Cambridge's leading lights at the Brahms Festival

Image credit: Marshall Lighting Photography

The Second Cambridge Brahms Festival—a musical celebration of Johannes Brahms—will commence this Wednesday 18th April. Over the course of five days and eight concerts—seven of which are free—music lovers throughout Cambridge will have the opportunity to hear a rare compilation of Brahms’ compositions and the musical contemporaries that inspired him. The festival is curated and directed by Edward Reeve—an MPhil Music student at Queens’ College Cambridge studying nineteenth-century music under the Aliki Vatikioti Studentship—and will feature the local talent of Cambridge music students. One of these performers is Adam McDonagh.

Adam began his musical career at Leeson Park School of Music in Dublin, where he learned to play the piano and violin. By the age of twelve, he was accepted into the Conservatory of Music and Drama at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), and began his musical training as a solo pianist. During his studies, Adam developed a passion for working with opera singers and performers. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance from the DIT in 2015, and winning the Council of Heads of Music in Higher Education (CHMHE) Undergraduate Musicology Competition for his dissertation, Adam began studying on the MPhil in Music Studies programme at the University of Cambridge last October.

We were lucky enough to meet with Adam to discuss his involvement in the Second Cambridge Brahms Festival, and hear his insights into the world of classical music, performance, and beyond.

TCS: Which concerts will you be involved in?

The first of two concerts that I am involved in is a Brahms 'Lieder Recital', which will explore songs dealing with love and life. I will be accompanying two fantastic singers—soprano Helena Moore and contralto Nina Vinther. We’re doing five songs each, and then a couple of duets at the end which are simply beautiful. Interspersed between all these songs I am playing some Intermezzi from Op.116, which are pieces that Brahms wrote quite late in his life. They’re introspective, contemplative and quite poignant pieces. It’s a concert that means a lot to me, because song accompaniment is something I really enjoy doing.

The second concert is celebrating Brahms and female contemporaries of his. These include Clara Schumann and Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. Clara Schumann was a wonderful musician, both as a performer and as one of the most often performed female composers from that time in history. Both of these women were Brahms’ musical companions. They were all very good friends, whom Brahms looked up to and was inspired by. Elisabeth and Clara would have looked and played through his music, told him what they thought, and he would have listened. I’ll be playing Elisabeth von Herzogenberg’s 8 Klavierstücke, which are eight piano pieces that weren’t published until after she died. Then to finish that concert, Edward and I are going to be performing a work by Brahms that is based on a theme by Robert Schumann, Clara’s husband. I will also be giving a talk about Clara and Elisabeth before that concert...So that’s my contribution to the festival. I’m really looking forward to it and very grateful to be a part of it.

TCS: How does classical music fit into a broader musical narrative of what’s going on now?

It’s an interesting question, because classical music is in a place where it’s seen to be traditional and conservative on some levels, but also progressive on others. I just feel that the music can still be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is. As long as every kind of music is celebrated for what it is worth, there’s always going to be room for Brahms and his contemporaries. [That being said], rather than just relying on how people have done it before and preserving how it has been played before in tradition and style, musicians could probably benefit from coming to the music of Brahms and seeing if they could re-imagine it in a new light. After all, these composers and wonderful musicians were always very open to new ideas and expanding their artistry. I think that it would be a shame to think that performers are somehow confined to what is expected in performing [Brahms’] music. As long as we don’t have very high ideals of what classical music is, we can still find that classical music is very appealing and stimulating to many people.

TCS: What are some of the most rewarding things as a musician at this time in your musical career?

I feel that I have got to a stage where I’m able to repeat pieces in concerts. For years I was trying to build up na ew repertoire, and then recently it got to a point where I began to use pieces again. What I really enjoy is coming back to a piece that I may not have looked at for three or four years and see it completely differently. While living with a piece, you begin to explore other possibilities of how you can shape the music (i.e. what kind of idea you want to come across, what other kinds of emotions you’re able to express). That’s very empowering for musicians, because it’s really allowing them to be even more creative and artistic. It’s not just simply learning a piece in one way and then giving that to an audience, it’s also about me as a musician, as a performer, giving something of myself. I also just like the idea that we could possibly think in more open-minded terms, whereby a composer wouldn’t mind if a performer decided to do something a bit different. Sometimes I find that in a performance things can change dramatically, and you can decide to do something completely different. It also relates to this theory of flow where everything is going really well, you have this feeling of timelessness, you’re on top of what you’re doing, and creativity is just at your fingertips. 

TCS: What does that mean when accompanying a performer?

I like to think of what a piano accompaniment teacher once told me, that is, to imagine what I’m doing is providing the film-music to a scene. The singer has the words and is telling a story, but I’m kind of giving the backdrop in terms of providing even more atmosphere, mood and emotion. That related so well to me, because I adore film-music. Often film-music just breaks me down to tears, and that’s often due to the capacity that film-music has to really engage with people’s emotions. For me, I enjoy trying to bring those ideas with me, for example, when preparing for these songs by Brahms. [It’s just the question of] how do I create an atmosphere that works with the story of the text, but is also very engaging and not just for the audience but for me and the singer too? We’re just as responsible as the composer in creating something.

TCS: Do you think classical musicians are obligated to appeal to modern audiences?

I don’t think anyone can possibly do that at any point in time, because people see things in different ways. Personally, I just think it’s important for performers to realize that if you love something, you will hopefully make it work for you. You do you and someone will be there to listen.

Adam will be performing in a Brahms Lieder Recital as part of the Second Cambridge Brahms Festival on Thursday19th of April at 1pm in Robinson College Chapel, and Elisabeth von Herzogenberg’s 8 Klavierstücke on Friday 20th April at 1pm in Christ’s College Chapel, for which he will also deliver a pre-concert talk at 12:30pm.


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