In advance of his visit with the London Mozart Players on October 16, as part of the NCH International Concert Series 2019/2020 pianist and conductor Howard Shelley discusses his career, musical loves and special relationship with Dublin.
On the night he will perform the dual role of conductor and pianist for a selection of pieces including late masterpieces by Mozart and Haydn alongside Prokofiev and Delius.
This concert is part of the orchestra’s 70th birthday celebrations making this a special event for both performers and audiences.
What are your connections to Dublin?
I have been giving concerts in Dublin for the past five decades with, amongst others, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the London Mozart Players, the Ulster and St Cecilia Orchestras. My personal connections to the city are quite a bit deeper. I have been married to Dublin-born pianist Hilary Macnamara for over 40 years and we have grand-children living in the city now.
My mother-in-law talked often of taking medical exams in the building which was later to become the National Concert Hall, and the architect of that beautiful and exceptional performing space is another member of my wife’s extended family and a good friend. In addition, her mother was a member of the O’Grady family who have produced so many extraordinary musicians. Our son, Alexander, has also conducted the RTÉ NSO in recent seasons.
Music must be in my DNA, because my earliest memories are of music and a fascination for pianos and the sounds they produced
How did you decide on a
career in music?
Music must be in my DNA, because my earliest memories are of music and a fascination for pianos and the sounds they produced. I played a Haydn Concerto on the Southbank at the age of 10 and Bach and Chopin on television at the age of 11, and I was regularly giving concerts throughout my teens, as well as being involved in much music-making at school as a pianist, organist and chorister.
Though not a specialist music school, it was very involved with the profession and my fellow students included John Taverner and John Rutter (who taught me to drive, but that’s another story). There was never any doubt that, for better or worse, my career would be in music; and when my headmaster said that ‘Shelley will have to give up music for a year if he is to have any chance of passing his A-levels’, my parents fortunately supported my decision to audition for and transfer to the Royal College of Music immediately, where I was given a scholarship, and the die was cast.
What other musicians do you admire and why?
Very many, but a good number of them are friends and acquaintances and I wouldn’t want to name them for fear of leaving one or other out. However, of the generation of pianists I was inspired by in my youth, I could single out a few from the galaxy of talent I was fortunate to be able to hear at the London concert halls - Richter for dynamism, Curzon for sound, Gilels for emotive warmth, Rubinstein for nobility and, although they died before I was born, Lipatti for purity and perfection and Rachmaninov, who holds the most special place in my heart, both for his incomparable playing, which had all of the above-mentioned qualities, and for his fabulous music.
With such a demanding career as pianist and conductor, how do you switch off and unwind?
With considerable difficulty, but I have a motor-boat which I just occasionally manage to get out on, three wonderful grand-children (two of whom live in Dublin), and good friends to meet up with who are prepared to put up with weeks of radio-silence when I am heavily involved. For all sorts of reasons, I find it hard to relax to classical music, so theatre and the spoken word is where we go for refreshment.
What have been the defining moments in your musical career?
My Wigmore Hall (London) and televised Proms debut when I was 21, a series of six recitals covering all Rachmaninov’s piano music in London in 1983 broadcast by the BBC, soloist at the 100th anniversary concert of the Proms in 1995, my first Mozart concerts in Salzburg, Chopin in Warsaw, my first visit to Australia, nearly 40 years ago, where I was a last-minute stand-in at the Perth Festival playing Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Rachmaninov concertos with, amongst others, a young Finnish conductor by the name of Esa-Pekka Salonen. I have toured in Australia every year since.
How do you prepare for performances and what do you consider the most challenging aspect of a performing career?
I still use every spare minute I have to practice the piano or study conducting scores - it is not unusual for that to amount to ten hours or more a day because I also record a great deal (I have made over 160 CDs in my life so far). I have to learn many thousands of notes each year under pressure, but I actually get a great thrill from recording - not all musicians do - and I feel it allows me the opportunity to produce a performance which is as near to my ideal as possible.
With a lot of the rarer repertoire I also oversee the editing of the score (because there are often no extant parts) so that no valuable session time is wasted with poor orchestral material, and I also get quite involved in the final editing of the sound-tracks. This can be very time-consuming and it is always a challenge to schedule dates in a way that allows me the necessary space. It is a great help that I have a much-trusted sound engineer/ producer who always works on my recordings and travels with me each year to Australia, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries where we also record.
Live performances, on the other, can and should be very thrilling, both to us on stage and most importantly to the audience, but there are myriad factors that can sometimes threaten the equilibrium of the occasion - how the piano feels and sounds, what the acoustic of the hall is like, how you are actually feeling (we have to perform on the concert day regardless), delay in travel and so on. The challenge here is to make sure that the visceral joy and depth of the music always projects to the audience.
What is your favourite piano concerto?
That is impossible to answer because the repertoire is so large and rich, but it tends to be the one I happen to be performing at any particular moment. I love all four Rachmaninov concertos (five with the Paganini Variations), but I couldn’t live without any of the Mozart concertos, which are so totally different in every way. In London over the past five seasons, the London Mozart Players and I have given series of all the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, as well as Grieg, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and many other romantic works, and I can honestly say that almost every one has seemed like my favourite at the time we played it.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
Two complete cycles of the Beethoven piano concertos in this next season. The Nüremberg Symphony Orchestra has invited me to help them celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with a special marathon event where I will play all five Beethoven piano concertos in one afternoon/ evening, directing from the keyboard. When the London Mozart Players, who are in their 70th anniversary year, asked me if we could do something special for what happens to be my 70th birthday next March, I suggested that we could perhaps do the same thing. It’s an exciting challenge but, on a personal level, I cannot imagine a more thrilling and pleasurable way to enjoy this dubious milestone in my life.
Howard Shelley (piano/conductor) performs on the main stage with the London Mozart Players on October 16 as part of the NCH International Concert Series 2019/2020. The series is supported by the Irish Times. Tickets from €19.50 at the link below