Tuesday 1 October 2013

An encounter with Alissa Firsova

Alissa Firsova - London Aiga-Photography
Alissa Firsova - London Aiga-Photography
On 9, October 2013 the English Chamber Orchestra is giving a concert at the Cadogan Hall, the centrepiece of which is a performance of David Matthews' Symphony No 4 in celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. But the concert has another distinctive feature, it is being conducted by Alissa Firsova  (Алисса Фирсова) who will also act as the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K488 and her own Serenade for Strings will receive its premiere. The programme is completed with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. I met up with Alissa to talk about the concert, and about how she balances the triple pull of being a composer, a conductor and a pianist.

Born in 1986 in Moscow, Alissa Firsova's parents are the composers Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova. The family left Russia and moved to the UK in the 1991. Alissa Firsova studied at the Royal Academy of Music, spending five years with piano as her first study, before doing post-graduate study of conducting with Colin Metters, with composition as her second study. Two years ago she was able to use the Royal Academy's facilities to put on a concert performing Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Mozart's Piano Concert No. 23 and her own Clarinet Concerto. She not only conducted,  performed one of her own works and acted as the piano soloist, but also fixed the musicians and organised the rehearsals. It was this concert which gave her the idea that it might be possible to combine all three.

When asked about this, she comments that she felt that you are only given one life and that she wanted to make three lives out of it. She also felt that it was important for a conductor to go through the step of fixing their own orchestra, to learn what is involved and for Alissa, it really gave her a boost having done it. She admits that balancing the three roles was difficult when studying conducting full time at the Royal Academy, so she had to practice the piano in odd hours and composition was restricted to holidays. But now her time is more her own and she is firm in her intention to pursue all three careers in parallel.

Balancing conducting and performing can be a tricky business, but Alissa is admirably balanced when she talks about the pros and cons. She finds that when conducting, it is helpful to have had experience of the music in other roles and cites playing the piano and celeste in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony as experience which fed into her conducting of the work. As a conductor she feels responsible and wants to be able to help the players as much as possible, so knowing the work from the inside helps. So far, she has never accompanied another pianist in a piano concerto and admits that doing this would mean that she would have to take a step back. The role of the conductor is to present the soloist in the concerto, the performance is more about the soloist than conductor.

Alissa comes from a musical household, both her parents are composers (Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova) and music was written all the time, with her parents in different parts of the house at their own piano. So much so, that Alissa thought that this was something that everyone did. She started creating her own songs and at six years old her father was writing them down for her, until she learned to write music. As a child her whole life was about her parents music, she and her brother (the painter and sculptor Philip Firsov) were taken along to performances of her parents music.

This music formed the sound world that she grew up in. The fact that both her parents studied under the same teacher, Edison Denisov, she feels probably helped. Her parents met whilst students at the Moscow Conservatoire. They have been married for 41 years and Alissa describes a live of mutual creativity, She feels herself a product of this musical union and that her music comes out of that of her parents. She talks of both parents using diatonic chords and being interested in the idea of beauty; something which applies to Alissa as well.

Alissa has played a lot of her parents' music and such is the strength of her connection that at times it feels like she is playing her own music. They write music together as a family. Initially Martyn Brabbins commissioned three linking pieces from them for the Cheltenham Festival and her brother produced three paintings to go with the music. For the Shostakovich centenary the three composers wrote a chamber piano concerto for Dartington, each composer taking a different movement but using themes from Shostakovich with Alissa Firsova's final cadenza linking everything up (you can hear Alissa's final movement on YouTube). Alissa played solo piano part with an ensemble including the Dante Quartet. Out of this arose the idea of writing a piece based on Dante's Divine Comedy for the Dante Quartet, with Dmitri Smirnov writing Hell, Elena Firsova writing Purgatory and Alissa writing Paradise (you can hear Paradise on YouTube).

Alissa's concert with the English Chamber Orchestra on 9 October starts with Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K488, the work that Firsova played in her Royal Academy concert and one with which she has strong links. She first played it, directing from the piano, in a master class with Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philomusic at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Alissa finds directing from the piano a completely different experience to conducting, for a start there is the fact that you really need more than two hands. She credits Papadopoulos with encouraging her to use her head and body to communicate with the orchestra.

She talks about directing from the keyboard as a magical experience, having struggled a bit with the concept of a conductor not having an instrument but having to project their emotions onto the orchestra. As soloist in the concerto she finds that she can use the piano to create the emotional atmosphere to which the players respond, and cites the opening of the slow movement of the Mozart concerto where the soloist comes in first.

Her own Serenade for Strings will be premiered in the concert. In the piece she deliberately avoids the sort of large scale, multi-movement work which has become common currency for a serenade for strings in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead she has returned to the Italian roots of the serenade, composing a single movement which evokes the idea of a song accompanied by guitar. She wrote the piece whilst in Bolzano in Italy and incorporated the sound of the cathedral bells into the work. The piece is romantic and tonal, perhaps more so than some of her work but she says that her music has always been diatonic.

David Matthews wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1991 for the English Chamber Orchestra, he was music advisor for the orchestra and has written seven pieces for them. Matthews also commissioned Alissa's mother to write a piece for the ECO in 1988 (before she came to the UK), and Elena Firsova has also had a Proms commission. So that with her Proms commission in 2010 and her ECO commission in 2013 Alissa feels that she is following in her mother's footsteps.

Alissa studied with David Matthews in 2005 at Dartington, and was able to hear a lot of Matthews' music. She describes finally being able to conduct his work as wonderful, and is very positive about the symphony forming the centrepiece of the concert by being the final work in the programme.

She is interested in the way the programme links together, with Matthews symphony being a tribute to Haydn and the classical elements of the symphony, Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations is a tribute to Mozart, and the whole starts with a Mozart piano concerto.

Looking ahead, Alissa will be conducting a programme with the Cheltenham Chamber Orchestra in February. This will be a purely classical programme where her only role will be as conductor, which is something of a first for her.

Her Bach arrangement which was premiered at the Proms in 2010 was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. Litton recently conducted the work with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he is Music Director and Principal Conductor, and so has commissioned Alissa for a new piece to celebrate the orchestra's 250th anniversary.

She is also writing a commission for The Sixteen, supported by the Genesis Foundation. The work is an unaccompanied Stabat Mater, to be premiered in June. Alissa wrote a piece for Exaudi whilst at the Purcell School and she likes the idea of using the choir unaccompanied, though she is also influenced by Szymanowski's large scale setting of the Stabat Mater.

As a pianist, Alissa will be giving a duo recital with cellist Tim Hugh at Milton Court Concert Hall, the Guildhall School of Music's new building, on 27 April 2014. They will be playing Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven and a new piece of Alissa's. This is a new collaboration, one which developed when Alissa stepped in at the last minute to accompany Hugh at his festival in Cardigan.

Alissa Firsova's concert with the English Chamber Orchestra, with Michael Petrov as cello soloist, is on 9 October at the Cadogan Hall, further information and tickets from the Cadogan Hall website. Readers of this blog can get a discount on tickets for the concert.

To get the discount simply quote the code PLANETHUGILL when booking by phone (020 7730 4500) or online 

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