Meet the Artist – James Willshire, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I suppose I was inspired to learn the piano by watching my Father play. He studied at the RNCM and so music was a part of our home life. I was then lucky to study with a great teacher, Heather Slade-Lipkin, initially privately and then at Chetham’s School of Music – and the idea of a career in music followed on naturally.

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

My two teachers, Heather and Joan Havill, have been huge influences.

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

Currently it is finding time to practice with a 20 month old child! More seriously, I think that maintaining your desire to improve, the desire to work every day, and maintaining the love that made you start learning the instrument in the first place takes a deal of mental fortitude and effort.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My recording of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH stands out, in the quality of the finished product and in the sense of achievement in recording one of the longest and most difficult works for solo piano ever written. My performance of the Passacaglia lasts for 85 minutes. The work places colossal demands on technique, stamina, and the ability to pace a performance.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know! I think I’ll say Debussy as I am in the middle of performing all his solo piano music this year!

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

I tend to look for potential projects and themes. So this year, being the 100th anniversary of the death of Debussy, I have devoted myself to the task of learning and performing all of his solo works. I am in the middle of a complete cycle of performances in Glasgow, and am curating a Debussy Festival in Edinburgh, at St Cecilia’s Hall, in December. The festival will feature the solo piano music, a selection of the songs and the late chamber sonatas.

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

The Bridgewater Hall is fantastic. I love the feeling of space, and having to fill that space with sound and character.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I think I am very changeable! If Beethoven, then Brendel. Bach would be Perahia. Schumann would be Radu Lupu or Richard Goode. So I am a bit of a butterfly…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing a Mozart concerto in Calcutta Cathedral. High up the windows of the Cathedral did not have glass panes. It was an evening concert, and during the performance local birdlife came home to roost. That Mozart A major concerto was accompanied by singing from up high, a fitting complement to such a fabulous composer.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally I let other people decide as to my own success. I believe that if you are making a living from performing music, if you are trying to be the best musician that you can be, and if you are inspiring others – then that seems to be pretty successful.

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

To my students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I have always stressed the need to be flexible and to be adaptable. Skills as a musician are essential, but on their own they are rarely enough. For most pianists a career playing Bach and Beethoven is difficult to obtain; one’s love of the great classical composers must be complemented by a practical interest in contemporary music, teaching, chamber music, taking music to young people, researching music that has been forgotten or overlooked. All of this is part of a musical career.