Alexander Metcalfe, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was really into cars at an early age and, to my young eyes, the piano in the corner of my parents’ living room looked like something I could operate as a makeshift motor vehicle. The three pedals made an excellent clutch, brake and accelerator. My joyful parents mistook this for a precocious interest in music and sent me for lessons. I showed no more than an average interest, until one day I heard an 8-bit version of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Op.18 on a Commodore 64 computer game. I got my Dad to borrow a tape of it from the library, transcribed a (very simplified) version and played it in school assembly as my first public performance. The piano pretty much became my life from thereon in.

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

I would, without hesitation, say that Nelly Ben-Or has been the biggest influence on my musical (and probably non-musical) life. Her career as a concert pianist coupled with her lifelong devotion to applying the ideas of F.M. Alexander, have led her to ideas which seem to transcend anything else I’ve been taught or read about making music at the piano.

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

Performing Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy with a broken little finger immediately springs to mind. Greater than that, my journey towards understanding, accepting and even embracing performance anxiety, is a fascinating and ongoing one. I have been involved in performances by Martin Lawrence (a horn player, who is becoming more and more of a specialist in this field). He draws on ideas from Jung and Kierkegaard to view these anxieties in different ways. One concert involved me playing Chopin’s second scherzo whilst Martin flitted around the auditorium as my inner demon, recounting my monologue of self-doubt to the audience. When in the right state of mind, I see nerves as creators of exciting unknowns, which can give energy and momentum to a performance.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of my disc of Four Ogives and other works by Satie. Everything just seemed to be in sync; the piano (a Steingraeber E272), the room, the engineer and the music.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I don’t think I’m the best placed person to answer that. I have noticed that in concerts, there is sometimes an inversely proportional relationship between what I think I have played best, and what the audience has enjoyed the most!

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

I’ll generally get a few requests from promoters, and then use those as starting points for programmes, adding in my own choices of complementary works. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked to play a fair bit of Beethoven this year. I’m placing his works alongside pieces such as Schubert’s Eb piano trio, and the Schumann Fantasy, both of which pay tribute to Beethoven in their own way.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In the past couple of years, I have been collaborating to create recitals that contain elements of film, and drama. As part of Amusia Productions, I have created programmes based around Erik Satie and Cornelius Cardew. I’m particularly proud of these, as I feel we have created something not quite like anything that’s been done before. Persuading an unsuspecting audience to learn, perform (and, I’m fairly sure, unanimously enjoy) Paragraph 7 of Cardew’s The Great Learning as part of a concert was a fantastic feeling. For the Satie show, I had to grow a beard, and decided to emulate the composer by eating only white food for the month before the first performance. I don’t think this affected the performances one iota, but Instagramming my increasingly unappetising recipes hopefully generated some publicity.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To have been able to communicate strongly with the audience. Not necessarily to have communicated exactly what one set out to communicate, but to have spoken to them in some way that is meaningful to both them and me.

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

I’m not sure I can say anything other than perhaps mention some advice that I found helpful when I was younger:

1) Spend less practice time moving the fingers, and more using the brain. This applies to the musical imagination, and also to solving technical problems by mentally clarifying what needs to happen, rather than trying drill the procedure ‘into the fingers’.

2) Never lose contact with the way a piece of music made you feel the first time you heard it.

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

Playing the piano somewhere that I’ve never been to before

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I suspect that on my death bed, rather than reminiscing about any musical achievements, my mind will be replaying one of the very rare occasions on which I sweetly timed a cover drive to the boundary, on a picture postcard village cricket green. Maybe with some Vaughan Williams playing in the background.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m answering this en route to a couple of concerts in Germany, so my present state of mind is ‘sad to be leaving the EU’.

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