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

An old friend of mine who is an accomplished amateur pianist was playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and I just absolutely fell in love with everything about the piano. It was at this time I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist. Every time I hear the Waldstein Sonata I have the same sense of excitement that I remember experiencing when I first heard my friend play it. It is one of the few pieces (along with Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1) that makes me wish I had two hands so I could play it.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

The greatest influences on my playing are the two teachers I feel I’ve learnt the most from over the years. I studied with acclaimed pianist Lucy Parham whilst I was at the Junior Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was then that I was introduced to left hand repertoire and my journey as a left hand pianist properly began. I gained so much from Lucy and I always hold her in high esteem as I feel that without her guidance and high expectations I would not have been awarded a place at the Royal College of Music where I’m currently in my graduation year.

My second greatest influence is my current teacher Nigel Clayton. I have found out so much about myself as a pianist since learning with him: he seems to be able to explain things to me in such a way that it instantly transfers into my playing. Aside from being a great teacher he is also very supportive of the things that I do outside of the Royal College. Whether I have a concert or a television interview he always calls or texts to see how it went or to wish me luck.

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of, and why?

One of the first classical CD’s that I bought and am still proud of owning is a box set of Bach and Chopin performed by Martha Argerich. A few of the pieces on the disc really astounded me, the English Suite in A Minor by Bach and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2. I couldn’t seem to stop listening to these two pieces in particular; in my opinion they are the perfect recordings of these works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I adore playing in St Martin in the Fields. The acoustic is great and I really love the piano they have there. I also think the central location gives any concert a bit more of a ‘grand’ feeling. It is exciting for a performer.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

My favorite piece that I perform a lot is the Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 by Scriabin. I have a lot of nostalgia over these beautiful pieces as they were the first pieces for the left hand that I learnt. Ever since I mastered them I have included them in every single recital that I have played and just adore performing them. I would play Scriabin all day long if I could.

Who are your favourite musicians?

As mentioned before, Martha Argerich is a real favorite of mine. Though I also enjoy listening to Stephen Hough, especially his Rachmaninoff. I also listen to the violinist Nicola Benedetti a lot, I think her musicianship and technique is unsurpassed.

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

I think that the most important concept for students is to always be musical. One could walk down the practice corridor of any conservatoire and hear perfect notes coming from all the students practicing, yet sometimes I think musicians easily forget about the music itself and worry far too much about correct notes. I personally would rather go to a recital and hear an exciting, atmospheric and electric recital with a few wrong notes thrown in as opposed to a note-perfect performance with no excitement. I always try to impress on my students that correct notes are very important but are certainly not the be all and end all.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness to me is being content and fulfilled in both work and personal life. I think that if you have problems in your work life or problems in your personal life you cannot be fully happy. For me it’s about finding a fine balance between both.

Nicholas’s new album Echoes is released on 20 October 2017. More information/order

Nicholas McCarthy was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after being inspired by a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Having once been told that he would never succeed as a concert pianist, Nicholas would not be discouraged and went on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. His graduation in July 2012 drew press headlines around the world, being the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas is a champion of the dynamic and brave world of left hand alone repertoire, a repertoire that first came into being in the early 19th century and developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the Battlefield. Paul Wittgenstein was responsible for its 20th century developments with his commissions with Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten amongst others.

