Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
I was lucky to grow up with music at home – my parents are both musical, albeit not by profession, so there was music going on in the house, and I got my grubby toddler hands on the piano when I was pretty tiny! I was quite a bookworm as a child and so found reading and writing came to me quite readily at school – so I think piano lessons were initially a bit of a distraction, something to keep me occupied! I didn’t think seriously about a career in music until I was a teenager. My brother was a cathedral chorister, and it was exposure to that world, where a group of adults and children produced incredible professional performances of a huge range of repertoire on a daily basis, which made me think seriously about a musical career.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Like all musicians, I feel that I take bits from all sorts of different musical influences – every colleague, teacher, or student makes me consider something in a different way, and it all goes into the melting pot. But if I had to pick one person it would be the superstar that is Audrey Hyland, who I worked with lots when I studied at the Royal Academy of Music and who is now a good friend. She coaches singers primarily: her approach is all about musical integrity and honesty and imagination and communication – clarifying what you want to say musically so it projects and means something, connecting the individual and their own music-making – and she also happens to be a fabulous pianist and a great piano teacher. There’s a book entitled ‘What Would Audrey Do?’, and that’s the question I ask myself all the time as a musician. (It’s actually about Audrey Hepburn and her fabulous style, but it always makes me think of the other Audrey H!)
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Striking the balance between depth and breadth – or specialism versus a portfolio career! If I had to tick one box I would say I’m a song and chamber pianist (ok, that’s already two boxes really…) – but in reality my work also consists of vocal coaching, chorusmastering, répétiteuring, playing organ continuo, giving talks, teaching…. I love that mixture of work, but wouldn’t want to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’, and I want my recital work to be at the forefront of what I do. So that’s something that takes constant checking!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I find this question difficult to answer, which is telling; I can recall the good things about the performances I’ve given, but immediately balance those by remembering the things I’d choose to do better or differently another time! Maybe that’s a healthy habit of self-critique, but it makes it hard to pick out favourites. I’m proud of the first disc I made with oboist James Turnbull, particularly of the Rubbra sonata; I think you can hear in the recording that we’d lived with the music for years before we recorded it – in fact I first encountered it as an oboist myself at school, and James and I had played it together for ten years before we recorded it. Whilst first performances can be exciting, I think nothing replaces living with music over a period of time. It beds in and gets under your skin. I’ve also been proud of several performances at my festival in Yorkshire; I think the atmosphere there encourages us performers to give of our best. ‘Under the Starry Skies’ there in 2016 with Stuart Jackson, Johnny Herford, Bethan Langford, Fenella Humphreys, Cara Berridge and Fran Moore-Bridger was very special.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
That’s a hard question! I love the range of what I do, but I think my heart really lies in the nineteenth-century Germanic repertoire – the chamber music, but above all the song (I guess my first love is working with voices). Schumann and Brahms I could play all day. I like to think my sound is at the fuller end of the spectrum, which suits this music quite well (although I’m always envious of those pianists whose natural sphere is translucent delicate textures!). I had a teacher who told me that I wasn’t “a Brahms pianist”, so – Brahms being along with Bach one of my all-time favourites – I’ve spent my career trying to prove him wrong. Call me stubborn… Even my festival is named after Brahms (‘New Paths’ – which is what Schumann said about Brahms’ music).
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Although this is gradually changing, it still goes with the territory of being an accompanist that you often end up playing the music that other people have selected or booked you for. I therefore work quite hard to make sure I have projects on the go which I’m responsible for programming, to hold onto some creative control, and to delve into the music I want to explore! I have a list at the back of my diary which I’m constantly adding to when I discover new pieces or think of them, and a short-term / long-term list of pieces I want to find an opportunity for. I find programming fascinating and rewarding: putting together a well-crafted programme full of interesting connections, which really takes an audience on an emotional journey, is immensely satisfying. And horribly time-consuming!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Wigmore Hall is incredibly special. The acoustic is so comfortable – it really feels as though you can do anything you want, and that encourages you to take musical risks (which is a great thing). The sense of history and legacy there is really palpable too; you feel that all the faces from the photos lining the walls backstage are supporting you! I also adore playing in St Mary’s Church in Beverley, one of the venues we use for New Paths: it’s such an unusual church acoustic, in that it’s not only a warm and generous sound, but it’s incredibly clear – you can hear every detail even at the back, without any obstructive ‘wash’ of sound. And it’s a stunning building too – playing in visually inspiring places is always a bonus!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I was performing in an outdoor concert with a countertenor singing the Tippett Songs for Ariel, in which he has to bark like a dog at one point. He does a very good dog impression… so good, in fact, that a dog replied enthusiastically and repeatedly from the other side of the hedge! I really struggled to keep playing, I was laughing so hard. And there was the one where an audience member’s chair collapsed underneath him, so loudly that we thought it was a gunshot and stopped playing…. And of course all the many pageturner mishaps…. Maybe they’re memorable for the wrong reasons, but you have to be able to laugh!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Music is about communication – it’s about creating a message and passing that to other people – your audience primarily, and also the others you’re playing with. If your audience comes away moved by what you’ve done – whether that’s with sadness, or euphoria, or nostalgia, or laughter – then you’ve done the job well. For me quite a good measure of that is normally how free I feel in performance and how ‘in the moment’ I am; I’ll have conveyed what I want to say, and that’s what matters, whether or not people like it or agree with it. It’s such a danger for musicians to judge their success or worth in terms of competitions, bookings, and so on; although you need some of these things to piece a career together, I try hard to remember that musical integrity and honesty are the real milestones.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Work hard at your craft. Know yourself emotionally. Live life to the full so you have something to say with your music. Develop a business head and an artist’s heart, and know how to separate the two.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would absolutely love to live by the sea – which annoyingly is mostly not that close to the main cultural centres in this country! So finding a way of combining the work I love and the places I love would be a dream. There must be call for concerts on the beach, no?
Libby Burgess is a pianist dedicated to the fields of song and chamber music, collaborating regularly with some of the finest singers and instrumentalists of her generation. Her diverse schedule ranges from song recitals in the UK’s major concert halls and festivals, to chamber music in obscure venues around the country or appearances on Radio 3. Libby is Artistic Director of New Paths, a major new festival of concerts and outreach events in Beverley, Yorkshire, now in its third year. In 2013 she established Konstellation, which presents programmes exploring the intersection of song and chamber music; this combined interest is reflected in her discography, which ranges from The English Oboe: Rediscovered with James Turnbull, released in 2013 to excellent reviews, to her most recent disc featuring songs of madwomen with mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin.
Born in Sussex, Libby took a first in music at Oxford, where she was the first female organ scholar at Christ Church Cathedral, before specializing in piano accompaniment with a postgraduate scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Here she was awarded numerous accompanist prizes and graduated with the DipRAM for an outstandingly high final recital mark, subsequently being awarded both the Shinn and Lucille Graham fellowships.
Libby’s passion for working with singers extends beyond the piano: she is in demand as a vocal coach, and runs opera workshops for professional singers with director Joe Austin. She is highly regarded as a chorusmaster, in which role she collaborated with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in the premiere of his Kommilitonen!; she has conducted operas for Ryedale Festival Opera and at Grimeborn, and is regularly invited to give choral workshops or guest-conduct choirs. Libby loves working with living composers, and has premiered a range of new music. She gives masterclasses at schools and universities across the UK, and until 2015 was Head of Keyboard at Eton College.
A delight to read about you and what you do. Love to hear you play if or when you are in the Cambridge or Norwich area.