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Marc-André Hamelin and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Unleash Busoni

On May 9, Jacques Lacombe brings his New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall as part of the 2012 Spring For Music series. Here, Victoria McCabe of the NJSO speaks with Maestro Lacombe and pianist Marc-André Hamelin about the program and, in particular, Busoni’s Piano Concerto.

Next month's New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concert program at Carnegie Hall—part of the second annual Spring For Music festival—features one of the most buzzed-about performances of the year: Busoni’s Piano Concerto with renowned pianist and NJSO favorite Marc-André Hamelin.

The Busoni concerto is a true giant of the repertoire. The five-movement work features what is generally considered one of the most difficult solo piano parts in the literature, clocks in at around 70 minutes in length, and introduces a male chorus in the last movement. The NJSO brings the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir to Carnegie Hall for this Spring For Music performance.

For Hamelin, the road to finding the concerto was quite a journey in itself. “My father was a very keen amateur pianist who was interested in many things pianistic. He had heard about [the Busoni Piano Concerto] but had never actually heard the piece,” he says. “So I knew about it from a rather young age, actually, but I had never heard it. I knew there was one recording of it in existence—by the British pianist John Ogdon—that had been made in 1968. By the time I really became interested in hearing it, I believe the recording had gone out of print, and I didn’t find it until 1983. I remember quite clearly that I found it when I was on a trip, and I remember listening to it for the first time.”

Hamelin found the recording in South Africa (“I’m always hunting for unusual recordings and unusual music,” he says). What he heard on that recording immediately blew him away. “It starts with a rather large orchestral introduction—the piano doesn’t come in for a full four minutes. After hearing only the first few phrases, I thought, ‘My God, this is amazing; this is wonderful. Why isn’t this played?’ The opening was so serene and sumptuous that I thought, ‘This has to be heard more often.’”

Ferruccio Busoni and Marc-André Hamelin. Hamelin by Priska Ketterer.

So the pianist did some more digging. “I was living in Philadelphia then, and I borrowed a score from the library. I realized then much more why this concerto was not ever played. Simply [put], it’s a very, very difficult piano part. And it’s also a little bit hard to program because of its dimensions. It’s an hour and 10 minutes at least, perhaps more. It does require the presence of male choir in the fifth (last) movement. So right away, that is very unusual.”

But seeing the challenges the work would present didn’t stop Hamelin from believing he had found something worth performing.

“From the time I heard it, it really was my wish to perform it myself because I was really quite absorbed with it, almost possessed by it, for years. But that occasion [to perform the Busoni] didn’t come until 1996,” he says.

That opportunity came at the 1996 Festival International de Lanaudière in the province of Québec. “Lanaudière is a large region of the province, and concerts take place within a 100-mile radius,” the pianist says. “They have a wonderful amphitheater, a little bit like Tanglewood. Back then, the orchestra in residence for the summer was the Montreal Symphony.”

And the man who conducted the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in that performance—and who later became that orchestra’s principal guest conductor—is well known to NJSO audiences. “That particular concert was conducted, coincidentally, by Jacques Lacombe,” Hamelin says.

Incidentally, 16 years later, that Lanaudière performance became a huge factor in the program the NJSO will bring to Carnegie Hall. “I built this program around the massive Busoni Piano Concerto with Marc-André Hamelin,” Lacombe says. “The concerto is a marathon for the pianist. In this type of repertoire, Marc-André is one of the best performers in the world.”

In between that 1996 concert and the upcoming Spring For Music festival, Hamelin estimates that he has performed the Busoni concerto about 20 times. What has he discovered about the work in that time? “It’s a kind of piece in which you can take a number of interesting directions as far as interpretation. Busoni is not always very specific about tempos—there can be a considerable leeway sometimes. As I’ve gone on, more logical solutions have presented themselves, and I think the pacing the piece needs over this long period of time has become a bit more defined. That’s a great advantage, certainly, in a piece that demands so much of you physically. You really have to pace yourself. I think that can only come with experience; at least in my case it did.”

To those in the audience who have never heard the Busoni concerto before, Hamelin offers this: “The best guideline I can give as far as preparing yourself for it is this: The piece is so unusual in so many ways that if you expect the traditional piano concerto, you are going to be either really disappointed or disoriented. Because none of the five movements really correspond to what is expected concerto form. The first movement is probably the closest. The piece is so long that it is much better appreciated or understood if one expects something like a symphony rather than a concerto. There are solo portions where the piano is showcased, but by and large, the piano is not as prominent as it would be in a regular concerto.”

