Joanna MacGregor: “Virtuosity is something you are born with”

The pianist on the serenity of Beethoven.

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Joanna MacGregor’s favourite pieces of music are those that evoke gothic cathedrals. “I’m very drawn to composers who write monumental works, stuff that’s architecturally big,” the British pianist told me when we met at the Royal Academy of Music in London earlier this year. “I like the idea of huge spaces that you can walk around and be amazed. Piano pieces are like enormous buildings. You will study them for many years and never get to the bottom of them.”

MacGregor has always had an original approach to music. She has her own record label, SoundCircus, and has produced recordings of “colossal” works – most recently, the complete Chopin mazurkas. Until 2019 she ran the Dartington International Talent Festival and, until 2012, the Bath International Music Festival, as well as curating concerts for the Royal Opera House. She has been head of piano at the Royal Academy since 2011, and in 2019 was awarded a CBE for her contributions to music.

Last year she was also on the judging panel for the contentious double-winner Booker Prize (a topic about which she is guarded – “I was very passionate about other writers too on that shortlist, which is why it took six hours and we didn’t get anywhere!”).

MacGregor’s live performances are testament to her musical imagination. During her concerts she plays pieces by Beethoven alongside songs by the soul legend Nina Simone, believing that different musical styles and periods complement each other.

Born in 1959, and raised in north London, MacGregor’s diverse musical taste was founded in childhood. Her mother, a Beatles fan, taught her the piano from the age of three. “I played a lot by ear,” MacGregor recalled. “I used to play Mozart and I loved Bach, even when I was little. Then we used to play Beatles numbers, singing at the piano and mucking around and playing ‘Take Five’.”

MacGregor came to our meeting from London’s Wigmore Hall, where she was making a film about the Beethoven variations. “The thing about Beethoven is that he used hits of the day. All classical composers had their ear to the ground looking for popular material to write stuff on.”

This year is the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s birth, and his life and works are being celebrated around the world – albeit now online and at a distance, owing to Covid-19.

Beethoven is often regarded as a masculine presence in the history of classical music, but to MacGregor he is “very modern”. His roughness and “crackling energy” create pianistic boundaries for performers to try to break. His music is famously complex and imposing – not unlike those gothic cathedrals – but “concerned with the fundamentals of composition”, which appeals to MacGregor’s “purist” side. He is tender, too, and sometimes serene. “I feel very emotionally attached to Beethoven, because his music is full of love,” MacGregor said.

At the time of our encounter, MacGregor was preparing the full cycle of Beethoven sonatas for two festivals at the end of 2020. This is an enormous undertaking, but MacGregor relishes the chance to practise. She has two pianos at home: a Steinway & Sons B, which she feels she “should be able to play really rather well”, and an old Kawai piano, which lives “up in a tower” where nobody can hear her play. “It’s a little workhorse of a piano, and it gives me a lot of trouble!”

It is unclear whether these events – and all those on the classical music calendar, which is full of Beethoven recitals – will still take place. Another important subject for MacGregor is musical education. “When I was young, I couldn’t practise at home because my dad did night work [as a printer],” she explained. “There was a piano at school I could use, so I stayed late and practised until 9pm or 10pm.”

Classical music has a reputation for elitism, and MacGregor thinks that one solution to increasing diversity in the genre would be “free music lessons, access to instruments, letting pupils stay late. Because you don’t need to force these people to practise.”

She also said that virtuosity – the mastery of an instrument – is a talent someone is born with, but that such gifts must be nurtured from an early age. As a football fan, MacGregor pointed to the example of the former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who travelled the world to spot gifted young players, some as young as ten.

“Being a pianist is an athletic thing, so somebody has got to help you when you’re young,” she said. “It can’t just be left to people with money, because that’s not necessarily where the talent is.”

As well as her music, MacGregor has garnered attention for her appearance, which has always been more fashionable than the average classical musician. “I got asked a lot about my appearance when I was a young pianist. I was asked to do all kinds of ghastly things that I never did. I remember once being asked to lie on the bonnet of a car, as if I was in a bikini or something.”

She insists that her dress sense is nothing remarkable. “I do like clothes, why wouldn’t I? They’re interesting,” she said. “Many of my students are sharply dressed. One of them comes in and then goes off to London Fashion Week. I don’t know what colour her hair is going to be from week to week. She played the first Rachmaninov concerto and her hair was red and green. The audience didn’t bat an eyelid.”

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe

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