How We Met: Imogen Cooper & Sir Jeremy Dixon

'As a bat flew round the rafters, Imo played a simple piece that is one of my most precious experiences'

Interviews,Rhiannon Harries
Monday 30 December 2013 03:55

Sir Jeremy Dixon 69 is an architect. As a partner in Dixon Jones he has overseen the redesign of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and the design of the Venice bus station and Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery. He lives in north London with his partner, the journalist Julia Somerville

I got to know Imogen slowly after becoming her neighbour in 1994. I knew of her as a musician, but I didn't have anything like as complete an appreciation of her work as I do now – that is something that has definitely grown with our friendship.

There's a contrast between how Imogen perceives herself and how she is perceived by others. Imogen tends to feel she isn't particularly well-educated, as she had such a specialised training that took her away from normal schooling. But what she has learnt from all her experiences makes her an extraordinarily knowledgeable and interesting companion. She is a delightful person to be around; my mother always spoke of people having a "natural grace" and I think that sums up Imo.

She is a very courageous person, too: to plough the lone furrow of a solo musician, travelling all the time, takes a particular kind of character. She has a tremendous inner strength and discipline. She's had ups and downs but has always channelled that into making her work more robust.

I am a terribly last-minute person, but Imo provides a bit of stability – we go on walking holidays together and, as she is very constrained by her touring schedule, we have to go at a particular time and it has to be organised in advance.

I think Imogen is such a special pianist because she is not deliberately showy. She plays tremendously demanding pieces, but her manner and interest is in the music, not the show. I have one particular recollection of a performance she gave in the Quaker village of Jordans in the Chilterns, where I spent my childhood. It was in a barn made from the timbers of the old Mayflower ship, a place where I'd had my first experiences of music, so it was a very evocative setting. In the dying light, with a bat flying around the rafters, Imo played a very simple piece by Janácek called "Goodnight" for her encore. It is one of my most precious experiences of both her playing and of live performance in general. She has this quality of taking the simplest pieces and drawing the most extraordinary lyricism out of them.

Imogen Cooper CBE, 59, is a concert pianist known for her interpretations of Schubert and Schumann. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of 12 and was mentored by Alfred Brendel in Vienna. She lives in north London

I met Jeremy in the early 1990s when he moved in with Julia a couple of doors away. It was probably around the piano, as I know it was put to me that he was a wildly enthusiastic pianist. I remember being struck by his hands, which are particularly fine and expressive.

I knew the name Dixon Jones [his practice] already, but wasn't familiar with his work. He is ridiculously modest and never presents himself as the big cheese he is. Now, when I look at his buildings, I see elegance, taste and a beautiful vision, all of which are in keeping with the man I know.

I envy Jeremy's spontaneity; he has an amazing knack of falling on his feet. When there is a sold-out concert at Wigmore Hall, Jeremy will queue at the last moment and somehow he and Julia will end up at the front. I know where to look for what I call "silver and gold" (he has striking white hair, Julia blonde), and always feel better for seeing them there.

Both are always there in moments of distress (even the very practical, such as having an empty fridge on return from touring) and joy – celebratory champagne is whipped out at the slightest opportunity. Some of my fondest memories are of meals at their house or mine; Jeremy is a wonderful cook and seems to find therapy in it. I sometimes think that feeding others makes him as happy as creating buildings.

Our walking holidays are always special, although on the last one we took in Italy, Jeremy, who is always stylish, wore an elegant pair of running shoes that cut his feet to ribbons, so his daughter and I had to force him into a garish pair of modern trainers, much to his dismay. A long walk is the best occasion for talking – away from ringing phones and other distractions, you reach the parts other conversations can't.

Before a recital, I always run through the piece at home to test my energy and concentration and I invite several friends to listen. It has become a kind of ritual and it is almost unthinkable for Jeremy not to be there. He has an incredibly strong listening presence, which I think comes from his openness to music – listening is as much to do with the heart as the ears.

Jeremy doesn't necessarily talk in technical terms about music, but he always picks up on the most important elements. He has been taking piano lessons for some time, but doesn't really talk to me about it and I have never heard him play a note. I suppose it goes two ways, though, as one of my great loves is walking through the foreign cities in which I play and looking at buildings, but I don't always relay that to Jeremy. He knows much more about music than I do about architecture.

Imogen Cooper's series of Schubert recitals, recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is out now on Avie

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