17 June 2019
By Julius Drake
He travels the world collaborating with the likes of Felicity Lott and Gerald Finley, but it’s back in his London home where things get hectic for pianist and accompanist Julius Drake
My life as a pianist is very varied.
I decided a long time ago that, even if I could achieve it, I didn’t want the life of a solo pianist.
As a teenager I had been to the Purcell School in Hertfordshire and worked pretty intensively on the solo repertoire with my inspiring teacher, Anthya Rael. But when I arrived for my first term at the Royal College of Music in London and was straightaway teamed up with other instrumentalists to make music, I immediately knew that chamber music was exactly where I wanted my future to be. I realised that the soloist’s life was far too lonely a path for me; above all I sensed instinctively that I could make music come alive if I were to collaborate with fellow musicians who shared my ideas, aims and ideals.
At the age of 21, I left the Royal College and ever since have pursued the dream of making music with friends and collaborators. This of course involves a lot of travelling, particularly in Europe, but I do also have two favourite concert venues in London – the superb and beloved Wigmore Hall and the historic Middle Temple Hall. This Elizabethan gem, just off Fleet Street and the Strand, with its famous hammer-beam roof, is not so well known as a concert venue because it belongs to the Inns of Court of Middle and Inner Temples. But performances have always taken place there – famously it was the hall where Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602, almost certainly with Shakespeare himself in the cast.
Some years back I was approached to curate a song series in this special venue, and so the Temple Song Series was born. We decided to place the stage on the side of the hall, rather than at the far end. This combined the superb acoustic with a rather special intimacy and it is now one of the music venues in the world that I most enjoy performing in.
"I decided a long time ago that, even if I could achieve it, I didn’t want the life of a solo pianist." Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
A typical day for me? Today is one: a travel day. Tomorrow I have a concert in Bilbao with my friend, the superb German tenor, Christoph Prégardien. I will always travel to the concert the day before if I possibly can and today has been a horribly early start – my flight was at 6.40am and the alarm went off at 4! For some reason the direct flights from London to Bilbao are all unpleasantly early and the indirect ones take an age. When I arrive at the hotel, the first thing I will do is have a sleep. With any luck, because I have arrived so early, I’ll get an hour to go round Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum. Then I will go to the concert hall and practise for a few hours before Christoph arrives for a rehearsal. We have already rehearsed for the recital a few weeks ago in London, so this will be a top-up. Hopefully all will be in order and then in the evening we’ll find one of the excellent restaurants Bilbao is famous for and have a delicious supper.
Tomorrow is a concert day, and typically I shall have breakfast as late as possible. If I am feeling virtuous I shall first take a run in a local park to set me up for the day ahead. Sometime around noon I’ll head off to the concert hall and start practising on the piano allocated for tonight’s concert. I always need a few hours playing the actual concert piano – this is our chance to get to know one another. I can’t just sit down at a new piano and feel immediately comfortable because every piano, even if it is my favourite, a Steinway D, is different. Playing it for a few hours allows my ear to adjust to the quality and timbre of the sound and the weight and feel of the keys. Almost unconsciously I learn how I can coax the sound that I want out of this unfamiliar instrument. I really do think that the piano is a semi-miraculous invention. How can this combination of iron, wood, strings and hammers be made to sound so mellifluous, singing and legato? The physics doesn’t make sense to me, but every day in my prayers I thank Signor Cristofori and his inspired successors for this magical creation! Sometime in the afternoon, either before or after a short rehearsal, I shall go back to the hotel for a nap. I find if I can lie down and shut my eyes and hopefully get a short sleep, my concentration in the concert is sharper. And concentration in the moment is vital if I will have a chance of doing justice to the great music that I shall be playing.
Credit: Marco Borggreve
Another typical day is one where I am at home in London. These days are usually very busy ones, because this is when most of the rehearsing gets done for the concerts, as well as any teaching or coaching. Usually I’ll get my own practice done first, hopefully a couple of hours at around 8 to 10am. Then I might fit in an hour’s lesson with one of my students from the Guildhall School of Music
before a singer or instrumentalist colleague arrives for an 11am rehearsal. At 2pm another musician will arrive, so lunch will be on the hoof, and at 4pm or 5pm, probably another. By the evening I am pretty whacked but if it has all gone well, I’m happy. I might even have the energy for another short bit of practice!
The next performance in Julius Drake’s Temple Song Series takes place on 4 July at Middle Temple Hall, London. Soprano Sofi a Fomina and baritone Roderick Williams join Drake for a selection of Rachmaninov songs. Full details here.