Saturday 12 November 2022

Any successful society has music at its core: pianist Iyad Sughayer on his new music academy in Jordan

Iyad Sughayer (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Iyad Sughayer (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)

The UK-based Jordanian pianist Iyad Sughayer first came to my attention when I heard him at a City Music Foundation recital in February 2020 [see my review], and since then he has developed quite a reputation. He is currently a YCAT artist and has released a pair of highly regarded discs of music by Khachaturian on BIS. Coming to the UK at the age of 14 to further his musical education, Iyad still has strong links to his homeland and, aware of the need to improve classical music opportunities for other Jordanian children, he has recently started a music academy, the Mashrek Academy of Music in Amman.

Iyad has always enjoyed teaching and admits that one of his ambitions was to have his own music school. During the pandemic, he found himself with rather too much time on his hands, whilst finding it hard to concentrate on practising. He advertised online lessons and found himself with several students from Jordan, and he came to realise that they needed an academic programme alongside their playing. 

At the age of around 14, Iyad had to leave Jordan in order to further his musical career and get the academic training he needed (he came to the UK and studied at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester). He felt that he wanted to give these young Jordanian pianists the opportunities to get the sort of training in their own country that he had lacked. From initial ideal, the project took about two years to get off the ground and the academy opened its doors in September this year (2022) with around 30 children, studying strings, piano and percussion and hope to add new instrumental study on an annual basis.

The school is aimed at children from age five to 18, and Iyad's comment is that he wants to get them addicted to music from a young age. The teachers are all based in Amman and the head of music is a friend of his, Hind Sabanegh, who previously was Academic Supervisor at the Edward Said National Conservatory for Music in Jerusalem.

Mashrek Academy of Music (Photo Nader Raddad)
Mashrek Academy of Music (Photo Nader Raddad)

From the outset Iyad was realistic that the project would not get off the ground without a partner, so he contacted his old school, the Mashrek International School in Amman. He studied there from the age of five to fourteen, and they were very supportive when he then went off to the UK to study. For him it was a fantastic school, with around 2000 pupils, one of the leading schools in Jordan and their involvement in the new project would mean being able to open up the music academy to everyone in Jordan. After approaching the school, they took only two weeks to agree to the idea. The new music academy is on the school's campus, and the school has invested in new facilities and instruments.

The music academy is a day school, and though music is not an extra-curricular activity per se, most of the music activities take place at evenings and weekends. He admits that it is quite a compact programme for the children, but they enjoy it, whilst most parents like the idea of not having to drive their children across town to music lessons! Iyad's aim with the music academy is not to produce concert artists, though he would be delighted if they did, but to encourage an appreciation of music, to create a new generation of lawyers, doctors and such who appreciate the art. For Iyad, any successful society has music at its core. Music is important in education all round, as well as creating a more civilised, more educated society.

For the next three years, the new music academy will be concentrating on making sure that things are operating at their best, but Iyad admits that they have ideas and plans for further expansion. One associated project is the idea for a music festival. The school has a fine 500-seater theatre. At the moment they do not have a concert-standard piano, but once they have acquired one then Iyad wants to launch a music festival. The idea is that this will not only provide a stage for local musicians and musicians from the Middle East, but also will attract international artists to come and perform and teach.

Iyad Sughayer at Mashrek International School (Photo Nader Raddad)
Iyad Sughayer at Mashrek International School (Photo Nader Raddad)

Iyad admits that he did not realise quite how much work would be involved in creating the academy. Previously all he had to do was turn up for a gig, play and then go home, but now he has learned a phenomenal amount, about things that he never thought he would.

Iyad's most recent recording was a disc of Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto and Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Andrew Litton on BIS [see my review], a follow-up to his disc of Khachaturian solo piano music [see my review]. He loves Khachaturian's music. He points out that Armenian music is quite close to Arabic music, and Iyad thinks that may be why he was drawn to the composer's work. Whilst it isn't Beethoven or Brahms, Khachaturian's music deserves to be played.

Whilst studying at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Iyad had played Khachaturian's Toccata. A friend had started his own orchestra and asked Iyad to perform a concerto with them. Instead of something like Liszt's Piano Concerto No 2, they decided on something far more unusual. Iyad had heard Khachaturian's Piano Concerto on disc, and so they decided to perform it with the orchestra as a great way to start. Iyad's teacher then suggested that he look at Khachaturian's piano music, a path that led to him being asked to do the first BIS disc, which went down well. There is more Khachaturian solo piano music, but Iyad is also keen to look at other repertoire.

