PH: Maggie, do you come from a musical family?
Maggie Cole: What I would say is that on my mother’s side, with many relatives still living in Chicago - her home town, there is a deeply musical vein running through the family system, but, in my immediate family, it was not really happening. There was an inherited piano sitting there at home and my much older brother played a bit of jazz on it. My parents were not players; they were listeners. I popped into the scene and really wanted to play.
PH: What are your earliest memories of music?
MC: Sitting at the piano at age four, the actual feel of the piano and figuring out I could play things on it. I remember the sound and feel of producing little melodies myself and I remember a kind of excitement in moving them around the keyboard (I did not know the word “transpose”).
PH: What music did you listen to as a child?
MC: The really honest answer is that, around the age of 10 or 11, and right through my teens, I was involved in listening to some jazz and pop music…the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the black American musicians – Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many more; I just loved it. I could already play the piano and could pick out the songs I had heard on the radio. For me, there did not seem to be any big separation between classical- and popular music. I was very aware that there was Mozart on record being played in our house and my dad adored listening to opera on Saturday mornings - strangely, no later than Mozart! A big musical listening experience was my piano teacher introducing me to Glen Gould’s playing; at that time, people were very excited by the fresh sense of discovery in his playing. My teacher thought he was the finest Bach player around (not everyone did!). I loved playing Bach and remember feeling really excited about what I heard on those recordings.
PH: When did you start piano lessons?
MC: I started at four because I begged for lessons. I grew up in a very small, safe town called Nyack, New York, north of New York City, where a husband and wife were the local piano teachers. The wife told my mother that I was too young to start, that she had never taught anyone my age and that I would have to wait a couple of years. My mother remembers that I stamped my foot in rage. The teacher then said she would give it a try, I began and we got on very well. I was with her for 13 years (too long, actually) but none of us knew much about music education. Actually, there was one year, when she and her husband were away in France, that I went into New York City to study at the Juilliard Preparatory School, and I did not like it one bit! It did, however, give me the taste of a different teacher for that year.
PH: Where did you continue your studies?
MC: At age 16, I went to Switzerland with my mother…for reasons a little too complicated to go into here, but finishing school was not one of them. In Geneva, I had the good fortune to study with a man called Louis Hiltbrand at the Geneva Conservatory for two years; he had been a student of Dinu Lupatti and was the person who had taken over his teaching studio following Lupatti’s death. Hiltbrand’s work felt like an amazing, direct line to Lupatti. Personally, this was a difficult time in my own life, but Hiltbrand was a magnificent teacher and I totally adored him. His was a very different approach to piano teaching and music making, which I badly needed.
PH: So, at age 18 you returned to the USA.
MC: Yes. I was all ready to go for auditions at the Eastman, Curtis and other schools. In the throes of a kind of crisis, I, however, I could not see any possible reason to play music any more. I took myself off to England, but the first thing I did on my arrival was to rent a little upright piano, having no plans to take lessons. Playing it was my love and for relaxation and enjoyment. For two years, I did lots of other things – I cleaned houses and waitressed. I was interested in dance and did a huge amount of dancing in London, taking a hard look at whether I wanted to do that professionally… modern dance, rather than ballet. I decided it was not my calling. After a few years in England I returned to the United States.
PH: With what objective?
MC: Of getting a good liberal arts education as young Americans do. I was 20 - a little older than the other students - but enjoyed being a more mature student. I was at a small university in the mid-west. In about my third month there, I walked into the music building, opened a door thinking I would find a piano in the room, and found a harpsichord. I had a few basic ideas about the instrument but had never seen or played one. I was hugely excited and sat down to play every piece of Bach, Scarlatti and Rameau I had played on the piano. With that I was back to music. There was an incredibly good teacher there. She was modest about her harpsichord-teaching, as she was the organ professor, but she knew a lot, was wonderfully loving, guiding and not authoritarian. After a few years with her, as well as enjoying a lot of other subjects, I realized that I was very serious about the harpsichord and decided to return to England.
PH: Did you return to England in order to study there?
