This week’s Performance Platform provides a rare opportunity to hear the first performance of a new work for two pianos, Wild Man Dances, by Liz Johnson, composition tutor at the Conservatoire, written for Andrew West and Ronald Woodley and completed earlier this year.
The programme also includes the remarkable, early Fantaisie (Tableaux) of 1893 by Rachmaninov, performed much less often than his later Second Suite, as well as the two-piano version by Gaston Choisnel of the suite from Ravel’s crystalline score for his ballet Mother Goose.
Samantha Carroll spoke with Ronald ahead of the concert to find out more about this special concert for two pianos…
Have you ever worked with Andrew West before?
Andrew and I first worked together as colleagues at Lancaster University in the 1990s, when I was Senior Lecturer in Music and Andrew was Pianist in Residence. We have regularly collaborated since then, both on 2-piano projects and clarinet and piano recitals.
Have you enjoyed working with him on this occasion?
It is always marvellous to work with Andrew — he is such a natural musician with huge experience of chamber music and piano accompaniment, especially with some of the top singers in the country, and always brings terrific ideas to rehearsal, which we enjoy tossing around and discussing at some length.
Do you feel a lot of pressure giving the first performance of the new work for two pianos ‘Wild Man Dances’ by Liz Johnson?
There is certainly a lot of responsibility involved, and this is a pretty tricky piece to fit together, with a lot of the musical material being thrown around between the two players. But I have worked with Liz before, and I know how supportive she is towards her performers, and what they can bring to the piece that she hasn’t necessarily thought of herself — so that makes the working relationship very flexible and flowing in both directions. Liz is also currently writing a new quintet for me, for multiple clarinets and string quartet, which we are performing and recording next year with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. Watch this space.
Are there enough 2 piano works out there to perform?
There’s actually a very large repertory of two-piano music, both works written originally for the medium and some really exciting and worthwhile arrangements, often of large-scale orchestral works from the first half of the 20th century, and often made by the composers themselves. When Andrew and I first started playing together, we performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring several times, as well as works such as Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which sit beautifully in a programme alongside classics for the medium such as Debussy’s En blanc et noir.
This piece was written for you both. How much input did you have?
Basically my stance when working with a composer is to let her/him write what they want, and then see whether we can find a way to make it work. If there are seriously impracticable details, then these can be ironed out at a second stage in the process. With Liz’s Wild Man Dances, I think that I had a hand in initiating her writing a work that was rhythmically very alive and energetic, to contrast with some really beautiful, texturally intricate pieces for strings and voice that she had previously been working on.
Do you have any advice about how to work efficiently on collaborative projects like this?
When collaborating with other performers, such as a two-piano partnership, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should link up to someone similar to yourself in character: often more contrasting personalities can come together to create a different kind of unity of approach, provided that there is sufficient understanding and respect of one another’s strengths. When collaborating with a composer, he/she will often already have a view of you as a performer (for better or worse!), and it’s generally better to allow him/her free rein to write exactly what they want to start with, without your interposing too much, except in answering specific technical queries. How much subsequent revision of a first draft is feasible will depend very much on the dynamics of the personalities involved, but I think it’s true to say that these days the compositional process for most composers is much less beholden to precompositional technical systems than, say, a generation or two ago; so creative discussions between composer and performer at draft stage (or even post-first performance stage) are very much the norm rather than the exception.
Andrew West and Ronald Woodley perform Music for Two Pianos at Adrian Boult Hall on Tuesday 27 October at 1pm. Book tickets.