www.nicholasmccarthy.co.uk

Interview originally published in May 2012

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

I guess I would have to credit my mother as the first inspiration to take-up the piano. She was a very fine pianist who earned her degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When I was an infant and young child (and even when I was in the womb!) she was regularly practising four hours a day, and playing a dozen or so concerts each year. So I heard all the big works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and so on, from the time I was born. She also had a record collection which I regularly availed myself of — I remember that it included a recording of La Traviata that I listened to so many times, that by the time I was five I had completely ruined the vinyl! So, I guess it was fairly natural given my ear and inclination for music and the piano, that I was begging for lessons, which she gave me, starting at age four. My mother also regularly took me to concerts, and I remember vividly going to hear Rubenstein, Horowitz, and Van Cliburn before I was even a teenager. I think this early exposure to hearing pianists in concert, along with listening to my mother practice, and the family friends who were also concert performers, gave me an early notion of what it meant to perform. So, I suppose this really lit the spark within me. I recall making a conscious decision when I was about twelve years old and watching the Finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition on the television. I remember listening and watching and thinking “I’m going to do that.” Well, I did win one international competition, but by 1989, which was the year I had always planed on entering the Cliburn, my right hand was already suffering from focal dystonia, so I was unable to compete.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences which have influenced my playing, but to narrow it down, besides what I discussed in the first question, I would have to credit two of my teachers in particular. At the University of Southern California, I was a student of John Perry for six years. His approach to teaching suited me so perfectly, and I trusted him completely. What I have always appreciated the most about how he taught me, was that he gave me the tools to do what I wanted to do, better — rather than trying to make me into a replica of Perry. I never had the feeling that he tried to change me; instead he was able to show me how to give my own voice wings, to have the freedom to play as I wanted.

As great a gift as Mr Perry’s teaching was to me, I must still credit my teacher before university, Maria Clodes Jaguaribe, as being the deepest, most profound influence on me as a pianist. I worked with Maria during the Summers I spent at the Tanglewood Music Festival, while I was a teenager. Musically and technically she is at the core of my approach: the sound I listen for, the way I make a line “speak”, rhythmic inflection, and the attention to harmonic movement as well as the inner life of each line in counterpoint. (I remember working with her on the Schubert Op. 90 No. 3, and she had me sing the tenor line as I played the whole piece!) From her I truly gained the understanding of weight transfer, the importance of a relaxed and flexible wrist, and the necessity of strong fingers and a stable bridge of the hand to support the weight of the arm. All of these things were hugely important parts of both my mother’s and Mr Perry’s teaching as well, but there was something particular in Maria’s teaching, and her own playing, that resonated with me most strongly. From the time I first worked with her, there has rarely been a moment when I have not felt her presence while at the piano.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

With out a doubt, the greatest challenge for me was the development of focal dystonia in my right hand. If you are unfamiliar with focal dystonia, here is a link where you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_dystonia. About a year and a half after I made my London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1984), and a year and a half before my return engagement at the Barbican Centre (1987), I began to notice something very subtle, but very deep, was going wrong in the 2nd finger of my right hand. The first thing that gave-way were scale passages, or anything which required individual finger movements. The gradual breakdown of control happened over the course of several years, not all at once. Not that it was easy, but I think this actually helped me adjust to the loss, rather than having it all taken at once. I do remember in 1988 when I had to cancel a Tchaikovsky concerto that I was engaged to play in California, I had a bit of a break-down. But, as I tend to do, I rallied and proceed to embrace the idea that when life deals you lemons, make lemonade! I focused more deeply on teaching (which I had already been doing since I was a teenager). My teaching eventually led me to ideas for educational products which got me stated in publishing. Later, I dug into the wonderful world of music that is available for the left hand alone, and have enjoyed playing this music in concert over the last decade. Despite the injury to my right hand, I have enjoyed a rich and wonderful career in music, and have come to believe that our greatest challenges often reap the greatest rewards.

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?

This is going back a bit, but I still feel such a thrill about the recording we made in 1987 of the Carnival of the Animals. The other pianist was Anton Nel, and we played with the Academy of London Orchestra under the direction of Richard Stamp. We recorded it for Virgin Classics. The disc also included Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and Mozart Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. This was all wonderful, and we did a good job and the disc sold well; but the things that still really thrill me are the fact that we recorded in Studio One at EMI Abbey Road Studios, and that the narrator was Sir John Gielgud. I mean, really, how do beat that for a thrilling life experience?! (I also recall that the Steinway D I used for the recording is still one of the finest pianos I have every played.)

www.arkivmusic.com

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I will speak first about music for left hand alone that I love to play most, since that is what I do now. Then, a little bit about favourite pieces from my life as a two-handed pianist.

