Bumps on the road as Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey nears the end

Angela Hewitt. Photo: Keith Saunders

When you begin an odyssey you can never really be sure how it will end. But almost certainly unforeseen circumstances happen.

Angela Hewitt has been on such a journey playing the piano works of J.S. Bach … all of them in cities across the globe. It’s an ambitious, demanding trip.

Just near the end, the coronavirus is meddling with these final few concerts. Her shows in Italy (Florence and Milan) in March. Italy is wrestling with a major outbreak of the virus and the government has cancelled all concerts. She says she will be in London then for the time being. The Italian ban is supposed to lift in early April, but Hewitt suspects it will be extended threatening concerts that month too.

And then there’s her festival in late June-early July on the shores of Lake Trasimeno in Umbria. That too is in limbo, but she says no decision as yet about whether it will go forward.

“We just take one day at a time at the moment.”

She’s even worried about getting stuck in the U.S. after travelling there, signing CDs and doing concerts. “I hope I don’t get it,” she said. She did have a concert in California in February missing the initial wave of infection.

However the show must go on and she’ll be in Atlanta and then, on March 11, she’ll perform the second last concert of the Odyssey in a Chamberfest concert in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre. On March 10, she’ll give a masterclass at uOttawa which is open to the public and free.

The March 11 concert will feature: Four Duets, 18 Little Preludes, the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, the French Overture in B minor and the Italian Concerto in F major.

These works are paired, in part for a practical reason, she said in an interview with ARTSFILE. She was with friends enjoying the sun on the marshes in South Carolina on a stop before more concerts and relearning The Art of Fugue which the last of the Odyssey performances. (In Ottawa in May).

“These are all the works that didn’t fit in any other program,” the always practical Hewitt said. But of course there is more to it than that.

“Bach wrote four books of keyboard practice. The first book is the Partitas. The second volume is the French Overture and the Italian Concerto. He paired those pieces together to show the different styles.” So it makes sense to have them on the same bill.

The French musicians were known for the dances of the court of Louis XIV. Bach had absorbed that music and made it his own and proved it with the overture. He coupled that with the concerto to illustrate the Italian style of Vivaldi and the like, Hewitt said.

In the third book are the four duets (which on the piano are duets for left and right hands). The final book is the Goldberg Variations.

The 18 preludes were written for his children and students.

“They are beautiful works of art even though they are only a few lines long. Many I played as a child and many in the audience will have done them. It is rare to hear a professional play them in concert, but they make a beautiful set.”

Finally the Fantasia is a virtuosic piece that rounds out the night.

She believes this concert program is “attractive. It’s not overly intellectually demanding and it’s extremely enjoyable music and yet it also shows a great variety in Bach.” And it stands in contrast to the final concert The Art of Fugue which is “serious and sublime.”

It is interesting to think of Bach connecting with musical trends in other countries from his home in Leipzig.

“Bach was doing it as a little child. He copied out music like mad. He got up in the middle of the night and put his little hand through a lattice door in a cupboard and (against his older brother’s wishes) got out a book of compositions and would sit by candlelight and copy the scores out.” That was his education in music, she added.

The coronavirus isn’t the only recent bump in her road.

The fatal damage to her beloved Fazioli piano when movers dropped it last month after a recording session in London still rankles.

These days it is sitting in the Fazioli factory waiting for an assessment of damage and a final decision by the movers’ insurers.

“I don’t think I’ll have a new one until September.”

The incident and its aftermath reveals how connected a musician can be to an instrument.

“It was a magical piano. Yesterday I was listening to the master CD of the recording I did just before it crashed and it sounds wonderful. To find another piano like that, even among Faziolis, it does take time to make it your own.

“A piano takes on the characteristics of the person who is playing it. Basically for 17 years I was the only pianist to play on it and my German technician was the only one to do serious work on it. Your playing molds the song by how you play. if you just bang on the piano it won’t sound good ever. The hammers will cause deep grooves.”

She has time to adjust to a new instrument because there is a bit of a break in recording.

“It is a tool, but we are talking about piano at the highest level. People do get attached to their pianos. I had an outpouring of email from people all over the world who wanted to share their own piano stories.”

One woman said her ex took a hammer and a drill to her piano and destroyed it. She was heartbroken. A man in the Yukon said he moved houses so he could accommodate his grand piano.

She’s not sure what to do with the piano. The frame is broken “I don’t think the legs are on it. Of course, everyone has written and said you should make pieces out of it and sell for auction. Some ‘vultures’ descended and offered to buy it.”

It’s final resting place is to be determined. Quite the journey indeed.

Chamberfest presents Angela Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey XI
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: March 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: chamberfest.com

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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.