Tuesday, 23 September 2008

An Interview with Kenneth Hamilton: Concert Pianist and Author of "After the Golden Age" Part 2

Kenneth Hamilton expounds

Q: Audiences have also changed over the years. Contemporary audiences are expected to regard concerts like church services – respectable events, with absolutely no noise, no outward show of emotions. Has this become a problem that performers can only expect respectful applause rather than outright uninhibited acclaim?

It really is a problem, partly because this stiff, funereal atmosphere doesn’t help performers (or at least this performer!) bring over the music to the audience, and also because concerts should be enjoyed by both audience and performer. There are constant lamentations in the Classical music world about dwindling audience numbers, and lessening interest in Classical music, but we forget that a lot of this is the fault of the Classical performance world itself. It’s our own fault, in other words. If you create an inhibited atmosphere in the hall, then ‘respect’ tends to overcome enjoyment - and if people aren’t enjoying something, then they simply won’t bother going the next time.

After all, most people aren’t masochists! If it’s more fun going to a pop concert, or watching television, then that’s what they will do, rather that pay for a ticket to attend some event where they’re ordered not to cough, sneeze or even breathe unless they absolutely have to! High quality music can be listened to - indeed often better listened to - in a relaxed atmosphere.

Q: How “politically incorrect” is it to applaud between movements of a sonata, concerto or symphony? Is it seen as unsophisticated or gauche behaviour?

Unfortunately, it is seen as gauche behaviour nowadays, but that attitude is an invention of the last 60 years or so. Until the 1940s it was quite normal to applaud individual movements - even individual variations in a variation set. Performers would have been worried if the audience hadn’t applauded! Basically Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky et al would all have expected applause between movements. Beethoven put it best, “Silent tears of emotion,” he said, is not what artists want, “We want applause!’ So the message basically is, if you feel like applauding, please applaud!

Kenneth Hamilton at the Conservatory,
seen with faculty members and
pianists Lee Pei Ming and Low Shao Suan.

Q: How do you view the performance of encores? Are they a necessary evil or unnecessary indulgence?

Actually, I love playing encores! In the first place, I’m glad if the audience enjoys the concert enough to want an encore. In the second, sometimes the best playing of the evening is in the encores, because by that time the pianist is usually completely relaxed. There are accounts of Paderewski recitals when he was such a bundle of nerves that that he played atrociously for the entire concert- until the encores, which were suddenly wonderful! He was so delighted he had finally got through the whole ordeal that his stage-fright left him, and it was if he had turned into a different - and much better - pianist.

In fact, the only trouble with encores sometimes is that in certain halls, the concert promoter must pay extra if the concert over-runs its time slot. So, with every encore you give, the poor promoter’s profits are gradually disappearing! The audience is delighted, but your manager is miserable!

Q: Your recital programme on 23 March 2008 harks back to the performers of the Golden Age. There are transcriptions and fantasies galore, and that unclassifiable piece (or some say potboiler), the Hexameron, a work with variations contributed by no less than 6 different composer-pianists. Care to comment?

Ah yes, the Hexameron. That was really Liszt’s greatest hit of all in his concert tours of the 1840s. I must admit, it’s a terrible piece, but a very enjoyable terrible piece! It was originally written for a charity concert in 1837, and six of the most famous pianists of the day - Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg, Czerny, Herz and Pixis - each contributed a variation on a tune by Bellini. They all, of course, tried to show off as much as possible, with the result that the variations are very difficult- apart from the one by Chopin, who was above such things, and who contributed a very beautiful nocturne-like variation.

The trouble is that apart from Chopin and Liszt, the other pianists were good players but simply not very good composers, so their variations are brilliant and exciting, but enormously superficial. Liszt unified the piece by adding some linking passages, writing a stunning setting of the theme in massive chords and octaves and then providing an over-the-top virtuoso finale. I first played the piece when I was ‘recreating’ Liszt’s concerts in Istanbul for the Istanbul Festival a few year ago, and it turned out to be just as big a hit with audiences nowadays as it was in the 1840s! So I kept it in my repertoire, and have played it now in numerous countries. It might not be great music, but it’s certainly great fun!

Q: Who have been among your favourite audiences in the world? And how did they respond to your recitals?

I can honestly say that I’ve luckily met with a warm reception everywhere I’ve played (or perhaps I’ve unconsciously blocked out from my memory anywhere that I haven’t!). Performing at the Esplanade last year was a delightful experience, especially doing the Sousa-Horowitz The Stars and Stripes Forever transcription as an encore, which I so much enjoy playing that I left the stage with a real smile on my face.

Elsewhere, I remember being particularly impressed by Russian audiences, largely because they have such an obvious passion for music. Classical music still seems enormously important in Russia, and audiences there are quick to praise playing they like, and also quick to show their indifference to lukewarm and uncommitted playing. Naturally, they value their own music very highly, and for the first recital I ever did there, I was told ‘You can play anything you like, but don’t play any Russian music’. I did as I was told. The hall manager came backstage afterwards to see me, and immediately said, ‘Next time, you come back and play nothing but Russian music!” The first concert, I suddenly understood, was a sort of test, to see if they thought I was good enough to play Russian music - I was relieved that I had passed the test! And yes, the next time I visited Russia I did play nothing but Russian music!

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