Tell us how you started your musical journey.
My earliest musical experiences were dancing to Bollywood film soundtracks at home from a very young age. I took up the piano aged 7 because my sister was learning – I didn’t take it very seriously for years, but I always enjoyed it. When I was at school, aged about 13, I had a lightbulb moment and realised that I really loved this music and wanted to get good at it, so I found a good piano teacher and worked really hard before auditioning for Junior Academy when I was 15.
Junior Academy was the best time of my life. Krystyna Budzynska took a chance on me and I have her to thank for everything that’s happened since. The place was full of this energy that people loved music and were willing to throw themselves into it. It was an incredible all-round experience, and I made friends for life, but it also made me realise that there was no other option for me. I didn’t know what it was or where I would go, but I knew music had to be the thing.
Congratulations on your new role at the Sibelius Academy. How are you getting on in Helsinki and how does musical culture differ there compared with London?
I’ve been here for a month and at the moment, I love it for its differences. The pace of life is calmer – the city is a fraction of the size of London and I can get to work in 20 minutes on the tram. It feels safe here, particularly during the pandemic, so I feel like I can focus on musical things and not have to worry about how to get to places and keep myself safe.
I think the musical culture is as rich as London, which is impressive considering how much younger the country is – the idea of Finland as a nation is only 100 years old! They’ve got a great tradition of producing conductors, composers and singers and you can really feel that in the city. Finnish people seem very aware of their cultural pedigree. Sibelius is an icon for the nation, and pride in symphonic music and composition is shared by lots of people here. I’m also noticing a real sense of daring and adventure in the music making here, both in the programming and presentation of classical repertoire. It’s exciting, and it’s really encouraging me to keep broadening my horizons.
How has the coronavirus crisis impacted you? Did you manage to stay creative during lockdown?
Like so many, I lost all of my concerts, and now my next recital isn’t until December, and that’s really hard. The thing that I’ve struggled with most is that I was just starting to feel more confident as an artist. I was steadily building my experience and exposure, and when you’re starting out, every concert you do is another one to put in your bag of experience and with each one you get more daring in your artistry. Lockdown put the brakes on that progress and when I get back on the concert platform, I think I’ll be much more nervous because there’s been this huge gap between performances.
I knew in the first week of lockdown that if I didn’t have a project, I wouldn’t have any motivation – I find it very hard to practise if I don’t have a deadline. So I had the slightly crazy idea of recording all of Wolf’s Italian Songbook over the internet. I rang up 12 brilliant singers including Roderick Williams, Ailish Tynan, some friends from the Academy and other duo partners, and I recorded all 46 songs at my parents’ home and then spent hours mashing it all together. What I found really powerful about performing them in this way, on an iPhone and up close with lots of facial details, was that it really felt like these songs were coming to life – these brilliant singers were painting vivid pictures of the people in the songbook and what their lives were like, and the music came alive in a way that is sometimes lost in concert halls. The communicative power of it really surprised me.
After attending Junior Academy, you returned for your Master’s and then joined the teaching staff. What does the Academy mean to you and what do you think makes it special?
The Academy means everything to me because it took a chance on me and gave me the tools I needed to make my dreams come true. There’s just something in the building that makes it special – I think it must come from the teachers. From my teachers both at Junior Academy and Master’s level, there was such commitment and dedication to helping me get better.
However, as a very old, well-regarded institution it’s important that it can be a special place for all kinds of people, and I think that is something that needs work. I think the Academy has a lot of responsibility and that it should wield that responsibility very particularly. We need to recognise the opportunity to right previous wrongs and to change the culture, and I know that the Academy is starting to take this seriously. If we really believe in this music, I don’t see why it should have to stay within a small body of people. There are enough people from more diverse backgrounds who are doing it, and who have the potential to be doing it at the highest level, and while I think we all need greater representation and recognition, I do think a lot of the responsibility falls on educational institutions to go looking for that talent.
What do you think conservatoires could do to widen access?
As a starting point, the repertoire performed in concerts needs to be broader. It would show students that there is more to music than Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, and that it’s worthy of our time and dedication. We need to show students that there is art out there by people who are outside of the constructed canon, and we need to encourage everyone to go looking for this music and to become passionate about it. I think we might then see a change in audiences and prospective applicants; people don’t necessarily want to come to an institution if they don’t see themselves represented.
Secondly, I would love to see partnerships with schools and, when coronavirus is over, for lunchtime concerts to be filled with school children. By giving children the chance to hear this music, you give them the opportunity to become excited about it. I fell in love with music because I was exposed to it; in school I joined a choir and was suddenly singing Mozart’s Vespers. I had never sung in Latin or sung any Mozart – I’d never even heard any Mozart – but I loved it. It changed my life and I think conservatoires have the opportunity to change more lives for the better.
What are you hoping to achieve over next few years?
I’ve got plans to make a first CD with Michael Mofidian, who was at the Academy with me, and we’ll be doing that with Linn Records, and then we have our Wigmore Hall debut in 2022 – hopefully we’ll be able to do a concert by then! But my main focus is to really make a splash here in Helsinki. I want to have as big an impact as I can within the institution, but I also want to develop a stronger Lieder platform in the city and do something that puts Helsinki on the map as a destination for song.
This is a particularly difficult time for our new graduates. Do you have any words of advice?
I think it’s important to recognise the great privilege and responsibility you have. I know it’s a really difficult time and we’ve made so many sacrifices, but we’re also tremendously lucky to have had an Academy education and to have found music and have such a close relationship with it. I think the driving force of a really rewarding career can be to remember that the art of performance isn’t primarily about our own enjoyment, but rather that we have the power to communicate with and impact other people through music. I feel very lucky to have the career that I do – it wasn’t planned or expected, and I do not take it for granted for one second. I am always thinking about how the art that I make relates to other people and what I can give back. That’s my advice – to ask yourself what you can give back.
Listen to Keval's lockdown project, Hugo Wolf - A Virtual Italian Songbook, here.
Find out more here: keval-shah.com