The first piece the comes to mind is the great Chaconne, from the Violin Partita in D minor by Bach, transcribed for piano, left hand alone, by Johannes Brahms. I never get tired of practising or performing this incredible piece of music — there seems to be no bottom to the gratification of working with this monumental masterpiece. Of course the powerful concerto by Ravel for the left hand alone is another work that one never tires of playing. I also adore the Scriabin Op. 9 Prelude & Nocturne for the left hand alone — so very beautiful. These works I have mentioned are among the most known of left hand literature, but there are also a few lesser known gems that I cherish. One is the Etude in A-Flat, Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld. Pretty much a perfect piece that is lovely to play, and always the stand-out audience favourite when I include in a recital. There is a little piece by Godowsky, the fourth of his six “Waltz- Poems” which is a real juicy delight. He manages to create three and four voice textures that hold together incredibly well in one hand. I am also a big fan of the Concerto in C-sharp by Korngold. A fantastic piece, rarely heard. I’ve not had the opportunity to play it yet, but do hope to do so!

Looking back at my two-handed days, pretty much anything by Mozart was a favourite. I loved to play the Chopin Ballades, and especially the Barcarolle. I also loved to play the Schubert Op. 90 and the Wanderer Fantasy. The “Deux Legendes” by Liszt (one usually only hears the second) were favourites; and Mussorgsky Pictures from an Exhibition frequently found its way onto my my recital programmes. Oh, and I love the Schumann G minor Sonata — especially the second movement is so gorgeous. The D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms is my hands-down favourite concerto, but I do adore any Mozart concerto as well.

As far as what I like to listen to, any and all Mozart — he would be my desert island composer. I also love the symphonic and chamber works of both Beethoven and Brahms. But I could easily start to spin out of control with this question, so I will stop here — there is just so much wonderful music in the world, and and for me, favourites ebb and flow at different times of my life.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I will stick to pianists for this, even though that field is rather wide as well. I have always found Evgeny Kissin’s playing a realisation of my ideals about piano playing. Many times after listening to him, I have thought that he played something how I always thought it should go, but just did not know that it was actually possible! I love how, despite his apparently unimpeded technique, he always sounds completely engaged in the process, nothing ever sounds too easy or too tossed off. To my ears, he pushes levels of expression and excitement right to the edge of the precipice, sometimes narrowly escaping falling off. I have never understood those who find his playing “cold”. Those who do must listen for something very different than I do.

I am also very fond of Marc-Andre Hamelin. Partly, I must confess, because of the friendship that has developed between us; but even before that, because he plays and has recorded so much of the left hand literature. He is the only one to have recorded the Korngold piano concerto for the left hand, and his recording of the Godowsky Chopin Studies is definitive (22 of the 53 are for the left hand alone). On his Wigmore Hall debut, he included the Alkan Fantasy for left hand alone, and the Etude No 7, from his own set of 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, is for the left hand alone. Needless to say, he was my left hand “hero” long before we met. But, setting his enthusiasm for left hand piano music aside, I find that there seems to be no bottom to Marc’s musicianship, pianism, artistry, or intelligence. He is, I believe, one of the most remarkably brilliant musicians in the world today.

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

Play musically always. Listen, with a sense of responsibility, to every note. Say something; express something; find your own voice. I am so tired of listening to young pianists who play all the right notes of all the hardest pieces faster and faster and faster. It is a crashing bore! We take for granted that you will be accurate and have sufficient technical command, but that is all meaningless if the music is not about self- expression and revealing something of the human experience.

What are you working on at the moment?

My newest pet project is the Twelve Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op 92, by Moszkowski — a fabulous set of richly diverse pieces. I have also been looking a bit at the Seven Polyphonic Pieces for Left Hand Alone by Kapustin. The jury is still out on that one.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I love my morning tea ritual, and sitting for a bit staring at a beautiful view. Then, those first few minutes at the piano…and I always start my day playing Bach.

www.keithsnellpianist.com

Keith Snell’s album ‘Verbs, Book 2’, 24 Preludes for Piano by Kathleen Ryan, is  available now.

