What music gets your heart racing?
I love a huge range of music but there is a special place in my heart for the great piano concertos especially when played by a pianist with a strong, bold musical personality and a great sense of structure and a commanding tonal presence. Brahms 1 or 2, Chopin 2, Beethoven 5 and Rachmaninov 3 are at the top of a long list.
What calms you down?
Music, of course, can also create intense feelings of peace and reflection and I love spending time at the piano with great, introspective works like the finale of Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op111, or the slow movements of Ravel’s concerto or Beethoven’s Emperor. Outside of music, it is important for me to spend time either among the trees of Kings Park or at the beach, jogging, resting, meditating, with my dogs at my side.
You have a soft spot for the piano. What is the appeal of the ivories?
According to my parents, I fell in love with a little piano in a toy shop when I was barely two, so I always felt that the piano chose me rather than the other way around. My auntie had a beautiful Ronisch grand piano and, even in my earliest memories, I was always entranced by this elegant instrument and I used to love hearing her play. I can’t remember a time when the piano didn’t hold a fascination for me. Before I started lessons I used to stand at the front fence and listen to my neighbour practising the piano.
|Mark Coughlan with Pei-Yin Hsu in Paris.|
After establishing your career as a concert pianist you spent eight years as Head of Music at UWA. Then you ventured into business in the medical sector, perhaps inspired by your partner Dr Pei-Yin Hsu, and also worked as a music critic for The Australian. What is your job description now?
I recently tried to have some new business cards printed that reflected all of my current activities and there was so much information on them it looked ridiculous so I gave up on the idea! My simplest job description would be musician and company director. I am a director of seven entities, six of which are in the arts or community sectors and one is my medical services company. In addition to these roles, I work as a pianist, artistic director, occasional conductor, music critic and as a teacher and mentor to young musicians. I am Chairman of the Government House Foundation and have been artistic director of the Music on the Terrace series since we started it 10 years ago. I am very proud of what we have achieved with this project and the strong support we have established. I am also excited by my role as Chairman of Lost and Found Opera which we started a couple of years ago. We had no money of course, just a vision and some talented people, but we raised funds, put on terrific shows and have built a strong reputation for this new enterprise. We have just heard that the Department of Culture and Arts is giving us some core funding for the next three years which is extremely rewarding and exciting and will allow us to take the company to the next level. I have been on the board of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for six years and this has been an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience. The orchestra has developed into a genuinely world-class ensemble in the last couple of years and its concerts often reach the highest international standard.
You mention your role at the Government House Foundation. What is the story of the Government House Ballroom – I believe it was designed by Percy Grainger’s father?
The Ballroom is one of Western Australia’s great gems. It was built in 1899 under the supervision of John Grainger (Percy’s father) who was State Government Architect at the time. The room has a stunning acoustic and a warm, welcoming vibe. It is a great privilege to be involved there, to program and perform a wide array of concerts and to also create opportunities for young musicians to perform in this very special space. We have so few spaces like this in Perth, it needs to be treasured and nurtured for future generations.
There seems to be a loyal audience for the Music on the Terrace series as it has survived the economic downturn where many others haven’t. What is the appeal to audiences?
It’s always hard to explain why some concerts do well and others don’t but for Music on the Terrace we have concentrated on creating a sense of community with our subscribers and supporters. We have a governing committee who volunteer their time to be ushers and to pour drinks at interval (free drinks!) and this helps people connect with each other. The programs feature a lot of young musicians, rising stars, as well as established artists and the occasional international star. We like to create a strong interaction between the performers and the audience and hopefully this makes a difference.
What is on the program for 2016?
In 2016 we are once again presenting some exciting collaborations, including with the National Academy of Music in Melbourne, with UWA and WAAPA. Our Rising Stars program is very important to us and will include a stronger educational element next year. Our extremely popular cabaret show, Music of the Night, will also return due to popular demand. The full program will be released in January.
