Kate Romano talks to the rising star pianist who returns to the Granary on Saturday 18 November
Will Bracken is hibernating. ‘I’m at [pianist] Martin Roscoe’s house’ he explains as we chat over zoom. ‘I was asking him if he knew anywhere quiet with a piano that I could stay for a couple of weeks, and he offered me his place here in the Scottish Highlands’. There’s a log burner, a library full of music, views of Ben Nevis and time to explore the repertoire he’s preparing, uninterrupted and in depth. ‘I love the pace of London’ says Will ‘but it's difficult to be creative so I got out here for a bit of space and to try out some new things. The Granary concert will be the first thing to come out of this hibernation’.
The relationship between practice and the stage is at the forefront of Will Bracken’s mind. ‘Murray Perahia said that there are some things you cannot learn in the practice room; you have to go on stage to make these discoveries’ he tells me; ‘...things like how to hold the atmosphere in a live concert. There are so many forces that come into play when you're on a stage, such as the awareness of uncertainty. You step out and think ‘right, I know I've got to play this from start to finish and anything could happen’. That's something I’ve had to make friends with. It can be a terrifying thought but it can also be extremely exciting to ask myself ‘ok, what's going to happen today?’ and lean into the uncertainty’.
Still in his early twenties, William Bracken is in high demand as a recitalist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician. The Wirral-born pianist has won numerous awards including 1st prize at the 2022 Liszt Society International Piano Competition and 1st prize, press prize and audience prize at the 2023 Euregio Piano Award international piano competition. He is currently continuing studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where Martin Roscoe is one of his teachers.
‘I’m now getting to a point where I’m coming back to things' he says. ‘For a while, everything was new. In my teens, I was playing everything for the first time. I did a performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto and had only two months to learn it. It was so exciting in the concert and slightly terrifying, and that energy is something I’ll never forget. But I’ve also learned that to have music simmering away in the back of your head is a valuable thing. The foundation of basic things - the physiology of playing the piece - becomes more automated. Your conscious attention then shifts to other things and you have the freedom to be experimental or deviate from the norm on stage. You bring the audience into the lab and you can add layers to the music every time you play it. I think this is what it means to live with a work’. Is this automated foundation a mental or physical sensation? I ask him. ‘A lot of the way that I assimilate music is physical; the tension and release and the general movement of the music.. there’s always a physical analogy. Sometimes there's a dissonance; the music might generate tension, but if I experience the tension in my body, it will stop me executing the music’.
William regularly records himself, both whilst practising and in concerts, and we talk about the strange phenomena of how hard it is to listen to your own live performance. ‘I think that recording yourself is the easiest and quickest way to get to your true intentions’ he explains.‘You appraise your playing from your own values and get to the heart of what you want. To play with intensity is a huge thing.. people who don’t play don’t really know how taxing it is to listen and play at the same time for extended periods; the energy spend is massive’.
He’s looking forward to returning to the Granary on Saturday 18th November with a colourful, virtuosic and heartfelt programme of music by Mozart, Haydn, Liszt, Debussy and Messiaen. ‘When people listen with you, it's a very social experience and when they listen with intensity, it helps to reinforce your own listening and then it's a more rewarding experience for everyone. That certainly happened last time I played at the Granary’. I wholeheartedly agree with him; our audiences here are committed and listen very carefully. ‘The intimacy of the venue helps’ says Will ‘but it's the quality of the listening that counts: that's the catalyst. I like to think of a concert as a snapshot of where an artist is, at a particular moment, in relation to the repertoire and the audience. And that's why live concerts are so special; they have the potential for creating something unique every single time’.