Connecting Musically: Hannah Marcinowicz

17th June 2016

Kathy Walton talks to saxophonist Hannah Marcinowicz

Don’t mention it to Radio 4, just in case she’s on their list, but award-wining saxophonist and clarinettist Hannah Marcinowicz might not be the ideal castaway for Desert Island Discs.

She’s certainly sufficiently chatty and personable to be a highly entertaining guest – and at only 33, has already achieved a great deal – but narrowing down her musical choices to just eight records would prove well nigh impossible, she says.

“There have been so many great musical moments that I can’t single anything out [from history] and there’s so much new music out there… I do have some music on my iPod, but you’d be surprised how little and to be honest, I don’t even know where it is. I’d have to take a whole hard drive with me!”

Still, she could always tell listeners about her pink saxophone. Last year Hannah and her distinctive classical sax had a piece specially composed for them as part of the 2015 Women Of The World festival, which celebrates women’s achievements in music, comedy and film.

The title of the composition was 2,300, the distance in miles walked by a Syrian woman and her child fleeing Syria for Germany. Hannah commissioned it from composer Jennie Muskett, writer of the theme tune to the TV series Spooks.

“I begin by playing it at a slow, plodding pace, like a Syrian chant, so that you feel the woman’s trauma and [later] her burden when she is trying to sing a lullaby to her child,” says Hannah. “I often cry when I’m playing it and it really gets to people in the audience too. Music like this has a huge impact when it touches on current issues.”

A former pupil at Parmiter’s School in Garston and the Purcell School in Bushey, Watford-raised Hannah began her musical career conventionally enough by learning the recorder at the age of four. She took to it faster than most, though, and admits she “just couldn’t understand why all the other children were struggling.”

Some 25 years later, and by then a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and of the Conservatoire in Paris (where she was twice awarded the prestigious Medaille d’Or), she filled her suitcase with recorders when she travelled to Mumbai to appear with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Keen to “give something back”, she used her spare time to run several music workshops for trafficked women and for children orphaned by HIV.

Predictably perhaps, everyone loved her pink sax, but the highlight for Hannah actually came when she returned to the orphanage 18 months later. “One little boy was so excited to see me again that he ran to fetch the recorder I’d given him, one of only a handful of belongings he could call his own, so that he could play the tune I’d taught him.”

Back home, her audience and the music she enjoys are usually of a rather more elevated nature. On Saturday 18 June at Clarendon Muse, Watford Boys’ Grammar School, she will be the star guest at the summer concert of the Radlett Choral Society (of which her mother is a long time member). She will perform three pieces from TV and film, which she promises will please people who “love hearing what they already know, but presented slightly differently.”

In keeping with the concert’s summer theme, one of her pieces (on the clarinet) will be the late Paul Reade’s Victorian Kitchen Garden suite, familiar to viewers of the eponymous 1987 TV series. On the classical saxophone, she’ll give Rachel Portman’s Madame du Lac from the 2002 film The Truth About Charlie, followed by the theme from the 2015 TV series Wolf Hall, composed by Debbie Wiseman.

And if playing with the Radlett Choral Society weren’t prestigious enough, Hannah remembers performing Walton’s Façade for Prince Charles while she was still at the Purcell School and suspects that HRH might be in the audience at a performance of British music she and others have been asked (under conditions of great secrecy) to give at St James’s Palace next month. But she’s hoping the Prince has a short memory. “He’ll think I’m really boring if I play it again!”

When she’s not performing, Hannah finds time to teach music, a job she loves and for which she draws on the example of her own former tutor at Paris, the international soloist Jean-Yves Fourmeau, whom she credits with ‘teaching her to fly’ and whom she still regards as “a little bird on my shoulder”, especially when she is under pressure.

Pressed again about her favourite music, Hannah eventually singles out the traditional Japanese folk song about the past, Hamabe No Uta, for its power to reduce an audience to tears with its simplicity; as well as two other composers whose music she always turns to.

One of these is Bach, whose work she describes as “so simple yet so beautifully crafted… and works on any instrument and any level”; the other is the contemporary film and TV composer Jonathan Goldstein, who, she says, writes “some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever played, with a melody and a story.”

It’s just as well Hannah admires Jonathan’s work, as she is marrying him next month in a ceremony on London Bridge, followed by a reception on a boat, with music played by a quartet led by the couple’s favourite crooner from the Savoy.

“We connect as people and we connect musically,” she says of her fiancé, whom she first met several years ago when they both worked, bizarrely, on an advert for Felix cat food, for which Jonathan composed the music and Hannah played the baritone sax. (In the ad, which can be found on YouTube, the alarm goes off when Felix needs feeding.)

“I’d still love Jonathan even if he didn’t write music for me, but – and I’m not just saying this – he is ferociously talented,” she says proudly.

One can safely assume, therefore, that if Hannah were to be marooned on a desert island, with nothing but the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and eight pieces of music for company, at least some of that music would be by Jonathan.

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