Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
I don’t remember not playing the piano. As my parents were also musicians, it was probably a rather obvious thing to do. I never thought of music as a career per se, but it was clear to me rather early (certainly before my teens) that music would consume my life.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
So many people! Obviously my teachers, Sulamita Aronovsky and the late Susan Bradshaw, have both been crucial. I learnt very different things from each of them. In a way they were very contradictory, but I have never felt confused, rather enriched by having multiple views on so many issues. I am hugely grateful to them both. Beyond that, clearly the influences on a musician who is even slightly inquisitive will be very wide-ranging.
Several pianists have been personally very important to me, most obviously perhaps David Tudor – who helped me most generously in my early 20s, as I was preparing a major Cage project – and Maurizio Pollini, whose work was influential on me in many ways from an early age, and who in recent years I’ve come to know personally. He invited me to share a concert with him at Suntory Hall last season, which was a huge pleasure – I played a work of Manzoni in the first half, and he played Beethoven Sonatas in the second.
I have had the honour of working with many living composers over the years and have learnt many things from them. When that honour has been dubious, I have learnt what to avoid rather than what to embrace. But in the case of a composer like Birtwistle, whose “Variations from the Golden Mountain” I am premiering at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 14th September, the relationship has been only fruitful and enjoyable (for me at least).
Conductors, studying works in other genres (string quartets, orchestral works), visual arts – everything goes into the artistic pot and influences the flavour like herbs in a stew.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Challenge in what sense? Every concert, every confrontation with a work of music, is a challenge. And practical life is a challenge. And bad conductors are a challenge.
Yes, that’s it: bad conductors are definitely the greatest challenge.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
A composer was once asked which piece he was most proud of, and said it’s always his most recent. I guess the same is true for me. I’m just seeing a disc of the concertos of Birtwistle through the press, and have also just finished a disc of the complete piano music of Brian Ferneyhough. So I guess they’re the ones I’m most proud of.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There are many things I think about for ages but don’t programme for many years, and on the other hand sometimes I decide quite quickly that I want to do a particular work. One of the joys of my situation is collaborating, and bouncing ideas off a trusted promoter can be extremely stimulating.
You are performing a new commission by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at your Wigmore Hall concert on 14th September. What is especially exciting about working on new music such as this?
Working with great composers personally is something that can only happen with contemporary music. All the others are dead. I can’t work with Beethoven or Debussy, but I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to work with Birtwistle, for example. So much is made clear in our personal meetings and discussions; at the same time one understands the freedom available with more precision.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? What is your most memorable concert experience?
Well there are many remarkable acoustics around the world, and many halls with intelligent and searching programming. But what makes a concert really memorable is the situation – the programme, the audience, my mood, my collaborators (dead or alive). When everything aligns the experience is unforgettable.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The most important starting point for young musicians is the score. Students sometimes seem to view it more as a hint, rather than as the least indirect link to the composers intentions, which is what it is. Understanding notation in the deepest manner is one of the most important things which can be taught.
What are you working on at the moment?
After the Wigmore, I have to prepare a new piano concerto by Simon Steen-Andersen, and will also be working on Brahms 2nd Concerto for a concert in Finland in November. And many other smaller things in between!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
No idea. I am sure though that I won’t be anywhere I could now guess.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I am still trying to work that out.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Steinway (which is beyond obvious).
What do you enjoy doing most?
Watching my children develop.
What is your present state of mind?
Expectant before the birth of a new work at the Wigmore tomorrow!
Nicolas Hodges performs music by Mozart/Busoni, Debussy and Sir Harrison Birtwistle in an 80th birthday tribute concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, Sunday 14th September. Further information here
Born and trained in London, and now based in Germany, where he is a professor at the Stuttgart Conservatory, Hodges approaches the works of Classical, Romantic, 20th century and contemporary composers with the same questing spirit, leading The Guardian to comment that: “Hodges’ recitals always boldly go where few other pianists dare … with an energy that sometimes defies belief.”