Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
There was always a piano in the house, which we inherited from my great grandmother. It was by no means a good instrument (quite a tired old upright) but I took to it immediately, apparently playing with both hands and picking out tunes before I began lessons as the age of 8. I never practiced as such (at least not until I went to Chetham’s at 16), but just loved playing right from day one!
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Bernard Roberts (my teacher at Chetham’s) lived and breathed music and was a constant source of inspiration. He was a kind, warm person and never strict in the lessons – he really made me want to improve, but in a relaxed way and always with the pure love of music in mind. Yonty Solomon at the RCM was also invaluable in my development. He never talked about technique but the magic and colour in his playing is something I will never forget.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I found my first solo recording one of the greatest challenges so far. I felt so uncomfortable when the red light went on, that it was such a stressful experience! It taught me a lot about relaxation in performance and about the importance of focusing on the music, not just on accuracy! Now having a few recordings under my belt, I feel much more relaxed in the studio and actually quite enjoy it.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
It’s always difficult to listen to one’s own recordings, but I am particularly satisfied with the two-volume set (on SOMM) I did with Hiro Takenouchi. There are several world premieres of Delius works in arrangements for two pianos, recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering these wonderful works and the two piano arrangements (while not coming close to replicating the orchestral sonorities) provide a special clarity and transparency.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I love playing works by composer-pianists of the twentieth century, especially Rachmaninoff. I’ve performed the Third Piano Concerto a number of times and despite the infamous technical challenges I feel at home in this repertoire and while I strive with every performance to find something better, Rachmaninoff’s world is one in which I always feel welcome. At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early chamber works (especially the cello sonata and trios) provide such excitement and inspiration that they are always a joy to perform.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I guess this largely depends on who I am collaborating with (I play a lot of chamber music) and the requirements of concert promoters. I have been part of a number of ‘composer immersion’ projects in recent seasons, such as a complete cycle of Brahms chamber music, all the Beethoven trios etc – a wonderful way to get inside the musical ‘journey’ of these great composers. I also try to always include an element of lesser-known repertoire in all my performances so new ideas and discoveries feature high on my list of priorities when planning future concerts.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I have played in a number of wonderful halls (particularly the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall), but probably my favourite so far is Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Despite being such a large venue, the feeling on stage is an intimate one and not at all intimidating, and the acoustic is the most satisfying of any of the larger halls I’ve played in. St John’s Smith Square comes in a close second, with one of the finest Steinways ever!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I listen to quite a variety of music (not only classical but even – dare I say it – some musical theatre!) However as I spend most of my waking hours involved in music performance or teaching, I do appreciate silence when I am relaxing! I love listening to the great orchestral repertoire (especially Mahler Symphonies) and opera also provides wonderful inspiration.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I have always admired Martha Argerich – I once commented to one of my teachers that watching her performances had taught me more about technique and musicality than any of my teachers – I don’t think this went down so well! I’ve been to quite a number of her live performances and am always struck by the way she communicates raw emotion and energy, and by the fact that she is so humble in person. For me, she epitomizes the musician as communicator.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been so many! That said, I particularly enjoyed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto a few years ago with a wonderful amateur orchestra in London, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra. I love performing – especially in chamber music and concertos – and the performances with amateur groups have often been the most satisfying. I’ve played with some wonderful amateur orchestras and the fact that the musicians are there out of choice rather than to earn money means that they are constantly striving for higher standards and love every moment – something that is quite infectious!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Having recently returned from three weeks teaching on a course for 14-18 year olds, one thought that is very much on my mind right now is that aspiring musicians must learn how to listen to their own playing. We spend a good deal of time playing and of course we hear the sounds, but how often do we actually listen and analyse the sounds we are producing? I often encourage my students to record their performances and they are frequently shocked by what they hear!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on some interesting repertoire for a new solo album – further details to be announced soon! I am also learning some new piano quartets (Walton, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré, Mozart) and revising the Franck Quintet for a performance with the Edinburgh Quartet later this year. Next year is Scriabin’s anniversary year and as such I will be playing his concerto in several performances, so this is also on my long practice list!
