Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I’ve always bought into the idea that you have to do what you’re good at and you have to do what you love, and I’m very lucky that the two are one and the same. For as long as I can remember I’ve always thought musically. Long before any formal education in music or the piano, it seemed an obvious and natural form of expression. My mind has always been full of musical invention – as much now as when I was five years old – the only conscious decision I made was when I was 15, when I decided to write some of it down.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I think that discovering opera played a pivotal role in shaping my attitude towards composition and music as a whole, in that it convinced me of exactly what I wanted from a piece of music. I saw Tosca at Covent Garden, which was a perfect introduction as it clearly said to me, ‘this is what music should be, and this is how it should make you feel’. Ever since, Puccini has been extremely important to me, as has Italian opera as a whole.
Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden and James Levine at the Met Opera in New York have broadened both mine and thousands of other peoples’ love of music. On a more personal level, I am exceedingly grateful to my last piano teacher, Warren Mailley-Smith, for the mountain of support he gave me, in particular as a composer.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I’m fortunate that I’ve never been lacking in inspiration or ideas. The greatest challenge has always been one of structure – I know what I want the music to do and have the musical ideas to express it, but sometimes putting it all together in an ordered and balanced way can prove elusive! Generally I find it just needs time – I leave something for a while, and after some time away, it either works itself out and fits together or it doesn’t. Usually it does!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
It’s both a blessing and a curse to have a commissioned piece. A blessing in that by working within certain set boundaries such as a given text or a particular performance circumstance, it’s much easier to keep a hold of what can sometimes be a limitless flow of good but terrifyingly disorganised ideas! However, a curse in that you inevitably find yourself throwing out some of your favourite ideas because they don’t really fit the brief. If I can I try to save them to use in something else later on!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Singers are great. I love the voice, and there can be no better instrument to write for. I often hear pianists and conductors complain of a lot of singers lacking in musicianship, but I don’t buy that for a moment – every great musician sings, whether it’s with their voice or a violin, or anything else. A friend of mine has the most beautiful soprano voice, and the real pleasure is that her voice itself is all the inspiration you could need to write something beautiful – the music just writes itself. I think it’s very telling that so many great operatic roles were written with specific singers in mind. I’m very lucky to be studying at Oxford as it gives me the opportunity to work with some wonderful musicians on a daily basis.
Which works are you most proud of?
I’m really delighted with my new album – it’s a very complete representation of how I feel music can best be used to stir the emotions and to tell a story, (almost certainly the two things which draw me so strongly to opera). I’ve embraced a lot of the harmonic language that makes Puccini’s music so moving and energetic, whilst keeping within my own constantly developing style. There’s very little in the music here which is not lyrical – I think you get the strongest expression of emotion through extreme lyricism, combined with lush and inventive harmony. Of course the piano is the only single instrument that can really combine the two, so it was the obvious choice for this album.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
It was while playing Rachmaninoff that I first decided I might like to write down some of my musical ideas and ‘officially’ become a composer, so there’s definitely something in Rachmaninoff’s music that I find some affinity with. He really knows how people hear music and how they understand it – and it’s not an academic exercise, it’s something far more basic, more primal. No one has to analyse the 3rd Concerto to appreciate it. Much as no one has to analyse Tosca to know what it’s all about. In both cases, the music speaks directly to the soul, and that’s what I mean when I say ‘this is what music should be’. And indeed in both cases, their unfading popularity far beyond just the classical music world, but all across popular culture reflects this.
In terms of living pianists, I have a lot of admiration for Valentina Lisitsa – not just for her talent as a pianist, but for how impressively she has built her career and marketed herself. I think she’s a very impressive woman who many musicians today could learn a lot from.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I’d have to say the most memorable thing I’ve ever seen was the Covent Garden production of La Bohème back in the summer of 2014. Not for any reason relating to the performance itself – although it was extremely good – but because it was then that I met, completely by chance, my wonderful girlfriend Natascha who provides endless inspiration for so much of my music, and in particular for my latest album ‘7 and a Half Visions of Love’. It was an evening I shall always remember extremely fondly.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think it’s very important not to listen too much to what you’re told you should or shouldn’t do. Advice and guidance is good some of the time, and I’m not saying you should ignore it all, but keep it in its rightful place. As has long been said and will be said for all generations to come, go with your instincts and do what you believe in.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I love film music, and it’s a world I’d like to get into in the near future. I would like to bring back some of the wonderful orchestral film scores of the previous century that have become somewhat absent from films today. Film music provides a terrific means of expression, as it is perhaps the only time when a new, large piece of classical, orchestral music reaches millions of people quite literally overnight.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting in the front row of the Metropolitan opera in the minutes before the performance starts has always seemed to me perhaps the happiest it’s possible to be. Waiting with the knowledge and excitement that you’re in the greatest city in the world, about to hear the greatest musicians perform some of the greatest music ever written – I think it doesn’t get better than that. So if I could do that every night of my life, I think that might be somewhere close to perfect happiness! Of course there’s more than that – you need to be happy with yourself and what you are doing, and thankfully for the most part, I am.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I take great joy in travelling. I’m lucky that I’ve seen a lot of the world. London is a wonderful city and I’m lucky to live here, but however wonderful the cultural scene, there are hundreds of others all round the world, and to not travel purely out of contentment with my hometown would be to miss out on so much beauty. It’s also a wonderful escape – Oxford terms are short but intense, and travelling is a great way to break things up and take your mind off things.
Luke Navin’s debut album 7 and a Half Visions of Love is available to buy now