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CSO Mixtape: Pip Thompson

Pip Thompson, CSO Violin (Image: Martin Ollman)

Pip Thompson is a longstanding member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and many other ensembles around Canberra. A student of Miwako Abe and a graduate of the ANU School of Music, Pip has performed with groups in both Australia and Europe.

Performance highlights include recitals Pip has presented in Hungary and Moldova, as well as recent chamber music performances with Barbara Jane Gilby and friends in Canberra.

Pip has an interest in World music; this year, she appeared at WOMADelaide with Romanian band Super Rats. In her spare time, Pip is a keen student of flamenco dance and performs regularly at festivals with Canberra’s Flamenco Centre dance group. More about Pip

Selected listening notes

This very personal playlist is a selection of recordings that have been significant to me, or have associations with my friends and family. Music is important in my family, and in my life as a musician I’ve formed many longstanding friendships.

 

Although there is so much music that I love, I’ve tried to include some that you might not have come across before. I’m certainly biased, and I love to hear the violin used in different styles and contexts. If you don’t love it as much as I do, I’ve included a few tracks with no violin!

PIP THOMPSON

Pietro MASCAGNI Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo

My grandfather is one of the reasons I became a musician. While I don’t share his obsession with Wagner (he attended the first Australian performance of the Ring Cycle in 1913), I always think of him when I play this Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which he also loved. It’s the kind of lush, flowing melody that string players really enjoy playing.

Nathaniel GOW The Fairy Dance Medley: Mr Barnard / Miss Baird of Saughtonhall’s Hornpipe / The Fairy Dance (Trad / arr. Duncan, Thompson, Strutt)

My brother Julian is a cellist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and a musician of extraordinary talent. Some years ago he recorded two albums of Scottish traditional music with fiddler Chris Duncan (much to the delight of our father, who is of Scottish heritage). This is one of my favourite tracks, in which Julian uses a pizzicato (plucking) style that he has refined over many years. Much of the rehearsal for the CD was done at my house, and Julian and Chris were hard to stop once they started, playing late into the night. Hence, I associate this music strongly with sleep deprivation!

Henry COWELL Sonata for Violin and Piano III. Ballad

Miwako Abe was my violin teacher for many years, including during my tertiary study. She is an amazing player with an inspiring and exacting style of teaching. This recording, with Australian pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, shows Miwako’s beautiful tone and the clean, subtle phrasing that she always focused on with her students.

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

One of the delights of being raised in a musical family is that when we get together, we love to play and sing. My brother Mick plays clawhammer banjo, and we jam on traditional American, old-timey music like this song. I love how the sparse violin accompaniment reflects perfectly the melancholy words and the haunting tune.

Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST Grand Caprice sur Le Roi des Aulnes de F. Schubert, op. 26, D.328 Presto

I’ve been fascinated with nineteenth century virtuoso violin music ever since I was a student. Ernst’s extraordinary transcription of Schubert’s dramatic lied Erlkönig is extreme violin playing at its best.

Ernst was a violinist who essentially stalked his idol Paganini in an attempt to learn his secrets. He must have picked up something, because his use of violin technique is dazzling and leaves any string player gasping in admiration. When you see the written music for this piece, you wonder if it’s even possible to play it with only two hands!

If you have time, it’s worth listening to Schubert’s original version for piano and voice and comparing it to Ernst’s transcription of all the material into a single violin part.

Alegrías Sin Taconeo

One of the things that drew me to flamenco dance is the intimate relationship between the musicians and dancers. The percussive nature of the dancer’s footwork becomes part of the music, and communication between the dancer, singer and guitarist shapes the structure of the dance. As the name suggests, alegrías is a very joyful dance; in this recording, I love the jaleos (shouts of encouragement from the musicians to the dancer). There’s one at the very end that any dancer would be thrilled to have inspired.

John WILBYE Draw on sweet night

I spent my childhood and teenage years singing in choirs. Even though I can barely croak out a few notes now, I still love to sing. When my brothers and I get together, we always attempt some harmony singing, and hearing this performance of a Renaissance madrigal makes you realise that there’s nothing more satisfying.

The suspensions (dissonant intervals which resolve to consonant ones) used in English madrigals from this time are a feature to listen out for – sometimes Wilbye makes you wait and wait for the resolution, but it’s always worth it.

De-Ar Fi Lumea De Hârtie (Trad / arr. Guța)

Whilst in Romania I became a fan of a popular musical style called manele, mostly performed by Roma musicians. Romanians are emphatically divided about manele – many absolutely loathe it.

One of my favourite manelists is superstar Nicolae Guța, who performs a more traditional song here with violinist Ion Trifoi. I love the sophisticated, intricate ornamentation of both the violin and Guța’s amazingly controlled, flexible voice.

