christina2bmcmaster

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

I am the youngest of three girls and I always wanted to do everything my sisters did including piano – which I think they found quite annoying! I begged my Mum to allow me to have lessons too, and when I was finally allowed there was no stopping me! A few years on I remember listening to Ashkenazy play Beethoven’s ‘The Tempest’ Sonata in the car and feeling so excited about this fantastic piece and thinking how amazing it would be if I could play it one day. Forging a career as a pianist is not something I really thought about until I went to the Purcell School. Being surrounded by musicians already performing on the International circuit was slightly intimidating, but it motivated me to strive for a career as a performer.

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

There have been so many. More recently my mentor Joanna MacGregor has been an immensely important figure for me. Whilst at the Royal Academy of Music she taught me so much about programming, presentation, life skills, all in addition to playing the piano!  My parents have also been influential. They have been very supportive in a non-pushy way which has allowed me to find my own path and have a genuine passion and drive for what I do.

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

Maintaining balance and focus between my many musical projects, overcoming the post-concert come downs and performing Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks in front of the composer!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I have just recorded my debut album Pinks & Blues which will be released later this year. It’s a mix of classical and contemporary to jazz and blues and includes music by György Ligeti, Bill Evans, Gerswhin, Rzweski, Ravel as well as two new commissions. It took me a long time to decide on the content and order but am proud of it because as well as being my first album I think it takes the listeners on an excursion of familiar and unfamiliar sounds which I hope they’ll enjoy discovering!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel a strong affinity to American Music of the 20th Century. The American ‘can do’ attitude resonates strongly with me. I love a challenge and that is what is often presented by these composers. Charles Ives’s music can often be extremely complex – 13 note chords for example! Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and others pushed boundaries, proving that we are not limited by the piano or traditional techniques.

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

My concerts are often curated and informed by my interests – I like to keep adding new repertoire or presenting the old in new ways. For my next performance at St John’s Smith Square (June 25) I have programmed the Debussy Preludes interspersed with the lesser-known Ruth Crawford-Seeger Preludes for a new perspective. Other concerts coming up include an American programme with violinist Lizzie Ball, a two week residency at Dartington International Summer School performing Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with fantastic soprano Sarah Gabriel and a Film and Piano programme – so I like to keep it varied!

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

This year I performed at the Holders Season in Barbados; it was a grand outdoor venue and a beautiful place – I would definitely like to return there! I also recently performed in a private house concert in Holland Park; I loved the freedom of playing in this relaxed and intimate atmosphere, with some people sitting on the floor, others standing. Here I felt a real involvement and concentration from the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

This changes all the time and depending on the season or even what time of day. I go through phases: recently I had a Mozart Sonata period, listening repeatedly to the complete recordings by Maria João Pires – this is good before noon and it helps to clarify my thoughts. The Britten/Pears recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise are another favourite – I would love to work with a singer on this work. I also spend a lot of time of Spotify exploring new pieces and for when I go running I definitely need something with a beat!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have so many, but to name one of them: Radu Lupu. I adore his deep and warm sound and in particular his Schumann and Brahms recordings.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Martha Argerich at the Royal Festival Hall. I was just a few seats back from the front row watching her play Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and I could hear, feel and see everything – WOW!

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

Well, I am still learning myself, but I would say enjoy challenges, avoid imitation and explore other interests. There never seems enough time to practise at music college, but developing your character and having substance is absolutely crucial.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Practising (with a good coffee and high quality chocolate). When I first left Music College I found I had to do so much aside from practising in order to progress in my career. It was a basic yet incredible discovery for me that I am only happy if I have practised at least several hours a day. Without this I definitely notice a feeling of incompleteness and I’m probably not very pleasant to be around!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

New York. It’s a city I’ve always been drawn to – it’s a City for dreamers and big ambitions – I love that it never stops – a bit like me and I guess that’s why I am so attracted to it!

