Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I had a lot of music around me growing up in Ireland but it wasn’t classical by any stretch of the imagination! At the age of 14 I began attending Cork School of Music with Mary Beattie. That was a critical moment in terms of an eye opening to repertoire and possibilities. My teacher invested a lot of time in me.
I went to the Royal College of Music, London at the age of 18 on the Edith Best Scholarship from Feis Ceoil, Dublin (I actually did a postgraduate year in my first year and then transferred in my second year to continue for a BMus!), and Yonty Solomon was my piano professor. The embracing of sound and approach to attack, working with the instrument rather than against, were cornerstones of his approach and he was incredibly generous with his time and sharing of records and books. I was also completely taken by his pedagogical lines, e.g. Myra Hess.
Two key things developed there though: chamber music and contemporary repertoire, and these continue to be core to what I do today. I played so much chamber music and accompanied lots of singers, played for masterclasses (e.g. Geoffrey Parsons, William Pleeth) and Yonty’s interest in a wide range of repertoire (one composer of many with whom he was associated was Sorabji) led to me discovering Szymanowski, for instance (who was a then less performed composer), and I performed the ‘Symphonie Concertante’ with the RCM Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Adey. Even then, I started working with living composers, making friends and future colleagues and shortly after attending contemporary music courses such as the Britten Pears Young Artists Programme with Oliver Knussen and Magnus Lindberg. I have been the pianist in the Fidelio Trio for over 20 years. With that comes a lot of travel, collaborations with other musicians, lots of new music and the incredible range of repertoire for the genre. Finding this sound, which moves far beyond only a question of ‘balance’, is a vital part of our identity and our interpretations of music both old and new. To be in a constant yet always developing ensemble gives me energy and engages with music and composers of all ages and styles.
But my inspirations too, to answer the question directly, are very much connected to my life experiences, and certainly where I come from in Ireland and I remain very involved in music making in Ireland as well as where I am based (in London).
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
What has never been a challenge is my constant love of music and ‘want’ to play. That said, the music world or ‘industry’ is an incredibly challenging place to exist in. Firstly, you need to try and make a living. As a freelance pianist, after the immediate post-college opportunities and competition successes, you need to balance a multi-faceted work existence across teaching, chamber music, ensemble playing, orchestral playing, solo recitals and the occasional concerto appearance, if you are fortunate enough to be invited. This feeling of dancing on a tightrope musically eventually subsides over many years of work experience and evolves hopefully into a balance between the realities of financial stability and artistic integrity and rewards. I am acutely aware of how hard it is for pianists to achieve this sense of balance and there are inevitably many good performers out there who do not stay within the ‘industry’.
I certainly appreciate being able to now have a broad range of musical activities ranging from my work at Royal Holloway, University of London as Director of Performance to my solo work and of course Fidelio Trio. I founded ‘Chamber Music on Valentia’ in 2014. It is Ireland’s most westerly music festival and has grown to a 4-day event. It takes place on the idyllic Valentia Island in County Kerry every August (although for obvious reasons was an online festival this year). It is such an invigorating and evolving form, bringing international musicians together to rehearse and perform and be truly present in the locality for the week. It truly feels ‘on the ground’ with performances in venues ranging from the gorgeous Glanleam House to the tower of The Lighthouse to peoples’ homes. It is both incredibly rewarding and stimulating. Plenty of thinking on your feet!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
It is difficult to single them out (even though if we can think of a handful we generally think we are doing well!) but having performance experiences where you truly feel physically at ease so it is not even an obtrusively conscious part of the performance situation, gives you something for which you continue to strive. I must admit that I do actually enjoy the recording studio and the absolute focus that recording situations demand.
With Fidelio Trio I am particularly proud of our first CD ‘Bulb’ on NMC which has become a ‘go to’ CD of contemporary trio repertoire, featuring trios by Donnacha Dennehy, Deirdre Gribbin, Ed Bennett and Kevin Volans. Of our multiple other recordings I am particularly attached to our recordings of Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’ (arranged by Steuermann) on Naxos, which is always a profound experience in concert, and tackling Saint-Saëns Piano Trio No. 2 on Resonus Classics. To contrast, are our premiere recordings of the trios ‘Head On’ and ‘Pendulum’ by Philip Glass, which we recorded in New York a few year ago. And solo wise, the recording of Robert Keeley’s Piano Concerto with Lontano, which was a BBC Radio 3 commission.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I am fortunate that I get to play a wide range of repertoire and have a busy piano trio, which is repertoire I really love. And, as I get older and continue to try and improve as a pianist and musician, how one cross-references approaches to different repertoire, sound worlds, textures, phrasing, and so on, continues to feed all areas of repertoire. As well as this I play a lot of 20th- and 21st-century repertoire from all over the world. This ranges from the stunning complexity of Michael Finnissy’s music to the wonderful Piano Sonatas by John White. Fidelio Trio have been playing Schubert’s Trios multiple times since a cycle at Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2017 and they now really feel like home. I love French piano music and piano writing. I have performed Ravel’s Piano Trio hundreds of times and there is always something different and new to be found and explored.
Working with living composers is a constantly fascinating and engaging process. My next CD release, for example, is music by Iranian composers Hormoz Farhat and Amir Tafreshipour on Divine Art, and Amir’s music has been performed on Valentia Island!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I love to walk, and I wish that I could always do more. In the countryside of course but there is so much to see, absorb and assimilate too in urban settings, all over the world. And it is my time to think and reflect. It provides me with space: musically, physically and mentally.
