Hamelin: Balancing performance and composing

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 12.12.2014

Marc-André Hamelin, Canadian-born and now residing in the Boston suburbs, has just completed a highly successful two-concert series in Bordeaux, playing the Beethoven piano concerto No. 4 including his own cadenza. It was his first Bordeaux engagement and the public took to him enthusiastically. (See Facts and Arts here.)   

On two separate occasions Hamelin relaxed backstage to look over his career and wonder how he might be remembered after this “scandalously short” life is over.

Here is Part Two of the interview: 

JOHNSON: The late Heinrich Neuhaus wrote in The Art of Piano Playing that “confidence is the prerequisite of freedom” in piano playing and that “pianophobia” affects inexperienced players who lack confident technique. Does this sound familiar?

HAMELIN: Yes, playing is a little like expressing yourself in a new language. When you don’t know the language completely you stumble and don’t have the freedom to express yourself as you might wish without having to think of the nitty-gritty of the grammar. Music works the same way. 

JOHNSON: You studied with Russell Sherman in Boston in your younger years. He wrote in his classic book Piano Pieces that the “pedal is the path to heaven”. Did this kind of colorful advice flow freely from him in his teaching?

HAMELIN: I was with him as a private student, some time ago --1987 and 1988 --  and he brought me much good. And yes, he gets you to make music in ways that are totally unexpected. He is always imagique and he has this soft-spoken way of communicating. I recall hearing him advise me, in relation to part of one Beethoven sonata, to think of being behind columns as Julius Caesar is being murdered. That will bring it out of you. 

JOHNSON: In your recent concerts, one could not help noticing one of your reputed strengths – the ability to blend with the orchestra when playing a concerto. Some players are over-eager to take center stage. Did you have to work on that?

HAMELIN: It was not a conscious thing – it came natural. Of course in certain acoustics one can only guess at the balance. Some halls do not favor the piano and others may favor it inordinately. Another problem in almost any hall is that when the hall is full, the acoustics change, so one must be able to adjust. You’re constantly listening.

JOHNSON: You have had success in your composition efforts, specifically your 12 études. Are you still able to find the time to compose?

Well, my études took so long because there was a gap of 12 years in the middle. I was getting constantly asked by friends when I would finish them. Actually I have tons of unfinished things -- some I which should never see the light I day. But finally I wrote the last three a few years ago and now they are published.

JOHNSON: Did you stop performing while finishing off the études?

HAMELIN: Oh no. I usually write away from the piano. I can work on a plane, in a hotel room. 

JOHNSON: Do parts of your compositions come to you in dreams, as Stravinsky has claimed?

HAMELIN: That happened once. And then a couple of years ago I tried improvising, then I wrote down the piece as it came out. 

JOHNSON: Isn’t that a terribly painstaking exercise?

HAMELIN: Oh no, I love it. I used software to bring the tempo down to an absolute crawl. 

JOHNSON: Do you pay any attention to younger players?

HAMELIN: Not as much as I should. I am not involved in competitions or pedagogy so I’m not the best person to ask. One who comes to mind is the (British) pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, justifiably so. 

JOHNSON: You are an advocate of broad outside interests in young players. If you think of other things, what might they be?

HAMELIN: I don’t consider myself a man of great culture but if I had somehow never discovered my aptitude for the piano, I might have done something in language – translation, writing. The time we have on this earth is scandalously short. I make the most of it within my limits.

JOHNSON: If your time ran out unexpectedly, what would you want to be remembered for? 

HAMELIN: I want to leave this earth having been appreciated as a sincere musician, and one who hopefully will have made some sort of a dent as far as repertoire appreciation and expansion is concerned.

JOHNSON: Where do you go looking for these underrated composers? 

HAMELIN: I just have to go into the next room.

JOHNSON: You have your own private collection?

HAMELIN: Last time we moved I had 83 boxes, all catalogued.

 

Part One of this interview is available here.

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