One to Watch – Tom Borrow11:30, 13th May 2020
A recent cancellation gave Tom Borrow the big break he needed, replacing Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist for a concerto for a tour of Israel. Colin Clarke reports
Tom Borrow is the very definition of ‘One to Watch’. Born in Tel Aviv in 2000, he began his journey to recognition via a series of competitions and the significant attentions of Murray Perahia. But it was a cancellation earlier this year that gave him his big break, stepping in for Khatia Buniatishvili to perform Ravel’s G major concerto with the Israel Philharmonic under Yoel Levi. (The second and third movements of this performance are available on YouTube: y2u.be/7RH4LLB9a5M.)
Borrow began learning the piano aged five, studying initially with Michal Tal at Israel’s Givatayim Conservatory. After a decade, he transferred to Professor Tomer Lev, head of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music. He now splits his time between Israel, where he continues to study with Lev, and London, where his British father and Israeli mother run the Covent Garden restaurant ‘Nutshell’.
Borrow has received numerous scholarships and won every national competition in Israel. ‘The American-Israeli cultural foundation has given me scholarships since I was around 12,’ he explains. He has also benefited from the support of Zefunot Culture, a local NGO that promotes young Israeli musicians. Masterclasses with Schiff, Goode and Pressler have all contributed to his artistic development, but it is his relationship with Perahia that stands out. Perahia is president of the Jerusalem Music Centre, which runs an annual programme for young musicians. (An excerpt from Borrow’s 2015 Brahms Op 118 masterclass with Perahia is at y2u.be/R4BC_owPWjc.)
‘The amazing part of working with Murray is that not only is he an outstanding pianist, but he has a unique perspective,’ says Borrow. ‘He admires Schenker’s theories, which he tries to inject in his students, to make them aware of that fluent way of listening.’ Perahia encourages his students to draw Schenker graphs of their pieces. The resulting musical intelligence can be heard in Borrow’s outstanding performance of Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue, given at the Jerusalem Music Centre in July 2017 – a pointer to his true potential (see y2u.be/6UMIfR6tzT4). ‘Murray teaches that [Schenker] is not just theoretical: it’s about putting it into performance, so you can play in one breath.’
And so, to that moment when Borrow got a phone call asking him to replace Buniatishvili – just 36 hours before the first of a 12-concert series. ‘It was quite a shocking phone call,’ he recalls. ‘At the outset I wasn’t sure it was real. They asked me what I could play. I’d played the Ravel before, but it wasn’t in my hands at that time. So I just had those hours to come back to the score before starting the intense concert run in several different cities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. For the first week I had concerts every day. It was so much fun: it also helped me to learn how to adapt my sound to acoustics. An intense educational journey.’
Borrow has since played Beethoven’s Third Concerto on tour with the Jerusalem SO and Andres Mustonen – this time planned – which brought him a plethora of standing ovations. ‘Most concerts were in Estonia, some in Latvia, again every day. As an encore I played Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor Op 17/4, which I like to play as a farewell.’ As for the concerto, Borrow says ‘it’s very revolutionary’. He is particularly drawn to the strand of ‘inner depression’ that runs through Beethoven’s score: ‘The cadenza is where you let it all out.’ (Visit y2u.be/jS5fWY8_Ycg).
Does he have an ideal repertoire? ‘I love everything I have to play as long as I’m alive! Franck is really up there. Right now, I’m working on some late Rachmaninov, the Corelli Variations, and Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata, a piece I love dearly.’ I suggest the later Sonatas of Scriabin and Borrow says he is keen to play No 9. ‘I would like to play a bunch of Scriabin: he’s a genius, and underrated today. I’d like to gather Sonatas Nos 2, 5 and the “Black Mass” (No 9) to show their stylistic progression.’
Looking to the immediate future, Borrow is an Academy Musician at Verbier 2019 (one of 68 such musicians from 24 countries), an experience that will revolve around many masterclasses. ‘András Schiff will be there, with whom I already have a relationship from last year’s Oxford Piano Festival’. Bavouzet, Achúcarro and Babayan are also in attendance. Further ahead, Borrow is slated to play with the LPO in 2020. ‘I have quite a few concertos to prepare,’ he explains. ‘In a few weeks I fly to Korea for a tour with the Tel-Aviv Soloists in Beethoven’s Emperor. Next year I’m scheduled to play again with Maestro Levi (who replaced Zubin Mehta when I stood in for Khatia) in Brahms’ First Concerto.’ And what does Borrow do when he is not playing the piano? ‘Music is the centre of my life. If there’s spare time, I play pool, table-tennis, snooker – the musicians’ type of sport.’