Double shifts for performers will help Music at Paxton reach a larger audience

In order to allow as many people as possible to enjoy their programme in a socially-distanced way, this year’s Music at Paxton festival will see performers playing two shows a night, writes David Kettle

Imogen Cooper PIC: Sim Canetty Clarke
Imogen Cooper PIC: Sim Canetty Clarke

“The organisation, the chaos, the uncertainty, the paperwork, the tests, even the length of programmes you’re playing – one hour without an interval, or full-length with an interval? Are you going to be filmed? Everything is completely up in the air. You just go spare.” Pianist Imogen Cooper – recently made a Dame in the Queen’s birthday honours – is reflecting (with her tongue slightly in her cheek) on the cautious return to live performances, and the ongoing uncertainties that musicians are still having to endure. “But look, that’s the downside,” she smiles. “The upside is that getting back to playing to audiences is just wonderful, and underlines for me, after these months of silence, how important it is that we share music in the same space. It’s very magical and very moving coming back.”

One of Britain’s most respected, most perceptive musicians, Cooper has perhaps unsurprisingly found herself busy with recitals across the country since the easing of restrictions in the spring. Among her first performances are a duo of concerts, each given twice, at Music at Paxton in the Scottish Borders later this month, both of which would have formed part of the cancelled 2020 festival. Indeed, as artistic director Angus Smith explains, he’s been keen to transplant as much as possible of what was planned for last year into 2021. “As a performer myself, I understand having my calendar wiped out over the past 15 months. The desire to honour those commitments is on a double level: there’s a professional side, but also a moral side in terms of artists supporting each other. I’ve been quite staggered by the flexibility that everyone has shown.”

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That flexibility at Paxton includes playing shorter programmes twice in the same evening, as Cooper will do. “We tried to come up with a formula that would give us as much resilience as possible,’ explains Smith, ‘so we changed from 90-minute concerts to 60-minute performances, meaning we can present each concert with a socially distanced audience. We needed to ask the permission of the performers, but they unhesitatingly agreed.”

How does giving a shorter performance twice in a single evening feel from a performer’s perspective? “Quite tiring, to be honest,” admits Cooper. “But one gets used to it. There’s no way of pacing yourself because you can’t hold anything back in the first performance, so you just have to go for it, and make sure that the space between the concerts is exactly what you need. Like a darkened room!”

Unlike some other Scottish events, Smith took the decision to keep the festival predominantly live, though four events – featuring the Gould Piano Trio and associate ensemble the Maxwell Quartet, as well as Cooper’s concerts – will be additionally filmed and available online. Other live highlights include pianist Steven Osborne in an all-Debussy programme, Schubert’s Winterreise from tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook, plus appearances from soprano Elizabeth Watts, Concerto Caledonia and the Brook Street Band.

Cooper’s first recital contrasts Ravel with Schubert, a composer who’s long played a central role in her music making. “What is it that keeps bringing me back to him? Just the sheer humanity of the man. Not many head decisions there, although he’s a great craftsman. He speaks from the heart, and it’s up to you as a performer to let that passage of emotion be clear and transparent. He just socks you with a wonderful tune every now and then, and it makes your heart stop.”

Cooper’s second concert marks her first collaboration with Scottish foursome the Maxwell Quartet, in Dvořák’s Second Piano Quintet. How does she find collaborating with musicians for the first time? “It’ll be very intense once we get together. We have to find out what sort of sound we each have, and of course, we won’t know exactly how that will come over until we’re at Paxton, because I won’t have seen the instrument and the space where we’ll be playing, the Picture Gallery at Paxton House. I’m guessing they know the space already – it looks gorgeous.”

Music at Paxton, 16-25 July, www.musicatpaxton.co.uk

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