This month we’re speaking with acclaimed Australian pianist Piers Lane.
Anita Levy speaks with Piers Lane about performing, pianos he loves, masterclasses and more!
AL : You play as a soloist, as a chamber musician, and a soloist with the orchestra. Do you have a preference? Which do you love most, and can you tell us why?
PL: My preference changes from time to time. I suppose one is freest as a recitalist. There are no compromises necessary, though the responsibility of drawing an audience in for two hours or so is considerable. It’s a creative challenge to build a programme with an inner logic and a sense of progression, like a grand dinner. It’s a wonderful feeling when playing solo., if that sense of ‘being in the zone’ occurs and the music seems to play itself as one watches the keys going down and listens to the music with new ears and senses the stillness of the audience. That’s a great buzz! Playing as soloist with an orchestra is a thrill of a different kind. If you feel supported by the conductor, if there has been adequate rehearsal – or even better, a string of performances of the same piece – then walking out to a full hall and to ninety smiling colleagues and embarking on a journey through Rach 3 or the “Emperor’ or a favourite Mozart concerto can set one up for a tremendous high and an ensuing sleepless night! As you round the final corners in a great last movement, the emotion and excitement can be visceral – you feel part of something far bigger than yourself. Chamber music can do that too. I love sharing the stage with others and still find it magical that totally unrehearsed nuances and shapings can evolve during a performance with empathetic partners. Different parts of one’s personality are brought out by the different demands of the three activities. I think it’s a healthy thing to perform in different modes, though for career reasons I’ve been required by managers sometimes to concentrate more on the solo side than accompanying and chamber music. – but I’m greedy for all sorts of music-making and do what I like these days!
AL: You’ve played Chopin’s Pleyel pianoforte, one of the pianos in the Cobbe historic collection of composer instruments just out of London. How did it feel to play on the actual keys which Chopin had touched, and composed on? Did you have to play differently, did you want to play differently, to appreciate the special qualities in the instrument, and to produce music sounding as he would have heard it?
PL: I performed all of Chopin’s Nocturnes on the piano he bought for his final performances in France. The instrument is kept in superb condition by Alex Cobbe, as are the other keyboards in his breath-taking collection, among them Haydn’s final instrument. What a joy that place is! You can play a Saxon clavichord such as Bach would have used, or a Schubert piano. You learn an extraordinary amount from using the instruments – and indeed, from hearing Alex Cobbe talk about and demonstrate them. Incidentally, he also has a room filled with eighteenth-century Australiana, gathered by a family ancestor, a doctor on one of Captain Cook’s ships. But Chopin’s Pleyel did make me play the Nocturnes differently. I found particularly that I wanted to take more time over ornamentation, to really let it sing. There was an inspiring feeling of being in touch with Chopin himself and of time disappearing. I’ve had that feeling on many occasions – when playing Mozart’s pianos in Vienna, or when recreating Dame Myra Hess’s wartime Barry Rooms concerts in London’s National Gallery, – even when playing the centenary concert for the Boulder Town Hall, using the same Bechstein Eileen Joyce had used in 1948!
AL: Piers, you gave a wonderful Masterclass for the Theme and Variations Foundation. We’d love you to tell us a few things about Masterclasses and your experience of them:
PL: Masterclasses can be a great way to learn. My main teacher,, the late indomitable Nancy Weir, studied with Artur Schnabel in Berlin between the ages of thirteen and sixteen and always had her lessons in a masterclass situation. Listening to others being taught, she knew inside out all sorts of repertoire she hadn’t herself played, but had heard analysed in painstaking detail during class. I played in a number of masterclasses as a student myself. The great English pianist Ronald Smith heard me play the Liszt Sonata and the Bach/Busoni Chaconne at a lunchtime concert during the Opening Week of the then new Queensland Conservatorium in 1975 and asked me to learn Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’ for his masterclass ten days later. I met the challenge with alacrity – masterclasses can be good goalposts for students and useful public arenas. I remember playing Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz to Sergei Dorensky when he visited Australia from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1977. But it was masterclasses with that great Romantic, the Cuban Jorge Bolet, that I was most touched by. I played Gaspard de la Nuit to him in Seattle in 1979 and he invited me to take part in his classes during the Edinburgh Festival later that year – a week of them. We worked through the Liszt Sonata and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka among other pieces and I learned all sorts of new pedaling ideas. The sonorities and rubato he achieved, his cantabile, the focus of his concentration and sheer knowledge of the score left an indelible impression. Another class that left a lasting imprint was on the second concerto of Brahms, again in Scotland, for a television programme with John Lill. The Australian Raymond O’Connell played the orchestral part on a second piano. He’d been a student of Ada Corder, in Melbourne, as Nancy had been when a child prodigy,
AL: What do you consider are the advantages to a student in a Masterclass?
