Mariko Brown: Artist Profile

Soloist: Grieg Piano Concerto | 19 March 2016

Ahead of Mariko’s debut with the Amati Orchestra, we sat down with her to discuss her earliest musical experiences, her concerto debut with orchestra aged 9, her teachers and influences, her career as a composer, and her musical¬†partnership with pianist¬†Julian Jacobson.

What was your earliest experience of hearing classical music, and when did you first decide to become a pianist?

I have two memorable musical experiences as a child. Firstly my red toy piano, which I had age 3-4 years old. My baby brother dropped a toy coin into it (in a gap between the keys I think!) damaging the sound. It is the only toy I remember ever getting upset about when it didn’t work anymore! Secondly, my first year in infant school age 5 singing ‘Kumbaya’ with our teacher, Miss Richards, who played the guitar. She divided the class into 3 to sing the different parts and I remember enjoying that I could sing all three (though not at the same time!) and I suppose most of the class could only do the part they were taught. I loved these music afternoons, which remember taking place outside in the Summer.

I haven’t really answered your question but I don’t really remember when I first heard classical music before I started learning the piano. I loved listening to the music on the radio, sometimes with it on the floor in the doorway of the kitchen, feeling very content and cosy. Records we had included Miriam Makeba, music of the Congo, the Everly Brothers, Don McLean, Shirley Bassey…, Beatles of course and we had a few classical records including Tchaikovsky 6, and a tape with the Grieg piano concerto, favourites of my Dad, so this concert is a tailor-made one for him!

Then there were the Walt Disney records – EPs – one song on each side, great for a rainy day mood lifter, which my brother and I would play over and over, from the Aristocats, Pinocchio, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. We had a wonderful time as young children singing along to these songs, laughing a lot to Winnie the Pooh (Up Down Touch the Ground and a Blustery Day), and acting them out energetically around the living room, especially to “I can Fly”!

One day at school, when I was in the top infants, as it was called in those days, a man named Martyn Dyke came to my class to ask who would like to learn the piano. My hand shot up amongst others and he took us in turn to ‘audition us’ …. I have a vague memory of trying a piano and doing some aural tests.

I remember going home and telling my mum, very excitedly, that I was going to learn to play the piano. She was surprised and worried, as we didn’t have a piano and we also didn’t have the money to afford lessons. (Additionally, my mother had hated being made to play the piano as a child and had also not enjoyed her mother’s piano playing!)

Martyn came to visit us at home and I begged my mum that I wanted to learn. Finances wouldn’t be a problem for the first year as Croydon council had awarded Martyn with funds for one new pupil for a year of free lessons and I had been chosen. I am so lucky and grateful for this and sad that so much funding for music has been cut since those times. He really brought me out of myself and found me.

We soon got a second hand, old piano, to start me off. My grandmother was delighted and soon we could play duets together! Martyn was an incredible and indescribably unique human being and teacher. I have had two piano teachers – very different, exceptional teachers. I am very lucky.

One day, when I was 9 and working for my grade 5 piano exam, not wanting to practise, my mum said, “Fine, you can give up then”. Two hours later, probably after a stubborn sulk and think in my bedroom, I returned to her and said, “Mummy, I can’t live without music”. She said, “well, you better practise then!”

Your concerto debut was at age nine, well before most aspiring pianists have given their first recital. That must have been a very career-defining moment.

Martyn had musical associations with the remarkable and formidable Dr Ruth Gipps who founded the LRO and she would audition young people to play concertos with the orchestra. I may have been one of the youngest, but I was cute at that time! She was a pianist, composer, conductor and teacher and played oboe and cor anglais professionally during the war years. She had a piece of hers, a tone poem, performed in the last night of one of the Proms seasons – 1943 I think.

She lived in the country and I remember going to her home with Martyn and my mum, to audition. I played the Haydn Concerto in C major.

The rehearsal with the orchestra for the concert is the first time I remember feeling nervous. The concert was indeed a very defining moment in my life – in more ways than one. It took place in a school for disabled children. It was the first time I was surrounded by children with varying disabilities and after the performance, in the interval, I remember one teenage boy who kept coming up to me saying each time how much he enjoyed my playing. I was a bit scared at first by his voice and odd movements, but holding onto my mum she explained to me that it had made him happy and so he wanted to express it to me.

It was a very eye opening and profoundly moving experience. That is when I really learnt about the depth and joy of music, or the power of music.

