Pianist Hamelin Takes the Road Less Traveled

Marc-André Hamelin is making an extensive North America tour this fall. (Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Marc-André Hamelin brings music of Ornstein, Field and Medtner on tour this fall. He brings Ravel, Schubert and Mozart, too.
(Sim Canetty-Clarke)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — At the age of nine, a boy named Marc-André Hamelin arrived at Montreal’s École Vincent D’Indy, to study piano with Yvonne Hubert – the esteemed pedagogue who also taught Louis Lortie, André Laplante, and several other prominent pianists from Quebec. But his musical education began years earlier, through the influence of his father. Père Hamelin was a pharmacist who loved the piano, and whose musical taste was firmly rooted in the “Golden Age” of pianism — an era of brilliant virtuosos, beginning with Franz Liszt in the nineteenth century, and extending into the twentieth century with such concert artists as Josef Hofmann and Ignaz Paderewski.

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin (Fran Kaufman)
Kapustin, Vladigerov? Hamelin knows them well. (Fran Kaufman)

More than any other single event, it was Hamelin’s victory at the 1985 Carnegie Hall International Competition for American Music that brought him to the musical world’s attention. The Montreal-born pianist was 24 years old at the time, and still a student at Philadelphia’s Temple University. Yet his prize in New York marked his “arrival” as a full-fledged concert pianist, and the beginning of a remarkable musical journey, which included playing a string of concertos with the orchestras of Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Detroit, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. He soon distinguished himself from the crowd of hot-shot young pianists through his fondness for rarely heard (and often fiendishly difficult) works by little-known composers.

These days, he’s a busy performer on the international scene. This fall, his North American performances alone include a tour with the Pacifica Quartet, playing in San Francisco (Nov. 11), Costa Mesa (Nov. 12), New Orleans (Nov. 14), Columbus, Ohio (Nov. 16), New York (Nov. 19), and Philadelphia (Nov. 20). Following this tour, he plays solo recitals in Montreal (Nov. 22), Washington (Nov. 25) and Boston (Dec. 8). His final engagement for 2013 is with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 12-13). (For information on all these engagements, click here.)

Hamelin exotic repertoire has expanded audience tastes.
Hamelin has convinced many listeners to take his choices seriously.

Hamelin also has one of the largest recording catalogues of any Canadian pianist, mostly on the UK’s Hyperion label. And, true to form, it’s filled with obscure names such as Nikolai Kapustin, Pancho Vladigerov, Xaver Scharwenka, and a host of others. Yet rather than acting like dead weights on Hamelin’s career, dragging him down into oblivion, he’s done well by these unknowns – and he’s convinced many listeners to take his exotic repertoire seriously. This has led to a curious conundrum for Hamelin: Where most pianists would view the championing of unfamiliar repertoire as a risky venture, for him, “taking risks” means playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

The 51-year-old Boston-based pianist recently spoke about his life in music – and his penchant for taking the road less traveled.


CE: When did you start to study the piano – and who were your early influences?

MAH: I was five years old when I began the piano. I consider my father as my first teacher. I never officially studied from him, but I owe him a great deal. He was an amateur pianist – he felt that a career was not for him. I remember that he played some difficult pieces: some of the Chopin Études and Nocturnes, César Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and other things that you have to be a very proficient amateur to play. This made him qualified to oversee my progress.

As a child, I listened to my father’s record collection. He was interested in the pianists of the Golden Age: Vladimir de Pachmann, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Leopold Godowsky – and people like that. He collected every single re-issue he could get his hands on, which wasn’t easy to do in Canada in the 1960s and ’70s. He wasn’t too keen on contemporary pianists. I think they left him unsatisfied.

Listening to these pianists taught me to view music with a great sense of freedom. Perhaps this wasn’t too healthy, from the perspective of today’s musicological advances, because I grew up with a disregard for the letter of the score. This is something I acquired later on. I believe it’s the combination of these two elements that make me who I am today, and make me do what I do the way I do it.

CE: What was it like studying with Yvonne Hubert?

Yvonne Hubert
Yvonne Hubert

MAH: I studied with her from the age of 11 to 17, so I was quite young at the time. She threw her whole heart into teaching, but she had a good temper. She wasn’t one of these teachers who is a Holy Terror! She had a very rational approach, and she had a strong attention to detail. I remember one of my earliest lessons, when I was working on Bach’s Three-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor. I was playing it very carelessly – and she got me to be really attentive to the polyphonic structure, which is no small thing when you’re 11. At the end of the lesson, I was exhausted and practically on the verge of tears, but I learned something that day.

On the other hand, she didn’t always view some of my repertoire interests very kindly. She wanted her students to stick to the music she assigned. I was too much of a good boy at the time to complain too much – but there was a part of me that wished I could be doing things I wasn’t allowed to do.

CE: Would you say that your win at the 1985 Carnegie Hall International Competition for American Music launched your professional career?

Hamelin's early career slowed after initial engagements.
Hamelin’s early career suffered a lull.

MAH: Yes and no. After the competition, auditions with North American managers were arranged for me. Unfortunately I made a very bad choice, which I was stuck with for the next 13 years. I had a manager who, as far as I know, never made any cold calls – he always waited for the calls about work to come to him. Even though I had some engagements with orchestras, as part of my prize in the competition – and I fulfilled them all – I didn’t get re-invited anywhere. And whatever one might say about the quality of my playing at the time, a large part of the problem was due to my manager, who was absolutely inactive.

