Christopher Morley meets the new head of keyboard study at Birmingham Conservatoire.
With a new semester under way, Birmingham Conservatoire has a new head of keyboard study to replace the recently-retired Malcolm Wilson.
John Thwaites comes to Birmingham via a decidedly circuitous route – Home Counties, Sussex (Christ’s Hospital in Horsham), Scotland – as he explains.
“I was born in Hampstead in August 1962, later we moved out to Elstree and then to St Alban’s.
“I was a chorister in the cathedral there. My parents are still at St Alban’s, I have a piano there, and so it’s my London base.”
Looking through his biography, John’s affinity with cellists leaps out at you. “That, funnily enough, goes back to St Alban’s. I grew up at 28a on our street, and at 29 was the great British cellist Alexander Baillie, who was about five years older than me.
“So as I grew up, there was this young man who went off and studied in Vienna, and then came back.
‘‘And by the time I was having my year off he was back, both his parents had died, and he was living in the family house. He had a young wife, and two young daughters, and he was the next big thing on the British cello scene.
“During my gap year I did a number of concertos with him, and went to play to conductors he was working with. I played to Jacqueline du Pre, which was an incredible meeting. And then at a certain point, almost 20 years ago, I got involved with a cello school that he runs, taking place in various parts of the country.
“And we’ve carried on giving recitals together, to this day.”
Though John is busy as a chamber-music player, he is less active as a soloist. “Going back more than 10 years, I used to enjoy doing concertos with local amateur orchestras, but in the last 10 years I’ve felt, for all sorts of reasons, there hasn’t really been time to do anything other than what I’m specialising in, which includes cello collaborations, but also the piano quartet (the Primrose, with which John has given many well-received performances and equally-acclaimed recordings).”
But John is also an enthusiastic conductor.
“When you become so specialised, and so buried in your serious work on the piano, I think it comes upon most of us, the desire to break out, and to do something completely different. And a lot of pianists have a lot of fun conducting!
“So that happened to me about five years ago, though I’d done bits and bobs before that. I did three years with a chamber choir in Hillingdon, in north London, at one point, but the conducting really took off five years ago. I picked up two choral societies on the south shores of the Clyde, and I had a lot of fun.
“But now I’m down on a short-list of four for a position in Daventry, and I’ll be off there at the beginning of October to do my best in their auditions. I’m trying to replicate the better parts of my Glaswegian life, but I wouldn’t want two choral societies any more, that would be a bit silly. One would be great.”
We then go on to discuss the conducting activities of another renowned pianist, Peter Donohoe, the Solihull-based, founding conductor of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and long associated with Simon Rattle during that conductor’s time with the CBSO.
And Donohoe, as the Conservatoire’s vice-president (Simon Rattle remains as president), is passionate about the institution.
“Yes, I think if anything he wants to get even more involved,” says John. “As you know, he’s doing this complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas there this season. That’s going to be very important, starting on November 21.
“I had a conversation with him about what sort of prize he’s thinking about funding, because he’s devoting all the proceeds to funding a prize. We had a rather interesting conversation, because that’s been in the planning stages for some time, but no-one has got round to doing anything.
“But I think this Beethoven series is going to be so big, that that will be the catalyst that makes sure this actually happens.
“I’m quite interested in building up the flexibility of whatever is already going on at the Conservatoire, including the chamber music thing. And I’m also interested in bringing in professionals to work with the students, because they need to have the opportunity to work with people of that calibre.
“Financially that’s all going to be incredibly difficult, as usual. But to go back to Peter, his big thing is flexibility (he worked as a percussionist – including with the CBSO – for many years), and what pianists can do, and the way that a Conservatoire responds to that.
“So there’ll be a significant chunk of music-making, possibly two evenings, possibly an afternoon and an evening.
“There’ll be somebody from the Conservatoire to listen, at the end of which the prize will be awarded to the young pianist, but what the pianists can offer will have no restrictions at all.
“There will be a little bit of money to support them in whatever they want to do. But the basic idea is, to award a little pot of money to the people that perform particularly well on the occasion.”
John is planning to give more weighting to chamber music playing for the Conservatoire’s piano students, “so that they can take the playing of chamber-music more seriously. At the moment it tends to be squirrelled away, so it needs just a bit of re-balancing.
“And then another big issue is, they are not required at any point to offer a concerto, which is not very good at the solo end of things. But we’ll bite the bullet, with chamber music taken more seriously, and a bit more focus on concerto work for the solo pianists.”