Academy Piano Festival ends with BBC Radio 3 broadcast

-Posted on 04.07.2017

This year’s Piano Festival was our most ambitious and best attended yet. Its final concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and in the interval, Head of Piano and curator Joanna MacGregor discussed the educational motivation behind the programme

The Academy’s three-day Piano Festival finished on Wednesday 28 June, with its attendance up from last year and many of the twenty free concerts and events at capacity. The programme was expanded from last year, with eighty musicians performing over the three days. The final concert in the Duke’s Hall was broadcast on Radio 3 and is still available to listen to here

During the interval, Joanna MacGregor, Head of Piano and curator of the Piano Festival, was interviewed by Radio 3’s Sarah Mohr-Pietsch, who asked her about the atmosphere at the Academy. She replied: ‘It’s a fantastically warm, vibrant place. It’s a relatively small building, which means the students know each other very well. They don’t live in separate tribes – they work together on collaborative projects, so you get the feeling of a happy family when you walk in. You see lots of students sitting together figuring things out together. I’ve always enjoyed that sensation of walking down a corridor as if you’re inside a big Charles Ives symphony, with different instruments playing different music.’

‘We now know that all musicians – and certainly pianists – have to be proactive and innovative, and invent their careers and choices of repertoire’

MacGregor was a postgraduate at the Academy thirty years ago, and Mohr-Pietsch asked her how things have changed: ‘One big change is that conservatoires are now universities, so whether you come here as a pianist or a piccolo player, you do a lot of academic work on top of all the playing. For pianists, I think things have changed enormously in 30 years. When I was young I was always being told what pianists should and shouldn’t do – there was a sense of a core repertoire of pieces, like Tchaikovsky’s Concerto no.1, that were absolutely indispensable to achieving a career. There was also a sense that you had to wait for someone to come and make something happen for you. Roll forwards thirty years, and we now know that all musicians – and certainly pianists – have to be proactive and innovative, and invent their careers and choices of repertoire.’

‘One thing I encourage early on is the idea of collaboration with other art forms. I tell them that if you can learn to curate different ideas – with visual artists, dancers, multimedia, poets – it creates opportunities as you become professional’

She described how students develop. ‘There are two things going on. We take in fantastic young talent, and one of our roles is to mentor them and offer them pastoral care. Their professors see them every week, building up their repertoire, technique and artistry. At the same time, they’re in London – one of the biggest cities in the world – surrounded by music, musicians, theatre and art galleries.  All of that is going to feed into how they are going to develop. It’s an interesting process for me to watch. I see them coming in looking very young; six years later they’re doing postgrad exams and they’ve grown as musical personalities. They even look different. They’ve had all this input, but it’s been a very natural process. While they’re here they’re asked to play lots of chamber music, and Mozart and Beethoven concertos; they start working with composers. One thing I encourage early on is the idea of collaboration with other art forms. I tell them that if you can learn to curate different ideas – with visual artists, dancers, multimedia, poets – it creates opportunities as you become professional.’

‘The Piano Festival is just a way of showcasing all the different things they’re doing’

MacGregor also explained the range of the music: ‘The Piano Festival is just a way of showcasing all the different things they’re doing. There’s a massive amount of core repertoire – we’ve done the complete thirty-two Beethoven Sonatas, in order of composition, and I asked Alfred Brendel to come in and talk about the composer, which was great for both students and audience. But at the same time there’s been all the multimedia events. Neil Brand comes in to run a film and music course. I encourage the pianists to think they’re good at improvising. They think they can’t, but I tell them, ‘You’ve got to be able to improvise a trill, or a decoration in a Bach French suite or Mozart cadenza. Maybe you’ll be asked to improvise in new music; and, while you’re at it, why don’t you improvise to a film.’ They discover the excitement of it.’

Next year’s Piano Festival opens on 25 June 2018.

Photographs above feature Louise Cournarie, Antoine Great, Ziteng Fan, Kei Takumi, Seung Bin Lee, the piano typewriter played by Vasilis Alevizos, Constanza Principe and Cristian Sandrin.

All photographs: Frances Marshall

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