Joanna MacGregor, pianist and all-round superstar, takes us on a cross-border journey charting the musical developments that have shaped an extraordinary career.

Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor

With its intimate setting and soft candlelight, the Playhouse is a new venue for MacGregor, and it’s perfect for sharing this one-off potted history of her key musical influences. She’s a performer who’s always had a warm relationship with her audience, and on this occasion she illustrates transformative moments from her playing career by acknowledging the composers and forms that opened her eyes to new musical possibilities.

MacGregor learned Bach as a child, and she opens the concert with the familiar Prelude and Fugue no 1 in C major. Bach inspired Dmitri Shostakovich’s own Preludes and Fugues 230 years later, and MacGregor plays them side by side to demonstrate their similarities across the centuries. But while Bach is always beautifully in control, Shostakovich comes with a warning: ‘He goes mad at the end of this magnificent fugue,’ she says of the D flat major – and sure enough it duly happens, MacGregor keeping the virtuoso storm passionate, and pin-sharp.

The next section feature six Mazurkas by Chopin, chosen from 58 simply for their beauty, and the different moods captured by the exiled composer, whether subtle and intimate, a yearning for his homeland, or  a dangerous call to arms to his fellow Poles to resist the Russian invaders. Indeed his music had such revolutionary power that Robert Schumann described these melodies as ‘cannons buried in flowers’.

MacGregor explains that while she loves the searching melodies of the right hand, when listening to other performers she’s always keenest to see how they tackle Chopin’s holding rhythms of the left. Here, she becomes so lost in the music she can even be heard humming along.

The second half brings us into the twentieth century, with a journey through the jazzy, traditional and contemporary mix of American music that has had a profound influence on MacGregor’s career. She begins with her first ‘difficult’ composer, Charles Ives, who was a businessman by day and wrote music in the evenings, believing his music would never be sufficiently accepted to justify working on it full time. She plays The Alcotts, a meditation based on the opening theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, woven alongside American folk and parlour songs, building to a huge, rhapsodic, improvisatory sound.

Jazz is the next calling point. When asked once by a child what her two favourite notes were, MacGregor had an answer immediately to hand, courtesy of Thelonious Monk. And those two dissonant notes come right at the end of Monk’s Point, which MacGregor first discovered at the age of 14. She helpfully warns us the notes are about to hit – and they’re worthy favourites.

We also hear Big Chief from Professor Longhair – New Orleans’ true father of funk, according to Dr John. And most movingly, the gospel hymn Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down, one of the many MacGregor played at church as a youngster. Here she gives it rolling rhythms like a train on an endless journey, and creates such an unearthly, poignant sound in the final section that it’s as if the piano is being played inside a quivering box – perhaps even a coffin.

The last selection moves further south to Argentina, and Six Tangos by Astor Piazzolla, whose reinvention of this traditional musical form so outraged his contemporaries that he regularly received death threats.

MacGregor has arranged these thrilling Tangos for piano, and they make a fitting climax to the concert. The piano does the work of Piazzolla’s orchestra with MacGregor plucking the strings inside the instrument and creating so much reverb that the wooden floor of the Playhouse stage vibrates in sympathy.

The combination of MacGregor’s torrent of energy and playing precision is completely spellbinding, particularly in the closing Libertango.

‘Is this music really hard to play?’ whispers one audience member, a concert first-timer. 

‘Yes, very hard indeed,’ is the answer, but MacGregor carries her brilliance so lightly that you’d be forgiven for imagining it just might be easy.

• Joanna MacGregor returns to the Playhouse on Monday March 16, 7.30pm in Joanna MacGregor, Jack Dowland and Blind Joe Death.

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