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15 Questions to Warren Mailley-Smith

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello, I’m very well thanks. I’m currently at home in South East London recovering from a rather busy New Year and bracing myself for a busy spring!

What’s on your schedule right now?
I have a combination of recording projects to prepare for, a series of national concerrts, my Carnegie Hall debut, the launch of a couple of online businesses and my wedding, with a couple of cruises thrown in.

Can you still remember the first time you heard a piece of classical music?

Well, I remember very vividly listening to a Gilbert and Sulivan LP which my parents used to play to me when I was about 3. I loved the rythmn and harmonies and aparently I used to jump up and down all over the place whenever I heard music, (although this may also have been due to the orange squash). I had a natural fascination with the piano which sat in the same room as the record player.

What was the deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?

When I was perfoming Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto at Birmingham Symphony Hall whilst I was still studying Law at Warwick University and thought, wow, I really can’t imagine not being able to perform more!



What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
It is certainly a real privilege to be abe to indulge all of your time in your passion. The best part of what I do is certainly live performance and communicating throughout with the audience. It is a great feeling when you have an audience hanging on a note - a combination of sponteneity and joint experience in the music. The hardest part? Coming down after a performance, especially if I don’t have the opportunity to go out afterwards! It can be a very funny feeling if you have to jump in a car almost immediately and drive for 4 hours when you still feel like you are on the stage. It is also hard, especially at first, to develop a ‘thick skin’ alongside artistic sensitivity. Generally people tend to come wrapped in one or the other package. But both these qualities are essential for a classical musician.

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?
I think it is important that young people are exposed to as much classical music as possible and that performers constantly explore new ways of attracting audiences. However, I do not think it is either a disaster or anything new for typical audiences to be predominantly older people. Whilst Classical Music is of course relevant to and enjoyed by people of all ages, it is something that, in my experience, a lot of people grow into and develop an interest in, naturally as they become older. But I think that it is absolutely essential that at the youngest age, children are exposed to lots of different types of music. The role of music in schools and the way that the image of classical music is projected is essential to the way in which younger people relate to classical music. I think that sometimes it can be a mistake for classical music to try and make itself sexy for the sake of it – often the quality of the music is seriously compromised, or it just detracts from the music. On the other hand, any ways of presenting classical music which generate more interest in live performance and recordings from people of all ages can only be a good thing.

I think that the hardest part in getting young people to ‘care’ about classical music is in getting them to physically come to a concert. In my experience, once people are in their seats, the whole experiece of a live performance can be a very exhilerating one, with ‘first-timers’ often being inspired as much by the sound of the music as by the physical act of the performance. But ultimately, for busy, fun-loving young people, saturated by a media-driven pop culture, the alternatives for 16-30 year olds are often more appealing! I don’t think its possible or realistic to change the musical and social tastes of a whole generation. The important thing is that dedicated performers continue to offer appealing programmes and present them with panache, using whatever marketing tools are available to them. I believe that building relationships with schools is essential.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for classical music?
The internet has brought a whole new dimension to everything, including classical music. It is much easier to market events and products, it has enlarged, by many times, the number of people who musicians and organisations can reach. It has made the search for recordings – (audio and visual) and information almost spontaneous and much cheaper, subsequently giving suitably minded artists much more control over their careers.

Similarly, the impact of new media can’t be overstated. The likes of mobile phone downloads, live video streaming on the net, new classical video channels, and online resources like itunes etc have dramatically expanded the volume of material available for consumption, the ease of access to it and new contexts in which to find it (for example, mobile ringtones)

With so many different recordings of a particular piece available – how do you keep yours fresh and different?
I find that the way I play a piece will vary from performance to performance. A composer sets out certain paramaters which of course one is bound by, such as loud and quiet, fast and slow! But within such directions there are huge possibilities. To attempt to replicate someone elses interpretation, for me, suggests a lack of imagination and also makes life much harder for the performer! I tend to follow certain fundamental stylistic approaches to a particular work and then let my emotions and imagination guide the rest. Sometimes just the tiniest differences in a performance can make a huge difference to overall effect. For example, lingering slightly on a note or giving one particular note or phrase special emphasis can suddenly grab an entire audience.

I think it is important to listen to other recordings, both good and bad, as these can also help to generate one’s own ideas and highlight things which dont work so well.



What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
Along the same lines as my response above, I think that spontenaity is essential. Ironically, the better prepared one is with practise, the greater freedom to experiment one has and the more inclined to take risks one is. I think risk –taking is under-employed by many pianists today as a result of the enormous pressure to ensure note-perfect performances, regardless. This can often result in technically acurate, often pyrotechnically impressive, but musically dull performances.

From the moment I am on the stage, I try to build my relationship with an audience, both through my playing, demeanour and spoken introductions. I think it is important to put the audience at ease, communicate and leave the audience feeling moved by the whole experience. Some performers prefer to put the music and themselves first, but I think that if an audience has taken time, trouble and money to be there, the performer has a duty to build the experience around them first.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
Put simply, its the personal way in which you translate the dots on the page into musical sound. Even the most detailed scoring still leaves a degree of decision taking and flexibility with the performer. The scope for interpretation is what gives performers the power to be individual and move an audience. As I have mentioned, my own interpretation of a piece often varies, within reasonable limits. A performer such as the legendary Michelangeli was able to reproduce carbon copy replicas of the same scintillating interpretation of a piece, often with many years having elapsed in between performances. Michelangeli’s performances were achieved by fastidious practise and a crystal clear and unwavering vision of how a piece should be, yet this approach leaves little scope for freedom withing a performace. It is quite interesting to compare with say Glenn Gould, whose diefferent interpretations (for example of Bach) varied considerably over time.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
I think it is a mistake to ‘put’ emotion into music is it can sound a bit contrived. The emotion should already be present in the music, if it is good music. It is also paramount that the composers intentions are followed as closely as possible. The freedom that you have within a composer’s parameters to impose your own musical ideas then becomes a question of what is considered good taste or not. Often two critics will disagree strongly over the same performance on what might be good taste so the most important thing for the performer is to play with great conviction and (ideally) a have a solid musical reason for playing a particular note or phrase in a particuar way.

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and classical music?

I think that it is essential for soloists and orchestras to find relevant and non-patronising ways of giving workshops and engaging kids of all ages and backgrounds in live performance. In workshop scenarios, the presentational skills of the musicians and the type of music which is played is almost more important than the fact they are there, if the purpose is to engage more young people in classical music. It seems fair to say that without musical education, the future of classical music is indeed bleak. There needs to be sufficient funding for teaching and good departments to ensure that the best music teachers aren’t lured into other areas.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I would strike a balance across the range of instruments, soloists and ensembles with a complementary range of genres and styles. But of course I would make sure there was a Piano Recital series with plenty of Chopin! There would also be a series for young artists, a local competition and opportunities for new composers.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
A continuosly developing one!

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?

I did play the flute as a kid, but to be honest I was never good enough at it to derive any particularly satisfying musical experiences from it. By the time I got to 15 it had pretty much lost its appeal....

Picture by Andres Landino

Silhouettes (Quartz) 2007

Warren Mailley-Smith

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