Having been on the Arts Council in the UK where she was involved in funding for the arts, British pianist Joanna MacGregor sees the need for funding worldwide as critical.
MacGregor will be in Cape Town, and not for the first time, as part of the 11th Cape Town International Summer Music Festival. She will also be part of the inauguration of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra’s new Model D Steinway, which itself requires sponsorship of keys to cover the R2.3 million rand cost! She’ll play the Second Piano Concerto by Shostakovich at the concert on Thursday, February 2.
“For obvious reasons,” she says, “funding for the arts in South Africa has taken steps back, and I hope that, around the world, there is a step-up funding, to ensure the next generation of audiences. Small amounts of money (comparatively) go a very long way. Music is important for the development of young people; evidence shows that exposure to good music develops cognitive abilities like languages, problem-solving and collaboration. Life is tough and we see it all over, but I believe passionately in governments providing money for the arts, which can be life-changing, and a fundamental part of the human experience.
“Audiences need to be diversified through outreach. It’s expensive to take a huge symphony orchestra into country areas or on tour, but ensembles like the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Kokoro and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s 10:10 have been very successful with smaller groups of maybe 10 or 15 musicians. Not all musicians are good at teaching or engaging with the public, so one needs to identify those who are and make good use of them.”
Even so, it is expensive, and she is aware of the Cape Town Philharmonic’s youth education and development programmes which embrace a youth orchestra and string ensemble, a wind band and junior wind band, a music academy and grassroots training projects, Masidlale, in which youngsters from the townships from Khayelitsha to Mamre and Atlantis are taught violin or recorder.
MacGregor is charmed by the venues as much as the country and its audiences. South African audiences she says are much like any other – they embrace Thelonius Monk as easily as they do Beethoven.
MacGregor loves practising at the piano above all. Following practising comes performing, then teaching young people, especially Schubert. She is Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music. If her heart lies in practising, which is the love of her life in genres? She loves Bach and Beethoven and has turned recently to Schubert. She will accompany tenor Paul Nilon in his art song Die Winterreise at a festival at which she is artistic director at Dartington International Summer School in Devon. What is interesting about Schubert, she says, is that in her experience students have gravitated from Mozart to Schubert because there is something about the complexity in his music that appeals to young people. “He is a wanderer,” she says, “always at a crossroads and this makes it difficult to memorise and play.”
Although internationally rated as a leading concert pianist, MacGregor, is also a concert presenter, a conductor, arranger and has another side to her life – she is a researcher into medieval literature. Currently she is working on the composition of a new ballet, working on the myths and fairy tales of the medieval Middle East. It will explore the medieval Salome, a character as far from Oscar Wilde’s or Richard Strauss’s Salome as one could think and will, like jazz, require improvisation. She is fitting this ballet in between directing the Dartington festival, a piano festival for the Royal Academy of Music where she teaches; one for the French Institute and she also puts together a contemporary music festival as well.
The Chopin Masurkas she is in the process of recording also lend themselves to her academic bent.
“I am doing them chronologically. It’s like seeing the compositional life of Chopin unfold from the time he wrote the first one at the age of 12 to the last when he was 39. It’s an ongoing narrative which has never been told before since they were never published or recorded chronologically. It’s an intense project,” she says.