John Lenehan in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the seventh interview in my Classical Conversations Series and today British pianist John Lenehan is in the spotlight.

John’s performances and recordings have been acclaimed throughout the world. As a soloist he has appeared with leading orchestras at home and abroad. In 2010/11 he made his debut with both the London Symphony Orchestra (at the Barbican) and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (at Philharmonic Hall) as well as performing with the RPO in the Royal Albert Hall. John has collaborated with many leading instrumentalists and is recognised as an outstanding accompanist and chamber musician. During the past few years he has appeared in major concert halls in Amsterdam, Vienna, Salzburg, New York, Washington, Toronto, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo.

John has made more than sixty CDs – most recently the fourth volume of a complete edition of John Ireland’s piano music (on Naxos). This final disc in the series includes the Piano Concerto – in which he is joined by the RLPO conducted by John Wilson – was awarded the “editor’s choice” accolade in Gramophone and included in the I-tunes list of “best of 2011″. His other solo recordings include three discs for Sony Classical of minimalist piano works, a disc of Erik Satie (for Classic FM) and a Gramophone award-winning recording for Naxos (with the Ulster Orchestra) of Michael Nyman’s Piano Concerto. 2012 saw the release of his recording of Brahms Sonatas with Emma Johnson – described as “definitive” and “a landmark disc” in the Observer and, with Julian Lloyd Webber, a disc of music by Delius and Ireland which was chosen on its release as the Classic FM disc of the week.

An active composer, John has written and arranged for Angelika Kirchschlager, Kennedy, Julian Lloyd Webber, Tasmin Little and Emma Johnson. His compositions are published by Faber, Novello and Schotts. During 2012 he arranged and orchestrated for new recordings by Nicola Benedetti, the crossover pianist Maksim, accordionist Ksenjia Sidorova with BBC NOW as well as the tenor (and star of the 2012 last night at the proms) Joseph Calleja with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Recent performances have included the world premiere of “Genesis Suite” by Tolga Kashif with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ireland’s Piano Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, recitals with Sarah Chang in Italy, Tasmin Little in China and the debut concerts as pianist in the London Soloists Ensemble. This new chamber group will make its first CD for Naxos next year and John will also be recording the complete piano music of E.J. Moeran, again for Naxos. Further recordings with Julian Lloyd Webber and Emma Johnson are also planned for 2013.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist John Lenehan is one of the most sought-after musicians of his generation. As a soloist, he’s played with all the major British orchestras. As a chamber musician and accompanist, he’s partnered some of the greatest musicians in the world. He composes and he arranges music too, and has a real interest in film music. I’m delighted that he’s joined me here today for one of my classical conversations. Welcome John.

 JOHN LENEHAN: How embarrassing!

 MELANIE SPANSWICK: Not embarrassing at all!

 JOHN LENEHAN: Well it’s very nice to be described so glowingly.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, it’s very nice to chat to you. I’m going to start off by talking about your musical education, because that’s kind of what my series focuses on. So when did you start learning the piano, and what was the catalyst.

 JOHN LENEHAN: Well, I was about eight when I started. Um, but by that stage I’d already played the recorder, of course. Everyone did at school–in my generation, anyway. And I’d tried to teach myself to play the guitar and the clarinet, both of which were lying around at home. I didn’t really succeed in any way, shape or form. Then the piano came along and I was very much attracted to that and I was also very attracted to the violin at the same time. So I learned both instruments together.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK: So it was almost like a joint first study.

 JOHN LENEHAN: Yes, so I continued that throughout college, actually, and violin gave way to viola when I was around 16 or 17, and I became a viola player at college for three or four years.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right. So what was the lightbulb moment when you decided, “I’ve got to become a pianist and that’s it.” Or was there one?

 JOHN LENEHAN: I don’t think there was one, actually. I think it only very gradually became apparent to me, because what I really enjoyed doing was playing chamber music. Right the way through my teen years, I played chamber music as a string player in orchestras, and that for me, was one of the most satisfying musical experiences I had in my teens. It was just great. I was a member of the London School Symphony Orchestra and, with them, it was a terrific standard. We had conductors like Sir Andrew Davis and Simon Rattle. All sorts of people would come along and coach us for quite a long time, actually, not just turn up at our concert and conduct then. We’d have days and days of rehearsal with these people.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Wonderful, wow. Gosh. So which teachers would you say were the most influential in your piano playing?

JOHN LENEHAN: I was really fortunate to have really inspiring teachers from the age of 14 or so. At 14, I auditioned for a place at the Centre for Young Musicians, which is a Saturday school run by the Inner London Educational Authority, which no longer exists. Centre for Young Musicians, I’m happy to say, does still exist. It’s part of the Guildhall and operates as a Saturday school. In my day, though, it was a very altruistic thing. It was free for any talented musician in the London area. And we had lessons. My timetable was about an hour’s lesson on the piano, an hour’s lesson on the violin, music appreciation, choir, a good quality lunchtime concert–it could be by professionals usually, then a string orchestra in the afternoon. It was fantastic.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s fantastic, gosh. Amazing. Wish we had that today.