MC: Yes. I first studied with a wonderful grande dame of the harpsichord in Cambridge – Mary Potts. It was fun and interesting working with her. She had an original instrument (that was new to me). She was very kind, but too complimentary, and I needed to learn. Then, by luck, I met a man who was the keeper of the early keyboard instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He let me practise there as I did not yet have an instrument of my own. He would hear me practise and one day suggested I meet his wife. I went to their home for supper and played her some little Bach piece. Sharing her thoughts, it was that night that she said two such illuminating things that, on the spot, I asked to study with her. That is how I met my great teacher Jill Severs, with whom I studied privately for three years. Many fine harpsichordists have been through her hands. She is a very fine player to this day and her teaching was sharp and pin-pointed…exactly what I needed. After a little while, I was suddenly out there performing.
PH: Did you continue studying?
MC: My learning has continued largely through working with remarkable colleagues and I keep learning from them. Maybe I would not have had that benefit from conservatory training – to be performing and learning in such a closely knit way. To work really intimately with people like Steven Isserlis, Michael Chance, Nigel North, Nancy Argenta and many others has been every bit as much my training as any formal lessons have been. I feel very lucky to have worked with some extraordinary people. Apart from in Geneva, I never took the conservatory track. Now, funnily enough, I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London).
PH: Do you still see yourself as a pianist?
MC: Yes and no. I now deeply understand why I was never going to be suited to the modern piano world. As much as I left the modern piano at 18, mostly due to family problems, there was something that was never going to quite work for me about the number of hours a pianist must practise to do the kind of repertoire written so well for the modern piano. Life seemed too confined with this kind of regime. As well, I grew up with a Steinway piano that always felt too tough, too heavy and too thick. The piano was too much of a battle for me with my particular physical make-up and with what my ears wanted to hear. At a young age, I had absolutely no idea that my ears were seeking earlier keyboard instruments and the actual physical sensations of playing them.
PH: How did you start playing the fortepiano?
MC: It crept in. It was starting to appear on the world concert scene, although later than the harpsichord. I had the chance to play on Christopher Hogwood’s Viennese fortepiano replica of about 1795 and then a chance to play it in a concert - in a Mozart violin sonata, I remember. That particular piano completely caught my fancy. Then I started playing other fortepianos, both originals and copies, and I kept finding them to be not very satisfying. So I would go back to Hogwood’s, borrowing it or hiring it. I ended up doing some recording on it. As I continued to explore it, I would remember my feelings about Mozart and Haydn from childhood. The sensation and musical results of playing Classical repertoire on this instrument really felt like coming home. It was what I had always heard in my head as a child and was not getting on the modern piano. But I knew that, if I was going to be serious about the fortepiano, I would have to purchase my own instrument.
PH: How did you go about finding one?
MC: This is a magical story. I visited my aunt and uncle from Chicago. Amateur ‘cellists, they were in Prague for a quartet-playing week. Paul McNulty, one of the most highly revered fortepiano builders, and nowadays there are quite a few of them, lives outside of Prague and I took a side trip to the village where he lives and works. I spent an afternoon playing the instrument that was there and, at the end of the afternoon, I said to Paul that I needed to commission one. When he told me it would take three years to deliver, my heart sank, but I asked him to put me down on the list. Driving back into Prague, we chatted and I said to him that I thought I had heard through the grapevine that Mitzuko Uchida owned one of his instruments. Yes, he said, adding that it was the same kind as I had just been playing at his workshop. I told him that she only lived a mile away from me in London and that rumor has it that she did not like the instrument. He confirmed the rumor and said that she was the second person not to like it! Trevor Pinnock had commissioned it, owned it first, did not like it and had sold it to Mitzuko, who had it sitting there for two years unplayed. McNulty said she would probably only sell it when he sold her an instrument she did like. On my return to London I called Mitzuko and went to visit her. She took me to the mews where she kept her instruments, pronounced that I “would never like him” and left me to play on it for an hour. There was something in this piano for me. It had not been played and needed to come alive again. I asked her whether if I paid for the moving, took it home for two weeks and liked it, she would sell it to me. She immediately agreed, still insisting I would not love “him”! So I took it. Two weeks later, after playing it a lot, it was now really awake and the sound had all developed again. A good friend Melvyn Tan, an artist with a huge reputation as a fortepiano player (he has now, interestingly, gone back to the modern piano) confirmed that it was a beautiful- and beautifully made piano and said I should buy it. A technician who looked at it said the same thing. So, instead of waiting three years to get a Paul McNulty fortepiano, it took only three months!
