Scenes from Childhood

What happens when thirteen celebrity amateur pianists are let loose on a well-loved work by Schumann? Oliver Condy finds out

‘I’ve never been so scared in my life’, said a less than perky-looking Sue Perkins down in the green room at Kings Place on Saturday morning. Mind you, the rest of us were all feeling a little queasy too. Lucy Parham, the curator of a magnificent Schumann Festival at the London venue had decided, as a finale, to ask 13 amateur pianist celebrities to play a movement from Schumann’s Kinderscenen in front of a capacity audience in the venue’s main hall. All in aid of the National Youth Orchestra. And as Sue and I sat down to compare notes, the rest of the troupe sidled in, armed with coffee, worried faces and too many different editions of Schumann’s music to mention: Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker, Conrad Williams, author of The Concert Pianist, veteran actor Edward Fox sporting a tremendous beard and cravat, broadcaster Katie Derham, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Kit Hesketh-Harvey of Kit and the Widow, journalist Richard Ingrams, financier Claus Moser, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leader of the NYO Michael Foyle and Glyndebourne’s general director David Pickard.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that two minutes on stage would have been a breeze for that lot, but I’ve never seen a more anxious bunch in my life. ‘If I was going on stage to recite poetry, I’d be fine. But this is different’, the Jackal himself, Edward Fox whispered to me. How much practice had we all done?, the question furtively zoomed round the room. No one revealed the whole truth, although Sue Perkins said that she had had to hire a piano, Richard Ingrams had prepared on his trusty upright Broadwood, Katie Derham had started learning hers just ten days previously and yours truly had been squeezing in the odd ten minutes here and there over the previous month.

A play-through was planned for 10am during which we decided on our modus operandi. Would there be applause between movements? We thought not, on balance. Each player would seamlessly take over from the other in a musical relay so as not to interrupt the flow. Perkins, a little worried about her movement, grabbed me to one side after the rehearsal for some tips, so we went into a practice room where I listened to her play. Her nervousness, it turned out, wasn’t from lack of preparation, but from the fact that she wasn’t playing deep into the keyboard, which in turn unsettled her. By playing deeper, her playing took on a calmer, more musical character which in turn boosted her confidence.

Twenty minutes later, we regrouped downstairs, took our seats in the hall and prepared for our fate. After being introduced by Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawny, we went backstage again and lined up. It was like being back at school and no better for it. But one by one, we played and one by one, we emerged, blinking, into the daylight once more. It was over.

The deafening applause at the end seemed to affect even Fox. ‘This has been so worthwhile – such a wonderful thing to do,’ he admitted to me on stage. Music had not only brought us together, but had broken down the boundaries that might otherwise have stopped me from interacting with these incredible people. We were all in it together, as Rusbridger had said, rallying us before the concert. And so, for an hour or so, we stopped being actors, broadcasters, comedians, cardinals and writers, and concentrated on making as good music as we could, helping each other to do the same. We simply wanted to do ourselves and others proud. And everyone did.

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine