When Marc-André Hamelin walked onstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium on December 18, only the high shine of his shoes looked the part of a world-renowned, super-virtuoso pianist. His rumpled black suit and the days-old growth on his face were more suggestive of one who had come to tune the piano rather than play it for an audience of over 400 people. But as indifferent as Hamelin is about suits and shoes and other “ordinary” subjects (“I’m not a sportsman by any sense of the imagination”), there is no question about his devotion to the music. “I always say that the reason I go onstage is not to show myself off,” he says. He wants to be seen as “a trusted guide, one who channels this marvelous music to the best of his ability.”
Hamelin is a man consumed by music. Along with a full international concert schedule and the composition and publication of his own work, he has recorded over 60 CDs on Hyperion Records alone. Then, too, there’s his huge collection of scores. During a recent move, it took 78 packing boxes to fit them all. He has yet to unpack them because he hasn’t had the time to put up shelves. Exploring and maintaining this collection, he says, takes up all the time he might otherwise dedicate to nonmusical hobbies. Even his fiancée, Cathy Fuller, is a producer and host at WGBH/99.5, an all-classical radio station in Boston.
The La Jolla Music Society presented Hamelin as part of the Frieman Family Piano Series. President and artistic director Christopher Beach chose Sherwood Auditorium for the series in part because the deeply grooved, teak-lined walls give “a richness, a fullness to the tone of the hall.” In addition to outstanding acoustics, the 492-seat theater boasts uninterrupted sight lines. Beach, however, decided to take it one step further by adding an overhead screen that captured the projections of Hamelin’s hands and fingers on the keyboard. Although one audience member “found it distracting,” the majority responded to the screen with delight.
The audience, a distinguished and stately bunch, came dressed in black and gray informal attire, punctuated here and there with winter white or Christmas red; trousers and jackets for the men, dresses or pantsuits for the women. A handful of audience members wore khakis or jeans. Pashmina shawls and embellished sweaters added an extra touch of luxury and sparkle.
The award for Best Dressed, however, goes to the stage, adorned only with “the Belanich Steinway” piano, with its high-gloss finish and shiny golden wheels.
The program began with “Andante and Variations in F Minor,” written by Franz Joseph Haydn in 1793. Music scholars believe he wrote the piece in response to the death of his last great love, Marianne von Genzinger. Though it was not the most complex or technically difficult piece of the evening, the precision of Hamelin’s interpretation made it a favorite for season-ticket holder Karen Brailean. Each note was, she said, “exactly where you want it to be to feel a warmth and a love for the world.”
Hamelin followed Haydn with Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Minor.” This stormy piece stands in contrast to his lighter and happier works. Known as the darkest of Mozart’s piano sonatas, it is also the first of only two that he wrote in a minor key. “That alone makes it special,” says Hamelin.
Audience member and pianist Daniel Copenhaver said of Hamelin, “He has an eclectic command of different styles that is truly astonishing.” And of the Mozart piece specifically, Copenhaver said he “felt as though Mozart were playing.”
Franz Liszt’s “Venezia e Napoli” came third in the program. The three-movement piece (inspired by the composer’s Italian travels) begins with two peaceful movements and ends with a frantic and colorful presto. Liszt once admitted to dramatizing some of his compositions for the purpose of applause. Though Hamelin says, “The overt virtuosity is not something I’m crazy about as far as [Liszt] is concerned,” Hamelin also believes it’s important to remember that Liszt was “one of the most original creators not only in the 19th Century but of any period.”
After intermission, Hamelin played “Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major,” by Gabriel Fauré, who wrote the piece after a six-year dry spell. Hamelin chose it for Fauré’s handling of harmony and texture and for the rich, emotional world it presents. “It’s still a mystery to me why pianists don’t play it more,” he says. “Of course, it’s not terribly showy, you know, but there are other reasons to play certain repertoire.”
The physicality of the program’s final piece, Charles- Valentin Alkan’s “Symphonie for Solo Piano,” required tremendous strength and endurance. After the dramatic four-minute finale, the audience stood and applauded long enough for Hamelin to bow, leave the stage, and come back out to bow twice more.
For an encore, Hamelin presented a brief work of his own, “Little Nocturne,” which he composed in 2007 at the request of Clavier magazine. The piece will not be included in his collection of compositions, which is due for publication later this year, but he hopes to publish it one day.
Hamelin fans Nick Gianapoulos and Harout Senekeremian, two pianists from Los Angeles, drove to San Diego for the recital. After the show, they stood in line for his autograph. Senekeremian had a bound copy of Hamelin’s unpublished works. When Hamelin saw it, he flipped through the pages and said the edits he’s since made to the work rendered this copy obsolete. Senekeremian didn’t care, and Gianapoulos said the revisions attest to Hamelin’s “devotion to his composition and his performance.”