Jeremy Nicholas looks forward to the launch of the London Piano Festival, an intensive and impactful weekend of music-making that promises great playing and imaginative programming, with a helping hand from your favourite magazine!

Since London is one of the world’s foremost musical centres, it’s hardly surprising that the city receives a great deal of attention in this magazine. Astonishingly, though, there has never been a dedicated piano festival in a central London concert venue – until now. The first London Piano Festival will be held at Kings Place from 7 to 9 October 2016, with International Piano as its official media partner.

Of course, it’s not the first piano festival ever to be held in the British capital. In 1998 and 1999, pianist Stephen Coombs was the founder and artistic director of the superb Pianoworks festival at the Blackheath Halls; since 2013 there has been the annual It’s All About Piano! at the Institut Français. Yet no one has ever used the title ‘London Piano Festival’.

Pianists and duo partners Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva (both of whom appeared at the inaugural It’s All About Piano!) spotted a gap in the market and have been working tirelessly over the last three years to bring their project to fruition. I spoke to both of them about the trials, tribulations and raison d’être for such a festival – together with two veterans of the festival circuit who are appearing over the weekend: Kathryn Stott and jazz pianist Julian Joseph.

Photo by Nikolaj Lund
Kathryn Stott’s recital of French music features works connected by the luminous key of F-sharp

When you can hear great pianists almost any night of the week somewhere in London, what exactly is the purpose of a piano festival? I put the same question to Owen and Apekisheva. Who are you hoping to inspire, to attract? ‘It’s all about love for the piano,’ says Apekisheva simply. ‘And exploring the repertoire for solo piano, piano duo, jazz piano and all the things the piano can offer – proving,’ she adds with a mischievous laugh, ‘that we don’t need other instruments to create a festival! The piano is the only instrument that can do this.’

Owen expands: ‘We are trying to bring piano lovers together for one intensive weekend of music-making. There are some people already who have booked for the entire weekend. Listeners really will get from that the chance to hear different artists playing in the same hall, to immerse themselves, get to know repertoire, meet the artists, socialise in the foyer – and Kings Place lends itself to that. There’s a great restaurant and that whole area has been rejuvenated. It’s buzzing!’

The second element of the festival, explains Owen, is friendship. ‘Pianists are appearing together who are not in a competition. It’s about the different generations playing together. The concert at the centre of the whole thing is in three parts with exclusively 20th-century music for two pianists when we team up in different combinations.’ Friendship has indeed proved vital in setting up the first of what they hope will be an annual event. Everyone appearing is either a friend or mentor of Owen and Apekisheva, a two-piano team since the late 1990s. ‘We wanted to make the first year all about people we know,’ enthuses Owen. ‘It was important we had people we could just pick up the telephone or email – so that’s how we are able to get Alfred Brendel. I know him a bit, and Katya’s worked with him. Then there’s Stephen Kovacevich: I’m one of the many people who go and play to him before a recital – so obviously I asked him. There’s this pool of people we know through the Guildhall – Martin Roscoe, Ronan O’Hara and Noriko Ogawa. Ashley Wass I’ve met and admire hugely.’

Owen has known Kathryn Stott since he was a boy at the Menuhin School. ‘She is now at the height of her powers and I was really keen to get a solo London recital from her.’ Stott played in the Blackheath concerts. ‘They were terrific, but it seemed a long way out,’ she recalls. ‘Kings Place is in central London. I think I know everybody involved in this weekend and, you know, we’re all up for it. We want it to be a success. We want to get people in for the first one and for them to ask what we’re going to do in the next one.’

Photo by Andreas Neumann
Jazz pianist Julian Joseph brings a soulful note to the weekend’s closing concert

The final concert is from Julian Joseph, the jazz pianist, with whom Owen has been friends for many years. ‘We both admire each other’s work,’ says Owen, ‘and I thought it would be great to end the festival with some jazz.’ I asked Joseph if it is unusual for a jazz pianist to be invited to what is primarily a classical piano festival? ‘Well, it’s certainly not unusual for me throughout most of my career,’ he replies. ‘The culture of festivals is changing – there are more popular music acts involved in jazz festivals.  Over the past two or three years the jazz part has become much more significant.’

Of course, friendship can only go so far in producing a festival. Many such ventures have collapsed from lack of a consistent artistic vision or sufficient financial backing. ‘Getting the artists together was, frankly, the easy bit,’ says Owen. The idea had been germinating since 2001 when the duo was invited to play at the New Ross Piano Festival [in south-east Ireland] organised by pianist Finghin Collins. ‘We wanted to do the same sort of thing in the UK. Initially, we didn’t think specifically of London. We were thinking churches and stately homes but then we thought we really wanted pianists performing together as the centre of the whole thing and that’s when we thought of Kings Place. The architect of Kings Place, [Sir] Jeremy Dixon, is a good friend of mine and we hang out a lot. So is Imogen Cooper who was one of my teachers. She is one of our festival patrons, by the way, together with Stephen Hough and Jeremy.’

‘It’s a great help that there are two of us putting on this festival,’ admits Katya. ‘We can divide the work, consult each other and we both understand about the other’s schedule. If one of us is particularly busy, the other one can step in. Neither of our partners are musicians and they have been helping us on the more practical things. For example, my husband is a barrister and he’s been helping with the accounts, so the four of us are a team. That has been very important. We are all learning new skills. It’s challenging!’

Kathryn Stott is also overflowing with optimism. ‘Looking at the programme, it is so varied and anyone who wants a feast (though I hate the term!) of piano activity – well there’s something for everybody. I bet you there will be people who will be at everything. I know from experience that audiences like to follow through these things. The nice thing about it being at the weekend is that there are more people who can do that. They won’t have a chance to get bored – they’re going to have very little time off!’

The inaugural London Piano Festival runs at Kings Place from 7 to 9 October 2016.