I met Chris at one of my teacher’s weekend courses in March 2011, where he impressed us all with a very committed performance of Liszt’s ‘Vallée d’Obermann’.

I started to take an interest in the piano at around the age of 9. My father, a keen amateur pianist and dance band leader, died when I was very young and I have no clear recollection of him.  What he bequeathed to me – apart from some vestiges of his musical talent – were an old but still functioning upright piano in the living room – a Challen, if memory serves – and a huge stack of sheet music which included much of the pianist’s basic repertoire – the Beethoven sonatas, numerous Mozart and Haydn sonatas, Book 1 of the 48, lots of Chopin, almost everything by Mendelssohn and Weber, a few pieces by Liszt and one by Debussy – Reflets dans l’eau, which remains my favourite Debussy piano piece to this day.  Plus some more popular stuff, in particular a selection of pieces by Billy Mayerl…

My mother, a keen music lover, guided me in the early stages and taught me to read music and the rudiments of piano playing. Once I got hold of the basics there was no holding me back. I soon acquired a huge appetite for trying out the pieces available to me – bashing them out note by note, chord by chord, determined to reach the end. The musical results were of no value, but that wasn’t then the point: what it did was to breed in me an ability to sightread and a constant need to seek out new music, both of which have remained with me.

This early phase, before any formal training, culminated in my performance of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy at a primary school concert at the age of 10. How did I manage it? No idea. What did it sound like? I shudder to think – mercifully no recording of this event exists.

Ah, the confidence of youth… How one’s attitudes change. That’s the sort of piece I would now spend weeks or months getting up to performance standard. And even then be dissatisfied with the result.

After that I had lessons with an excellent local piano teacher and went through the usual run of exams – Grades 5 to 8, an LTCL diploma, then on to university where I met many other musicians and had the chance to play in ensembles for the first time. After university I spent a year at the RCM under David Parkhouse. He was a very good teacher but alas I was not a good student; 3 years of the relative freedom of university life had ill prepared me for the relative straitjacket (as I saw it) of music college. Yet despite that the things I learnt from him about piano technique – notably phrasing and how to relax and avoid stress in performance – have stood me in good stead ever since.

My life then followed a predictable course – building a career, marriage, children, a mortgage… I never stopped playing the piano, though time and opportunity were not always on my side. Not to mention the fact that in the pre-digital age living in flats, terraces or semis limited the time in which you could play for fear of annoying the neighbours. Thank heaven for the brilliant Clavinova which I’ve had for the last 10 years and which does everything a mechanical piano does, and more, with only a very limited downside. In the last few years I’ve had a little more available time, during which I’ve become a member of an excellent London music club, the OCMC, which is full of talented amateur instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors and has opened up to me a wealth of possibilities for making music in groups large and small.

The piano is the ultimate solo instrument and you can be self-sufficient in your music making, as I was for years. But there’s a strong social aspect too, especially if you’re interested in performing in chamber groups and accompanying, or if you’re lucky enough, as I have occasionally been, to play concertos with an orchestra. Through the piano I’ve got to know, and to make music with, a whole range of people I would never otherwise have met and my life is richer as a result. One opportunity leads to another and I now do more playing than I’ve ever done since my student days.

Despite cajoling from friends I haven’t yet tried my luck at any summer schools. I have attended some of Penelope Roskell’s 3-day courses and found them beneficial. The social aspect of gatherings like these is just as important as the playing; it’s another way of meeting fellow musicians, making contacts and exchanging ideas about piano playing.

For those wanting to take up the piano, or who had lessons as children and want to start where they left off, I’d say don’t hesitate – do it. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; making an effort to create something beautiful, however imperfectly, as well as the sheer physical thrill of running your fingers across the keyboard, are enriching experiences. And there’s surely nothing better to keep body and brain working in harness.

I don’t play scales and arpeggios much – too boring. I prefer to get my exercise through playing real music. It’s the difference between taking a walk through a beautiful landscape and pounding away on a treadmill in a gym.

