Joanna MacGregor is reminiscing about her early days as a pianist: “People would offer all sorts of advice, they’d say: ‘If you’re a concert pianist you must play the Tchaikovsky piano concertos’, but I wanted to play the Grieg,” she laughs. “And then they’d go: ‘If you’re a concert pianist you must wear a long dress and tie your hair back, but I always wore suits!”
Of course, it’s not uncommon for musicians to be a touch contrary but throughout her career MacGregor has shattered preconceived ideas about music, and art more generally, not simply through her platform manner or choice of repertoire – which stretches from the Baroque canon to improvised jazz and the contemporary avant-garde – but through her generous involvement as a composer, curator, conductor and teacher. “There weren’t really any models, so I sort of made things up as I went along,” she says, and yet her choices, which may sometimes seem random or slapdash, have always been made with a fierce sense of artistic integrity and thrilling imagination.
MacGregor has never been one to tie her hair back, metaphorically or literally – indeed for many years her head of braids and way-out wardrobe was a trademark look, but when we meet her hair is dramatically sleek and streaked, and she is dressed rather demurely in all black.
This spring MacGregor seems to be spinning plates – but then, pick any moment in her career and she would no doubt be engaged in a dizzying assortment of activities. Recent weeks have been spent finalising plans for the Bath International Music Festival, of which she is artistic director, and today we are meeting just a stone’s throw from the Royal Opera House, where she will make her debut next September – as the curator of this year’s Deloitte Ignite festival. Right now, however, MacGregor is preoccupied by a flurry of recording releases to celebrate a new partnership between her own record label, SoundCircus, and Warner Classics & Jazz. Latest out is Live in Buenos Aires, an off-the-cuff recording made during MacGregor’s 2007 Latin American tour with the Britten Sinfonia. “We had started off in Brazil and it had gone very well,” she explains, “and I suddenly thought this is amazing, we’re going to Buenos Aires tomorrow night, and I had ‘Britten Sinfonia in Buenos Aires, Britten Sinfonia in Buenos Aires … ’ going round in my head, so I said: ‘why don’t we stick a couple of mikes up and see what happens?’” What happened was the most spine-tingling of concerts, beginning with a cool rendition of Bach’s Concerto in D minor and ending with a rip-roaring homage to the Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla.
She points to the influence of Bach. “Of course, Bach is the godfather of everything for me, in the mafia sense as well as anything else,” she says. “There’s a dangerous element that remains at the forefront of your consciousness all the time.”
Perhaps because of this sense of mystique, MacGregor kept the Goldberg Variations score on her piano for 20 years without daring to open it. “It contains every element of Bach: it has that public, virtuosic quality but also this much more intimate and tragic element that you find in the Passions, and it has all the intellectual demands that you have in the Preludes and Fugues.” Finally she relented, however, and her recording of the work will be released next month. The whole presentation feels both personal and personable – each variation is accompanied by a quirky little sketch in the slip notes: number two, for example, is described as “two flamingos curling round each other”; 17 is “laughing gas” and 20 “machine gun fire”.
MacGregor grew up in the 1960s in Willesden, north London, and was educated at home by her Seventh-day Adventist parents until the age of 11. The eldest of three children, MacGregor was her mother’s first piano pupil. “She taught me in this very free and easy way, so I grew up with this idea that you could play a gospel hymn one minute and Mozart the next,” she explains, “and I suppose those early patterns are quite important.”
Since achieving recognition in the 1980s, she has collaborated with an amazing array of artists, including the late South African jazz musician Moses Molelekwa and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, as well as Brian Eno, Nitin Sawhney and a handful of the world’s top orchestras. I ask for her views on more popular attempts at cross-over music: she doesn’t see why they provoke such furious debate. “I was watching Popstar to Operastar the other day and I thought it was hilarious,” she says, “I mean, terrible, too, but I was intrigued by the Mexican tenor, what’s he called? Roland?” – “Rolando Villazón,” I say – “Yes, I thought he was marvellous! It seems to come very naturally to him all of that, I wouldn’t be any good at it.”
It is hard to imagine MacGregor as a prime time television host in a glitzy gown, but she clearly has a natural talent for firing enthusiasm, and a close affinity with the general public. She talks excitedly about some of the highlights of the Bath Festival, including a group called The Wilders, “a sort of punk version of a bluegrass band” she happened to catch in tiny venue in Northern Ireland: “They’re led by a woman who plays the violin brilliantly – she’s like Jimi Hendrix on the violin!”
MacGregor herself will be performing all of Chopin’s Mazurkas; there will be a installation work made of shoes; and a retrospective celebration of the British contralto Kathleen Ferrier. A hint of nostalgia will permeate, she says, but the line-up is eclectic.
“I think in a funny way you can be more adventurous during hard times because people really need to see something that’s going to make a difference to their lives,” she explains.
When MacGregor is touring, she satisfies her own omnivorous tastes by fitting something of interest around her busy schedule. This might be a jazz festival or an evening of electronica, or it might be a football match: MacGregor is an avid Everton supporter. Back home in Brighton, she seeks inspiration from the sea and the South Downs. “I even go to Glyndebourne,” she adds. “I saw Tristan und Isolde last summer – Harry Birtwistle tipped me off about that.”
As MacGregor downs a macchiato and braces herself for a frenetic afternoon of publicity, she admits she’d prefer to spend the time at her piano. “I’m at my happiest just practising, I love to be alone,” she says. It’s not prizes or interviews that define you as a musician, she tells her young students, it’s practice: “that’s what’s going to make or break you, that’s where you get your substance from.”
‘Live in Buenos Aires’ is released on Warner Classics & Jazz. For other recordings www.warnerclassicsandjazz.com
Bath International Music Festival, May 26 -June 6 www.bathmusicfest.org.uk