Sergei PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet, op. 64 Act 1: No. 13, Dance of the Knights

My grandfather was a dedicated classical ballet fan. When I was growing up, he told me about seeing the great Anna Pavlova dance in 1926.

Prokofiev must be one of the greatest composers for ballet, and his score for Romeo and Juliet is fantastically expressive. I remember playing this in the pit for the Australian Ballet and loving every minute, although the string parts are often quite fiendish.

The Dance of the Knights is a powerful movement – if you have a spare afternoon, I recommend listening to the entire work.

Hangu and Freylachs from Podoloy (Trad / arr Cohen)

While living in Eastern Europe I was lucky enough to guest with one of my favourite klezmer bands, Budapest-based Di Naye Kapelye, led by charismatic violinist and singer Bob Cohen. Getting on top of their repertoire at short notice was a challenge, but it was a joy to play music, travel and research with them. The experience of travelling third class on Romanian trains is something I’ll never forget!

Bob’s violin playing and the accompanying drum give us an idea of how village klezmer music would have sounded in Transylvania before World War Two. I love its energy.

Felix MENDELSSOHN String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, op. 13, MWV R22 I. Adagio: Allegro vivace

There is no greater joy than playing chamber music. This quartet was written when Mendelssohn was just 18, which I find hard to believe when I think of 18-year-olds of my acquaintance! The almost chorale-like opening is one of the most beautiful beginnings you’ll ever hear.

I first performed it with my brother at Palerang homestead near Braidwood, in the room where Mick Jagger wrote Brown Sugar. Talk about a contrast…

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER Violin Sonata No. 6 II. (Sonata) – Gavotte – (Finale)

Way before Justin Bieber broke the internet, there was Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, surely one of the most original musical minds of all time. Much of Biber’s violin music uses scordatura, a technique where each of the violin’s strings are tuned at different pitches to the usual E,A,D,G. This gives the possibility of playing different chords, but also requires the violinist to think differently, because the music is notated as if the strings were tuned normally.

I’ve never been able to play these – when I try it’s like going slowly insane – but I love the music and admire anyone who can get their head around it.

Christopher PALMER, Ernest BLOCH From Jewish Life (arr. C. Palmer) I. Prayer

Some years ago, my brother Julian was to appear as a soloist with the CSO, performing Bloch’s From Jewish Life. The day before rehearsals were to start, the orchestral parts still hadn’t arrived and it looked as if the performance would have to be cancelled. Knowing that my mum would never forgive me if I didn’t, I stayed up all night and produced a transcription of the parts from a recording, and we used those parts for the performance. Crisis averted.

Julian has performed the work many times since, but hopefully never again in such stressful circumstances!

Purcell: King Arthur: Air

One of the wonderful things about the times we live in is the research that has gone into authentic instruments and music performance. Musicians like William Christie have really brought early music to life, and this recording shows off the different timbres of the instruments of Purcell’s era.

I listen to authentic instrumental recordings a lot, because there’s so much that can be applied to our performances on modern instruments.

Au Plecat Olteni La Coasă (Trad / arr. Pană)

Last year, I was racking my brains to think of a birthday present for my partner Tim (he’s very hard to buy for). In the end, I decided that the best thing I could do would be to surprise him by learning a piece from the playing of Tudor Pană, one of our favourite Romanian violinists. (Learning music by ear is another one of the challenges of playing folk music.)

The title of this piece is very evocative of a pre-industrial age: it translates as ‘The Oltenians have gone to the scythe’. It really shows off Pană’s punchy sound and the beautiful ornamentation that is such a feature of Romanian folk music.

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No. 8 in C sharp minor, op. 110 No. 1, Largo

Shostakovich string quartets put the players through their technical and emotional paces. In this quartet, the first movement is built on a four-note theme which Shostakovich used as a musical signature. It was based on the first four initials of his name: D,S,C,H, and these translate to the notes D, E flat, C, B. In Shostakovich’s hands this simple theme sounds like the loneliest thing in the world.

I played this quartet for this first time with my brother and friends Barbara Jane Gilby and Katherine Owen for a themed exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The music was so atmospheric that when the lights went down at the end, I think everyone felt that they had been transported to the bleak world of Stalin’s Russia. You could have heard a pin drop.

Eugène YSAŸE Sonate for Two Solo Violins, op. Posth. I. Poco lento – Maestoso, allegro fermo

This duo sonata makes such good use of the violin’s ability to play double-stops (more than one note at a time) that it often sounds like a whole string quartet is playing.

I remember playing this with my friend Ann Holtzapffel of Queensland Symphony Orchestra; often when the two of us left a rehearsal, people outside were surprised ­– they were expecting several more players based on the sound. We had to play off a photocopy of Ysaye’s original handwritten score which was very long and provided no opportunities to turn pages. We set up four music stands and moved steadily from left to right over the course of the performance. We must have looked very silly progressing across the stage.

Perhaps there is a printed version of the music these days!

