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Tuesday, September 5th, 2006 at 2:29 pm
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Steven Osborne – A Festival Favourite

The rapturous applause that greeted Steven Osborne’s appearance at the first of the Edinburgh Festival’s Bank of Scotland Queen’s Hall concerts this year was as sincere as it comes. Not only is Steven making a name for himself in the rarified world of classical music, he is a local lad and a perennial favourite at the Festival. There was standing room only as enthusiasts of all ages took the opportunity to listen to a live performance of Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes followed by Rachmaninov’s Prélude in C sharp minor Op 3 No 2 and Op. 23.
The choice was Steven’s, an interesting combination, he believes. Despite the differences in style, he perceives enough in them that is complementary. His second concert the following week, completes the Debussy Préludes with Book II and the Rachmaninov Préludes with Op.32. Steven’s reputation precedes him where French composers are concerned, possibly thanks to his award winning rendition of Messiaen’s Vingt Regard sur l’enfant Jésus, but he declines to be pigeon-holed – “there’s too much I want to do,” he says.

steven-osborne-formalAmongst these ambitions is a desire to perform and/or record more Schubert and Beethoven. “I feel particularly close to them. I really like the intellectual vigour in Beethoven, mixed with strong emotions. Schubert has such depth of feeling that is brought out in his music. It can be unpredictable, music on the edge of madness.”
That said, life at the moment is hugely satisfying for Steven. He is in great demand all over the world and is held in high regard by fellow musicians, conductors and music lovers. “I know that what I’m doing is worth a lot and connects to a lot of people,” he says, “It’s good to know that you’re valued.”
He is also interested in a new direction his work is taking, with jazz pianist Chick Lyle. “Improvisation in jazz is not unlike improvisation in classical music,” he suggests. “It has to have shape and feeling, it’s not random. But in a piece for two pianos, it’s easy to have too much going on. I’m still finding my way in jazz. When you do free improvisation, 90% of it is a mix of good and bad and occasionally you get something that’s just fantastic.”
Steven does recognise his limits, however. He doesn’t think he will ever compose, for example. But the future is exciting and while Steven is loath to predict the future of classical music, he can’t think of anything better to do. Can he imagine himself on stage at eighty? He smiles and says he hopes so. “When you get to that age you have such a wealth of experience of life,” he says. “Older people have an amazing way of cutting through the confusion and getting straight to the point. They can bring a world of experience to their music too. But if I am still playing at that age, it won’t be Rachmaninov!”steven-osborne

Steven began playing at home. His father was a peripatetic church organist in his spare time and there was always a piano in the house. From the age of three or four, he enjoyed picking away and when his mother saw how much he enjoyed it, she sent him to lessons with Sheila McCulloch. From the age of ten, he attended St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, where he studied under Richard Beauchamp. “There was the most wonderful attitude by the staff there,” he recalls. “They were interactive, curious to develop your talent, not at all patronising or prescriptive. It was great to be switched on to such an ethos.”
Steven was academically bright, excelling, as do many musicians, in mathematics, but hating geography and chemistry. He credits his Physics teacher Christine Soane with teaching him more about life than anyone else. “She told us to put a brick through the television,” he recalls. “Now I just have it to watch videos and it’s such a relief.”
Other influences on Steven’s life and career have been Renna Kellaway at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he went aged 17 and Ian Kemp, Professor of Music at Manchester University where he completed a joint degree. Renna, he credits with getting his technique up to scratch – “it was a bit soggy when I left school.”
“Ian,” he says, “taught me so much about music, about how it is intrinsically connected to people. He would make musical analysis seem vital and important. I’ve played to him recently and he still makes very astute observations, puts things in context. That’s the most important thing in interpreting music – to see where it’s leading.”
Steven says he will never compose, but he does enjoy interpreting music in his own way. “It’s as if a composer gives you a pencil sketch and you have to make it into a 3-D sculpture, so it’s impossible not to interpret. You take the skeleton and, over a period of months, you learn what the composer wanted, you get strong feelings about his world. Everyone responds differently and that’s why each pianist gets different results. The challenge is to get something that’s as deeply felt.”
Growing up in Linlithgow and at University in Manchester, Steven never thought about his career or what he would like to do when he grew up. He just wanted to take each day as it came and to play music. “I was always impractical about it,” he admits “and never thought about the future. Fortunately my parents kept an eye on things and watched out for the pitfalls. At College, I won the Clara Haskil prize [a sort of international ‘knock-out’ competition for talented young pianists, held every two years in Switzerland] and that set me thinking.”
Young pianists train in the same way as athletes. There are exercises to strengthen fingers and develop flexibility. “Mind you, I think Russians are born with metal tendons,” Steven jokes. But other than that, ordinary good health is all that is required – he goes to the gym three or four times a week – and a seat at a comfortable height.
Practice nowadays – work to Steven – consists of three to four hours at the baby grand in the living room of his Linlithgow home. “It’s so intense that you can only do about thirty minutes at a time,” he says, “you need to pace yourself and think in between, especially when I’m learning a new piece.

steven osborne practising.

“I’ve always had a good memory, fortunately. You start with the mundane things, you work out the fingering – for the first two or three weeks it’s basically technical. Once you’ve got some control over the sense and shape of it, then you think away from the piano. I never listen to anyone else playing a piece I am learning. If you do that, you find their solutions for the difficult corners instead of your own. You might miss something that’s possibly better. But there is homework of a sort. He acknowledges, in his latest CD, the work of Roy Howatt in pointing out some errors in the previous Debussy scores. Apparently it isn’t uncommon for typos to appear in music and go unnoticed! “The mind is incredibly adaptive,” Steven explains. “It can make sense of the craziest pieces, so you don’t always hear the mistake. By using urtexts, which are musical scores that keep editorial interference to a minimum, you get the very basic original scripts and you can work up from there.”
Musical influences are wide and perhaps surprisingly, Steven doesn’t listen to much classical music. “When we were in our early twenties, my brother and I always said that when we got married there would have to be room for three because we were both so mad on Joni Mitchell,” he recalls. Other favourites include Sting, Coldplay and Bob Dylan. “He has a terrible voice but his songs are delivered with such conviction – and the poetry is incredible.” Of classical composers he reluctantly picks one favourite – Beethoven – but wisely refuses to name a favourite piece “because that just depends on your mood.”
Life beyond the piano is shared with wife Jean Johnston, herself an accomplished professional clarinetist – the couple met while performing in Singapore – and includes hill walking, tennis, going to the cinema and eating – “Jean’s a great cook!”
At the time of this interview, he is looking forward to the second of his two concerts at the Edinburgh Festival but he is also, in a way, looking forward to the concert being over, as he has an exciting and demanding year ahead, involving travel to Sweden, the Czech Republic and London with new works to learn. No doubt these will further establish his credentials with French music but, aged just thirty five, there is plenty of time for Steven to explore other avenues and, if his Queen’s Hall fans have their way, to record the Rachmaninov he performed for them so majestically this August.

To see a list of recordings by Steven, cllick here.

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