Anthony Hewitt, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My mother was my first inspiration as she was the one who played the piano in our family – I must have been about 5 years old when I heard her play Schumann’s Aufschwung, and I said to her that I ”hoped I could play that one day in the future”. I have just learned it recently so it has taken many decades for this wish to come true! My first long-term teacher was the wonderful pedagogue Patricia Shackleton, and although not well known, (she did teach at Chetham’s in Manchester), she was a passionate musician of integrity and had huge commitment. I look back at some of the markings in the scores from my childhood and it strikes me that she was ‘spot on’; I had been fortunate to find such an exacting teacher in an area with a ratio of piano teachers to sheep of 1:100,000 (although ‘baaahs’ are of course key in musical notation!). She ran a small series of masterclasses in her home and I played regularly for the likes of Kendall Taylor, Kenneth Van Barthold and John Lill, and once had the enormous privilege of playing for John Ogdon – not bad for a remote village in Cumbria. I moved to the Menuhin School in Surrey at 14 where I found inspiration and motivation from the vast wealth of talent who were my friends and peers. Seta Tanyel was a fantastic and supportive teacher – someone who guided me through the rough waters of my teens, and I marvelled at her incredible virtuosity. I was also lucky to play regularly for such giants as Vlado Perlemuter – who rebuked me after three bars of Chopin’s 3rd Ballade with the words “Never!!”. I don’t think he was speaking French. Louis Kentner was also a regular visitor. I learned a huge amount from playing for string lessons, particularly the incredibly energetic and imagi-native violinist David Takeno and cellist Melissa Phelps, as well as observing many masterclasses from such inspirational musician as Steven Isserlis and Colin Carr.

Listening, listening, listening. I take great inspiration from the wealth of recordings that are available instantaneously, as well as from my large collection of CDs. Technology has given us the gift of hearing recordings by historic pianists in high quality sound. I try also try to attend as many live concerts as possible: younger talent is always exciting to follow, and I learn a lot too, even though I might be reluctant to admit it! Playing chamber music is also the biggest outlet for inspiration and facilitates self-evaluation; social interaction is a lifeline for a solo pianist!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

A very easy answer. I broke both my shoulder and collarbone in a cycling accident in 2015 which required an operation to implant two titanium plates to hold the bone together. It took me 3 months to play again ‘in anger’. I set myself initially the goal of performing the Schumann Toccata. My recovery would be complete if I could get through this, because I had always quietly boasted to myself before the accident that there was no piece that was technically out of my reach (except perhaps a few of the Chopin Études where my hand is too small). The injury manifested itself in tiredness and fatigue with repetition of the same movement; however this was also therapeutic in that it built-up the muscle and flexibility in the ligaments around the injury. ‘No pain, no gain’ (or perhaps could be ‘no piano, no gain’). I achieved my goal almost three years later in March 2018, not without side effects: those notorious repeated double sixths and fourths were a challenge too far and my hand took the strain rather than the shoulder, causing a ganglion (a bump) which started to impinge upon my hand movement. I feared I would need a risky operation to remove this, but some simple manipulation via a Shiatsu massage was a surprising remedy – one day I noticed that it wasn’t there any more (the ganglion, not the hand). I have been learning Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto during lockdown, so I think this adds further substance to my complete recovery. I am very fortunate.

On a musical or pianistic level, the hardest challenge was playing for my peers in college or anywhere with other pianists present in the audience (although unlike some, I wouldn’t go so far as refusing entry to anyone). Menuhin School recitals in the Music Library and summer ‘Barn’ concerts were utterly terrifying. At the time, they were the biggest concerts of my life, and I think to be a successful performer you have to treat every concert as a matter of life or death. For anyone who has watched the film ‘Free Solo’, it occurred to me that the way the protagonist prepared for the climb is how we should prepare for every concert – to know every move in advance and that one wrong slip or hand position could prove fatal. Rather than being a limit on expression, this would result in a huge sense of freedom.