PH: So the fortepiano became an important part of your performing life.
MC: Yes. I formed Trio Goya with violinist Kati Debretzeni and ‘cellist Sebastian Comberti. I have done much solo playing on it, many song recitals with singers are really interested in singing specific repertoire with the delicate, more responsive fortepiano as well as much duo work.
PH: Do you play in other groups?
PC: Yes. I regularly play with a group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Sarasa Ensemble, a loose collective of lots of musicians. We choose players according to who is best suited to the repertoire of a specific program; we are never usually more than six or seven players for any one concert. Our repertoire can range from very early Baroque- to late Classical- or even early Romantic music. We just recently toured, playing the Dvořák Piano Quintet on an original 1875 piano, with what we all agreed was a great result. I think we really found something new about that piece. For me it was a thrill: I do not play music of that period very often and had never played that work before.
PH: And solo work?
MC: Yes, both on fortepiano and harpsichord.
PH: Let’s go back to the harpsichord. Would you like to talk about your harpsichord recitals?
MC: Well, it goes in phases for me. When I began performing, there was a huge flowering of the harpsichord recital in England and Europe, with a lot of excitement around it. I was part of that and performed as a soloist all over the world. I still do, but now give fewer recitals in a typical year. This is partly because my range of interests has expanded, but also because there is perhaps less demand for the solo recital nowadays. Actually, at one stage I asked myself if I really like doing harpsichord recitals: it is so terrifying sitting on the stage all alone with a harpsichord; you cannot hide behind anything with an instrument that speaks in such a direct way. And yet, every time I give a recital I remember how exciting it is, how special the repertoire is and how you have this wonderful freedom just to take the music whichever way you want to take it. I had the chance to give a recital in Moscow at the end of December 2012 - a full-length harpsichord recital in a newish hall there. The program included one piece of contemporary harpsichord music. I just found it so thrilling to play to that Russian audience on that freezing, snowy night. Looking outside, I saw so many people coming to the concert hall. It was so touching. And they clearly enjoyed it very much. This was a strong reminder to me of how much I like doing solo work.
PH: Perhaps we should now talk about contemporary harpsichord music and your performance of it.
MC: Sure. I think what is interesting is that the harpsichord has attracted so much new music for a long time. It’s not just recent. It goes right back to the Manuel de Falla Harpsichord Concerto and Wanda Landowska’s commissioning of concertos from composers of her time, such as Poulenc’s “Concert champêtre” and the Manuel de Falla concerto. I would say that we have a really enormous repertoire to draw on; I receive lots of pieces from composers who would like me to look at their music and perhaps play it. I choose only pieces to which I feel I can give my heart and soul. I think it is important for me to keep in touch with what is going on now, but I also really like the idea of the harpsichord as an instrument of our present time and not just associated with the past. Contemporary harpsichord music does not need to pay homage to the past. There are many young composers who see the harpsichord as a fascinating instrument for which to write and they seem to be breaking free of recognizable, early gestures. I am full of admiration for my female colleagues who devote themselves almost entirely to playing contemporary harpsichord music…extraordinary, wonderful, exciting things…often with electronics. That is how much there is! I tend to play more solo contemporary harpsichord pieces, but I would like to get into that slightly wilder area.
It is always interesting to speak with living composers, to really be able to find out their intentions and to be able to contribute to the process of a piece being created. I have had that opportunity a few times: in a piece supposedly finished, I have been able to point out a design flaw and get it fixed! The French composer Henri Dutilleux (who recently died at a very ripe old age) wrote an extraordinarily beautiful and large piece for harpsichord, double bass, oboe and percussion that I played. He came to a rehearsal of it and listened to what we were doing. That was a little scary, but just to have him there and hear his small comments (improvements to make, but adding strongly that we had absolutely captured his piece) was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. He also wrote a heartwarming note onto my music. Of course, we really never know with our dead composers exactly how they heard their music or wanted it performed.
