A Conversation with Andrew West

Vantage Music | February 2019 | London

Vantage Music has known pianist Andrew West for some time. In February 2019, during our short stay in London, he had time for a conversation with us, before a concert at St John’s Smith Square, London. It was a concert organised by Kirckman Concert Society where Andrew is Chairman and Artistic Director.

When You Were a Child

VM: During your childhood, why did you pick the piano, this particular instrument?

A: I don’t remember picking the instrument. When I was very young, about five, my dad’s sister had an upright piano in the sitting room. I think I probably just had a go and then started.

VM: Without any help from anyone?

A: Yes, I think so. I was always playing since then. I don’t remember when I didn’t play, or when anyone said to me that I must go and play. In fact, my grandfather bought it for my aunt, but not until she was about twenty-one. She didn’t learn as a child and could play a little bit, but she didn’t play a lot. It’s nice that my brother keeps that piano now.

VM: Did you get any musical influence from your parents?

A: My parents aren’t musicians. They like music and sang in a choral society. My father was a timber merchant, and his grandfather started the business, which has been going well over a century now. He sang in church, but my mother knew more about music and different composers as well. The crucial thing I’d say is that they both were always encouraging, and never said that music would be a risky career or anything like that – they always made me feel music was a good thing to be doing. When I was ten, I was a junior at the Royal Academy of Music.

VM: Did you request that?

A: No, my mother heard about that and the possibility. She somehow got me the audition.

VM: Did you have a teacher to prepare you for the audition?

A: Yes. It was a local teacher in Midhurst, Sussex, near Chichester. I was learning the piano with a lady called Margaret Martin. Then I went to the Junior Academy for two years. After that, I only had piano lessons at Charterhouse, my high school. I had lessons there with a lady called Rosemary Dines.

VM: I suppose you had a lot of music there?

A: Amazing music and really amazing chamber music. I received a music scholarship at school and that meant I had to be involved in all sorts of music activities, including music making in groups. At school, there was a lot of encouragement, but I never felt pressurised – I did music because that’s what I wanted to do.

There was also a very inspiring director of music called William Llewellyn (M.B.E.). He was an amazing man – offered many performing opportunities to me – I played two piano concertos, lots of piano sonatas, trios and quintets. It was really the inspiration to carry on with music. The Junior Academy, in fact, I found a little bit frightening.

VM: Too competitive?

A: No, I didn’t feel competitive at all! Living down in the countryside where I came from every Saturday, the Academy ceilings were just so high!

VM: Ah! There was also the hassle of coming to London on Saturdays.

A: I quite liked that, getting on a train on my own, when I was ten. My parents put me on the eight o’clock train in the morning. After arriving at Waterloo, I got on the underground to Regent’s Park, walked alone to the RAM, and back again. I knew the route I had to take. My parents came along two or three times and then decided not to come to London every week.

VM: So, it seems that your inspiration actually came from school.

A: I really loved music at school because we had such an inspiring Head of Music. But, as a postgraduate student, my real inspirational teacher was Christopher Elton at the Academy. He was much more vigorous in teaching me technique, and made me learn things in proper detail. He has had so much influence on many pianists as well. I studied with him from 1984 to 1987, and he is still there! I was teaching one of his students chamber music yesterday.

Becoming A Professional Pianist

VM: Do you still remember your first serious public performance?

A: It would definitely be when I was a postgraduate student. That was my first full solo recital with two halves. I was probably twenty-two or something and was down in Midhurst, Sussex, the town where I grew up. My parents hired a piano and the school hall for that.

VM: Very supportive parents! What did you play there? How was it?

A: At that concert, I played Chopin’s first Ballade, Schoenberg Three Pieces Op. 11, Brahms Fantasies, Op. 116 and [Beethoven’s] Appassionata. At that time I probably thought it went well. But now I’d think, “Oh, it was terrible…”

VM: So, from there, were you happy and motivated, and thought that was what you wanted to do going forward?

A: I was certainly motivated, but one has to have luck and be a little bit naïve too. Afterwards, I did some competitions and it went ok. Several years later, I was taken on by YCAT (Young Concert Artists Trust). All of a sudden, I was getting concerts, meeting people and setting off from there really. I got all solo concerts at first and then there was a mixture. And I went to Banff Centre in Canada for a year where I did much more chamber music – something that I remember thinking that I wanted to do much more. I think if you worry too much about how you’re going to get things going you can easily get disheartened.

VM: Were there fewer people doing music at that time?

A: It seemed a lot! In those days, there were people from Hong Kong and Japan, but not so much from Korea, certainly not from China nor Eastern Europeans. So, in that sense, people seemed to come from fewer areas of the world. But there were still a lot of people who were good.

VM: Were you involved in YCAT during your postgraduate studies at the Academy?

A: No, it was several years after that. After my postgraduate studies, I was lucky that I got a couple of jobs that paid well enough that I didn’t have to quickly do a lot of teaching and I could afford to just practise. For example, I was the music director for the production of the Peter Shaffer play, Amadeus; and I fumbled around on the harpsichord with two oboists and a bassoonist on a tour of the Channel Islands.

