William Howard talks Wagner, Novák and musical portraits

William Howard

William Howard

‘Most of us have seen photos of ourselves and some people have their portraits painted. For me it was definitely a new experience to encounter a musical portrait with my name on it. And stranger still to be preparing to perform it myself.  Having commissioned a piece from David Matthews, a wonderful composer and a good friend, to celebrate his 70th birthday and my 60th birthday, I was slightly nervous when he said he was writing four ‘portraits’, one of which would be of me. Fortunately I love playing it. It’s a gloomy, slow, Chopinesque waltz (I am not sure what that says about my own character!). The other three portraits are colourful characterisations of mutual friends.

I am looking forward to giving the first performance of these pieces for the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival. I feel a very strong connection to the festival, for which I have performed many times, either as soloist or with the Schubert Ensemble. Every single concert that I have given for Spitalfields Music has included a new work, the first of many being Judith Weir’s wonderful Piano Concerto, which I premiered in Christ Church Spitalfields in 1997.

For my programme on 14 June at Shoreditch Church, I have been given licence to indulge my own enthusiasms. Schubert and Chopin are composers I have loved since early childhood, and the two works I am playing in this programme are particular favourites of mine. They were both written towards the end of the composers’ lives and both, in very different ways, explore an extraordinary range of moods, from the exuberant and warmly lyrical to the bleak and melancholic, with the consummate mastery of great composers at the height of their powers.

The other contemporary work in the programme is one that means a great deal to me and also to David Matthews. David and I both met Pavel Novák in 1986, when, as a practising Christian under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, he was keeping a low profile, but writing astonishingly beautiful and original music. Between 1989 and 2006, he wrote an amazing 75-minute cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues for me, hailed by many as one of the most important piano works of recent years. I will play the third book (of four), which is based on the Gospel of St. John.

The scheduled encore that I will end the concert with is essential listening in this year of Wagner’s bicentenary. Anyone who has not had the time to listen to the whole Ring Cycle should come to this recital for David Matthews’s brilliant and hilarious 5-minute piano reduction – running at just over a minute per opera. The perfect Wagner experience for those with busy lives…’

William will be performing on Friday 14 June at Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s) from 7.30pm-9.15pm. Tickets for his performance are available to book on our website or by  calling our box office on 020 7377 1362.


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