Jonny Venvell sat down with Young Musician of the Year 2014 winner Martin James Bartlett to discuss his life so far as a concert pianist, the importance of music education today, and how to bluff your way through Messiaen.
Martin offers me a warm greeting as I duck out of a biblically wet London afternoon into the comforting fug of Gordon’s Wine Bar. As he orders his beverage of choice (‘Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, please’) I’m immediately struck by an assurance and maturity that would not usually befit a student of nineteen. But really I shouldn’t have been surprised: not many students can claim to have recently held court with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Yo-Yo Ma, and David Attenborough (‘he asked me about music and I asked him about monkeys!’). Wine in hand, we grab a quiet table and begin at the beginning.
Hailing from the quiet suburban town of Hornchurch in Havering, Bartlett began his journey into music under the influence of his mother, the sound of whose piano teaching filled his childhood home. With her encouragement, Martin went on to excel not only at piano but also bassoon and recorder, achieving Grade 8 in all three instruments by the age of 12. Since then he has studied at the Purcell School and is now in his second year as an undergraduate at the Royal College of Music.
So what does piano practice look like for a concert pianist?
Technical études can be useful as a starting point but I think that the best thing to do is to go through lots of new repertoire and to learn as many pieces as possible. There’s no point in playing scales all day; it will help to a certain extent but once you realise what’s behind the music then the technique comes more naturally.
Do you intend to specialise in a particular area of the piano repertoire?
I think its possible to switch between styles and at the moment I’m just playing as much repertoire as possible. If I had to choose a particular composer to specialise in it would probably be Bach. But really I'm spoilt for choice when it comes to the piano repertoire. That’s why I decided to take it up over the recorder and bassoon in the first place.
What about living composers? Do you have any favourites?
With so much great repertoire already out there to get through, it can be difficult to give contemporary piano music the airtime it deserves. That said, I love the Australian composer Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles and I’m a big fan of François Morel.
Have you ever considered composing new music yourself?
I haven’t composed since I was young - I’d love to but I simply don't have time. I’ve made a few transcriptions I’m quite proud of.
Do you improvise? Surely performing Rhapsody in Blue would have given you the perfect opportunity!
I couldn’t do that at the Proms - the music buffs at the front would be in uproar! But while I was studying at the Purcell School there was one occasion when I was forced to improvise in concert. It was the night before I was due to perform one of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus. The piece is formed of incredibly chromatic birdsong written over three staves but (despite my protestations!) my director of music insisted I performed it off by heart. So I sat down with my piano teacher and we agreed that I’d memorise the first and last four bars and make up the 40-odd bars of birdsong in the middle. To my surprise it paid off in the performance and afterwards my director of music came up to me and said he really enjoyed it. Apparently my interpretation brought out elements of the piece which he’d never heard before!
What do you think you would have done had you not become a professional pianist?
I probably would have wanted to do medicine or marine biology. I was very focused academically and it was only really when I turned eleven that I decided I’d pursue the piano. But I’m glad I’m doing what I’m doing - I get to travel and express myself through music. For example, if you acted upon the anger needed to play one of Prokofiev's more violent works you might end up killing someone! It’s a way of expressing your emotions without being sent to jail for life!
Do you find that you become ‘more yourself’ when performing?
Not necessarily. I find that I give my best performances when I’m not thinking at all. The music is so engrained into you that you don’t need to think, you just understand the dynamics and phrasing innately. I don’t hold anything back on stage (which in the past is something I’ve been criticised for), but as long as people enjoy the sound I’m producing, I don’t think they can take issue if I sometimes allow my emotions to show through in performance.
Do you have any particular pre-performance rituals?
I always have a nap before performing. Some people eat bananas but unfortunately I don’t like bananas. The last time I played in Cadogan Hall, a stage hand found me wrapped up in a Steinway cover five minutes before I was due on - she was shocked as anything! It’s a fine balance. As long as the nap is no more than 25 minutes I've found I can retain the energy in my fingers from the practice I’ve done earlier. Resting the brain is so important: on stage it’s not so much physical technique that makes the performance as mental focus.
Do you have any dream musical projects?
Martha Argerich is an unbelievable pianist - I’d love to collaborate with her at some point. More generally speaking, I’d like to work on building up an extensive recording repertoire and championing new works for the piano.
You mentioned earlier that you need to be doing seven or eight hours practice per day. Do you find that the hours of solitary practice ever bother you?
I can get quite lonely sometimes. I’ve had moments when I’ll end up practicing the left hand of a piece while texting someone with my right! I think Horowitz once said "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it.” Really there's no question about it, practice isn't always enjoyable but it’s an essential part of being a musician.
Why is classical music so important to you?
It's an essential part of life. Life without art would be very dull. People find maths and sciences dull but life wouldn’t work without them. Classical music should be performed and presented in a way that makes it accessible without compromising your artistic personality and what the composer has written. But ultimately you can’t make everyone happy, you can’t make it a universal thing because everyone is different.
Can classical music then be justified in its special right to government funding?
Music is a hugely beneficial educational tool. Not only does it facilitate the teaching of mathematics and physics but most importantly it can teach you how to feel things. These benefits may be less visible than other school subjects but they are no less important.
The current government’s cuts to arts funding are terrible, particularly when you consider how much money is being chucked into Trident.
Finally, what have you made of Encore so far?
I had an idea a year ago. I thought to myself ‘I’m going to start my own business where people can publish their musical CVs online and connect with other musicians’. So no hard feelings, but I think it was my idea really! In all seriousness I think it’s an invaluable tool for any young artist hoping to get their name out there. People need to get paid concerts, we can’t just do it for free. It seems to me that Encore is quickly becoming the place to go to get those paid gigs!
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