Classic FM Meets Joanna MacGregor

Renowned as one of the most innovative classical pianists in the world, Joanna MacGregor has always strived to bring all genres of music into her life in order to continually develop her style and individuality.

The dreadlocks and the commitment to jazz and world music may make Joanna MacGregor appear different from other concert pianists but she laughs out loud at the idea that she is anti-Establishment. After all, this 2002 Mercury Music Prize-nominated pianist, conductor and composer has held a seat on the Arts Council and is currently artistic director of Bath Music Festival, professor at Liverpool Hope University and visiting professor at the Royal College of Music, as well as curator of the Ignite Festival at the Royal Opera House. Pretty much as Establishment as you can get. 

Add to that the news that she has signed a record deal with Warner Classics and Jazz to release a mixture of new recordings and reissues of her back catalogue, and it seems that her reputation for being outside the mainstream probably stems less from the way she looks and more from her insistence in not conforming to the classical music world’s expectations that a woman should be simply an interpreter or a muse. 

Classic FM: Your early education was a little unconventional… 
Joanna MacGregor: My big stroke of luck was not being sent to school until I was 11. That made me an outsider and gave me a sense of individuality. By the time I went to school and then on to Cambridge I felt completely outside the whole system. I then went to the Royal Academy to do postgraduate studies where I was seen as unusual just because I had a music degree and was playing Charles Ives – I don’t think people thought that this was the material concert pianists were made of. 

CFM: Many young musicians nowadays seek success by entering competitions; this wasn’t your chosen path…
JM: I think that therein lies the route to being a very unhappy musician. Most entrants are not going to win a competition because of the sheer lottery of the process. I think that their lives have to be worth more than that. 

Being a musician is about being something else. It’s about perseverance and persistence and a love of what you do – and a sense of individuality. You can’t squeeze yourself into a template and hope that someone will notice you. It’s hard to be a musician when you’re young: you’re beset by worry, nerves, lack of money, lack of confidence. We live in an age where everyone wants instant success and I can see lovely musicians falling off their perch early on because they feel they don’t have “The Package.” 

Someone was talking to me about a violinist and said, ‘She’s got great looks, she’s young, she’s intelligent, she’s got the package’. I don’t like that language. Would they have said that about Alfred Brendel when he was in his twenties – he’s got “The Package”? I’m an example of someone who made her way slowly and carefully and individually. I believe it’s healthier that way. The looks, the PR, the record contracts come and go, the only thing that won’t is your choice of music and why you’re playing it. 

The tendency nowadays is for young performers to do a lot of concerts with a small number of pieces. I think it should be the other way around. Learn a lot when you’re young – your brain will absorb it all very quickly – then as you get older look out for music that no-one else plays, perhaps commission someone. Some people’s repertoire is just too small and like everyone else’s. 

CFM: The life of a concert pianist is a life of travel. How aware of that were you when you chose this path and how have those choices affected your personal life?
JM: I was in my late teens when I decided that this was what I wanted to do, but I was so naive and innocent that I had no idea you had to travel so much. I came from a family who hadn’t really been abroad and suddenly there I was going to places I had never heard of. I remember aged 22 the British Council sent me to Sierra Leone and I had to look it up as I didn’t know where it was. I’ve now played in about 80 different countries. To do this job you have to be happy to travel, content sitting in hotel rooms, and not mind playing when you’re tired from jet lag. And you have to have a very strong sense of home inside you so that wherever you go you are at home. 

CFM: Your first two releases under your new record contract with Warners are Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a recording of a live concert given in Buenos Aires that opens with a Bach concerto.
JM: I couldn’t live my life without the music of Bach. Every day I either practise, perform, teach or write about Bach, as for me everything comes back to him. I know many classical musicians feel the same way – jazz musicians, too. In the Buenos Aires concert we kicked off with this big D minor Concerto, which is wonderful for the orchestra; in the lines the musicians play, the counterpoint and the urgent aggressive nature of the music, the work is just fantastic. The great thing about opening a concert with Bach is that you can go into jazz, improvised music or something contemporary – he acts as a springboard for anything. Playing his music is like a workout in the gym. If I have been playing in a jazz club or at a concert performing a late Beethoven sonata then I will turn to Bach first thing the next morning as he takes you back to basics. 

CFM: A professional classical pianist can have a wonderful career only playing the “great” composers. Did you ever contemplate sticking to Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin and eschewing scary modern music? 
JM: (Laughs) No, and I’ll tell you why. I adore playing Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. To me they are like contemporary composers – their scores are radical, exciting, new, fresh and surprising. And I can say that because I play so much contemporary music. For me, playing a Mozart concerto is like playing a piece that was written yesterday. The thing about these great works is that they don’t do what you expect. That was what their colleagues were doing. Salieri was a very good composer but he didn’t have the extra little twist that Mozart did. So I always thought if I can manage both classical repertoire and contemporary music then they would feed each other brilliantly. 

CFM: You have published two books of piano pieces for children and are doing more conducting…
JM: Although I’ve always conducted from the keyboard it still feels very strange to stand up in front of an ensemble. This year I’ve been conducting the Hallé and I’ve also been conducting and playing the orchestral arrangements I’ve made for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra of the Deep River album that I recorded with sax player Andy Sheppard. I feel that I’ve learnt a lot about conducting having played concertos for 30 years, sitting at the piano, watching conductors either conduct well or badly. I hesitate to say that it owes a lot to psychology, but there are certain gestures that will either unlock orchestral players or not. Your job is to allow them to play well, to be as good as they are. You don’t have to do anything – you just have to get out of their way. 

CFM: You’re about to work with Valery Gergiev for the very first time on Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. How do you feel about his reputation for arriving five minutes before the rehearsal and getting on a plane five minutes after the performance?
JM: I’m a bit like that too so we’re well matched! The LSO has done Turangalîla a lot; I’ve done it a lot. But it’s Gergiev’s first time so he’ll be the one who has to do his homework. I’m a huge fan of him and his musicianship. He’s extraordinarily thoughtful, serious and reflective. We’re recording the performance for release on the LSO Live label. I can’t wait. It’s going to be a real humdinger of an experience. 

CFM: You hardly ever give interviews…
JM: I’m a very private person. I refuse to talk about my personal life so I turn most requests down because that’s all they want to talk about. A bit of mystery is a good thing. Although, to be honest, I’m actually just a rather boring, terribly studious musician who loves practising and performing. 


Born: 16 July 1959, London
Education: Home-schooled until 11; South Hampstead High School; music degree at New Hall, Cambridge; Masters at the Royal Academy of Music
Early Success: Selected for Young Concert Artists Trust; wins record deal with Collins Classics
Career: Buys back rights to recordings and launches own record label SoundCircus in 1998; album Play nominated for Mercury prize in 2002; member of Arts Council from 2000 to 2004; signs to Warner Classics and Jazz in 2009
Fact: Lives by the sea in Brighton where she relaxes by walking, reading and visiting art galleries 


Live in Buenos Aires - Various Composers  
Britten Sinfonia/ Joanna MacGregor (piano)
WCJ 2564 68475-9