Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I played all kinds of instruments when I was young, but the piano is like a universe. You can use it to compose and to perform – it represents so many different styles of music from early French keyboard music and Bach, to Beethoven and John Cage, jazz and blues. I’ve always loved the piano, and loved listening to other pianists.
I’m devoted to practicing and studying music, mainly. It’s the physical and intellectual stamina it requires that I still find so exciting; I really enjoy talking a pencil and marking the score, and spending hours with a work. It’s allowed me to travel all over the world, which I never expected, as a performer. I love teaching, and collaborating with other artists and composers.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My mother had me when she was young, and I was her first piano student. She was very imaginative in her musical tastes: together we played Bach, Mozart, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Beatles songs, and gospel music. Being taken on by YCAT (Young Concert Artist Trust) in my twenties was a fantastic apprenticeship; I built up a big repertoire, and learnt to communicate with audiences.
David Sigall was also undoubtedly a major influence. He was my manager until he retired last year. He taught me to see the long game, and encouraged me to be a curator and artistic director. He seemed totally unfazed by anything I got up to, whether it was starting a record label, conducting or collaborating with world musicians.
I’ve also been heavily influenced by jazz musicians; the way they collaborate, make things happen, hang out together, and support each other’s gigs.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I’ve always loved playing at the BBC Proms – my first one was nearly thirty years ago! And broadcasting live is tough – you have to be on top of everything.
My most treasured memory is working with Pierre Boulez, twice; first on a European tour with the Philharmonia and later with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was witty, warm, elegant, gossipy and just a gorgeous musician to be with, both on and offstage.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
Impossible to say, as they’re all flawed to my ears, of course. But for different reasons, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards; Deep River with the saxophonist Andy Sheppard, which explored music of the Deep South; and my most recent recording, the complete Chopin Mazurkas.
Very early on in my career I recorded Charles Ives’ First Sonata, an absolute epic, at Snape Maltings. I still love his music very deeply.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I seem to gravitate towards intense miniatures – Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys, Chopin Mazurkas – or huge cycles – Messiaen, Beethoven, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I like architecture; on the other hand I also like playing in the moment. I find so much music is a mixture of structure, and unfolding, like following a fork in the road.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It depends on the venues, and what I’d like to add to my repertoire. I still learn new pieces – this year it was Schubert’s last sonata in B flat, coupled with some late Liszt and Ligeti. I’m not at all rigid about the number of recital programmes or concertos I’ll carry around in any one season. It depends on all the other collaborations and new work I’m doing; I always seem to be working on new projects with poets or artists, as well as other musicians.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Many favourites – the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Bimhuis in Amsterdam; the Wigmore Hall, the medieval hall at Dartington. Something to do with intense atmosphere and audiences.
Favourite pieces to perform?
I always love Bach and Beethoven; I love practising them. I’m heavily into Chopin’s fifty-eight mazurkas at the moment, played chronologically; rather like reading someone’s personal diary.
Who are your favourite musicians?
So many. The pianists I listen most to (at the moment) are Edwin Fischer, Rubinstein and Maria João Pires. I adore spending time with Alfred Brendel; I admire great improvisers and slip into their concerts all the time.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably playing Shostakovich First Piano Concerto at the Last Night of the Proms – memorable for all kinds of reasons, including the controlled hysteria backstage. Being invited to play the Goldberg Variations at the Albert Hall by John Eliot Gardiner was pretty exciting for me.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Individuality, fearless talent, creativity, and the ability to design opportunities – fundamental to building a long career. The piano students at the Royal Academy of Music (as Head of Piano there I mentor them all) come with a very high degree of technical skill and musicianship. But I encourage them to develop other skills—curating, improvising, working with multimedia, commissioning composers, conducting from the keyboard, having a working knowledge of early keyboards—that will help them flourish at the beginning of their careers. Every summer we run a Piano Festival, which is largely curated now by the students themselves, and it’s a testament to their imagination and unstoppable energy.
Joanna MacGregor is one of the world’s most innovative musicians, appearing as a concert pianist, curator and collaborator. Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor of the University of London, Joanna MacGregor is also the Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School & Festival.
As a solo artist Joanna has performed in over eighty countries and appeared with many eminent conductors – Pierre Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, Valery Gergiev, Sir Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas amongst them – and orchestras, including London Symphony and Sydney Symphony orchestras, Chicago, Melbourne and Oslo Philharmonic orchestras, the Berlin Symphony and Salzburg Camerata. She has premiered many landmark compositions, ranging from Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Django Bates to John Adams and James MacMillan. She performs regularly at major venues throughout the world, including Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre and the Barbican in London, Sydney Opera House, Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Mozarteum in Salzburg.