There’s only one book of exercises that I’ve ever bothered with – the ones by Dohnányi. They’re totally cut to the bone – they make no claim to any musical quality but just concentrate on mechanical processes – scales, thirds, octaves, broken chords, wrist-, arm- and finger-strengthening and flexibility. You can spend five or ten minutes a day on that sort of stuff if you want to and it’s enough.

As for repertoire, I flatter myself that my tastes are fairly broad. They range from Bach and Scarlatti onwards, but I find the 19th and early 20th century repertoire the most congenial – Beethoven (the sonatas are probably the first ‘big’ music that I got to know), Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms (the early work far more than the later stuff), and somehow I feel a particular affinity with the Central and East European repertoire – Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Bartok, and Russian masters like Balakirev, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. And I’m a recent convert to the music of Nikolai Kapustin, with its unique take on classic-jazz fusion .

Nowadays my appetite for sight-reading new music has to some extent been replaced by an urge to spend longer getting pieces up to a high standard. I practice far more than I ever did when I was younger. Whether that’s because the goals I set myself are higher or simply because advancing age makes learning that much harder, I don’t really know. Probably a bit of both.

Practicing can be a frustrating activity since you often feel that you’re making massive efforts for little gain. Yet it does bring results in the long run if you stick at it. I don’t work to any specific number of target hours but I’m always ready to grab an opportunity – a few spare moments in the morning before leaving for work, waiting while the microwave warms up the food, last thing at night before going to bed as well as longer periods at weekends and on free days. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife who puts up with my presence at the piano and the music that flows from it. Well, not music exactly – more likely the click click of the (to her) silent keyboard, while I hear things with perfect clarity through my headphones.

Despite determined efforts there are some special pieces which remain obstinately beyond my reach. One that has sat for decades on the top of my piano and which I try from time to time to get to grips with, but never quite succeed, is Rachmaninov’s transcription of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think this is the greatest piano transcription ever – a near perfect recreation of a near perfect original. There are a few little piquant harmonic twists typical of Rachmaninov but other than that it’s pretty much note for note. The ingenuity of the way Rachmaninov transforms a piece which seems quite unsuited to the piano into an elegant pianistic tour de force leaves me amazed. Oh, and giving a half-decent performance of the Hammerklavier would be rather nice. I like to aim high and challenge myself to the limits. That’s all part of the fun.

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

I started at the piano as a toddler and simply never stopped! I just never found anything I loved as much. In my teens, I had passing fantasies about being an archaeologist or an actor “when I grew up”, and then I realized that I could incorporate aspects of both of those careers into my musical path. My work involves a lot of archaeological excavation of the repertoire in search of historical narrative and context, and I think that I channel my inner actress into the task of interpreting the emotions and messages of the composers whose works I perform.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?

It’s been a collage of many things: my very first teacher, Maria Cisyk, was my first love! She was a wonderful woman who integrated a true understanding of and curiosity about music into the first steps at the piano. As soon as I could cover a five-finger position, she had me playing little and Bach and Bartok pieces, and learning the stories behind them so that I had a sense, from the very beginning, of the scope of a history and a tradition in music.

A little later I went on to work with Adolph Baller, a wonderful Austrian pianist with whom I studied at Stanford when I was still very young. He gave me, again, another layer of understanding about the importance of tradition. Having come out of the Viennese tradition himself – he studied with a former student of Franz Liszt! – he was a direct link to the European Romantic school that I, an adolescent in California, could only vaguely imagine. Tragically, Baller had suffered tremendously during the Nazi regime (he was interred in a concentration camp and his fingers were broken), before escaping to the U.S., where he was able to rehabilitate his hands and resume his career as Yehudi Menuhin’s accompanist and a member of the Alma Trio. His story gave me some insights into the power that music can have in a life, the strength that can be found in one’s calling throughout personal tragedy and upheaval. That was an important turning point.

