Jill Richards is spectacular, in a humble way, says MICK RAUBENHEIMER. The receiver of awe and unadulterated esteem amongst her musical (especially classically trained) peers, she is known for not only executing highly challenging works for piano, but doing so deftly, with that delightful touch called grace.

During one of UNISA’s New Music workshops around 2006, Jill Richards debuted a particularly intricate composition by jazz pianist Paul Hanmer. Hanmer was in attendance, grinning intermittently throughout the performance.

During a brief Q&A afterwards, a student asked Mr. Hanmer why he hadn’t performed the piece himself. “Because I can’t,” he admitted with a chuckle. When pushed further by the student, who wanted to understand the point of composing something beyond one’s own musical reach, Richards stepped in for him and quipped an immortal line: “If you own a Ferrari, are you only going to use it to drive to the nearest café?”

Pianist Jill Richards
Pianist Jill Richards

Jill is the go-to pianist of adventurous new music composer Kevin Volans, and has performed with, and for the cream of the crop of the South African classical and new music worlds, including Dr. Michael Blake and Clare Loveday.

She’s also improvised with that guru-like figure, the late, astoundingly gifted Zim Ngqawana. She recalls, “He was so generous and full of knowledge and encouragement that I managed (improvising with him), and it’s opened up a wonderful part of music for me. I am immensely grateful for that.”

She has also collaborated with many composers from around the globe and her performances have taken her to five continents. In anticipation of her upcoming piano duo performances with Michael Watt in Melville, we sat down for a virtual cuppa.

Q: What has kept you up and going during this COVID period?

It was pretty tough! I started with my customary enthusiasm for trying out something new in terms of a strange, quiet and restricted world, but 2020 was really a dismal year for work. Better last year, and 2022 is better again with more performances and some wonderful online projects. I suppose the plus is that I discovered that I have an even stronger creative self than I’d imagined, which makes me very happy, and busy.

Q: Pet likes and dislikes?

Well… on the subject of pets, I love my two dogs and two cats! I also love gardening, which is of course a creative thing to do. It’s a bit like music, in that there’s no ultimate control. Plants will behave in all sorts of ways. And when I’m in the “zone”, the music will reveal even more of itself, just as plants do (after mountains of practising though!). Of course, I am wildly in love with my pianos too. And dislikes:  I loathe dishonesty, bull-shitters and liars. And bad compositions!

Q: What gets you most excited about a new composition?

Wonderful question. There are two things: When someone has written music which has a deep clarity of intention, structure, and a beautiful musical logic – kind of like a thread running through it where every single note makes sense.  (There’s a lot of crap out there.) It feels like a beautiful voyage of discovery. And I also adore great writing for the piano, which exploits the instrument in all its fabulous versatility.

Picture: Graham de Lacy

Q: Tell us about the set-list for the upcoming duos – how you decided on the pieces.

Well – there’s this thing about pianists: we love pieces that make our instrument sound fabulous! Essentially, we chose a programme that does just that, as well as being musically satisfying. We are playing the Brahms Variations on a theme by Josef Haydn, which is glorious piano writing. Then we will play ‘En Blanc et Noir’ by Debussy, an extraordinary work which was written during the First World War, and reflects that dark time. Last on the programme is the Rachmaninov Suite op.17 which is as gorgeous as it gets: Beautiful music, and a joy to play.

Q: Tell us about Michael Watt, and is this to be your first collaboration?

I’ve known Michael for ages and he is a really wonderful friend, and we share a deep bond, with music being the common language. He’s part of my family of musical colleagues. He’s a wonderfully creative pianist. We’ve been talking about playing piano duos forever, and I’m so happy that we are finally doing this concert. The repertoire is extensive and interesting, so there will be more to come.

Q: What is your favourite thing about being a musician?

JR: Music is a core part of my being – when I’m practising or listening to music, I feel as if I’m in a deep and special world. It’s deeply satisfying on so many levels. And of course, having colleagues who communicate on the same plane – like speaking the same beautiful language.

Where: No.84, 7th Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg
When: 7 August 2022
Book: www.webtickets.co.za, Webtickets, and Pick ‘n Pay