Meet the Artist……Tom Poster, pianist

Tom Poster (photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg)

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

I don’t think it was the piano specifically that attracted me as a child – I just always loved music and wanted to be involved in it in any way possible. I don’t come from a musical family, and my parents didn’t really know any classical music till I came along (I was brought up on Motown, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Queen…), but they’re both creative people and incredibly supportive, and recognised that I had an absolute fascination for music of all sorts from a very young age. The first ‘classical’ record I remember my parents buying for me was of David Munrow playing Mediaeval and Renaissance wind instruments, which I became quite obsessed with. As a child, I took up the recorder, piano, cello and oboe, but what I really wanted to be more than anything else was a composer. I’m not quite sure how I ended up being a pianist – I don’t remember a conscious moment of decision, and always feel the instrument chose me rather than the other way round. As for making music my career, I just never considered doing anything else, though for a long time I hadn’t the faintest idea how a career actually worked.

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

My first piano teacher, Hilary Morrison, was a schoolteacher who lived round the corner – she’d never taught the piano before, but it’s only with hindsight that I realise what a brilliant start she gave me. I wish she was still alive so I could thank her properly. I was incredibly fortunate to study from the age of nine onwards with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who taught me pretty much everything I know about playing the piano, pushed me to achieve things I thought I couldn’t, and inspired me to work much harder than I ever would have done otherwise. I owe her so much, and my life would have been very different without her. Many of the principles of chamber music playing which I hold dear were instilled in me by the wise guidance of Michael Freyhan at Pro Corda when I was in my teens. He showed me how to really listen – to myself and to others. There are so many other wonderful people who have had a huge influence on me, from primary school music teachers to chamber music colleagues; I can’t list them all for fear of leaving someone out, but I hope they know who they are!

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

In the earlier stages of my career I had to fight hard to avoid being pigeon-holed: I played a lot of chamber music from a young age, because I’ve always loved it, and discovered at a certain point that once people see you in that box, they often assume you’re not really a ‘solo’ pianist, despite the fact that I’ve always had a busy schedule of concertos and solo recitals. Such assumptions strike me as very odd, because it seems only natural to me that a pianist exploring Beethoven (for example) should want to play his solo sonatas, duo sonatas, trios, concertos, songs and so on – everything feeds into everything else. I’ve always thrived off the variety and balance of repertoire, and I’d hate to close the door on any part of it. And I already feel that being a pianist is more of a specialism than I’d originally intended!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m not sure that pride is a feeling I particularly associate with, but sometimes there are wonderful, indefinable moments in certain performances (I wish they happened more often!) where everything comes together in a magical way and it feels like you’re flying, as if anything’s possible. I have so many reservations about the process of recording (not least that I miss the audience hugely when I’m in a studio), and I find it very difficult to listen to my own recordings, but I do feel a sense of achievement over my new recital disc, In Dance and Song, which contains a very personal selection of works and reflects some of my wide-ranging passions. Also, the one time I dared to listen to it, I quite enjoyed the disc of the Chausson Concert which I recorded two years ago with Jennifer Pike and the Doric Quartet – it’s a wonderful piece, full of soaring melodies (and a ridiculous number of notes for the pianist).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Not sure if I can answer that, but I’ve always adored melodies and vocal music, so I find pieces with a lyrical bent particularly gratifying to play.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Pianists are spoiled for choice when it comes to repertoire, and it would take so many lifetimes to explore all the great works – as time goes on, I realise more and more that it’s a waste of time for a pianist to play anything that doesn’t really grab them. I enjoy hugely (though it sometimes requires an exhausting amount of thought) coming up with interesting and (I hope) cohesive programmes. Often, however, the ones I’m most pleased with are then scuppered by promoters saying e.g., “[A much more famous pianist] is already playing most of those pieces in his recital this season” or “Can you include a barcarolle by Snosveldt to mark his 186th anniversary year?” or (and this is a genuine quote, from a much missed promoter in Ireland) “Fauré spells death at the box office”.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Among many others, I love the Holywell Room in Oxford, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and the Wigmore Hall. Playing at the BBC Proms is always a huge thrill. The Spoleto Festival in Italy when Gian Carlo Menotti was around was unforgettable.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To play – far too many to list, but here are some which I find particularly enjoyable and/or rewarding to play: Beethoven concertos (including the Triple), Brahms piano quartets, Chopin solo works, Dvorak chamber music, Fauré (lots), Grieg miniatures, Mendelssohn chamber music, Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, Mozart (all!), Rachmaninov concertos, Ravel (lots), Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Schubert and Schumann Lieder, Richard Strauss’ early chamber music, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. And – stretching back to my schooldays and early jobs in hotel bars – I’ve always loved playing Gershwin, Kern, Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook. To listen to – this changes a lot, but perhaps most consistently Bach, Mozart operas, Sondheim musicals, Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook recordings.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Along with the great composers whose music I play (of whom Mozart has perhaps brought me most joy of all) and the wonderful colleagues I have the pleasure of working with (not least my dear friends in the Aronowitz Ensemble), here is a very incomplete list featuring some musicians who have greatly inspired me in some way or other, which I’ve restricted to those I don’t know personally: Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Emil Gilels, Fritz Kreisler, Dinu Lipatti, Radu Lupu, Joni Mitchell, Ginette Neveu, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar Peterson, Lucia Popp, Nina Simone.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a listener – a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in 1999, part of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage; most specifically the final aria of BWV 159, one of the most heart-stopping moments of my life so far. As a performer – I think I have a pretty good memory, so I remember most of my concert experiences, both good and bad, quite vividly. Two experiences which I will always associate with a wonderfully heady mixture of fear and immense joy both involved Robin Ticciati and the SCO – touring with the Ligeti Concerto in 2010 (the most fiendishly difficult piece I’ve ever played, but also utterly enthralling), and playing my first Brahms 2 at three days’ notice when Pierre-Laurent Aimard cancelled. (That wasn’t actually my most last-minute stand-in: I once got off a plane at 4.30pm and, when I turned on my phone, there was a message asking if I’d play the Grieg Concerto at 7.30pm that evening. The rehearsal had already taken place, but I jumped in a taxi and somehow got through the performance unscathed, and with a curious sense of liberation on stage!) I will always remember with huge fondness my appearance in the BBC Young Musician final back in 2000, under the starry ceiling of the Bridgewater Hall. It was a big, thrilling moment for a rather naïve boy who’d always felt something of an outsider and who’d never experienced anything remotely on that scale. It also opened a lot of doors. On a non-pianistic note – and perhaps reflecting my early desires to be an actor as well as a musician – I enormously enjoyed appearing as reciter in Walton’s Façade a few years back at Aberystwyth Musicfest (where I’ve also played the swanee whistle in drag).

