This week, we would have welcomed a long-time friend of WMC, Dr Jonathan James, to discuss the life and times of Sergei Rachmaninoff. We caught up with Jonathan to see what he's up to at the moment and learn a little more about 'creative listening' in lock down.

What have you been up to in the last couple of months?

I've been embracing the world of online education, although sometimes with gritted teeth. Conducting lessons work well online, because we hold the music in our head most of the time anyway. Teaching improvisation via the screen is a lot harder - like teaching someone to swim in a kitchen sink. The Pre-Conservatoire I run still meets weekly online, and I'm enjoying coming up with  ways of keeping teenagers engaged and musically creative during the session.

I've also been producing podcasts, videos and webinars in place of my normal talk schedule, and am slowly getting used to lecturing to the lens. And then I've been using the extra space for projects that have been shelved for a while, like learning Italian.

Creative Listening with Jonathan James

Creative Listening with Jonathan James

What do you particularly enjoy about delivering lectures at WMC?

It's a lovely, diverse community of people who come to the lectures and it's nice to recognise some faces from over the years. The questions afterwards are always so considered and thought-provoking, and I love our conversations. I feel spoilt by the stewards, who always rustle up a cup of tea as soon as I arrive. And it's a wonderful set-up for a talk, with the concert Steinway and warm spotlit stage. It's a very inviting space, and a great acoustic to share ideas in. Just being in that space makes us all feel erudite!

Do you think it is important for an audience member to know about the history of a composer when they listen to a piece in a concert?

I think it always helps to have a contextual framework for understanding a work of art, whatever the genre. You don't want the information to be cumbersome and deadening, though, and listening with fresh ears also has its merits. My approach is to look at the language of the music and see how that reflects the composer's thinking and creative intentions. That, for me, is more enlightening than knowing the historical detail, although the two often go hand in hand.

This week, you would’ve come to WMC to discuss the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff – do you have a favourite recording of his work that you would recommend?

It's a hard call, but I would have gone with a mixture of two Russians - Nicolai Lugansky, Vladimir Ashkenazy - and the Israeli, Boris Giltburg. Comparing their performances of the Moments Musicaux makes for fascinating listening. I've had the opportunity to interview both Russians and have always been struck by how poetically they speak about their interpretation and how deeply they know the composer.

Why does live music making matter to you?

What is absolutely irreplaceable in a live performance is the spontaneity involved: between the performers on stage, and in their reactions to the audience and the space. I love that sense of ephemerality too, knowing that the performance exists uniquely in that moment, and that always feels like a privilege to us in the room.  Then there's the sheer physical sensation of how the music lands on our ears, how directly it hits the emotions when the sound is alive and breathing.  And of course, there's the social aspect of sharing a concert, of enjoying something together and celebrating its value collectively, marking that it's special to us and to our culture.

Listen to Rachmaninov: Moments Musicaux

Nikolai Lugansky (2001)

Nikolai Lugansky Rachmaninov Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 1 Moment musicaux

Vladimir Ashkenazy (2005)

Rachmaninov: 6 Moments musicaux, Op.16 - No. 1 in B flat minor, Andantino

Boris Giltburg (2016)

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16: No. 1 in B-Flat Minor: Andantino