In this 100th anniversary celebration year of the birth of virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999), it seems fitting to also celebrate the blossoming career of Laura Snowden, the first guitar graduate of the Yehudi Menuhin School—a specialist school for young musicians (ages 8–18) in London. Since graduating in 2008, Snowden has completed her Masters at the Royal College of Music in London as both a guitarist and a composer, and has quickly established a successful performing career, earning young artist awards such as the Tillett Trust, St. John’s Smith Square, International Guitar Foundation, and most notably, the Julian Bream Trust.
Bream, the celebrated British guitarist, now in his 80s and no longer performing, continues to commission mainstream composers to write for the classical guitar—an aspect of his outstanding career for which future generations of guitarists are indebted to him. His collaborations with composers such as Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley, and William Walton resulted in profound works for the solo guitar. Snowden has been working not only on the new repertoire that Bream is commissioning, but also on the repertoire that he made famous in his own performing career. This passing on of knowledge is linking this young musician securely with the past and future Bream repertoire.
It was during her master’s studies at Royal College of Music (attending on a Julian Bream scholarship) that Snowden began traveling to Bream’s house to work with him on repertoire, as he had chosen her to give the next Julian Bream Trust Concert on November 21, 2015, at Wigmore Hall—a tremendous honor at a very high-profile event.
For this concert (read our review of the concert here) Bream commissioned the British composer Julian Anderson to write a piece for solo guitar—Catalan Peasant with Guitar—and Snowden was chosen to play it. Creating the work turned into quite a three-way collaboration.
Backstage, Laura Snowden is greeted by composer Julian Anderson and Julian Bream (right). Photo by Graham Wade.
“Julian Anderson and I met regularly throughout the process, which is how he prefers to work,” Snowden says. “He might bring a particular series of notes, which he’d ask me to play in different ways or even improvise around. I was really struck by his acute ear for timbre, and his ability to produce truly inventive and authentic ideas while considering the practicalities of the guitar. He even bought himself a guitar. Once, he came up with an intricate counterpoint passage and fingered the whole thing unaided!
“I also visited Julian Bream as the piece progressed,” she continues, “and upon its completion, Anderson and I paid Bream a visit. Bream made some suggestions relating to the resonance of the guitar—for example, doubling an open string note on a closed string or adding a harmonic here and there. Throughout the process, I would demonstrate a number of fingering options for Anderson, who often had a strong sense of which fingering he preferred, because of the particular color it created. About a month before the premiere, I was asked by Schott [publishers] to send over my fingerings for publication, and these fingerings took into account Anderson’s preferences as well as Bream’s ideas and my own.”
In the score, there is an instruction to change the tuning, mid-piece. “At one point the third string must be tuned down by a quarter tone,” Snowden remarks. “The writing allows the performer to check it against other open strings and to tweak if necessary. This creates a bell-like and often melancholy resonance, which Anderson called a blue color, intended to evoke the vivid blue background of Miro’s painting ‘Catalan Peasant with Guitar’ [which partially inspired the piece].”
There are many time signature changes in in the score as well. “Yes,” she says, “the rhythmic sections have such vitality and drive, often gathering momentum toward a decisive climax. I find hints of Balkan folk influences in some of those passages.”
The rest of the repertoire for this Julian Bream Trust concert were mostly pieces written for Bream, or are pieces strongly associated with him: Sonatina, Op. 52 No. 1 (1957) by Lennox Berkeley; Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70 (1963) by Benjamin Britten; Segovia, Op. 29 (1925) by Albert Roussel; Fantasia (1957) by Roberto Gerhard, Quatre Pièces Brèves (1933) by Frank Martin; Homenaje: pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) by Manuel de Falla; and Suite Compostelana (1962) by Federico Mompou. Snowden explains the program’s selection process: “I had been working on some of those pieces with Bream before the concert was planned. He then suggested some other works, including some that are rarely performed, as well as proposing the idea of performing the Gerhard, Falla, and Roussel as a continuous set. What he loved about every piece in the program was that even though each composer was writing for a relatively unfamiliar and idiosyncratic instrument, each managed to retain his own distinct and unique musical voice and to come up with original, inventive ideas.
“Along with any advice, Bream will always give a reason why. And suddenly it becomes about everything except the guitar itself. It becomes about feeling, energy, movement, love, freedom. He has a way of relating music to all facets of life, from the details to the whole picture, and showing how everything is connected.”