The concerto may be unfamiliar to most audiences, but the pianist says of his own experience: “I’ve known it for so long that to me it’s like reciting a poem. The form of it is very secure for me. If a performance really goes well, it can feel like 10 minutes, not an hour and 10 minutes. It’s the kind of [phenomenon] where when I start it, I kind of already hear the end, and you hear the straight line in between.”

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Chris Christodoulou.

In the January 9 edition of The New Yorker, Alex Ross explores Busoni’s mammoth concerto and its “glorious excess” in depth. “It opens with a pastiche of Brahms and then moves on to Beethoven-like strutting themes, Lisztian arpeggios, brooding spells of Wagnerian orchestration, delicate Chopinesque interludes, depressive Schumannesque detours and madcap Rossinian crescendos,” he writes. “As if his weren’t enough, the final movement has a male chorus intoning lines from Adam Oehlenschlager’s 1805 play Aladdin.”

What does that mean to Hamelin? “I think that in Busoni’s mind, the piece just was what it was. Being a composer myself, I don’t always have control over what a piece will become. I’m not really sure that Busoni really intended the piece to be on that epic scale when he started it. There is no way for me to really know, but I just have a hunch.

“So whether the piece was really intended to be excess ... I don’t really know. Busoni himself called it his “Skyscraper Concerto” at the time. I don’t know whether it’s because he really considered it grand or whether he considered it a monster that had gotten out of hand!” he laughs.

What Hamelin hears in the concerto is a world in itself. “There is a lot packed into it. Busoni saw it almost as a microcosm of life. And that is actually why there is a choral movement at the end. He thought that so much had been said in the first four movements that the whole thing could be wrapped up only with the words of a poet. That was his idea at least.”

What will make the NJSO and Hamelin’s May 9 performance of the Busoni even more unusual are the works that precede it on the program. The NJSO gives the Carnegie Hall premiere of Weill’s “Berliner Symphonie,” and soprano Hila Plitmann joins the orchestra and men’s chorus for Varèse’s Nocturnal.

Spring For Music allows selected orchestras to showcase their artistic philosophies through distinctive and creative programming. “I like innovations in programming, and this festival is exactly about that,” Lacombe says. “The Spring For Music concept allows you to be inventive.”

Hamelin speaks to why the Spring For Music concept of innovation in the concert hall is essential: “It’s one of the things that really keeps classical music and concert music alive and exciting. I have to applaud [Spring For Music CEO, artistic director, and festival co-creator] Tom Morris wholeheartedly for having this kind of initiative and arousing such interest in the festival. I’m sure that the Hall will be packed—I have no doubt.

“It takes courage to bring Varèse into the concert hall in America. The United States was Varèse’s adopted country, and he lived here for decades, [but his music] has really not been given its due in this country.”

Hamelin has earned a reputation for performing challenging works of the repertoire, works that, like the Busoni, may have fallen out of performance due to the difficulty of the piano part or the logistical demands of a work. In that sense, his personal philosophy lines up exactly with that of Spring For Music. For Hamelin, the motivation isn’t to perform something challenging just for the sake of a challenge; it’s about unearthing works that deserve to be heard.

“I don’t play difficult music because I want to play difficult music,” he says. “I play it because it’s good music. I will be attracted to something that’s not played because I want to hear it and I want to share it with people, because I feel it hasn’t been given its due. Very often the reason it hasn’t been given its due is because it’s too difficult and not a lot of pianists will approach it. And I am naturally attracted partly to things that have a certain density, a certain orchestral quality at the keyboard, and these usually are quite difficult.

“But I just want to share good stuff with people. Life is too short to bother with things that are difficult just for the sake of being difficult. And I just want to play things that I love with the time I have.”

The NJSO will host a post-concert reception at The Russian Tea Room, an iconic Manhattan landmark only steps away from Carnegie Hall. To add to the festivities, Hamelin will perform on a baby grand piano in a far more intimate setting than the concert hall.

So when your task is to follow your own performance of the Busoni concerto, what solo works do you choose?

“Well, telling you would give it away, wouldn’t it?” Hamelin answers with a laugh. “I’ll just have to leave it at that.”

May 9, Spring For Music: New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Spring 6 for 4: All 6 concerts for the price of 4—Just $100!
Spring For Music 2012

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