Pianist APRIL/MAY 2006 - by Amanda Holloway


A musician first, a pianist second: that's how the successful concert pianist Joanna MacGregor sees herself. As Amanda Holloway discovers, MacGregor finds equal time for Bach, new music, jazz, improvisation - and her new directorship of the Bath Festival.

The chintzy Art Bar Café in Liberty's in central London is an incongruous setting for a free spirit like Joanna MacGregor. She breezes in wearing a huge fun-fur coat which she casts off to reveal an original, asymmetrical little tartan jacket. Before I do anything else, I must have a strong coffee, she announces. Eventually a waiter appears from behind a flowery screen and deigns to take our order. An arresting figure with a dramatic, beautiful face, Joanna MacGregor is used to standing out, whether it's in a genteel tea-room, a piano bar in Mississippi or the claustrophobic world of classical music. She agrees, ruefully, that it's difficult to blend into the background with such hair - sometimes a mane of glossy dark curls, today a cascade of tight brown and blonde plaits. When she's playing, the plaits bob and bounce to the music, emphasising the intense physicality of her performance.

She's a successful international concert pianist, but MacGregor doesn't let that confine her. She sees herself first and foremost as a musician, and almost incidentally, a pianist. Although I love to play the piano - I really do feel psychologically out of kilter if I have a day when I haven't practised the piano - it's just my mode of expression. I'm trying to say things in general about music and I just happen to play the piano. She is happy to play the giants of the classical repertoire, but she is just as likely to be found jamming with jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard or pop/electronic innovator Brian Eno. She is applauded for her extraordinary, mesmeric performances of Bach, but in unlikely contexts - for example, pairing The Art Of Fugue with complex canons by Conlon Nancarrow, or the American street musician Moondog.

Her fondness for mixing genres has been met with some hostility, but she believes passionately that being open is the only way to progress as a musician. The people who have trouble in a long career are the people who only do one thing. One of the best things you can do is develop yourself in lots of areas and become a very self-sufficient musician. The way I play Bach and Beethoven is informed by the fact that I run a label. All these things feed on one another. The worst thing you can do is stick to one very narrow area because in a way, it's not rich enough.

As a teacher - she has postgraduate students and gives master-classes - she recommends that students listen to many different styles to develop their own. When I hear anybody play the piano, I don't want to hear something that's well practised and totally efficient. I want to hear their own unique voice. But she warns her students that there are no shortcuts. It's one of those things that you acquire after years and years, when you've played a lot in different circumstances and travelled a lot. She has a lot of sympathy for young pianists just out of college. That's when it really starts getting tough, and you're without any form of support. But people who study with me never leave my fold. They know they're always welcome to visit me and play to me and discuss whether they're doing the right thing. That's what they need: an ear. And that's what I needed at that stage. She found one in the shape of pianist and composer Michael Finnissy. He was somebody I could go and chat to and talk about repertoire. You need someone utterly sympathetic to what you're trying to do.

Her own unconventional background has made her very aware of the need for kindred spirits. Home-schooled by free-thinking parents in north London until she was eleven, MacGregor evolved her own way of doing things. She played by ear up to about Grade 5, when an examiner pointed out that her sight-reading bore no relation to what was written on the page. After secondary school she studied music at Cambridge, when she was given composer Hugh Wood as a tutor. We took one look at each other and realised we were both kind of - outsiders. He was quite grumpy sometimes: he was a great teacher, but he would get quite angry about the orthodoxy of things. We clicked and we both had a sense of humour. Years later he wrote a stunning piano concerto for her, capturing her personality and her athletic performance style. She premiered it at the Proms in 1991, and hopes to perform it again next year. I'll re-release my Collins recording of it on my own label, SoundCircus, and hopefully there will be a big revival!

Gospel Truths

MacGregor's earliest musical memories are of the black evangelical church where her father was a lay preacher. When I was about seven or eight I played the organ and piano at Sabbath school. So I grew up singing and playing gospel hymns. A few years ago she decided to make her own arrangements of gospel songs like Deep River and Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, as well as pieces she'd picked up on her travels in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, in a programme called American Highways.

It's partly because I really like this music, but it's also a way for me to reclaim my start in life. Sometimes when you're in a concert situation you lose touch with your roots. If you're out there playing Beethoven and so on, it is fabulous, but you're not being individual. You need to tell people who you are, to go back to that much older model - the pianist who was an improviser as well. That sort of playing is much more revealing than hiding behind great works. And that's been very nice in the last couple of the years coming back to that gospel repertoire and actually taking it into my recitals. With typical boldness, she opens the set with some American Highways arrangements and finishes it with Bach's Goldberg Variations. It's unusual, I know, and another pianist wouldn't do it because they don't have the same background as me. But it all hangs together because I'm the person that's playing it all.