It meant a huge amount to me, though I could not have taken that all in as a child, so it is one of those moments which has resonated, strengthened and defined things to follow.

I also performed in a Kimono! It was at the suggestion of Dr Ruth Gipps as she said it would be colourful for the children to see. Martyn sat by me for the performance and as I stood up to take a bow my Kimono sleeves got caught on one of the side knobs of the piano stool – you could fit a baby kangaroo in those sleeves, but usually it is used for tissues or a handkerchief. (Kimonos with extra long sleeves are for those who are unmarried – I would have had one of those!)

Martyn quickly rescued the situation! How I played with those sleeves I don’t know, but I used to always start a performance by pulling my sleeves up, so perhaps that is what I did, and they would have rolled down when I stood up.

At age nine going on ten, I had also just started at Junior Guildhall. As I wanted to stay with Martyn for this concert, I overlapped with both teachers for a month or two. It was a nice transition. I was very lucky indeed to meet my new teacher Joan Havill. She is one of the best teachers around. I liked her instantly when I had my trial lesson with her. She thought I was very cute and on that basis, decided to take me on!

I had a wonderful time at Junior Guildhall. I told a friend of my mum’s, Hilary, who had in fact bought me that red toy piano, that Saturdays were heaven!

You won the coveted Lutine Prize at the Guildhall School, which led to concerto appearances at the Barbican Hall and St Giles Cripplegate with Frederick Applewhite, who was later a major force in introducing Leo to conducting. What impact did winning the competition and working with Frederick Applewhite have on your experience as a pianist?

It all had huge impact.

I entered the Lutine prize age 16 as an experiment! (just for a practise go) I really did not expect to reach the Finals and when I did, I was then worried that I wasn’t good enough compared to the other finalists.

So, it was a big surprise to win, a great feeling and much needed boost to my confidence.

What a wonderful prize it is to have the opportunity to perform with an orchestra. Invaluable experiences – gold dust in a young musician’s life. It was an amazing feeling to play with the orchestra and it meant everything to communicate through these performances.

Fred Applewhite was an incredible character, a positive force with a wicked sense of humour. I often found myself being drawn into the Music Hall, as if magnetically, from the foyer in my Saturday afternoon breaks to listen to the Junior Guildhall orchestra rehearsing under his baton.

He demanded the highest level from the orchestra and always had everyone engaged. He could be fierce if an orchestral member was not paying good attention. I was nervous at first to be playing with him but he made me feel comfortable straight away and was greatly encouraging and supportive. Fred and my teacher, Joan, also worked well together and she put a huge amount of energy into preparing me well for these performances. I learnt so much and they really were the best days of my life in those last two years of school!

In 2011, you formed an extremely successful partnership with Julian Jacobson. How did this collaboration come about, and what are your future plans?

I met Julian in the late 1990s when I stepped in for a friend at the last minute to page turn for a two piano recording he was doing with Andrew Ball at the BBC recording studios in Maida Vale. I didn’t know at the time that he put me down in his diary as ‘best page turner’! I had done quite a bit of page turning for which I am very grateful as I learnt a great deal. It really keeps one on the ball.

It is hard to find good page turners and I really appreciate the ones who turn for us – duet music is harder, especially when the people reading the same score like the page turned at slightly different times!

So, I got to know Julian from page turning for him. We got on, and so we became friends.

Some years later, in 2009, I played a piece to him, “For Jolanta, in memoriam”, which I had recently composed and performed in a memorial concert at the Wigmore Hall.

This was the catalyst.

In 2010, Julian invited me to his Festival in France to play some solo items and together we played Ravel’s suite “Mother Goose” for piano duet, but it was the concert in Burgh House in July 2011, with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a concert put on by the late Ricci Horenstein, that marks the start of our duo.

This year we shall make our first full CD recording of piano duet and two-piano music, featuring Busoni’s epic masterpiece, “Fantasia Contrappuntistica” for two pianos, which we recently played at the Fairfield Halls. It will be Busoni’s 150th anniversary, as well as Satie’s, whose “Trois morceaux en forme de poire” we shall also include. We have an exciting programme for this CD – details soon to appear on our website so do look! It will be with Somm records.

You are also a composer. What drew you towards writing?

Firstly, as young children do, I used to make up songs …..or at least a recording exists of a song about loving apples, saying apple in Japanese but unable to pronounce it properly yet!

Then, in primary school when we learnt to play the recorder, I wrote a simple diatonic song in D major, called, “Happy People”!

