Pianist Joanna MacGregor offers eclectic mix with an autobiographical twist

Joanna MacGregor’s Irish dates will feature everything from Bach to Thelonious Monk, says Alan O’Riordan.

THE English pianist, Joanna MacGregor, is no stranger to Ireland. She’s played to great acclaim in Dublin and several times at the Bantry Chamber Music Festival. She’ll be extending that familiarity this month, however, thanks to a nationwide tour with Music Network.

The tour’s programme is typical of MacGregor’s eclecticism, taking in Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, Thelonious Monk and Piazzolla, along with a new work by Conor Linehan.

In an extraordinary and extraordinarily busy career, MacGregor has always striven to break down the barriers for a classical pianist. “Something I’m very interested in is the skill of curating,” she says, “of seeing connections between types of music and composers. There’s a lot of fun in deciding how things might best work together.”

A typical example of her approach comes in her choices from Bach and Shostakovich; a selection of Preludes and Fugues by both are played sequentially, inviting direct comparison. The story goes Shostakovich, the Soviet celebrity, was judging a competition in Leipzig in 1950, to mark the bicentennial of Bach’s death. Inspired by the playing, and particularly by a brilliant young Russian pianist named Tatiana Nikolayeva, Shostakovich returned home to compose his own Preludes and Fugues specifically for Nikolayeva.

The Russian’s works, says MacGregor, are “in quite a tight, contrapuntal style, but very different. They are modern, spiky, jazzy, sometimes funny. Some are serious, some are light. It’s interesting to compare with Bach, so I am showing the differences and similarities.”

MacGregor is treating the tour as a road trip; in fact, she’ll be driving between the 12 venues herself. Driving, she says, is her thinking time, a place to come up with new ideas. And the programme is like a road trip acrossher life.

She elaborates: “There’s Bach, who you can never get away from. Even as a tiny girl, I was crazy about him. He has this lively engaged rhythmical brain that attracted me. He was the godfather of everything. John Coltrane used to warm up by playing him because he knew ... there’s this kind of unfolding rhythm that mows you down.”

Then there’s Chopin. “His music is profoundly important to me,” she says, “the very intimate music he wrote. It was very revelatory, a sense of what piano music can be, how it really goes across all genres.”

MacGregor’s musical curiosity led her to the Abbey Theatre during a night off in Dublin a couple of years ago. There she saw a revival of The Risen People, scored by Conor Linehan, who also played live accompaniment.

“It was a fantastic show,” she says. “I loved Conor’s music. He’s really interesting. He’s written a great piece — it’s flashy and exciting, jazzy, full of ideas. I told him write what the hell he liked, but to remember this concert is about travelling both metaphorically and literally. He said he got that, and he’s written something inspired by US road music, gospel, blues and jazz.”

As well as being a concert pianist, MacGregor has recorded 30 albums. She is head of piano at the Royal Academy of Music, has curated festivals, written books and a radio play, and is also a composer in her own right. “I’ve composed from the age of six, and I’ve probably premiered about 100 pieces. maybe more. I’m really interested in other composers, in lots of different styles. I go from Harrison Birtwistle to jazz to people who write lyrical music. It’s very important to work with composers, and I try to work out the best way to bring this work to the audience.”

MacGregor often takes a direct approach to this. She’s no silent, aloof player, but a gregarious host. Often, she’ll introduce a piece and talk about it before playing. But, she says, you have to get the people to come in the first place. “I try to find ways to attract an audience,” she says. “I do everything I can to make the concerts as accessible and interesting as they can be.” The intriguing selections for this upcoming tour are testament to that ambition.

  • Joanna MacGregor plays dates across Ireland, March 19-April 1, including Cork School of Music on Thursday. Full details at musicnetwork.ie

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