Richard STRAUSS Metamorphosen (arr. String Septet)

One of the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard is Metamorphosen, Strauss’s response to the devastation caused by the Allied bombing of Germany in World War Two. The version most often heard is one for 24 solo strings, but there is also an arrangement for Strauss’s original combination of string septet.

This piece was on my bucket list for a long time; last year, I had the satisfaction of performing it with some of my favourite colleagues. Listen out towards the end for Strauss’s quotation of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony in the bass part.

Curator profile: Pip Thompson

Briefly introduce yourself – tell us your name, your instrument, where you’re living and how you’re connected to the CSO.

I’m Pip Thompson, a Canberra-based violinist. I’ve been playing with the CSO for more than 30 years. It’s kind of horrifying but also gratifying to see that written down!

How did you come to be a musician?

My maternal grandfather was a very talented, self-taught song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit in the early twentieth century. He loved classical music and was determined that his grandchildren would have formal musical training.

As a child I was initially reluctant to learn the violin. Apparently, I said it looked ‘too hard’ – how right I was! I must have taken to it though, as I became focused on becoming a violinist a few years later.

How has your family influenced your musical development?

I don’t know of any classical musicians who haven’t had huge family support in their journey towards becoming a professional. My parents not only encouraged me and my three brothers – they put in all the hard work of ferrying us to lessons and orchestra rehearsals, buying us instruments and even bribing and blackmailing us to practise. I wasn’t old enough to drive when I started playing with the CSO, so my parents drove me to every rehearsal!

Now that we’re all grown up, one of my greatest joys is getting together with my brothers and playing and singing. Hopefully it is in some way rewarding for our parents to hear it!

Do you have any family traditions around music?

Apart from our family jam sessions, we have a tradition of composing and performing a tune when anyone in the family has a significant birthday. We call ourselves The Birthday Band.

My niece and nephews all got tunes when they were born. When my dad turned 80 last year, it turned out that all three of my brothers had written him tunes unbeknownst to each other. In the end, we performed all three for him as a kind of song cycle!

Who or what are your musical influences?

I have had so many great musical influences in my life. My family; my amazing teachers; musicians in Hungary and Romania; my wonderful orchestra colleagues; my quirky bandmates – every one of them has informed my musical development in some way.

I’ve learned something from every musician I’ve ever worked with – sometimes positive, sometimes negative! Collaborating with colleagues and friends is always a learning experience; I don’t think the learning will ever stop.

How did you get into World music and what is your approach to it?

I was interested in klezmer (Eastern European Jewish folk music) for a long time growing up. In my twenties I formed a klezmer band with two of my brothers, my partner and an old friend. We had a great time touring and gigging at a time when klezmer was almost unknown in Australia.

I subsequently spent time living in Eastern Europe researching klezmer music with older, mostly Roma musicians. There is sometimes a view among classical musicians that folk music is somehow easier to play, but every folk style has its own techniques and nuances that give it an authentic flavour and sound – it needs as much in-depth study and practice as any classical tradition.

I try to respect the folk music that I play by taking the time to gain an understanding of its unique character, context and sound-world.

Recent gig highlight?

My partner Tim and I play in a Romanian folk band called Super Rats (yes, it’s a multilingual pun that’s not even funny in Romanian). Tim plays the cimbalom, a traditional instrument which looks like a giant trapezoidal table with 145 strings which are hit with mallets.

Earlier this year, just before concerts stopped altogether, we had the extraordinary good fortune to play at WOMADelaide. It was great to bring Romanian traditional music to a festival which features such a diversity of World music styles, and also to hear some music legends like the Blind Boys of Alabama live.

How has the current situation affected you as a musician?

I’m really missing making music with my CSO friends and other colleagues. Although we keep in touch, there’s nothing like the experience of rehearsing and performing together.

At the same time, I’ve really started thinking about the trend for posting musical content online. It has been interesting to see what is possible digitally, but it also highlights why live music-making is so special. The kind of communication (spoken and unspoken) that players have when they are together is totally unique, as is the relationship between performers and audiences. I miss it dreadfully.

Do you have another job besides playing music?

People are often surprised to hear that music is a job!

I’ve been really lucky to have another career besides music. I have been able to indulge my interest in fashion by working at Pink Boutique in Braddon for many years, which is every bit as creative as playing music!

I’ve also recently completed some training as an editor and proofreader, which I find quite fascinating – it appeals to my (very dominant) pedantic side. The reality of being a musician in Canberra is that most of us have day jobs as well as our musical work. It just requires good time management!

What do you do for fun?

For many years, my brother Mick and I have studied flamenco dance with the wonderful Tomás Dietz at The Flamenco Centre. A big disappointment this year was the cancellation of the National Folk Festival, where we always frock up and perform a flamenco show.

I’m also an avid gardener with a large and out-of-control garden – there are always weeds…

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