By his own calculations, Jayson Gillham has already spent 30,000 hours in a monochrome world: his eyes scanning white pages filled with black lines and dots, his fingers tapping a panel of black and white keys. Both locked in a meticulous exercise co-ordinated by two minds: his and a composer’s.
Gillham is a performer, a concert pianist, and an unorthodox product of the Australian bush. He’s been compared with celebrated American pianists Murray Perahia and Van Cliburn, and described as resembling Cary Grant. For much of his average day, he sits in solitary confinement, practising. Like pestles grinding an ivory mortar, Gillham’s fingers have refined the ingredients of Chopin waltzes, Ligeti etudes and Beethoven concertos in concert halls throughout Europe and North America. And soon, the Sydney Opera House.
“He’s the next big thing in the piano world,” claims Toby Chadd, manager of the ABC’s classical music label. Last year, Chadd signed Gillham to a three-album contract, a highly unusual move for the ABC in the era of uploads and downloads. “We believe Jayson has enormous potential to develop into a major recording artist. His command of his instrument and repertoire is really astonishing.”
The story of how Jayson overcame schoolyard bullying and turned a childhood dream into reality begins at the keyboard. Of the countless students who plan a musical career, many aspire to be a concert pianist — a Lang Lang, an Evgeny Kissin — lured by the adulation, the adrenaline rush, the standing ovations. To achieve fame and fortune interpreting Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, a wannabe Kissin must not only be exceptionally talented, he must also possess an iron-clad discipline, win big with Lady Luck, and be ready to spend a good part of life as an itinerant.
In his last year of high school, Gillham told a documentary-maker he wanted a future as a concert pianist, despite the downside of having “to travel around the world”. His certainty, though, was qualified: “I’d like to settle down and stay in Australia.” He didn’t. At 21, Gillham left home and headed overseas.
Home had been Dalby, a rural community living off the rich black soil of Queensland’s Darling Downs. Its cultural forte is agriculture. Dalby is where sharefarmers Ian and Yvonne Gillham bought a house in 1987 to raise their two boys — five-year-old Lionel and 11-month-old Jayson. Yvonne’s family had migrated to Australia from Britain when she was a teenager. She met Ian, a local farmer, at a country dance and married him nine months later. Neither had a musical background.
Not long after moving from the farm into town, the Gillhams bought a piano. “It’s the done thing: let’s get the children to learn some music,” explains Yvonne in a Mancunian accent, recounting the decision that had a profound effect on her family’s life. Jayson’s developing mind was soon absorbing the sounds of scales and arpeggios — the daily ritual for his older brother under instruction from a relative who taught the piano.
When it was Jayson’s turn to have lessons, he already knew his way around the keyboard. “He’d pick up a bit of music and before you knew it he could play it,” says his mother. In no time at all, the younger Gillham was performing and competing, successfully. Perhaps too successfully for some. Having watched seven-year-old Jayson take home the open sections trophy for solo piano in the Dalby Eisteddfod, the committee changed the rules, barring him from entering until he was 18.
A new teacher entered the frame — an American who taught in nearby Toowoomba. Known today as the Dakota Pianist, Eugene Gienger recognised his student’s rare talent, publicly declared him “firmly in the prodigy category”, and told Yvonne Gillham to make sure her son had a passport.
In the schoolyard, however, musical prowess counted for little. Size mattered. “I was teased for being fat, and because I was shy I didn’t fight back,” Gillham says, recalling ridicule that wasn’t confined to classmates. “A teacher called me pathetic once when I couldn’t do a wheelbarrow race because I had no upper body strength.” His mother remembers bruises on her son’s back; his father, a playground beating. The piano became Jayson’s refuge. “At the piano I could just be me. I didn’t have to worry about anything else.” The future dux of Dalby High went to school “because I had to. I liked the classes, but I hated the breaks. I didn’t want to be with the other kids, I just wanted to do the work and go home and play the piano.”
By his ninth birthday, the rhythm of Jayson’s present and future life was set, regulated by scholarships, bursaries and piano competitions. Secure in the rites of the concert stage, he toured southern Queensland giving solo recitals with repertoire by Bach, Haydn, Schubert and Bartok. When Gienger returned to the US, he asked if he could take 14-year-old Jayson with him. The Gillhams voted no, another teacher was found, this time in Brisbane, and Yvonne’s weekly three-hour trip to Toowoomba and back morphed into an eight-hour test of parental endurance.
“He had the tools — the fingers and the training,” remembers Leah Horwitz, then teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Horwitz took control of Gillham’s musical life and has remained a mentor ever since. “I knew he had the ability, but there were other factors and the big one is the breaks.”
Jayson’s first lucky break came in 2003 when he was chosen by the ABC to record Beethoven’s second piano concerto in Sydney. As preparation for his performance, he played in a masterclass with Dutch-born Australian pianist Gerard Willems. In the audience at Government House that morning was a lady the Gillhams came to call “the mystery woman”.
