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February 17, 2014IM -
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is calling from Umbria, Italy. Normally you might say “sunny Italy,” but not this week, with much of Europe in the grip of a brutal cold wave. Hewitt, a longtime member of Local 180 (Ottawa-Gatineau, ON), is taking time out from her concert schedule to chat with International Musician about the life of a concert pianist. It’s exponentially tougher than you might think.
Based in London, Hewitt heads for Umbria, her “retreat,” when she wants to find peace. “And I can practice at all hours without bothering the neighbors,” she laughs. Such breaks are tough to come by: “Three years ago I scheduled three months out of my calendar with no concerts,” she says. “So if I want another break in 2014, I’m going to have to plan it now.”
Hewitt is quick to add that she has no plans to slow down. Music has been her life since childhood in Ottawa, and even after a short conversation, it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else. Born into a musical family (her father was a cathedral organist), Hewitt began piano studies at age three, performing in public one year later. “I don’t remember, but I’m told I ran out and climbed over the bench instead of bowing to the audience,” she says. At nine she played her first full-length recital at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she would later study.
As a budding musician, Hewitt involved herself in a lots of outlets, playing violin and recorder, and even dancing classical ballet for 20 years. “When I was a kid I dreamt of being in a musical because I loved to sing and dance,” she recalls. “It was wonderful that I did all these things, because they’ve all had an influence on how I play the piano. In the end, music is mostly song and dance, anyway.”
Hewitt says she has never found being on stage a strain. “We never mentioned the word ‘nerves’ in the house,” she recalls. “Maureen Forrester, the great Canadian contralto, used to say there is no such thing as nerves, just being unprepared. I’ve always tried to be as prepared as possible, so that I can go out and enjoy myself rather than worry. Of course, the adrenaline is always there, which is vital, and a very good thing.”
At 15, Hewitt says she realized that piano would win out. It felt the most natural, she says, and not least of all, she was—and still is—endlessly fascinated by the instrument’s immense, varied repertoire. Her concerts and recordings cover a huge range, with Hewitt’s discography including CDs of Enrique Granados, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Emmanuel Chabrier, Olivier Messiaen, the complete solo piano works of Maurice Ravel, the complete Frédéric Chopin nocturnes and impromptus, a Handel/Haydn album, and three discs devoted to the music of François Couperin.
A Gramophone Artist of the Year recipient in 2006, Hewitt has racked up an almost overwhelming array of honors: First Prize in Italy’s Viotti Competition (1978), and top prize winner in the International Bach competitions of Leipzig and Washington, DC, the Casadesus Competition in Cleveland, and the Dino Ciani Competition at La Scala, Milan. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000, and was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006. Highlights of her recent seasons include debuts in Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, as well as a North American tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Her frequent Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall recitals in London sell out months in advance.
In addition to recitals, Hewitt is equally at home on stage performing as a soloist with orchestras around the world. Interestingly, she approaches both with a similar mindset. “You have to be just as well-prepared for either,” she explains. “A recital can be more demanding because you’re on stage for two hours and have the entire orchestra in your 10 fingers.” On the other hand, she says a piano concerto always adds the element of the unexpected: “You frequently only meet a conductor and orchestra a day or two before a performance. The conductor might have a different idea of interpretation, and the orchestra might not have the ideal sound you like. You have to be flexible and ready for compromise.”
Hewitt says she has learned over the years to be more demanding, but diplomatic. “When I was younger, I didn’t dare open my mouth. Bit by bit, I learned what the rehearsal process could be, how much I could participate.” She also thinks equally about the orchestra, because a piano concerto is a dialogue. “In the best situations it can be absolutely wonderful, and the sum of all three parts—soloist, conductor, and orchestra—provides enormous excitement.”
Given some of Hewitt’s marathon concerts and recording projects, her aforementioned adrenaline is a welcome, one might even say necessary, ingredient. Completed in 2005, Hewitt’s 11-year project to record all the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach has been described as “one of the record glories of our age” (The Sunday Times), and she has been hailed as “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come” (Stereophile). Indeed, Hewitt feels there is nothing harder to play well than the music of Bach. During the 2007-2008 concert season she performed Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, 48 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys, around the world—from memory. She traveled to 26 countries for 110 concerts on six continents.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most wonderful,” she says. And Hewitt is especially proud of the fact that she managed to keep it fresh. “I knew I could always go further with each attempt.”
Hewitt’s latest project is a CD of three early Mozart piano concertos. She approaches the recording studio with the same sense of freshness as she does live performance. “You have to be really sure that you’re going to provide something unique,” she points out. “There’s no point in making a record unless your playing is individual. But I don’t go out thinking, ‘How can I make this different?’ I believe my own style of playing finds something new in the music.” For example, even though she plays on a modern piano, Hewitt plays in a classical, not romantic, style. “I follow the same approach with a Beethoven piano sonata. I find so much inspiration in the score.”
All these projects, on the boil or in the planning stages, keep Hewitt on the road some 10 out of 12 months each year. Far from being tired, she’s eager to take on the next challenge. “There is so much repertoire I still want to do,” she says.
Given her grueling concert diary, staying healthy both physically and mentally is vital. Not surprisingly, she adopted a somewhat extreme approach 12 years ago when she changed her diet—literally overnight. “When I hit 40, on the same day, I gave up sugar, wheat, dairy, alcohol, and caffeine,” she laughs. “And these days I really watch what I eat.” She also tries to stretch as much as possible, along with getting regular massages. Above all, she says, having a positive attitude helps. “Someday I’ll write a book about how to survive on the road. Looking after yourself is simply a requirement, if you’re going to be the best performer possible.”
Hewitt relies on the AFM to look after her in other ways. When asked why she keeps her union membership current, when so many other soloists let it lapse, she answers matter-of-factly: “I’ve been a member since I was a kid. Nowadays, I perform on the radio a lot in Canada and North America, and the more CDs I record, the more income I’m starting to receive from my records being played on the radio.” She also feels it’s crucial to keep up with news on copyright, and firmly believes in allying herself with an organization that represents her. “I know the AFM will stand up for my rights if I really need it.”