Rowan Pierce, soprano

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 was lucky to grow up making music with amateur musicians, friends, family. It meant that I learnt the joy of it all before learning the structure and pressure. It was a way to relax or a way to express myself and suddenly without much effort, music was a friend and something you could rely on no matter what life was around you. When anyone would ask ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?‘, it seemed clear to me that it should be something I loved and couldn’t do without. I didn’t want to always wish for holidays or weekends. So, in a way, although the music world is full of ‘inspiration’ and I could name a list of singers, conductors and orchestras who inspired me, the real thing itself did most of the job. Live music lit a fire in me that I’ve yet to find comparison to. Important influences for me were singers who told stories. I grew up with a welsh Grandad, Vincent Kenneth Evans. I would sit with him and he would make up wild stories, right into my twenties. I’ve always loved being told a tale and I think that’s what audiences pay money for. Whatever the music is, anything that suspends reality and allows us to feel an emotion we’d forgotten or one that we needed to feel right at that moment, or even to be taught how to feel something. I’m sure that music has taught me, in many ways, how to feel, the progression of emotions, how to calm them and how to ignite them. Imagine after all that, not pursuing a career in music!

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

Having said all of the above, a career in music can be a tricky thing. Creating something for other people, no matter what it is, does sometimes unsurprisingly come with risk of them not liking it. When I was making music for fun, no one seemed to mind or at least I never realised the professional pressures of the critical eye or the weight of history, which is ‘that person did it like this and I preferred that one’. People don’t always like it, they have other versions of what they expect or just different tastes from you. I think the challenges in my career (not to mention the obvious current threat to the arts in 2020) have been mental ones and trying to build around you enough courage to forge ahead.

Strangely enough when we entered the dreaded Covid-19 era, it seemed to take any pressures away in some sense and people almost didn’t care what other people thought, they just wanted to make music. I watched a lot of live streams when the musical world started to open up again and it seemed like people were so eager just to do their job, that they were free of the weight of expectation and just sung or played from the very depths of their hearts. I hope that is something that will stick around for a while.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I think I feel most proud when someone comes up to you or writes an email or letter saying that for some reason, that day, the performance moved them. I’ve been lucky to perform in beautiful venues with ridiculously talented musicians and in all honesty, I’m always proud to be a part of all of it and stand next to inspiring people who really know their stuff! Being a Rising Star of the OAE allowed me moments of pride, because not only were we vocal soloists with a world class orchestra, but by nature of being associated with the ensemble, we got to know the instrumentalists too and it may sound ridiculous to anyone reading but that can be rare. You can always be proud of a performance or recording when you have relationships with everyone involved and it really becomes a shared venture.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Anything I’ve truly done my homework on! I was introduced to the historically informed style of making music in 2014 in Aldeburgh as part of the Britten Pears Young Artists programme. I sang the role of Drusilla in Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea and that opened my eyes to an amazingly earthy sound of gut strings. Theorbos (of which there were many) and harpsichords (three of them!). So far, most of my professional career has been in that world.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I would say just about everything informs you, but talking to people and most importantly listening and watching people makes all the difference. A director once told me to look out for a certain type of person on the tube, stay with them and see how they move and react. The act of making art is full of imitation and reflection on the life you’ve lived. I imagine as I get older, a lot of my ideas will be more nuanced and have a weightier perspective and influence. I always wanted to record and film Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, every five years or so and see what I changed about my interpretation of it all. That’s just one work but you could do it with anything. I think the day anyone watched them back would be full of many emotions!

Of course, we are also always looking at the natural world to inspire us. I can’t see the sea without feeling an enormous relief, like a huge expansive chord and the inspiration to take big breaths (on and off the stage!) So we really are constantly making connections with things. And often they are not ground breaking ones. Mostly something everyone has seen or felt. We humans, like to be understood. Nature, relationships, families, the sympathetic call from a bird, an old man sat in the distance alone. Normal things.

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

At this stage in my career this is almost always a collaboration. If I am programming a solo recital, then I will use life events, texts that didn’t mean something but suddenly make sense. Whatever is happening in the world should also not be ignored. How many O solitude’s have you heard this season? I definitely added to that list.

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

I think the intimacy of Wigmore Hall allows for great story telling, but at the moment all concert venues are my friend. I just want live music back for good!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Education is by far the main key. The OAE have recently made a partnership with Acland Burghley School and I think it’s something that every school around the country would be unspeakably lucky to have. World class musicians influencing the next generation has the potential to create the very best world to be in! Whether it be young or old I think we will reach a wider audience in classical music if people feel they understand what is happening and that needs some thought on our part. It already exists in a way with pre-show talks or programme notes, but that’s not enough. We also need to work on all the myths about it being elitist or needing to wear the right clothes to listen, not knowing the rules of clapping. These are all things that put barriers in the way. Classical music is just the same as any other music that a person may enjoy. It is an experience of a sound that we respond to. Of course, it can be more, but it doesn’t need to be and we need there to be no pressure about that.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Creating something that people react to. Also feeling as if you have contributed to the best of your ability to the overall experience which an audience receives from concert to concert.

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

Remember why you started doing it in the first place. Listen to everyone and don’t assume you ever have a finished product. Our work is in skills and craftmanship and that takes time and every day you make music is a progression to a day when it will feel easier or different. It’s a life-long process, and it will be ever changing and that’s ok.

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

Making music

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I would argue that that isn’t necessarily possible, but I like to laugh. So, at least one occasion to laugh each day would do me just fine!

What is your most treasured possession?

My Dad has a score of Handel’s Messiah with lots of signatures in. It belonged to my Great Great Grandad who used to conduct Keighley Choral Society. Kathleen Ferrier and Isobel Baillie used to sing solos for him and I really like imagining what all of that would be like. Especially the after concert drinks.

What is your present state of mind?

I remain determined to promote music whenever we have another chance to and if the situation in our country allows. I also have a lot of gratitude to ensembles like the OAE for fighting our corner for musicians to keep going in such difficult times. Venues, Ensembles, CEOs are trying to keep everything afloat and to those who are steering the boat through a rough storm, huge thanks.

Rowan Pierce appears with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Roderick Williams, in Apollo e Dafne, Handel’s tragic tale of unrequited love, recorded from the stage of Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall and Wiltshire Music Centre. More information/view the concert

Yorkshire-born soprano Rowan Pierce was awarded the President’s Award by HRH Prince of Wales at the Royal College of Music in 2017. She won both the Song Prize and First Prize at the inaugural Grange Festival International Singing Competition, the Van Someren Godfery Prize at the RCM and the first Schubert Society Singer Prize in 2014. She has recently been made a Rising Star of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

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