British pianist Charles Owen was in Cyprus for the 3rd Apollon International Arts Festival and spoke to Saskia Constantinou about his life of performing and his new London Piano Festival.
Do you hail from a musical family? How did it all begin?
I grew up with my mother playing hymns in church. She had a little piano that was given to her mother as a twenty-first wedding anniversary present – a Bosworth upright, and I learnt on that with my aunt, who still incidentally, owns that piano. My aunt had a scholarship to the Royal Academy but turned it down to be a missionary in Africa. Hearing her mezzo voice in church inspired my love of the human voice and lyricism. A local church organist taught me the piano – lessons were just 50p but he was very strict. The toughest was Easter time though – he had a wall of Easter eggs all perfectly preserved in their wrappers!
You’re in demand all over the world – as soloist and chamber musician in various festivals – how do you manage to practice and teach with all your travelling?
Like most musicians, I try to be very organised with my time and have learnt to practice in a very concentrated manner and at different times of the day and night. My idea of bliss is to have a whole day free at home for practice, rest, reading, exercise followed by the reward of socialising in the evening!
Do you believe in silent practising?
Indeed I do particularly when it comes to memorisation. I enjoy studying the scores away from the piano and aim to imprint them into the brain.
There are pianists who have said that the daily grind of practicing is like going to the salt mines – is it odious to you, or a joy?
This very much depends on my mood, the repertoire I am preparing and even the weather. Some aspects of practice are tough but I aim to make to make the process as creative as possible. I feel it is essential to always have a clear idea what one is trying to achieve at a given moment during practice. There are so many different ways to make the daily grind into a positive experience. Essential as the years go by!
Do you think it is more difficult to launch a career today than it was when you began?
To be honest I think that it has always been a challenge to embark on a musical career let alone sustain one over a lifetime. I certainly worry about the diminishing concert scene in some countries whilst the conservatoires continue to produce a stream of fine players.
As a Professor of Piano at the Guildhall, do you believe it necessary to be brutally honest with your students with regard to their potential to become concert pianists?
I try to be kind but realistic and only give an answer when a student asks me outright about their aims and ambitions.
In your teaching, have you ever felt that there’s a certain common fault that many students have?
Sadly one often encounters a lack of harmonic understanding and awareness in students. A lazy approach towards dynamics and a genuine fidelity to the score also seems prevalent. I always appreciate a musician who spends time delving deep into the different styles of the various composers. Essential but sometimes rare!
What do you believe is the best kind of musical training for a young person?
The development of the ears is as important as the need for technical mastery. A good knowledge of theory, fine ear training and exposure to many different kinds of music can really help to build a young musician’s understanding.
What is stage presence for you?
The ability to fill the stage, hold the listener and lead them on a journey with one’s interpretation.
How do you prepare for a concert on the day of the event?
I usually rise a little later than usual and spend time thinking about the music rather than practising too relentlessly. Power naps are helpful and can really make a difference to the concert. It is also important not to give a performance in the rehearsal!
Paderewski once said that nerves come from a bad conscience, from holes in the preparation –Do you agree? Does your heart pound before you go on stage?
Good preparation is truly essential and needs to be done well in advance. I usually learn very quickly and can bring familiar pieces back fairly easily. However I aim to plan my practice schedule carefully in order to avoid the worst of the pounding heart syndrome!
There is such an incredible build up to a concert – do you ever have post-concert depression?
Sadly this does and can happen. With experience I’ve gradually learned how to handle the anti-climax and let the adrenaline return to a more normal level. Often after a major concert I will take a short break away from everything. On other occasions one must continue straight onto the next event and programme!
“If I’m going through inner turmoil in my life, I turn to Bach. The mathematical balance can be very comforting. When Bach’s being sad, it’s never about the individual, like in Chopin or Schubert – it’s always about higher powers.”
Do you work out your pedalling as precisely as phrasing and dynamics?
I pay a great deal of attention to pedalling during practice sessions and try out various options. However I rarely set anything in stone as the pedalling will vary according to the piano and hall one is playing in. I am a great believer in using many kinds of pedalling such as half pedals, flutter pedal etc.
Which composer is the greatest interpretive challenge for you and why?