PH: I would like to hear about your interest in teaching.
MC: I do teach a lot. I have loved teaching one-on-one since I was 12. Over the last 15 years, I have really discovered how interested I also am in group teaching. It started when I got a job teaching at a Spanish summer school about 13 years ago. It was historical-performance based, though modern performers were made very welcome there. I would often have a very big group and I did not know so much about steering a big group through two weeks of exploration and study when I started. I have just come to really love this and I do quite a bit of group teaching now.
PH: Have you anything you would like to say about today’s audiences?
MC: A huge subject. I am not going to speak about trends. It seems that we, as performers, are all forever trying to dream up ways to make classical music appealing to the young and to educate the next generation; I am involved in that. Regarding the general concert audience, it is always very touching to me that people still want to leave behind television and all their other distractions, and actually step out, pay money and come and give themselves to a concert. But, more and more, I do seem to understand that this medium is a real conversation between player and audience. We can not do what we do unless people also make this effort and commitment to being there. I am full of gratitude to all of those people who turn up.
A particular thing for me is that I truly enjoy playing in very small, out-of-the-way places and particularly love playing to audiences who do not have masses of music available to them. London is, of course, an exciting place to play in, with its many venues and many opportunities to hear wonderful music, but I find that my really memorable moments of performing have been in very remote places, such when I performed in northern, northern Norway. People, hungry for music, had to come by boat, making that effort to get there. And I would not say it was an uncritical audience – there were some very discerning listeners present who were just so pleased to have live music come to them.
Then there is another audience that, for me, stands out. In the USA, with my group Sarasa, I do outreach work with young offenders; they are an extraordinary audience, an amazingly special audience to me! They have not made the choice to hear us, but they very quickly become extremely present and are very active and creative in their response as audience members. Our sessions together turn into collaborations in which we get to hear their rap, poetry and other forms of expression. They bring a kind of listening that is altogether different from the concert hall.
PH: Do you compose?
MC: I don’t. I often improvise – alone and sometimes with other people – but I do not write anything down…and have no desire to. But when it finally comes to the concert, and I’m playing, at that moment I never feel I am playing somebody else’s music and I never have. The minute I finish playing, that sensation disappears and the notes are back on the page! Music is such an ephemeral art form. Uniquely, that performance is never going to sound like that I do, before or after it. It can only be mine and the audience’s for that one time.
PH: Do you have any interesting plans you would like to mention?
MC: Oh, always. My next couple of trips to the USA will be musically very interesting…harpsichord recitals which include a brand new piece and two Bach Partitas that continue to fascinate me. And then there will be a group concert with a singer in a program that will be new to all of us. Trio Goya has its first Wigmore Hall concert coming up – something that we’re very excited about. And there are things brewing in Portugal – a new collaboration with a modern pianist who has become very interested in the fortepiano. We have done some 4-hand playing together and there is a bubbling idea that we might become a 4-hand team, which I have never had. Actually, I have tried a few times but it was never the right person; here, I have the feeling this might be the right one! That would be heavenly.
PH: When it is not music, what do you enjoy doing?
MC: As strong as my interest in music, and possibly stronger, there is my interest in people and psychology and what makes people feel well on this earth, in what makes them feel like they have a place and a contribution to make. This is a hugely deep interest and, therefore, has led to a lot of study in different forms – study of personal psychology and group psychology. Working with young people, or, actually, people of any age, it can mean trying to see clearly where the person is in their creativity and what the next step is in exploring a little more freedom, expression, communication, sense of wholeness – there are many ways of talking about this. You can put it into any language: it can be the language of the harpsichord, the fortepiano, dance, rap or whatever. For me it is always about enabling growth and health and, finally, community.
Then, my vegetable plot is of great interest to me. It is one of these English allotments, and they are big. Although I am in no way an expert, it is my relaxation and I never worry about my hands there! If I went back to studying I would probably study Botany. I also read a lot...mostly fiction, but some non-fiction. I love the outdoors – I am a big walker.
PH: Maggie, talking to you has been fascinating. Many thanks for your time and for so much interesting and enriching information.