My Wigmore Hall debut in 1998 was nerve-wracking – I saw my father after the rehearsal and he said I looked like a ghost. I found the acoustic to be a little unclear without audience, but of course it is absolutely perfect with an audience present; I enjoyed every minute of it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Again, my debut at Wigmore Hall, which was recorded live without editing and there is barely a split note or the slightest glitch. I played Chopin’s 3rd Sonata, which is considered one of the hardest in terms of structuring the 1st movement Allegro Maestoso, the technically treacherous Scherzo, and the momentous Finale which requires the pianist to think of a marathon, not a sprint. The slow movement is a wonderful, glorious relief, a musical haven of tranquillity, surrounding more turbulent territories.

I am also proud of my recording of Schumann’s Piano pieces Op. 1-5. There is a story relating to this; I heard the recording some years later in a car whilst on the way to teach in a masterclass in Japan, and unbeknownst to me the teacher and hostess – Yumiko – put on a disc for the 45-minute journey. I thought the playing was excellent, very accurate with a great sound; lo and behold, it was myself! Just a pity I didn’t remember the music I had played – or perhaps it was the jet-lag that had caused this momentary blip in my musical memory.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have always been drawn to the core of the classics of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, romantics of Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov, & French ‘impressionists’ of Ravel, Debussy and Faure. However, that’s almost an impossible question to answer because the list goes on, through Gershwin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Ligeti and into contemporary repertoire – which of course it should! I think it is a question of having a favourite piece by certain composers; for example, I have never really been drawn to Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy but I love the great G Major Sonata (op. 78), but this is more a question of the very different character of the two works. If I am inspired and curious about a piece, or it is fresh and new, then I think it will be a successful rendition. Over-performing or practising can, result in a staid and stale performance, sucking it dry of creativity and imagination. There comes a tipping point where you need to let the work rest for a few seasons and then revisit it later with a fresh perspective.

I think one’s affinity with certain repertoire depends on what time of life and phase one is going through, where the piece acts as a prism for one’s emotional or psychological state. I played Beethoven Op 109 on a multitude of occasions in my 20’s and felt I had an affinity with its message. I connected well with the serene beauty and lyricism of the last movement, and love the way the variations unfold from the magnificent spaciousness of the theme, accumulating momentum and more dense counterpoint towards a mass of expansive sonority in the final variation. The trills are just a wonderful example of Beethoven’s inevitable sense of logic and opening up of the sound world from something very intimate to an apotheosis of ecstatic sound. And then when the theme returns at the end – it is achingly moving.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I find it helpful to sit down in a quiet corner and go through the score. It’s important not to feel tired, and it is too late really for any major practice.

In the immediate minutes before walking on stage, to put it crudely, I always make sure to go to the bathroom. And I have to have sushi (but not in the bathroom!).

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t sit down and plan my repertoire, but have a broad idea of pieces that have been in my mind in the preceding few years. I try to encompass as many composers and styles as possible, though it has becoming increasingly important to match-make in repertoire choices – e.g. baroque with modern, known and popular pieces with unknown and neglected works. I like to devise programmes based on collections of genres and types of works like Preludes. I recorded the complete Scriabin complete Preludes in 2015 and also matched them with preludes from other composers in concerts. It is important to find a thread in a programme, a concept for the audience to latch on to, and I have on a few occasions noticed that there was a tonality relationship on the programme, which was entirely unintended and subconscious – until I noticed it in the concert!

I find it’s also important to include transcriptions which are very much in fashion these days. I may be wrong, but I have the impression there was a certain sniffiness from the purists with the idea of the transcription when I was studying, and the fact that we have so much of our own repertoire shouldn’t deter us from playing successful transcriptions – these were, after all, the mainstay of many of the 19th-century composer-pianists like Liszt, Thalberg and Godowsky, for example.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have never found anywhere better than the concert halls of Japan. They are all built to a consistently high standard, where a successful prototype is replicated on a national level.

