Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
The short, unsexy answer to the first part of this question is: I played the violin for a number of years before starting piano, and I began focusing on the piano because grown-ups told me I was good at it. No one told me I was good at the violin, because I wasn’t. The more involved answer to the second part of the question is: I’ve had many wonderful teachers, all of whom in different ways have inspired me to pursue a career in music or otherwise helped deepen my musical curiosities. But at a certain point, one needs to be possessed by music and not just inspired by it. That feeling – I suppose it’s the excitement of exploring something limitless and beautiful and perfect and truthful – is motivational, for me.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There are a lot people, pieces, collaborations, composers, that have influenced my life in music. The ones I think about / draw upon most often are the ones that helped bring into focus the eternal ‘newness’ of music—that a Mozart Sonata has the same vital signs, the same life-force, as a new work by Dai Fujikura. Understanding that context, or at least exploring it in a meaningful way, helped organize a lot of the more abstract ways I related to older music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
While acknowledging that this sounds simplistic, for me, the biggest challenge of playing music is the challenge of playing music well. There is always a gap between one’s ideal and one’s presentation of that ideal, and the challenge for me lies in the grueling, muddy, often frustrating work involved in closing this gap.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I guess it depends. Sometimes I’m proud of performances where the gap I described above is the narrowest. That feels good. Sometimes it’s feeling command over a really challenging piece, or — I felt this way with Milton Babbitt’s Second Concerto — simply learning and presenting a demanding score and feeling like it was authentically ‘the piece’. Generally, though, I’m most proud of performances where the listening experience for the audience is intense and palpable and focused, which has a lot to do with them, but mostly to do with me tapping into a special channel of communication with the music itself. It’s hard to describe but has to do with a sort of mutual commitment to shared experience where everyone feels that they’re getting as much as they’re giving. I played Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories earlier in the autumn, which is a really intense performance experience but totally deadly if the audience isn’t interested in traveling its immense distance with you. For this particular performance, I felt the audience crawl inside the piece with me and had the sensation while playing that their commitment to listening helped sculpt the piece in real-time. That felt special to me.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Yikes, I’m not sure. I know that when particular pieces form strong lines of communication with me, I tend to feel and transmit their essential elements in a clearer, more cogent way. Pieces that communicate to me vary wildly, and sometimes it takes a long time to understand why one piece speaks to me and not another. That’s not a great answer, but it’s a hard question. What I can tell you is that I play Schumann very poorly!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
For some of the reasons I mentioned above, I as often as possible choose repertoire that feels necessary for me to play. I want to feel like the relationship I have with its structure or color or tone – whatever it may be – is vivid and unique and would allow me to say something meaningful through its language. There are also logistical things to consider, like what sorts of pieces particular presenters want to offer their audiences and how certain works would ‘land’ in particular places. But mostly I try whenever possible to learn, play, and program music that feels essential and that I can express something honest about in performance.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love playing at Alice Tully hall because I think the Steinway that lives there is the most perfect instrument alive. It’s also a beautiful acoustic. There’s also a beautiful space in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the UVA campus, called Cabell Hall. It was designed as an oratory space and as such the acoustic allows you to play incredibly softly without sacrificing any degree of clarity. It’s a wonderful space.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Spending time doing things that are truthful and honest.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Short answer is: see above. Longer answer is: use your brain with as much or more rigor than you use your fingers (or arms or throat, as it were). I find this to be true in my own playing, that the digital execution part always suffers without a proportional amount of attention paid to its musical purpose. What is the idea and why does it have to be this way? What are viable alternatives? Does the idea service a larger goal? Just like reading critically, one has to maintain a constant internal dialogue about meaning. This, for me, is the correct direction of workflow – letting the brain inform the fingers. Another thing I find myself discussing a lot in my own teaching is being in touch with the character of abstract elements. What I mean is that basic syntactical, or perhaps atotomical, elements in music contain huge amount of potential expressive energy. The difference between a rising third and a falling fifth, for example, or the way hyperrhthmic structures can compress or expand to create excitement or spaciousness. It’s been important for my own sense of what it means to express something in music to explore these basic ingredients and figure out why they behave the way they do.
Conor Hanick will be performing with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project on October 29th. Further info and tickets: http://www.bmop.org.
Pianist Conor Hanick has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. In performances ranging from the early Baroque to the newly written, Mr. Hanick has collaborated with some of the world’s leading ensembles and conductors, including Pierre Boulez, David Robertson, and James Levine. He has premiered dozens of new scores and been showcased at virtually every major performance venue in New York City. In addition to working with established composers as diverse as John Adams and Matthias Pintscher, Mr. Hanick maintains close relationships with composers of his own generation, collaborating with David Fulmer, Sam Adams, Vivian Fung, and David Hertzberg. His 2015–16 season features a concerto appearance with Jeffery Milarsky and The Juilliard Orchestra in Milton Babbitt’s Second Piano Concerto at Alice Tully Hall. In addition, he joins with The Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players and James Levine at Carnegie Hall in music by Pierre Boulez; the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in music of Louis Andriessen at Park Avenue Armory; cellist Joshua Roman at Town Hall in Seattle; and pianist Pedja Muzijevic at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. A recent finalist for the Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award, he is a graduate of Northwestern University and The Juilliard School, where he received his masters and doctorate degrees.