Marc-André Hamelin. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke (detail) View full image

‘A concert is an offering’

Marc-André Hamelin recently celebrated his 60th birthday, and as he prepares for a busy season, including a performance of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra on 4 November, he explains how his approach to his craft has changed throughout his career and offers some advice to young players.

You gave the world premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms in August 2019. How would you describe the work?

Even though the concerto is fundamentally dissonant, it’s never harsh. It has a clear link with the past and includes many lyrical moments. It’s wonderfully orchestrated, marrying the piano and orchestra parts beautifully. Ryan is a wonderful pianist himself, so he knows how to write for the instrument.

As a conductor, he also knows exactly how to extract what he wants from players, so rehearsals are just about building the reading bit by bit. His score is so clear that he doesn’t need to tell me much by way of interpretation. Some composers are not always specific or don’t know how to be precise through their notation, so you have to work with them more, but with Ryan it is all there in the open and I just have to grab and absorb it.

He has expanded the piece since the premiere – he extended the cadenza, for example, and the fourth movement ended up being substantially different, so when we next played it, with the Seattle Symphony in February 2020, it had changed considerably.

The work is not very long, at just over 20 minutes, even though it’s in four movements, but there are a few tricky passages, especially in the cadenza. However, it’s so well written that it won’t be too hard to get it back into my fingers, heart and mind. By this point, having performed it in two different venues, the piece is going to feel like an old friend.

How do you prepare a new piece of music?

I sit down in an easy chair with the score or read it at the piano to get my initial impressions. It’s always good to first get an overview of the form of the piece in the largest possible sense. When you’ve grasped that, you can go into a more detailed examination. Over time that becomes more microscopic as you realise all the details, while keeping in mind the overall shape and direction of the music.

As with anything else, the score is key. In the case of composers who are no longer alive, it is the only medium that you have, unless there are authentic recordings, but even those aren’t always the answer. We always wish we could ask Beethoven questions and not have to leave it to our own judgment. With Ryan’s piece, if I have questions, I have the best possible recourse, but it’s a compliment to the composer to do most of the work beforehand and I try to come up with solutions before asking them.

I’ve had very good relationships with composers. I became acquainted with advanced tonal languages early in life, and I’ve always been curious in drinking it all in, so when I play contemporary music now, some of the work is already done.

Where does your curiosity for new music come from?

It’s natural. I had the good fortune of having a dad who was a good amateur pianist and through him I became familiar with a lot of the standard literature. I was always curious, and as soon as I had a little pocket money as a teenager, I started buying records. I went to the more bizarre corners of the literature, which were at the time Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez, so I’ve always been comfortable with that kind of language and the departure from standard repertoire.

‘The most important thing is what the audience comes away with. A concert is an offering’

How has your playing changed over the years?

I hope it’s become musically more purposeful. As a youngster, I was attracted more to the physical side of piano playing, but in time, I’ve become much more of a searching musician. At the beginning, I was perhaps doing it for myself. Now, I always think of the audience, first and foremost. The most important thing is what the audience comes away with. A concert is an offering. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share; to celebrate music and the miracle of human creativity; to illuminate works that the audience already knows; or to have the privilege of introducing them to new things that they may like and return to in the future.

This development was natural. I opened up wider horizons through working with other musicians, getting to know them, playing more diversified literature, listening to the great recordings and becoming acquainted with other art forms. These are all building blocks that inevitably make you a better person, a better artist and certainly a better musician.

‘If you’re an artist worth your salt you have to be inhabited by what you do all the time’

What advice would you give a student?

Realise that there is something more than the four walls of your practice room. I’m often asked how much practice I do every day and my usual answer, which is a little flippant, is ‘24 hours’. If you’re an artist worth your salt you have to be inhabited by what you do all the time. Even the work that you don’t do at the keyboard – for example, thinking about music as you take a walk or sitting in the chair studying a score – is a building block towards your growth as a musician, or your progress with a particular piece. I’m even convinced that one can learn in one’s sleep: I’ve had concrete proof of this when I’ve practised a passage that I knew wasn’t memorised, and the next day I’ve been able to play it without a score.

When you practise, think in terms of goals, rather than time. What do you want to accomplish today? It could be something physical, pianistic or musical. Set out to zero in on it and analyse how to solve the problem. If, by the end of the day, you can say, ‘I think this sounds better, right?’ then you’ve paved the way to a better understanding, or maybe you’ve even solved it. It’s much more fulfilling that saying, ‘I practised X hours today.’ You will spend a lot of time practising without accomplishing anything, but if you set goals, you have a much better chance of feeling advancement.

‘We found out that people are hungry for music of whatever kind, and that they wanted it back’

What are your hopes and fears for the future of classical music?

Maybe the only positive aspect of the pandemic is that we found out that people are hungry for music of whatever kind, and that they wanted it back, so I don’t think it’ll ever disappear. We often hear that the only people interested in classical music have white hair, but people have been worrying about that for decades. At least people are coming, and I see more and more young people – I don’t know to what that’s attributable, but I welcome it. I hope I’m not being naive, but classical music is such an undeniable force, produced by some of the greatest musical minds in history, that to me, it is an impossibility that it will ever die.

Marc-André Hamelin’s forthcoming European highlights include a duo tour with Leif Ove Andsnes, Beethoven with Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Gershwin with the Czech Philharmonic and a Wigmore Hall recital.

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