Fort Worth — One of the most anticipated music concerts this season features internationally celebrated pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin. His performance opens The Cliburn’s Bass Hall series in its 2015-16 season, which closes in June with the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. That means we're less than two years away from the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Hamelin has been described as a consummate musician, heralded for his exceptional memory and nuanced interpretations. The extraordinariness of his technique is such that in The New Yorker, critic Alex Ross described his hands as “among the wonders of the musical world.” Hamelin has received nine Grammy nominations for works in a large discography that exceeds 50 recordings. Of equal significance to his technical prowess is his commitment to introducing audiences to music that over time was either forgotten, or overlooked.
Tuesday’s program selections are Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 576; Debussy’s Images, Book II; Hamelin’s composition Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2011); and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.
From its beginning in 1962 the Van Cliburn Foundation has commissioned an original composition to be performed by all competitors. For the upcoming 2017 quadrennial, the organization awarded this honor to Hamelin. This marks the first time in the history of the competition that the composer is also one of the competition’s adjudicators.
During this conversation with TheaterJones, we talked about process and his thoughts about the importance of composition to the performer’s preparation. Hamelin was quite delightful, thoughtful and unassuming.
TheaterJones: You have been commissioned to compose a piece for the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition.
Marc-André Hamelin: Yes, and I am very happy about that! I did it for the first time last year. I was asked to do a piece for the ARD Competition in Munich. The result was performed by 14 finalists last September. I was really quite satisfied with the result on the whole. That gave me the confidence to accept the Cliburn offer. It is a wonderful thing to be asked to do. I had been hoping actually for many years to be asked to write a competition piece but the only other time I was asked before that was in 1992 for the Montreal International Competition. The new piece was always with orchestra and I wasn’t ready to write for orchestra so I declined that. But for the ARD last year, I was more than happy to accept and now that I have done it once I’m really eager to do it again.
Regarding your process as a composer, do you write any differently for a commissioned piece than for personally motivated works?
I do not think I would write any differently. Music is music. I do not intend necessarily for it to be a showcase for the performer’s physical abilities. I am more interested in the interpretative side of things. I am not saying that the piece would not be difficult or arduous to prepare but I am more interested in interpretative difficulties than actual physical difficulties.
What do you most enjoy about working with early career pianists such as those participating in major competitions?
Seeing how they relate to the composers they play. I have an eagerness to want them to communicate as much as possible to the spirit of what they are playing. I do not want them just to show off at the keyboard.
Which would be more important to you: to have been known as a pianist, or as a composer?
I think I would like to be known as a pianist who wrote music. That is actually relatively rare nowadays. At the turn of the century and for a good part of the 19th century it was practically expected for performers to compose or at least to arrange. So the term pianist-composer that we have today did not really exist because it didn’t have to. There are people like myself, Earl Wild, Stephen Hough, and Cyprien Katsaris. We have all tried our hand, some more significantly than others, some more often than others at writing or arranging music.
I have always had the bug. As soon as I started piano lessons as a 5-year old I started filling music paper with what was then absolute nonsense. I had no ideas and I did not know how to notate them but the bug was there and it never ever left me.
In previous interviews you have expressed concern regarding the lessening emphasis on composition studies for piano performance students. Why do you think composition has become less integral to the training for piano performance majors?
It is hard to say; maybe the gradual onset of the mentality that one can get away without it. I think that is a shame because I really think it is essential to any interpreter to at least try to compose. You at least have to have been introduced to the process, the creative process, and this helps you respect more and understand a lot more the creators whose works you are performing and what they went through to create it. It helps you to take music a lot less for granted. It also reaches you more than a little bit about musical notation. I think you have to know everything you can about theory, harmony and counterpoint. They help you understand, decode the score, these wonderful but rather imperfect documents that composers have left us.
Why did you compose your Variations on a Theme of Paganini (2011)?
I think that attests to the power of the simple little theme. It wasn’t out of impulse to do it because others had done it. The theme started running around in my head and I decided to do something about it. The first sketches were created seventeen years before it was completed. I don’t think that way back then I would have had the compositional experience to write a piece like what actually came out.
You’re known for a commitment to researching, studying, performing and recording more obscure works that are not part of the standard performance or recording literature. Through your discography you have created a vast learning resource for music literature and music history. Do you think of yourself as an educator in this way?
Maybe in a sense. I do not see myself on a high plane but perhaps as a guide, especially in regards to unknown literature. Maybe in new ways to illuminate the literature people do know. In the case of unknown pieces, I like to say “look how beautiful this is and what you have been missing.” In the case of what they do know, “look how differently this can sound or how possibly better this can sound.”
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger musician self, what might it be?
[Laughter] Make a better choice of managers. Making a bad choice made me stagnate in the United States for 13 years, which in some ways makes me a late starter.
As a musician, what currently inspires you?
With time, our discipline as pianists and musicians in general becomes much, much more complex. There is more to explore, to refine and the end is nowhere in sight. The impulse is there to better yourself as a musician and to further your own resources and explore the literature and ways to communicate and convey the music you are playing. That alone drives me. First and foremost the main pleasure I get is to share, and that will never change.