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Interview with Limelight Magazine - "Meet Jayson Gillham: The Australian piano's Boy Wonder"

Written by Jayson, Thursday 29th September 2016

At his first Yamaha upright piano in Dalby

ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE 

How did a young piano prodigy from regional Queensland become one of the world’s most up-and-coming musicians?

Jayson Gillham had been on the competition circuit for ten years when he finally won big in 2014. He had just given an outstanding performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at the Montreal International Music Competition. “There were six of us in the final of the Montreal Prize,” he tells me over the phone from his homebase in London, “and we were backstage. Then we had to listen to the names being announced in reverse order.” Unlike other competitions where the results are revealed in advance, Gillham received a genuine surprise when his name was announced as the winner. “It was just a dream,” he says.

Since then, his career has significantly taken off, with international concert appointments, tours, and he has just signed a three-album deal with ABC Classics. Jayson Gillham now has the world as his stage, but the young piano prodigy came from much more humble beginnings. Growing up in Dalby, Queensland, Gillham found he wasn’t exactly at the pointy end of classical music making. While there was a popular local eisteddfod, Gillham had already been blocked from entering the open section when he was seven as a result of his phenomenal talents: “all the music teachers came together and decided to make it for 18 and over,” he recalls with humour.


At his first Yamaha upright piano in Dalby

Gillham had started piano lessons a few years earlier with his aunt, a high school music teacher. He was four and a half. At the age of six, he began taking the hour’s drive to Toowoomba for lessons with Eugene Gienger, an American teacher, whom he stayed with for eight years. When Gienger moved back to the States, Gillham began making the 300-mile round trip to Brisbane for lessons with Leah Horwitz.

At the time, Horwitz was teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium and was just on the point of retiring. After a few private lessons, Gillham had found his mentor. “She’s far and away the most important influence for me, musically. She had approaches for how to listen to myself, and how to listen to others. She helped to open up my ears and unlock different techniques and sound colours, and even to watch the movement of other performers – how other people play – all these kinds of interesting things, which in the end when you’re playing you don’t really think about, but which are very important to understand.”

“Leah Horwitz helped to open up my ears and unlock different techniques and sound colours”

Horwitz’s approach was quite a mature one for the 14-year old: “To be honest, I didn’t understand anything she was saying at the beginning,” he says, laughing. “I was very closed: I hadn’t been to see many concerts, and I didn’t read much about music or about the composers. I just sort of practised the pieces I was doing, and played them a bit, and that was sort of what I did. So I had a lot of catching up to do compared with others who had grown up in the city. While my technique was fairly good, and I didn’t have any bad habits, I did need a lot of doors opened.”

Gillham took part in his first competitions a few years later. After the Lev Vlassenko competition he was all ready for the big one: the Sydney International Piano Competition. “The first few competitions were more difficult obviously, because I hadn’t done them before. In a way, Sydney was one of the hardest, because you have to have so much repertoire ready: you’ve got to have chamber music and two concertos.” In fact, Gillham began competing quite early: “I had only just started studying my Bachelor’s degree at the Queensland Conservatorium, so I had to defer all these subjects and get special permission and all that kind of stuff just to really focus on the competition.”


Performing Beethoven at the 2014 Montreal International Music Competition

“After Sydney there was London, Leeds, Dublin, Cleveland, and many others. I started to get more and more used to the preparation side, I suppose. Over time, you just try to tell yourself more and more that you’re playing for the audience and not for the jury. I did notice a change. Like, the first few competitions, they’re all like – ‘ah, you’re one of the young ones, you’ve got plenty of time’ – that sort of thing. And as you get older, you see the younger ones come in and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to win something soon!’”

Far from crippling him, preparing for all those tournaments actually taught Gillham how to deal with high-pressured situations: “It forced me to try harder,” he says, “and I think the nerves helped me to play better.” He still thinks the hardest competition he ever had to play in was the Chopin International Competition. “It was the biggest profile competition I’d done up to that point – and probably still is.”

The prestigious competition, which only comes around every five years, is a very big deal in Poland. “It’s like the Olympics,” says Gillham. “The whole country stops and just does Chopin. They have commentators who will talk about everything after each performance on TV and on radio and online.”

Gillham had already been knocked out of the competition and he was walking the streets in the old town of Warsaw when he was recognised by one of the street vendors for his performance. “It was amazing,” he says, “to think that literally everybody was watching – like it was the football!”

Gillham finally said goodbye to competing after his big win in Montreal. And after all the years of travelling, he decided to make the move and settle more permanently in Europe. In 2005 he’d been in London for the London International Piano Competition, and had the opportunity to perform with the London Philharmonic at the Festival Hall. A few years later, following his Bachelor studies at the Queensland Con, Gillham was back, studying a masters degree at the Royal College of Music with renowned pianist and teacher Christopher Elton.

“Leah was so hands on,” he explains, “and wanted to help with everything. But when I came to London, it was more like, ‘this is a 90-minute lesson, and that’s it’. Chris Elton was fantastic, even though he didn’t always help me as much as I was used to. So it forced me to become more independent. Which is exactly what I needed at that time. I had to stick up for myself, and he would respect that.”

