PENELOPE THWAITES AM is known internationally as a concert pianist and composer, broadcaster, editor and festival curator. She has won acclaim as an intensely communicative artist in an unusually wide-ranging musical career.
Born in the UK of Australian parents, Penelope grew up in Melbourne, attending Tintern Grammar. She read Music at Melbourne University, winning the Ormond Exhibition and graduating first in her final year. In the course of a post-graduate period of work, conducting and writing for musical theatre productions, Penelope moved to London, her home ever since. She studied piano with Eric Harrison, a pupil of Adele Verne, and later with the Swiss pianist, Albert Ferber, whose mentors had included Marguerite Long, Karl Liemer, and Sergei Rachmaninov. It was Ferber who encouraged Penelope to make her successful pianistic debut in 1974 at the Wigmore Hall, in a programme of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mussorgsky. Many further appearances followed, with regular recitals in London’s main concert halls, throughout Britain, and internationally. She has performed in over thirty-five countries and has appeared as soloist with such orchestras as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, BBC Concert Orchestra and major orchestras in Europe, the USA and Australia.
[Photo: Penelope with the LPO Arthur Benjamin Centenary 1993.]
Penelope’s recordings of JS Bach (A Bach Recital original works and transcriptions) and her multi-composer Travelling Between Worlds demonstrate her wide-ranging musical passions. Chamber music and solo song recitals with fellow musicians remain a joy. Her piano trio concert, with violinist Kirsten Williams and cellist Patrick Suthers cello for The Friends of Chopin Australia included a piece especially commissioned by the FCA. Mazurka: au Tombeau de Chopin proved to be a hit with the large Polish/Australian audience. In its enthusiastic review of the whole concert of Mozart and Chopin, City News described the new work as “the highlight of the concert”.
[Photo: Rhodes house Music and Michael Thwaites Poetry programme with Timothy West and Stephen Varcoe.]
From the time of her professional debut, Penelope’s own work as a composer has continued – greatly encouraged by orchestration and musicianship studies with Dr William L. Reed, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. Her work includes the 1976 West End musical Ride!Ride! which has since had over forty productions world-wide, most recently in 2018 in the USA. A concert version, starring the legendary Keith Michell, was released on the SOMM label in 1999.
[Images: CD of Ride! Ride! with coverage of the UK Royal Première.]
Her choral music, songs and instrumental works are published by Bardic Edition through Goodmusic. Since the release in April 2020 of her album From Five Continents, (also on SOMM) Penelope has started to self-publish more of her works (further details under Compositions).
Within a wide-ranging concert repertoire, Penelope has consistently made a point of playing and promoting the music of Australia’s composers. In the 70s, this was a largely unexplored area in concert repertoire. Her first recording (1980) included works by Margaret Sutherland, Dorian le Gallienne, Malcolm Williamson, Peter Sculthorpe, Arthur Benjamin and Percy Grainger.
She founded and chaired the Performing Australian Music Competition (London 2001, 2008) in which young musicians from 20 countries chose and performed works by 80 Australian composers.
[Photo: Finalists and jury for the 2008 PAMC with HRH Princess Alexandra.]
It was William Reed who drew her attention to the music of Australian-born Grainger (1882-1961), thereby setting in train an extraordinary and exciting journey of exploration, performance and promotion of his largely unknown musical heritage (1976 onwards ). Penelope is now recognised world-wide as a leading exponent of Grainger’s music, through performances, broadcasts and over 260 tracks of recordings. She features on eight recordings in the Chandos Grainger Edition (now expanded and re-issued in 2021) where among many other tributes the Penguin Guide remarked “she understands the idiom completely…all beautifully played and recorded” In 2016, BBC Music Magazine’s Geoff Brown commented: “some passions flare and fade. Others burn for ever and that is clearly the case with Penelope Thwaites’ love of that maverick spirit Percy Grainger…passion undimmed, the playing’s flair and precision is unchanged.” In this path of discovery, Penelope has been fortunate to have met and worked with some remarkable musicians and writers on music.
Comprehensive details of these many admired and valued colleagues may be found in the Catalogue of Recordings and the Grainger pages. Penelope is editor of The New Percy Grainger Companion, the foremost survey of Grainger’s music, and the many wonderful reviews are a tribute to her colleagues in this, as in many other ventures.
[Photo: Japan Grainger Festival 2011.]
Penelope is a Steinway artist and a represented composer with the Australian Music Centre. She was awarded the International Grainger Society’s Medallion in 1991 and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2001.