Meet the Artist……Joseph Houston, pianist

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

I started learning the piano when I was five after hearing my older brother play (he started learning a couple of years before me). I remember just being very excited at the prospect of having lessons as I always loved the sound of the instrument and, having heard my brother play a little, I just couldn’t wait to make those sounds myself. Deciding to make the piano my career came rather late for me, though: I didn’t grow up in a particularly musical environment, and the first time I ever saw a professional pianist play wasn’t until I was about 14! So I suppose I didn’t even realise it was a possible career until then. I think the real turning point was when I started having lessons with my second teacher Ian Jones. He used to lend me CDs every week and I’d listen to them obsessively. I grew up in the countryside and there weren’t many opportunities to hear live classical music, so my early knowledge of pianists came mainly from these recordings (Michelangeli’s Gaspard; Lazar Berman playing Rach 3; and Perahia playing Bach English Suites; and Aimard playing Ligeti Etudes to name a few). I think listening to these recordings was what made me decide to be a pianist.

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

As I mentioned above I didn’t grow up in a particularly musical environment, but ever since I started studying at the University of York, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing musicians and people, and it’s very hard to single one thing, or person, out. I learnt with a local piano teacher until I was sixteen, and, while she did cover the basics, I had all sorts of problems by the time I met my second piano teacher, Ian Jones (now teaching at the RCM). I owe a lot to him: he helped me through a really difficult period in my development. I was really quite behind as a pianist for my age, but he was a real inspiration and very supportive, and helped me catch up quickly. But I think the single most important thing that has inspired my musical life has always been the people that I have studied with, worked with, and met throughout my life (and not just musicians!). Anyone who thinks that western art music is on the decline should go to any university music department, festival, concert venue, or music college and they’ll see that there is just so much musical activity happening in every single direction, and involving such intelligent, creative, and interesting people. I find that extremely inspiring.

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

Probably settling into music college once I got there! I had a real crisis once I arrived. It’s such an intense, competitive, and intimidating atmosphere, that I really struggled at first. It took me a long time to realise that you just have to focus on your own activities and ideas and that there’s not one right way of doing anything (even if your teachers say otherwise!). It’s so easy to get distracted by what other people are doing at a music college. Once I got used to all of that I had a great time.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve been pretty lucky in the last 5 years, having done so many interesting and challenging projects. One of my favourite performances has to be doing Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with the University of York Symphony Orchestra and Cynthia Millar, which was in 2011. It’s such an ecstatically joyous piece and so much fun to play that it’s a hard experience to beat! I’d love the chance to do it again someday……

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I’ve always been fairly proud of my Debussy Images (particularly book II). And Brahms’ 1st Concerto. Turangalîla is up there too.

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

I never have total control over this, which I think is healthy. It’s great when you have to learn a piece you don’t know for a specific project and it ends up being a real discovery for you, and something you might not otherwise have come across. Obviously this does sometimes go the other way! The rest of the time I just try to programme the things I’m particularly interested in at that time. I also like to keep learning new repertoire each season. This makes things a little harder, but it’s so satisfying and you learn so much with every new piece you play that I try to include a new one per programme.

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

Wigmore Hall is a lovely place to play – beautiful acoustics and a wonderful instrument. I also love going back to where I studied for my undergraduate degree (University of York) – the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall there has such an intimate atmosphere. It is a little over-resonant, but for certain repertoire I haven’t yet found anywhere better. But every venue has its own pros and cons really, and you’d have to be unlucky not to find at least one piece in the programme that the venue really suits.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love Bartók at the moment. Any of the piano pieces or string quartets. Morton Feldman has been a recent obsession. I haven’t played anything big yet (but learning For John Cage very soon), so will have to get back to you on the joys of performing Feldman! Debussy has always been a favourite of mine to play. Recently, I’ve played a bit of Ives which was great to perform — really brash, eccentric, and full of life. Will certainly be doing more in the future. And I always love to hear or play anything by Cage.

Who are your favourite musicians?

It’s always the composers that interest me. John Cage is a real hero of mine – amazing ideas, amazing music, and such a positive influence on the 20th Century! Ives was a fascinating character – full of contradictions and astonishing to think that he was writing such experimental music so early in the 20th Century. Pianists I love are Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Cortot, Myra Hess and Maria Joao Pires.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Very hard to single one out. Probably seeing Anton Kuerti give a lecture-recital on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations several years ago at the Chethams Summer School. He knew the piece so intimately and played so wonderfully that all the usual performer/audience boundaries seemed to break down: it just felt like we were inside the music. I actually found it hard to move from my seat afterwards.

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

Do the things you believe in; don’t be distracted by others; constantly re-assess everything; and don’t give up!

What are you working on at the moment?

Chopin’s Barcarolle; five Scarlatti Sonatas; Luigi Nono’s Sofferte onde Serene for piano and tape; Mists by Xenakis; Sposalizio by Liszt; and Mantra by Stockhausen.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Walking and wild camping in the Scottish Highlands.

Joseph Houston performs at the Ryedale Festival on Friday 25th July. Further details and tickets here

Described by the Financial Times as a musician of ‘versatility and poise’, Joseph Houston is a London-based pianist specialising in Contemporary Music. He studied at the University of York and the Royal College of Music where he received a first-class honours degree in Music and an Mmus in Advanced Performance with distinction. While at the RCM he won the Frank Merrick Prize, the 2nd Prize in the Beethoven Piano Competition, the Emanuel Piano Trophy (North London Music Festival), and a place on the London Sinfonietta Academy 2010. His teachers have included Ian Jones, Ashley Wass, and Andrew Ball.

In his first year at the RCM Joseph was selected to perform British composer Michael Zev Gordon’s The Impermanence of Things for solo piano, electronics, and ensemble with the RCM’s New Perspectives Ensemble. Since then, he has performed at venues across the UK, including Steinway Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Weston Auditorium (University of Herts.), the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall (University of York), Kings Place, Cafe Oto, the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room and Wigmore Hall. Soon after graduating from the RCM, Joseph was invited to perform a piano duet version of Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto with his teacher, Ashley Wass, resulting in a performance at the RCM’s Brahms festival and conference in 2011. He has also been in demand as a concerto soloist, performing such classic 19th and 20th century works as Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with the University of York Symphony Orchestra and Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot), conducted by John Stringer; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Henley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ian Brown; John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra with the RCM’s Variable Geometries Ensemble; Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto with the De Havilland Philharmonic Orchestra; and the UK premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Ryedale Concerto for solo piano and orchestra at the 2013 Ryedale Festival. Also active as a chamber musician, Joseph is the principal pianist of the Octandre Ensemble, a collective dedicated to the promotion of young composers and rarely-performed Contemporary repertoire.

Full biography on Joseph’s website:

www.josephhouston.co.uk