In my own interviews with Bream, I have always found an incredible depth in his comments, which always set you thinking along what seems to be an untrodden path. Snowden agrees: “Yes, even just a passing remark from him will often have a certain profundity.”
ROOTS AT THE MENUHIN SCHOOL
When the Yehudi Menuhin School opened in London in 1963, it had just 12 pupils. In the following year, the school moved to the countryside, south of London, to a small village called Stoke D’Abernon, near Cobham, and the number of pupils increased to 24 and has continued to grow. Although Menuhin had long wanted to include the guitar as one of the instruments taught there, it wasn’t until 2004 that the school was able to welcome guitarists to audition, thanks to the financial assistance offered by members of the Rolling Stones, of all people. Initially the school accepted two British guitarists: Snowden and Tom Ellis, and they were taught by Richard Wright.
“I was 16, and funnily enough it was thanks to an advert in Classical Guitar magazine that I found out about the Rolling Stones’ donation,” Snowden remembers. “At my state secondary school I had a lovely teacher called Ashley Hards, who gave me his entire collection of the magazines—I probably read back to about 1994! If I hadn’t seen that advert, I would never have known that music schools existed, let alone that they would offer bursaries [scholarships].”
Music secondary schools have had some bad press over the years for being competitive “hothouses” that produce young virtuosos with many emotional problems, but Snowden doesn’t fit that profile at all. “On the contrary, for me at least, the environment was creative and relaxing,” she says. “That was a very precious thing, considering that in my previous school I never felt I could publicly show an interest in my education, and I had become a specialist at hiding and going unnoticed. In my first week at the Menuhin School, I couldn’t believe my eyes: People were voluntarily asking teachers questions during lessons and openly pursuing their own interests, from photography to yoga; I began to feel it was OK to be myself.
“The Menuhin School’s ethos is that every student who is successful at audition should be able to attend the school, regardless of their financial situation,” she adds. “Without the school and its bursary system, there’s no way I’d have had access to such an education at that stage. I received weekly lessons in aural, harmony and counterpoint, music history, composition, and piano, which proved to be versatile tools for expressing creativity. And the reduced academic timetable gave me time for my own creative activity, from writing lyrics to scripting a play—although it’s probably not one anybody would ever want to perform.”
Now, Snowden is back at the Menuhin School—this time working as an assistant guitar teacher. The guitar department there is still small, but has increased to six students coming from all over the world. I wondered whether Snowden has her own approach to teaching, learned through her performing experiences. “I’ve found it crucial in my own playing to have a reason ‘why,’” she says. “That’s something I’ve understood more deeply through my sessions with Julian Bream, and is something I try to bring to my teaching. That ‘why’ applies to everything—from the smallest scale to the largest. Why play this note softly? Why would the composer have chosen this note and not that note? Why this piece? Why does anybody need you to get up on stage and perform?Why music? For me, that means questioning what I really value—in all aspects of life—and of course those answers are always evolving. Who knows what they’ll be in 20 years’ time!”
After completing their secondary school studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School, both Snowden and Tom Ellis continued their studies at the Royal College of Music—where Julian Bream had studied, although during Bream’s time there was no guitar department, as guitar was not widely considered a serious classical music instrument, Segovia notwithstanding. Ellis and Snowden have been developing their musical careers in distinctively separate ways, but they often return to perform together as a guitar duo, something they have done since their Menuhin School days. As a duo, they were accepted on the IGF Young Artists Platform scheme, which sponsors young guitarists in the early years of their careers, offering them concerts at their various festivals, as well as other promotional activities.
In contrast to that “at home” feeling in her guitar duo, Snowden’s performances with her other duo partner—the violinist Joo Yeon Sir—show a completely different aspect of her musical personality: much more fiery and emotionally charged. “The first time I heard Joo Yeon play was at Wigmore Hall,” the guitarist recalls. “I was moved to tears in the first piece, and after that she played Milhaud’s Cinéma-Fantasie with such humor that I had to physically restrain myself from laughing. Here was somebody really playing from the heart, making me laugh and cry in one concert, and it made me think, ‘This is what it’s all about!’ There was such freedom and spontaneity in that playing.
