“The word companion disturbs me. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose” – The Irish Times

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Julius Drake is not just a pianist. He is a specialist pianist. His great achievement is his work with singers and as a chamber musician. Talking to him about how he became a professional pianist, he gives the impression that it was something that happened by accident. But it’s also clear that there was nothing else he cared about that even came close. So it was inevitable, even if it wasn’t for any other reason than “I went to music school, because my parents realized I was crazy about the piano and I wasn’t really crazy nothing else at school”.

He never needed to be encouraged to practice. “I just liked to sit at the piano, daydream, and that’s actually what I more or less did for the rest of my career. I always tell my students how to focus and practice. But, in fact, my default mode when playing the piano is to dream and not work very hard at all. I just have a lot of fun sitting in front of a piano making sounds.

It helped that when he was young he had “a dream teacher” who didn’t dictate any scales or drills. “If I had gone to a teacher who forced me to do scales and exercises,” he says, “I wouldn’t have liked it so much and might not have ended up becoming a pianist. professional.” It did, however, mean that he needed help later on to reinforce his technique. He found it in Swiss pedagogue Peter Feuchtwanger, who modeled his approach on the physical stillness and relaxation of the great Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

Drake explains that “what happens with pianists is that because the music gets harder and harder, your technique becomes less and less able to cope and you become more and more tense. You kind of find a way to play the notes, because you’re musical. But you do it without any control over the type of tension that develops in your arms, shoulders and neck. You are then mystified because you cannot make the beautiful sound that you want to make.

Now in his early 60s, he says, “It kept me from having significant pain. It’s a very common thing if you play the piano – that you experience pain as you get older.

Instant Damascene

He was 18 when he definitely realized he didn’t want to be a soloist. “It was at the Royal College of Music that I first did chamber music. And I thought, ‘Wow! That’s what I want to do. I still remember meeting this clarinettist and playing one of Brahms’ sonatas with her.

He calls it “a Damascene moment”. “As soon as I was on stage with this clarinettist, I said to myself: this is wonderful. I can listen to it. She listens to me. The music is as great as the solo piano classics. And we can present this music together. While we make music together, people can listen. I don’t have to be the soloist who is absolutely in the limelight. It’s not that I thought: I accompany him. Because I never thought that, and I’m passionately against it. I thought: we share this.

This meant that as soon as he left university he embarked on a career in chamber music. “A lot of my peers came to the same conclusion about 10 years later, after trying really hard to be soloists and finding it difficult. And I had been there since I was 21. I was established at that time. His technique may not be “ideal for playing Prokofiev’s piano concertos. But it certainly works for chanson and most chamber music,” he says.

Doing the job he does well is also a matter of temperament. “I’m friendly. I’m quite gregarious, quite sociable. The idea that I would have spent the last 40 years traveling, all by myself, just going to the Boulez Saal to do a gig all by myself [he is in Berlin when we speak] is not my cup of tea. I don’t think I’m a very happy person in my own business. I like to be with people. And I wouldn’t like to be here alone. I like the fact that I had lunch with my fellow singer this morning and we’ll probably go to dinner after the concert. I like all that side.

The word “accompanist” comes up again, and he explains why it bothers him. “I care about the word. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose. Because the accompaniment implies that you are something that goes with the main course, rather than being part of the main course. I feel like if I’m doing a song recital or even a violin and piano recital, I’m an equal partner. Because that’s how music is.

“When Schubert writes a song, even though he apparently writes the simplest piano accompaniment in the world, he is still an equal partner in pure music. I don’t believe in this idea of ​​a soloist and someone who is not the soloist. I feel like it’s chamber music — it’s a meeting of equals. And I feel that with singing just as much as when I play, as I did many years ago in Bantry, the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano.

He is not a fan of the “very precise” American description of the “collaborative piano”. He is happy to be called “Julius Drake, piano”, or to be called a pianist of chamber music, or a pianist specializing in chamber music.

learn languages

What do you need to succeed as a chamber music and vocal pianist? He begins with “A passion for music” and says: “In my case, what brought me to the song, it is the additional interest of the words, the poems and the languages. It gives me an extra intellectual boost that the poem is often in a language that is not my mother tongue, so I have to learn it to some extent.

“I can’t do my job properly if I don’t know what every word means, so there’s a lot of homework to do. You should understand how this language is pronounced and know the rules for most languages ​​you play songs in. And the presence of lyrics allows song recitals to create themes and follow internal links with greater freedom than purely instrumental programs.

It’s as true as “You have to be an interpreter. I always like to go on stage and do a concert. Its very important. I’m looking forward to the concert. Part of that comes from a lot of experience. I did a lot of gigs, because originally, when I started doing gigs, I was as nervous as anybody else. And I can still be very nervous. But basically, I can’t wait to get on stage and share this great music with the audience and bring it to life.

And social skills matter too. “If you want to do what I do, getting along with people, liking people, being nice, and enjoying people’s company is probably another big thing. It would be pretty hard to be introverted and not an easy communicator and do what I do.

Although he enjoys performing in the historic setting of Bantry House, he speaks enthusiastically of plans to build a new year-round music center for concerts and teaching in Bantry which would be used by West Cork Chamber Music Festival. The acoustics, he thinks, have picked themselves up and, “Now you can be reasonably sure that any new room you walk into has first-class acoustics.” He praises the spirit of the festival. “I often think that the unsung heroes of the classical music world are mad promoters of music, like Francis is” – in reference to Francis Humphrys, the director of the festival.

Does he have unfulfilled ambitions? “In another life, I can imagine coming back and being a conductor. But I have no ambition to lead. I would be absolutely hopeless and I don’t have the right personality for that. I feel very lucky and privileged to have found my job very early. I feel like I had an enchanted life in music.

Julius Drake plays Britten, Schubert, Michael Berkeley, Vaughan Williams and Poulenc at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival on Monday and Tuesday 27 and 28 June. The festival runs from Friday July 24 to Sunday July 3. westcorkmusic.ie

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