JULIUS DRAKE interview
Stats: Collaborative Pianist, lives in London
Next recitals: Zurich, Vienna, Madrid, Florence
Erika Switzer spoke to Julius Drake in June 2012 over the phone as he was preparing for a series of concerts with his frequent musical partner Gerald Finley, and his interview follows:
J: I’ve just been rehearsing with Gerry (Finley).
E: How’s it coming together?
J: Fine. We were rehearsing Winterreise, we’re about to do it together for the first time.
E: Speaking of Gerry, he has compared your work together to the act of creating a most enjoyable dinner with a fellow chef. What have been some memorable moments as chefs?
J: For me it’s such a great pleasure to have had such a long working relationship with Gerry. We’re almost exact contemporaries, almost exactly the same age. We’ve risen up together, built our careers together. He’s a companion-in-arms. As one goes on trying to get better at this game, of playing piano and singing, it’s very nice for us to be trying to follow a similar path, and trying to become better at what we love, which is the music. To be able to share that on the recital stage is a privilege. We’ve been working together since our mid-20s. Gerry’s career has been built primarily through Oratorio and then Opera, and now he’s doing more recitals than before. Now he’s becoming more of a recitalist, which is a very different thing than being an opera singer. It’s been wonderful to be on that journey with him. Because you know, you can be a superb singer, like Gerry is, and not be a superb recitalist. Likewise, you could be a superb pianist and that’s not going to make you a superb song-pianist. It’s a different discipline. Different skills are required.
E: How would you define the specific skill set as a song-pianist? Would you change your playing between the two styles?
J: If you’re playing chamber music, whether with voice or instruments, you are sitting at the piano and you are making a sound that works with that instrument to make one sound. It’s like playing cello in a string quartet; you are always part of a sound that four people are making. You are dedicating your playing to making the whole sound as convincing as it can. Without that goal you wouldn’t get that homogeneity of sound, you’d get a soloistic sound. You voice differently in chamber music, much less to the little finger of the right hand than to the bass, a warmer sound. You need warmth in the sound world, complementary to the individual sound world of the given composer. It’s a different attitude. You know, sometimes a very good pianist finds himself or herself at sea when playing chamber music because it is a very different thing. I feel sometimes that this isn’t generally understood by critics, who ought to be experts of some sort and should realize that there is quite a big difference between the two.
E: I couldn’t agree more. When it comes to your collaborations, you are working with many different singers each season. What do each of them draw out of you?
J: That’s one of the great joys of doing what we do. We are collaborating with lots of different people and those people do bring out different things from us. Ian Bostridge’s sound, for instance is very highly-strung, he’s got an enormous amount of tension and energy. That’s obviously going to bring something else out of me as a pianist than someone like Gerry, who’s calmer. Again, it’s about the sound, the sound the other person is making makes you play differently. The piano can make so many different colours and can have such a different part in the whole proceedings. You can make a piano sound shrill and thin, or warm and vital. If the singer isn’t bringing new colours out of you then you probably aren’t doing the best you can do. That’s part of the whole world of accompanying.
E: In your early education, was there a turning point where you switched from studying solo piano to accompanying?
J: Yes. I always wanted to play piano. I went to a music school when I was 13 and began as a soloist. I had an ambitious piano teacher who had me play the entire Beethoven piano sonatas and a lot of other solo repertoire. Then I went to Music College at 18. In my first week I played chamber music for the first time with a clarinetist. As soon as I played with her, I thought, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to play solo again. I want to share the stage. I just suddenly felt that this was right for me, and that somehow being on stage on my own didn’t suit me. As soon as I was onstage with somebody else, I thought, this is fun; this is something I can really enjoy. I was lucky to recognize that as early as I did because from then on this was what I concentrated my efforts. I got a head start. I went into the wide world at 21 and started to earn my living as a professional accompanist.
E: You have an incredible schedule of vocal recitals. It demonstrates that the art song recital is in fact not a dying art form.
J: No, I tend to reject that. I think it’s nonsense. I think all chamber music is the “Cinderella” of the classical music world. For example, at the Wigmore Hall, it’s the song series that sells out before any other series. I think there are more song recitals now than there ever have been, but of course, it’s not mass entertainment. And you do need marvelous performers to keep people coming to the concerts. But the idea that people don’t want to come to song recitals is ridiculous because the repertoire is so rich, so varied, and with such superb quality. There’s hardly a composer you can think of who didn’t write some of his best music for voice and piano. With that repertoire, I don’t think it’s ever going to die. Promoting concerts, maybe, is getting harder. Especially in times when people don’t have as much money, and in major cities where there is a lot of competition. The unsung heroes of the classical music world are inspired promoters. It takes inspired promoters to make concerts happen. Often, when you find a really successful series it’s because there is some fantastic promoter who has a passion for music and through his or her commitment has attracted an audience. Like William Lyne, a little Australian man, at the Wigmore Hall or the man behind the scenes in Schwartzenberg, Austria, Gerd Nachbauer. Absolutely extraordinary people, these are amazing achievements.
E: As we get further away from the repertoire of the golden age of song composition, do you find yourself playing much contemporary music?
J: Yes, I am always performing the works of living composers. I’m just preparing George Crumb’s Apparition, which is wonderful, and when I was in Philadelphia recently, I went to see him to have him explain how to play inside the piano as he requires. It was sweet; he showed me exactly everything that he wanted. That was thrilling. I’ve just done a superb new piece with Gerry, by Hugh Watkins. He wrote a marvelous new cycle about the moon for us, which we did in New York.
For Ian and I, there is a Hans Werner Henze cycle, which we’ll perform again in the summer. I’ll also include a solo piano piece by John Cage at the Wigmore Hall, because it fit a gap that was created when Oliver Knussen unfortunately withdrew his scheduled new work from a rather esoteric program of Ian’s creation. Contemporary song is always happening, it’s always on my piano, but I can’t pretend that in every recital I’m playing a contemporary piece.
E: How often do you perform solo works in vocal recitals?
J: As a rule, I don’t because I got fed up in the early days. People would always come up and say, “Oh, I liked the bit where you played,” meaning, the solo piece and that they effectively thought that I hadn’t played at all when I was playing chamber music. I’ve always been trying to campaign that people think of the pianist as an equal partner, whether they are working with an instrumentalist or singer, so I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by playing as a soloist, even at the invitation of my duo-partner. Then people think, “Oh, that’s his bit and the other bit is the other person’s bit.” It’s very hard then to convince people that actually it’s a partnership.
E: I know you teach. Are there particular words of advice for students as they enter into the world of song?
J: Work incredibly hard. Try and get better, that’s all we can do, any of us. For that we’ve got to listen to people who are very good, on recordings and in concerts. Have a goal, have an aim, know what you want and find a way of getting it. You can’t just get it by having a lesson with somebody. You get it by keeping your ears open and listening and being ambitious for what you want. The people who are going to be the next performers are the people who have the most intensity, who are so passionate that they’ve got to get it right. I tell my students, you must never be satisfied and always try to get it so you can communicate the music. Open your ears to what is possible. You have to have limitless imagination and ambition, in the best sense of the word.