A Conversation with Marc-André Hamelin

Over the past two years, we have had the great privilege of recording and touring Leo Ornstein’s Piano Quintet with Marc-André Hamelin. Last fall, we had a bit of downtime backstage before a performance of the Dvořák Piano Quintet in Chicago and decided to take the opportunity to ask Marc-André a few questions about his discovery of Ornstein for our blog readers.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

Masumi: Can you talk a little bit about the Ornstein Piano Quintet and what possessed you to start playing Ornstein’s music; and talk also about your process of familiarizing yourself with his music and this quintet?

Marc-André: Well, I have to backtrack considerably here. If you have any interest in out of the way repertoire, as I do, you’ll come across the name of Leo Ornstein really almost inevitably. Especially since I have always had a penchant for the wonderful and strange and, let’s say it, weird! So I came across some of the piano music, and what was published at the time was really rather extreme in many ways. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got to hear this music.” So I started to try to play it and try to get recordings, but at the time there was almost nothing.

Masumi: Where did you find his music originally?

Marc-André: I’m very thorough and somewhat aggressive in scouting out old stock in music stores and of course libraries.

Masumi: What’s a music store? They don’t exist any more!

Marc-André: Yes, but we’re talking about the early eighties when I got my first [Ornstein] score. Right when I moved to the States. There was a store that had some recently reprinted Ornstein and I started to look at that. But it wasn’t until the late eighties that I found what was I think the first recording ever of Ornstein’s music, and that was of the piano quintet. It was an old recording on the CRI label, (Composers’ Recordings), and it was really quite good. And it was certainly good enough for me to sit up and pay attention — I thought, “This is really extraordinary.” I had heard some unfamiliar piano quintets or pieces of chamber music of all periods of descriptions before, but this really stood out and cried out to be better known. For a while I didn’t know where to get the music until I met Leo Ornstein’s son Severo who, over the years, spent an incredible amount of effort putting most of his father’s music into computer notation—into print, and that’s what happened with the quintet and it was finally available online. And what’s remarkable is that Severo has made all of his father’s music available online for free. He never expected to make much money from it, so it can be consulted and downloaded at no cost. But since then, a critical edition of the quintet has become available and now one can benefit from a really reliable source when one wants to play the work. It’s a very dynamic work, and I think you will all agree, having played it, that it really speaks from the heart. It’s very genuine and it’s also very instinctive because one cannot really discern any compositional technique behind it. It has a very flowing type of inspiration, I think. One shouldn’t try to analyze it too much. It certainly has its critics; some of them deplore the lack of systematic thought in it, the fact that it’s too instinctive.

Simin and Marc-André with Severo Ornstein, son of Leo Ornstein, backstage in San Francisco.

Simin and Marc-André with Severo Ornstein, son of Leo Ornstein, backstage in San Francisco. This was the moment when we first laid eyes on the score for Ornstein’s Quartet No. 2!

Masumi: When you say systematic thought, do you mean structure?

Marc-André: The fact that there is little or no counterpoint in it, for example, whereas other composers would have just relished or invited the idea to just combine things together. It’s all sort of one block, basically. And the musicians always move as one. But there are enough people who have responded to performances we’ve done with really great enthusiasm. You’ll recall that the reaction at the end is always extremely positive and I think a little startled. So to my mind, this alone should ensure the quintet’s place in the repertoire at least occasionally!

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

Masumi: So having discovered the piano quintet first on that recording on CRI and now having recorded it yourself, you’ve kind of come full circle. But in between, what were the works that you explored after you found that piano quintet originally?

Marc-André: Well I started to explore his piano music because there is so much of it. And the interesting thing about Ornstein is that he went through a variety of styles. Here he was in his youth, in his twenties, a very successful touring pianist, playing Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and even the then “ultra moderns” (we’re talking people like Debussy and Ravel!). But around 1912 or 1913, for no reason that he could possibly explain, he started writing these ultraviolent and dissonant piano pieces, completely atonal. It was an uncontrollable impulse on his part, so much so that he started doubting his own sanity and others doubted it did as well. But he stuck to his guns. He was even able to manage getting these pieces published back then. But he could also write very lyrical, wonderful, lush pieces and he also produced a lot of really good pedagogical material. As a matter of fact, he founded a school in Philadelphia in 1930 called the Ornstein School with his wife, and its most famous student is… John Coltrane!

Masumi: Oh weird!

Marc-André: Yes! But it was a very successful school and now the building itself is occupied by the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts. I think it’s the same address.

Masumi: And this is sort of a traditional, classical training school? With John Coltrane?

Marc-André: Yes, I assume he received classical training.

Brandon: Well I thought it was interesting—this is not about Ornstein, but we were talking about Schnabel who was also a very interesting composer and wrote a lot of fine music—that you find time with your busy performing career to write. You do a lot of writing and we’ve had a chance to play your Passacaglia. So how do you find time and what drives you to be able to do that with your busy schedule? And what is your motivation?

Marc-André: It’s a little difficult to talk about because I haven’t actually put pen to paper in about a year and a half now. The last piece I wrote was a commission for the Munich ARD competition and that was finished March 2014. And it wasn’t performed until September 2014. I will have to put pen to paper again because I have two commissions for 2017.

Masumi: One of them being for us! A piano quintet, which is an expansion of your Passacaglia.

Brandon: Which is a beautiful, beautiful piece.

Sibbi: Which we played with you in Florence, Italy.

Marc-André: That’s right! Yes, I will go on writing — I can say that up to now, I have found it very fulfilling. I started writing simply out of a basic impulse. It was right from my very first lessons when I was five when I discovered musical notation. My dad was a very good amateur pianist and he had very impressive looking scores lying around—Liszt, Chopin, and also some music paper. I would try to fill the music paper because as a five year old I wanted to do the same thing. Of course nothing I scribbled made any sense then but the impulse was there and it has never left me. But it took me a long time before I could produce anything that was even showable or listenable to anyone. Just as you learn how to write by writing, you learn how to compose by composing.

Masumi: Yes. Well, as you were saying, I guess we have to get dressed now and make ourselves presentable for the stage and play a few notes before we walk out on stage! Thank you for talking with us.

Sibbi: And thank you for playing with us!

Marc-André: And thank you for playing with me!

Post-concert photo at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in 2016.

Post-concert photo at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in 2016.

Listen to samples, purchase the recording, and learn more about our recording of the Ornstein Piano Quintet and String Quartet No. 2 on the Hyperion label here.

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