Thomas Hewitt Jones

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

I have composed ever since I was a child. My maternal grandfather was a nuclear engineer, but the grandparents on my father’s side were both composers: Tony was a good craftsman; he studied with Nadia Boulanger and predominantly wrote choral music. His wife Anita was very adept at composing fantastic educational music. I suppose having composition in the family contributed to my experimentation with ‘finding sounds’ at a young age, originally writing purely on one’s own terms. I later learned that being able to fulfill a brief is a prerequisite to being professional composer.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
At 9 years old I was playing hymns at school assemblies and I think this taught me a lot about harmony, melody and basic structure – you have to learn the rules before you break them. My father, a cellist in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, took us to see dress rehearsals on Saturday mornings from a young age and I love the emotional depth of 19th Century orchestral music. I’m a lover of great melody, and I try to write music that speaks in a direct way but is underpinned by complex harmonic movement. This extension of a neo-romantic approach is very compatible with the cinema, which is probably why I’ve landed up doing that as well as standalone instrumental and choral music.

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

Getting commissioned as a composer is about diversity, and being able to turn one’s hand to whatever projects come in. You can’t afford to be choosy, especially at the beginning. I feel lucky to have had some great early commissions – from a carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ published by Oxford University Press and three ballet scores for Ballet Cymru, through to a piece for full orchestra at a Richard Stilgoe Concert at the Royal Festival Hall. On the commercial side, my first scores were very low-budget, written for children’s audiobooks. I did them under a pseudonym, and would recommend this approach to composers starting out; it enables you to gain writing experience and confidence before having to own up! If you go into any Waterstones there are rows and rows of them by someone with a silly name – but I’m not telling you who it is!

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I have very much enjoyed writing for ballet, and two out of my three ballet commissions for Ballet Cymru have been recorded and released on CD. Writing for dance is very refreshing because dancers think about music in a completely different way. Unlike composing for film where the musical narrative is tightly dictated by the picture, with ballet you can tell a story through a series of scenes or tableaux, and the narrative musical journey can be more fluid.

Alongside instrumental music, I particularly enjoy writing choral works. Recently I completed ‘The Same Flame’ for Boosey & Hawkes; an exciting new choral work written in collaboration with poet and lyricist Matt Harvey. It’s a positive song-cycle focused on humanist values that will receive its premiere in July in a concert conducted by choral director David Ogden.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?
For a small venue the Cadogan Hall isn’t bad. I’m going there on the 1st May when my old school will be premiering my ‘Psalm 150’. It’ll feel a bit like going full circle, because it was singing Benjamin Britten’s setting of the religious text that left a real impression on me and encouraged me to compose when I was a kid. I was delighted when my alma mater commissioned a new setting.

Who are your favourite musicians?
I couldn’t say; there are so many fantastic ones around. The best musicians are those who lift the music off the page, translating the mere dots into something with real shape. Like composers, they have to be able to understand emotion, and really be able to tell a story. Players with a good personality always convey this through the music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?
In December 2010, my carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ received two joint premieres within a few minutes of each other – by John Rutter and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, and over the road at the Royal College of Music by members of the Junior Department chamber choir and orchestra. There’s nothing as exciting as a first performance – especially when two happen at the same time!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
I was an organ scholar at university and enjoy playing Bach – counterpoint doesn’t get better. I was fortunate to be a member of the National Youth Orchestra in my teens, and Jill White, then Director of Music, was intent on offering us a rich palette of the very best of 19th-century orchestral music. The highlight of my 8 years as cellist and latterly principal composer with the NYO was playing Mahler 8 with Sir Simon Rattle, and the same year conducting a premiere live on Radio 3 with NYO players.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
I’m going to be blunt here. Music enjoyment/participation is for everyone at all levels, but don’t rely on making a living from the music profession unless you are so genuinely passionate about it that you would give up everything for it.

What are you working on at the moment?
Having just put the finishing touches to the score for the final animation of the 2012 Olympics Mascots film series, I am currently working on two further commissions. Hopefully they will be finished by 1 May, which is when I am scheduled to start work on a large-scale commission for choir and orchestra for Sloane Square Choral Society who are premièring it in December 2012.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In a composing hut somewhere remote by the sea. With a tolerant wife and kids, if I’m lucky.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The little things. Despite the emotional complexity of being a composer, I’m a simpleton really.

