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Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor

Pianist Joanna MacGregor heads, Rapunzel-like, to the top of a tower and stares out across to where the pebbled lips of the coastline kiss the slate blue waters of the English Channel. Here she will stay for hours, because this is where she keeps her Steinway; safely out of earshot “which is really important for the neighbors.” You’d think in the seaside town of Brighton that the locals would be queuing up to hear her perform on a daily basis (without having to shell out), but clearly MacGregor is as anxious as the rest of us when it comes to maintaining diplomatic relations with the residents in her street.

She is busy preparing for her latest globetrotting tour, which will take in Portugal and New Zealand, before she arrives in Melbourne for the Metropolis New Music Festival. It might be a celebration of the contemporary, but of course MacGregor will be playing Bach – almost three hundred years dead but still sounding deliciously “modern.” The innovative pianist might be known for casting her net wide in search of distinctive collaborations, but Bach is never far behind. The ”new music” part comes from the presence of Shostakovich, Messiaen and English composer Harrison Birtwistle, whose pieces are interwoven throughout the program.

Like a giddy journey in a time-machine through collisions of era and continent, her concert program begins in Germany during the Baroque period before heading east to a chilly Soviet Union followed by a hook turn through France, then back to a thawed-out Russia via Britain. She finishes in Buenos Aires with Four, for Tango from the master of the bandoneon, Astor Piazzolla.”Yes, I suppose it is quite a journey,” she laughs. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

It all starts with a handful of Bach’s now-famous preludes and fugues – the Old Testament of keyboard repertoire – made up of forty-eight short pieces in every key imaginable, from which she segues into Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues. But don’t be deceived by the somewhat pedagogical title. Wrapped up in each of these little pieces, only a few minutes long, is an entire musical world in microcosm where fiery toccatas, ceremonial entrances, operatic arias meet comic moments and tragic dramas.

How Shostakovich, who found Bach “boring,” came to emulate his iconic keyboard work is, says MacGregor, a classic Cold War tale. Sent against his will as a cultural ambassador to Leipzig in 1950, the composer found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. But his ears pricked up when a Russian pianist sat down and played from The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93), as the Bach collection is known. Impressed, he returned to Moscow and penned twenty-four of his own. “It’s interesting how the two hundred years between the composers completely dissolves when you play them,” says MacGregor. “I do a little trick at the end when I play two Shostakovich fugues, one after the other, and then finish with Bach. By then the audience shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Maybe, but when it comes to the crunch, which does she prefer? “Bach,” she says without missing a beat. “He’s the main man. With a lot of Western music it all goes back to Bach. All the harmonic progressions and techniques are absolutely watertight. You can’t get away from him. He’s like a godfather in a mafia way. He’s just there and present in everything.”

In keeping with this year’s festival theme, the natural world, she has selected a number of works that revolve around birds. Hot on the heels of the winged medley comes works by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, innocently entitled Musical Toys, which, she says, like the best fairy tales, are a perfect mix of enchantment and fear.

MacGregor has spent her life nudging classical music into new territories and has collaborated with the likes of jazz musician and composer Django Bates, Talvin Singh, the father of modern Asian electronic music, and the French pianist, composer and writer, Pierre Boulez. In line with her determination to dismantle musical barriers, she also runs her own record label, SoundCircus.

Her drive towards the eclectic and intuitive modus operandi comes, perhaps, from not having been hot-housed as a child. Despite being the daughter of a piano teacher, MacGregor says she never felt pressure to practice; there were no Tiger Mother schedules to uphold. “Playing for me is as natural as breathing. To be a musician, you have to have a desire to listen and explore music. If you are one of those kids who are forced to practice you end up utterly miserable.” At the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she is head of piano, there are only a handful of students who have been hot-housed. “What you are looking for in young people . . . is this absolute natural response and enthusiasm and ebullience when they hear music, rather than cracking the whip.”

It is time for MacGregor to head back up the tower to revisit those tonal universes of the preludes and fugues or to recapture the trills and ornamental chirrups of Couperin’s birds. She does so with a cheerful heart. “It’s all so enjoyable, I can’t think of anything better.”

Kathy Evans – The Sydney Morning Herald

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