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An interview with Nicholas McCarthy, pianist

If you’ve watched the BBC Proms or Leeds Piano Competition on television in the last couple of years you may already be familiar with Nicholas McCarthy. Besides being a talented TV presenter, Nicholas is in fact one of the UK’s brightest piano stars and his rise to classical stardom is an inspiring one.

Born without a right hand, nobody imagined he would go on to become a concert pianist; indeed he was even told he would never make it as one. The piano, though, captured the teenage Nicholas’ imagination after discovering Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein Sonata’ and at the age of fourteen he began lessons. Less than a decade later he graduated from the Royal College of Music, a brilliant achievement for any ‘late starter’, but even more amazing for Nicholas, the college’s first one-handed pianist graduate.  Since then audiences around the country, and much further afield, have enjoyed this remarkable and talented musician’s music. Indeed Nicholas has performed regularly with the Paraorchestra, including its memorable performance at the London Paralympics Closing Ceremony in 2012.

Today Nicholas is regarded as one of the great champions of the Left Hand repertoire, performing classic arrangements and formulating many of his own. The release of a solo album and numerous television appearances have seen Nicholas McCarthy become a regular and popular fixture on the classical scene.  We caught up with him ahead of his visit to us in February…

Nicholas, we’re so thrilled to be welcoming you back on stage at St George’s! Are you looking forward to returning?

I certainly am, I love performing to Bristol audiences and have fond memories of performing in St George’s over the years, it’s such a vibrant and cultural City. Roll on the 10th February.

Your last visit to us was with Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra; a little more daunting to play solo?

I’m so used to giving solo recitals now that I don’t find it daunting anymore, if anything I’m excited to be performing for a Bristol audience again as I remember just how warm and welcoming they were last time I was there.

What can you tell us about the programme for your concert on 10 February?

I’ll be performing pieces from my debut album with Warner Classics called ‘Solo’. It’s a real treasure trove of repertoire, I always try and give my audiences a real snap shot of the possibilities of left hand repertoire. Some highlights for me are the Scriabin Etudes as well as Gershwin’s The Man I Love and my own arrangement of the iconic Summertime. Plus I’ll be performing a special piece that was composed for me and the album by the wonderful composer Nigel Hess.

Favourite piece in the programme?

I think my favourite piece in the entire programme would have to be the stunning Etude in A Flat by Blumenfeld, as well as my encore which I’m keeping top secret for now.

You have arranged some of the pieces yourself for this concert; are there pieces yet to be arranged for the left hand that you would love to have a crack at?

There are so many pieces that I’d love to have a go at arranging, I’m already working on some new arrangements for my next album. I think arranging is something that I’ll always love doing, it’s exciting to be able to provide more and more repertoire for future left hand pianists.

What first drew you to the piano?

Everything, I loved everything about the piano, from it’s look to the incredible range of sound, it just drew me in and gave me the piano bug.

You started playing at fourteen and you’re the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the RCM. What was the key to achieving this would you say?

I would say the key to my success has always been to focus on what I’m doing and not what other people are doing. I always knew what I wanted to achieve and I wasn’t going to stop until I had achieved it, even when the people around me were coming from a negative place I would always see the positive.

You’ve performed with the Paraorchestra, which is now based in Bristol, and they’re doing great work to show that music really is for all.  What advice would you give someone living with a disability, who isn’t confident about taking on a musical instrument?

I left the Paraorchestra a few years ago due to my solo performing schedule becoming more hectic, I’m so proud of my involvement with them and we shared some once in a lifetime memories together like the 2012 Paralympic Closing Ceremony. I love seeing the amazing work they are still doing. I would say to anyone, disability or no disability to just go for it. Pick up an instrument or hire one or get one on ebay and just try it, engage with it and see how you feel. If you enjoy it, then get some local lessons. Music is for everyone.

Your first album, Solo, was very well received. Are there plans for a follow up?

Yes, I’m currently working hard on the repertoire that I’d like to record and hoping it will be released alongside a tour this autumn. It’s looking to be an exciting 2017 so watch this space.

We enjoyed seeing you on television at the BBC Proms! You’re a very natural presenter; will you be introducing the music you play on stage?

I love presenting and have gone on to present for the BBC in other capacities such as the Leeds Piano Competition on BBC4. As much as I love working on a show my true love is my live concerts where I always take the audience on a journey, I like to let people know what they are listening to, the context in which it was written, plus I love to share funny stories along the way.

You’ve achieved such a lot at a young age; what else would you like to do? Any ambitions as yet unrealised?

There are many ambitions that have yet to materialise, a few of them will be materialising in 2017. I’m always looking ahead but the main thing for me is doing what I love to do and that’s playing the piano and connecting with people through music.

Nicholas McCarthy (piano)

Friday 10 February, 7.30pm
Tickets £15, £10, £5 Students/U18s (limited availability) (plus fees)

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