Later on, as a teenager, I studied myself at the Hochschule in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg with the great Hans Graf, and was able to touch that grand tradition for myself, which brought everything full circle. I remember a winter morning in Vienna, the first heavy snow of the year, when an Argentine classmate came running into Graf’s class saying “I went to the Mozart house and I walked in Mozart’s snow!” That’s how it felt for me during those years, working in the birthplace of the tradition, treading the same ground as the composer whose works I was studying. Very magical.

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

I think that I’ve come of age in a challenging time to be a musician, but also a very liberating one. So I see the challenges also as advantages. The limited opportunities in the concert world (especially in the U.S. where funding for the arts is such a tremendous issue) present a constant difficulty, but ultimately that difficulty has been an inspiration to me to develop a real creativity and innovative spirit in my approach to presentation and programming, to build a unique profile as an artist, to identify what it is that I have to offer and share with audiences that is uniquely mine, my genuine voice in the world. I think we are living in a time when an artist with something significant to say can take a significant amount of control in determining how, when and where he or she is heard. There is a really interesting and diverse mix of artistic personas on the concert stage these days, reflecting a commitment to different ways and means of musical expression. I think it’s very exciting.

And then of course there have been the challenges of combining my professional and personal lives – the same challenges we all face as musicians, finding ways to integrate my roles in my family and in the professional world. Being a mother of two young children has meant making some choices. But that too, I think, has been a very positive thing for me. I’m certainly a more centered, more thoughtful musician than I was when I was younger, and obsessed solely with the day-to-day mechanics of being a pianist, practicing 6 hours a day. Having a wider landscape to tend has been very good for me. I’ve built a career that encompasses performing and recording, writing, and also concert curating and presenting, which I love to do. Being active as a concert and festival curator/presenter allows me more space to bring my many (too many??) ideas to life! It’s important to me to have some impact in shaping the future of an art form that is changing so quickly, and has so much potential to reach new audiences in new ways.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proudest of the multi-faceted projects I’ve created and produced from start to finish, which have encompassed everything from commissioning and premiering new works, to writing and delivering narrative commentary from the stage, co-producing multimedia/visual enhancements, and self-producing and releasing recordings on my own label (Tritone).

Some favourite examples are:

13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: 13 new re-imaginings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. World premiere recording released on the Tritone label in 2010

Long Time Coming: A full-length multimedia concert featuring works by Duke Ellington and a new commission from composer David Sanford

The Americans: A retrospective of concert music influenced by the American vernacular

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I love playing the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They treat artists so well (my son wants me to go back so we can “ride in the limo”!), but more than that, the place evokes for me something very powerful about respect for and pride in the arts. It’s just a beautiful place to be and to perform.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Whatever I’m working on at the moment! And some “comfort food” pieces that go way back for me, that I turn to when I need to sort of musically meditate and center myself: the Chopin Nocturnes, Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Bach’s Goldbergs, some favourite pieces by Barber, Ives, and Prokofiev…

Who are your favourite musicians?

Arthur Rubinstein, Billie Holiday, Richard Goode, Nat “King” Cole, Chet Baker, Etta James, Charles Aznavour, the Beatles, Pablo Casals, my son playing the trumpet, Lucio Dalla… you see it’s pretty all over the place!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Rudolf Serkin under the big tent at Tanglewood in the late ‘80s, just a few years before his death. I was a kid watching a legend and knowing deep in my bones just how precious the moment was. Again, to me he represented the magic of the tradition.

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

Know what your music means to you. Find your voice. Learn what you alone have to give. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Be flexible in your thinking and let your path take you in unexpected directions. The future can surprise you.

What are you working on at the moment?

My next recording, Exiles’ Café, will be released on the Steinway & Sons label on 26 February 2013. It’s a collection of 19th and 20th century music by composers in exile, or written in response to the experience of exile and diaspora. I’ve positioned music by composers displaced by World War II (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill) alongside works by earlier composers such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, who were likewise political exiles in their own time. I’ve also included the Africa Suite by African American composer William Grant Still, representing the permanent wandering of the African Diaspora, and some preludes by the American composer and novelist Paul Bowles, who lived in self-imposed exile in Tangiers for the latter part of his life. The central, big piece on the album is Korngold’s 2nd Sonata, which he wrote in 1910 when he was a thirteen year old prodigy! It’s a massive, late-Romantic, very Straussian work, just absolutely gorgeous and lush.