JOHN LENEHAN: I know. Well, the Centre is there. But it’s not free anymore. That’s the big difference. They still do a fantastic job.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Wow, that’s amazing.

JOHN LENEHAN: Yeah, I certainly looked forward to my Saturdays.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, how did you develop your technique, then? Did you learn the difficult parts within each work, or did you furiously practice Czerny’s and Hanon’s?

JOHN LENEHAN: I didn’t furiously practice at all, actually, until I was at college. Although I do remember my teacher at the Centre for Young Musicians, John Bigg, sitting down with me one day and being very serious and saying, “Look, you’re talented. But you’ve got to work a lot harder if you want to be a great pianist. You’ve got to work harder.” And that obviously struck a chord because I remember it still.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did that make you go off in the right direction? Did you start to practice more.

JOHN LENEHAN: I think it did.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: And that was it?

JOHN LENEHAN: Yeah, and at about that time, I had the opportunity to play at the Purcell Room for the first time, so that was something serious to focus on.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So in your musical education, what would you say was the most important thing? Playing festivals, competitions, going to a particular college. What was the kind of thing that inspired you the most?

JOHN LENEHAN: I did go into festivals and competed, playing the same pieces as everyone else did, the same 20 or 30 people playing the same pieces. It’s the most bizarre situation. It doesn’t happen later on in life. I did some of that and had some success with that. But it was always the same people who came first or second, so. I can still remember who used to come first when I came second. I didn’t do a great deal or amount of that. My teacher was definitely one for seeking out opportunities to perform. Even though they might have been in tiny little venues, very much ad hoc situation, I got plenty of experience playing. I think that was the most important thing. I think it’s what everyone needs to do if you want to feel comfortable playing to people.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Which composers do you particularly enjoy playing? What are you drawn to?

JOHN LENEHAN: It’s a bit boring, but the Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms chamber music is the thing that I live for.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s not boring at all.

JOHN LENEHAN: No, but It’s not an unexpected answer, is it. But yes, all of them, especially Brahms. But along the way, I’ve found that I enjoy lots of flirtations with some less well-known composers that need a bit of championing. I can go through the list with you. The first one was Satie, who is a sort of hypnotic, slow music that’s fairly well-known. I also love his sort of quirky sense of humour in some of the pieces. That was the first CD I made; it was Satie’s piano music.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve actually recorded over 70 recordings as a chamber musician and soloist. I know that you’ve recorded the entire works of John Ireland. How did that come about? That’s quite an unusual composer to specialise in.

JOHN LENEHAN: John Ireland’s another one of those composers that I feel like I should champion. I love the music; I love the way that he writes for piano. It’s predominantly the sort of music that you have to have a big hand for. There are lots of chords and stuff. But at the same time, that’s the same thing that makes the music so special–it’s this kind of crunchy harmony and big chords that move from one to another. I’ve always enjoyed playing him from the musical sense and also the physical sense. There’s something that feels just right about those particular compositions.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It’s a lot of notes, isn’t it? It’s big music.

JOHN LENEHAN: There are a lot of notes, yeah. There aren’t many pieces that we can say are, um, straightforward. But there’s such variety there and I think pianists tend to scandalously ignore it. It’s such great music but it’s totally ignored. On the other hand, I think a lot of pianists think of John Ireland as being a miniaturist. I think that’s really quite wrong.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: He wrote some great, huge works.

JOHN LENEHAN: There are big pieces. He wrote a phenomenal sonata. And there are suite of pieces called Sarnia, is really big scale. But there are other pieces like the Rhapsody which may not be big in terms of minutes but are big in other ways, comparing them to the Chopin Ballades. You’d never consider calling them light or middleweight.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I remember the Rhapsody well, playing that. It was a big piece.

JOHN LENEHAN: There’s one side of Ireland which doesn’t fit in at all with that kind of held view of the miniaturist. And that’s the very very dark side where his music is often influenced by supernatural, the occult, or this idea of visiting places from the past. There are some wonderful such as the Ballade and the Legend for Piano and Orchestra, it’s a terrifying piece but I love it. That’s music that is very close to me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So I know you’re very much into film music, as well because I think your performance of Michael Nyman’s Piano Concerto won a Gramophone Award. You seem to really love film music. How did this come about? How did your interest in this develop?

