ArtsWatch Guest Post: Jana Hanchett previews Marc-André Hamelin

Portland Piano International brings the renowned Canadian pianist-composer to Oregon.

Marc-André Hamelin performs at Portland's Newmark Theatre on Sunday afternoon.

Marc-André Hamelin performs at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on Sunday afternoon.


We could whet your musical appetite for Marc-André Hamelin’s  March 3 performance at Newmark Theater by dwelling on Hamelin’s illustrious technical prowess, his triumphant promotion of early 20th-century repertoire like Alkan, Busoni, Godowsky, and Kapustin, and his own witty compositions that entwine Romantic idioms with contemporary musical language. The Montreal-born, Boston-based Hamelin not only embodies virtuosic artistry, but through his compositions he also presents a contemporary classical idiom that is accessible to the culture at large.

But those notions won’t give you a sense of what you will experience in Hamelin’s Portland Piano International recital of the music of Berg, Fauré, Ravel, Rachmaninov, and yes, in Hamelin’s very own composition. At the name “Berg,” fears of schizzy woodwind calls, agitated brass clamors, and distraught string wails may flit through your mind; but fear not! Listening to this sonata, first premiered in 1911 and Berg’s first composition under Schoenberg’s tutelage, is akin to absorbing the tragic voice of Billie Holiday: you will hear agonizing chromaticism melt into lush chords that rise up again into virtuosic tumbles before dissipating into poignant questioning.

Hamelin has been playing these pieces for years. “The Berg I fell in love with when I was fifteen, and around this same time I was playing the Fauré “Impromptu” and “Barcarolle” that are also on this program,” he told ArtsWatch last week. “It’s a fascinating thing to play pieces after you haven’t played them in awhile because new musical discoveries just happen by themselves, almost as if someone else is playing them. This experience is quite staggeringly wonderful because you play the piece, and you find it sounds completely different. It’s certainly not because you’ve been practicing the piece in the meantime; the piece sounds new because you as a person and musician have evolved and therefore see things differently.”

Because Hamelin appreciates the process of evolving as a musician, his performances of virtuosic standards like Gaspard of the Night remain fresh.  Listening to him play this work on Sunday evening will shed light on the elusive Ravel, who responded to over-sentimentalized performances of his works by stating, “I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played.” According to Hamelin, “Ravel himself says he got carried away [with Gaspard], but that’s part of the piece: everything’s larger than life in there. I’m very concerned with trying to translate the spirit of the poem and the mood of the poem in my playing. This is the most important thing to get across. Listeners should definitely read the Bertrand poems or else their appreciation and absorption of might not be as successful as it could be otherwise.”

After this aural adventure, Hamelin will present his own compositional take on Variations on a Theme by Paganini: “The theme sounds so simple, and yet because it is so inevitable, it’s easy to wrap your ears around whatever transformation the composer gives to it,” he said. “I’m very familiar with all the other composers’ variations, but the theme seems to possess endless possibilities. My set proves that a lot of them haven’t been exploited yet. Without revealing specifics to the public, I really tried to push the envelope. As I was composing it I thought, ‘I can’t do that! They’re gonna kill me!’”

Hamelin will end his program with Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 2. After composing it in 1913, Rachmaninov revised it in 1931 to present a more cyclical structure. The opening theme in the first movement is echoed throughout the second and third. Hamelin often performs the opening gesture of the luscious second movement in a manner that ironically reminds the listener of the opening of the Berg sonata. These two composers developed practically opposite musical idioms in response to the end of the 19th century. Ultimately, though, your ears will delight in the blues scales, the clanging bells, and the liturgical stillness all encompassed in this powerful work of art. “Overall,” Hamlin said, “I want the listener to know where they’re going. I try to carry the listener through the strength of the harmonies, and that is going to have the same effect as telling a story, if I do it well.”

Marc-André Hamelin performs at Portland’s Newmark Theatre,  1111 SW Broadway at 4 pm Sunday, March 3. Call 503.228.1388 or order online.  Tickets are $32.50-60.00.

Jana Hanchett has studied classical and collaborative piano and is exploring classical music in her new hometown of Portland.

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