PL: Masterclasses can provide great public platforms for students and they can be inspiring learning situations – but both student and teacher must have the right attitude for them to truly work. I dislike masterclasses where the teacher spends the whole time playing to the student. The public might feel they’re getting a free concert, but the student loses a certain amount of dignity. Of course, the teacher mustn’t forget about the public when teaching in a class situation – it helps if he can pepper the lesson with anecdotes which involve the audience as much as the student; It’s not good as a listener when one can’t hear what the teacher is saying to the student. But if all goes well, it’s exciting and gratifying to hear a student’s playing alter conspicuously in the short time available. Often the teacher is merely making points the student’s own private teacher will have made before, but with the public listening,, a new situation and the expectation of a change on the spot, it’s remarkable what can happen on occasion.
AL: As a teacher, what do you like most about giving a Masterclass?
PL: It’s exciting if you find a student who is willing and able to take in your ideas and fly with them in the moment. That inspires you to go further and further and everybody enjoys the transformation.
AL: How does your teaching differ in a Masterclass to a private lesson?
PL: Not much in some cases, but of course, private lessons are part of an overall longterm plan, masterclasses merely somewhat glamorous one-offs, so in some ways private lessons are more difficult, working to instill something truly long-lasting week after week. I started teaching when I was fourteen. Both of my parents were piano teachers, my mother my own first teacher and my father also a great lecturer and Director of Studies at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, so teaching is in my blood. Some of my earliest musical memories are of sitting under the dining table listening to my father teach adult students and then hearing them discussed over dinner. I have always loved teaching, though had to stop doing it quite a few years ago now. I was a professor at the Birmingham Conservatoire from the mid-eighties and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1989, but my concert travels have made it impossible for the past decade or so. No doubt I shall return to one of the colleges later on. Meantime, I give very occasional consultation lessons – and masterclasses fulfil that nurturing part of me.
AL: Did you have any particular mentors in your performing career?
PL: My main mentors were my parents and teachers ( Dr William Lovelock, Nancy Weir, the lucid and rigorous Hungarian Bela Siki, Kendall Taylor, my mother’s former teacher at the Royal College of Music and Yonty Solomon, a South African student of Myra Hess, who had insight and intuition and imagination in abundance); but also two Australian ladies who still enrich my life, but who were always wonderfully available with support and advice both musical and otherwise in London in early years: Bernice Lehmann and Ruth Nye. My managers have always been enormously helpful as well and a lady called Erica Goddard, third wife of the great late Austrian pianist Walter Klien, who really made me get my act together in early years In London. She made me audition for the BBC, get publicity photos taken, find my first agent, got me my first orchestral dates in London and so on. So many people are important in different ways when one is trying to establish a career as an inexperienced youngster. It’s only as one gets a little older that one appreciates just how much one was helped by the farsightedness and goodness of many special people along the way.
AL: Do you now mentor any young performers in their careers?
PL: I try to help where I can. Often young Australians come my way at some point and I dispense advice or try to help in practical ways. Many students I taught during the 80s and 90s are still part of my life. It’s a thrill as a teacher when former students become successful; professionals in their own right.
AL: As a Steinway Artist, can you tell us what it is you love most about your piano?
PL: I have a couple of pianos at home, but my main one is a 1987 Steinway C. Poor thing, it doesn’t always get the treatment it deserves! It is used a lot when I’m home and then may not be touched for several months at a time, having to cope on its own with humidity and heating changes and irregular tuning,. How many zillion notes have I learned and explored on it! I must say it is a great comfort to find Steinways in most concert halls around the world. Even though pianos are all individual, there is, of course, a family resemblance which engenders familiarity. I am an artist who hates to be categorized or put in boxes. I have performed on all sorts of pianos in my time. I introduced the Stuart and Sons piano both in Australlia and in the northern hemisphere; I was one of the first to perform on Faziolis in London in the 80s; I recently enjoyed a ravishing new Bechstein for a recital in Berlin and have performed on Bosendorfers, Kawais and Yamahas on occasion. But I still feel a truly great Steinway is hard to beat for range and variety of nuance in all registers.
AL: You played the premiere of Carl Vine’s Second Piano Concerto in Sydney to great acclaim and then in London. When you play a premiere like that, do you approach it differently to playing a well-known piece?
PL: No, my approach is the same – to seek out what the composer wants to communicate and to ‘sell’ the piece with as much conviction and imagination as I can muster.