“Recently I watched a documentary about Federico Mompou, one of my absolute favorite composers, who said that all he’d ever tried to do through music was to find ‘freedom of thought and freedom of spirit.’ That really resonated with me, and it struck me that this may be the motivation behind a lot of music-making. He also said, ‘If a composition is sincere, it is good; it cannot be bad.’ I love that—although it sounded slightly more profound in French.” (Snowden has a British father and a French mother.)
Both Snowden and Joo Yeon Sir are composers as well as performers and they do perform their own compositions together. “That’s actually how we started out,” Snowden offers. “I showed her my guitar-and-violin piece Five Impressions, which was commissioned by the Deal Festival in 2010. We started working on our own arrangements and I was commissioned by the International Guitar Foundation to write us a piece for the London Guitar Festival. Last year we did a very interesting project at the Royal College of Music’s Junior Department, in which we gave a series of composition workshops and invited the students to write for us—we ended up with 28 new pieces for the duo!”
SHOWING HER FOLK SIDE
Besides Snowden’s busy career in classical-guitar realms, she also performs in an eclectic but mostly traditional folk group called Tir Eolas, who were invited by John Williams to perform at his Shakespeare’s Globe series last summer. The group was formed in 2013.
“I was having a ‘say yes to everything’ week during my first year at the Royal College of Music,” Snowden says, “and I saw an advert sent out by our percussionist, Ruairi Glasheen, saying something like, ‘Does anybody want to play folk music, maybe do some busking, see where it takes us?’ Next thing I knew, we were busking around London, including one particularly memorable episode in Covent Garden involving security guards and us not knowing we needed to have a license. There are five of us in the band now [Snowden, Glasheen, singer/flautist Philippa Mercer, violist Georgie Harris, and bassist Hedi Pinkerfield; all of them sing] and some of the most fun and hilarious moments of my life have taken place with those guys. The band also gives me the opportunity to write songs, which was actually the first musical activity I did as a child, before ever playing a note on the guitar. I used to sing my songs onto a little tape recorder.”
In 2015, Tir Eolas released an album called Stories Sung, Truths Told featuring some of their original compositions, as well as traditional pieces that reflect their collective roots in English and Irish folk music. Snowden notes, “We’d been writing and arranging music for quite some time and had reached a point where we felt ready to share our material, and recording seemed to be the natural progression. The recording process was creative in itself, as we were able to include some extra instruments and parts that we can’t have onstage.”
I asked Snowden if she hoped to make a solo classical-guitar recording as well. “It is something I’d like to do, and with repertoire that really means something to me. The direct connection with an audience in performance has always been something which engages and moves me, and it takes a great deal of thought to work out how best to translate that into a recording.”
Is Julian Bream aware that Snowden is also a composer? “Yes, he is! Until recently, I tended to write for instruments other than the solo guitar, often because I’d be asked to write for specific performers or projects. So I’ve ended up with music for string orchestra, solo harpsichord, oboe and percussion duo, guitar and flute duo—all sorts! There’s an organization here in the UK called the Park Lane Group who have been putting on concerts of new music and commissioning composers for the past 60 years. They’ve asked me to write a solo guitar work for their 2017 series, and Julian knows about that. So perhaps I’ll play that for him when it’s finished.”
There’s no doubt that when Snowden performs as a soloist, she displays quite a special demeanor—a combination of calm, happiness, and a focus on the interpretation, along with the technique that allows for full expression of musical ideas. “I see practice as the process of setting up the conditions to allow complete spontaneity in performance,” she explains. “I’m not trying to fix anything—I’m trying to hear what’s actually happening in the music, to hear all of its components and respond to them afresh each time. I was very inspired by Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares, which teaches this approach to actors. Being ‘present’ means being vulnerable, but that’s what can transmit a sense of true generosity to the audience.
“Similarly to watching a play, hearing a musical performance can only occur in that very moment—as opposed to, say, reading a book. That’s why timing is crucial. That could be in the exact rhythmic intention of a passage, or the subtlety of one’s rubato, or the precise amount of time one holds a pause. It’s what can keep an audience hooked.”
WHAT SHE PLAYS
‘I play a Christopher Dean guitar made in 2006, with D’Addario normal tension strings. I find that his guitars have a warmth and clarity of sound and are exceptionally responsive to a wide array of colors and sonorities. In my folk ensemble, Tir Eolas, I use a nylon-string Taylor guitar—often in alternative tunings—as well as my Christopher Dean.’