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Circus Galop: Canadian Pianist Marc-André Hamelin on Performing, Composing and 'Synethesia'

By Brick Dozer on Nov 25, 2013 03:36 PM EST

Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is an archaeologist-cum-miracle worker of the piano who has almost single-handedly brought "dead" 19th-century composers back to life with his powerful, nimble fingers and keen intellect.

Although he has recorded more than 50 CDs, even the keenest followers of the piano may not know much about him because he specializes in reviving composers like Nikolai Medtner and Leopold Godowsky--a world away from the household names of Chopin or Schubert.

He also is no show-off, having been described as the "least ostentatious of virtuosos."

"There's a certain fashion of histrionics of the keyboard which is completely foreign to what I do," the 52-year-old Montreal native, whose father was a pharmacist and amateur pianist, told Reuters over lunch in London.

He went on to give a knock-out recital in the intimate Wigmore Hall--including a riveting performance of Medtner's Piano Sonata No. 2, a 35-minute-long musical evocation of the vagaries of the "night wind."

"I really think that people should come to recitals and listen," added Hamelin, who has a ready smile and relaxed demeanor, but sits firmly upright at the keyboard.

"The only reason I'm on stage is to share the music that I love, share the miracle of human creativity and cause people to rethink some of their preferences and, more importantly, expand them."

To some that may sound dry, but Hamelin, in person, is anything but. Attempting to show an interviewer the latest in music libraries available on his mobile phone, he called up the program only to discover to his amusement he had deleted most of his files--leaving only Adele's pop hit 21.

He also delivered, from memory, three verses of satirist Tom Lehrer's bawdy ditty about Alma Mahler Werfel--"the loveliest girl in Vienna"--and her many husbands and lovers.

Hamelin said his forays into the forgotten repertoire--which most recently produced a three-disc set of late works by Ferruccio Busoni for Hyperion--were thrust upon him when he won a competition at Carnegie Hall in 1985.

The recording contract that went with it required he play something American, preferably contemporary, which by definition meant obscure. His next contract, in Canada, pushed him to record the largely forgotten Polish-American Leopold Godowsky's studies on Chopin's études.

After that, it was the famously difficult Ives Concord Sonata, by which point he said, "I couldn't have recorded the standard repertoire if I had wanted to."

Hamelin, who lives in Boston with his second wife, a classical radio presenter, does play more familiar composers, including Mozart and Haydn, and has started recording works of his own--even weaving them into his recitals.

Having begun jotting notes on music paper at the age of five, Hamelin has scored critical and audience success with a set of his own études, as well as a more recent series of variations on the ever popular 24th "Caprice" of Paganini.

MADCAP CIRCUS MUSIC

His stage presence may be low key. But his own compositions can be flamboyant.

Circus Galop is a highly complex piece, evoking the chaos of the Big Top, written specially for mechanical pianolas, or player pianos.

It is almost impossible for an unaided human to perform--so online fans fed it through the video game Synethesia, which challenges players to keep up with piano music on their keyboards. Films of people trying and failing to play along have attracted millions of hits, but no income for the composer.

More recently he's been encoring his own remix of the "Minute Waltz," in which Chopin's instantly recognizable melody runs headlong into a storm of note clusters and key changes worthy of Frank Zappa.

Being both composer and performer is a big help to playing the work of other musical multi-taskers--like 19th-century Hungarian composer and piano superstar Franz Liszt.

"You know much more about the inner workings of these things; you're closer to knowing how they got put together. Therefore, you can analyze, and then synthesize, because you are more cognizant of what the composer went through," said Hamelin.

(Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Andrew Heavens)

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TagsCircus Galop, Marc-André Hamelin, Synethesia, Nikolai Medtner, Leopold Godowsky, Wigmore Hall, Busoni, Chopin, Schubert, Ives, Concord Sonata, Carnegie Hall, Mozart, Haydn, Paganini, Frank Zappa