Ahead of her Australian tour, the Canadian pianist explains why communicating with audiences is vital.
Where did your musical inspiration come from as a child?
Music was part of the language at home. I grew up with music as I did with speaking. With Bach, my father played it and my mother played it, so it seemed the normal thing to do. But I did so many other things as a kid, which I also enjoyed. I did 20 years of classical ballet, which I absolutely loved. I played the violin, I played the recorder, I sang, I did highland dancing, I went to school, I did gymnastics. I did so many things, and I’m really happy that I did, because I think it’s so important to have a rounded childhood. Piano was always what I did with the greatest ease, though, and where I think my natural gifts lay. I started with my French piano teacher, Jean-Paul Sévilla around my 15th birthday. He started showing me all the piano repertoire there was – the French school, things as diverse as Messiaen and all the big Romantic works. He gave me the Goldbergs when I was 16, so that really opened another door for me, but even at that age I never dreamt I would be doing it to the extent that I am now.
Pianist Angela Hewitt will tour Australia for Musica Viva. Photo © Bernd Eberle
Did you listen to other players? Did you have early piano heroes or people who were stylistic influences?
We listened to a lot of recordings, but more than that, I went to every single concert – which is something that young pianists don’t do these days – from Pollini, Larrocha, Ingrid Haebler, you name them. We had a big concert life in Ottawa, but then also we would drive to Montreal, to Toronto. I remember driving five hours to Toronto to hear Larrocha play Iberia by Albéniz and we went back in the middle of the night. You would observe, you would listen, take what you liked the best, and understand what you didn’t like and why. It was always a learning experience. I was always taught by my teachers that listening to recordings was fine, but that’s not where the main inspiration should come from, it comes from the score. That I learned from a very early age. Musically, the biggest inspirations of my life were my parents – because they were both wonderful musicians – then Jean-Paul, and then certain conductors and musicians that I’ve worked with along the way. Also record producers, the ones I’ve worked most closely with.
You’ve recorded and performed so much Bach over many years, but last year you embarked on a four-year Bach ‘odyssey’ to play it all over again. What are you hoping to get this time around out of all that Bach?
What is wonderful is first of all to revisit the pieces I haven’t played as much. One tends to play one’s favourite Partitas or favourite French Suites. I’ve spent so many hours now in Bach’s presence, and I think the message that you have to get across is the joy that his music brings, the wonderful beauty and construction, the comfort of his music and the expression in it.
The early Capriccio in E Major, that I hadn’t played in 15 years or something. It’s a tremendous piece. It’s an early work and a bit of long, rambling fugue, but it’s full of invention and flair, and comes to a very virtuosic finish, so it really goes down well in a concert. I had forgotten that. I’ll be playing the Sixth Partita again for the first time this coming summer. That’s one that I adore and which I’ve been teaching a lot in masterclasses but which I haven’t performed in many years. I’m looking forward to that.
Angela Hewitt. Photo © Ole Christiansen
In Australia you’ll also be playing Scarlatti. Is he enormous fun, or is he a bit of a technical nightmare? And is his music ever as cerebral as Bach?
Scarlatti is fun if you can manage the notes. But it’s actually a lot of fun figuring it out if you like challenges. You have to practise it enough so that you can play, but also and most importantly, injecting life into it, because that is really needed. It’s really dramatic and theatrical music, infused with all sorts of stuff. There are some very noble settings where you can just see that he must have been in one of his castles that belonged to the Spanish royal family, there’s so much idiomatic stuff. But the more I read about Scarlatti the more I realise that we know hardly anything about him. So by playing a lot of his sonatas, I think you realise more about his temperament, what his music was like, and what’s important in it. He was totally different from Bach – no, not as cerebral, but certainly incredibly intelligent. And he can delight in breaking the rules. Bach did too of course, but Scarlatti’s music is much less rigorous.
You’ve always played a lot of French music. Is that attraction part of a French-Canadian thing, or was it because you had a French teacher?
Well, I had done a bit of French music before I met Jean-Paul. I played the Ravel Sonatina when I was 12 and did some Debussy, but it was really meeting Jean-Paul on a summer course in Aix-en-Provence in 1973. That summer, Ottawa organised and took a group of students for six weeks. I was really under the age, but they let me in and it was just wonderful. We had lessons everyday and on the weekend we went to the beach. We were taught about art, we were taught about food. It wasn’t just learning the note of your pieces, it was a real life education – Jean-Paul was that kind of a teacher. He introduced us to French music, but of all of his pupils he says I’m the one who took to it. I don’t know, I just loved it. I think I love the poetry – I always loved the language and I speak French – and the music is very related to the sound of the language. He also invited musicians to come to teach and perform for us. There was a singer, Madam Perugia, who was amazing. She was about 100 at the time, but to have somebody in the room who had known Fauré… I went to live in Paris when I was 20, and stayed there seven years. But yes, I’ve always had an affinity for French music. But also I was a dancer, and so much of it is dance related.