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

First and foremost, that music is the most important thing, and if you love it so much that you can’t be without it, then immerse yourself and go for it – but try to be flexible and open-minded about your exact path. Avoid cynics and negative people – there are a lot of them around, such as the ones who like to hover after a concert and say helpful things like, “It’s a terrible struggle, the music business, isn’t it? Must be very difficult for you.” Of course there are tricky times, but no money in the world could persuade me to switch to another profession.

Regarding education, I personally think it’s important to remember there are valid alternatives to the music school/music college route. All my schooling took place in the comprehensive system, and my first degree was at university. It dismays me when people express surprise (which they really do) that some of us in the classical music profession hail from a regular state school background; I’m also immeasurably saddened that, if music in state schools continues to be eroded and marginalised by the government, before long there may not be many aspiring musicians to pass such advice to.

What are you working on at the moment?

On my music stand right now are three mini-concertos which I’m performing soon: Bach F minor, Judith Weir, and Finzi’s Eclogue. Also Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme (a truly brilliant piece for piano and enormous orchestra), Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, and Ravel La Valse. I still compose a little – I’m currently writing a chamber opera for puppets, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, in collaboration with my brother’s theatre company, Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre, as well as a short score for an independent film. And trying to finish some DIY before my girlfriend gets home from tour.

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

Doing pretty much what I am now. Though I’d like to have written a hit West End musical in the interim. And to have successfully campaigned (without it having taken up too much time) for the provision of free music education for all children, which would incidentally have enabled world peace.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To see an aardvark, moose, tapir or dugong in its natural habitat.

What is your present state of mind?

Sleepy.

Tom Poster’s new solo CD, In Dance and Song, is available from Champs Hill Records. Further details here

Tom Poster is internationally recognised as a pianist of outstanding artistry and versatility, equally in demand as soloist and chamber musician across an unusually extensive repertoire. He has been described as “a marvel, [who] can play anything in any style” (The Herald), “an unparalleled sound-magician” (General-Anzeiger), a “young lion” (The Guardian), and as possessing “great authority and astounding virtuosity” (Est Républicain). He won First Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition 2007, the Ensemble Prize at the Honens International Piano Competition 2009, and the keyboard sections of the Royal Over-Seas League and BBC Young Musician of the Year Competitions in 2000. 

Tom’s full biography and diary is available on his website: www.tomposter.co.uk

Interview date: 10th March 2014