You come from a long line of famous composer-pianists. Have any in particular inspired you?
I think all of them did. I just loved how creative they were, how open they were to new things. They were always attending world premieres and had a hunger for searching out the newest sounds. How all of them were peers inspired me a lot. Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, they all knew each other and were aware of each other’s work. Of course, Bartók is an inspiration, and Rachmaninov who was an all-round musician – conductor, composer and pianist.
Stewart Goodyear. Photo © Andrew Garn
How did the two sides develop as you grew up? And is one of them dominant today do you think?
I don’t know if one is more dominant than the other. I find them both to be an equal passion of mine. The composing started when I was around eight years old. I attended a choral school in Toronto, so my first compositions were motets that I wrote for the choir to sing. I always wanted to write for orchestra so I started orchestration when I was around nine years old and was devouring as many scores as I could. The first was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and then Mozart’s Haffner Symphony.
Can I ask you about Callaloo? How did that come about and what were your aims in writing the piece?
I always wanted to write a work that paid homage to my Trinidadian background – I’m half Trinidadian, half British. As a kid, I would always be visiting my Aunt and Uncles in Trinidad as well as my cousins. I would hear this amazing calypso music, and I thought if only I could compose a classical piece that pays homage to the music from what I felt was my second home town in Trinidad. The inspiration for Callaloo, happened five years ago. It was my last trip to Trinidad and my mother and I were celebrating my birthday. We were at my uncle’s place on Gasparee Island and this was right around carnivale. We were hearing medleys from steelpans to soca to mentos, all of these different forms of calypso, and I was just inspired by what I heard. I started writing ideas and it ended up being a suite for piano and orchestra.
Was that commissioned, or did you just write it because you wanted to?
This was my personal project. Callaloo is a very famous stew composed of coconut milk and various spices all in a pot. But it’s also what Trinidadians call their “community” and it’s a melting pot of all different cultures: African, French, etc., and they call themselves callaloo because it’s a real mixture. It was from the second definition that I got my inspiration for the title.
Given your Caribbean background, what was it like working on it with Wayne Marshall and Chineke!, which is a unique, professional orchestra made up of young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) musicians in the UK?
It was such a joy! Wayne and I just clicked from the first rehearsal. We first performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue together, and then it occurred that we were just on the same page. I was so touched and moved by how enthusiastic he was about my Callaloo suite, and the orchestra just got the Caribbean flavour. Chineke! are very passionate, very talented individuals and a great orchestra when they come together. It was a fantastic marriage of minds.
I can’t imagine there are many piano sonatas inspired by high school proms. You were 18 when you wrote yours – can you explain how it works?
By the time I wrote it I was at Curtis Institute of Music. The two environments were like night and day. Curtis is a wonderful school, steeped in the tradition of Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. The tradition of artists from the golden age of pianism is still deep in that conservatory, which is wonderful. My high school, it was a sea of grunge, Nine Inch Nails, hip-hop and rock and roll. My first prom came, and I danced my first slow song to Boyz II Men. I think the Spice Girls were becoming mainstream – this was before Britney Spears – and I just got a lot of ideas from the music I was listening to. But it pays homage to the classical tradition as well and the new sounds that my peers were listening to in high school.
It sounds to me more classically influenced than that might sound – it doesn’t sound incredibly ‘poppy’. How did you work those two elements into the music itself?
Somehow it just happened organically. To me, I was just writing a piano sonata, but I knew the sounds that were coming out were not sounds that Prokofiev or Mozart had used before. It is a very classical conception, but it very much fits a tradition by which composers are using their environment to communicate their voice to their listeners.
Every pianist I guess must grow up listening to Rhapsody in Blue. What are your memories of the piece and what does it mean to you today?
I first heard Rhapsody in Blue when I was five through a 2LP set. Columbia Records use to release albums, so there would be the Mozart Album, the Copland Album, the Tchaikovsky Album etc. I saw this interesting cover with an actor playing Gershwin in the background and a 1924 photo of Times Square. I just automatically associated Rhapsody in Blue with this photo and ever since I heard it I wanted to visit New York. Even when I was living in New York for 12 years I kept on hearing Rhapsody in Blue as my mental soundtrack. Now I always associate it with the flavours of New York and energy of New Yorkers.
In a sense it links to Callaloo, in that for Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue was a similar fusion.
Exactly, and it’s also about being a part of different cultures. Gershwin was from a Russian-Jewish background and was very much inspired by jazz, Broadway and the dance styles of the period.
What are you working on at the moment?
I recorded the complete Beethoven Concertos in two weeks last September and that will be released in the Fall, probably around October or November. That was with the BBC Orchestra of Wales with Andrew Constantine conducting. As far as my compositions go, I’ve just composed a Cello Concerto that was commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. It will have a world premiere in February 2020 in Canada with Rachel Mercer, the orchestra’s Principal Cellist.
And as a performer what are you doing in the next few months?
I will be doing a UK tour of both the Rhapsody in Blue and Callaloo, which is again with Wayne. We will be performing in seven festivals in the UK and will be in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bath and other places.
Stewart Goodyear’s recording of Gershwin and Goodyear is out now on Orchid Classics