The project illustrates the global currents of diaspora and exile, which create artistic confluence among people from many different backgrounds of time and place. I think the theme of displacement is one with which everyone is familiar at some level, and also I think that this goes back to my answer to your earlier question, which touched on my deep emotions about the tradition that has built our concert repertoire. Often it has been breaks in that tradition that have actually carried it forward – the historical and political situations that have carried composers from one place to another (Chopin from Poland to France, Rachmaninoff out of Russia, Korngold to Hollywood where he made a legendary career as a film composer and defined the future of that genre) have influenced the development of concert music in a profound way. So once again challenges sometimes prove essential!

Exile’s Cafe

What is your present state of mind?

It’s a hugely exciting time for me. I’m watching several musical projects come to full maturity and thrive, and I’m embarking on new ones. I feel that I’ve arrived at a time in my life when my musical/professional priorities are clear to me. I know what I want to do, and I’m ready for new challenges. I feel lucky every single day to be making a life in music, really. It’s an amazing thing.

Lara Downes’ biography

Lara Downes’ website

Pre-order Exiles’ Café here

New projects from Lara Downes:

“I’m launching a new concert series in San Francisco in April. The Artist Sessions will be held at a historic jazz club called Yoshi’s, where the atmosphere is very modern and informal, and the audience is diverse and “downtown”. The concerts will be unique in the sense that they will be presented as immersive encounters with the artists – each evening will be begin with an onstage conversation between the guest artist and myself, and will conclude with an audience talk-back session. I want audiences and artists to come together as people, and for listeners to find context and connection in the work being presented. The first Spring Preview season will feature performances by Christopher O’Riley and myself, and then a full Fall season will resume in September (series guests will be announced in April).

Lara has just opened an online piano studio where she can meet students from around the world. Sessions can be held from anywhere with wifi and a webcam. Further information here

The HASTINGS INTERNATIONAL PIANO CONCERTO COMPETITION is a prestigious piano contest which takes place annually, and is the “jewel in the crown” of the Hastings Musical Festival, founded in 1908.

Open to pianists of ages 16-30 years, including professionals, this contest, now in its ninth year, showcases some of the most talented young pianists in the world. Chosen semi-finalists will be offered a masterclass (Friday 15th March) with members of the Jury.

FIRST STAGE – Preliminary Round 11th – 13th March

SECOND STAGE – SEMI-FINALS. Thursday 14th March
Six pianists will play their Recitals.

Three semi-finalists will play in a Masterclass at Fairlight Hall – Friday 15th March – 7pm-9pm with members of the Jury

Tickets for the Masterclass are very limited, £12 per person (with wine and snacks). To book a place call Brenda on 01424 430923 or 01424 437357

Three finalists will play their chosen concerti (Saturday 16th March) with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

Further information and tickets here. Children under 16 can attend for FREE when accompanied by a paying adult.

Hastings Musical Festival

Inspired by Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again, I am launching a new series of interviews with adult amateur pianists. The overriding theme of Rusbridger’s book is its celebration of amateur pianism and music making in general, as a convivial social activity and one which can provide ‘therapy’ in our busy lives.

I meet many amateur pianists in the course of my musical life, many of whom play at an advanced, or quasi professional level, but who have chosen to follow a different career path, for whatever reason. All of them express a love for the instrument and its literature, and this is their main motivation for playing the piano.

This series will celebrate the joy of amateur pianism, at whatever level. If you would like to take part in the series, you can either:

Download the Adult amateur pianist questionnaire and answer the questions, or

Write your own text and submit it to me (use the Contact page to get in touch initially)

For an idea of the kind of text I am looking for, please take a look at these interviews from Alan Rusbridger’s website:

Interviews with amateur pianists

Playing at Steinway Hall, May 2012