You have inherited the directorship of the Vienna Pops New Years Eve concert from John Christmass. This concert sells out the entire Concert Hall every year. What is it about light classics and New Years Eve that has such stupendous appeal?
John Christmass did an outstanding job in establishing and leading this important event for 25 years. When they asked me to take over from him three years ago I was delighted to do so. There are wonderful traditions in the northern hemisphere for New Year’s concerts, the most famous one being the Vienna Philharmonic’s. In Australia, New Year falls during our summer holidays, the concert season has finished and many people are travelling or chilling out at the beach so we tend to celebrate differently. I think the success of our Vienna Pops event is that it connects with the European tradition of celebrating New Years with a musical gala but we program it in a more eclectic and popular way that appeals to the broadest range of people. Certainly we present some of the best-loved Viennese works, including the Blue Danube and other Strauss favourites, but we also include popular pieces from opera, operetta and concerto repertoire. I think the secret to any concert is to have performances of the highest quality. Our orchestra is always excellent and we feature the best soloists we can find, most of whom are from WA! We also include every year a talented young performer. This year it will be an 18 year old local pianist who has just spent several months studying overseas. We also have two of the best singers you will ever hear, Fiona Campbell and Ali Bodycoat. Ali is one of Australia’s great jazz divas and she is going to recreate a little Viennese cabaret scene for us this year to stretch the musical boundaries a little more than usual. Fiona is, of course, an outstanding opera singer and will sing a range of pieces including a little bit from the Sound of Music! The other great thing about this event is that we raise money for the Perth Rotary Club’s charities so it’s not just about having fun and enjoying the beautiful music, there is a community benefit too.
You are a recent addition to the WA Symphony Orchestra board of directors. Give us a clue what the meetings are like when high profile business people come together and discuss the arts.
WASO is an outstanding arts company and being a director is a great privilege. We have a great mix of skills and experience on the board, from corporate, Government, private enterprise and the arts. Of course the role of any company board is to ensure the organisation is well run, is financially viable and has a good business strategy. With an arts company, the board must also ensure that the organisation is serving its community as well as possible and will continue to exist for at least the next 100 years! Of course we spend a lot of time discussing financial matters, raising funds and ensuring that the company is in good shape but one of the most exciting recent developments is the way all board members have become so engaged in the quest for artistic excellence and the vital importance of this aspiration to the orchestra’s reputation and well being.
Where did you learn the skills that have enabled you to straddle business and the world of music performance?
I was very fortunate during my years as Head of the UWA School of Music that I served on a number of boards, including Musica Viva Australia and also as Chairman of the Australian Music Examinations Board. Through these activities and in my role managing the school’s budgets, I gained quite a bit of experience in financial management which was a great help for my step into private enterprise. Once I left UWA, I undertook further training through private courses and then just jumped in. One important lesson I learnt was that it’s sometimes best to learn on the job and if I always waited until I was totally prepared, I might never do anything new!
Yes we have two beautiful German shorthaired pointers, Davis and Molly, aged 6 and 3 respectively. They bring us love, laughter and companionship every day as well as ensuring that we get lots of exercise! We also have a number of cars and pianos, two of my weaknesses!
I’m going to throw in a tricky one – life highlight so far??
I find it difficult to identify a single highlight as I tend to view my life in chapters. My student days at UWA, then my time studying in London, the period when I was working for UWA, and my current phase as a board member and freelance musician. Each chapter has had wonderful highlights as well as lots of challenges. I have met and worked with extraordinary people and had the privilege to bring the gift of music to so many people. I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to help and encourage the next generation of musicians to find their own life path.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
Oh no, not at all! I have a huge soft spot for many things in life including excellent wine, fast cars, grand pianos, visual arts, travel, healthy living, dogs, personal development and mentoring the next generation.
Thank you Mark Coughlan for being a part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For more information on the New Years Eve concert go here. The Government House Ballroom Music on the Terrace series will be launched here in January.