Christina is a highly innovative pianist and curator with a continually growing reputation for bold and vivacious performances.  Christina has performed extensively in major venues including at the Southbank Centre, Kings Place, Aldeburgh Festival and The Holders Season, Barbados. She has won numerous prizes including the Jacob Barnes Award, The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Prize, The CAVATINA Chamber music trust prize and audience prize, and the audience prize in the Jacques Samuels Intercollegiate Competition.  

Christina attended the specialist music school Purcell School and achieved a first from the Royal Academy of Music in 2013, where she studied with her mentor Joanna MacGregor. Christina has continued her education and exploration of 20th Century French Music taking masterclasses with Maestro Bernard Flavigny who has a direct lineage to Debussy.

She has collaborated with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, Director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. Christina is a strong supporter of diversity within and outside of the arts and recently founded Ensemble WOW – an organisation dedicated to promoting equality through unique and imaginative programming.  

Christina is a dedicated performer and discoverer of new music working with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

Christina McMaster is a 2016/17 St John’s Smith Square Young Artist

Photo credit: Philip Gatward
Photo credit: Philip Gatward

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

My parents were both dentists, but my mother was a keen amateur harpsichord player. I started as a very good recorder player and gradually ran out of music as I devoured everything!! My parents had friends who were Dutch baroque musicians who recommended I start learning a string instrument. I said I wanted to play the biggest – as they didn’t have an estate car at the time they lied, so I am a cellist not a bass player!

I went to Chethams’ School of Music at 9 years old but had only really been playing cello for a year.

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

Early on I would say Jacqueline du Pré, like many cellists of my generation. I became obsessed with new music after hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ for my 10th birthday at the Royal Opera House, so I suppose this experience changed my musical direction. 

I met my former husband, the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, at 22 years old. His music always meant a huge amount to me and I was lucky he wrote for me a lot. We also both shared a huge passion for jazz and as he worked with musicians such as John Scofield and Peter Erskine this had a huge influence in the music and players I was interested in playing and collaborating with.

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

There have been many challenges but for me it has been building the self-belief and confidence which has very much effected the timing of my career. I was all set up and ready to launch into the profession in my early 20’s, but it felt much more natural to support someone else, especially someone whose work I really believed in.  Once I had the children I began the usual work/family life struggle everyone has. I have been a single mother now for three years so I have been trying to rebuild my life as well as restart my career on top of bringing up two very young children – to be honest every day is a struggle! Their father has moved down the road which has helped hugely and we organise diaries so the children are generally with one of us whilst the other works. Mark is a very hands on Dad and I am also lucky to have some incredibly supportive friends, mainly musicians, who have stood beside me during the challenging times.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of a chamber music disc I did for Toccata Classics of all of Hugh Wood’s chamber music with the London Archduke trio, Paul Silverthorne and Roger Heaton. We recorded it at Champs Hill a few years ago.  I adore Hugh’s music and chose to perform his Cello Concerto with the Royal College of Music Sinfonietta when I won the concerto trials in my last year of college.

I’m also proud of jazz  recordings I have done as those sessions have always been a massive musical learning experience for me. Ian Shaw, Judith Owen and Barb Jungr’s albums, on which I have featured, I still enjoy listening to as their artistry is so wonderful! Most of the time I find it almost painful hearing old recordings.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

The two things I really enjoy doing and suppose feel comfortable  with now are the polar opposites musically. I have always loved working with classical contemporary composers – the stranger the music and the more demanding the better. I play lots of Lachenmann and Xenaxis when I can choose my own programmes. This is the music which I have always felt very natural  interpreting, probably more so than anything else.

On the other end of the spectrum, I love my work as a session ‘cellist. I like making the switch between styles and improvising does not fill me with dread. I relish the speed needed in interpreting something fast that has normally just been printed off and placed in front of me. Working closely with the artist and great producers in the moment can be very thrilling.