“A lot of kids come from musical families or wealthy families, and we’re not one of those,” says Yvonne. The mystery woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, decided to support Jayson’s career. “We were extremely lucky,” says Ian Gillham, whose modest council worker pay packet would ensure Yvonne was present at a handful of their son’s triumphs.
The following year Jayson entered the Sydney International Piano Competition. Reaching the semi-finals encouraged him to temporarily swap the competition circuit here for its lucrative counterpart in Europe, a mobile coliseum where Kissins are created and ambitions destroyed. His pluck was rewarded with third place in the London International Piano Competition.
Gillham quit Australia for good in 2007 in the hope of winning recognition as a concert pianist on the world stage. He was 21, alone in London, and unknown. The dual passport holder understood his immediate future depended on success in recitals and competitions. Fortunately, organising and planning for both was second nature to him. Grappling with self-doubt, however, wasn’t. “I was thinking, ‘God, is this really what I should be doing? Maybe I’m only playing the piano because that’s all I’ve ever done.’ ” He had never confronted those doubts before. More scholarships to assist his studies as well as first prizes from the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe and the Prix d’Amadeo de Piano in Germany dispelled any qualms. The English music establishment took note. Gillham was invited to play across Britain and at London’s venerable Wigmore Hall. The boy from Dalby was no longer unknown.
The Airbus may have replaced the family station wagon, but his routine remained much the same. “The more competitions I did, the more I became relaxed and philosophical about them,” says Gillham, whose winnings would total over $200,000. “I always tried to play for the audience. I never played for the jury.”
Music competitions have invariably attracted the scoffers. Both Debussy and Bartok decried them. “The contestants are trained like racehorses … if you are not in form that particular month, so much the worse for you,” the French composer remarked. “Competitions are for horses, not artists,” echoed the Hungarian. Today, there are far more piano competitions than days in the calendar, though few match the prestige of the quinquennial event in Warsaw that honours Poland’s favourite son.
“The Chopin competition is amazing because the whole nation stops for it, just like a sporting event in Australia,” says Gillham, one of 350 pianists who entered the competition in Chopin’s bicentennial year. His pianism was scrutinised by the heavyweights of the pianistic world including Martha Argerich, Bella Davidovich, Philippe Entremont and Nelson Freire. But he was in his comfort zone. “I love playing Chopin more than any other composer because it sits under the hands really well. It’s a full-bodied experience.”
Jayson Gillham performs Chopin in Warsaw
He reached the semi-finals, becoming the first Australian “thoroughbred” to do so. “It was a big deal for me, the biggest jump up from what I’d done previously.” One critic described the former schoolyard outsider as “tall” and “athletic”, lauding his natural musicality. “If the prize could be awarded on image alone,” he wrote, “the Australian would win hands down … he is every inch the concert pianist in the masculine Cary Grant mode.” Gillham knows appearance is important. He drew inspiration from watching a youthful and energetic Murray Perahia: “Sometimes what looks right has to be taken into account, as well as what sounds right.”
On stage, Gillham is in white tie and tails, his head swaying gently to the pulse of the music, his eyes closing briefly to accent a pause. He is not afraid to betray an emotional connection to a phrase or moment. A hint of the chubby-cheeked boy remains. Size matters on the concert stage too. “I’m so fortunate to have big enough hands and the physical dexterity,” he says. “There are so many pianists who have limited options in terms of repertoire because of the size of their hands.” And it’s not just hand size that counts. “As you get to 25, 26, 27, you think, ‘Oh my God, I have to get something before 30 because that’s the cut-off’,” he says, referring to the ageist component of most piano competitions. “I just compete with myself now,” the 30-year-old laughs. “I decided to stop after Montreal.” The Canadian city hosts an international piano competition every three years. In 2014, Gillham’s performance of the concerto many pianists regard as the most beautiful ever written — Beethoven 4 — won him all the prizes on offer (except for best Canadian pianist).
Beethoven revolutionised the piano concerto when he premiered his fourth work in the genre in 1808. Instead of opening with the orchestra, he played a series of simple, soft chords, creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. When Gillham walks on to the stage at the Sydney Opera House for the first time to perform this magnificent work, he will bow, take up his position at the piano, nod to the Sydney Symphony’s conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and, somewhat incongruously, imagine the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb — his way of preparing to play Beethoven’s chords. “When you see that mushroom cloud from a distance, it’s expanding at the top. I imagine the sound from the piano making that shape when I play those chords.”
Now that Gillham is an accredited member of the exclusive concert pianist club, he has settled in London with his partner, a Montessori teacher. “I want to discover something else in me,” he says. “Pianists were performers and composers before; it’s like being a singer-songwriter today.” He reckons there’s a disconnect in contemporary classical music between performer and composer. “I wouldn’t mind being a classical version of a singer-songwriter — mixing old music with new music and, hopefully, my music too.” Equipped with his talent and bush-bred determination, Gillham is odds-on to make that happen, too.
Jayson Gillham will tour Australia next month. He will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the SSO at the Sydney Opera House on October 12, 14, 15, 17. His debut album, Bach | Schubert | Chopin, is out on October 7 on ABC Classics.