Many pianists play Ravel and Debussy, but not so many Chabrier. What do you find in his music?
It’s wonderful stuff. Jean-Paul gave me some of the Piéces Pittoresques when I was 13 years old, but the Bourrée Fantasque I’ve played since my days in Paris. You know, I was a friend of the grandson of the man to whom the piece is dedicated, Édouard Risler. But Chabrier was a big influence on Ravel. It’s music that has an incredible freshness, and originality. You hear three bars of Chabrier and you wouldn’t mistake it for anybody else. The orchestration is terrific, the charm, the wit. All of this you get in the Bourrée Fantasque in six and a half minutes. I also like playing repertoire that’s not so popular. These kids who do all the competitions want to play the pieces that everybody plays like Petrushka. They think if they play Chabrier they won’t be taken seriously. Of course, that is probably true with some of the people on juries. I remember once when I was in my teens a competition in Italy. I played a wonderful piece by Dukas – Variations on a theme by Rameau – and one of the judges said ‘what did you play that for?’ I still think it was a wonderful piece and it shows a lot, but anyway, they want to hear the pieces they know.
What else do you play that perhaps you haven’t recorded? And are you generally an omnivorous player?
I am. I think if you look at my repertoire, you can see that. If there are things I haven’t recorded, it’s usually because of lack of time, or in the case of concertos, lack of money on the record company’s part. If I’d had my way, I would have done five or six more concerto recordings. But maybe in the future they’ll happen. I’ve played Brahms F Minor Sonata, that was one of my best pieces so I should probably record that some day. Maybe one disc of Schubert? Rachmaninov, I don’t really enjoy but everybody else plays it. At the moment, my projects are to finish recording my Beethoven cycle, which has two more records, and then another Scarlatti because I just love it so much – I’ve already recorded a second album.
Angela Hewitt. Photo © Peter Hundert
You’ve always enjoyed a close relationship and rapport with your audiences, and I’ve read comments you’ve made about pianists who just walk onto the platform and don’t smile or speak, or even look like they necessarily want to be there. How important to you is that communication for building new audiences, or making newcomers feel comfortable in the concert hall?
Yes, I think that’s really, really important. That’s why I spend so much of my time doing it. First of all, it’s important to play well – without that you can’t do anything – but while you’re playing, also to communicate well with your audience, looking around at them or whatever. If you have the occasion to do a pre-concert talk, give them your views on the music, what’s important for them to listen to. Any way they can get to know you a little bit as a person and hear your voice, I think that really helps. At every concert, I go out there, sign CDs, programmes, meet my audience, which again is very moving. People appreciate it. If you give them 30 seconds of your time and look them in the eye, they’re a fan of life. I played the Goldbergs last night and I had one 97 year-old woman said she’d been at concerts all her life and never heard a concert like that. She said, “I don’t think I’m gonna come to another concert ever again, I just want to finish with that one.” When people write fan messages on my website, I answer. When they order CDs from my website, they get an answer from me, which really shocks them. I’m very hands on, but I do think it makes a huge difference. And that’s why people turn out to hear you time and time again.
Are you concerned about either the next generation of pianists or the next generation of listeners?
There are a lot of kids out there who are extremely gifted and playing very well, probably even more than ever, especially in Asia. But I don’t know whether there are more that have a true personality. I think that always remains the thing. What kids did in my generation at 17, they’re now doing at 12 or 13, which I think is too young anyway to play all this Chopin. You’re not physically formed for it.
As for audiences, if you go and play in places like Singapore, the entire audience is under 25 years of age. How come? I think it’s because many of them are learning an instrument because the parents consider it part of a proper education. There will certainly be no problem about getting an audience in those countries in the future. But yes, in other places, it is most definitely a worry. I try to go to play in schools, and I’m always happy when young people are there. I give a lot of masterclasses, I’m an ambassador for the orchestra programme in Ottawa, which is an El Sistema type programme, where they take disadvantaged kids from their local community and put an instrument in their hands, and teach them afterschool to do amazing things. Many of them are hugely gifted and will end up with a life in music. I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t start with kids when they’re 14, 15, but if you can get them when they’re 3, 4, 5 years old, that’s better.
Does that mean at the end of the day you feel hopeful for the future, or concerned?
I am hopeful. I think that the greatness of music and the greatness of live performance is never going to go away. I think they are too many people out there who search for it and need it and who know what a wonderful experience it is to sit in a hall and hear a full symphony orchestra or a concerto or a soloist or a singer. I don’t think it’s going to go away, no. But I do think we need to encourage it to be taught more in schools and to young people.
Angela Hewitt is on tour with Musica Viva May 8 – 27