LIKE many students her age, 22-year-old Jennifer Pike is due back at university this week to face the daunting prospect of sitting her dreaded finals. What she doesn’t face is the worry of passing these in order to secure a subsequent means of earning a living.
For Pike, who is reading music at Oxford, is no ordinary undergraduate. Today, for instance, rather than checking in with fellow students for the start of the new term, she is rehearsing for her solo appearance tonight at the City Halls, Glasgow, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending which will be broadcast live on Radio 3.
“It’s not as if I could throw a sickie from uni,” says Pike, a talented young violinist, aware that such public exposure means she has to be completely up-front with the authorities at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall. “My tutors are actually very sympathetic. It’s not a tyrannical state – they see me doing concerts as a way to complement my studies, and I suppose they also see me as a useful ambassador for the college.”
You could argue that Pike “graduated” ten years ago when, as a 12-year-old wunderkind at Chetham’s specialist music school in Manchester, having already won the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition earlier in 2002, she stunned the classical music world by not only scooping the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year title, but doing so as the competition’s then youngest ever winner. Not even Nicola Benedetti, who won the same competition two years later at the age of 16, could match that.
Mentioning both female violinists in the one paragraph invites interesting comparison, not least as 24-year-old Benedetti will be in Scotland next week to perform some of her recent Italian Baroque album repertoire with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
They are quite different musical personalities: Benedetti, hugely successful in the sense of having a public persona powered by full-on commercial and media-friendly savvy; Pike every bit as talented, but rather more patient in her development, both personally and professionally.
Which is why in 2009, after a period of study at London’s Guildhall School of Music, Pike chose to offset her growing performance diary with a period of undergraduate study at Oxford. There were two reasons why she opted for a student life, rather than of wall-to-wall concert engagements – that had already included appearances at the BBC Proms, recitals at the Wigmore Hall, a steady stream of concerto engagements with top orchestras (including premiering Haflidi Hallgrimmson’s Violin Concerto with the SCO) – and all the trappings that went with being a BBC Young Generation Artist, not to mention her ongoing recording relationship with Chandos.
“I was 19 and very busy playing wonderful concerts. I knew I could stand in front of an orchestra and play happily for the rest of my life, but I felt I needed something to broaden my horizons, something to make me think a bit more deeply about where all this was going. Also, and just as important, I hadn’t really quite finished with student life. I wanted to mix with people who had other interests. That’s been so important.”
So, while the concert appearances have continued in a workable way, life at Oxford has provided the academic and social stimulus that Pike felt was important in honing her personal and professional development.
Despite the responsibility attached to maintaining her professional career, albeit slimmed down to accommodate university demands, she displays the typical temperament of a regular student.
“I’ve had to delay the odd deadline for essays, and I’ve tended to ignore much of the institutional red tape. But if you approach that with a healthy attitude then you can make things work. I was never in it for the high marks [though I doubt Pike will settle for anything less in her imminent finals] and I’ve felt I could always say goodbye if things didn’t work out, but the whole experience has been beneficial.”
As she giggles her way through our interview, it’s clear that Pike is as relaxed and full of fun as any student her age. But what about the musical advantages of her years at Oxford? What does she see as the main benefits to her other life as a high-level performer?
“Anyone can learn the history of music just by reading books. But that’s not quite the same as immersing yourself in studies with the best academic minds teaching you, and others your own age about you. Already my whole perception as a performer has changed. Standing in front of an orchestra I really feel that I now understand more of the intricacies and deeper relevance of the musical score.”
That Pike was born to be a performer was evident all those years ago when, barely a teenager, she won the BBC competition with an extraordinarily mature performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. So it seems somewhat unnecessary to ask her what her career plans are beyond graduation this summer; but I do, assuming a gap year is out of the question.
“I suppose I’ll be going full throttle with my career,” she says, letting slip that her first big post-graduation gig is a BBC Proms appearance on 6 August, in which she performs Debussy’s Violin Sonata and Ravel’s Piano Trio with fellow BBC Young Generation Artists, including her regular pianist collaborator Tom Poster, a former winner of the Scottish International Piano Competition.
“Beyond that, my diary is very busy,” she adds. “I can’t see any white space yet to even consider a break.” And even before her final Oxford term officially breaks up she will have recorded Ernest Chausson’s gorgeous Concerto in D for violin piano and string quartet for Chandos, along with Tom Poster and the Doric Quartet. “I’ll also be recording sonatas by Brahms and Schumann, as well as Clara Schumann’s Romances.”
A first-class degree would simply be the icing on the cake.
• Jennifer Pike performs with the BBC SSO under Andrew Manze at the City Halls, Glasgow, tonight and at Perth Concert Hall, tomorrow. More information at bbc.co.uk/orchestras/bbcsso