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

I tend to try and programme the same group for a run of concerts or festivals as it’s always nice working with the same players and programmes for more than a one-off performance. I work in so many different capacities as a ‘cellist the kind of booking I get will determine the repertoire. I feel quite passionately that if people are kept ‘safe’ from new music and not exposed to it because of their demographic/concert venue, then how will people ever get a chance to make a judgment themselves? I have been known to present a programme of Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Bach, Earth Wind and Fire and Kaija Sarriaho as I believe in every piece as good music. The musicians I work with on these programmes play each piece with the same passion and integrity which is crucial.

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

My favourite venue would have to be The Forge in Camden, north London, with whose owners I have had a close relationship with since they opened. I love the fact it’s run by musicians and is down the road from me as I am a north London girl now. I have launched both my duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins and my show ‘Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family’ there, and both have been happy occasions.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love playing Helmet Lachenmann’s Solo cello piece Pression. I was fortunate enough to work with Helmut intensively  on the piece and was invited to perform it for his 75th birthday in the Konzerthaus, Berlin. He essentially made me grow new ears: he hears music in the most intense way and transcribes and describes what he wants so perfectly.

I always get a wonderful musical lift from playing Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances with my Quintet – Lizzie ball on violin, Pedro Segundo on drums, Bartek Glowacki on accordion and Dave Maric on piano. Every time we play it it’s slightly different. The tunes are so strong they keep going round my head for days after a show.

I tend to listen to music I don’t get a chance to play much – recently I’ve got obsessed with Ry Cooder after I returned from a trip to make an album in LA. Harry Shearer and a number of the artists featuring on the album are big fans and spent one evening playing me all their favourite songs. I’m also a big D’Angelo fan and recently saw him live for the first time at Hammersmith Apollo.

Who are your favourite musicians?

A very tough question as I’m meeting them all the time and I could list many. 

The musicians with who I am in groups with I have a huge amount of respect for: Genevieve Wilkins from G project, Judith Owen and her band, all my Urban Family collaborators, cellist Guy Johnston, Lizzie Ball-we share similar values and musical tastes and all stand out as people I like to work with and spend time with too. The two classical singers (although they do so much more!) I admire are Ruby Hughes and Lucy Schaufer. 

I became a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet over two years ago now and I would say without a doubt Gwilym is one of the greatest musicians I have worked with – the whole quintet actually (Thomas Gould, Yuri Goloubev and Martin France) are amazing and I always look forward to our concerts. 

Recently I have probably learnt the most from Leland Sklar, probably the most famous session bass player on the planet. When I have worked with him in sessions or gigs it’s pretty much been a masterclass every time.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been so many it’s almost impossible to say but for very personal reasons I would say my Urban Family Concerts both at the Forge and at Wilderness Festival last summer. I am musician who has spent most of my career playing for different artists’ projects and groups so it felt incredible that so many colleagues wanted to support me at these events.  Also seeing classical musicians let their hair down at Wilderness Festival because I brought them there to make music was one of those life-affirming moments!

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

Follow your own path – don’t look over your shoulder as everyone’s journey both musically and in life is different.

There is work out there – you have to be inventive sometimes and even create your own work. The profession changes constantly so it’s wise to be diverse and say yes to everything when you start out, especially during this financial climate.

Obviously everyone is different but I would strongly advise anyone who went through both the music school and music college system like I did (17 years in one unbroken stretch) to take some time out to experience life and truly find out what YOU want to do. This is one thing I really wish I had done differently – even though in my case I would still have probably ended up being a musician. I only started really mixing with non-musicians when I went to antenatal classes!

The damage psychologically of being institutionalised is almost the hardest thing to overcome; I think it took me til 31 to really make the decision for myself to be a ‘cellist and then work on having the confidence and belief to go for it and enjoy it fully.

What is your most treasured possession?

Letters my father wrote to me before I was born. He died nearly 5 years ago and I miss him terribly. I was very lucky to be given a collection of letters he wrote to me as a 49-year-old, half a year before I was born. He told me what kind of person he was, his fears and the love he already felt for me. He didn’t want me to read them whilst he was alive so I was given them for my 30th birthday just after he died, but I could only bring myself to read them two years later when they then gave me so much strength: it was almost like he was speaking to me.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from the obvious things like spending time with my kids and playing great music, it has to be boxing. I have always loved to box since I was a teenager but for the past year I’ve been training with a professional boxer, Tony Milch. It keeps me fit both physically and mentally and I love watching him in his matches – it’s a real buzz even if I can barely look! 