What do you enjoy doing most?
I think an exciting answer would be ideal here, but I am ashamed to say that I’m very happy when composing. When I was about 3 or 4, I remember being in a toy shop and looking up in awe at all the toys that were there to play with. For better or worse, composing feels the same, and I never get tired of it. Maybe I will one day.

What is your present state of mind?
Tired. I’ve recently delivered the masters for the score to the new 2012 Olympic Mascots film, ‘Rainbow to the Games’, which is being released in UK cinemas on 5th May.

Origonal interview date: April 2012

Thomas Hewitt Jones is an award-winning composer of both concert and commercial music. Winner of the 2003 BBC Young Composer Competition, he studied music at Cambridge University where he was also organ scholar of Gonville and Caius College.

His concert work has been heard on BBC Radio, Television and in many of the major concert halls in the UK, including the Royal Festival Hall, London’s South Bank centre and the Royal Albert Hall. Thomas has worked with numerous acclaimed ensembles such as the Britten Sinfonia, Sounds Positive, Members of the Royal Opera House orchestra and the Carducci Quartet. He has had pieces published by Faber Music, ABRSM, Novello & Co, Universal Music and Oxford University Press.

Thomas has worked in Hollywood assisting on the film scores for the films ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ (the Kung Fu epic featuring Jackie Chan & Jet Li, dir. Rob Minkoff) and ‘Town Creek’ (dir. Joel Schumacher), and has written music for radio and TV stations including BBC Radio 4 and ITV.

Thomas has written extensively for ballet, including the 2008 Welsh Independent Ballet commission ‘Under Milk Wood’, and an adaptation of Llewellyn’s novel ‘How Green was my Valley’ in 2009.

Thomas recently composed a new ballet, ‘The Lady of the Lake’, based on the Welsh folk tale for a UK tour of the Welsh national ballet company, ‘Ballet Cymru, that toured throughout 2010 including Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadlers Wells, London in November.

Other recent commissions include composing and recording the music for the London 2012 / LOCOG Mascot Animated Films for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games the latest instalment of which was ‘Adventures on a Rainbow’ (performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and conducted by Thomas).

www.thomashewittjones.com

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

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

My parents didn’t come from a musical background but bought an upright for my two older sisters to learn so I am eternally grateful for that decision. For some mysterious reason I was drawn to the sound of the piano as an infant. I finally got my way and started piano lessons at the age of 5. It was my own choice and by the time I was 12, I had decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My amazing teachers: Heather Slade-Lipkin, Eleanor Sokoloff and Nina Milkina. I feel very fortunate to have studied with the right teacher at the right time in my development. My playing is also very inspired by my wife, the artist Anna Paik. As she works hard on achieving a subtlety of different colours and nuances in her studio upstairs, I’m not that far away from these creative concepts in my own studio downstairs.

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

An artistic career will inevitably have its ups and downs and often many aspects of it are out of one’s control. The greatest challenge is remaining true to oneself, to forge an individual path without any compromises and not to be shattered by any frustrations that one may experience along the way. I feel so fortunate that I am pursuing my childhood passion and making my living out of something that I thoroughly enjoy. When I face any challenge, I always remind myself of this.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

With every recording I feel I am growing and learning more as a musician, as in every concert season. Recording the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas for Avie Records in 2006 was a huge undertaking and I am very glad to have accomplished this early in my career. I am happy to have a wide variety of repertoire in my discography: Barber, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann to the less familiar Hans Gál and British composer Ronald Corp. I have two more discs out this year of Brahms solo piano works (Somm) and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Naxos).

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

We have so many good ones in the UK so it’s hard to single out one. I love Wigmore Hall, The Sage Gateshead, King’s Place and Symphony Hall Birmingham to name but a few. I have happy memories of playing in the Rudolfinum in Prague and also the fine acoustics at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

From the past, I aspire to the pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov and Artur Rubenstein. I’m a great fan of Murray Perahia and always try and attend his concerts in London whenever I can.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing at the Musikverein when I won the Beethoven Competition in Vienna back in 1993 is high up there. Also the sheer thrill of walking out on stage at the vast Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms is special.

