Behind the scenes with David Owen Norris

Southampton’s head of classical performance, pianist Professor David Owen Norris, has a summer full of projects. Here he gives us a look at his preparations for recording, performance and broadcasting in the coming months:

Jupiter Project
I’m juggling Broadwood grand pianos at present, working out how to get my own 1828 instrument into Askrigg church for a concert in the Swaledale Festival, and then get Christopher Barlow’s ingenious re-make of the instrument – with an original action but brand-new frame and wrest-plank – into Cooper Hall near Frome, to record for Hyperion. It’s always a question of how many steps: up or down: and how wide? The picture below gives you just how big Broadwoods are. In Bremen once I had to press-gang passers-by into carrying my Broadwood up three flights of stairs, and once a doorway at Holkham Hall was only a quarter of an inch wider than the piano, so these days I plan my piano moves with military precision. The concert and recordings are part of the Jupiter Project, based around Professor Mark Everist’s book Mozart’s Ghosts. There are more concerts later in the year, and a film.

Head over to the Jupiter page for the project demo with Caroline Balding (violin), Katy Bircher (flute), Andrew Skidmore (cello) and David (on his 1828 Broadwood): Mozart’s C major Concerto K.467 arranged by Cramer, and his Jupiter Symphony arranged by Clementi. 

Copland Unwrapped
Robin Browning’s new Southampton orchestra, the Són Project, has created an Unwrapped format where I go through a piece in the first half, with musical examples from the band, and then we perform it in the second half. We started by Unwrapping Sibelius, then Elgar, and last autumn we Unwrapped Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Yesterday it was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It’s interesting how hard Copland strove to be truly American. The more I read his writings, the more I wonder whether the creators of the music he used as models had the same obsessions. Do blue-grass guitarists try to be American, or do they just happen to be surrounded by Kentucky? Perhaps it’s just ‘high art’ that wants to be national. Saul Bellow wanted to write the Great American Novel. Batman just gets on with saving the world.

Find out more about the Unwrapped series on the Són project page.

Chord of the Week
I’m working on my sixth series of this unlikely component of BBC 2’s PromsExtra. The Proms team sends me a list of all the pieces that are going to be televised, and I sift through them, hunting for chords. I need just one each week. Sometimes a week’s televised Proms throw up half a dozen chords, and sometimes there seem to be none at all at first. Both situations are equally frustrating. They need to be chords that tell a story, or throw an unusual light on a piece. And they need to lend themselves to a two-minute explanation at the piano. Having explained some three dozen chords already, the pieces are starting to come round again: Mahler Five, for instance, or the Emperor Concerto. But some pieces are full of meat – I shall reveal a hitherto unsuspected aspect of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age in my second chordal visit to The Planets. Though The Planets could probably fill the whole series on its own!

Check out one of David’s chords from 2017 from Elgar’s Second Symphony.