You have been Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts since 2008. Tell us more about this.
As I had no experience whatsoever at the outset, it was a steep learning curve and was so grateful to be given the opportunity to see the music business from the other side! The concert series has gone from strength to strength and we now programme around 27 concerts per season by some of the finest chamber music groups around. We also have generous support from several distinguished patrons including Timothy West and Prunella Scales and pianist, Stephen Hough. Working at Conway Hall is hugely challenging as well as rewarding, but I greatly value this variety in my career.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Doing exactly what I’m doing now, but at an even higher level and performing even more often.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A life in which I can enjoy what I love most – making music – and with plenty of time for relaxing and spending time with people close to me, and my beloved dachshund, Fergus!
What is your most treasured possession?
Probably my Steinway Model D. It’s a great instrument and constantly maturing, so makes practicing a pleasure!
What do you enjoy doing most?
When not performing, I enjoy eating! I love discovering new cuisines, and spend rather too much money on eating out at exquisite restaurants.
What is your present state of mind?
Excited. I’m discovering lots of new repertoire at the moment – it’s always great to have this freshness.
Conway Hall Sunday Concerts
Recognised as an exciting performer of the new generation, Steinway Artist Simon Callaghan’s recent schedule has included Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. His engagements have taken him all over the UK, throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. He has also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, ITV and BBC Television. In September 2013 he took up the Anthony Saltmarsh Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.
Following his highly successful release of English piano music on the Belgian De Rode Pomp label (featuring several world premières), Simon Callaghan’s collaboration with SOMM Recordings began in 2012 with two volumes of Delius Orchestral Music in arrangements for two pianos, with Hiroaki Takenouchi. Receiving great critical acclaim, the BBC Music Magazine commented that “Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi… play with such love, panache and exact synchronisation.” Simon’s burgeoning relationship with SOMM has led to two further volumes of Brahms chamber music with award-winning cellist James Barralet, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and violist Hannah Strijbos (including the first recording of all the Hungarian Dances in Barralet’s arrangement for ‘cello and piano). He also recorded a highly-acclaimed disc of violin sonatas with Midori Komachi and will release a further solo album in spring 2015.
Simon Callaghan’s busy performing schedule has included two residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), rare performances of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and the Third Concerto of Nikolay Medtner (the first in the UK since 1946). He has also collaborated with Prunella Scales, Ilona Domnich, Timothy West, Jack Liebeck, Thomas Gould, Raphael Wallfisch and the Maggini, Sacconi, Carducci and Coull Quartets in a broad range of repertoire. Simon is a founder member of the Werther Ensemble, brought together at the inaugural Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2013. Recent and forthcoming projects for this ensemble include recitals throughout the UK, a complete cycle of the chamber music of Brahms, a return to the Whittington Festival playing works by Mendelssohn and a three-concert series at St John’s, Smith Square, exploring the jewels of the piano quartet repertoire. Together with pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Simon is also part of the Parnassius Piano Duo, which has a particular interest in championing lesser-known English works, particularly those of Parry and Sterndale Bennett.
As a teacher, Simon is Head of Piano of the Ingenium Music Academy (Winchester), a member of the faculty at Harrow School, and has given masterclasses around the world, most recently in Malaysia and Thailand. He is also Artistic Director of the renowned Conway Hall Sunday Concerts (London), the longest-running chamber music series in Europe. Alongside this work he is co-producer of MusicUpClose, a highly successful series in collaboration with sound collective, introducing non-musicians to the world of classical music. Following his studies at Chetham’s School of Music with Bernard Roberts, Simon was awarded a full scholarship to study with Yonty Solomon at the Royal College of Music, from where he graduated with first class honours and won numerous prizes.