In the meantime, I got a good manager in Europe, and my career started to develop there. But it wasn’t until about 2001, when I signed with a new manager in New York, that things started to pick up in North America – almost exponentially.

CE: I’d like to talk about your repertoire. Is there an overarching theme or trajectory to your repertoire choices?

MAH: I’m not a great planner.

CE: But looking back on the music you’re recorded, would you say that you have followed certain definable tendencies?

MAH: If you look at my discography, I don’t think you’ll find anything like it anywhere else. I’ve always had a taste for the unfamiliar, and a desire to bring it to the forefront – in the hope of enlarging awareness of the repertoire, and helping other pianists by offering them a greater diversity of things to choose from.

Charles Ives 'Concord' Sonata, for New World Records, 1992.
Charles Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata, for New World Records, 1992.

And I’ve pretty much always been able to do what I wanted. My first CD was part of a prize for winning the Carnegie Hall Competition in 1985, so I had to record American music – preferably contemporary. I recorded William Bolcom and Stefan Wolpe. My second CD was for the CBC, and I suggested Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata. They weren’t keen on that, so I suggested Godowsky, which they accepted. My third CD was an invitation from New World Records to do the Concord Sonata. So in my first three CDs I couldn’t have done standard repertoire even if I’d wanted to – it wasn’t on the agenda.

CE: Did you ever have a record company balk at releasing a recording of music by an obscure composer you were excited about?

MAH: No, I can’t recall anything quite like that. When I first went to Hyperion in 1991, I made some suggestions – some of which were accepted, and some of which weren’t. But it was when I wanted to record standard repertoire that they were reticent. However, with the passage of time, they came to trust me a little more: that’s why I was able to do Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, for example.

CE: Who is the most obscure composer you’ve recorded?

Georgy Catoire
Georgy Catoire

MAH: That’s easy! It would be the Russian composer Georgy Catoire. Today he’s remembered mostly as a theory teacher, although he’s had a minor resurgence as a composer. His music isn’t available anywhere: everything is out of print. But in 1994 I met the widow of the pianist Alfred La Liberté, who was a good friend of Alexander Scriabin and other Russian musicians. She gave me a great deal of La Liberté’s sheet-music collection – which contained many gems I’ve never seen anywhere else. It included most of Catoire’s music for piano, and also some chamber music and songs. Of all the music that she gave me, Catoire’s works resonated with me most significantly. When I talked to Hyperion about recording his work, they were very enthusiastic.

CE: It doesn’t sound as though your cultivation of unfamiliar composers was a deliberate “business plan” for your career.

MAH: Oh God, no!

CE: But isn’t that what it turned out to be, in retrospect – and a good one, as well?

MAH: Somehow, the public started to trust me, and that’s what kept me going. If I’d had one fiasco after another, I would have got the message! But there’s a part of the public that wants to hear something other than Mozart sonatas.

CE: Do you think it’s also your virtuosity that appeals to your fans? Do they want to hear you play a double trill with one hand and a six-voice fugue with the other?

MAH: For many people, difficulty has an attraction all its own. But I don’t enjoy playing difficult music for its own sake – and I wish people understood this. If I do it, it’s because I believe in the music, and I’ll do whatever it takes to play it. But I want people to transcend virtuosity, and I’m a little less into that sort of thing now. I’ve found joy in simpler repertoire.

CE: Do you mean like Joseph Haydn? Your Haydn recordings may have seemed out of character to some people, because his music is so straightforward and uncomplicated on the page.

MAH: With Haydn, you have to admire what the music says. He was a brilliant mind, even within a restricted pianistic vocabulary. His element of surprise – the way he plays with your expectations – makes him angular and yet warm-hearted at the same time. By the way, I have three Haydn concerti coming out later this year, which I recorded with Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy.

CE: Let’s talk about the music you compose. I gather you like being described as a composer-pianist.

MAH: Sure – it’s much better than “virtuoso”!

CE: But is hard for a composer-pianist to be accepted as just a composer?

MAH: In a sense, yes, because I don’t fit into the post-modern aesthetic – whatever that is. Because I grew up with pianists of the Golden Age, my mind is naturally geared towards arrangements, and that’s most of what I’ve been doing. I’ve written relatively few original things, up until now.

CE: Do other pianists play your music?

MAH: From time to time. If you go on YouTube you’ll find a number of young people who are foolhardy enough to try it. My Twelve Etudes were published by C.F. Peters in 2010, coinciding with the release of the recording on Hyperion. I did a promotional concert in New York at that time, and more scores than CDs were sold that evening.

CE: Do you still spend a lot of time digging up old scores of obscure works?

MAH: I’m still interested in that – but I realize that I’m not in my twenties any more, and I have to make certain choices. I have a kind of “personal filter” for repertoire, and the holes are getting smaller. Very little passes through that I feel I should spend my time with.

And there’s a lot of the standard repertoire that I still haven’t done. For next year, I’ve programmed Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D.959 and his Impromptus – and I’ll be playing the Impromptus for the first time. But I’ll also revisit Nikolai Medtner’s Night Wind Sonata, which I think is an unsung masterpiece. It would benefit any young composer to study it very closely.

CE: At this point in your career, what else haven’t you done that you’d like to do?

MAH: I’d like to play in some places I haven’t been to, and to play with some orchestras and conductors I haven’t worked with. Also, I want to do more chamber music. Things are going well right now – but I think my career would be enhanced by more diversification.

Note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, published by Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.