What is your favourite music to play?

I love the music of Schumann and am currently wrapped up in his glorious Carnaval. As a pianist there is endless scope and I am constantly updating my repertoire from season to season.

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

Concentrate on your own goals and try not to be affected by all the pressures around you or make unhealthy comparisons with other musicians.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Lounging on the sofa with my cat on my lap!

What is your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring: a gold band with a blue sapphire, designed by my wife.

English pianist Leon McCawley leapt into prominence when he won both First Prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second Prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of nineteen in 1993.

Since then, McCawley has given highly acclaimed recitals that include London’s Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, Lincoln Center New York, Prague Rudolfinum and Vienna Musikverein. McCawley performs frequently with many of the top British orchestras and has performed several times at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. He broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 3 in recital and with many of the BBC orchestras. Further afield he has performed with Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Vienna Symphony among many others. Conductors he has worked with include Daniele Gatti, Paavo Järvi, Kurt Masur and Simon Rattle.

McCawley’s wide-ranging discography has received many accolades including two “Editor’s Choice” awards in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or for his boxed set of The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.

McCawley studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester with Heather Slade-Lipkin and at the Curtis Institute of Music with Eleanor Sokoloff. He also worked with Nina Milkina in London.

Leon McCawley is a professor of piano at London’s Royal College of Music and is married to the painter, Anna Hyunsook Paik.

www.leonmccawley.com

(Original interview date: April 2012)

 

Several people have asked me to complete the ‘Meet the Artist’ questionnaire myself – so here is my version!

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

I was a very young child when I started playing the piano (around 5 or 6). There was always music in my home as I was growing up: my father played the clarinet in an amateur orchestra and with various ensembles, and my parents regularly attended classical music concerts and operas (the Welsh National Opera had a residency in Birmingham in the 1970s when we lived there). My paternal grandfather had a wonderful Victorian piano (complete with candelabra) on which he played Methodist hymns and bits of Beethoven (whom he adored) and Haydn. The piano stool was full of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, all speckled with age with that special musty smell. I used to sit next to my grandfather as he played.

The piano, or rather piano teaching, has only been my career for just over 5 years. I worked for 10 years in specialist art bookselling and publishing before I had my son. And I didn’t play the piano for a long time after I left university. Coming back to the piano as an adult was hard, and when I started having lessons again in 2008, I realised how much I hadn’t been taught in my teens. I’ve crammed a great deal of study of technique into the last three years: as a result my playing has improved hugely.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My music teacher at school was enthusiastic and encouraging, and my friend Michael, owner of a magnificent Steinway Model B, has always supported my playing: he often leaves music on the rack of his piano for me to look at when I visit. Last time it was Schumann’s ‘Kriesleriana’. A few years ago, I would have looked at it and thought “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to play that!”. Now, when I pick up new music, I think “where shall I start?!”.

My current teacher is very supportive and encouraging, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. Through her courses, I have met other pianists and piano students who have helped to broaden my musical horizons.

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

Setting up my own piano teaching studio from scratch and learning “how to be a piano teacher”. I have no formal training as a teacher, but when I started teaching I knew how I didn’t want to do it! (remembering dull lessons as a child). Overcoming my lack of confidence about my own playing, trusting my musical instincts (I am horrendously self-critical), and learning how to become a performer have also been important, positive challenges.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Wigmore Hall is my spiritual home, but I also like Cadogan Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. St John’s Smith Square is a beautiful venue, but cold in the winter! Each has its own distinctive atmosphere.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I particularly admire musicians who are able to stand back from the music and allow it to speak, who do not place their personality/ego before the music, and who are able to get to the very heart of what the music is about. My pianistic heroes/heroines are Sviatoslav Richter, John Lill, Mitsuko Uchida (especially in Mozart and Schubert), Murray Perahia (Bach, Chopin and Brahms), Maria Joao Pires (Schubert), Claudio Arrau (Beethoven), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Messiaen and Liszt). Surface artifice, “look at me” antics, and flashy piano pyrotechnics do not interest me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

British pianist John Lill playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank Centre in the early 1980s. Lill was in tears as he took his curtain calls, and members of the audience actually threw red roses onto the stage.

