Volume 13 Number 1
Doing the Music Justice
01 February 2000

Australian concert pianist Penelope Thwaites talks to Mike Lowe about music, parenthood and the need for grace.

'I've been working in an extremely competitive and unpredictable profession for 25 years,' says concert pianist Penelope Thwaites as she offers me another exquisite pastry in her beautiful north London home. 'There is only room for so many people, and at the very top just a tiny handful.'

Thwaites made her London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1974 and has played in over 25 countries since then. Highlights have included Mozart with the Philharmonia, performances at the Festival Hall and a Royal Gala at Covent Garden. Her career has also taken some unorthodox turns. She is best known as a leading exponent of the work of Australian composer Percy Grainger, but has also created the music for a show about John Wesley, composed much besides and raised a family.

Preparing for a performance takes 'blood, sweat and tears'. She starts thinking about a new recital up to a year ahead--just memorizing the pieces is a huge achievement--and as it draws near she lives with the music day and night. 'You dwell on certain technical problems, and suddenly the solutions come to you. On the positive side you have the wonderful privilege of a deep acquaintance with the pieces of music you choose. On the negative side, you become haunted by the fear of not doing the music justice. You can't stand up and say to an audience "I'm sorry, I usually play that better, I'll try again".'

Having children raises hard choices for any professional woman, but in the music world it is particularly difficult. 'I'd built up a modest career before I got married,' says Thwaites. 'Some people knew my work. But if you step out of performing for any length of time you lose confidence, which is fragile at the best of times.'

When her first child, Matthew, was five months old she was invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to tour her native Australia. Her husband, barrister Ted Jackson, travelled with her, and a neighbour, who had just qualified as a child-minder, enabled her to put in the hours of practice needed. But she admits that it wouldn't have been possible without the help of friends in Australia.

Matthew was followed by a daughter, Lucy. 'Babies are fantastic but they also have a mentally shredding effect,' says Thwaites. 'You move around in a perpetual fog of tiredness. Either you give up for good or you keep going. If it comes to a choice, then obviously the family comes first. But there was never a period of more than a few months when I didn't perform. I had concerts all through my pregnancies.'

She doesn't believe in being the kind of parent who sacrifices all for the children. 'It puts a terrible burden on them--the "after all I've done for you" reproach. Incidentally the famous Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno, who had six children, is supposed to have kept a pistol on top of the piano which she waved whenever they threatened to disturb her. You need something of that attitude.'

Once, at a particularly stressful time, she asked her children if she should give up performing. 'No, no,' they replied, 'we love your concerts. Besides, if you gave up we'd never hear you on the radio.'

Her children show signs of musical ability, but she wouldn't recommend the profession 'unless you are the kind of person who cannot live happily without it'. She is disenchanted by the way musicians can undermine colleagues or flatter those who might advance their careers, and saddened that artists are often marketed because they look good on a CD cover. 'To maintain your own integrity is a tremendous challenge.'

In such a tough world, she believes, acts of kindness are important. 'I was touched recently by a generous comment from another pianist. We performers find it very hard to praise each other.'

She met her husband at a dinner party with a mutual friend, and a few weeks later he attended one of her concerts, 'after which he sent the most intelligent and crafty letter. He wrote, "I have a friend who is a conductor. Do you play the Mozart piano concertos?" No performer could fail to be interested.' He proposed soon after. 'I thought he was crazy--we hardly knew each other--but he gradually won me over.'

It was her friend and mentor, the composer William Reed, who first suggested that as an Australian she might take a look at Percy Grainger. So she included a medley of the Australian composer's pieces at the end of a recital in London's Wigmore Hall. 'I wasn't sure I could get away with playing Country Gardens at the Wigmore, but it went down well.' As a result she put together a successful lecture recital called The Inimitable Percy Grainger.

Thwaites studied music for four years in Melbourne University in the 1960s with hardly a mention of Percy Grainger, despite the university being next to the Grainger Museum. She puts this down to the Australian 'cultural cringe' which, she says, is thankfully now disappearing. But she admits that Grainger didn't help his cause by putting 'absolutely everything' about his life into the Grainger museum.

'People have seized on the personal eccentricities which he exposed there, when the really important thing about him is his music. Somehow it is a feature of our age that we always want to pull people off pedestals. You can honour a great artist without necessarily agreeing with his lifestyle.' Last year she put together an international weekend of Grainger's music in London. 'We had 120 performers and 70 works showing the breadth and humanity of his music.'

Grainger is now increasingly recognized as one of the most original composers of the century. 'He questioned everything--the orchestra, the traditional forms of the symphony--and was one of the first to take an interest in and record folk music from around the world. In many ways he was ahead of his time.'

Recently she persuaded the Chandos record company to embark on a complete recording of Grainger's works--a mammoth project which currently runs to about 25 CDs. 'So much of Grainger's music is for unusual combinations and is unlikely to be performed. Now at least people can listen to it.' So far Thwaites has contributed to five of the CDs, winning universally excellent reviews. John Steane commented in Gramophone magazine, 'I've never known a composer who seems so present here in the room; and have never been more grateful to a series of recordings for bringing him there.' Now she faces the task of recording the solo piano music.

She believes that music has a power to reach deeper than words, opening windows in the mind and allowing fresh ideas to enter. 'This gives us purveyors of music a tremendous responsibility.' She is dismissive of performers using music for their own self-aggrandizement, feeling that a musician needs the humility to put the music first and to respect the audience. 'For me a performance is linked with the need to ask for grace. There should always be an element of something extra which is given. Then everyone is a part of it--composer, audience and performer.'

Thwaites agrees with the popular perception that the classical music establishment has often been dominated by a snobbish minority and sees lessons in the success of Britain's Classic FM radio station, which plays mainstream classical music. She feels that some composers this century fell in love with experimentation for its own sake and were supported by critics 'whose palates were jaded, perhaps from listening to too much music. Now we are realizing that composers, however experimental, must connect with their audience or art music will die.'

She recalls a concert she gave in Turkey, at a university where there had never been a piano recital before. The television was there, the Australian ambassador and the Governor. 'They received the music, old and new, as a gift, with intense spontaneous appreciation.'

She still gets moved by music she has heard many times. 'I remember one early morning drive when the mist was still lying on the fields listening to Fauré's Pavanne. It was magical. Another time I was sitting at the traffic lights when Schubert's ballet music for Rosamunde came on, and there was something special about the moment.'

She is concerned about the low priority given to music in British schools today. She once taught music for three years in a girls' boarding school and realized that children have to be taught how to listen. 'It's been proven that children do better academically all round when they are given a musical education. But there's an element in society that wants to undercut what has come through from previous generations. As my mother used to say, "Children are being asked to write poems before they've read any poetry."'

In bringing up her children, as in performing, she feels 'you do the best you can and leave the rest to God'. Like any parent she constantly questions whether she has done enough. 'There was a time when Ted used to take Matthew to school on his motorbike. Each morning I'd send them off with a prayer for safety as they wove through the London traffic. You have to live close to God. We don't have much time on this earth and we have to choose at each moment how we can use what we've been given to enrich others' lives.'

Thwaites remembers receiving a letter from an elderly man she'd invited to a concert. 'I kept reflecting on the miracle of it all,' he wrote. 'First that there should be music at all, then that people should work out a way of writing it down, and all the hours of preparation that you put into it to produce that marvellous evening.' Moved, she called his number only to discover that he had died that morning. 'Those are the kinds of reason I keep going,' she says.
Penelope Thwaites