Angela Hewitt celebrates her 60th year with a lot of Bach, a bit of Beethoven and a lifetime achievement award

Angela Hewitt. Photo: Keith Saunders

Some people get bad ties and slippers when they are turning 60. Not Angela Hewitt. She gets a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for a lifetime of achievement and a special concert in London, England.

“I was thrilled to bits,” she over the phone from New York City where she was preparing to play … what else … some Bach in concert.

“Although I have done a lot in my 59 years, I feel there is still lots more to come. Normally one gets these sort of things when one is older I guess. But it’s nice that Canada and and the GG have recognized that. I’m also thrilled that I will be there with everybody in June to meet my fellow laureates.

“It always means a lot to me when I realize the support that I have at home, which I have had throughout my career. It is very special.”

Hewitt has indeed fashioned a fabulous career in music for herself after starting as a youngster in Christ Church Cathedral where her father was the music director. She has succeeded in large part because she is aware and focussed on all aspects of her musical life.

“I think about it all the time. My priority is the music (but) the music industry is a business. I see this every day. The thing is I stay true to myself as I have always done.

“My agents send me questions every day that have to do with the business and decisions to be taken. So it is very much in my mind. It’s what I want to do musically and my musical integrity that comes first in the decisions that I take.”

As an example, she described turning down an offer to play the Bach D minor concerto with a famous unnamed orchestra and conductor.

“I have a rule that I don’t play Bach concertos with conductor because, first of all, historically it makes no sense. Musically it doesn’t make much sense either. I come with all my own parts marked for the orchestra so those decisions are already taken. It is really chamber music, so there is no room for a conductor.

“I would feel ill being in that situation. It wouldn’t be right for the music and it wouldn’t be right for me. So I said no. I’m sure my colleagues thought I was crazy. I’m still waiting to play with that orchestra. I may wait all my life but I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t true to me musically.”

Decisions like that are important to Hewitt. There are some things she won’t bend on.

Before she embarked on her four year long Bach Odyssey to play all of the great composer’s work for the keyboard, which brings her to the National Arts Centre on Tuesday night for a performance of four of the Partitas, she was a bit hesitant.

“There was still so much I wanted to accomplish. Four years out of a life is a lot. But I’m extremely happy now that I have taken it on. I still have managed to do other things including some Beethoven recordings.

“And it has been great to look back at these pieces, works that I haven’t played in many years, and get it all under my belt again. I’ll never have to do that again. Now it’s really there forever.”

She’ll be in Ottawa giving four of the Odyssey concerts this year, she says, despite spending much of this winter hobbling because if a fall that broke the cuboid bone in her left foot.

She is still using crutches when she performs on stage, but she can get around without them at home.

“I haven’t dared to get on stage without them. I feel I need them for support. My next doctor’ appointment is at end of month when I’m back in London. I’ll have more X-rays and we’ll see than. I feel that the bone is still healing. The bone was broken. and there was some ligament damage. It’s been eight weeks and counting.”

She has been told it will take up to four months for the break to heal properly. So she’s hoping to be in heels when the GG award is presented in June.

The accident happened just before a church concert in Oxford, England near the end of January.

“I didn’t see the steps. I opened a door and there was the tiniest little landing and then these steps. I was carrying a lot of stuff in my arms. I was in my long gown and heels and they were filming me for the GG awards. And then I took a tumble.

“I’m always careful on steps especially when in heels but I simply didn’t see them. It would have been worse had I broken a hand or an arm.”

There was, however, an impact on her ability to use the pedals on the piano.

“I haven’t been able to use the left pedal, the soft pedal, until very recently. I have always been taught to play softly with my fingers so that has stood me in good stead. If I really needed it I could do it (by using) my right foot if I really needed it.”

She did have to cancel a performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein concerto in February but “now I am back using it again but gingerly.”

The one thing that has been come to the fore since this injury has been the kindness of her many friends around the world.

“One of the best things that I have ever done is my festival in Italy in part because it has given me a wonderful support network all over the world. They are like family now. I’m staying in the home of one of them now in New York.”

She is lucky in her friends, but she says she works at it too.

“I stay in touch with people. One has to take enjoyment out of that and take the time to cultivate those friendships. They are my family, my support network for sure.”

Her parents would take great pleasure in the GG award, she says.

“They would be thrilled as they always were when something like this happened. They never liked to use the word proud they always said that didn’t make them feel good to say that word. I suppose because they would know how much work I have put into it. They gave me the best beginnings I could have possibly had. They would have been happy.”

Typically Hewitt has many projects on the go at the same time. She has completed two CDs of Scalatti music with a third on the horizon. And she is finishing up a Beethoven cycle. Two of those CDs have been recorded and edited. One will be out this  July featuring the Tempest Sonata and Op. 109. The other disc will be out in 2019.

“Then I will have just two sonatas left … Op. 106 and 111. These are “the two hardest ones. I hope to record those  by the end of 2019, so I had better get started.”

She’s just announced the lineup for her 13th festival on the shores of Lake Trasimeno in Italy. That’s always a major effort every year.

These days however, “I am really now just accepting things that I really want to do. Places I want to go. Repertoire I want to play. Everything in my schedule is a special thing for me.

“On my 60th birthday, July 26, I am playing the Goldberg Variations in London’s Wigmore Hall. It is a hall that has meant so much to me. I made my U.K. debut there in 1985.”

Hewitt is always watching the music world in part because she has to book her festival every year.

“I do it quietly from the sidelines. I do watch people and listen to clips see on social media. I’ve been quite aware of what is going on in the music world. I think it is quite important to do that.

“Kerson Leong from Ottawa is an example of someone who is doing really really well. I remember seeing him when he was eight years old and he was already showing a great talent.”

Her advice to young performers like Leong is: “Stay true to the music because in the end people see through it, if it’s fake.”

Angela Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 20 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.