If I had to single out one place in the UK then it would be the Coronation Hall in Ulverston because it is my home turf, and where I feel the most support and warmth from the audience at my festival. It also has a lovely acoustic and is an unusually large venue for the size of town.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Online streaming services are obviously a very effective means of reaching new audiences, often because they allow listeners to dip in and out of an album or even just listen to a ‘single’. Marketeers are very clever at re-packaging an old idea, with the most popular singles of some new music streaming over 50 million times. So although this is still modest compared to pop music, if we can harness this audience towards live – and paying – concerts, then this is a start (although at the time of writing with the pandemic, listeners are expecting an ever greater amount of music to be free online, and much of it of very substandard, though I have to commend people for trying). Although live music is always best in a (good) indoor acoustic, I performed many concerts in outdoor locations during my 2012 Olympianist project (cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats and performing a concert each day on my ‘Beethovan’); I found this to be a very fresh way to engage with audiences who might not make the effort to travel and sit in a stuffy auditorium for two hours. For ‘newbies’, traditional venues can often seem quite intimidating. Bringing concerts to people in a localised setting is going to be more important in a future world where the environmental impact of travel will be a high priority to a new generation of eco-aware listeners. Venues like Southbank Centre have done a lot to make their spaces friendly and accessible through effective marketing and communication which conveys a strong sense of identity, and I’d expect many to be etching plans to make their buildings friendly to the planet too. On the whole, there is a lot to be optimistic about, with an abundance of original artists and composers out there, with the internet and social media being a powerful conduit to reaching new audiences.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The final concert of my Olympianist tour [in 2012] in the beautiful Lythe Arts Centre near John O’Groats was cathartic – and possibly the best performance of the tour. I expected to be totally exhausted; however I do pride myself on my stamina and in some ways there was no pressure because I would have been forgiven for a few blips of concentration here or there.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Finding and keeping your own voice and identity. It is not possible to have a truly successful concert, but to feel you played your best, or gave it your all, is as much as you can achieve, and that you enjoyed it first and foremost. And then, like the great Sviatoslav Richter, practise the parts you are not satisfied with immediately after the concert! Being constantly inspired and curious – and being able to take risks that pay off.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important to enable students (of whatever age) to think for themselves and to form their own judgments and interpretations – almost as if the teacher holds the key to whichever door the student wishes to enter, and the student ‘votes with their feet’. This is more difficult with certain cultures where the teacher or professor is afforded a very high amount of status and respect. I was advised when I left Menuhin School to be wary of being ‘in awe’ of anyone, but that is very difficult as young person, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to create some sense of equality, rather than a purely didactic ‘teacher is god’ approach. Influence is subliminal and long-lasting: my late teacher at the Curtis Institute – Leon Fleisher – is ever-present in the way I organise the rhythmical elements of every phrase. Part of the dilemma is that the sign of a successful teacher is where the teacher is eventually made redundant!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

It would be terrifically rewarding and fun to play with one of the world’s greatest orchestras on a world tour. To première a piano concerto has been a long held ambition.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Is there such a thing? The grass is always greener. We always crave the next thing. But the closest thing to perfect happiness is the knowledge that you are holding the audience rapt during a performance, particularly in a highly expressive slow movement where the silence is almost audible behind the notes.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway A grand piano.

Anthony Hewitt is regarded as one of Britain’s most gifted pianists, and, since winning the prestigious William Kapell Competition in Washington D.C., has enjoyed a prolific performing career spanning two decades, including concerto appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra in the U.S.A., and the English Chamber Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall. He has given eight recitals at Wigmore Hall and received critical acclaim for recordings on Naxos, Divine Art, and Champs Hill Records, and recently recorded for Decca.

He enjoys a diverse musical life as festival director, professor of piano at Birmingham Conservatoire, and chamber musician; the latest CD of his trio (Dimension Piano Trio), was described in The Sunday Times as “played with a rare richness and depth”.

In 2012 he gained the admiration of the music world and beyond by cycling 1200 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats and giving a concert every night, raising over £13,000 for charity.

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