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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Superconductor Interview: A Taste for Complexity

A pianist in motion: Marc-André Hamelin.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin.
Photo by Sim Cannety Clarke © 2014 Hemsing Associates.
Among piano virtuosos, Marc-André Hamelin stands apart. The Canadian pianist and composer is known for his relentless exploration of the most challenging repertory of the instrument, bringing "lost" composers from the 19th century back into the public eye.

In New York to make his first subscription appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Hamelin graciously agreed to an interview while hurtling through the steel canyons of Manhattan in the back of a taxi. In these concerts, he is playing Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra a work that used to be frequently heard but is now regarded as an antique.

"Fashions come and go," he says as the cab weaves through Thursday Manhattan traffic. "It's a wonderful piece, under-represented in concert. (Conductor) Andrew Davis was telling me how it's really a repertory staple but now it's fallen out of favor with young people playing Rachmaninoff."

"Aside from the fact that its very well constructed," he says, "It's a marvel of jewel-like craftsmanship. It's pleasing to the ear, a very noble work and full of sparkle. There is no reason why it should be under-represented." In fact, these performances are the Philharmonic's first in thirty years.

Mr. Hamelin's charm and easy personality are in stark contrast to the knotty works he regularly conquers, playing music that most concert pianists avoid in favor of a steady diet of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert. In concert, Mr. Hamelin tends to favor more conventional repertory, saving the exotic stuff for the recording studio. Past achievements have included a complete cycle of Godowsky's Etudes on Chopin's Etudes and major concertos by forgotten names like Henselt,  Korngold and Anton Rubinstein. His latest release:  a three-disc set of the knotty late piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, another member of that "club" of lesser-known but important piano composers.

"People come to concerts not to be challenged but for the pleasure of discovery," he says. "If you do too much unknown repertory, people don't have much to compare you to. Unfortunately, people judge you on what you know and they judge you by your playing of what you know."

"I have a taste for complexity" he admits, "and a willingness to untangle these things." 'Those things' include marathon works like Charles-Valentin Alkan's "Four Ages" Symphony for Solo Piano and Busoni's monstrous five-movement piano concerto which is the only example of its genre to require a choir.

"Being a composer myself," he says, "although my activity in that respect is a lot less extensive as a fully professional composer, it helps me have insight into what goes into preparing a score and translating ideas into this imperfect notational system that we have."

"I  like simple things too," he adds. "There's a recording I made of Janacek. He achieves a lot with very, very few notes, but the economy of means is great." However, a Hamelin program is not necessarily about the difficulty of the music or the challenge for the audience.

"If  you look at my recital programs over the years its aways included standard repertoire. its my recorded repertory." (A recent concert bears this out, with the Schubert Impromptus juxtaposed with Nikolai Medtner's difficult one-movement "Black Wind" Sonata.

"The way I did it, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone," he says. "I went about it in an intuitive fashion. Wen I'm asked to give advice to young people teres not much I can tell them because I did it all wrong!"

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.