VM: Was Amadeus your first job after postgraduate studies?

A: Yes. There were three of us, musicians, who performed live music during the play. Also, I had a friend who worked in a drama college in Sidcup in Kent, and I worked on their musical theatre productions for two or three weeks in each autumn. It must have been for four or five years. I combined that with other concerts. It was around three years after I left college that I got taken on by YCAT. Of course, that made a difference as I began to get more concerts.

VM: Were these YCAT concerts quite intensive?

A: Yes, there were many recitals. Also, around that time, I became pianist-in-residence at Lancaster University. It was a great job; I had to teach one day a week for a ten-week term. Besides one full day of teaching per week, I did four concerts per year – for example, a concerto, a chamber music concert, a song recital and a solo recital. That job lasted for five or six years, and it gave me a salary! The first and last one I have ever had! Sadly, Lancaster no longer has a music department. Then straight from there, I was doing some teaching at the Academy and a little bit at the Guildhall too.

VM: Did you try Charterhouse for teaching?

A: No. I kept in touch with the music teachers whom I knew there, and two of the most influential ones have now died. But my piano teacher and the director of music are still around. Although I like doing teaching, I always wanted it to sit alongside my playing, I didn’t want it to be the whole thing. I’ve really enjoyed teaching at different places and classes.

Keeping It Up

VM: Generally speaking, performing artists have to give up a lot, but what keeps you doing that?

A: It was always the playing that I particularly like – it’s tremendously satisfying, challenging yourself to keep going. It’s so rewarding to work with someone on a piece you are actually going to play. And it’s surprising how important the actual physical contact with the piano is, the production of the sound – perhaps for that reason I was never attracted by conducting.

It’s also wonderful to teach students and to give those classes – you get a lot of energy from those students when they are keen and very excited about what they are doing. They also come from absolutely everywhere, I don’t think I know the exact figures, but I know roughly the percentages at the Academy for the piano faculty. Last year, it was 45% from the E.U., 45% from non-E.U. and 10% from the U.K. They are all inspired to make this journey and to dedicate themselves to music, so there’s a very rewarding atmosphere. But I never wanted to specialise in just one area and stop doing other things. That’s why I do solo, chamber music and accompanying, alongside teaching.

VM: What do you think is the biggest challenge as a pianist?

A: That’s a very big question! When you get older, you take on other responsibilities – such as chairing the Kirckman Concert Society, which is why we are here at St John’s Smith Square this evening! And in the old days, before computers, there were no emails to answer which all takes so much time.

Of course, the more different things you do, the harder it is to focus on learning a new piece. When you are younger perhaps you have fewer things to do, and you can focus all the time, practising much more and having a sense of continuity of concert engagements. In some sense, performing is easier when you’re further on, as you know how to make the performance work, and are less nervous – but you still have to work to make sure that concerts keep coming in with enough interesting challenges.

Then it’s about finding new repertoire you want to do. Of course, there are great works where you discover new things each time you play them, but still I love playing new and interesting works too. That’s also one of the reasons I like to play contemporary music. For example, I played a new song cycle by Harrison Birtwistle at the Aldeburgh Festival a few years ago. That was a very big piece with a lot of effort involved. I certainly also perform Lieder and more traditional repertoire, with the singers I work with. But I like to mix that with more contemporary songs. I’ve been running a chamber music festival in Nuremberg in Germany where we mix traditional and more contemporary repertoire together, and we’re always looking at different angles to bring people in. Attracting concert audiences is a competitive business, and if you’re just repeating things, then the audience don’t have to come and they could just listen to a CD at home.

VM: Any worries, any fears as a musician?

A: There is always the nightmare that every musician has of learning the wrong piece. You are being told you have to play something and I am usually thinking, “Oh, I know how the beginning goes, so I will be able to go on and improvise through the rest of the piece” – but then you can’t! Luckily, I usually wake up before anything too bad happens!

I suppose I don’t do as much solo as I used to. I found that therefore, I have to be very sure to trust myself and my memory. Because one can become less confident without constant exercise of your memory, I think. I used to love playing Bach. But now I would be very wary about playing preludes and fugues, for example, in public, because if you lose where you are in a fugue, you can’t really get back again.

English at Cambridge

VM: You were reading English at Cambridge University. Why did you decide to do music in your postgraduate studies?

A: Like I said before, I was interested in doing other things. Nowadays, I’m much more likely to read a book in the evening than to put on a CD. I used to think that the reason I like song accompanying was that I did a final dissertation at the University on songs of Benjamin Britten with words by W. H. Auden. That was mainly about how the music and the words fit together.

VM: A music topic for a degree in English?

A: One paper only. It was more about the poetry and how that and music fit together. The main interest was how they [music and words] interacted. But now I realise it was a broader connection than that. Because the whole English degree at Cambridge is very much about really looking carefully at the poems, even if there are only two or three verses, and to examine why a poet has chosen to use exactly this word rather than another word of similar meaning. It’s about finding details of tone and voice inside the text. And that’s what you do with a score of music. You look at all the notes and all the markings, thinking why this accent is here, why other things are put there. There isn’t much instruction on a page, but through these instructions we have to search for the thoughts and feelings of the composers. And that’s what you have to try to communicate in a performance! So looking into what is inside the texts is very much something that I got from the English degree. That way of searching for something else beyond the marks on the page and the notes was a very important training.

