Award-winning pianist Daniel de Borah shares why he’s embracing the camaraderie of chamber performance.

Daniel de Borah is a bit of a rarity amongst pianists. In contrast to many of his ivory-tinkling colleagues, he shares the often solitary life of a concert soloist with something a little more social: chamber music.

Fast becoming one of the country’s most sought after exponents of ensemble performance, 2015 has featured a particularly impressive resumé of chamber achievements including superb appearances at the Musica Viva Festival in Sydney and the Canberra International Music Festival. Earlier this year he was announced as the newest member of the Australia Piano Quartet, the dynamic, young powerhouse ensemble of vibrant and compelling chamber music excellence who off the back of a hugely successful European tour, including performances at London’s renowned Barbican Centre, played to a national Australian television audience at the 2015 Helpmann Awards in July.

Next month de Borah will be appearing with another Australian chamber music success story, the Omega Ensemble, who under the Artistic Direction of founder David Rowden have established an iron-clad reputation for savvy programming and polished execution. Limelight online editor Maxim Boon caught up with the pianist ahead of his engagement with the Omegas at Sydney’s City Recital Hall Angel Place.

Daniel de Borah

As a soloist you’ve had an impressively well-credentialed career, but recently there seems to be a focus on chamber music, with appearances at the Musica Viva Festival, your recent appointment as the pianist of the APQ and now as a guest artist with Omega. What is it that attracts you to chamber performance?

Being a solo pianist can be quite an isolating existence – all those hours spent alone in the practice room culminating in sitting on stage alone under the spotlight. I actually quite enjoy that solitude but I think it is fair to say there is something much more convivial about making music with others and going through that whole process of exploring the music amongst colleagues (and ideally amongst friends!) Ultimately for me chamber music is about sharing the joy of spontaneous music-making in the moment of performance.

When you were growing up who were your piano idols? What kind of recordings were you listening to?

When I was growing up I would listen to recordings more to hear the pieces of music than the individual performers. Later I did fall sporadically under the spell of Gould, Horowitz, Cortot – these larger-than-life musical personalities who could utterly convince you of an idea that you might fundamentally disagree with… I think the closest I ever came to having an idol was Oscar Peterson who made an enormous impression on me as a teenager – what a colossus!

What was your earliest/most formative experience of chamber music?

Playing the Beethoven Serenade for Flute and Piano with my father Vernon Hill in Llewellyn Hall in Canberra when I was seven!

As a pianist you’ve appeared in many guises: soloist, duo partner, ensemble member. Do you think having this versatility has been an important aspect of your musical life?

I think versatility is a key ingredient in the make-up of the modern day Australian concert pianist. Over the past month I have performed solo recitals in Geelong, Mornington and Byron Bay, quartet programs with the Australia Piano Quartet in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, a song recital in Sydney with Andrew Goodwin, a cello recital in Melbourne with Julian Smiles and an Emperor Concerto at the Bangalow Music Festival. Whereas when I lived in the UK [where he trained at the Royal Academy of Music – ed.] the vast majority of my work was solo recitals and concerto appearances, I have found since moving home that in Australia diversification is the name of the game. That’s just the nature of the musical landscape here.

I’m guessing, like a lot of young pianists, when you were studying the emphasis may have been on solo performance? Did you do a lot of chamber performance in your years as a student? Does your heart belong to chamber performance or solo?

You guess correctly, my focus was firmly on solo performance throughout my studies. I was quite blinkered in that regard as I suppose one has to be to a certain extent to excel as a soloist. That said, chamber music was an integral part of the courses of study both at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music in London, accompanying singers too in Russia. So I certainly played my fair share of chamber music as a student but only really embraced it much later. These days I just love playing and listening to great music regardless of whether it is written for solo, duo or a larger ensemble or full orchestra, and my goal and approach remain the same regardless of the size of the ensemble.

You studied overseas in the UK and in Europe, and have performed widely in the Northern Hemisphere, but more recently have chosen to make your home in Australia. Was this a conscious decision to build your career Down Under or has this been more circumstantial?

I studied in St Petersburg for six years and then in London for two during which time my performance career took off there, so I stayed on living in the UK for several more years. It had always been my idea to eventually make my home back in Australia and the timing of the move came down to personal circumstances.

Many pianists become synonymous with either a genre or specific composer’s work, but you’ve shown an impressive versatility in the repertoire you perform, from staples of the repertoire like Chopin and Schumann to contemporary and newly commissioned works. Do you think it’s important as a performer today to have a more cosmopolitan, open-minded approach to repertoire?

Not necessarily, no. Every artist follows their own path. I think for many it is natural as we mature and become more self-aware to concentrate our efforts on music with which we feel a particular affinity and to which we feel we can bring something new. 

Do you have a favourite type of repertoire you like to perform?

Playing the late Mozart piano concertos is for me the most complete and profound joy to be had at the piano.

Tell me a bit about the programme you’ll be performing with the Omega Ensemble?

It is a wonderfully varied program of works for larger chamber ensembles which takes full advantage of the instrumental wealth that the Omega Ensemble is able to draw on – septets by Ravel, Hummel and Saint-Saëns scored for unusual combinations including harp, trumpet and double bass in addition to the instruments of the string quartet, wind quintet and of course piano! The concert finale will be a performance of Martinů’s “La Revue de Cuisine” which is a concert suite derived from his one-act jazz ballet by the same name. The subject of the ballet is something of a soap opera of love entanglements, feuds and jealousy played out by kitchen utensils, dish cloths and the like – it will be a riot! 

What’s next for you? Anything exciting in 2016 you’d like to share?

My next performance in Sydney will be with the Australia Piano Quartet in the Utzon Room at the Opera House on Saturday October 3rd. We’ll be playing a program of works by Beethoven, Bliss, Mendelssohn and a new commission by Sydney composer Andrew Batt-Rawden. Later that month I’ll be playing violin and piano recitals with Adam Chalabi of the Tinalley String Quartet in Melbourne (MRC October 27th) and Brisbane (UQ School of Music October 29th)

Daniel de Borah is a guest artist with the Omega Ensemble in Chamber to Charleston, September 17 at the City Recital Hall Angel Place.