AL: What role did Carl Vine play in your final interpretation? Did he make any changes to the score as the rehearsals proceeded? Can you tell us a little about the experience?
PL: He did change one or two things after the first orchestral rehearsal: the harp part was altered for more telling ease.; some piano notes were removed when it was discovered they couldn’t be heard anyway against the orchestration at that point. Carl is such a pro though – he has enormous experience, a questing mind, a great ear for texture and a deep knowledge of the piano and of orchestration, so everything made sense and had been thoroughly thought out from the beginning.. Even the page layout was arranged so that turns fell during rests! He is very clear in his scores about what he wants. He does allow a sense of rubato, but on the whole, timing is already written into the music, so usually, it’s best just to do what is written – it works! I played through the piano part to him before the first orchestral rehearsal and he attended rehearsals both in Sydney and in London, but he actually said very little – just one or two points about rhythm and balance and some encouraging words. It must be nerve-wracking for composers to sit through first performances, dreading what may come out! But I loved the piece and I hope that showed…
AL: You have played in many countries. Which halls are your favourites?
PL: If I had to choose one favourite hall, it would be the Wigmore Hall in London for recitals. Although the stage is quite small and the hall intimate (it holds just 550 people), the acoustic is fabulously alive and you can merely caress the keys and your touch will be appreciated at the back of the balcony. Of course, playing at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall is a great thrill. The acoustic there is rather more difficult, but the massive audience, with people standing just below the piano and the performance being broadcast around the world, creates an inimitable atmosphere. I played the massive Busoni Piano Concerto (80 minutes long, with large orchestra and male voice choir too) at Carnegie Hall December before last. THAT was a thrill! I had that vast and gracious hall to myself for a couple of hours the Monday before the concert, to select which piano I’d use (incidentally, I chose the American Steinway, as opposed to the massive Hamburg, to my surprise!), and I can’t tell you the feeling I had, surrounded by all those ghosts from the past, as I walked out on stage and explored what the hall had to offer. I’ve loved playing in the small hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – another warm and wonderful acoustic – and playing the Tchaikovsky 1 in the concert hall in Gothenberg – the only time I’ve felt I didn’t have to push out the glorious opening chords – they just sang out in that acoustic. The Frits Philips Hall in Eindhoven in Holland is lovely too. Closer to home, I have loved playing at Angel Place, in the new Melbourne Recital Centre, in the Conservatorium Theatre in Brisbane and in the Adelaide Town Hall and the Concert Hall in Perth.
AL: And our last question – can you please tell our listeners what is involved in the enormous job of Artistic Director of the AFCM. In what way does this festival differ from others you may be involved with? What makes this festival so special (apart from your wonderful direction!)?
PL: Being Artistic Director of the AFCM is a great joy. It is such a pleasure to be able to invite friends and colleagues from around the world to play in Townsville. The place is a paradise in winter – perfect temperatures and surrounded by the Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island. It is always something of a nightmare selecting the programme to a deadline. I choose every artist and every piece and mixing and matching players is quite an art. I don’t always get it right, but do put a lot of serious thought into the whole thing. I try to come up with new ideas each year, while trying not ‘to fix what ain’t broke’. Working within financial constraints adds a further layer to the artistic puzzle and trying to please discerning audiences, while tempting new punters to come along also presents its challenges. I am fortunate to have a superb General Manager in Sue Hackett and a wonderfully willing and able office staff. I usually – though not religiously – bring artists I have worked with in festivals elsewhere, so that I know I can trust them artistically, but also that they will work on a social level, both with each other and with the audience, something that is more important in a festival situation than in a concert series. There is something about the atmosphere that develops in Townsville that is addictive. Many artists I have brought from overseas want to return and we have an extraordinary return rate for the audience. About 60% of the audience comes from outside Queensland. The northern weather is undoubtedly a factor in this. But the variety and length of the programme, the variety and number of artists performing (42 this year) and the opportunity the audience has to mingle with the artists and to get to know them through the interviews I conduct in the morning Concert Conversations all contribute to make the festival something very special.
I simply must take this opportunity to thank Ara and Nyree and Theme and Variations for their unstinting support of the festival. I know we are just one of probably dozens of events the Vartoukians supply pianos for, in their dazzlingly generous and supportive way. I can’t thank them enough for including the AFCM in their list of sponsorships. We are incredibly lucky to have such genuine and warm-hearted people in our midst. They have contributed in an unparalleled way to the musical life – particularly the pianistic musical life – of Australia in recent years and deserve all the gratitude and praise we can all heap on them.