Dominic Degavino, pianist

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?

As far as starting to play goes, there was a fair bit of luck involved. My family is not a musical one, but I was offered the chance while I was at primary school to take group keyboard classes on Saturdays, with Yamaha in Milton Keynes. For some reason, I thought it sounded like fun, although I don’t really remember why I thought that! I do know that when I was very small, I apparently used to refuse to go to sleep unless a particular ‘Best of Mozart’ CD was playing, so there must’ve been clues there already…

Things got a bit more serious when my first teacher suggested that I audition for a place at Chetham’s School of Music, which I did and joined at the age of 10, although even then I’d say I was about 13 or 14 years old before I really started to work harder and dream of a career as a performer. That’s when the motivation really started to come from within.

I know it’s probably the most obvious answer in a way, but I’d have to say that the piano teachers that I’ve had over the years have definitely been the biggest influences on me, namely Helen Krizos, Charles Owen, Noriko Ogawa, plus my very first teacher, David Farr. Along with that, I’d say the other people of my age that I’ve played with in ensembles. Chamber music can be the most amazing teacher of all!

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

Well, having graduated in 2019, I’ve felt like certain world events have probably had quite an impact so far!! But apart from that, I play a lot of chamber music as well as solo repertoire, so trying to juggle hours of repertoire for different combinations can be tricky. Both from a technical perspective of just how you plan your practice, but also actually from a psychological point of view. Everything in playing (and life!) works much better if I’m relaxed, but dealing with the stress… That’s where the difficulty lies sometimes.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

There are definitely certain concerts where I’ve felt particularly happy at the time – a Grieg Piano Concerto with the Orpheus Sinfonia springs to mind, as does a Wigmore Hall performance I did in 2019. More recently, a performance at The Stoller Hall in Manchester with my Trio at the start of this year. The wonderful David Dolan (professor at Guildhall School, and an extraordinary improviser) used to talk to us about the concept of ‘flow’ – a sort of mental state where time stands still, and you’re completely consumed in the moment – not really thinking too much. It’s something I’ve since really come to believe in. The times when this happens are the best. Having said that, I’m not really someone who likes to reminisce too much about past performances, or someone who enjoys listening to old recordings of myself either.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I don’t know if it’s for me to judge! I’ve always felt quite comfortable in modern repertoire, from Messiaen and Ligeti through to modern British composers such as David Matthews and John McCabe. Other composers that other people have commented positively on might include Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy – all of which are composers that I really love as well. In general, at the moment I feel I’m becoming more and more interested in the ‘Classical Period’ composers – I think for pianists, it’s a period that can be a bit neglected sometimes.

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

Studying and immersing myself in music in different ways, whether that’s listening (I’m often mid-way through a listening project of some sort – complete works of such and such a composer, or complete symphonies of someone else, etc.), or reading books on music. Something I find very important is going to other concerts, although I don’t get to do it as often as I would like! But few things get me more motivated to practice than being at a brilliant performance – that feeling of wanting to rush home and get straight to the piano (which can be difficult if it’s late at night, unfortunately), is always an experience that I love.

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

For solo programmes, there’s actually a long document that I keep with loads of ideas of programmes – pieces that I at some point thought might work together, that I’ve saved up for possible future use… Sometimes there are loose themes, but in general, I think it can be easy to get carried away with trying to make a programme fit a certain extra-musical idea, and forget how it flows musically and works for an audience. So if there’s not too much of a theme, I don’t mind. Often there is a certain amount of trying to work around requests, likes/dislikes etc. from promoters as well. A necessary part of what we do, even if it can make things a bit difficult sometimes!

With ensembles, the principles are the same, but it can also occasionally be a case of convincing the others about a piece you really love. There have been times with my Trio that someone has been harping on about how great a piece is for years before we finally get tired of them and all agree to play it! Eventually, I’d say that we all grow to love whatever it is anyway (most of the time!).

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

I fear it may be a popular answer, but I think the times that I’ve been lucky enough to play at the Wigmore Hall have been the happiest I’ve been in a venue. It really does have something special.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I can think of a huge number of possible answers to this. Someone else could probably think of even more. I think we still have something of an image problem, where some people who might enjoy coming to a concert don’t feel it’s for people like themselves or justdon’t feel welcome. Making sure that tickets are affordable and concerts are accessible, particularly outside of big cities, would be good, especially in the current climate. Perhaps there’s something to be said about how we advertise – I feel the vast majority of concert promotion that I see is geared towards attracting existing concert-goers rather than trying to convince new people to give us a try. Music education as well, and the need to introduce classical music to children at a young age. Ultimately there’s not a single easy solution – there are plenty of things that we should be thinking about.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are some particularly fantastic performances that I’ve been to that I can still recall pretty vividly. Steven Osborne playing the complete Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus at the QEH in London would have to be up there, as would an all-Rachmaninoff recital by Mikhail Pletnev a few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival.

On the flip side, it is all too easy to remember some of my own concerts that went wrong – especially things like broken strings, terrible page-turners, and so on…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A very wise friend once told me that their goal was simply to still love music just as much when they’re 70, 80 years old as they do now. I couldn’t agree more with them.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Use your time wisely, especially if you’re at Music College right now – that’s really an opportunity that only comes around once. Also, go to concerts!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

Even though I’m starting to see a few more people talking about it now, I’d say our mental health and well-being. There’s so much pressure involved with trying to build some sort of career in music. It’s fine to struggle with it sometimes. And if you do feel that struggle, you’re not alone.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A long walk with good company, good food and drink, and nothing else to do. I love days like that! 

Or, in my dreams – a way to have endless time…

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s London Piano Festival?

Without a doubt the experience of collaborating again with Imogen [Cooper], Charles [Owen] and Katya [Apekisheva], all three of whom are hugely inspiring musicians! I know it’ll be a lot of fun working with them all, but also a valuable chance to learn at the same time.

Dominic Degavino performs in the Schubertiade at this year’s London Piano Festival on Friday 7th October. More info

Pianist Dominic Degavino has performed concerts in venues across the United Kingdom and beyond, including solo performances at the Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre, London as a Park Lane Group artist, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and the Lichfield and Edinburgh festivals, among others. Concerto appearances include performances with the Manchester Camerata and RNCM Symphony Orchestra.