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26 September 2014
Piano forte

Piano forte

Jeffrey Sharkey arrived in Scotland to take up his new role at the head of the country’s performing arts conservatoire with an impressive pedigree. Educated at Yale and Cambridge universities, he most recently was director of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, as well as being an accomplished pianist and composer.

He was attracted to the role at Glasgow’s music, theatre, dance and film school by a holistic approach to the arts he says is more evident in Europe than it was at home.
“In my childhood I was lucky. I was in the tiny state of Delaware, and had access to Philadelphia teachers, and the University of Delaware,” he says, but as he grew up he realised he wanted to both “make music and recreate music” and had to fight against pressure to specialise. “Pianists, at that time in the 80s were sticking to being pianists. There’s plenty of repertoire to learn, and they weren’t also trying to compose or improvise. Composers were trying to declare their colours in New York – were you uptown, were you following the total serialism Darmstadt academic work, or were you downtown, trying to be neo-romantic liberalist, or slightly Broadway-ish? America is a nation of specialisms, and as I got older I kind of came up against that.”
He met his wife, the accomplished English cellist Alison Wells, while studying at Yale, and came with her to the UK when her fellowship required her to return. At Cambridge, he worked as a composer with Robin Holloway as well as playing concerts. “Alison and I made our South Bank debut after winning a competition, and soon after formed a piano trio. I was really doing both. I really fell in love with this more holistic style of being an artist I found in Europe, in England at that time, and certainly now I’ve found very much here in Scotland.”
The style is one celebrated at the RCS, he says, which “gives permission” to develop as an artist along your own path. “It says the standards must be high, your technique must be well developed, absolutely, but it is not against those high standards to get out of your comfort zone. It’s not going against your training. So it’s a recognition people are going to invent their own performance, produce their own careers. That’s at the core of the way we’re educating.”
The conservatoire’s ‘Bridge Week’, an annual event which allows for student-led productions, embodies this ethos, he says. “We give the premises to the students and say we’re here if you need us, but go and think of something cool, think of something creative, think of something different.”
Seeing the work of students outwith his own art form has been a learning experience and influenced his own practice, he says. “I saw preparation for the play Festen we put on, and I just love the way the actors were dealing with the complexities of the play: the really raw emotions, talking about ‘how does this make me feel? in a very direct way. Musicians are less direct. Sometimes we’re very afraid. Some teachers are very gifted at trying to talk about emotions, others try to shy away from it. Bringing it out into the sunlight is something actors do very well.” Students of dance, production and screen also have opened his eyes to different ways of performing, he says.
His appreciation of Scottish culture is evident. “We have a traditional music degree programme, and yes, of course, there’s bagpiping, and there ought to be, because we partner with the National Piping Centre, but there’s also accordion, fiddle, singing,” he says, pointing to the success of graduate singer Robin Stapleton who recently won BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year.
“There is a unique definable tradition here that is one of the great folk music traditions in the world, rivalling that, to my mind, of Chinese folk tradition and Korean folk tradition. That’s very special and definable, because Scotland has worked to nurture it throughout the centuries. When Bartok tried to find pure Romanian music, it was influenced by Hungary, it was influenced by parts of Germany, and it was hard to find what the pure thing was. Obviously we’ve had influences from Scandinavia, but there’s something that is indefinably Scottish and unique in this world. It can really change the way a classical violinist might think of the role of the violin in society.”
Scottish identity was in sharp focus when Sharkey arrived in the country, as the debate on independence was reaching full throttle. “It was thrilling, actually. I landed at Glasgow Airport the day of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and I voted in the referendum, because I’m a dual citizen and a Scottish resident. What I find fascinating is how Scotland is asserting itself in the world, within the United Kingdom, within Europe.”
In America, ‘Scotland Week’ has made a big difference, says Sharkey, who describes persuading Congress to recognise it as “huge”, when it “doesn’t have it for Romania, or France, but they have it for Scotland.”
The Conservatoire and the nearby Glasgow School of Art can “fly the flag” for Scottish culture, he says, both for the people of Scotland and for how Scotland projects itself internationally. “You hear the term ‘soft power’, and I think it’s a really important thing these days. Scotland can project itself into the world, its values and its traditions, through its culture.”
Sharkey hopes to build international bridges at the RCS. “One thing I love about Scotland is I already see it being a very willing international partner, to an even greater extent than I personally experienced down south. We’re further north in Europe and we partner very easily with Scandinavia, Iceland, Amsterdam, northern Germany, everywhere, really, and I seek to build on that and add the United States and Canada, and work on a bigger Asian presence. Our London sister schools have cultivated a terrific presence in Asia, and we have something slightly different from them we can offer.”
It is important, too, to attract students from areas of social deprivation. “It’s very, very important to me personally, and we are fortunate because it’s also a goal of the Scottish Government, and we have funding from them for a programme called Transitions 2040, which gives us resources and a mandate to go to disadvantaged communities across Scotland and help them right there grow their own arts programmes. But what I also want to be able to do is connect that to our junior conservatoire right here in Glasgow and find pathways for excellence to emerge then join our senior conservatoire. We’ll do some on our own, but we’ll also do some partnering with Sistema, with Scottish Opera’s education scheme, with Scottish Ballet and the RSNO,” he says.
Ambitious, for someone not long in the door? “From the day I started on September 1, it’s been fantastic. The people here are open to ideas and giving of their own ideas, on the staff side, the students’ side, on the governors’ side. What a great place this is. This place will succeed because of such openness and enthusiasm, from everyone that’s part of it. I’m honoured to be here.”

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