Review: Frances Wilson & Friends at Brunswick House

by Lucy Butler Gillick

Brunswick House
Brunswick House

The last time I visited LASSCO Brunswick House, my husband and I were looking at furniture for our house in Clapham. Back then it was the place to go for interesting bits and pieces at prices that wouldn’t break the bank. It still is. But in those days the area was very far from a prime location. In the 10 or more years since, I have occasionally looked across from a car or bus as I pass through Vauxhall Cross and noticed the isolated Georgian house, standing in defiantly Dickensian splendour, on an island surrounded by sleek riverside architecture and brutally thundering roads.

Without the encouragement of my dear friend Fran [Frances] Wilson – the energetic co-founder and Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series – I would probably never have bothered to park the car or get off the bus or tube to explore any further. But her invitation to come along to an evening of intimate piano music was far too appealing to refuse. And the venue is practically on my doorstep…

Now, apart from the occasional school event, endured for the sake of my children, or dinner at Fran’s where the piano would inevitably form part of the programme (and a welcome one at that), I have never really experienced such a concert. So it was as a complete outsider to this exclusive piano playing world that I arrived last Thursday evening and finally re-entered the pillared portals of LASSCO Brunswick House. To be frank, I was slightly fearful that my bottom would end the evening sore from a long and laborious sit, after having my eardrums assailed by music that could potentially mean nothing to me at all.

ChandelierBut what an appealing setting and pleasurable event it turned out to be. Downstairs is a cosy bar and lively restaurant, lit and furnished with scene-setting antiques that are – so far as I could tell from the tags – all for sale. For your starter you could order Mussels, Kale & Parsnip plus a Venetian chandelier; with perhaps Roast Lamb Leg and a sideboard to follow. Not bad going for the time-poor, multi-tasking city worker, en route home.

DSC_4092But it was upstairs that the salon vibe really took hold. The private concert room, the opulent Saloon with its belle epoque Bechstein grand piano, heavily swagged stained glass windows, old-fashioned school room-style chairs set in neat rows, lamps, lanterns, chandeliers and ephemera, was a genuinely atmospheric space. The very height of old-world decorous gentility, slap bang in the middle of one of London’s busiest junctions (better known for its gay clubs and pubs). Who’d have thought? It even smelt old-fashioned – a sort of pleasantly musty, sandalwood tang.

Once the concert kicked off, after a short introduction from Fran – dressed to the nines in a floor-length slinky red and mauve gown – the evening progressed apace. The concert included the ‘world premiere’ of a new piece by composer and guitarist Matthew Sear, as well as preludes, fugues, sonatas and impromptus from the likes of Debussy, Shostakovich, Menotti, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schubert and Satie – all favourite pieces of the artists performing that night. There was even a piece by the incongruously named Bryan Kelly (who sounds more like an Irish builder than an Australian composer to me), and a somewhat ‘difficult’ discordant work by Olivier Messiaen – apparently taken from ‘one of the greatest works for piano of the 20th century’ (the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus) expertly played by Fran, who I think fancied challenging her audience into hearing something unusual at the end of the night.

The South London Concert series typically combines performances by talented amateur musicians with a special “guest spot” featuring professional and semi-professional players. On the evening I attended we enjoyed performances by José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán, Petra Chong, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Rob Foster and of course our genial hostess Frances Wilson herself. They all looked and sounded amazing to my untutored ears and I would heartily recommend the South London Concert Series to anyone who fancies a very reasonably-priced introduction to the world of glorious piano music in an intimate setting, followed by an opportunity to meet and talk to musicians who are as passionate about their piano music as you probably are about your food, wine and chandeliers. What’s not to love about such civilisation? The only jarring note was re-entering the real world and wintry fug of Vauxhall Cross when it was finally time to head home…

Lucy Butler Gillick is ex-chief sub editor of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and Harpers & Queen. She has written for many magazines and supplements over the years, on a variety of topics, but mostly on issues related to parenting. She now works in education. 

The South London Concert Series returns to LASSCO Brunswick House on 21st May for a concert by Australian counter-tenor Glenn Kesby. Full details here

Meet the Artist (& Artistic Director)……Frances Wilson, pianist, teacher & writer

(photo: James Eppy_
(photo: James Eppy_

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for special occasions and Sundays. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven, and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or rifle through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.

There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to hear him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!

I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.

My parents were keen concert goers and my love of live music developed in childhood. We used to go to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a young conductor with wild curly hair conducted the CBSO (this was Sir Simon Rattle). Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London on the coach to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my music teacher at secondary school and my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch. Since I started my blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist in 2010, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my teaching and performing. My study with Penelope Roskell (since November 2008), and other master teachers and concert pianists, has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist and knowledge and experience as a teacher

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Convincing people that piano teaching is not a “hobby job” but a professional role which I take very seriously.

Fitting in practising, teaching, writing and other musical activities with family life, and making sure everything, and everyone, gets the right amount of attention from me.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an EPTA event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my ATCL recital diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.

I always enjoy playing for my local musical society at Teddington’s National Physical Laboratory. The audience is very engaged, supportive and warm. The Society has a very nice 1901 Steinway B.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

In my head I think I can play Debussy, but in reality, I find his piano music very difficult, with its many subtleties of shading, touch, pedal, and more. I’d like to think I have a particular affinity with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Messiaen. In recent years, I have become more and more interested in contemporary piano music.

