CONCERT REVIEW: Son of Skegness makes good in the world of symphonies

Skegness-born classical pianist Ashley Wass who opened the 33rd season of South Holland Concerts in Spalding on Saturday.  Photo by Patrick Allen/Operaomnia.

Skegness-born classical pianist Ashley Wass who opened the 33rd season of South Holland Concerts in Spalding on Saturday. Photo by Patrick Allen/Operaomnia.

  • An interview in Spalding with the artistic director of the Lincolnshire International Chamber Music Festival
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Ashley Wass (piano), South Holland Concerts, South Holland Centre, Spalding

How fitting that one of the few opportunities to hear classical music live in South Holland was graced by an award-winning pianist born “just an hour up the road”.

With that affirmation of his Skegness roots, Ashley Wass delivered a serenade to Shakespeare with all the skill and expertise fitting for the only British musician ever to win the London International Piano Competition (LIPC) in 1997.

Before the concert, Ashley said: “I’m here in Spalding tonight and tomorrow I fly to China to perform the same programme.

“There aren’t that many professionals who have such a far-reaching impact, but there are certain moments that I remember very clearly.

“I was in South Korea two years ago when I played at a concert and held masterclasses.

Playing for the Queen was a very surreal moment and it’s one of those memories that makes you say to yourself, ‘I was very lucky to have been asked to do that

Ashley Wass, the only British musician ever to win the London International Piano Competition (LIPC) in 1997

“During the visit, I thought about having been a lad growing up in Skegness and how it felt slightly strange to be treated to a ride in the back of a limousine to my hotel.”

The concert, at South Holland Centre on Saturday, opened with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, otherwise known as the Tempest and described by concert programme writer Peter Case, as a “constant shift in emotion between storm and calm”.

Ashley, now based in the West Country, then treated his audience to Macbeth and the Witches by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, incidentally the first piece of music the pianist was ever asked to play for the BBC.

“The London International Piano Competition certainly opened a lot of doors,” Ashley said.

“But I was lucky to be quite active before that, giving concerts and having recorded a CD.

“However, LIPC raised the level of my profile in a way that was very helpful for my career.”

Ashley also played Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on (Felix) Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, made popular by millions of couples as The Wedding March.

Ukrainian Sergei Prokoviev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 ended what was a captivating evening of classical piano playing, in true Lincolnshire style.

Ashley said: “I’m very well used to fitting things into a theme and it’s a more interesting way of way giving music a particular context.

“But there were no particular limitations given to me by the South Holland Concerts people which means that you can spend many hours, days and weeks coming up with a programme.”

Among the highlights of Ashley’s career over the last 20 years included the recording of a CD containing piano music by the Belgian Cesar Franck in 1999, performing under the baton of conductor Sir Simon Rattle and appearing at a gala concert to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

Ashley said: “Playing for the Queen was a very surreal moment and it’s one of those memories that makes you say to yourself, ‘I was very lucky to have been asked to do that’.

“It was a very important moment in my life and everyone of those who performed went into Buckingham Palace later to meet the Queen.

“Then they led us out onto a platform, with tens of thousands of people outside the Palace, and I looked around at the individuals who were there with me.

“It was a surreal moment to be there with such musical legends as (operatic baritone) Sir Thomas Allen, (soprano) Angela Gheorghiu and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

“Sir Simon Rattle is an extraordinary character who you can look in the eye and see, just by the movement of an eyebrow, that it has an effect.

“He is also a remarkable politician and a very interesting guy, so it’s big news for the UK that he’s coming back (after serving as director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to join the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) as its music director from September 2017).”

Ashley is currently a Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music (RCM), London, an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music and also artistic director of the Lincolnshire International Chamber Music Festival (LICMF).

“I studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London, but now teach at the RCM, whereas traditionally you would end up teaching at the place where you studied.

“There’s no particular reason why - it’s just how things have turned out.

“Living in the West Country now, being at the RCM gives me a sort of base in London.

“But I love programming things as well and being involved in the LICMF gives me a great deal of pleasure.

“I learn a lot from it and it’s extremely rewarding because I get to see some familiar faces in the audience who I’ve known since we were children.

“The fact that the festival is in Lincoolnshire is great too because you can take concerts around the county to many places that don’t experience classical music.

“If there’s one positive thing about the LICMF, and the most precious thing, it’s that and it’s great to have the support to do that as well.”

Review and Interview by Winston Brown