By Steve Stratford
Ivan Ilić has been described as one of the world’s most adventurous pianists, a man who likes to think outside of the box and bring something new and fresh to an art-form that can sometimes be a little tried and tested.
He has controversially rearranged the order of Debussy’s Preludes, attempted to redress the imbalance between the use of the left and right hands in piano-playing, and championed Godowsky’s little-known left-hand studies on Chopin’s Etudes, all to great acclaim. Such innovation has propelled Ilić to the forefront of creative solo piano-playing on an international level – he’s damned good at what he does, but he’s best at doing what nobody else has thought to do.
“I try to think outside the box, otherwise your career becomes boring, and also too similar other people’s careers! After years of the same recitals I started to wonder, ‘Why am I doing this? What is my contribution if I’m just playing what has always been played before?’ Sure, you play it your own way. But the actual content and choice of repertoire needs to evolve, otherwise everybody gets lazy…including the audience!
“There’s something about doing things differently: it wakes people up and gets them to ask questions. Whoever would have thought they would enjoy an entire recital given with one hand? Most people would laugh at that, but I tried it and it was well-received. People did enjoy it and that was so much more satisfying.”
Ivan adds that innovating in this way – playing with opposite hands, just one hand, or trying to use as much of the keyboard as possible – improves his game.
“The advantage of doing all of these things differently is that it develops mechanisms that last; your endurance and concentration get better,” explains Ivan. “As you go toward the extreme, the more moderate music which you play in the middle of the keyboard becomes much easier. It’s almost a relief to play it because it’s more comfortable.”
One of those more moderate pieces of which Ivan speaks is a new composition for the solo piano by Welsh composer John Metcalf, entitled Chant. Ivan will give Chant its first public performance when he plays at St David’s Hall in Cardiff in October.
Metcalf is well known for his choral works, and big productions such as last year’s Dylan Thomas: The Opera. So how did this collaboration for the piano come about?
“I was on a Welsh tour in 2007 and the intention was for an American composer to write a new piece for the concerts. But he was getting later and later with his delivery. As the deadline approached I started to get really nervous that I would have no new piece to play, as had been advertised,” remembers Ivan.
In a panic, he contacted music archivists at the Wales Millennium Centre to see if they were aware of anything he could adopt to plug the gap, and out of that came John Metcalf’s little known or performed Endless Song.
“Endless Song was written in 1999 and had not been extensively performed,” says Ivan. “I got the score and ended up playing it at all the venues, not just in Wales, or even the UK, but also California, France and Ireland. I must have played it more than 60 times in the end. It is a powerful piece: simple but well crafted.”
A year later Ivan and John’s paths crossed again when the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama commissioned Metcalf to write a new piece, to be played by Ivan, called Appassionata. Ivan has therefore been keen to see more piano compositions by Metcalf for him to perform.
Late last year John was commissioned to write a piece to mark the retirement of Nantwich NHS worker Marie McKavanagh, and that’s how Chant came about. While he wrote it with Ivan in mind, it is inspired a Welsh folk song “Watching the White Wheat” He took a few bars from that song and interpolated it into what became Chant.
When Chant was delivered to him in February, Ivan couldn’t have been happier.
“I was delighted because I love Endless Song and regretted that John hadn’t composed more. I wanted more, I wanted 12 pieces to perform! It was frustrating, so my first emotion when reading the score for Chant was relief that more was coming out. It was also clear to me that John can continue to write more piano music. Endless Song was not a fluke, he can do this again and again. John has a skill for piano composition and can do it any time he wants.”
What makes John Metcalf’s piano compositions so special?
“John is one of those composers who writes at the piano and has a real physical connection to the instrument. His pieces are natural and enjoyable to play, not abstract. This is relatively unusual, the tactile element.”
Intrigued by the notion that not all piano music is written at the piano, I pressed Ivan on how unusual this method is.
“John’s physical link with the piano is pretty rare,” he explains. “Most modern composers, at least toward the end of the 20th century, write music away from the piano, and don’t want to be constrained by the limitations of the instrument. They want to write beyond it. John makes wonderful use of the natural characteristics of the piano. He know how to make the piano sound good. It’s such a simple attribute, but you’d be amazed how rare it is!
“Modern composers try to extend their ability and be independent of the instrument, so they can compose without having to have a piano nearby. But sometimes things are lost in that process.
“The tactile relationship is immediately clear to me. In compositions not written in this way, you might hear things that sound awkward or uncomfortable, a combination of notes that isn’t quite what it should be. You don’t get the level of perfection you have with the masters, such as Bach or Brahms, whose piano compositions were clearly written at the piano. I am very sensitive to it.”
As well as Metcalf, Ivan’s repertoire on the forthcoming UK tour will also include excerpts from Anton Reicha’s 36 Fugues. Reicha was a contemporary of Beethoven, but their work is so different that Ivan enjoys demonstrating the contrast. Also on the agenda will be Alexander Scriabin, who died 100 years ago and whose 24 Preludes Ivan will be performing, as well as pieces by Beethoven and Chopin.
Ivan Ilić can be seen on tour throughout Wales on the following dates: Rhosygilwen (October 9th); St David’s Hall, Cardiff (October 13th); The Ffwrnes, Llanelli (October 20th); Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead (October 30th); Neuadd Dyfi, Aberdovey (November 1st). See venue websites for more, or visit www.ivancdg.com