18 February 2022

The Art of Transcription

Forty pianists and 20 pianos together on the stage of Pamoja Hall: a keyboard-player's dream

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Forty pianists and 20 pianos performing together on the stage of Pamoja Hall: what else could be the dream of every keyboard player and appreciator? The culmination of the pianists’ efforts was seen in the final performance, wherein Percy Grainger’s transcription of an old English folk tune ‘Country Gardens’ was played by all performers in an ensemble of ‘massed pianos’, in a rousing and rowdy last hurrah for both the audience and the musicians.

The concert was acutely programmed, blending genres and composers sectioned into segments that led on one to the next. Some of the programme drew on the roots of keyboard transcription, which Ellie Curson explored by playing a 14th-century intabulation of a motet. Transcription has also flourished in the world of the silver screen, including the soundtracks of Hans Zimmer, which were played by Ray Hayashi, and Howl’s Moving Castle with Ella-Marie Williamson and Lara Foulsham on piano duet.

Avant-garde reinventions of nursery rhymes such as Charles Ives’ ‘London Bridge is fallen down’ were performed with relish by Niki Zhang, and the instrumentation of African American Spirituals, particularly Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s glorious ‘Deep River’, was played with serene mastery by Eliza Ruffle.

The concert also examined the presence of Bach in the world of transcription. A musical giant, his oeuvre is filled with arrangements of his own and his contemporaries’ work. It becomes apparent to modern audiences that he thought of reinvention in the same light as creation, with music being a shared and cooperative medium of expression. This sentiment was continued throughout the evening, with performances of his Air on the G string by students Florence Lall and Theodore Jones, as well as an inventive iteration of his famous Toccata in D Minor on synthesiser in the electronica style of Wendy Carlos, interpreted with audacity by Nicholas Leung.

The evening of transcription also provoked deeper thought over the concept of originality, and the dynamic between what is truly genuine and what is simply copied. Where does one draw the line between a new work and something which has been partly or wholly influenced by other artists and works? For the past few years at Sevenoaks, it has been nothing short of a pleasure to take part in Mr Tau Wey’s annual piano concerts, witnessing his inventive explorations into musical dichotomies and themes that have spanned immeasurable ranges of eras and composers. There was something distinctly refreshing and organic about his 2022 project, The Art of Transcription, which was a stand-out success.

Lachlan Edwards

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