Chamber music’s full spectrum
The pianist at the heart of Lammermuir-resident ensemble, Kaleidoscope, tells KEITH BRUCE about the music festival audiences can look forward to
Tom Poster sounded remarkably relaxed when we spoke less than a fortnight ahead of the Lammermuir residency of Kaleidoscope, the chamber collective he leads with his violinist wife Elena Urioste. The couple’s summer schedule, I suggest, does look to have been non-stop.
“That’s true,” the pianist concedes. “Elena and I just got back from a month in the States. We were in Santa Barbara and Seattle, and then in Maryland where Elena has a small festival. Then we made our Proms debut with Kaleidoscope in Truro, and now we are about to go off to France for a week with the Elias String Quartet before preparing for Lammermuir.”
A glance at his website confirms the suspicion that playing chamber music with a constantly-evolving list of different ensembles and collaborative partners means learning a huge amount of different music. Poster says that, in fact, he has eased up a bit.
“One of the changes I’ve made since becoming a parent two years ago is that I am slightly more thoughtful about not overloading myself with repertoire. There’s so much music I love that I used to try to say ‘yes’ to as much as I could, but with a two-year-old it is hard to learn quite as many notes.
“But Festivals, for pianists especially, do tend to involve a large number of notes!”
Besides playing, of course, there is also the business of keeping Kaleidoscope on the road, with 10 players making up the team staying in East Lothian.
“We have a lovely administrator who works with us on a freelance basis, otherwise I think I’d go completely mad,” says Poster, “but Elena and I do end up doing an enormous amount ourselves, partly because the repertoire and the musicians involved are so intertwined.
“We have a flexible line-up, with a slightly different group of musicians for each concert, depending on repertoire or who is around and available. We are both very passionate about the art of programming, as well as the selfish pleasure of gathering together some of our favourite musicians to play in new and different combinations.
“The Lammermuir group has a lot of our regular players: Elena and myself, Rosie Ventris (viola), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Savitri Grier (violin) – all the string team for Lammermuir are very much core players. But every one we’re bringing is an integral part of the team.”
Lammermuir audiences can also look forward to core Kaleidoscope in the music that team is playing.
“We are very lucky that James Waters and Hugh Macdonald are such wonderful and generous festival directors. They gave us free rein and that enabled us to put together what I think is a trademark Kaleidoscope programme.
“There are some justly celebrated works, like the Schubert Octet, alongside a number of pieces that we really just feel deserve to be heard far more and which we are really confident that audiences will love when they hear them, even if they haven’t heard them before.”
Monday’s opening recital includes a work that Kaleidoscope can take credit for helping down that road to familiarity.
“The Coleridge-Taylor nonet is a student piece that he wrote when he was 18 at the Royal College of Music. I came across it because we are always looking for pieces that involve as many of us as possible.
“After the pandemic, when concert halls were just beginning to re-open, John Gilhooley asked us to programme a concert at Wigmore Hall. There’s not all that much for strings, winds and piano – and selfishly I wanted to be part of the recital.
“We all fell in love with it, and recorded it for Chandos on a whole Coleridge-Taylor disc last year. It has become a real signature piece. It is such an inventive work, where he is flexing his musical muscles. It has a young man’s exuberance, trying to find as many combinations of the nine instruments as possible. It has immediate appeal and always seems to go down well with audiences.”
Other works that Kaleidoscope are bringing to East Lothian are being championed by Poster’s group in the same way.
“I can’t understand why the Reynaldo Hahn Piano Quintet is a piece that is not played all over the place. Anyone who loves the chamber music of Faure will adore it – it is one of the most sumptuous pieces of chamber music I know. Singers know his songs, but his chamber music is just as wonderful.
“And the Korngold Suite is a piece that does get played occasionally but the unusual combination of instruments means it doesn’t get heard enough. It’s a piano quartet with two violins and cello, but the pianist is only using left hand because it was written for Paul Wittgenstein.
“Elena has loved the piece for years and persuaded me to practise my left hand skills! It has so many influences, from Bach to Viennese waltz, with this sort of golden shimmer. There’s this amazing slow movement that is just so touching.
“Another thing we are really excited about is the world premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s new piece which Ben Goldscheider has commissioned – a trio for horn, violin and cello. I haven’t heard that yet so I can’t talk in detail about the music, but it’s always a special thing to be bringing new music. I have seen a bit of the score and it looks immediately appealing with wonderful textures from the three instruments.”
New music is something that Poster sees as integral to the development of Kaleidoscope in the future.
“I do a lot of arranging for the group, which is a side passion of mine. Clarinettist Mark Simpson regularly plays with us and is also a wonderful composer. He is going to write something for us and we have various other plans in the pipeline.”
The group’s fourth disc for Chandos is coming out this month. Entitled Transfigured, it has Schoenberg as its centrepiece alongside three other works from the Viennese early 20th century period, that Poster says deserve to be heard far more: Zemlinsky for soprano and string sextet, Alma Mahler songs which he has arranged for soprano and string sextet, and a Webern Piano Quintet, an early Romantic work by the composer.
Another side of Urioste and Poster’s musical life will also have an outing as a Coffee Concert on Wednesday morning in Haddington. The couple’s Juke Box videos-from-home, with Poster’s duo arrangements of light classical, pop and rock tunes became a phenomenon during the Covid pandemic.
“The success of the lockdown Juke Box project has been the biggest surprise of our musical lives so far,” says Poster. “When we originally dreamed it up it was just to keep ourselves amused, and we thought maybe our mums might watch it. But it happened to fill a need for what people were looking for at the time. Obviously we didn’t expect lockdown to go on so long, but then it has had an afterlife as a recording that has won awards, and as a live programme it is a lot of fun.
“We try to incorporate the element of public choice that was the original impetus behind it, by giving the audience a chance to vote for what they want to hear.”
It is another facet of this pianist’s enormous range of activity, often, but not always, in partnership with Urioste.
“I do still play concertos – I’m at the Royal Albert Hall for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Philharmonia at the end of the month, and I’ve Grieg and Rachmaninov coming up later in the season. But concertos are really just large-scale chamber music. The collaborative aspect of music-making is where I find most joy and fulfilment. I still play some solo recitals – a few each season – but chamber music is the thing I’ve found keeps me inspired with its musical companionship bringing people together.”
Kaleidoscope plays the Lammermuir Festival on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Elena Urioste and Tom Poster programme their Juke Box on Wednesday.