Meet the Artist – Thomas Kelly, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I started playing the piano aged 3 when my parents bought an upright after I seemed enthusiastic about a two-octave keyboard toy! My earliest listening memories are the recordings of Alfred Brendel playing Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas, which I studied alongside the scores long before I could play them. Brendel’s Hammerklavier video recording is just phenomenal.

The next influence which inspired me the most was Vladimir Horowitz, who I initially heard on “The Art Of Piano” documentary playing his spectacular Carmen-Fantasie. When I heard his Rachmaninoff 3rd for the first time I hadn’t heard any other Romantic concertos to relate it to and had very limited harmonic understanding, so it felt like jumping into a whole parallel universe.

The most important influence was certainly my professor Andrew Ball who I met in 2015. He represents the perfect blend of intellect and devilry for me and has always been very interpretively open-minded which I’ve hugely appreciated. He’s introduced me to many fascinating pieces including Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue and Reubke’s Piano Sonata.

There are many contrasting pianists who I admire, some names are: Richter, Gould, Michelangeli, Pletnev, Hough, Hamelin.

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

I lost direction around the age of 16 and had stopped practicing properly for a year before I met Andrew at the Purcell School, who thankfully kick-started me. It’s a very tricky challenge raising a potential young pianist in this country, choosing between the inflexibility of state schools, home-education and British boarding schools. It can be a thankless task for parents, but I am certainly very grateful for how my first years were handled and being limited to two/three hours of practice a day for many years. That restraint meant that I still had the hunger to focus as much as I wanted at an older age when piano was a career choice I consciously wanted to pursue. I really wish state schools were more flexible with music, as going to a boarding school can be intimidating, especially straight from home-schooling. However, I think I went to Purcell at the right time, they supported me fantastically well, and I feel everything is working out thus far!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

There is a performance of Schumann’s Carnaval and Toccata in an internal Royal College competition which I will remember with pride; Carnaval is such a kaleidoscope of a piece!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Tentatively, the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Prokofiev – I find I relate to their (very different) musical languages the easiest.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

My off-stage hobbies and interests tend to be quite separated from my musical thoughts and practice. What I find relevant are: conscious memories, especially of states of feeling; the subliminal, i.e. what I couldn’t or shouldn’t say in words. Everything that’s optimistic which might resemble “faith”, that a piece is a life in itself, which carries meaning and achieves something through its existence. And conversely everything in the mind that is destructive or neurotic, which exists necessarily in all of us and can in an ideal world be somehow ennobled by being channelled through a piece of music.

I wonder what I’d be doing if music wasn’t an option! I’ve never played video games mostly because any craving to explore alternate worlds I find satisfied in music, certainly to the extent that I can’t be bothered catching up with Xbox proficiency! Being able to directly affect audiences is something that I would miss. The Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp talks about playing football in such a way that the fans forget about their daily lives and problems for just 90 minutes every week. I think that’s a similar duty for all entertainers and artists!

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

I’m still firmly in the stage of developing my repertoire! It’s really a balancing act of trying to perform my strengths whilst working on weaknesses in the background. I love trying to find great music that few other people perform, and I’d love to explore programming options in the future including potentially altering the whole structure of evening concerts.

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

It is a thrilling experience to play at the Wigmore Hall, and the acoustic is unsurpassable. St Mary’s Perivale run a unique and very supportive concert series, and I always enjoy travelling and discovering new venues abroad, I can’t wait to visit more places after the lockdown! I once played at the Teatro Del Sale restaurant in Florence which was perfect as I genuinely can’t perform with an empty stomach!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think communication is the key, because there can be no questioning the strength of our art, or the validity of devoting one’s life to it. I’ve rarely heard anyone decry the artform, and the majority of people who aren’t listening just haven’t been personally persuaded yet! Whilst classical music and advanced education go hand in hand, a great performance shouldn’t exclude anyone. If I had any constructive suggestions from an audience’s perspective, they would mostly be practical. For example, especially with the accessibility of YouTube and Spotify, I think acoustic deserves to be taken extremely seriously. I find balancing with the orchestra and being heard crystal-clear to be one of the great challenges of performing concertos, and I would appreciate any help from the hall’s acoustics at least. Programming is the classical pianist’s greatest liberty, and I loved many of Stephen Hough’s suggestions in his book “Rough Ideas”, especially concerning the creative use of the drinks interval!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably going to see a friend give a full recital at Wigmore Hall – he is amazing to start with, but a personal connection with the performer really heightens one’s experience of the music! I also have great memories in Birmingham 2013 of hearing Uchida playing the Mozart G Major Concerto in the 1st half and Andris Nelsons conducting Scriabin’s Poem Of Ecstasy in the 2nd.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Achieving the perfect balance of sincerity and charisma onstage and speaking directly to every audience member through the music.

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

Above all the quality which Andrew has taught me by example, which is patience! It’s our artistic growth and how we play and understand music in our 30’s and beyond which is paramount, whether that involves a performing career or not.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A post-concert lasagne.

Since 2015, Thomas Kelly has been studying with Andrew Ball, initially at the Purcell school of Music and now at Royal College of Music where he is in third-year undergraduate. Thomas has won first prizes including Pianale International Piano Competition 2017, Kharkiv Assemblies 2018, at Lucca Virtuoso e Bel Canto festival 2018, RCM Joan Chissell Schumann competition 2019, Kendall Taylor Beethoven competition 2019 and BPSE Intercollegiate Beethoven competition 2019. In addition, he has performed in a variety of venues, including the Wigmore Hall, the Cadogan Hall, Holy Trinity Sloane Square, St James’ Piccadilly, St Mary’s Perivale, St Paul’s Bedford, the Poole Lighthouse Arts Centre, the Stoller Hall, Oxford Town Hall, at Paris Conservatoire, the StreingreaberHaus in Bayreuth, the Teatro Del Sale in Florence, and in Vilnius and Palanga. He has benefited greatly from lessons and masterclasses with distinguished professors including Dina Yoffe, Paul Lewis, Mikhail Voskrosensky, Valentina Berman, Justas Dvarionas, Riccardo Cecchetti, Vanessa Latarche and Ian Jones. Thomas’ studies at RCM are generously supported by Ms Daunt and Ms Stevenson, Pat Kendall Taylor and C. Bechstein pianos. 

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