Tony Hymas, Pianist and Composer

Who or what inspired you to take up piano and pursue a career in music?

Both parents played the piano, but from the earliest age, I wanted to become a composer. An early memory is of Delius’ ‘Brigg Fair’ on the radio. Indeed, I used to write bits of music and ask my mum to play them – and then complain they didn’t sound any good, to which the inevitable reply was ‘well, that’s what you wrote’. As for ‘taking up the piano’, it seemed pretty evident I was a musical child, so being taken to a recital at age 4 and expecting to hear/see an orchestra play, I still remember the bitter disappointment on discovering it was just someone sitting at a grand piano (and I won’t divulge who it was, but he was one of the greats). Maybe this coloured my attitude for a long time – I just wanted to write orchestral music.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Apart from my parents, I’ve had several mentors.

At Exeter Cathedral, where I was sent to be a chorister, there was Reginald Moore, the organist, who gave me scores to study and who had decided ideas on good and bad taste in music.

The teachers at school who encouraged the idea of being a musician.

My piano professor at RAM, Harold Rubens, who said he would instill a technique which would stand me in really good stead in all branches of music. He got me listening to Horowitz (and it wasn’t Horowitz whom I heard at age 4, otherwise things might have turned out differently!).

The influences stretch on and on… things like hearing Clark Terry playing the trumpet – such articulation ! Or a hair-raising performance of Lutoslawski’s Second Symphony (which is a hair-raising piece anyway)… OK, I’ll stop there!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Pretty well every next project – the ones that weren’t, weren’t worth anything experience- wise. Luckily I’ve avoided anything like that for many years.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Right now I’m giving a thumbs up to ‘daryl runswick, dot music’ (the CD of solo piano music by Daryl Runswick I just made for the Prima Facie label). That was some seriously difficult music to play, requiring a very different pianistic approach in quite a lot of the pieces.

A Symphony which I wrote in 1995 and recorded with the LSO for a library company. That was a piece I absolutely had to write to escape the influence of, or grow beyond, all the lovely romantic symphonic music I grew up with (and still enjoy !). In that sense, it also had to mark the start of something new. So (more recently) ‘De l’origine du monde’ and ‘Chroniques de resistance’ for the French label Disques Nato.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Hah! my own (is the simple answer). These last two years, I have been playing some piano transcriptions I made of songs by Léo Ferré in recital in France. But I believe I have a composer’s understanding of how and why to play a wide range of music. I have one recital which starts with the First Delphic Hymn (anon) – takes in Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cottonmill Blues and Janacek’s Sonata 1905 on the way and finishes with an improvisation based on whatever the local song is (depending on the town I’m in )

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Not as a soloist, but in some quite high pressure situations – Carnegie Hall (with Cleo Laine), Wigmore Hall (various ensembles – lovely pianos always), and I recently played the Debussy 12 Etudes in Lille Conservatoire in a rotunda-like concert hall – fantastic acoustic! There again, it was pretty exciting to play in the Tokyo Budukan with Jeff Beck and Stanley Clarke!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

These days I enjoy playing anything. That wasn’t always the case (nerves). It’s the feeling of mutual concentration with the audience which counts. As for listening, it’s pot luck on the car radio – in which way, chance can be a beautiful thing. The other day was International Women’s Day, and Tansy Davies was curating an afternoon orchestral slot on Radio 3 – I’ve been a big fan of her music since I first heard ‘Wild Card’ on Radio 3 a few years back – fantastically inventive orchestral writing. ‘Favourite’ is an impossibility. I was at Royal Festival Hall a few weeks ago to hear LPO playing Brahms 1 – great, great music – I don’t mind saying that it can still move me to tears, especially when it’s played with that kind of commitment.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Where to start? Keeping this in the present tense: Pianists: Volodos, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Trifonov (wow!). Conductors: Barenboim, Oramo, Jurowski.

Other instruments: Pat Kopachintskaya (a great Berg Violin Concerto the other day).

Widening the field and looking at youth: Jacob Collier is extraordinary, and I love the jazz piano playing of Kit Downes. And both those guys can write New Music !

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably playing at short notice for Frank Sinatra at the Albert Hall (someone in his team was indisposed). His drummer warned me off anything ‘flashy’ – “Mr Sinatra don’t like no concertos”. But the great man said, “Aw, let the kid play” (what a gent!).

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

It seems that young musicians today are much more single-minded. They have to be – technical standards are so extraordinary now. In some ways, it has perhaps been my misfortune to have such facility in so many areas of music, to achieve true mastery of any one aspect. Certainly if we are talking about playing an instrument, it must mean total devotion. History has numerous examples of people who both played and composed (and I’m certainly not drawing any comparisons with those guys !). If I had any word of advice it would be: Be serious about it – this isn’t for messing around with – work hard – harder!!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Right here in my shed with a desk full of manuscript and a computer that still works.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

See above.

What is your most treasured possession?

My walking boots.

What is your present state of mind?

Rather good, as you may have gathered.


Tony Hymas performs on ‘daryl runswick, dot music’, released on 12 May on the Prima Facie label.

Tony will be performing ‘Dot Music’ on 6 June at Cadogan Hall in a Gala Concert with special guests including The King’s Singers to celebrate Daryl Runswick’s 70th Birthday ( This includes the World Premiere of Daryl’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments’ with pianist Aleksander Szram.

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