Gabriella Swallow has emerged as one of the most versatile and exciting cellists of her generation. She studied at The Royal College of Music with Jerome Pernoo. She was awarded the coveted Tagore Gold Medal and performed the Hugh Wood Cello Concerto in her final year. As a soloist Gabriella went on to make her South Bank debut with the London Sinfonietta in the world premiere of ‘About Water’ by Mark-Anthony Turnage. In the same year she performed Paul Max Edlin’s Cello Concerto with the South Bank Sinfonia, which firmly launched her place as a leading performer of contemporary music. This has led her to commission and work with many of the major living composers of today.

In 2013 she made her Wigmore Hall debut with the soprano Ruby Hughes and in the same season performed at the La Jolla SummerFest in San Diego, the Aldeburgh Festival with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Cambridge Jazz Festival as a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet.

Gabriella is the string curator of Music Orbit’s string night ‘Strung Out’ and performs frequently at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club ‘Classical Kicks’ night curated by violinist Lizzie Ball and at Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical club nights.

As a recording artist she has recorded all the chamber music of Hugh Wood for Toccata Classics with the London Archduke Piano Trio, which was released to critical acclaim in 2009. 2012 saw the release of ‘Ivr d’amour’, a disc of Massenet Songs where she appeared with soprano Sally Silver and celebrated pianist Richard Bonynge for the Guild label and also soprano Lucy Shaufer’s debut disc ‘Carpentersville’ for ABC Classics where Gabriella features as soloist. This CD was launched with a concert at The Aldeburgh Festival 2013.

In 2010 she co founded the duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins. They made their debut with a sellout concert at The Forge in Camden and continue to perform regularly in the UK and Europe. Alongside her classical career she regularly crosses over in the fields of jazz and pop and is a sought after session musician appearing on many movie and television scores. She has recorded with many of the leading Jazz musicians on the UK scene including Ian Shaw, Barb Jungr, Liane Carroll, Guy Barker, Laurence Cottle, Pedro Segundo, Graeme Flowers, Jannette Mason and Claire Martin OBE. She has performed and recorded with Skunk Anansie, Sade, Dionne Warwick, Charlotte Church and has been a member of Judith Owen’s band since 2007. This year she continues her collaboration with Gwilym Simcock’s Quintet, whose members include the violinist Thomas Gould.

Gabriella is also a passionate broadcaster and arts commentator and has been a regular guest on BBC 4’s coverage of The Proms, Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’ and ‘Music Matters’. She has been a guest speaker at the Bath Literary Festival and ‘The Battle of Ideas’. 

Gabriella plays a cello by Charles Harris Senior built in 1820 and an electric cello by Starfish Designs.

gabriellaswallow.com

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

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

One of my early piano teachers, Christopher Vale. He is one of those amazingly enthusiastic musicians and teachers who couldn’t fail to inspire anyone. His passion for music was contagious at a very crucial time in my life.

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

My conservatoire teachers: Richard Ormrod, Alexandre Léger, and Rolf Hind. And Nelly Ben-Or and Chris Cullen for an inspiring and timely introduction to both the Alexander Technique and to mindfulness. And I really appreciate the time I spent away studying in France.

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

The realisation that what I’ve decided to do with my life will be hard and likely not bring much certainty or security, but that somehow I have to do it regardless.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Messiaen Cantéyodjayâ, Bartók Out of Doors, Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata

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

I pick things that I like – that excite me – and that I want people to hear. And I play new works, which is exciting in itself as I don’t always know what I’m going to get.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Listen to: Bartók Piano Concerto no. 2. Watch: Globokar Corporel. Play: Reich Sextet.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Bartók, Ligeti, Kate Bush.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing Feldman’s For Philip Guston (a four-and-a-half-hour-long trio) during which the venue’s heating stopped working (in February). Both musicians and (most) audience members powered through the cold to the end.

