HEAD OF PIANO at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Joanna MacGregor (b. 1959) knew from her early childhood that piano was her first love. Prior to her arrival in Johannesburg, she responded to questions from My View about the flamboyance and fierceness but also the humour of folk traditions, the magic of the mazurkas of Chopin and the inimitable brilliance of Bach. She performs a recital for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in partnership with the Johannesburg Musical Society, on February 4.
“I played all kinds of instruments when I was young – guitar, violin, recorder, percussion – but I always knew the piano is like a universe,” she says. “And that’s partly because it represents so many different styles of music: Classical, gospel and blues, jazz and contemporary music.”
Her mother taught her music when she was a very little girl, she won a scholarship to study at South Hampstead High School as an 11-year-old and went on to Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. But it was in accompanying people – engaged in everything from choral work to dance, cabaret to amateur performances of pop songs – that she was able to diversify her approach to music and develop her wide range of musical interests.
MacGregor is known as a teacher with a great sense of proactively making music fun for children, a composer of music for theatre, and a playwright. On a lark, she wrote a radio play about Parisian avant-garde 1920s composer Erik Satie in 1990, entitled Memoirs of an Amnesiac, which starred Jim Broadbent in the character of Satie, which went on to bag a Sony Award.
MacGregor is married to theatre director Richard Williams and she loves the tool of the written word almost as much as she loves that of the musical note. As a teenager, she earned an income writing music for theatre productions, which later developed into writing for film and television as well.
“Really, it was a way to earn money and space to practice,” she adds, referring obliquely to her diversity of skills which include conducting and curating festivals. “And once I started touring a lot, from my mid-20s onward, I stopped.”
One of the first artists chosen for the Young Concert Artist Trust in 1985, MacGregor has, over the prolific trajectory of her career, performed in more than 70 countries with the world’s best orchestras and conductors of the ilk of Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas and more. But her enthusiasm for the quirkiness of Satie has lingered as has her interest in the theatre. From Brian Eno to Mozart, oud performances and lute compositions to collaborations with electronica artists, MacGregor’s enthusiasm for all things that feed the rich fabric of music is boundless.
Awarded an OBE in 2012, MacGregor is a frequent British radio and television broadcaster. Currently she is working on the score of a ballet choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, alongside the writer Marina Warner.
Her repertoire in Saturday evening’s concert engages with the folk theme of the Mozart Festival. “The origins of dance connect across Piazzolla’s tangos and Chopin’s Mazurkas, as well as Satie’s Gnossiennes, Ligeti’s Opus 1 Music Ricercata tussles with all kinds of Hungarian folk music, in his inimitable way: funny and furious at the same time,” she says. But ultimately it is the jazziness of Bach that keeps her focused all the time.
“Bach is like the Godfather of the piano canon,” she says. “By playing him I can instantly hear other composers too, from Mozart and Piazzolla to Theolonius Monk and Arvo Pärt. And it’s so rewarding technically, musically and spiritually.”
MacGregor is celebrated for her Bach interpretations and recordings, particularly the famous Goldberg Variations, which she performed under invitation from Sir John Eliot Gardiner to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013 and his Well-Tempered Clavier which she filmed for BBC television.
She speaks in her fabulous North England accent, allowing the words to thrill and sparkle over one another in her enthusiasm and knowledge of the intricacies of the music, but when she sits down to play, as the many YouTube videos online demonstrate, the notes simply take over.