Tom Poster on self-doubt to elation and the power of music


Tom Poster will be rejoining the RPO in a series of concerts later this month to perform Rachmaninov's much-loved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The concerts are sure to be a treat as BBC Music described his playing as having “a beautiful tone that you can sink into like a pile of cushions”

We caught up with Tom in between his busy touring schedule to ask him about the piece and what audiences can expect from his performance.

What is the best perk of being a professional musician?
The music. Though all the craziness of the musician’s life, the intensity of performance, the long periods away from home, the moments of elation and the moments of self-doubt, the one thing that never lets you down is the music. It’s the greatest privilege to spend a lifetime exploring amazing pieces of music, working out how best to communicate and share them with as many people as possible. Music is such a uniting force and it’s something which everybody should have access to - I love the shared journeys and the emotional connections it forges.

For people who are not familiar with Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, what should they listen out for?
It’s a piece with a fantastic and very unusual structure. It starts with a simple, well-known theme (borrowed from the great virtuoso violinist-composer Paganini), which we first hear played by the orchestra’s violins, while the piano picks out single notes with just one finger - a bit like Chopsticks. Rachmaninov then proceeds to take the theme on an extraordinary journey through 24 short and diverse variations: some are fast and crazy; some are slow and meditative; all display endless fantasy and imagination. There are plenty of additional elements throw in along the way, including the appearance of the sinister Dies irae theme (from the medieval Mass of the Dead), which rears its head several times, blaring out from the brass at the final climax. The most famous moment of all is the glorious romantic melody of the 18th variation, which appears to have come out of nowhere, until you realise it’s just Paganini’s theme with the notes turned upside down.

And what can audiences expect from your performance?
It’s a high-octane piece, full of virtuosic challenges and high passion, and a bit of a white-knuckle ride for the pianist, orchestra and conductor - so always a thrill to play. But actually some of my favourite moments are its most intimate: the ghostly minuet of variation 12, the tender duet with the solo violin in variation 16, and the strange, murky variation 17, in which I picture a giant dugong rising from the depths of the ocean.

I played this piece a lot as a teenager, perhaps most memorably in the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition back in 2000, so returning to it always brings back lots of memories.

What is it like to work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra?
I always look forward so much to working with the RPO - a group of wonderful musicians who always give their all in performance. Perhaps the thing I love most of all about the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody is that, although the piano has the most notes to play, it’s a brilliant showcase for the whole orchestra, with so much interaction between all the players - like chamber music on a huge scale!

What is the best feedback you’ve ever received from an audience member?
I guess the comments which mean the most are the ones which come from the heart - when music has really spoken to somebody, or helped transport them to a happier place.

I don’t think audiences always realise how much impact they have on a performance: as a performer, you really feel the different energies which audiences give you, and they’re an absolutely integral part of the magical shared experience of live music. Performers would be lost without our audiences, so I encourage everyone to come to as many concerts as possible!

Have you been to Crawley or High Wycombe before?
In my teenage years, when I was a cellist in the Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra, we used to have our Easter residential courses at Wycombe Abbey, so I do know High Wycombe a little. I’ve never performed there, though, and Crawley will be my first visit, so I’m hugely looking forward to making my debut in both venues!


To find out more about Tom Poster, visit

See Tom Poster perform with the RPO this upcoming season:

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