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

Keep at it – something is bound to happen.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Watching birds and doing a jigsaw.

Siwan Rhys is a Welsh pianist based in London. She currently holds the position of Artist Fellow at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, specialising in contemporary piano music, and also teaches piano at City University, London. Recent concert engagements include performances of Stockhausen’s Kontakte and of Feldman’s four-hour work For Philip Guston

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

I think the piano was its own inspiration.  We had no classical music in my home at all but an aunt had a piano and it was love at first vamp.  I picked out tunes on its yellow keys and wanted to take lessons.  it was a short step (over a long time) for that to become my career.

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

Definitely my main piano teacher Gordon Green.  Also Derrick Wyndham (both taught at the RNCM) then later Robert Mann (former 1st violinist of the Juilliard Quartet) with whom I played and recorded all the Beethoven sonatas in the 1980s.  I was 23 and had everything to learn; he was a great partner and, indirectly, a teacher.  I would also cite Alfred Cortot and many other pianists from the first decades of the 20th century whose playing I got to know well through recordings.  They were always and remain my favourites.

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

Just doing it – day after day.  Specifically the extreme contrast between being as tough as a old boot offstage (travel, hotels, paperwork etc. etc.) and as sensitive as a bejewelled ballet shoe when at the piano.  It requires a unique kind of schizophrenia!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Ah tough to say!  The Hummel concerto record was the first one where I felt good in the studio, despite very little time.  We had less than six hours for each concerto, to rehearse from scratch (correcting parts along the way) and record.  it was seat of the pants but I still remember the exhilaration and excitement of playing those pieces and making the first complete recording of works which were absolutely central to the repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann etc.  Later Mompou was a joy to record and more recently my own 2nd piano sonata (on the CD ‘In the Night’).  Strange to record your own music!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I really can’t say.  But I do feel able to slip into different roles.  I feel as involved and connected playing Mozart and Beethoven as I do playing Chopin and Liszt as I do playing Schoenberg and Webern.

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

Some of it ties in with recording plans, sometimes there are anniversaries, or specific requests.  With concertos it depends a lot on the programming being done by the conductor and management of the orchestras.

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

Not really.  Many famous halls are famous because they’re great – main stage of Carnegie New York or Concertgebouw Amsterdam or Musikverein Vienna.  The Wigmore of course is special.  I also love Severance Hall in Cleveland … too many to name though.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Impossible to say!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Mainly those who died before I was born – Cortot, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Kreisler etc.  I’ve worked a lot with Steven Isserlis and he is one of my favourites, for personal as well as musical reasons.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my debut at the Hollywood Bowl when I raced over from Cheshire to replace Pogorelich at the last minute.  it was my first taste of the fast-lane, crazy side of having a career.  Paganini Rhapsody with Sir Charles Groves.

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

Study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising.

What are you working on at the moment?

Always three sorts of work: refreshing pieces for upcoming concerts; revising works not played for a while; and learning new ones.  All the Beethoven concertos are around me at the moment and they fall into all three of these categories.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Same place but deeper.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Surprised by happiness when not looking for it – and sharing it with someone else.

What is your most treasured possession?

My sanity.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Many things.  To choose one would be to squeeze it dry of magic.

What is your present state of mind?

Content yet tired and a little anxious – but grateful for life and health and food and friends.

Named by ‘The Economist’ as one of 20 Living Polymaths, British pianist Stephen Hough is a rare renaissance man of our time. Over the course of a long and distinguished career as one of the world’s leading concert pianists, he has also excelled as a writer and composer. Mr. Hough combines an exceptional facility and tonal palette with a uniquely inquisitive musical personality, and his musical achievements have resulted in many awards and accolades for his concerts and a discography of more than fifty recordings.

Stephen Hough was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.

Stephen Hough’s full biography

www.stephenhough.com