Whilst Khachaturian's Piano Concerto is a relatively known quantity, the later Concerto-Rhapsody is far more of an unknown quantity (it does not even seem to have been performed in concert in the UK). The Concerto-Rhapsody is a far less easily approachable work than the concerto, but Iyad hopes that people will give it a second chance. Some reviews of the disc have been less than positive about the Concerto-Rhapsody, but he has grown to love the piece, and feels that it deserves performance, and wants listeners to come to love it. Given the work's form, it is a challenge for the orchestra as well as the soloist, a big work, tough but worth it.

Andrew Keener, Iyad Sughayer, Andrew Litton at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff for the Khachaturian concertos recording
Andrew Keener, Iyad Sughayer, Andrew Litton at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff for the Khachaturian concertos recording

In fact, much of his repertoire is early classical, a period that he loves. In March 2023 he begins a complete Mozart piano sonata cycle at Leicester Museum Concert Series, at the invitation of Nicholas Daniel, artistic director of the Leicester International Music Festival. Iyad will work his way through the sonatas between then and 2024. But he feels he would want to perform the cycle three or four times before even considering recording. He has just turned 29, and has been lucky enough to release solo, chamber music and concerto discs, so he is not in a hurry to record his next disc. 

The repertoire for the Khachaturian came naturally, and he wants any new disc to be the same. Since the pandemic, he has tried to play what he is in love with. And he admits that your approach changes over time, so that he played some of the Mozart sonatas when he was 15 or 16, but his older self prefers to play them differently, his speeds can be slower. As well as pushing himself to learn the complete cycle of Mozart sonatas, the Leicester concerts will be his first artistic residency and his first such complete cycle of works by a composer. Another composer that interests him is Haydn, and whilst the complete sonatas would be a project and a half, he would love to consider a cycle of Haydn concertos.

Another composer we talk about is Schubert, with a cycle of Schubert sonatas being something that you would grow into. One of Iyad's teachers was responsible an edition of the Schubert sonatas with completions of the unfinished ones and it was he who advised Iyad to look at Schubert's sonatas.

On 6 December 2022, Iyad is giving a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall with the French oboist Armand Djikoloum (another YCAT artist) performing Britten, Felix Mendelssohn, Poulenc, R Schumann and Tchaikovsky [further details], a programme that they have already performed at the Lammermuir Festival. On 7 March 2023, Iyad returns to Wigmore Hall for a solo recital featuring his favourite composers in one concert, Khachaturian, Mozart, Robert Schumann and Sibelius [further details], a programme that he will be performing at concerts during January and February 2023. Then he returns to the hall on 21 March 2023 with Jamaican-American viola player Jordan Bak (a YCAT artist) in a programme of Brahms, Falla and Isang Yun (1917-1995) [further details]. The next year is an exciting time for Iyad, with something on almost every week, and he is thankful to Nicholas Daniels and to YCAT for keeping him busy.

He started playing the piano in Jordan at around the age of four. Classical music was not a normal form of art in Jordan when he was growing up, and the conservatoire there was good up to a certain stage, but it became clear that he would have to leave the country if he wanted to follow more intense musical training. So, at the age of 14, he travelled on his own to Manchester and started at Chetham's. He had a wonderful time at Chetham's, being amongst people who loved what he loved.  From there he studied at the RNCM, then Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (where he won the college's Gold Medal) before returning to RNCM where he now teaches and calls Manchester his joint home. Moving to the UK at the age of 14 was made easier by his music, it gave him a reason for the move. He admits that it is frustrating for performers at a certain level in Jordan as there are no competitions, few opportunities and no festivals. When at school Jordan, he was the only one in his classroom who played an instrument.

He has two older sisters, and Iyad's interest in music started when his father bought an electric keyboard. Iyad's grandfather adored music, as a listener, but no-one in his family played an instrument. But at four years old, Iyad was playing tunes that he heard on the television on the keyboard. He started piano lessons and loved it, though like most children he did not always want to practice. His mother, who has little interest in music, would come with him to every lesson and would ensure that he did indeed do his practice. He feels that he is very, very lucky.

Once he had left Jordan, he would return in the holidays, but when he got busier it would often be just once a year. Now, the new academy gives him the excuse to go back to Amman and to visit his parents. 

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