How do you make your repertoire choices?

I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. At the moment I am working on a eclectic mix of John Cage, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, Messiaen, and Schubert. Mostly Schubert, it must be said, as I am working on the big A Major Sonata (D959).

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing Bach – his music can have a very steadying effect on the audience and is always a good concert opener. I also love playing Liszt.

Listening to at the moment – Scriabin Preludes, Morton Feldman, John Cage, late Schubert chamber music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Richter, Gould, Tortelier, De Peyer, Perahia, Lupu, Pires, Hamelin, Anderszewski, Uchida, Alison Goldfrapp, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell.

Most memorable concert experience?

It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards of Olivier Messiaen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier this year. Not only for the feat of stamina required to play the entire work without an interval, but the extreme concentration and intense focus which Osborne maintained throughout the performance. It was beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing. Don’t endlessly compare yourself to your peers or to others in your profession. Navigate your own course and true to find your own musical identity and voice.

Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!

What are you working on at the moment?

Schubert – Piano Sonata D959, Impromptu in A-flat D935/1, Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 26, Liszt Paysage (from Transcendental Etudes), various shorter works by a variety of composers including John Cage, Scriabin and Messiaen

How did the South London Concert Series come about?

In Spring 2013 my teaching colleague and friend Lorraine Liyanage and I took over running the London Piano Meetup Group, a “club” for pianists in and around London which is organised via the social media platform Meetup. After a few meetings where members performed and really seemed to relish the performing experience, it became apparent that amongst our membership we had some very fine players, and also people who were keen to perform in a more formal concert setting. Amateur pianists don’t always get many performance opportunities and we decided to change that. We also know some young professional musicians and we thought it would be interesting to combine pros and amateurs in a single concert. The format is simple: a guest performer (usually a professional or semi-professional young or emerging artist) plays for c35 minutes and 4 or 5 “supporting artists” (we prefer not to call them “amateurs”) play for around 6 minutes. Most of our concerts are held at the beautiful and intimate 1901 Arts Club near Waterloo station, though we also use LASSCo Brunswick House, a magnificent Georgian mansion near Vauxhall station which is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities. The concert usually lasts around an hour and then everyone gathers for drinks and socialising. This gives audience members the chance to meet the artists, and the atmosphere at these “after parties” is always very convivial and friendly. In a way, the series harks back to the ethos and atmosphere of the 19th-century cultural salon, where people gathered to enjoy music and socialise. The intimacy of the venue makes the musical experience much more accessible and immediate for the audience too.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Seated at my beloved 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano!

What is your most treasured possession?

I’d like to say my piano, but that would upset my family! So, my family. And good health.

What is your present state of mind?


Frances Wilson performs at LASSCO Brunswick House on 22nd January 2015 as part of the South London Concert Series. The programme includes works by Debussy, Schubert and Messiaen, together with the world premiere of ‘Preludes for Piano’ by Matthew Sear, dedicated to Frances Wilson. Buy tickets

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, teacher, blogger and music and art reviewer. In recent years she has made a name for herself in the classical music community in the UK and beyond via her blog ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’, which features articles on classical music and pianism, concert reviews, guest articles and a popular weekly interview series ‘Meet the Artist’ in which musicians, composers and conductors discuss various aspects of their creative lives. Frances is also a regular contributor to Pianist magazine’s online content, and has written guest articles for a number of classical music and music education websites including Clavier Companion and A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, Frances is co-host, with Lorraine Liyanage, of the London Piano Meetup Group, which organises performance and social events for adult amateur pianists in and around London. She is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series.

Frances holds Associate (2011) and Licentiate (2013) Diplomas in Piano Performance (both with Distinction) from Trinity College of Music, London, and for the past five years studied with Penelope Roskell, Professor of Piano & Piano Pedagogy at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance. She has also participated in masterclasses with Murray McLachlan, Carlo Grante and Norma Fisher, and taken private tuition with Alan Fraser, Graham Fitch and James Lisney.



Harking back to a bygone age….

Our 2014 finale was a concert with a special accent on late nineteenth-century Russian romantic music. Guest artist Ernest So performed a selection of songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff, together with his poignant Vocalise, followed by a handful of Preludes by Reinhold Gliere. Ernest was joined by supporting artists Petra Chong, Claire Hansell, Clio Chu and Mark Heller who performed works by Medtner, Ireland, Rachmaninoff and Mompou. Here Ernest reviews the event on his blog…..
Music had, for centuries, played an important role in our society.  Paintings and documents have long afforded us a glimpse into the vibrant musical life of generations past, particularly the music salons of 19th century.  These salons were meeting places for music lovers, performers, composers,  instrument makers, and the curious minded public of every walk of life – a cocktail of interesting characters unlikely to come together if not for the occasion.  Several performers would take to the stage, with slightly less fanfare than at a concert hall proper but every bit as compelling and captivating, and there is always this magical feeling between artists who share a stage, as though they have been let in on a secret and have instantly bonded by this shared experience.
Read the rest of Ernest’s article and see more pictures from the concert here
Petra Chong, Claire Hansell, Mark Heller, Clio Chu and Ernest So
Petra Chong, Claire Hansell, Mark Heller, Clio Chu and Ernest So