I do enjoy dinner parties! Having musician friends to spend time with is a gift and I am constantly inspired (and challenged) by all the composers that we (my husband, violinist Darragh Morgan and our 2 children) meet. Music is, in a sense, 24/7 in our house, and that is pretty full on I suppose but because it has always been a given, all 4 of us have our levels within that! But this constant presence and influences means that I am constantly learning new facets, new music, and new styles.
I love to read and this inevitably feeds into life and playing the piano.
I certainly consider myself lucky to have travelled so much. How I have absorbed these experiences has formed a bank of memories that influence and inspire me. I often can remember performances of pieces in far-flung places when I play a piece again closer to home and I cherish these memories.
Of course I rehearse A LOT, and try and plan effective practice. But on stage, it’s that achievement of focus and communication (both with the music and the audience) that matter.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Like many other musicians, I programme according to the concert diary and performing works several times so that they grow too through many performances. This is done also with my wonderful Fidelio Trio colleagues. I am lucky to collaborate with composers all over the world so projects are also devised around repertoire I might be premiering and recording.
With my trio, we generally have a number of commissions upcoming and programmed at any time e.g. at the moment we have new pieces coming to fruition by David Fennessy, Robert Saxton and soon Sam Hayden and next season, Anna Clyne. So along with recent commissions we are finding homes for, we are always thinking about how best to find the right programmes and other repertoire around these new works. And how to make a number of performances happen – after all a piece needs more than the premiere outing. Alongside standard repertoire we are always trying to discover new trios by composers who might not be featured at all as much as they should be.
From a solo repertoire perspective, I do come back to Chopin – even if not in performance, very much at the core of the fundamentals of playing.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For me I would highlight the perfect Georgian library in Belvedere House, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin. Fidelio Trio have our annual Winter Chamber Music Festival in Dublin and this is the main venue. It really feels like a privilege to play for an audience in that room with just the right level of intimacy and absorption in the sound. On the other end of the spectrum it might be The Lighthouse on Valentia Island presenting a Family Concert during my Festival!
More eclectic but memorable places might include Bulawayo’s ‘Zimbabwe Music Academy’ where I learnt that Yonty Solomon had indeed performed and it is one of the best acoustics I have played in in fact! ‘No Black Tie’ in Kuala Lumpur is one example of a venue that has managed so many balances in terms of atmosphere, experience, and so on. More recently might be the ancient stone quarry in which the wonderful Gumusluk Festival in Turkey programme some of their concerts, really connecting history, atmosphere and remarkably, acoustic.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
True music education for every child and their experiencing of live music performance.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think that different experiences have varying impact depending on the time in one’s life, career and experiences. And also an immersion in the music of one composer and the exhilarating impact that can have on your own playing and understanding. More recently Schubert’s Piano Trios I have already mentioned. And I always enjoy performing in the USA.
I never expected to fall in love with India as much as I did when I had the opportunity to perform there on tour in 2015. I have stayed in touch but look forward to being able to return.
And with Africa, we lived and worked there in 2004 and have returned many times. To meet musicians and educators all over Africa is truly eye and ear opening.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
In a nutshell: being able to play concerts.
To continue to grow and develop as a musician throughout your career and be able to meaningfully share this.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To delve back into the great performers and interpreters of the past and consider this lineage, as well as looking forward with new ideas, new technologies and new platforms – this current crisis has highlighted the need for adaptability.
To be self-reflective – actually teaching can teach you this.
Accept that how you play/perform will not win over every single listener and some might not ‘get’ it but if you are true and authentic, you will have done your best.
As pianists we can feel as though we are only scratching the surface of the repertoire; there is so much! But approach it all with curiosity and wonder and the acceptance that the magic might be unlocked at different points along the way. Apply yourself to your sound and physical relationship with your instrument as you hope to be doing this for the rest of your playing career.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? What is your present state of mind?
I would be grateful to be playing of course and continue to discover more composers and music I haven’t yet encountered. And feel that I have gained some further understanding of what it is we do as performers. At the time of writing, musicians and artists are experiencing great levels of anxiety. And it is more than challenging to plan as we have always done. Every individual will respond differently: emotionally, practically and musically.
The current situation actually feels like a threat on so many levels, which requires resilience, empathy and resolve. Lots of difficult questions right now and challenges.
What is your most treasured possession?
Not a possession but my family means the world to me and I learn from them every day.
Persian Autumn featuring piano works by Iranian composers Hormoz Farhat and Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour, performed by Mary Dullea, is released on 9 October on the Metier/Divine Art label
As soloist and chamber musician, Irish pianist Mary Dullea performs internationally at venues including London’s Wigmore Hall, Casa da Musica (Porto), Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, Phillips Collection Washington D.C., Symphony Space New York City, Palazzo Albrizzi Venice (Italy), Johannesburg Music Society and National Concert Hall Dublin. Festival appearances include City of London, Cheltenham, St. Magnus International Festival, Huddersfield, Aldeburgh, Sound Scotland as well as Lodi Festival (Italy), TRANSIT Festival (Leuven) and National Arts Festival (South Africa). Her frequent broadcasts include BBC Radio 3, Radio 4, RTHK, RTÉ Lyric FM, WNYC, Radio New Zealand and Sky Arts, Irish, French, Austrian and Italian television. Concerto appearances include RTÉ Concert Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.