Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I might not be doing this at all had it not been for my father, who was a very good amateur pianist. I’m told that as a very young boy I’d go to the piano when he played and watch him open-mouthed! I have a clear memory of the moment when he asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I said yes without hesitating! I seemed to have a predisposition for learning quickly, and it didn’t take long to discover that I had perfect pitch, like my dad.I remember his playing vividly. He mostly favored the Romantic period (Liszt and Chopin above all) and through him I was exposed very early to a sizable chunk of the literature.
At that point, of course, I had no notion of what a career in music would represent; at the beginning, music was something natural — a game, perhaps. I first studied with a local teacher for four years, and then my dad enrolled me at the Vincent-d’Indy school in Montréal, which was very prestigious at the time. And although I showed a natural facility almost from the very beginning, I was never touted as a prodigy.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Again I must mention my father, because he was directly responsible for one important part of my development. His favorite artists were the pianists of the so-called Golden Age, the ones who were active during the 78RPM era. He collected all the reissues he could find, which in Canada wasn’t always easy, especially earlier on. He listened to these treasures constantly. He was much less attracted to more contemporary pianists and was in general very critical of them. I think the reason he liked the older pianists so much is because of the unbridled freedom inherent to their performances, a freedom which meant that the true letter of the score was often distorted or even disregarded. This cavalier attitude toward the finer points of notation became a part of my musical thinking. It was only much later, in my twenties, that I was sensitized to the necessity of taking composers’ markings seriously, probably because I had begun writing my own music and had become aware of how deeply meaningful and intricate musical notation really is.
And then there were my teachers, all of whom brought something different to my development. First there was Yvonne Hubert, who had once been Alfred Cortot’s assistant in France, and who had come to Canada in the twenties, completely revolutionizing the pianistic landscape at the time. She watched my purely pianistic progress very closely, but above all, she really awakened me to the importance of detail. I vividly remember one of my earliest lessons with her, at which I’d brought Bach’s D minor sinfonia. It was the most complicated piece I’d worked on by that time, and after an exhausting half-hour of her correcting elementary voicing details – several in every bar, it seemed – I realized that I hadn’t known the piece at all beforehand. She was also very instrumental in getting me to pay attention to my sound. An amusing detail: any of her students will recall how she could, sitting on your right as she always did, demonstrate a right-hand passage you had just played, with her left hand, perfectly.
After I moved to America, I spent some years under the wing of Harvey Wedeen, who had, I could say, a more broadly cultured outlook of pianism in general. Through him I really developed a keener awareness of style, among many other things. Lastly, I had a few lessons with Russell Sherman, who above all is a master in stimulating his students by providing constant musical or extra-musical sources of inspiration. I will never forget bringing him Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, op.10 no.2. In the middle movement – the second half of the trio, more specifically – whatever I was doing didn’t have the character he was looking for, so he said ‘Imagine these gigantic Roman temples, with these huge columns…..and behind one of them, Julius Caesar is being murdered!’
It’s a blessing that none of my teachers was ever ill-tempered or despotic. (The sole exception to this is the one lesson I had in 1987 with Juilliard’s Adele Marcus where, after two hours, I was reduced to feeling like an untalented, sub-human ignoramus. But that’s another conversation entirely.)
It would be a grave omission if I didn’t underscore the vital role that my wife Cathy has played in my life. Many friends of mine have taken special delight in pointing out her influence on my character, and how my playing seems to have transformed for the better ever since we’ve been together. To them there’s no doubt she’s the reason! Beside the fact that she has a heart of gold, her musical sensitivity is truly a thing of wonder. She is also an extremely gifted pianist, and all of this gives a real dimension to our life as a couple.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The biggest difficulty I’ve had over the years was overcoming a disastrous choice of management I made early on in America, one which I had to live with for thirteen years. Throughout that period, developing regular concert activity in the U.S. was very hard work. It wasn’t until I was finally able to change agents in the U.S. (around 2001-2002) that things really began to happen, almost exponentially you might say. Fortunately, in the meantime, I had acquired a very efficient manager in the UK, and that helped me start to get a good foothold in Europe. And all this time I was able to build a catalog of recordings which, in many countries, was the only way anyone could hear me.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I always say that if I could play Schubert’s final sonata in every one of my recitals until the day I die, I wouldn’t be unhappy! For that reason, the recording of it that is just now being released is extremely important to me, and I would love it to do well; I value it almost as much as everything else I’ve ever done, combined.
Concerning performances on video that can be seen on YouTube – none of which I’ve ever posted myself – my thoughts on those vary a great deal. While I am proud of some of the things that have appeared there recently, a Brahms Second Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic being a good example, a lot of my solo performances, especially ones from the distant past, now make me cringe with embarrassment. I often didn’t realize just how quickly I was playing then, and I wish I could go back to that period and put everything right! I’d be telling myself, “Slow down, man! Smell the flowers!”
