Going on 50+ years since we last met, what a pleasure it was to have a conversation with one of the world’s most accomplished pianists. Growing up in Ottawa (Canada), we both found ourselves competing for senior scholarships at the Ottawa Music Festival (I was a clarinetist in those days)—both winning our fair share.
Decades later, it fell to the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s Festival Schubert (cross reference below) to reunite us after Hewitt’s performances of Mozart’s two-piano concerto (K. 365) and a portion of Schubert’s magnificent Winterreise.
Soon to depart to home base, London (UK), we managed to find an oasis of quiet after the early breakfast crowd had emptied from a hotel just across the street from Maison symphonique.
JWR: After first moving to Ottawa when just a boy of eight, my musical training began with the clarinet—there wasn’t any choice as it was the only instrument left on the shelf at my public school. How did you come to the piano?
AH: As you know, my father [Godfrey] was an organist and choirmaster [Christ Church Cathedral] so music was a language at home. I got a toy piano at two, and then I began my piano lessons at the age of three with my mother [Marion] and took to it immediately. But piano is too limiting for a kid, so I also studied violin for 10 years [at one point with former National Arts Centre Orchestra concertmaster Walter Prystawski], recorder and dance: ballet, for 20 years, and highland dancing.
JWR: As a noted Bach specialist, what drew you to the Baroque master?
AH: Bach’s music, which I’ve also highly regarded, is really the basis of good technique (without the pedal) and especially articulate on—more horizontal rather than vertical. I’ve been told by Jean-Paul Sevilla [a most influential teacher at the University of Ottawa] that I “take a complicated thing then sort it out to become easy.”
JWR: We both spend many days of the year travelling. What is a typical day, if there is such a thing, at home, or on the road?
AH: Well, I have “three homes,” one each in London and Toledo [Italy] as well as an apartment in Ottawa. An ideal day would include 5-6 hours of practising, no appointments, a walk, perhaps a massage and visiting friends. And as I do all my own travel planning, I find myself moving back and forth between two keyboards: piano and computer!
On a concert day, I practise sparingly, saving my energy for the performance, also knowing how strenuous travel can be. On the road, I do miss my own mattress and cooking. I have never missed a concert, but several times my luggage got lost. Somehow everything works out—even if I have to dash to the airport and pickup my bag knowing that the delivery service would be late.
JWR: Your Trasimeno Music Festival [Umbria, Italy near Perugia] is well-known to music lovers globally. What has been the goal?
AH: 2020 will be our 16th year where I’ve put together wide-ranging programs [including an interview with Salman Rushdie this season], performed in a variety of venues—chosen to complement the repertoire—and also include a food element—gala dinners, with a great array of restaurants. There is definitely a feeling of family, it’s sort of like my gift to my many friends and fans every year.
JWR: Many concertgoers are familiar with much of the standard repertoire. What piece off the beaten path caught your attention early on?
AH: While studying at the University of Ottawa with Sevilla [full disclosure: the piano virtuoso also endured my own pianistic efforts for one year], he introduced me to Emmanuel Charbrier’s Dix Pièces Pittoresques. They are attractive, it’s not hard listening, very sophisticated but deserve to be heard more [available on Hyperion, SACDA67515]—Scarlatti would be another.
JWR: With such a distinguished career, what would you like to perform that you haven’t as yet?
AH: For my Beethoven sonata cycle, all that remains is Hammerklavier. I would also love to record all of the Mozart sonatas and a bit more Scarlatti. Also on the list is Brahms’ F minor sonata. After the June festival, I plan to take three and one half months off—for the first time in 10 years.
JWR: We’re both of a certain age (me being more six years more “certain” than you), any thoughts of stepping back, or pursuing other interests?
AH: In terms of concertizing, I am not stopping yet, but also not taking any teaching positions despite a number of offers. I’ve always written my own liner notes, so there might be a book at some point. I’m certainly never bored and have discovered that as we grow older it takes longer to learn new repertoire, there’s a different process involved.
JWR: Of course, without audiences, neither performer nor critic would have much to do. What are audiences, looking for, craving?
AH: The live experience—it is so different from even the best [home] sound systems available today. We must all make an effort to keep that going.
JWR: As recently as yesterday, we have all heard the ringtones of unwanted cellphones in the concert hall—usually at tender, quiet moments. How do you deal with those jarring interruptions?
AH: I can only wonder, “Why don’t you turn them off?”
JWR: Cheers to that! And you have been very generous with your time. Happy landings in London. What’s next for you in Ontario?
AH: I’ll be performing The Art of the Fugue at Koerner Hall [April 26] and then Matthew Whittall’s piano concerto, “Nameless Seas” with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra [May 13, 14)]. JWR