The pi­anist whowants you to laugh at his play­ing

Danny Driver is per­form­ing at the first ever ‘Com­edy Prom’ this week­end

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - BY JESSICA DUCHEN

WHEN THE p i a n i s t D a n n y D r i v e r steps onto the Royal Al­bert Hall p l a t f o r m to­mor­row, it will be no or­di­nary evening, ei­ther for him or for his au­di­ence. First of all, it is his de­but at the BBC Prom­e­nade Con­certs; se­condly, it is the first time that this sum­mer se­ries has of­fered a “Com­edy Prom”. Driver is part of a dis­tin­guished line-up for the event that in­cludes the cabaret duo Kit and the Widow, the so­prano Su­san Bul­lock, the BBC Con­cert Orches­tra and co­me­di­ans Tim Minchin and Sue Perkins.

Driver will be nav­i­gat­ing his way through a piece of mu­sic that, al­though few have heard of it or its com­poser, will ap­par­ently sound more than fa­mil­iar. It is the Con­certo Popo­lare by Franz Reizen­stein (1911-68) — a mer­ci­less spoof based on a num­ber of great ro­man­tic piano con­cer­tos. Its com­poser’s life was less amus­ing: Reizen­stein was born Jewish in Nurem­berg, and came to Bri­tain as a refugee from the Nazis in 1934.

“The piece is a mix­ture of fa­mous piano con­cer­tos thrown to­gether and was cre­ated for the first Hoff­nung Fes­ti­val in 1956,” Driver says. “What makes it par­tic­u­larly clever is that the pi­anist and the orches­tra can’t seem to agree at any mo­ment which piece they’re sup­posed to be play­ing!”

Ger­ard Hoff­nung, the much-loved Ger­man-Jewish hu­morist, in­sti­gated Hoff­nung Fes­ti­vals that of­fered com­edy in mu­sic; they ended with his death in 1959. To­day too few con­certs fo­cus on mu­si­cal hu­mour. Driver sug­gests that thisin­spiredProm­comes­no­ta­mo­ment too soon.

“It’s a won­der­ful idea,” he de­clares. “Clas­si­cal mu­sic is a se­ri­ous thing in many ways and it deals with many se­ri­ous is­sues of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. But even so, across the whole spec­trum of styles and com­posers, there’s a lighter, hu­mor­ous side.”

As ex­am­ples, he points to some of Haydn’s sym­phonies and string quar­tets, Bar­tok’s side-swipe at Shostakovich in the Con­certo for Orches­tra, and Bach’s light-hearted Cof­fee Can­tata.

A Proms de­but is a land­mark for any soloist and Driver needs no re­mind­ing of its sig­nif­i­cance. “I’ve played at the Royal Al­bert Hall be­fore, but the Proms are some­thing spe­cial,” he says. “They’re for ev­ery­one —– you can go and hear world-class artists and or­ches­tras night af­ter night for only £5 a con­cert. It’s truly the high­est qual­ity clas­si­cal mu­sic at a price avail­able to ev­ery­body.

“I’ve been to the Proms ev­ery year since I was a teenager and I’ve many won­der­ful mem­o­ries. I once went to an in­cred­i­ble Par­si­fal con­ducted by Si­mon Rat­tle — it was a five-hour per­for­mance and we stood up through t h e w h o l e thing be­cause i t w a s s o e x t r a o r d i - n a r y . T h e P r o ms a r e al­ways in­spir­ing.”

Growingup in Lon­don, Driver had con­stant ac­cess to ex­cel­lent con­certs, but he was able to en­joy mu­sic at home, too. His fa­ther was a keen ama­teur vi­o­lin­ist and some of Driver’s first ex­pe­ri­ences of cham­ber mu­sic in­volved play­ing Beethoven vi­o­lin sonatas with him.

His mother is Is­raeli, and He­brew was there­fore his first lan­guage. He says: “Is­rael was the fo­cus of my Jewish con­nec­tion more so than the re­li­gion it­self — I don’t come from a par­tic­u­larly reli- gious house­hold. But my wife and I are both de­scended from the Baal Shem Tov.” His wife is Re­becca Miller, an Amer­i­can con­duc­tor; the cou­ple, who live in north-west Lon­don, have worked out that they are “11th cousins, or pos­si­bly 10th cousins once re­moved”.

We en­joy a brief di­ver­sion to dis­cuss the dif­fer­ing philoso­phies of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the mys­ti­cal and ec­static Cha­sidism) and the Vilna Gaon (a lynch­pin of the 18th-cen­tury’s Jewish En­light­en­ment). Driver feels that the Baal Shem Tov’s out­look was sim­i­lar to that of many types of artist, “par­tic­u­larly the sense of be­ing in­spired by na­ture and in­deed by ev­ery­thing around you. I feel there may be some con­nec­tion be­tween that and my mu­si­cal life. There’s a strong con­nec­tion be­tween mu­sic and mys­ti­cal realms, many things that are in­tan­gi­ble — that old cliché about mu­sic be­gin­ning where words end.”

Driver, who took a de­gree in nat­u­ral sci­ences at Cam­bridge be­fore study­ing at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic and win­ning the BBC Ra­dio 2 Young Mu­si­cian of the Year in 2001, cer­tainly en­joys ex­plor­ing fas­ci­nat­ing by­ways, mu­si­cal as well as philo­soph­i­cal.

His record­ings for Hype­r­ion — a la­bel famed for the qual­ity of its piano cat­a­logue—in­clude­unusu­al­reper­toire­such as the six piano sonatas of York Bowen, a dis­tin­guished yet shock­ingly un­der­recog­nised Bri­tish com­poser of the early 20th cen­tury. The pro­ject won Driver a nom­i­na­tion for a Gramo­phone Award.

His next CD, due out next year, is of two gritty, Bar­tokian con­cer­tos by the Scot­tish com­poser Eric Chisholm (19041965), which Driver feels have long awaited ad­e­quate at­ten­tion.

But for now he is fo­cused on mak­ing his Proms au­di­ence laugh. “Clas­si­cal mu­sic is not just about tragedy or con­flict. It can also be about hav­ing a good time,” he says. All seats for the ‘Com­edy Prom’ are sold out, but stand­ing places are avail­able for peo­ple queue­ing on the day


Driver is a de­scen­dent of the founder of mys­ti­cal Cha­sidism, the Baal Shem Tov. “I feel a con­nec­tion,” he says

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