Which particular works do you think you play best?
If you asked audience members, you might get different answers! But for myself, works like the Schubert B-flat Sonata, the Schumann Fantasy, the Liszt Sonata, the Debussy Images and second book of Préludes, and the Brahms concerti come to mind.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There can be many factors which might influence these decisions — too many to mention here. If you’re talking about a new work in your repertoire, I guess the main motivating impulse to program it for the first time is an instinctive feeling of being “ready” for it (whether right or wrong!). And even though I constantly try to expand my repertoire, I often revisit old friends — like the Schumann Fantasy, which I learned 40 years ago. On the other hand, I just recently learned Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie and 4th Scherzo.
As far as building a program, I usually start with one special work, then fashion a balanced set of pieces around it. I don’t generally tend to try to establish deep thematic connections of any kind between the works; my only aim is to provide an experience that is stimulating, thought-provoking, perhaps even challenging. This is why I usually include one or more less-often heard pieces on the program, as part of a lifelong wish to expand awareness of what pianists have been unjustly neglecting. (These days I’m becoming crazy over C.P.E. Bach – see for yourself what an explosively creative individual he was.)
And above all, though I have indeed played a great amount of highly demanding music — the type usually called “showpieces” (a word which I dearly wish would vanish from the dictionary), I do not go on stage to exhibit myself. For me, it’s all about sharing. I consider the public a friend, since I am fortunate enough never to have experienced stage fright. So, any outing on stage for me is an occasion for celebration, an extolment of the miracle of human creativity.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Living in Boston affords me the pleasure of being able to attend concerts in Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, two of the most magnificent venues anywhere from an acoustical point of view. There have been many places over the years where I’ve felt the relationship between my musical intentions and the aural result was near-perfect. The concert space at the Domaine Forget in Saint-Irénée in Québec is truly wonderful – many CD recordings have been realized there – and some Japanese spaces I’ve played in were absolutely fantastic with their varnished-wood walls and flooring.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Impossible to answer with just a few names! I could fill a page with musicians who at one time or another have given me true pleasure – and we’re not just talking about pianists! As far as pianists are concerned, I always have time for those who truly treat the instrument as a singing, speaking, living, breathing entity, and who have a complete emotional connection to it. The occasional references one hears about the piano being a percussion instrument, to me, amount to blasphemy.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I don’t have too many anecdotes of that type, but there is something that happened a few years ago that will linger in my memory forever (and safe to say, in the memories of most of those who were there).
I was giving a recital in New York in the summer about 4 years ago, and one of the works on the program was Ravel’s triptych Gaspard de la nuit. It was very hot, but fortunately not enough to wreck my concentration. Near the end of the first piece (Ondine), I heard a slight buzzing sound, followed by the feeling of something landing squarely on my head. I had no idea what it was at the time. They told me after the concert that it was a fly, about as big as my thumb! I continued to play – there was no reason to stop, really – but I wondered what the audience was thinking. And that fly proceeded to stay there, on my head, unmoving from the spot where it landed, for the entire length of Le Gibet! That’s 7 minutes!! And the best part is that the terrifying poem that Le Gibet is based on describes a winged beetle plucking a hair from a corpse! I learned afterwards that some people in the audience were fantasizing that this creature was sucking my brains out…!
As a musician, how do you define “success”?
Achieving total trust from the public as well as from concert promoters, and being able to sustain it over decades.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
First, it should go without saying that a thorough knowledge of the science of music – harmony, counterpoint, theory, aural training, analysis – is indispensable. Without these you cannot begin to truly understand what you’re doing. I am convinced, and have become more and more convinced over the years, that being naturally conversant in these matters will have a crucial influence on your playing. A clear musical mind with an overarching mastery of theoretical matters will have a much better chance at developing fluent pianism, even though this will probably not be apparent for a long while. I try to avoid using the word ‘technique’, since it’s really a misnomer; the word is usually used to indicate the purely mechanical side of piano playing, whereas it should also encompass the artistic and the emotional.
But, even more importantly, take time out of the practice room! The much-overused expression ‘get a life!’ fully applies here. It is pure folly to think that you can ultimately achieve anything artistically significant when the only landscape you ever glance at is the four walls of a practice space. Learn to concentrate your work as much as you can by zeroing in mercilessly on your shortcomings and don’t spend so much time on what you already know. This will allow you the time to blossom as a human being and to expand your horizons.
Marc-André Hamelin’s recording of Schubert’s last piano sonata and the second set of Impromptus is available now on the Hyperion label