities available for those who wish to spend their hours honing their own playing and applying the invaluable lessons learnt through the week.
Suffice to say that most of the attendees spent the entire week living and breathing piano, and in a way that is impressively holistic, varied and all-encompassing.
But for those who fancy a break (or extend their stay) it’s worth a reminder that Chetham’s is situated slap-bang in the middle of Manchester City Centre, sandwiched between the Manchester Arena, the National Football Museum, and the stunning Manchester Cathedral.
The famous Arndale Shopping Centre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Forsyth’s Music/piano store are all little more than a stone’s throw away, as are dozens of fabulous restaurants in case you and your friends fancy a change from the (included) school dinners.
Theme and Variations
The course as I’ve outlined it so far is the core Summer School for Pianists offering, but it is available in a variety of different, inclusive flavours.
Two of these that are proving particularly popular are the Adult Amateur Course and the Young Pianist Course, both of which are available to players who are below and up to ABRSM Grade 5.
In addition to the three hours of individual lessons, those on these particular courses receive additional support and larger afternoon workshops delivered with their needs in mind.
The many other variations on the theme are all built around the same model, adapting it to suit the focus of each attendee. Examples this year include courses for those who want to concentrate on sight-reading, jazz, musical analysis, harpsichord, theory and Duets.
The joy here is in the great effort that Kathryn and Murray have made to be flexible, adapting their basic model to make the Chetham’s Summer School suitable for as many as possible, welcoming, broad and inclusive.
Indeed it’s abundantly clear that they regard all forms of elitism an anathema, and have gone to heroic efforts to ensure the summer school is genuinely suitable for ALL players, regardless of age or ability.
So much for the preamble; what did I observe during my visit?
To cut a long story short, what I saw was a range of consistently excellent and genuinely transformative piano lessons and workshops uniformly delivered with warmth and generosity.
It was an honour to watch as Charles Owen helped an outstanding player go deeper with a Chopin Ballade, working on the flow and colour of the music with forensic precision and infectious enthusiasm.
Next I watched Carlo Grante teaching Beethoven to a young Asian woman, any language difficulties overcome by the universal musical language as Carlo modelled the centrality of demonstration through his teaching, helping his student rethink her phrasing “sound before symbol”.
Perhaps most enjoyable of all, it was a delight to see concert pianist Leslie Howard listening as a ten-year-old boy played a range of pieces including a Mozart Sonata, Chopin Nocturne and Scarlatti. Howard’s enthusiasm was palpable as he encouraged the student, sharing insightful advice and snippets of history, all eagerly absorbed by the boy and his attendant parents. Magic!
Speaking of the younger players, the Young Pianists Workshops each afternoon were another joy. Here, young children up to teens took turns to play; it was certainly encouraging as a teacher to realise that in each case the advice given was exactly as I would have done. Even more revelatory, perhaps, to realise that my own students would feel right at home here…
Again, I suspect that like many others, I had wrongly assumed the Chetham’s Summer School exists for the especially gifted talents among us; clearly, it really is for all.
In some cases, the children are day visitors, and there’s no doubt in my mind that by coming here for an hour lesson, a workshop, and concert could be a life-changing experience for them. For more information about this, parents can contact the course and chat about the tailor-made opportunities available.
So was it perfect for everyone?
Across the week I noted the importance of making sure that teacher and student are a good fit for each other. And judging by the high level of satisfaction from those I spoke to, it’s pretty clear that the organisers are doing an excellent job of getting it right.
When applying to come, think carefully about which of the many teachers to request lessons with, bearing in mind your preferred repertoire, interests and level. And if in doubt, you can always telephone the organisers for advice about the specialisms on offer within the faculty.
It’s perhaps also worth underlining that those coming for a lesson particularly covering advanced repertoire with an internationally acclaimed concert pianist would do well to prepare properly in order to fully benefit from the enormous expertise available.
