Profile: Susan Legg – mezzo soprano and pianist

Since winning the National Mozart Singing Competition, Susan’s flourishing career has taken her to major venues worldwide. Specialising in contemporary song, she has broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and Norwegian Radio. Legendary mezzo Christa Ludwig described Susan’s lyric mezzo as ‘a beautiful voice with a fine coloratura.’ Susan studied singing with Margaret Kingsley at the Royal College of Music and National Opera Studio and piano with Clifford Benson and Phyllis Sellick.

Susan has given vocal and piano recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room and St. John, Smith’s Square with pianist Ann Martin-Davis and performed at Glyndebourne, Bayreuth, Wexford and Aldeburgh Festivals and the Walton Trust, Ischia. She has sung all Elgar’s choral works, Bach’s Passions, the Verdi and Mozart Requiems and toured Handel’s Messiah in Mexico.

For cinema and television, Susan recorded composer Stephen Baysted’s soundtracks for celebrated director Phil Grabsky’s feature films: The Impressionists and the man who made them; Renoir: Revered and Reviled; I, Claude Monet and The Young Picasso. For video games, Susan was solo vocalist and pianist on soundtracks for Project Cars and Project Cars 2. She was featured vocalist on Atari’s Test Drive: Ferrari Racing Legends and Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed.

Recent engagements include a CD for Divine Art Label of Cilia Petridou’s new choral work Byzantine Doxology; world premiere of Nicholas Smith’s Chinese choral work Love, Friendship & Longing in Cadogan Hall; Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Queen Elizabeth Hall; Verdi’s Requiem in Eastbourne and Beethoven’s Mass in C in Arundel Cathedral. Susan is currently featuring on ITV’s Endeavour as the opera diva.

Who have been the main influencers on your decision to pursue a career in music?

I fell into music really! At Springfield Comprehensive School in Drayton I was taught by a wonderful violinist, Sam Coates, who was a musical guru and at that time I also started piano lessons with Barbara Sayer who brought my playing on really quickly. I then went to South Downs College for music A levels where I was a part of a small but really thriving musical community and most of the students in my year went on to the London Conservatoires.

Elizabeth Lewis taught me singing, having first spotted my voice in her sight-singing classes. I met the pianist Clifford Benson whilst still at South Downs College when he visited for a masterclass and he helped to prepare me for the audition process. At the time I was a first study pianist and second study violinist and singing was in the background. Clifford was an extraordinary musician and teacher and with his guidance I soon won places to the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The Royal College was my first choice, to study with the great pianist Phyllis Sellick and there I met Margaret Kingsley who trained my voice. I was extremely fortunate to have been musically shaped by such incredible musicians and also to have had encouragement and fantastic support from my parents.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

Balancing everything! Performing and teaching is a constant juggling act.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Musical collaboration is always the ideal musical scenario for me. I have been lucky to work in many exciting collaborations. With my long-standing duo partner pianist Ann Martin-Davis, I have given some exciting vocal recitals, including a food programme inspired and based on Nigella Lawson’s recipes.

We have commissioned song-cycles by Gabriel Jackson, Graham Fitkin and Howard Skempton and have toured Mexico, literary festivals, performed at Henley and Petworth Festivals and on music cruises around the world, including three trips down the Amazon! We have also performed extensively for Lost Chord, giving concerts to people with dementia and in the early years I gave numerous concerts on Menuhin’s Live Music Now! Scheme in schools, hospitals and hospices.

I’ve been lucky to collaborate with my husband Stephen Baysted who is a composer for TV, games and film. I have performed on his scores for Project Cars 3 (2020); Project Cars (2015) and Project Cars 2 (2017). I was featured vocalist on Atari’s Test Drive: Ferrari Racing Legends (2012) and Electronic Arts Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed (2011).

Our collaboration with Producer & Director Phil Grabsky Exhibition on Screen has been especially enjoyable and we worked together to create the music for Matisse, The Impressionists, Renoir: Revered and Reviled and I, Claude Monet. I also played and sang on his film Young Picasso and his latest film Leonardo: The Works.

Which works/performances are you most proud of?

As a student at Royal College of Music, I learned Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Phyllis Sellick and it was always extraordinary to me to think that she and her husband Cyril Smith knew the composer. It was a wonderful challenge for me and I have such vivid memories of performing it in Portsmouth Cathedral with the University Orchestra conducted by William McVicar. Phyllis travelled down for the concert and it was a really memorable occasion for me to be playing it on home turf.

More recently I sang the mezzo solo role in a world premiere of Nicholas Smith’s Chinese choral work Love, Friendship & Longing in Cadogan Hall (Autumn 2018) and was proud to pull off some apparently fairly passable Mandarin!

During Lockdown, with my composer’s hat, on I wrote a song – Hold on Tight – to raise money for the NHS and am proud to say that we are approaching £3000. You may donate here.

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

I have always loved Mozart and perhaps since winning the National Mozart Singing Competition when I was at RCM my love of his music grew even stronger. I love his musical language – Mozart can be simple but profound at the same time. I also love the romantics – Rachmaninov and Brahms and I really love singing the French repertoire.

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

The role of the Angel in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius will always be special to me. It sits perfectly in my voice and it’s always a thrill to sing the final aria Softly and Gently.

What is your most memorable concert experience – either as a performer, composer or listener?

After leaving College I went on to sing in the Glyndebourne Chorus which was amazing! Learning stagecraft from Directors such as Trevor Nunn for Britten’s Peter Grimes was a real highlight. Whenever I hear the Four Sea Interludes I am transported back to that stage – we performed it in the last season of the old House -and this production will always be special to me for the wonderful onstage camaraderie in the cast and chorus and the electrifying music that was brought to life that Summer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was a thrill to join the BBC Singers for the Last Night of the Proms in 2010. Nothing quite prepares you for that atmosphere in the Albert Hall!

Much more recently I had my first taste of performing opera on TV when I was chosen to sing the operatic heroine in ITV’s Endeavour for Series 7 in Summer 2019. It was a thrilling and extraordinary experience. I had to be on set early so was dressed in my Baroque costume, wig and makeup by 6am. Composer Matthew Slater wrote a superb short opera and the story shadowed the on-screen action throughout the series. It was such a buzz to sing that beautiful score on stage although we had to film my fainting scene so many times I thought my wig would fall off!

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

To be disciplined and practise. You really need strength of purpose and determination as well as talent to pursue a career in music.

How would you define success as a musician/composer?

To have the good fortune to be making music thirty years on and still enjoying it!


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