This week we are giving the world premiere of a beautiful set of Lullabies by contemporary Czech composer Pavel (Zemek) Novak at the 1901 Arts Club on London’s Southbank. Performing any piece for the first time is always slightly unnerving, but giving a work its premiere is an altogether more daunting experience. I feel the weight of responsibility heavily, not only to convey the brilliance of the composer’s efforts but also to convince the audience that this work is worthy of their time and attention. Our job as performers is to communicate the intangible, a feeling, a gesture, a mood or even simply the beautiful colour of a particular chord. Every note has to be crafted in such a way that it captivates the ear and excites the listener’s interest for whatever comes next. In many cases, when playing familiar repertoire, you have on your side the hundreds of years of historical appreciation for a particular composer. The audience share your enthusiasm for the work and there is the (dis)comforting thought that the only thing that stands in the way of a successful performance is your own focus and emotional engagement on stage. With a premiere though, the atmosphere is often different: The composer is in many cases there to witness your efforts (eek), the audience is often wary of the sound that is about to emerge and there is the pressure of convincing the listeners on that first hearing, that this piece is a worthwhile contribution to an already great body of work that make up the violin and piano repertoire.
Over the last 9 months we have given 3 premiere performances of Philip Sawyers’s two Sonatas, the world premiere last June of No.2 and then the Canadian premiere of both pieces in January. In all three cases I struggled to quieten the little voice in my head that kept nagging “I hope this is going down ok”. Its a terrible admission, but try as I might to immerse myself in the pieces I found it particularly difficult to divorce myself from the occasion and just play.?Louisa often mocks me for my enthusiasm when I bound out of a practice session to proclaim that the piece that I happen to be practising that day is quite possibly the?best?piece in the world?ever!?What can I say, it happens a lot? with almost every piece! I love music and I?love?my job but that means that in a premiere situation I am desperate for the audience to share my affection and enthusiasm for the new work. Rationally I know that the only way to achieve this ambition is to focus and fully engage with the task in hand and just leave the audience out of the equation until after the concert. At Prussia Cove in 2010 someone asked the violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi how to deal with this very question of focus and his response was surprising: He suggested a form of daily meditation, “take a mundane task, like washing dishes, and force yourself to banish all other thoughts from your mind, only concentrate on the act of washing those dishes and let no other thoughts intrude”. Try it, its really hard! The suggestion was that after developing such an intense focus on the trivial, you stand a much better chance of avoiding distraction when dealing with the profound on stage.