“We heard a poet tonight”. These are the words that Falkirk-born pianist Ethan Loch most remembers from the judges’ adjudication of his recent performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in the televised grand finals of the 2022 BBC Young Musician competition.
Loch didn’t win, but to have reached this climactic stage in such a prestigious national competition was, in itself, a personal triumph for the 18-year-old, who was born blind, but who has never let that get in the way of chasing his dreams.
He’s currently in his first year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, studying with Fali Pavri. “It’s been a rollercoaster year,” he says of this major period of change in his life. “Emotions have swung both ways, but honestly it looks like my first year in Glasgow is going to end on a high mark.”
He was a mere 18 months-old when his mother, a Suzuki-trained teacher, introduced him to the piano. “I remember standing on the floor, reaching up as high as I could until I found the keys,” he recalls. “I could hear this sound, all kinds of beautiful harmonics, this colour, how the high notes got shrill and the low ones seemed almost frightening.”
It quickly became an obsession and, at four, Loch began formal lessons with his mother. “It was a very interesting process, because previously I had no concept of fingering, so I virtually bashed the notes. She soon put a stop to that.”
By the age of 12, he’d started travelling to Manchester for lessons with Simon Bottomley. “He was the teacher who gave me the technical brilliance. I would definitely say I needed a bit more discipline in technical areas, and he really pushed me. It was difficult, but really so important. Now I have that technique, I feel I can do whatever I want on the piano.”
That includes the scintillating music of Chopin, a composer whose florid, virtuosic writing particularly appeals to Loch. He describes playing the Second Concerto in Manchester as “amazing and unreal”. It was the first time he’d played with a professional orchestra. “I expected it to be more restrictive than it was, but [the conductor] Mark Wigglesworth kept saying ‘give yourself more freedom to express what you want to’. It was one of the best experiences ever!”
Loch has turned once again to Chopin for his Scotsman Sessions performance, the exhilarating final movement of his Third Sonata. In its entirely, Loch loves the flood of contrasting emotions that characterises all four of the piece’s movements. “The first is a very dramatic opening, demonstrating formality; the second is a bit more like showing off, sort of fluttering butterflies; then the slow third movement is so beautiful. But this last movement is the real challenge, a whirlwind of sound I like to think of as a big bang ending.”
For Loch however, who is equally keen on composing, this period in his life is very much about beginnings – hopefully of something very big.