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Player Profiles: John Constable

25 Sep 2017

John Constable image
John Constable, Emeritus Principal Piano, Royal Festival Hall 2017

As part of our 50th Anniversary Season we’ll be catching up with each of our Principal Players to talk about their favourite memories of the ensemble. What better place to start than with John Constable, who has been playing with the London Sinfonietta since our first ever concert in 1968…

We’re very sad that this is your final season with the London Sinfonietta and we couldn’t say goodbye without picking your brains on your long history of playing with the ensemble. Can you tell us about some of your stand-out memories from the early years?
I think the concerts that really stand out from our first fifteen years are the big series planned and conducted by David Atherton; Schoenberg-Gerhard, Webern-Schubert, Ravel-Varese and Stravinsky. I was extremely lucky to have the chance to play all the songs of Webern, Ravel and Stravinsky. Also, I will never forget our six week tour of Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada plus a lovely short holiday in Fiji during which David Atherton and Janet Craxton established themselves as the leading table tennis players on tour!

What about your first ever London Sinfonietta performance?
I will never forget the start of The Whale, the only piece I played in. It began with the famous BBC Radio news reader Alvar Liddell describing a whale and being gradually rendered inaudible by the ensemble getting louder and louder!

Of the conductors and composers that you’ve worked with, who really stands out in your mind?
I have worked with so many composers and conductors during my time with London Sinfonietta that I have greatly admired, it is hard to single them out. Of conductors I have to pick out David Atherton for the way he trained us all in our early years and set a standard that still remains to this day.

It was an incredible experience to work with the great composer-conductors, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutosławski and our own Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin. It was also a great honour to work with people like György Ligeti and Elliott Carter who I particularly had a great affection for both as composer and as a human being. 

We were also very fortunate to work with Simon Rattle on a regular basis over many years including the amazing 10 year festival Towards the Millenium, but above all I cherish the opportunity I had to perform and record the Da Falla harpsichord concerto with him, a great honour.

What have been the most unusual requests from composers? Have you ever been reluctant to manipulate your piano as intended?
There have been so many unusual requests to do things inside the piano, most of which I have certainly not tried on my own piano. Henze particularly asked for many things in Voices, like scraping a coin up a string very hard, dropping marbles onto strings, pizzicato on the strings with a plectrum and hitting the strings with percussion sticks. Also of course the works of John Cage when you have to prepare the piano by forcing nuts, bolts and rubber wedges between the strings. I hasten to add that for this sort of thing we always hire a special piano, never using a wonderful Steinway.

Do you have any snippets of advice for young players entering the contemporary classical world?
Apart from telling young players to play with accurate rhythm - otherwise they will not be able to fit in with the rest of the ensemble - and to prepare the parts well before the first rehearsal, I always tell them to not just concentrate on contemporary music but to keep playing all styles of music. I always remember Stockhausen asked me to play something “like Chopin”. It has always been one of the strengths of the group that we all play the whole repertoire of music.

Can you share with us your thoughts on the importance of making new music?
Music can never stand still and never has done so. It is vital that new works are continually played however revolutionary or unusual they may seem. For a young composer, it is essential that they hear their music played, otherwise they will not know what they need to alter in their technique.

We’ve heard you’re quite the expert on fine dining, do you have a favourite restaurant in London?
I am not sure about “fine dining” but I have always loved finding good local food wherever I go and having been touring for 57 years I have a good collection of favourites all over the world. My favourite restaurant in London is The Hereford on Hereford Road, W2 - not far from where I live. It is chef owned, very original food and not too expensive. And no music!

Do you see it as particularly fitting that your final concert with the London Sinfonietta is one of Berio – considering the close relationship that the ensemble had with him throughout his career?
I am particularly pleased that my last concert as principal pianist of the London Sinfonietta is devoted to the music of Luciano Berio. I have never heard a piece of Luciano’s that I havent enjoyed and we owe so much to him for his support in our early years. I particularly remember a lovely tour in the Italian Lakes ending up with two concerts in Venice.


John Constable will be appearing at Turning Points: London Sinfonietta and Turning Points: Berio this autumn.