JOHN LENEHAN: Like a lot of things in my career, it sort of happened little by little and the pieces have added up to certain events. When I first went to college, I used to work a lot with the saxophonist Jean Harle, and Jean Harle was very much a leading member of Michael Nyman’s band, so I got to know Michael through that connection. For a while, we did some concerts together with two pianos. Which was interesting and fun. I premiered a few of his pieces in various combinations. So when Naxos approached him to have a new recording of the piano concerto, I think my name was probably in the frame because of all that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So it kind of grew from there really.

JOHN LENEHAN: Yes, it came out of that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: The next thing I want to ask you is that, it kind of leads on from your musical director for Sounds for Silents, which is a fascinating gig, I should say. As far as I understand it, it’s a group of live musicians performing before silent films. How did this come about?

JOHN LENEHAN: By accident, again!

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did you compose and arrange everything for it, as well?

JOHN LENEHAN: Yes. In some cases, I take existing music that I think will fit the film well and kind of tailor it to fit. That just really involves finding the right piece and chopping it about a bit in the most subtle way I can. It came about because I was asked to do a concert of French chamber music and the promoter said, “We’ve found a film and it was made in 1925 and we think there’s a score by Erik Satie which goes with the film.” So my ears picked up. Everything was quite interesting there, so we looked at the film, which is called Entr’acte and it was 25 minutes long. The music Satie wrote was about 11 minutes long. So it was a problem until I looked into it a bit more, and it’s quite a revolutionary score that Satie wrote in that he became the first minimalist composer. What he did, was he’d written four bar chunks which were to be repeated many times before moving on. And occasionally there was the odd hint at to what point we should move on. But more often than not, it was left to our judgement. So we put together a score for this film which fitted well and did it since the final part of this programme. The reaction was a surprise to me because it went down so well and promoters from all over the place were asking me if there were any other films that we could do. So I did a lot of research; went to the British Film Institute many times to look at the stuff they’ve got there. I was treated incredibly well. They opened up the vaults and let me look at all sorts of things. The end result was that I matched together quite a number of films that I could play with French music. At first, they were all French films. So we went around playing concerts which quickly became entire programmes of music with film. After the French thing, then we got onto Charlie Chaplin. This was about the anniversary year of Chaplin’s birth, so there were a lot of dates.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So lots of performances!

JOHN LENEHAN: Yes. One particular Charlie Chaplin film has him playing the violin, so I dusted off my violin and started playing again for that film. Within a few years, we’ve got something like 20 or 25 films in repertoire; most of them are only short, ten minutes or five minutes. But a few are full-scale, such as Phantom of the Opera.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: How do think composing, arranging and improvising has shaped and affected your piano playing?

JOHN LENEHAN: I think it probably has. Not really consciously. I’ve been improvising since I started playing piano, and I think it’s something that should be encouraged in children. My background is Irish. Both my parents are Irish, and the music I grew up with–apart from pop music–was Irish reels and jigs. Country music. My dad played the violin in an Irish music figure; he had a band, and over the weekends he would always go off and play with his band and I don’t think I was very much older than nine or ten when I started to play in his band on the piano. Improvising with that kind of music is not difficult; there’s three chords and you just riff round and round. So I gained a lot of confidence in making stuff up from that. I’ve always carried that throughd. I enjoy messing around, and I composed endless sonatas in C and the first page of a symphony in F, that kind of thing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s very useful, no doubt. I want to talk to you about your chamber music playing, because you really have accompanied some fantastic musicians. Nigel Kennedy, Sarah Chang and Julian Lloyd Webber. How do you approach chamber music differently to solo? What is the difference musically? Which one do you prefer?

JOHN LENEHAN: I’m more attuned to chamber music in the end. I think it’s probably what I do best. But I don’t really approach it that differently, apart from the fact that one’s got to integrate the way that you play with someone else, so that–to me–is one of the greatest joys of working with people. But it’s always about finding the point where, what you have to say about the music fits in with the other person, and there’s gotta be a bit of give on both sides for that to happen successfully. So it’s kind of something that you feel attuned to with somebody straight away, really. Or not. If we’ve survived the first concert, then usually I enjoy working with people after that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So what are your future plans for 2013? What have you got coming up?

JOHN LENEHAN: The next thing I’ve got to do is talk to students at the Royal College of Music about John Ireland, revisiting that. Then I’m going to Taiwan for a couple weeks to play chamber music, and I think I’m right in saying that we’re going to give the first performance of Elgar’s Violin Sonata. That’s one of the interesting things about visiting other countries; bringing in British music, which–often–it’s not known at all. The reaction is always positive. I think we rather put down our own music and don’t really give fair due to its quality. Yes, in a number places I’ve played Delius or Ireland or Elgar, and the reaction always is, “Why haven’t we heard this before?”

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes I can imagine. What does playing the piano mean to you?

JOHN LENEHAN: It’s something that I’ve grown up with and it’s part of my musical make-up. I could imagine a life without the piano just about, but a life without music I couldn’t.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me today, John. Thank you.



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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