A concert of Baroque music in a tiny Byzantine church in Zadar, Croatia, c.1985.

As for my own performances (which are growing more frequent), my Diploma recital in December remains memorable: the setting (a lovely 18th-century room in Trinity College of Music), the pianos (both warm-up piano and concert instrument were fine Steinways), and the recital itself. I was surprised at the tricks one’s mind can play in such an intense and very concentrated situation like a performance: I had several “out of body” moments as I played, and at the end of the Schubert E-flat Impromptu, I recall thinking, “halfway through now – we can go to the pub soon!”.  I enjoyed every minute of it, including the river bus trip to and from the college in Greenwich, but the actual performance was very special for me: it confirmed and endorsed all that I do at the piano, day in day out.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

At the moment, I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. As a pianist, I feel it is essential to always have some Bach somewhere in one’s repertoire as his music offers so much: instructional and intellectual. Liszt is a fairly recent discovery for me: I’d avoided learning him for years, fearing it would be just too difficult (not true!). I’ve stayed clear of the more flashy, popular, virtuosic works, preferring to explore his more intimate, spiritual and intellectual music. Likewise, Messiaen is very spiritual and intellectual, and his music puts us in touch with concepts that are far bigger than us. He was also a synaesthete (as I am) which interests me.

My tastes change quite frequently, and I am often inspired to learn something after hearing it in concert or on the radio. I listen to a wide range of music, and my reviewing role for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to enjoy even more fine live music. I feel it’s important to keep one’s ears open to as many musical influences as possible.

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

A love of the instrument and its repertoire; that one should strive for accuracy and musicality at all times; that music is for sharing.

How has blogging informed your teaching/playing?

I started this blog originally as a place where I could set down ideas and thoughts I had while at the piano, but it has gradually expanded into something more wide-ranging. I enjoy the exchange of ideas that comes when people leave comments, and the opportunity to share thoughts about music and teaching with other pianists and teachers around the world. The ‘Meet the Artist’ series is proving fascinating, with so many varied, and sometimes very honest, responses.

What are you working on at the moment?

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Debussy – Images: ‘Hommage à Rameau’

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Messiaen – Prelude No. 2

Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33, nos. 2 and 7 (sometimes listed as No. 4 – in E flat)

Read my reviews for Bachtrack.com here

The ‘Meet the Artist’ series continues on this blog: the next interviewee is pianist Leon McCawley.

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

My grandfather was a coal miner who loved music. He encouraged me to get involved. He and my mum talked music a lot, and I gradually began to find out about composers. From the first day I picked up an instrument I knew I wanted to be a composer, although at that stage I did not know what that would mean.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

As a young boy it was Beethoven and Wagner. Later it was the great contrapuntalists like Palestrina and Bach who taught me about complexity. In the 20th century it was my fellow Catholic Messiaen.

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

I have never thought of it as a career. I have a wide range of interests, including politics, which sometime impinge directly on my work. Being a ‘public figure’ in Scotland can bring unwelcome aggression, and while it may have nothing to do with music, it can’t help interfere with my life and work sometimes.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I am pleased with all the recordings I have made but I only regard them as a secondary activity to composing. I am usually most absorbed in the most recent works, which are a new orchestral work for Marin Alsop, a setting of the Credo for this year’s BBC Proms and a new work for the Edinburgh Festival.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have a special admiration for choirs, and especially those choirs which have children on the top line, producing music of the highest quality and complexity. Therefore some of the British ‘church’ choirs like Westminster Cathedral and King’s College Cambridge, who have sung my music recently, are near the top of my list.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Conducting my St John Passion in Copenhagen, Brussels and Liverpool.

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

They should learn how to handle complexity – study Palestrina and Bach!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished a brass band piece for Black Dyke Mills, and I have now embarked on a setting of the St Luke Passion.

What is your most treasured possession?

An actual relic of Blessed John Henry Newman.

What is your present state of mind?

Fulfilled and chilled!

 

James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan at Boosey & Hawkes