Christopher Morley speaks to child prodigy Philip Fisher about how moving to the US has shaped his music.
The last time I interviewed Philip Fisher was in the early 1990s. He was 12 years old, and a wunderkind, about to play the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto (composed for another wunderkind, the composer’s son Maxim in Symphony Hall).
As I walked through the front door of his Edgbaston family home he was playing the awesome Third Piano Concerto of Prokofiev, as you do.
What was it like being a child prodigy, I asked him recently when we caught up again.
“It’s almost distant memories, in a way. Everything happened so quickly. I didn’t start playing until I was eight-and-a-half or nine, but it always seemed very natural to be on the stage and so on.
“I think there’s always a transitional period where you switch from the prodigy syndrome, trying to make the step into being an artist and a fully-fledged professional, and it always comes at a different time for everybody.”
So when did it come for Philip?
“I would say, somewhere in my early20s, I think, towards the end of doing my Bachelor’s at the Royal Academy, and moving to New York to the Juilliard School.
“Then, when you’re branching out and trying to get a kind of professional footing, you start to question exactly what you’re about as an artist, what makes you an individual, are these going to be important questions...
“So I think it really took place around then, along with that move to New York, when you find new pastures and new people, and you’re constantly having to define yourself – it makes you ask questions.”
Philip explains how he came to go to New York in the first place.
“I’d always wanted to do an exchange, and I wanted to go somewhere abroad. And the Academy had an exchange programme, so I planned to do the exchange during the first year of my postgraduate studies. Then just before I left I won the Juilliard Scholarship, which was wonderful chance timing. But the rule was, you had to do two consecutive years with the scholarship, so I spent a year as exchange and then I studied privately in New York with Joseph Kalichstein, my teacher there.
“Then I thought I’d stay on for the Master’s Programme at Juilliard, then one thing led to another. I made it my home – it really was my permanent home for a long time; I’m really only just straddling the Atlantic to spend 50 per cent of my time in New York, and the rest here in Birmingham with my family.
“And it’s nice to return. I’ve had support from Birmingham City Council for my first disc with Naxos, which was Handel keyboard suites.
‘‘They were very generous in supporting the disc financially, and Symphony Hall were very generous in letting me use the venue for recording, so I’ve really been welcomed back into the city with open arms, which is very gratifying, and I think it’s almost coming full circle.”
Other members of Philip’s family are accomplished pianists, including his father, and his brother Simon, from whose record collection the young Philip was able to listen to the likes of Richter, Michelangeli, and Pollini.
“So I did a huge amount of listening when I was a child. Sometimes when you’re a kid there’s a tendency to mimic somewhat, or you have your favourites and there’s a time when you have to move away from that and define yourself, so I don’t do as much listening to piano music as I used to!
“I love symphonic music, that’s my real passion, and if it comes to going to a concert and listening, that’s where I get the most musical pleasure. But I also think it’s tough when you’re listening to your own instrument; you listen with different ears, and you also have that slight, not critical, ear, but you’re always thinking about what it means to you.”
In other words, the pianist is not listening to the music itself, but to how it is being delivered.
“Exactly. It’s a shame in a way. It’s hard to separate yourself from that. It’s easier if you’re listening to symphonic music, or instrumentation that isn’t so personal to you.”
We move on to consider the way Philip’s career has developed.
“I went from the prodigy thing, when I was doing concertos – such as the Grieg, Mozart 23, obviously the Shostakovich Second, the Choral Fantasy of Beethoven, which was really great. I did that both at Symphony Hall and with a choral society in London.
“Then when I moved to Juilliard I’d always been doing a lot of chamber music already; I was very lucky even as a kid that Peter Thomas, the then leader of the CBSO, sort of took me under his wing, and we read through Beethoven violin sonatas, Brahms. So he really helped me develop the chamber music instinct, which I really kind of ran with when I went to the States, when I was playing with everybody and anybody.
“That was a really pivotal kind of experience. And then there came a point after that when I stepped back into what I think my true instinct is, to develop more of the solo side of things, and it was really the recording project that helped that take off, and get me back into the scene.
“But I think it was really good to have some time playing a lot of chamber music, stepping out of the hothouse of being a soloist for a while, and it certainly helps and informs what you do from the solo point of view, especially concerto-playing, it’s a tremendous help.”
Which concertos does Philip have under his fingers at the moment?
“I’ve done a few performances recently of the Rachmaninov Third, which is a particular favourite, because when I first went to Juilliard I won the Concerto Competition and did it with the Juilliard Symphony, so it’s kind of an important concerto to me, and I recently did it in Boston.
“I just came back from Finland about two weeks ago, where I did Prokofiev’s First Concerto. An absolutely amazing piece, and this was the first time I’d played it with an orchestra. I’d learned it when I was about 14, 15, and it really brought it back.’’