My cultural life: Joanna MacGregor

PUBLISHED: 13:35 14 October 2020

Joanna MacGregor. Photo: Pal Hansen

Joanna MacGregor. Photo: Pal Hansen

Pal Hansen

The internationally renowned pianist was recently named as the new musical director of Brighton Philharmonic

What I’m reading

During lockdown I was reading an enormous amount, like everybody. But I thought I’d pick out Zadie Smith’s book of short essays, Intimations. It was the first book that came out about what it was like to be locked down. It’s a terrifically witty, razor-sharp piece of writing, as is typical of her. She also touches a little bit on Black Lives Matter in the last chapter because that was very much contemporary. She happened to be writing in New York because she teaches at Columbia University. It was a very contemporary, quick response to what was going on and I’d recommend it very highly because it’s short, sweet and punchy.

I sympathise with people who say they found it hard to read in the early days of lockdown – my mind was like a butterfly, fluttering around. I did manage to read Hilary Mantell’s The Mirror and the Light. I was a Booker Prize judge last year so I read about 150 books last year and vowed to swear off fiction for a year. But it was the right time to read a 900-page book and it is fantastic.

What I’m watching

Because we can’t travel at the moment, my husband and I very often settle down to an episode of Inspector Montalbano. I love crime and he is such a great character. We can ooh and ahh at the Sicilian landscape, the plots are great and all the characters are rather multi-faceted and complex.

What I’m listening to

I am currently listening to a lot of Beethoven. I’m about to play a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas at Canterbury Cathedral – all 32, so it is a huge thing to be doing. As part of that I’ve been listening to the wonderful Alfred Brendel who recorded all the sonatas three times. I am listening to the middle set which he made in the 1980s. I am also listening to the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels playing Beethoven. There are many great pianists who are fantastic at playing Beethoven and they all have different qualities to bring.

The music that’s got me through difficult times

Mr Beethoven, certainly. I would recommend him very highly for difficult times because he had a very difficult life himself and he came through it with such heroism, optimism, beauty and joy.

I’m also quite a big blues fan – Mississipi Blues and African Blues – and I’m going to pick Ali Farka Toure, a Malian musician who I just think is amazing - poetic, uplifting and melancholic: all the things you need.

MORE: Opera singer Matthew Rose chooses his cultural highlights

The film that changed my life

I’m a big fan of Powell and Pressburger and I suppose I would have to pick The Red Shoes, which I first saw when I was very young and it made a huge impression on me in every way – the colours, the story, the setting and the music. It’s set in this post-war world, soon after World War II in London and it’s about the struggle of being an artist. I must have seen that film about a dozen times and each time I find something new.

I’m a big fan of Italian cinema: I’m a big fan of Italian neorealism – Roma, città aperta by Rossellini and then when it became more fantastical with Fellini and then Visconti. These are just masterpieces I go back to again and again.

My favourite radio station/podcast

I’m quite interested in politics and at the moment it would have to be Americast, which is presented by Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel. It’s all about the American election and I’ve recommended it to my American friends and anyone who’s interested in American politics. It’s witty, it’s insightful and they have the most fantastic guests. Of course at the moment things are just getting more and more dramatic, astonishing and unpredictable so I’m just glued to that podcast.

My best experience in a theatre

Around 20 years ago we went up to Glasgow to see Peter Brooks’ nine-hour adaptation of [Indian epic poem] the Mahabharata. There was this huge cast and it was absolutely sensational, it had come out of the company in Paris and was on a world tour. The cast came from all over the world and it was on an operatic scale. I do like theatre that is epic and ambitious, like opera can be – really huge and challenging. You can get it on DVD now.

The book I’m most likely to lend to a friend

There’s a lovely book by the very readable philosopher Mark Vernon, called The Philosophy of Friendship. It’s really about all different types of friendship and the historic ideas behind it. When I first read this book I found it rather moving, and I immediately bought two copies and gave them to two of my closest friends. So I think probably that is still the book I would most like to give to people.

My favourite local arts venue/event

It’s very difficult to choose. I live in Kemptown and about 10 minutes’ walk away from me is a tiny little jazz club called The Verdict. It’s absolutely marvellous – a proper jazz dive in a downstairs room. There’s a lovely café and bar upstairs and then you take your drink and go downstairs to a perfect jazz space, just the way a jazz club should be. I’m really missing it at the moment.

Although Brighton Philharmonic had to cancel all their planned performances this season, they hope to stage some chamber concerts at Brighton Dome this winter - keep an eye on their website for details. Their 2021/2022 season will include music by Mozart and Piazzolla, Bach and Handel, Brahms and Elgar, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky, folk, film and jazz.

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