Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
There wasn’t one single thing or person that sent me spiralling towards the piano stool.
Encouragement from teachers and mentors definitely sowed the seeds of the idea when I was in my mid-teens. And the music of Rachmaninov, amongst others, was certainly a great lure. But those things weren’t enough in themselves, and I initially enrolled on a law degree to ‘keep my options open’. But doing something that my heart wasn’t in luckily brought me to my senses and helped me realise that what I enjoyed more than anything was playing the piano. I was determined not to reach 40 and have to say, “well, I could have been a musician, but…”
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My early teachers instilled a sense of fun and fascination with the piano that remain as important for me today as they did when I was 5. Then, my teacher at the RCM, John Barstow, was the first person to awaken a sense of genuine awe at what the piano and 10 fingers could do. Ronald Smith later instilled in me the rigours and disciplines of technique and approaches to practise.
Then, my final teacher Peter Feuchtwanger, nurtured a great sense of self-belief with an all-encompassing approach to musicianship and technique.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
My 20s and learning to say no. Without doubt, the most challenging period in my career was the first few years after leaving the RCM and trying to find my feet on a very crowded stage, with very limited personal means. There were occasions where I even became a victim of my own proactivity, when I took on more that I was able to do, to the best of my ability. I think this continues to be the ultimate challenge as a musician, in the process stretching oneself in order to achieve new goals, but without overloading oneself in the process.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Performances where I forget about the audience, forget myself and really lose myself to the music, with an added injection of adrenaline.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I feel I always play best those works which I have known for the longest time and feel most prepared for. When you are able to stop thinking about the notes and focus predominantly on communication and ideas, you arrive at a place where you can really give your best.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Repertoire choices for me increasingly emerge out of a natural progression from other repertoire.
In the last ten years, I’ve taken an increasingly self-indulgent approach, focusing as much time as possible on my favourite composers – namely, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. And there are (at least!) three lifetimes’-worth of work just to get on top of those three composers’ output and do it thoroughly… But it’s also hard to resist constantly adding to one’s wish-list of new repertoire whenever the radio goes on or you log on to YouTube.
In my case, a one-year project of ‘learning some more Chopin’ turned into a 4-year project to learn and perform his complete works from memory. This was immediately followed by an unexpected obsession with Beethoven’s music. The great appeal of Beethoven for me at that time was the raw emotional bluster of his music in stark contrast to the eternal kaleidoscope of charm, subtlety and nostalgia of Chopin.
Having focussed initially for a whole season on Beethoven’s chamber music, I spent the subsequent season with a lot of the sonatas. Then through an alignment of the stars involving a new orchestra, a chance encounter and a continued fascination with Beethoven and his 250th anniversary, the opportunity arose in 2020 to fulfil my ultimate dream and perform all five of the concerti in one series with the same line-up.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I adore playing in the London churches – the pianos are fine, the buildings are beautiful, the locations are great and the audiences are always from hugely varied walks of life and corners of the globe, often drawn in from curiosity, often for the first time, in a way that many traditional concert halls do not experience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable concert was probably my first public performance when I was a teenager. It wasn’t particularly good, but it was memorable for me as I really didn’t know how it was going to go until I’d done it. And I enjoyed every second of it.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think that you can’t measure success in the career of a classical pianist in the same way that you measure success in any other type of career. Not least because there are an infinite number of career paths to follow and at the same time there is no one recognised career path as a pianist. Everyone makes their own way, more so now in the music industry than ever before, and this has been facilitated enormously by the power which online marketing has put in the hands of the individual. So the one thing that would define success or otherwise in a pianist’s universe, to me at least, is: whether one gets personal fulfilment or not, in what one does, in whatever form that may take.
For me, success is someone coming up to me after a concert and saying: “Today was my first classical concert. And I really loved it. And I’m definitely going to come again.” On the occasion when someone has said something along these lines, I’ve had a bigger buzz of success than anything else, since that is surely the ultimate goal for any musician – to inspire others and create new audiences.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Have musical ideas. Inject big ideas into everything you play. Play music you love because no-one wants to hear a bored musician. Don’t be afraid to think big. Never stop trying to learn and improve. The moment you do, its time to hang up your boots. Seek criticism and embrace it and don’t be afraid to make mistakes (not too many, mind!) so you can learn from them.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Steinway on a desert island beach, with a G&T.
What is your most treasured possession?
My car piano wife!
What is your present state of mind?
Warren Mailley-Smith performs all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in a series of concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields, from 28 January. Further information