Nathaniel Mander is one of the most exciting young harpsichordists to emerge in recent years. In great demand as a recitalist, continuo player and chamber musician throughout Europe and the United States, he has performed at all the major venues including the Wigmore Hall, King’s Place, the Purcell Room, Hampton Court Palace, the Handel House Museum, St Martin-in-the-Fields to name but a few. Here Gill Seaton meets Nathaniel and talks technique, performance nerves, and clothes!
When did you first become interested in the harpsichord?
I became quite literally obsessed with the harpsichord when I was about 12 and first played one at 14. I was transfixed with its unique sound and found the gloriously colourful 18th century world that accompanied it fascinating.
Did you learn the piano first and was there a moment where you had to choose between being a pianist or harpsichordist?
I had started learning the piano a few years beforehand and had a wonderfully passionate teacher who introduced me to the joys of so much keyboard repertoire. In the end my obsession got the better of me and I specialised in harpsichord and boy am I glad I did!
How did you find the transition to the harpsichord? Did you have to adapt your technique? What are the main differences?
At the start it’s very difficult and equally frustrating. The harpsichord is an instrument that requires pin point accuracy, total economy of movement and very detailed work and these are skills that take time to develop.
My teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Carole Cerasi, taught me with beautiful detail the art of playing the harpsichord. I’m so grateful to her for her wisdom of touch, relaxation and style. She really unlocked the instrument for me. Mind you, I’m still refining everything. It never ends!
How many hours of practice do you recommend for both a student and an established performer like yourself?
4 hours of focused practice split into two halves is abundantly sufficient.
How do you take a fresh approach to a well-known work?
This is something that’s most important to do once you’re on stage. You spend so long getting to know a work inside out and when it comes to performing you’ve got to let go and relive the joy and enthusiasm that you knew when you first heard the piece.
How do tackle learning a particularly complex work for the first time?
There is often a psychological barrier that can act as a block to learning a difficult work. The number of times I’ve thought ‘I’ll never play this!’ and then look back later and can’t imagine why I ever doubted it. That said, I’m still too scared to learn the Goldberg variations. Anyone want to jolt me into learning this??
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I like the fact that a seed is planted and then you run with it – a broad subject, then you can obsess about it and develop it. You need outward inspiration.
Which type of work do you think you play best?
I have a natural sensitivity to French music because there’s something very refined and introspective about it – I love that it’s hand in glove with the instrument.
How far in advance would you learn a work for a forthcoming concert?
Once a programme has been set for a concert, even if it’s over a year away, there is a lovely feeling of inspiration that I get and I delve into the pieces with a new found love. Of course, this doesn’t last, but it’s a good foundation to work on nearer the time.
Do you have any advice on how to memorise a work?
You just need to know your harmony and then you can reduce the work mentally into its basic chord structures. Even in times of panic, if this is set in stone, you’ll be fine because even if you fall off, you can get right back on!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The most interesting one is an Elizabethan manor house – Restoration House – a bit like a tudor court where I often play the instruments that are housed there. It has a lovely drawing room – I’m always attracted to intimate chamber settings. When you play it in these settings, it just works.
Do you suffer from performance anxiety and how do you deal with this?
Yes, and these days I accept and embrace it as part of the experience. I’m a thrill seeker so I try to convert it into excitement. It’s about how you see things in life.
What does your pre- and post-concert routine involve?
Lots and lots of agitated pacing like a lunatic!
Would you ever have a drink before a concert?!
I did once treat myself to le petit vin blanc before a concert. It was a disaster and I’ll never do it again.
How do you unwind after a performance?
I get terribly fired up and I’ve got to live the buzz. Sleep is out of the question. More champagne!
Are your hands insured and do you take risks with your hands?
No as I think this promotes neurosis of which I have quite enough.
Some musicians are known to have ‘artistic temperaments’ – how do you handle working with musicians with big egos for a harmonious outcome?
I have an artistic temperament but I’m careful about who I inflict it on! I think one can’t help being like this when one cares so much about something. The truth of the matter is that you need an ego to get you onto the stage and then you’ve got to dissolve it entirely to be there selflessly for the music. I’m a softie really!
Do you dream about harpsichords or have nightmares about performances?
I’ll save this for my therapist. I did once (like a lot of musicians) dream that I met Bach which was thrilling. Problem is it’s Mozart that I really want to meet!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Managing life as a musician; it’s a balancing act between being a performing artist and living your life – balancing this constant fluctuating energy. Knowing when to take time off, trusting in your career – it takes a huge leap of faith.
Have there been any huge disappointments in your career and, if so, how have you dealt with them?
Massive. Life can sometimes feel like one big disappointment: ‘I never signed up for this!’ However, there is a hugely liberating and empowering way out which I’ve discovered and that’s gratitude. I practise this every day and feel so very blessed and lucky to be able to do what I do and how my life is right now. I try to keep my childlike love and wonder of the world alive always.
Who is your favourite musician?
Julie Andrews! I am totally inspired by her for 3 reasons – her discipline, her behaviour and her appreciation of luck in life. Definitely been inspired by that – it’s humbling to remember how much is down to luck. Of course, she has the most divine voice too.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To never forget why it is you do what you’re doing, to be incredibly disciplined because the impetus flows through you – it is so easy to get lost in what you’re doing so always bring it back to the love of music.
Are you finding any composers writing for the harpsichord today?
Yes, many and much new harpsichord music is getting performed which is fantastic.
For Nigel Kennedy it’s Aston Villa Football Club and for Evelyn Glennie it’s jewelry – do you have any other passions outside of your life as a musician?
I love 19th century literature and well-tailored clothes. I also love nurturing things and have quite the collection of house plants at home.
Where do you get your beautiful waistcoats from?
All over; I’ve always got my eye out for a nice piece when I’m out and about!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Always being alive to the creativity and love of music.
Finally, where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Sipping champagne on the Cote D’Azur!
You can hear Nathaniel playing at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on Thursday, 6 June. For details and a list of his forthcoming concerts click here.
Gill Seaton is the Artistic Director of the Eaton Concert Series in Norwich, Norfolk.