What to Expect from the First Ever Newcastle Piano Festival
The Newcastle Piano Festival, Newcastle's first and only festival of its kind, aims to provide a platform for female concert pianists and to inspire the next generation of musicians
Times are changing for women in classical music but there’s still a lot of work to do to better represent women in the industry. Last year the top five orchestras in the world played just five percent of music written by women, and male professors outnumber women at the major UK Conservatoires by more than double. At the recent international piano festival in Lancashire, there was only one female concert pianist on the roster.
Newcastle Piano Festival is launching this year in the hope of changing that, and to inspire the next generation of musicians. The festival has carefully curated events to take place over the weekend (29th September–1st October) which will engage both seasoned concert-goers and those who are new to the instrument, and the organisers hope the North East will rally behind the cause and enjoy some incredible talent.
Victoria Robinson is the co-director of The Newcastle Piano Festival, a classically trained pianist who is currently based in Copenhagen. ‘I have degrees from both from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and The Royal Danish Academy of Music, where I studied with John Thwaites, Victor Sangiorgio and Amalie Malling,’ she says. ‘In addition to solo piano, I studied chamber music and accompaniment where I received coaching from Jens Elvekjær, Tim Frederiksen, the Brodsky Quartet and former co-leader of BBC SSO Bernard Docherty. During my studies, I also became passionate about music education and chose to specialise in Pedagogy, which now forms a fundamental part of my career. I have taught in various schools in England and Scotland and currently teach piano at Sankt Annæ Gymnasium and Tårnby Musikskole.’
She performs regularly as a soloist, chamber musician and accompanist and has given recitals in venues including The Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, The Sage Concert Hall, Newcastle and Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen. In late 2019, she embarked on a tour to China as part of the International Young Soloists program. During the month long tour, Victoria travelled to seven different cities and performed as a soloist, accompanist and also gave several masterclasses to budding young pianists.
In a discussion with the festival’s director Annie Ball, the two came up with the idea for the festival some years ago after organising and performing a concert in Jesmond United Reformed Church. ‘The feedback was wonderful and since then we’ve been in the process of creating a festival dedicated to the instrument,’ says Victoria. ‘The church is the perfect venue, not only because it already hosts a thriving social piano meet once a month, or because it attracts a wonderful array of avid concert-goers, but because it is the home of two grand pianos (the seats are very comfy too!).’
Annie and Victoria have a special connection to Newcastle, having both grown up in the North East. ‘Since 2017 I have been based in Copenhagen so I’m very much looking forward to coming home and performing in Newcastle again,’ Victoria says. ‘We are always welcomed by an appreciative and engaging audience so we can’t wait to share wonderful music with the people of Newcastle again. We have something for everyone!’
Annie is passionate about the importance of young people seeing that there is a place for them in the industry if they want to follow their passion of playing piano. ‘If you can’t see it you can’t be it,’ she says. ‘We have planned a really varied range of events to cater for all types from the seasoned concert-goer to those completely new to the instrument.
‘For our contemporary offering we have an atmospheric candlelit concert featuring works by Satie, Einaudi and a female composer who will also play and explain to the audience her improvising and graphic score writing process. We also have the more conventional concert with Chopin, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert played by the amazing, world famous and critically acclaimed pianist, Sarah Beth Briggs, who comes from Newcastle and is a former finalist of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award. We also have a free event for people who have, perhaps, never played a grand piano, called Meet the Piano. People will get a chance to play the festival piano and have any questions answered by our friendly concert pianists. There is a yoga workshop led by Samantha Coe where guests will follow a guided meditation and then a movement workshop accompanied by live piano, then when everyone is in a total state of zen, we cosy up in “savasana” [a yoga pose] with optional eye masks, pillows and blankets, for a lying down concert. This is really special because guests will be bathed in sound from two pianos played simultaneously. There really is something for everyone and we’re so excited to welcome everyone to celebrate the piano with us!’
Newcastle’s thriving music scene has amateur orchestras, choirs, opera and regular piano workshops and meet-up groups, but there has never been a festival focusing just on the piano here. 'There are some fantastic piano societies and concert series in the North East so we hope to offer something that will complement what already exists and something a bit different to engage a new and younger audience,’ Annie says. ‘We hope to attract people who wouldn’t normally attend a piano concert. We especially want to show women and girls that there is space for them in the classical music industry and to follow that path as a career. Through carefully curated events where we combine different art forms and activities we hope to introduce piano to poetry lovers, yogis and young people – we have an eight hands concert where four pianists play two pianos, the programme is a mix of contemporary jazz and pieces by Rachmaninov and Debussy, so it’s a real smorgasbord for a wide appeal.
‘We hope to commission female composers to write music we can premier at future festivals too, and we hope to perform even more music by female composers. Ten years ago the percentage of music by female composers being performed by the world’s top orchestras was a big fat zero! And while last year it increased to five percent, there is still a long way to go for women to be better represented. We hope to engage more children by providing more workshops and interactive opportunities and we would love to put more pianists on the roster from other under-represented groups. The festival should be an inviting and empowering place where we can all connect over our shared love of the piano.’