Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
Unfortunately my reasons for taking up the piano weren’t built on any great desire or early musical promise: I started having piano lessons with the lady down the road because my older sister wasn’t practising and I was given her lesson slot instead… Thankfully I quickly showed more of an appetite for piano practice and my sister moved on to the oboe, so everyone was happy in the end!
As a teenager, my experiences in the youth music services in Gloucestershire, run by the inspiring couple Alan and Caroline Lumsden, encouraged me to pursue music further. They taught me to associate music making with happiness: I always enjoyed my activities at both Beauchamp House and G.A.M.P.A, whether this was singing about the Civil War in freezing cold churches or playing at the back of the 2nd violin section on a youth tour to Australia in the Sydney Opera House, and this philosophy of enjoyment is tremendously important to me in my career now.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I am grateful to have had a number of important influences shaping my musical development. I arrived at York University knowing I wanted a career in music, but I was very unfocussed and unsure about which direction this may take. I’d never really considered pursuing a performing career, but Joan Dixon (my piano teacher at York) was able to show me that I would be good enough to go down this path, and provided me with the confidence and work ethic to go out and achieve this. Andrew Ball – my RCM piano teacher – is a tremendously inspiring man with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a formidable technique. He really shaped my love of contemporary music, and I always knew that whatever obscure music I could find to take to lessons with him, he’d always find something useful to say!
As an aspiring project curator I have to also mention Cheltenham Music Festival – one chance email begging for concerts led me onto curating the first Cheltenham Composer Academy (now in its 4th year, still going strong!). In those few months I learnt so much about what it takes to create a successful music event – SO important these days as music becomes ever more entrepreneurial – and met a number of emerging composers who inspired me and sent me out with renewed enthusiasm to collaborate with as many people as possible!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The aforementioned Composer Academy has to be up there – performing for 11 hours a day in composer workshops (along with my group the Dr K. Sextet, who were resident ensemble), organising the lives of 30 composers, printing music, blog writing, page turning, chauffeuring, video making…. The list goes on: after that I must have slept for about a week! Professionally, my progress through music college was quite a challenge: battling those inevitable feelings that you aren’t good enough and constant striving to improve, make vital connections with other musicians and practice that extra hour every day…. I like to think I got a great kickstart to my career and made the most of the opportunities on offer, but I won’t pretend it isn’t hard work!
An important personal challenge for me was to realise that you have to follow your own path when it comes to creating a fulfilled career. I moved to London for my Masters and spent 4 happy years in the big city. I was of the opinion that to be a successful musician you HAD to be in London, as it was where all the music and musicians were. However, I eventually realised I couldn’t stay any more and I moved to Devon 2 years ago, cutting all my regular income in the process. It was a scary thing to do and a challenge at first (and sometimes still is – making ensemble rehearsals when you live 4 hours away requires some careful planning), but I have come to realise that city living wasn’t for me and that the music I make now is so much deeper and stronger because I feel happy and secure in my personal life.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I performed some experimental contemporary music with the Dr K. Sextet to a packed house at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe. We were nervous that everyone would walk out after one piece… but they loved it! A lesson right there in never underestimating your audience.
As a soloist, performing Ligeti for 100 school kids in the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the London Sinfonietta was particularly rewarding – it was the best (and noisiest) cheer I’ve ever received!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
The most influential piece for me – one that first drew me into contemporary music performance – was ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’ by Frederic Rzewski. I heard it in a composition module at York, and have been captivated by it ever since, performing it regularly. If you were to ask me when I have felt ‘coolest’ as a contemporary classical pianist, it was being selected by Stuart Maconie for inclusion on his BBC Radio 6 music show ‘Freak Zone’, playing ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blue’s as a recommendation of something a bit different for the listeners to try out!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
This always depends on who I am collaborating with and what thematic link each project has to follow. For instance, at the moment the Sextet are involved with an intriguing project entitled The Pierrot Project, which links up with visual artists and composers, exploring the themes of Pierrot Lunaire in great depth – leading to performance of new commissions and works directly linked to Schoenberg. At the same time I am working on a project with composer Nicholas Peters that explores the use of the piano in a number of different guises: meaning piano and electronics, piano and tape and loads of piano studies (if you fancy a challenge, try learning Ligeti etudes, Colin Matthews 11 studies in velocity and Gerald Barry Au Milieu simultaneously!)
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Every year I perform at the Doncaster Art Gallery, for a concert series that has been run by Philip Scowcroft every week for the last 50 years. I have really developed a great relationship with the regular audience members: they are open minded to new repertoire, very supportive and when I go there it feels like a home from home. I can’t imagine ever not wanting to go there, even though it’s quite an effort to get there from Devon!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
My favourite pieces to perform are invariably exuberant, rhythmic and violent in equal measure… I love playing the James Macmillan 2nd Piano Concerto – so full of vibrant energy and it is a real tonic for those who suggest that contemporary music is inaccessible. I love performing Charles Ives’ ‘Concord Sonata’, and I’ll always come back to the Rzewski as well.
As for favourite pieces to listen to, I’m a real fan of acappella choral music, so I’d recommend any of James Macmillan’s choral music: ‘Strathclyde Motets’ perhaps. Bach’s incomparable B Minor Mass is constantly on my mind at the moment, and the music of Edvard Grieg takes me right back to my earliest memories of classical music. As for contemporary composers to have a listen to, I’d suggest you should try Harrison Birtwhistle, Michael Finnissey, Gerald Barry, Magnus Lindberg, Henri Dutilleux and Stef Conner. Just some suggestions to get you started!
Who are your favourite musicians?
My favourite pianist has to be Solomon, whose sensitive touch and ability to keep a phrase flowing smoothly was legendary as far as I’m concerned. Sadly his stroke in the mid 1950’s cut his playing career far too short. Of the modern day pianists I would have to go for the clarity and technical brilliance of Marc-André Hamelin.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Two somewhat contrasting experiences spring to mind: the first was a trip with the RCM to Moscow to perform British music in the grandeur of the Rachmaninov hall at Moscow Conservatory – Russians going wild for the music of Kenneth Leighton! The second was the opening concert in the Dr K. Sextet’s collaborative ‘Pierrot Project’, which was a concert of highlights from Pierrot Lunaire and linked works at a newly formed (i.e. not-quite-built-yet) art gallery on a glamorous North Acton trading estate. Performing ‘Mondestrunken’ on a keyboard on a building site, surrounded by dust, in the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse Experience occurring on the estate – resulting in intermittent screams coming from outside…
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I’d say that the most important thing to try and do is to make things happen for yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to make them happen for you. If you have repertoire you want to learn, a concert you particularly want to perform or a group you want to set up, then talk to people and do your research. It may be possible to create opportunities for yourself in unexpected places!
It’s also important to remember what it is you love about the music you make. It won’t always be easy or straightforward, but if you can maintain positivity and keep enjoying what you do then it will all be worth it! If you are anything like me, even the most frustrating day as a freelance musician is 10 times better than any other job!
Exeter resident Alex Wilson was born and raised in Gloucestershire. He studied at York University and for a Masters in piano performance with Andrew Ball at the Royal College of Music, from which he graduated with distinction in 2011. As a concert pianist he has performed around the country, in venues including Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Cadogan Hall, and has performed in France, Spain and at the Rachmaninov Hall, Moscow. His recent concert series ‘The Banks of Green Willow’: an exploration of the lost composers of the First World War attracted large audiences and received critical praise.
Read more about Alex here