She's evangelical about the need for all musicians to keep improvising. That whole sense of spontaneity and creativity at the piano gets lost early on. You've got to be able to play by ear. Yes, learn to read music, as long as you've got the two in parallel. The jazz musicians I work with are all incredibly good readers, but they also have this ability to just take off. It's a great shame that classical musicians have lost this. But if you've been plodding through the grade system, how do you start improvising? You discover what you like to do by sitting at your instrument and playing for yourself, just mucking around. The whole practice thing knocks that sideways, because you practise passages over and over until you're satisfied you've got the technique and accuracy and stamina. That's the absolute opposite of this other way of practising improvisation, when you're trying to be creative and free. But she says it must be possible to do both, because musicians in other disciplines, like Indian classical music, manage it.

MacGregor has just produced a book of new pieces for young pianists of intermediate standard called Unbeaten Tracks. I asked a whole bunch of very interesting musicians to write pieces in a huge range of styles, from a gospel piece by a New Orleans pianist to a piece by Andy Sheppard. It's deliberately aimed at teens who want to play stuff that sounds a bit groovy and contemporary, but not so hard that they can't play it. A lot of pieces are about having a kind of groove, because that's one of the things that classical players don't have. They have many strengths but they're not very good at locking into something. Her one proviso was that they could all be played on a bog-standard piano. I grew up on a very old, flat out-of-tune, upright piano, and I had to make the assumption that most pianists are not going to be playing a grand piano. So there's no third pedal or anything fancy.

The pianist started her own record label, SoundCircus, so she could record music that interested her, rather than music a record company thought it could sell. Recordings include collaborations with artists such as Talvin Singh and Moses Molelekwa and contemporary pieces by John Cage, Lou Harrison and Harrison Birtwistle. And she's acquired the rights to all her original releases on Collins Classics, including the beautiful Bach suites, a Satie and a Scarlatti disc. All titles will soon be downloadable track by track from the SoundCircus website.

MacGregor was amazingly prescient about the importance of the Internet. I started my label just at the time when the Internet was becoming a popular tool. It was no longer a cultish, nerdy thing, it was something everybody was going to engage with. For the first couple of years I kept the label just on the Internet because to me that was going to be the new way to reach audiences, not just to sell CDs, but downloads and so on. It was only when retailers started phoning to say, people keep coming in and asking for your CDs, we've got to have them, that she got involved in distribution and retail. Running your own label is a great way of grasping the hard facts of the music business. You're very aware of how your sales are going every month. This business savvy, and the discipline of working within tight budgets, has helped her enormously in her new job as Artistic Director of the venerable Bath International Music Festival.

No one who knows Joanna MacGregor would expect a run of Tchaikovsky symphonies, and indeed this year will be very different from previous Bath Festivals. I hope so! says MacGregor. That's the reason they asked me to come and do it. I've played at the Festival many times so I understand the history, but I can also take it on to a future. This year's Festival opens with music on open-air stages all around the centre of Bath, and a spectacular audio-visual display with trumpeters on Bath Abbey. As well as classical heavyweights like the Borodin Quartet performing Shostakovich, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and soloist soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Festival also includes jazz, electronica, Indian classical performers and a strand entitled Tradition Bearers, which looks at contemporary folk, from Scotland to Norway.

MacGregor sees it as a fantastic opportunity to bring all her enthusiasms together. It's a very large version of what I've always done. Suddenly I have a role and a canvas to work on. She has every confidence that the people of Bath will support her enthusiasms. I think the audiences are intelligent, inquisitive and cultured.

How she finds the energy to run all these projects, heaven knows. As well as planning the repertoire, designing the programmes and all the marketing of the Bath Festival, she's mixing a new CD of American music with saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and painstakingly re-orchestrating her The Art Of Fugue/Moondog arrangements for an upcoming tour. Until December she was on the road for an exhausting six months, playing in the United States, Canada, Russia and Brazil and living out of a suitcase.

But travel does have its consolations. Whenever possible MacGregor seizes the opportunity to find out what's going on musically in each country. I would never be a musician who does concert hall, hotel, airport, concert hall - that's a complete waste of being in a place. I disappear sometimes for two or three days. I hire a car and go on a road trip. She doesn't seem to be fazed by the prospect of travelling on her own. You have to be bold; to be prepared to drive in a strange place, to go to a bar, find musicians and meet people for the first time. But what's really great is how generous musicians are with one another. They want to show you what they're doing, and find out what you think about it. It's a cliché, but music really is a universal language.

Breaking Barriers

In England, MacGregor lives a stone's throw from the sea-front in Brighton. It's a laid-back, chilled-out sort of place with some great venues. About two minutes' walk away from my house is the Hanbury Arms, where Americana bands often play. The house is full of beautiful objects that she's brought back from her travels. Some of them are quite big. I've often been stopped in airports and accused of carrying weapons! But I love art made out of found things. And I love to see things all around me that remind me of my trips.

Is it a self-imposed mission for her, seeking out musicians and breaking down barriers between genres? I suppose it's become a mission, but it seems a very natural thing for me to do. It really started with all the travelling I did. One of my first trips as a concert pianist was to Sierra Leone, before the war started and it had a huge impact on me. What it felt like to be in an environment like that. What would be the point of going to Africa and not allowing that to influence you? How can you not collaborate with other African musicians? I feel strongly about being open and working with other musicians. It's probably at the root of everything I do.