York2 is the piano duo of John and Fiona York
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
John: My mother played quite well, we had a decent upright and the best teacher in Eastbourne lived round the corner. She was recommended to my mother by our piano tuner!
Fiona: My father. He was an extremely talented amateur pianist who was torn between career choices – Law won but he loved seeing me develop into a fully-fledged professional.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
J: My first teacher who was taught at Guildhall by Cimbro Martin, who also taught John, who also taught me…! The methods passed on to me are still going strong in my own teaching.
F: All four of my teachers – all very demanding and revealing – and my early, chance discovery of Debussy and French piano music in general which gave me direction for at least ten years at the start of my career.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
J: Doing the Tchaikovsky competition was tough, demanding, horrible and a bit distressing – ultimately pretty pointless, too, considering that the UK government had only just evicted over a hundred spies from London!
F: In the early days, learning the big repertoire and persuading fixers and audiences that they really do want to hear the entire Planets Suite played on one piano!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
J: The York2 recording of Debussy’s La Mer – and one or two of our many Rite of Spring performances.
F: Of course the above, but also an extraordinary, impossibly fast, brilliant and thrilling four-minute piece called Impulse by Benjamin Wallfisch which he wrote for two pianos and two marimbas. We never actually met the marimba players…
Which particular works do you think you play best?
J: The big orchestral duet works and, in total contrast, some of the ‘smallest’ salon repertoire such as Dolly Suite by Fauré or Jeux d’Enfants by Bizet which are extremely sophisticated in their own way and ever popular.
F: Those same pieces with York2 – and the Beethoven ‘cello works with Raphael Wallfisch.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
[J and F discuss...] No particular plan – the usual delving into anniversaries perhaps, unusual repertoire perhaps, nice couplings and strong juxtapositions – whatever feels good and is attractive to promoters and audiences.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
J: Like everyone else I’d always say the Wigmore Hall and, more recently, the main Kings Place hall near King’s Cross station. Both are beautiful, sound great and have real atmosphere.
F: The Singing Hall in St.Paul’s Girls’ School is a favourite – [J interrupts: I’d forgotten that one but absolutely agree!] It was designed and used by Holst in his role as Director of Music and the acoustic is still wonderful.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
J: To perform – The Rite. To listen to – Brahms 4
F: To perform – La Mer. To listen to – Bruckner 8, or the entire Ring cycle.
Who are your favourite musicians?
J: I’d always say one of the great orchestras before any soloist – but I admire some of the great singers – and also pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who has integrity and real class. I really believe very few other pianists deserve the adulation they get these days – you probably know who I mean!
F: He might say that – I couldn’t possibly comment.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
J: A particularly bad one was playing Lutoslawski Paganini Variations for two pianos, 20 feet apart, to six people at 11 o’clock at night in the Salzburg Festival and hearing the receding footsteps of one of those six, who turned out to be the janitor.
F: A bad one? – the Greenwich Festival 6-Steinway concert at Eltham Palace years ago, a horrendous, long, difficult, fractious, uncomfortable and very unpleasant experience.
A good one? – York2’s Wigmore Hall recital at my 30th anniversary concert.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
J: To read the score and study the context, not to impose ego or allow ignorance – only then you can allow yourself freedom with complete confidence.
F: To show the musical complexity of your repertoire and not patronise your audiences with over-simplified and obvious renditions.
What are you working on at the moment?
J: Some enormous cello and piano sonatas for upcoming concerts – and the complete works of Rebecca Clarke and Ernest Bloch for cello.
F: Some tiny, utterly beautiful miniatures for a friend’s Soiree.
[F notes that J is keen to answer all of the questions as follows...]
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still strong and still giving concerts – and still enjoying doing it!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Does it exist? It sounds complacent. Life should be, and is, a good mix.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have none.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Travelling in exciting places, driving in overseas countries.
What is your present state of mind?
Still coming to terms with the inevitability of getting old!
F chose just one question: A quiet mind – to love and be loved – an inextinguishable sense of humour.
York2 performs much by Holst, Debussy and Stravinsky in the Wimbledon Music Festival. Further information here
YORK2 has a fine reputation as the ‘duo with a difference’, gained through John and Fiona’s exploration of larger scale and contemporary scores alongside the rich and familiar duet repertoire. They have given concerts for societies and festivals in the UK and Australia, on BBC Radio 3, CBC TV and TV Ontario (in both the UK and Canada), on boats on the Great Lakes, at garden parties, at the Salzburg Festival, at elegant Edwardian soirées, marathon recitals in Innsbruck, concertos at the Barbican Centre and South Bank in London etc.
Their recordings on the LondonHall label include a mixed programme of minimalist music by contemporary Austrian composer Norbert Zehm and, released in January 2001 but since deleted, Holst’s ‘The Planets’ (the world première recording of the composer’s four-hands version) and complete solo piano works for Black Box Music, and two-piano works of Poulenc, also on Black Box. Gramophone Magazine (June 2001) commented on their ‘likeable spirit and shapely accounts’ and noted the ‘exemplary polish’ of the Holst recording.
Fiona has taught at several London schools and in the junior departments of the Royal College, Trinity and Guildhall. At present she is with the piano staff at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Eltham College, both in London. John was Professor at Guildhall for 33 years and is Senior Music Head of Department at St. Paul’s Girls’ School where Holst was Director of Music for 20 years in the early 20th century and where John discovered the long-forgotten four-hands score of The Planets.
Recently they toured Australia and Canada, playing in Sydney and Canberra and at the Festival of the Sound in Ontario. At only one day’s notice in 2010 they gave a recital in an important festival in Madrid, to a full house, broadcast live on Spanish radio. They gave a highly successful recital at London’s Wigmore Hall marking the 30th anniversary of John’s début there. The Independent and Financial Times reviewers were enthusiastic – ‘York2 goes stratospheric!’ – concluding by saying that ‘the playing was enough to confirm the evening in its ambition, scope and sheer grit as something exceptional, duly exciting a prolonged ovation from its capacity audience.’
York2’s unique repertoire is being released soon on Nimbus: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Debussy’s La mer, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, Holst’s Planets and music by York Bowen.
Independently and together Fiona and John have rounded, versatile careers that combine concerts, John working in particular with celebrated cellist Raphael Wallfisch, editing and reviewing, composing for major publishers and adjudicating, and teaching and coaching at the highest level in Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Bermuda, Venezuela – and London.