The Recital Series
The Stoller Hall, opened in 2017, provided a fabulous venue for the evening recitals and Concerto Competition, combining a stunning contemporary space designed by Stephenson Studio with immaculate acoustics by Arup.
From the list of recitals I personally managed to fit in, highlights included an all-Liszt programme by leading exponent Leslie Howard, Piers Lane’s programme of Bach, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Frith’s varied and stunningly performed Beethoven/Liszt/Busoni/Granados/Falla recital, and Peter Donohoe’s extraordinary performance of the lesser-known Second Sonata by Tchaikovsky, a truly gripping work.
In a programme entitled Sonorous Brushes, Jenny Q Chai delivered a riveting and immersive multimedia experience, giving performances of Jarosław Kapuściński’s Side Effects (2017) and the world premier of Calligraphies for Ziqi, as well as scintillating performances of Debussy’s preludes Les tierces alternées and Feux d’artifice and Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayá.
Two of the late-night 10pm recitals featured the brilliant Philip Martin performing his own works, offering both a reminder of his fabulous pianism and revealing him to be a composer of varied, distinctive and imaginative music.
In addition to all these concerts, there were many more that I sadly wasn’t able to fit in, with solo recitals given by Philippe Cassard, Martin Roscoe, and a duo recital by Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva.
And the previous week’s programme featured a similarly enticing list of recitals including performances by Ashley Wass, Leon McCawley, Murray McLachlan, Dina Parakhina, Peter Frankl, and (especially treasured by those who were there) a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Angela Hewitt.
Once again (in case this all sounds too good to be true), everyone attending the Summer School had full admission to all these fabulous public concerts in the Stoller Hall.
The Concerto Competition
For music-lovers already spoilt by this extraordinary offering, the icing on the cake came with the finals of the sixth Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists.
Earlier in the year an international panel had looked at video submissions and narrowed down a list of 18 semi-finalists, and over a couple of days the six finalists were selected, who went on to perform (across two evenings) with the Manchester Camerata conducted by Stephen Threlfall.
The six finalists were:
- Sunah Kim (18, Korea): Beethoven Concerto No.5
- Oscar Colliar (16, UK): Saint-Saëns Concerto No.2
- Noah Zhou (18, UK): Rachmaninov Concerto No.2
- Luca Grianti (17, Italy): Beethoven Concerto No.3
- Ilia Lomtatidze (16, Georgia): Rachmaninov Concerto No.2
- Caitlin Rinaldy (16, Australia): Chopin Concerto No.1
Runners-up all received masterclasses with renowned pedagogue Joseph Banowetz, while Patrick Townsend was singled out for the Richard Wainwright Prize and Thomas Kelly received the Euan Moseley Prize.
The finals themselves were gripping, with a series of astounding performances from these young pianists. Selecting a winner was an unenviable task for the jury of world-class performers, and while they deliberated we were treated (and it was a very special treat) to a performance of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto by recent Leeds International Piano Competition winner Eric Lu, who brought both elegance and a touch of romanticism to this delicious work.
Time for Feedback
Throughout the course I had the chance to chat to dozens of those attending, many fir their first time, and their feedback was uniformly gushing.
Regular attendee Anne Collard agreed to giving this short interview, which you can listen to right here:
The Chetham’s International Summer School styles itself as “The Friendliest Summer School in the World”, which is cannily reassuring to those of us who might feel a little socially awkward attending such an event for the first time. Nevertheless, as I packed my bags and headed north on the train, it was with some apprehension…
How fabulous, then, to find that right from the start the Chetham’s Summer School is indeed characterised above all by warm friendliness, inclusivity and a shared, non-elitist love of the piano.
In such a happy environment, and brimming with such positive energy, it’s no wonder that this is a Summer School which continues to have such a great impact on those fortunate to attend,
Why not give it a try next summer? Not only will your playing most likely be transformed, but you’ll also have a superb time!
Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:
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