This is a very hard question to answer as every great composer brings huge challenges as well as rewards. If pushed I would have to say Beethoven for the unbelievable richness, depth of expression and complexity not to mention the huge technical obstacles inherent in so much of his music.
I guess this could result in a book – but briefly, what is it about Bach which draws you so?
For me as for so many other musicians Bach really remains Number One in the pantheon of Western Classical composers. His influence and genius in taking existing forms and pushing them to their limit puts him in a class of his own. I love the sense of joy and spirit of the dance that runs through so many of his works. His obsession with numbers and patterns is endlessly fascinating and rewarding. Finally, like Beethoven he has a way of addressing the cosmos and the eternal.
You’ve recorded the cello and piano sonatas of Brahms, Schubert, Rachmaninov and Chopin for EMI with Natalie Clein – how important is recording with other musicians for you?
Recording is one of the greatest teachers a musician can have. Suddenly one’s playing is under the microscope in a completely different way from in a concert! Collaborating in the studio can be exciting but the partnership must be absolutely solid if the players are to survive the degree of exposure that the process entails. I recently finished recording the four hand duet versions of Stravinsky’ ballets with the wonderful pianist Katya Apekisheva. We emerged well from the challenge.
What about Charles Owen the private man? What are your other interests/hobbies?
My favourite times are spent reading quietly at home, attending theatre/opera/concerts particularly orchestral ones. Together with my partner I love escaping into the depths of the British or indeed French countryside with no mobile or Internet reception! Fitness plays a regular part in my life, gym and pilates training also help the piano playing and one’s sanity.
What are your goals and dreams for the next five years?
To keep growing as a musician and person, to really widen and focus my repertoire, record more solo discs starting with the Bach Partitas. Also to travel and explore more of the world’s beauty both man made and otherwise!
In October, you are presenting with Katya Apekisheva the London Piano Festival. Tell us about the origins and concept behind it all.
Katya and I have both attended many excellent festivals where various instrumentalists gather together to play chamber music. In 2011 we were invited to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland where the atmosphere, camaraderie and sheer quality of the concerts very special. After this positive experience, we decided to create something similar in the UK and were thrilled when Kings Place in London, enthusiastically took up our idea. Pianists are destined by the very nature of the instrument to be solitary creatures but for one dazzling weekend in October, we hope to change that!
You and Katya have a special chemistry at the piano – has the administrative side of putting a festival together been equally fun?
Sharing a strong bond and connection at the piano has certainly translated well into setting up the London Piano Festival. No one can prepare the initiate for the challenges of creating a new venture from scratch – choosing the pianists and their programmes was certainly the easiest part!
There is such a diverse repertoire for the piano – did you have any criteria about how to do the programming?
For this inaugural festival we decided to avoid a specific theme for the programming. Each solo artist has chosen to perform music by composers with whom they particularly identify, in my case JS Bach, an all French signature programme for Kathryn Stott whilst Katya focuses on the Romantic Impromptu repertoire.
You have an incredible array of the world’s leading pianists – can you tell us about them?
We are happy and fortunate to see so many wonderful pianists on board for our very first festival weekend. Each artist is someone we know personally, an essential component of creating a unique event such as this.
The legendary Alfred Brendel will open the concerts in his role as speaker. His lecture on Liszt will be followed by a performance of the B minor sonata from one of the finest Hungarian pianists, Denes Varjon. Kathryn Stott, a truly outstanding British pianist is at the very height of her powers as is the jazz pianist, Julian Joseph, who will close the festivities with the best of standard and contemporary favourites.
What is the Two-Piano Gala feat?
This mammoth concert will see the two Kings Place Steinway pianos placed together for an evening of piano duo music drawn almost exclusively from the Twentieth Century repertoire. Seven pianists including Stephen Kovacevich, the doyen of current players, will join forces in various duo formations to explore the riches, complexities and excitement of music for two pianos. Rachmaninoff, Ravel and a world premiere by the superb American composer Nico Muhly, will all be on the menu!
Education always plays such an important role in these festivals – what will you be presenting?
We are delighted that the charismatic Japanese pianist, Noriko Ogawa will devote a morning to sharing the delights of the piano through three Family Concerts. The youngsters will be able to gather around and peer into the big Steinway grand piano (or just relax on bean bags!) as Noriko introduces them to the sheer thrill of the instrument up close and personal.