RISING STAR: Michael McHale

Belfast-born pianist Michael McHale talks to Peter Geoghegan.

Michael McHale is one of the leading young Irish pianists of his generation whose playing has been described as ‘beautifully proportioned’ (The Washington Post) and ‘instantly engaging’ (The Times). After graduating from Emmanuel College, Cambridge with a double first class honours degree in Music, Michael went on to study piano with Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music, London, as holder of the EMI Sound Foundation Scholarship. Michael is a member of the trio Ensemble Avalon whose debut release Piano Trios: Bax, Bernstein and Beethoven is out now on the RTÉ lyric fm label. 

When did you first begin to play the piano?

I started playing at the age of seven. I remember my older sister was getting lessons and I said to my parents ‘I want to do that too’. So I guess it all began as sibling rivalry. My first teacher was Tom Davidson who lived on Rugby Road in Belfast. Unfortunately, he passed away within a few years of me being with him, but he was a great teacher and it was with him, along with my next teacher Donal McCrisken, that I really developed a passion for playing the piano. Then, from 13 to 18, I went down to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin where I studied with John O’Conor and Reamonn Keary. Throughout that time I was still in school in Belfast, so I would finish up on a Friday and head straight to the train station to go to Dublin.

How did your playing develop when you went to Cambridge?
Well, my understanding of music was greatly enhanced by doing the Music degree in Cambridge but it definitely wasn’t the end of my weekend train journeys. Throughout the three years I was at Cambridge I would travel up and down to London to take lessons from Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music. The degree at Cambridge was very academic, there was a lot of theory and composition and only one recital, which was in the final year. Though it was hard work fitting in practising and playing around my studies, I made sure to keep up the playing side of things, regularly giving concerts. There was a piano in the college where I sometimes played between ten at night and one in the morning - it was the only window of opportunity I could find if things were busy! I had a great three years there, and it gave me a much more rounded musical education than if I’d focused solely on performing.

You won the 2004 Camerata Ireland Musician of the Year Competition. How did you get involved with that?
Barry Douglas’s chamber orchestra Camerata Ireland hosts an annual festival at the Clandeboye Estate, County Down, where they put on concerts and also give a platform to young musicians. I had just finished my degree and was invited by Barry to participate. There were two pianists, two violinists and two cellists involved and we all got a week of masterclasses at Clandeboye. At the end of the week there was a competition between us all, which I was fortunate enough to win. That was a great feeling.

While at Clandeboye I took masterclasses with Barry Douglas. We got on really well and he’s been very supportive of my career ever since. That year we played Mozart’s Double Concerto together four times. Then, in 2006, it was on Barry’s invitation that I performed with the Hallé Orchestra as part of the Manchester ‘Piano 2006’ festival.

So what are you involved in now?
I’m a member of Ensemble Avalon, a trio formed in 2006 by Ioana Petcu-Colan (violin), Gerald Peregrine (cello) and myself. We met through Camerata Ireland, as Ioana and Gerald are both regular members of the orchestra. We played through some trio music together, got on well and had a good connection so decided to put on some concerts and see where we could go with it.

What is the Ensemble Avalon sound?
Well, the balance of the three instruments – piano, violin and cello – is for me a really fantastic combination, and one for which a lot of great music has been written. We enjoy playing the famous trio repertoire classics, as well as more unusual works. That is reflected on our CD, where the well-known Beethoven ‘Ghost’ Trio appears alongside lesser-known works by Bernstein and Bax. All three are wonderful pieces of music that are really rewarding and enjoyable to listen to, and to perform. 

Do you perform live much?
We have given a lot of performances for broadcast on RTÉ lyric fm, who also produced the album for us. We are also now progamming our own series of concerts – for example this November 28-30 we are putting on the Ensemble Avalon Winter Chamber Festival in Wexford. At this festival we will be premiering a new work written specially for us by the Dublin-based jazz composer Ronan Guilfoyle. We also designed the entire festival programme, inviting guest musicians, organising venues, running order, all that stuff. It’s been a huge undertaking but really rewarding. It’s great to be able to call it your own.

You’re in the early days of your career, where would you like to see it going?
Obviously I’ve a long way to go, but I’d like to keep going along the same lines, combining my solo recital engagements with chamber music collaborations and concerto performances with orchestra. I have some high-profile concerts coming up next year which will be a great help - performing at the re-opening concert of the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra and making my solo recital début in London’s Wigmore Hall. Perhaps in the future I’ll do some teaching, but for now I’m happy to concentrate on performing and see where that takes me.

For more information on Michael McHale visit www.michaelmchale.com and for the Ensemble Avalon visit www.ensembleavalon.net