But what really opened the door was finding myself improvising at the piano. It could also have been piano practice procrastination!

At Junior Guildhall we had to provide a portfolio of compositions each year which I enjoyed doing so much that I joined a composition group.

Occasionally I may not have practised enough due to being absorbed in improvising instead of practising. There were a few times when Joan suspected this! Whilst she told me I needed to do my practice, she was also interested to hear what I had improvised, and encouraging. I enjoyed playing these to her as it also helped me to be freer expressively and more confident, and I wasn’t having to worry about playing someone else’s music and getting it wrong!

It was Gary Carpenter who inspired me to take it seriously. And this is really when I started to find my own voice. I had a need to create and express in this way.

Did you ever learn any other instruments or think about a different career path?

Other than playing the recorder, I learnt the violin and enjoyed leading the orchestra at school. I have no idea how I got a distinction at grade 8, as I didn’t think I was very good and didn’t practise that much.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to learn, again I was so lucky as this was a time when everyone in primary school had the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument free of charge, and I feel enriched musically because of it.

I haven’t learnt to play the Saxophone yet, but bought one at the age of 16!

At the age of 12 or 13, when I was playing for the Under 14s Croydon tennis team, I wanted to make it to Wimbledon as well as become a pianist. However, in reality, I had to give up any ‘serious’ tennis as it conflicted with my playing (not good for the wrist) and settled with the goal of winning the tennis cup before leaving school, which I did!

Well, when I was choosing my GCSEs, my headmistress asked me what I would do if I decided not to become a musician. I thought to myself, ‘what a silly question’ and replied that I would become a detective inspector. I always fancied the idea.

Although you have a performing career, teaching does seem to play a major central role in your life.

I have always taught, right from my first day at school when I came back home and taught my little brother what I had learnt! I really enjoyed it and of course, this is why he is so clever (I am hoping he is reading this)!

I had my first piano students when I was 18, whilst they were on the waiting list to learn with my brother’s piano teacher. I felt very encouraged to be told that I had started them off well and I knew that I loved teaching, the feeling of seeing the joy on a pupil’s face when they could play a piece or feel progress, as well as achieve something which they didn’t think they could. And, it was fun!

After graduating from Guildhall, whilst I built up my teaching, I did a few other jobs and a variety of performing/playing jobs – ballet exams for my old ballet teacher I had when I was aged 5-11 years old, Associated Board exam accompanying (which I still do), a few cabaret shows, some contemporary music performances, MD work for pantomime, playing for the Samuel Coleridge Taylor society, jointly setting up a trio with a clarinettist and violinist, some solo and duo, playing in homes for the Music in Hospitals scheme, etc…

The teaching work built up by itself really, by word of mouth, so I am lucky that I didn’t have to go through the process of sending lots of application forms to schools for work. Most performers need to survive this way.

I always knew that teaching would be a part of my life and my own teachers (piano especially, but other significant music teachers too) have given me a lot to give and to pass onto my own students. I hope that I can do the same.

The more I teach, the more I learn and feel the importance of this very special one to one dynamic in terms of the nurturing and building confidence in a person. I care about it very much and love my role as Supporting Studies teacher in the Menuhin school, teaching piano.

Performing is hugely important, to my teaching too, but also because it is always something which has made me feel alive. I chose to go to music college because I couldn’t live without it.

You and Leo studied at Guildhall at slightly different times, and therefore never met. How did you come to work together?

It was a wonderful synchronicity. We met two years ago at Fred Applewhite’s memorial concert. Coincidentally, I happened to be re-learning the Cesar Frank Symphonic Variations, which I had not played since performing it with Fred all those years ago, to play for a rehearsal session with the LRO, coincidentally the orchestra which Dr Ruth Gipps founded, Julian conducting this rehearsal!

I was so inspired playing this again that I wrote to Leo straight away to ask if he would consider doing this with his orchestra.

I came to one of his concerts, which was one in tribute to Fred, and gave him a tape recording of my playing it in the performance in St Giles with Fred all those years ago.

And here we are now, with Grieg, and I feel very privileged and excited to have this opportunity. It’s a wonderful work, written from the heart, and with Leo and the Amati Orchestra, it will have great spirit. I am very much looking forward to working with Leo and making this happen. See you there!

Mariko Brown performs the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Amati Orchestra on Sat 19 Mar 2016 at St James’ Church Sussex Gardens London W2 3UD. Advance Tickets from Brown Paper Tickets | freephone 0800 411 8881