Virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is a familiar face at music festivals and competitions the world over. In 2017, he served as a distinguished member of the jury of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano competition, for which he composed his Toccata on ''L'Homme armé''—a required piece for all the preliminary round competitors. In the past year, he’s brought his keyboard artistry to Vienna’s Musikverein, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and other storied venues.
Hamelin’s touring schedule for the summer of 2019 includes performances throughout Europe, his native Canada, and the United States—including his Palmetto State debut as one of this year’s Southeastern Piano Festival (SEPF) guest artists.
On Thursday, June 20th, Hamelin will perform a program of solo piano works that includes Romantic-Era favorites by Schumann and Chopin.
“I have the great luxury, actually, of being able to play what I love,” Hamelin says. “When you’re up-and-coming and building your career, very often you are prevailed upon to play certain pieces on order.”
Opening his SEPF performance is Feruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chaconne from his Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.
“Yes, [Busoni] added quite a lot to the violin original,” Hamelin says. “But in this case, it wasn’t to improve it or anything like that. He really wanted to match the cathedral-esque feeling of the original and translate it to the piano.”
For Hamelin, Busoni’s translation was nothing short of masterful. “He ended up with a really tremendous piece of music, to put it plainly—one that is actually quite a repertoire staple at this point and has been for many decades. I think we have before us one of the great, great transcriptions of all time.”
Reflective of his longtime championing of lesser-known works, Hamelin’s performance also includes Alexis Weissenberg’s Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trénet and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi (Cypresses).
“The piano repertoire is a real horn of plenty,” Hamelin says. “I mean, the amount of music that’s been written for the piano over the centuries is—yes of course it’s finite, but it really seems infinite. Of course there’s a lot of junk, a lot of things that are not very good, a lot of things that are totally passé or out-styled. But there’s also, I think, if you dig deeply enough…more than a few gems, which really need to be heard more.”
In Hamelin’s eyes, Castelunuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi is one of those gems. A musical picture of the countryside where the composer spent summers with his family, Cipressi is for Hamelin “a beautiful, atmospheric, and very impressionistic piece”—one deserving of more inclusion on recital programs.
“I would be the last one to say you shouldn’t play Debussy,” Hamelin says, “but it would be a welcome change from the usual Debussy pieces that you hear. It explores the piano beautifully and elicits some wonderful sonorities out of the instrument.”
In addition to his Thursday night performance, Hamelin will lead an open-discussion artist’s studio as the SEPF’s 2019 Marian Stanley Tucker Guest Lecturer on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 19th.
Hamelin’s career up to this point has left him well-placed to offer insights to those hoping for a future as a performing artist.
“Any young person who is setting out to have a career in music is going to have very, very, very stiff competition,” Hamelin says. “Ultimately, speed for a pianist, and volume for singers, and high notes—whatever—are all well and good for a while with audiences. But deep down, audiences want to see artistic substance. So, cultivate yourself. Acquire a culture. Don’t just cater to your own instrument… listen to symphonies, operas, ballets. Learn to sing. Maybe learn another instrument. And read as much as possible about other things. And, above all, enjoy life and get a taste of life in all its aspects. Anything of that sort will make you a richer personality and consequently a much more substantial and exciting-to-listen-to musician.”
In this interview that aired Tuesday, June 18th, South Carolina Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with Hamelin about his SEPF performance on June 20th and learns more about what it takes to be a concert pianist.