“It forced me to become more independent. Which is exactly what I needed. I had to stick up for myself”

Making the momentous decision to finally base himself in London was an important move for the aspiring concert pianist. “It is such a great base,” he explains, “but it takes time to build up a network. And I needed time to really consolidate in the UK, because a lot of people my age had spent their whole life here. They had much more name recognition, like they had been in BBC Young Musician of the Year or something like that. I didn’t have any of that.”

But it didn’t take too long for Gillham to start making his mark in the UK. He credits the Leeds Competition in particular, where he competed in 2012, for gaining him considerable traction internationally. For Gillham, moving overseas and basing himself in the UK has been one decision that he hasn’t looked back on with any sense of regret.


With the Brentano Quartet at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 2013

“I think if you want to be a piano soloist, you’re not going to have enough work if you stay in Australia. I mean, you can do lots of other things. You can do chamber music and accompanying and teaching: you can have a diverse career. But I think if you really want to be able to play lots of solo concerts and really hone your craft, I think you do need to be aware of what’s going on, at least, overseas. So you have to leave for a bit, I’d say, just to gain some perspective. Whether or not you end up living overseas.”

Establishing himself internationally has meant opening himself up to new opportunities. “There’s just more people here,” he explains. “And more opportunities for concerts in some ways. I guess at the same time, there are more people vying for those opportunities, so that can make it more difficult. In some ways, Australia is more welcoming – it’s slightly easier for someone like me to play in Australia. But at the same time, I have more concerts here in the UK.”

“It’s kind of strange, because when you do come to Europe, you realise how high the standard is in Australia. You know, the standard of teaching is excellent. And there are things that I prefer about the teaching in Australia, rather than here. I think it’s more evidence-based, and more focussed on actual technique. Here in the UK there are a number of teachers who expect you to already be able to play before you come.”

Despite residing overseas, Gillham is still feeling the love from Australia. “I think that the arts community in Australia has been very supportive of me,” he says, “and has always wanted me to do well.”

“I think that the arts community in Australia has been very supportive of me and has always wanted me to do well”

Of course, one of his biggest support networks is his family back home in Queensland, though Gillham admits he sometimes struggles to balance his performance career with family time. “When I visit Australia I try to go and see my family up in Queensland to have a week or two with them. And then I have my concerts. Last trip was to Perth for the Perth International Festival. I didn’t have time to see my family, so they came over from the East Coast, and they saw me at the festival. They like travelling around and coming to my concerts – it’s a highlight for them.”

Gillham’s next big trip to Australia is for his upcoming tour, including recital concerts around the country, performances of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy, as well as concerts with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate. It’s an exciting run of concerts, and it all coincides with Gillham’s first CD release with ABC Classics.

“The CD is a solo recital disc,” explains Gillham, “which is sort of introducing me to the world. I sat down with Toby Chadd at ABC Classics and came up with a programme. We didn’t come up with it immediately, but it did develop over time. It’s very standard repertoire and we decided on that specifically because we wanted to make this a kind of statement that it’s serious repertoire, and it’s introducing me and the pieces that I love.”

The disc features a solid programme of JS Bach – the Toccata in C Minor, Schubert’s little A Major Sonata, D664, Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 45 and also his Piano Sonata No 3. The recordings were made last year while Gillham was in Germany: “I basically chose the producers I would like to use,” explains Gillham, “and Toby was extremely pleased with that and with the quality of the sound. It’s really good.”

“We decided we would wait to launch the disc in time for my four concerts with the Sydney Symphony and Ashkenazy. And then after the SSO dates came in I got more and more concerts to fit around that. Now I’ve got a concert in Brisbane; they’ve also added on the Angel Place solo recital; I’ve got the Melbourne Recital Centre performance; and I’m also playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate. So there’s quite a lot going on! I’m very, very excited about the Sydney Opera House stuff – so we’ll have to see how that goes.”

With such major engagements Down Under, Gillham is still resisting the urge to move back to Australia. “I think it’s better for me to be based here for the moment,” he says. “I have no idea what I’ll be doing long term. But for now I’ll stay here. I hope that it’s getting easier for people to stay in Australia.”

Despite major concert engagements in Australia and abroad, Gillham still doesn’t feel like he’s finished learning. “I think you’re always honing your technique your entire life,” he admits. “The penny keeps dropping. You find that sound you’re looking for, or you find a fingering you never realised, which makes everything easy again. It’s so important, spending that time at the instrument, discovering those things.”

“The penny keeps dropping. You find that sound you’re looking for, which makes everything easy again”

And despite all of his accomplishments, he says that he’s still refining the art of practice. “What I love to do,” says Gillham, “is practise things that are not meant to be practised. So if I have a concert or something really important to do, I’ll think, ‘hmm, I really should learn that new piece for that concerto 12 months away’. I’m very good at procrastination.”

Well, whatever he’s doing it must be working, because Gillham’s star is showing no signs of fading.

– Andrew Aronowicz, Limelight Magazine, 29/9/16


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