Music Matters

VM: Any performance-related interesting stories you can share with us?

A: I was once in a Grieg Concerto rehearsal and in the big cadenza in the first movement, the pedal mechanism just completely fell off, and the next thing I knew, someone was frantically fiddling about under the piano at my feet trying to fix it back again. It was a good test of my legato!

I also remember getting on a plane to Aberdeen with three friends – we were a piano quartet. They had put their music in their suitcase, but at Aberdeen it didn’t arrive, and it wasn’t on the next plane either. We had to drive to Inverness from Aberdeen where we were doing the concert – we called the organisers to explain what had happened, but Inverness is quite small, and they could only find the music for one of the three pieces. In the end, we just did the concert in our jeans.

VM: What are your favourite pieces?

A: I love playing preludes and fugues, but to myself probably. But I like playing the classical repertoire more. I definitely least enjoy playing the big Romantic repertoire. I would never choose to pick up Liszt, Schumann or Rachmaninoff. I do love playing Chopin; clear texture, counterpoint, refinement of melody and harmony. And of course, song repertoire which is such a big part of my performing career.

VM: How do you select your programme?

A: If I am doing solo things, nowadays, it’s usually combined with something else in the concert. Last year, I was doing a programme of Czech and French flute music with some solo Janáček pieces in there. At our festival in Germany, we did a chamber music programme of memorial pieces, so I played Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau because it fitted in with the theme.

Geneva International Piano Competition

VM: You won the Geneva International Piano Competition in 1990. Do you remember how it went and what you played?

A: Actually, I came second! There were three rounds. I played Fauré Theme and Variations, the three Schubert Klavierstücke, Bach 4th Partita, Ravel Concerto and Beethoven G major concerto among other things.

VM: Did it help you to secure more concert engagements?

A: No, it didn’t really lead to more concerts directly. There are lots of competitions around and people are mainly only interested in the winner. It was nice to put on the CV but there wasn’t a really big direct influence. YCAT was much more important. And even before that, I won a competition run by an organisation that was then called the National Federation of Music Societies – the prize was thirty recitals, in eighteen months, around the country. That was brilliant – the hardest thing is always when students leave college – what’s next?!

VM: Absolutely, these opportunities are important.

A: The concerts weren’t well paid, but it didn’t matter because the point was to get used to standing up on your own and doing a whole recital. And then gradually you aren’t nervous because you’ve lots of these concerts. The difficulty is that the fewer concerts you have, the more important each one becomes. The pressure comes to make it perfect, it’s a real danger for a performer.

Current Endeavours

VM: Can you tell us more about the Kirckman Concert Society?

A: The Society was founded by a harpsichord player and conductor called Geraint Jones. His wife Winifred Roberts taught Sharon Choa (now Dean of the School of Music, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts). I played chamber music with Sharon, and that’s how Geraint heard me; he was interested in my playing and offered me some concerts. After his death Winifred asked if I’d come to join the Board. So, I was on the Board first and then was asked to become the music director.

VM: Do you select performers for the concerts?

A: Yes, that’s right, through auditions, for young musicians up to thirty years of age. This Sunday, we’ll have auditions in Manchester and then the following Sunday, we’ll have auditions in London.

VM: Will the audition lead to a concert?

A: Yes, mainly to a London debut recital. The main concerts are held here [St John’s Smith Square] now but they also take place in the Purcell Room, Kings Place and at the Wigmore Hall.

VM: Could you tell us more about the Nuremberg International Chamber Music Festival?

A: It was started by friends of mine who lived there, one of them, Peter Selwyn, worked at the city’s opera house. His wife, a wonderful pianist called Emily Segal, wanted to do something more beyond taking care of the family. So, she said she would start a chamber music festival – it was really ambitious! It was supposed to be a one-off event only, but it has carried on for seventeen years.

VM: Are you the artistic director there?

A: One of them. We were a team and there were different programmes. We have performed Benjamin Britten operas, contemporary repertoire, traditional repertoire in lots of beautiful venues around the city. There are around four or five concerts and a big event towards the end. It’s been a really great festival to be part of.

VM: We were looking at your biography – there were recitals with violinist Sarah Chang?

A: Yes. That came through YCAT. She was very young, sixteen at the time. Her agent heard me and said, “Fine. We would like you to do these concerts.” So, I flew to just outside of Philadelphia for the rehearsals; the concerts were back in Europe.

What’s Next?

VM: Do you have any upcoming music projects?

A: Yes. I’m working on another CD with baritone Roderick Williams on songs by Stanford – that’ll be in June this year. And five appearances at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, which feature the song cycles of Britten – interesting events in that we will discuss the poetry first and then perform the cycles – just the sort of thing I like!