Keval Shah, pianist

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

I got into playing the piano because my older sister had had lessons, and so there was a piano in the house. I don’t think I really considered any sort of career in music until my mid-teens, but thanks to the most enthusiastic music teacher at school, an amazing man called Richard Hobson, I fell in love with the whole world of classical music. It was only once I started studying at university though, and found myself accompanying singers a lot, that I discovered the world of Lieder, and realised that some people actually do this for a living!

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

The mezzo-soprano Joyce Didonato has been a huge influence on my musical life. I spent a lot of time in my late-teens and early twenties watching videos of her masterclasses on YouTube (and still do!) and her wisdom has been a guiding force for my work. She talks a lot about artistic process, and of the purpose of art and performance, and I think absorbing her philosophy from very early on in my career has really helped me to stay true to my own musical values and to maintain a healthy attitude towards ‘the career’.

My teachers, Michael Dussek, Malcolm Martineau and Audrey Hyland have also been enormously influential, equipping me with all the tools necessary for a career in music, and giving me the courage to believe in myself and my musical vision.

Strangely enough, though, I think the biggest influence on my musical life has come from my parents, who aren’t musicians and aren’t particularly interested in classical music. They are two of the wisest people I’ve ever known, and a lot of their best qualities – patience, tolerance, great listening skills, and an enthusiasm for life and people – are all things which I’ve taken forward and applied in my own work and have helped me through a lot of challenges so far.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Last year, I had the chance to give a recital at the Heidelberger Frühling festival in Germany. It’s an incredible festival in a stunning part of Germany, and it was a real honour to play a small part in it.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I’m not sure if it’s the music I play ‘best’, but I feel very close to the songs of Hugo Wolf and love the process of analysing the detail of his writing and trying to figure out what he might be doing with the music. Playing songs is fascinating because you get to go inside the mind of a composer and get a sense of how they read poetry. In a way, songs are little acts of translation – the poetry as read by an individual, transformed into sound. With Wolf, exploring the relationship between text and music is endlessly-interesting work, and it’s a process I enjoy so much.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It’s largely dependent on the singers I’m working with, and what repertoire we as a duo would like to perform. I’m very much in the early years of my career and so I’m making a conscious effort to programme a lot of the core cycles and collections of songs each season so that I get them under my fingers early on. And I’m also in the first stages of a project to perform all of Wolf’s songs, so I’m putting a fair few of those into my programmes each year! I also make sure I do a bit of instrumental chamber music each season, as this flexes my musical muscles in other ways, and I’d really miss it otherwise!

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

One of my favourite venues is the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It’s the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Europe and is a gorgeous 18th century building with raked-seating in a sort-of U shape, almost like being in-the-round. The intimacy is so magical because the audience is so close, and there’s something very special about playing there.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to name, but a few that stand out are Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, Maria Callas, Jessye Norman, and Amalia Rodrigues, who was one of Portugal’s finest singers of Fado.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2013, I went to see Barenboim conduct the whole of the Ring Cycle with the Statskapelle Berlin at the Proms. The quality of sound was unlike anything I’d ever heard and at the end of Gotterdämmerung there was a good sixty seconds where no-one dared to breathe – the silence was hypnotic. Barenboim gave a speech afterwards to thank the audience for the attention with which they had listened for four nights, and I think that’s when I realised just how active the process of listening was – as creative as the act of performing – and that the interaction between performer and audience can be incredibly powerful.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, success is waking up every morning grateful and happy to be living with music each day. As a performer, being able to commit to the moment of performance and to communicating through sound, not to be distracted or lost in my own head, is what I call successful performance, no matter what goes wrong. And as a teacher seeing someone’s mind expanding as you introduce them to new ideas, and new ways of listening and thinking is extremely satisfying.

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

I teach at the Royal Academy of Music now, both in the Junior Department and at the senior level, so this is something I’m asking myself a lot. I think some of the most important concepts to grasp early on are; that music is a powerful instrument for personal and social transformation and that as musicians we therefore have a huge responsibility; and that one’s musical imagination must always challenge one’s technique – the technique shouldn’t dictate how the music goes, ever

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A Sunday on the sofa with a mug of tea, my gorgeous partner Joe and a box-set of Maria Callas’s complete studio recordings.

What is your present state of mind?

As I’m writing this, I’m getting ready for the Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera International Song Competition, for which I am the official pianist. I have an enormous pile of music to prepare and so my present state of mind is one of general panic/excitement!

Praised as ‘exceptional… deft and responsive’ (The Observer), Keval Shah has quickly established himself at the forefront of a new generation of pianists, channelling his artistry into work as a recitalist, broadcaster, researcher and pedagogue. He performs extensively as a song accompanist and chamber musician, with recent appearances at the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and St John’s Smith Square, as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe, Aldeburgh, Buxton, Leeds Lieder and Oxford Lieder festivals, and the Heidelberger Frühling. 

Noted for his flair in programming and devising recitals, Keval’s recent highlights include an Artist-in-Residence series at Burgh House, where he curated a series of concerts celebrating the artistic legacy of the house and its occupants. In 2018 he embarked on a project to perform the complete songs of Hugo Wolf, and his engagements this season include performances of the Italienisches Liederbuch and the Goethe Lieder. Other notable highlights of the season include Keval’s appointment as the official pianist for the Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera International Song Competition 2019.

Keval’s performances have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and recorded for Decca Classics. His debut album, with bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, is due for release on the Linn Records label in 2021.

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