Alistair McGowan – on wrestling with Bach, returning to the piano and playing billiards with Mozart

On 27 September the actor and impressionist narrates a concert at St John’s Smith Square, inspired by the reminiscences of an 18th century Irish tenor who was at the heart of Mozart and Haydn’s musical circle. We spoke to him about his love of Romantic music – and taking up the piano (again)…

Alistair McGowan

You’re narrating a concert this month at St John’s Smith Square, London – in the character of an 18th century Irish tenor. Can you tell us about him?

Michael Kelly was alive at the same time as Mozart and Haydn – he was born in the late 18th century and became a very successful tenor. But he also wrote a very good series of reminiscences – he talks about playing billiards with Mozart regularly, and generally losing to him – and he mentions a particular concert at which Mozart, Haydn and Carl Ditter von Dittersdorf were all present. It’s like One Direction and Take That all performing together. And it’s that concert that this event at St John's Smith Square is trying to replicate. I'm narrating with my wife Charlotte Page, who plays a prima donna of the time – Nancy Storace.

Who was Michael Kelly and how did he end up in the same social circle as Mozart?

Dublin was the place to be at the end of the 18th century, there were so many musicians who went there. But the city’s musical star burned very briefly and the majority of people left Dublin at the end of the 18th century and went to Italy and then on to Vienna and Moscow. He was also a very good mimic and he actually landed his first role in an opera when someone overheard him doing an impression at a concert.

You’re something of a classical fan – but is the 18th century your favourite musical era?

When I was at university I was a bit odd because everyone else was listening to The Smiths and I was listening to Sibelius and Mahler – and loving it. And it’s always been that way, I’ve never been very into pop music at all.

But 18th-century chamber music isn’t an area of music that I know an awful lot about – that was one of the reasons I wanted to be involved in the concert. I really come in after this period, I like Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninov but more recently I’ve fallen in love with Satie, Debussy and Ravel, their music particularly speaks to me.

Do you play anything yourself?

I started learning the piano when I was about nine, so I had the basics and then I stopped and tinkered around for a couple of years in my 30s without making any real progress. But over the last 18 months I met a piano teacher on a cruise we were doing together and she rather inspired me by saying “it’s never too late”. I said “I’m 50, what’s the point?”. And she said she knew somebody who started playing when they were 60 and this fellow was playing the Grieg Piano Concerto by the age of 80. And I thought, that’s what I’d like to go for – I’d like to get there before the age of 80, though.

I’ve been learning a piece by Bach with my piano teacher and it’s driving me crazy. I think Bach is a demon for musicians, like Shakespeare can be for young students of theatre.

What do you think are the best pieces for introducing people to classical music?

One of the pieces that introduced me to classical music was Grieg’s Peer Gynt but I also remember watching The Seven Year Itch as a teenager with my mum, which includes a bit of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I asked my mum what it was and she went and got a record of it and we just listened to it for the next hour.

I also think the piano music of Satie, Debussy and – a composer I came across recently – Federico Mompou. Mompou’s Impresiones intimas are utterly utterly beautiful. I think this is the sort of music that would make anybody – whatever their background – interested in classical music.

And which composer, from the past or present, would you most like to meet?

It would either be Satie because I’ve read and written so much about him that I’d like to meet him and ask him questions about his life. But I have a feeling that we’re very different people and I think he’d be very bored by me very quickly.

So I’d probably have a quick meeting with Satie and then spend the rest of the evening with John Field, whose music I recently discovered on Classic FM and I was inspired to find out more about him.

Alistair McGowan narrates 'A Viennese Quartet Party' at St John's Smith Square on 27 September at 3pm. Visit the website for more information.

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